The best way to learn a language online: A step-by-step guide
- Set your own goals
- Take stock of your resources
- Get creative with your learning
- Keep track of what works
- Be consistent
Unless you grew up bilingual, your earliest memory of learning a second language probably involves textbooks.
Where were you the first time you were forced to learn another language? Were you in the sixth grade, squashed into a sticky plastic chair in an overheated classroom? Were your hands stained purple from creating hundreds of vocabulary flashcards? Did weekly quizzes make your stomach knot?
Learning a second language doesn’t have to be so stressful. In fact, it shouldn’t be stressful at all. Contrary to what your Latin teacher told you in secondary school, the point of a language isn’t rote memorization and parroting definitions on command--the point of a language is dynamic communication. Language mediates the exchange of brilliant ideas. It facilitates exciting interactions. It introduces you to new forms of art and philosophy. It charms that attractive Swiss barista you’ve been crushing on for a month.
Some language learners excel in classrooms. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But classrooms aren’t the only way to learn--and for most of us, it’s not the best way.
You can learn a language efficiently online, and have a lot of fun doing it. Find out how with our step-by-step guide to the best way to learn a language online. So, where do you start?
And where do you end?
Here’s how to make the most of your time and your resources.
Step One: Set your own goals.
Traditional Method: Get the grade.
The goal of a class? Pass the class.
After you enroll in an official course, you will likely realize that your language-learning goals--no matter what they used to be--will soon become tied to the class.
Even if the class isn’t for a grade, you might find yourself focusing on just advancing to the next course level (or on outdoing the know-it-all beside you) without taking time to explore the language.
Online Method: Decide what you really want.
When you start your language-learning path online, you’re in control, and that means that you’re free to decide what you really want.
Don’t automatically jump to “perfect fluency.” For one, that is impossible to accurately measure and fully satisfy. Perfection is an illusion. After all, you still make lexical and syntactical errors in your native language.
For another, holding fluency as your ultimate goal is...vague. And a bit dull. If your only goal is to be fluent for the sake of being fluent, then when you hit a plateau, you’ll struggle to pull through.
Instead, think of a goal that is not only measurable and achievable, but also personal. Maybe you want to be able to hold conversations with your extended Italian family members. Maybe you want to pass a certain level of the Test de Connaissance du Francais so that you can get citizenship and fulfill your dream of living in Toulouse. Whatever the goal, make it specific to you.
Step Two: Take stock of your resources.
Traditional Learning Method: Spend more to get less.
Depending on your nationality, university courses aren’t always cheap. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a single semester. If you opt for non-university language classes, those can also run several hundred dollars per month at local schools and thousands of dollars at large private institutions.
Online Learning Method: Realize that less is more.
Take advantage of the range of less expensive options available to you.
Rocket Language online courses begin at less than $100 per level, and come with lifetime access to updated course materials, interactive learning activities, cultural lessons and audio recordings.
If you enjoy textbooks, then ask about the best book for your language and complete the activities on your own. Our forums are full of recommendations.
Search for free lessons on YouTube. No matter the language, you can usually find private teachers or cultural organizations who offer hundreds of hours of video lessons for free.
Get free speech and listening practice with websites such as Speechling, which provides access to thousands of recordings from A1 to C2, for everything from French and German, to Russian and Japanese native speakers.
Pair up with an iTalki tutor for as low as $4/hour, or seek out a Tandem partner for mutual, and free, exchange.
Step Three: Get creative with your learning.
Traditional Method: Stick to the textbook.
In a traditional classroom, the textbook is often your best friend--better than your real best friend, who always wants to copy off your homework five minutes before the teacher walks in.
Second only to the textbook? The workbook and its dreaded cousin, the worksheet. If you’ve ever had to spend an entire semester with a rucksack full of loose papers, then you know how burdensome this can be.
Online Method: Switch it up.
The whole world is at your fingertips. Yes, you can purchase textbooks, but challenge yourself to look in more interesting places too.
Play video games in your target language.
Listen to music.
Read the news. Watch movies. Text the Swiss bartender. Each week, supplement your regular learning with a new form of language immersion. You won’t love everything--maybe you’ll realize that you can’t stand German music after a week of listening to Schlager--but you will discover some things that you do love. And these will not only keep you motivated, but they’ll also introduce you to facets of your language that you won’t find in books.
Step Four: Keep Track of What Works
Traditional Method: Assume that if you’re not learning, you’re the problem.
In a traditional classroom setting, when you’re busy preparing for exams or creating presentations, it’s hard to stop and ask, “Is this actually working for me?” If flashcards and textbook readings aren’t helping you learn, you might assume that the problem lies with you--that you’re just not smart enough, for example, or that you’re just not trying hard enough.
Online Method: Track what works for you.
It’s important to work smarter, not harder. In order to make the most of your learning time, you need to track what proves to be effective. Whether this is your second language or your sixth, you should take careful notes each day in order to view patterns and figure out what clicks with this particular language.
Each day, record information such as: what activities you did that day, for how many hours, during what time of day, what new topics you covered, use spaced repetition, what old topics you reviewed, your general impressions of the day, what strategies you think you may want to maintain and which strategies you may want to experiment with. Over time, you will be able to map a distinct pattern and adjust accordingly.
And find your learning style! This will give you a massive efficiency boost.
Step Five: Be consistent.
Traditional Method: (Attempt to) Show up every day.
It can be hard to inspire yourself to go to class, especially if every day is the exact same. If you don’t show up, you suffer consequences, whether that’s a drop in your grades or just the general disapproving looks of your more studious classmates.
Online Method: Create incentives for yourself.
When you learn online, then “attendance” looks like a wide range of things. You could watch a movie in your target language. You could spend an afternoon translating song lyrics. You could craft a blog post about something you care about.
Just make sure that you do something every day, and keep track of your progress in the journal that we mentioned above.
Consider making incentives--as well as punishments. For example, don’t allow yourself to watch your favorite show until you’ve finished your activities for the day. And if you get lazy and neglect your work? Then force yourself to do a few extra laps at the gym while conjugating irregular verbs in your head.
To enforce these incentives, link up with others who are learning your language. You can find them on the Rocket Language forums, on apps such as Tandem or via MeetUp groups.
Online resources offer flexible and dynamic ways to learn a language. Check out Rocket Language’s offerings for everything from Spanish to Hindi, from Italian to Mandarin. Now is the time you finally learn the language of your dreams.
What are your own online language-learning tips? Leave your answer in the comments below.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.