This post is about how to self study a language: the reasons why you should consider it and how to create an effective learning strategy. Is it possible to learn “difficult” languages like Japanese or Chinese by self-study alone? Absolutely. I did it and so can you! I’ll explain to 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’s dictionary tool.
Why You Should Self Study A Language
So why is self-study so powerful for learning a language? Here are 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.
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.
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.
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.
Next lets look at some pointers to give you a better study experience for learning languages.
How To Self Study A Language: Our Best Tips
This isn’t gospel, just our informed opinion after having studied Asian languages for over a decade. Feel free to follow the parts that vibe with you and discard the rest. With that caveat in place, let’s get started!
1. Invest in your learning
As 21st century learners, we all live in an age of abundance. There has never been a time when it was easier (or cheaper!) to learn an Asian language. Useful tools such as Perapera and limitless foreign language media are available for free.
Free is fantastic but it does have its limits. Despite all the good free stuff available, it is still better to invest in your language learning. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, we as humans do not value what is free. It’s like having a gym membership – paying for it is part of what motivates you to go. Or it should do anyway!
Second, learning a language is also an investment in yourself. The money you spend now will pay you back many times over, both financially and personally. I now earn more yen in a week of work than the total of my spending on Japanese books and courses. This initial investment has given a massive financial return which continues to accrue every day. By all means, take steps to decrease the cost of your learning, but always invest, invest, invest.
The third and most important reason is that physical books and courses that cost some money are almost always better (see below).
2. Prioritize the offline over the online
In the early stages of your learning you should spend more time offline than online.
This might sound strange coming from us – after all, we write a blog and make language plugins, but traditional offline resources are still vastly superior to (most) online language courses.
An insightful book will save you hours of time. A solid audio course will get you acquainted with the grammar and pronunciation of the language. A helpful language tutor will give you a huge boost in confidence. So invest in all of these offline resources to hit the language from different angles.
The danger with online resources is that, despite the best of intentions, you end up surfing around random sites. This represents wasted time that you could have spent being immersed in the new language. In addition, many internet forums and websites give outright poor advice and misleading information. Other free resources online are of low quality and produced by amateurs.
Once you are intermediate, you can (and should!) read news sites and check out blogs in the foreign language. But until you get there, it is more effective to focus on offline resources that give you a base proficiency. So turn off your laptop, make yourself a coffee and get to work.
3. Watch movies in your target language
You need to have some fun with your learning. In fact, that is the whole reason for doing this language thing!
Find some foreign movies that interest you. It is is fine to watch with English subtitles, although movies with both the audio and the subtitles in the foreign language are optimal.
In the beginning, most of the dialogue will still sound like random syllables, but your ears slowly adjust. You will begin to recognize words you have learned from other sources. This is highly motivating. As you progress, you will find that you increasingly follow the plot and grasp the gist of conversations. Eventually you will struggle to remember a time when you couldn’t understand films in Japanese or Chinese. Trust me, that moment will come much quicker than you expect!
You can watch a large selection of Asian movies for no cost at all by signing up for a free 30 day trial with Amazon Prime. If you prefer, just cancel the membership before the month is up and you won’t be charged anything.
In the near future, we plan to do a series of posts on the best Asian movies we have seen to date. Watch this space!
4. Remove distractions
People are becoming more and more addicted to their smartphones. This is a problem for language learners. You simply cannot study efficiently while you are texting friends, checking the weather and reading Twitter all at the same time. Even just having a phone in your pocket serves as a distraction more often than not.
The only solution to smartphone addiction is to turn your phone off or, at the very least, put it into airplane mode while you study. You do want to learn this language right?
I know the idea of turning off your smartphone will strike fear into the hearts of many of you. Admit it, you are paranoid of missing out on something. But how many of those notifications are actually urgent? The world can wait an hour or two, so take a break from being connected for a change and let your brain focus on the task at hand. Remember that the benefits of good habits build up over time.
There you have it: my advice on how to self study a language.
Have you successfully learned a language on your own? How did you do it? We would love to hear your stories!
Rohan has spent years studying Japanese, Chinese and Korean, and currently lives in Japan. He created the perapera pop-up dictionary plugins to help other learners of Chinese and Japanese.