How to learn a different language with self-study

This is the first post in several about how to learn a different language on your own. Is it possible to learn “difficult” languages like Japanese or Chinese by self-study alone? Absolutely. We did it and so can you! This post tells you why determined self-study beats language courses every time.

I arrived in Japan in 2005 to teach English at a language school in Saitama. I had a few lessons of Pimsleur Japanese under my belt but an otherwise rudimentary Japanese level.

Having read Barry Farber’s inspiring book How To Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own, I decided to go it alone. I avoided Japanese schools, classes and teachers like the plague. I bought a bunch of books and audio courses and did a lot of trial and error.

In the end, I probably made more progress in my Japanese studies than my students did in English. It’s totally possible that I sucked as an English teacher but something bigger is at work here. Simply put, self-study is the way to go. I learned a great deal in that six months of studying alone and all this before helpful tools like Perapera 🙂

So why is self-study so powerful for learning a language? Here’s some of the reasons I think learning alone beats language courses or academic studies.

1. It’s fun

I found it was more enjoyable to learn alone. Not because I was a loner, but because self-study gave me more freedom and was more fun than a class. Japanese study time became the best part of my day and I would look forward to hitting the books. The kanji were fascinating and it was satisfying to hear a new vocabulary word I’d learned that day on TV or in the local bar.

2. It’s cheaper

However you look at it, studying alone will save you a load of money. You could conceivably buy all the books out there available for learning Japanese and it would still be cheaper than taking language classes! I often reminded myself of this when I was getting stingy about the price of a particular book. I did buy some less helpful books along the way (avoid our mistakes by sticking to our 10 best books for Japanese) but it was definitely worth it in the end.

3. Self-reliance

When you study by yourself there’s no homework. Nobody is there to put pressure on you to learn new vocabulary. This is liberating but it also means that you have to get on with it and take responsibility for your learning. Time and time again as a teacher I’d have students who evidently thought that coming to my English class a couple of times a week was “enough” English learning for the week. It’s easy to fall into this way of thinking when you are a passive student in a class where someone “teaches” you the language. When you self-study, this kind of self-deception doesn’t happen because you are lovingly grappling with the language day by day.

4. Efficiency

Self-studying also saves you time. No more lost time getting to class. The classroom is your bedroom or your favorite cafe. No more classes that are below or beyond your current level as we all know ourselves best. You are in a better position than any teacher to see your weak points in a language and work at them.

5. Immersion

With the vast resources available for any foreign language, it is today easier than ever to immerse yourself in the target language without living in the country of said language. The subject of immersing yourself in your target language is a fascinating one that deserves its own post.

6. Native speakers are your teachers

Spend too much time in a language class and you will pick up bad habits and non-native intonation. When you watch a Japanese variety show you’re not just enjoying some fun entertainment. You are also learning real and authentic Japanese and getting a glimpse into Japanese culture. The irony of language classes is that you end up making friends with other non-natives and speaking English with other students becomes your routine. Getting out there and struggling in the language and making friends will serve you better in the long run. Even if you don’t live in the country where the language is spoken, there are now many options for language exchange by email or Skype that make your current location irrelevant for learning a language.

7. Your learning material can be anything

Studying is a lot easier when you are interested in the content. Enjoy baseball? Watch the Japanese major league in Japanese. Fashion buff? Buy a Japanese apparel magazine or even better, read it online with Perapera and save the new words 🙂 The freedom of choice self-study gives you is truly exhilarating.

Of course, the learning never ends. I still encounter kanji I can’t read or miss the meaning of something in a meeting. But when all is said and done, I still have to pinch myself at times. I have reached a level of proficiency I never dreamed of when I bought my first Japanese book. My job and daily life now depend on my Japanese and it all started with a humble few books and audio courses.

Have you successfully learned a language on your own? How did you do it? We would love to hear your stories!

10 thoughts on “How to learn a different language with self-study

  1. I so agree with this.

    I’ve been self-studying languages, starting with English as my first second language at age 14. Like you said, once your build your own, immersive learning environment, the language classes at school began to seem more damaging than helpful. I spent the rest of my high school years essentially ignoring the English classes at school, instead focusing on material meant for native English speakers. I started with text books for American kids, progressed into novels for teens, and onto general novels, including porn (without pictures). I also watched movies and covered the bottom portion of the TV so I the subtitle is hidden. This method was so successful that, soon after I started, I became the best student in English among 600 or so students, and I never lost this position.

    After entering college in the U.S., I picked up Korean as a second language during a summer vacation, while I part-timed as a security guard. Because of my experience with English, I was able to pursue it with confidence, and by the end of the summer, I could have a simple conversation in Korean on the first flight I took for Seoul.

    This has continued throughout my adulthood. I picked up Chinese when I was 24, and after some hiatus, I’m still at it, and enjoying progress. Perapera-kun is a great aid in this self-study. I’m happy to see it ported to Chrome, which is beginning to be my favorite browser.

    1. Hi Taro. I’m sorry for the late reply. Interesting that porn seems to have helped you learn English…haha! good luck with your Chinese studies!

  2. Same story here, I think self-stufy is the best. I would not write down having a teacher altogether, as a (talented) native teacher can show you ways around difficulties and explain things in ways you can understand.
    But yeah, I learned German in school for 9 years, with a ridiculusly low level at the end of it. And if I started understanding English starting high-school and getting proficient by university, it was more because I started using English-based material at home too.

    Japanese I studied mostly by myself, while in Japan. I would study with Pimsleur for oral comprehension and practice by asking people for directions (even and especially when I knew my way) everyday. Hours and hours of writing down kanjis on blank paper and flipping my flash cards. 10 years later, I’m still using my electronic dictionnary nearly everyday, and WWWJDIC and Rikai-chan were a great discovery for online activities.

    I’m just starting studying Chinese (Pimsleur, for now), and I’m looking forward to using a lot of Perapera-kun on this !

  3. This idea is awesome Francis!
    Learning on our own self-study is quite hard but if we must work hard on it and be motivated just like on motivpark(motivpark.com) we can learn more things not just only in one language in one country but we can learned more on it by reading, listening, and take a time to learned from it. My first day of Motivpark(motivpark.com) is not easy also but they teach me to learn more motivated to learned new things on languages and because of that now I can travel anywhere where I can share and used what I learned from it.

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