The Complete Guide to Self-Studying a Foreign Language

I’m already bilingual, but last year I wanted to learn a new language. I chose to learn Spanish (Latin American) because it has common words with my native language and I’ve always wanted to visit South America. Given my erratic freelancing schedule and my lack of funds, I realized that I couldn’t take Spanish lessons in a traditional classroom setting. This forced me to give self-studying a try.

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Studying Spanish on my own has allowed me to learn at my own pace and choose the materials that are best suited to my learning style. I recommend that anyone who wants to learn a language should attempt self-studying first.

Foreign Language T-shirt

But before you start learning, keep these tips in mind:

Make it a habit

The reason why most self-study attempts fail is the lack of discipline and follow-through. By sticking to a schedule and learning everyday, you’ll achieve fluency faster and spend less time reviewing previous lessons.

Establish motivation

Why you’re acquiring a new language is almost as important as how you do it. Your motivation for learning may fall under one of two types. The first type, instrumental motivation, is about achieving a concrete financial or social goal. For example, learning Japanese to communicate with business associates or learning Arabic to get a job with the CIA. Those who learn mostly because of instrumental motivation tend to come out of their lessons with tidier grammar and usage.

The second type is integrative motivation, which comes from one’s desire to integrate oneself into a new culture. Examples include wanting to communicate fully with a friend who’s a foreigner, or learning Catalan to speak to your relatives in Andorra. Research shows that integrative motivation usually encourages better fluency and long-term success, even if you’ll be making more than a few mistakes in the beginning.

Keep in mind that motivation isn’t a static, rigid factor in your learning process. The key is to maintain a healthy balance between the two.

Identify and track goals

Before you start, you need to have quantifiable goals. “Become fluent in French” is an abstract goal because it doesn’t define how you measure fluency. Is it by passing a proficiency test, conversing with a native speaker for at least 15 minutes, or translating a short story? Whatever goals you set, make sure you can easily say “yes” or “no” when asking yourself if you’ve achieved them. In my experience, setting a deadline for these goals also helps you accomplish them much faster.

Afternoon Study
Afternoon Study © VolaVale

Gathering Your Materials

Unless you’ve taught yourself a couple of languages already it’s best to follow the progression of an existing language course rather than creating your own. While you can look up the syllabus of college courses for that language, you might not have access to the materials and textbooks cited. Because of this, it’s more convenient to have an existing self-study program as the backbone of your learning. Here are some options you can start with:

Rosetta Stone

Type: Computer software
Price: At least $229 per level, and $400 to $700 per complete language set of 3 levels.

Rosetta Stone is an interactive program that teaches users how to speak, write, and read in a new language. Their teaching method is based on how children learn their first language. It’s best to use this program with a microphone, so you can do the audio exercises.


Type: Audio CD with reading materials
Price: $20 for short 8-lesson courses, $275 and above per level of 30 lessons

Pimsleur gives you more options depending on how intensively you want to learn a language. If it’s just to get by on a one-week trip, you can probably make do with their Quick and Simple lessons. For almost native fluency, you’ll need to purchase a course level or two. To learn more about the Pimsleur method, click here.


Type: Online software
Price: There’s a free version, and a paid subscription that gives you access to extra features.

LiveMocha combines language learning and social networking in one portal. You can follow the lessons (which are similar to the Rosetta Stone format), as well as interact with native speakers who will evaluate your speaking and writing exercises.

If the prices of the above programs are too hefty for you, consider borrowing from the library or sharing the purchase with a friend. I suggest that you buy Pimsleur if you have the funds, as the lessons are easy to apply in real conversations. On the other hand, Rosetta Stone requires you to finish a considerable amount of lessons before you can construct your own sentences. Still, you shouldn’t invest in a specific program until you know you’re serious about learning.

While your main material is important, it shouldn’t be your sole source of learning. You need to have supplementary tools. Here are some other things you should have at your disposal:

  • Foreign language dictionary. The dictionary shouldn’t be a major study material for you, only a reference when you need to look up words you don’t understand.
  • Comics. Practicing your reading skills via this medium can be both fun and educational. Since comics are pictorial, there’s a visual context for the words you’re reading, making them easier to translate. If you can’t find foreign language comics from the bookstore or library, you can Google for web comics instead (click here for a list).
  • Books. I’m not talking about high-literature here. Look into popular books with a conversational tone. While there’s nothing wrong with reading Pablo Neruda, I shouldn’t use his vernacular as a basis for my Spanish self-training. I’m sure an average Chilean will look at me funny if I start saying things like “I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps”.
  • Video and audio. Foreign language DVDs, videos, podcasts (here’s an extensive list), and cable TV channels will come in handy. You can use them to familiarize yourself with the way the language sounds at the normal conversational speed, since most of your educational materials are done more slowly.
  • Online communities. I’ve already mentioned Livemocha, but there are many foreign language communities online. I participate in several Spanish Language groups on Facebook, which give me access to free learning materials.

A Quiet Read
A Quiet Read © db*photography

Making Your Own Study Guide

A DIY study guide is often a more efficient tool than a store-bought book. Although I give some recommendations below, remember that different language types have their own quirks and parameters. Make sure your study guide is sensitive to the unique characteristics of your chosen language.

Here’s what your study guide should contain:

  • A table of verb conjugations and tenses. Start with the most commonly used verbs in the language. The complexity of the table depends on the language.
  • List of pronouns. I, you, he, she, it, they, them, etc.
  • List of prepositions. For, in, of, to, with, without, after, before, etc.
  • List of questions. Who, Why, What, When, and How. I also include complete questions such as “How much?” “What time is it?”, etc.

It’s fun to add idiomatic expressions, the days of the week, the months, seasons, and weather conditions. But the above four things should be enough for anyone to manage a basic conversation.


There’s no point to learning the language if you won’t immerse yourself in typical conversation and interaction. The most obvious way to do this is to visit a country where the language is spoken. Just remember that colloquialisms vary among different countries that speak the same language. Keep these differences in mind when you travel.

If you can’t afford an immersion trip, you can practice by visiting any local communities that speak the language you’ve just learned. Also, you can visit online forums and look for a native speaker you can regularly talk to.

Here’s an important tip I learned from Benny the Irish Polyglot: stop speaking English. This may sound extreme to some people but, if you’re stuck in your hometown, this is the only way to force yourself to communicate in another language.

Overall, learning a language on your own is much easier than most people think. With the proper mindset and the right tools, you can soon be on your way to becoming a self-taught polyglot.

  1. Great article! I too, am desperate to become bilingual, and Spanish is my language of choice. Thanks for the tips…maybe I’ll be bilingual before I even grace South America’s shores!

  2. Good article Celine. It is good to see others out there trying to help people learn languages on their own. I firmly believe that self-study is far superior to traditional classroom-based learning, leading to better fluency in a shorter amount of time and far less misery. Most people think that they are bad at languages, when if fact, they are just bad at trying to learn languages in the slowest, most inefficient way possible: sitting in a classroom learning “about” the language but never actually acquiring it. To master a foreign tongue, you don’t need a teacher, a textbook or expensive materials like Rosetta Stone (sorry, this is the one point I must disagree with you on); you only need motivation, interest in the language and culture, and lots and lots of listening and reading input. Then when you are ready to speak (and no sooner!) you need to interact with native speakers as much as possible.

  3. I really like this post.
    I got my online Rosetta Stone through my school (Community Business College) and have a year to get through the 5 levels of Spanish to get my $180 worth.
    I have to admit, the hardest thing is sticking with it. I started off doing it every day but got too easily distracted.
    I think you are right on with “Make it a habit.” Making it a priority is the way to go.

  4. You could have spent 20 seconds on the web to find out the actual price of rosetta stone. It has NEVER been $400-$700 for the 3 level set.

  5. Celine
    ¿Cómo estas? Me gusto mucho tu artículo. I think that setting goals is key to learn a second language. There are also great products out there. Have u ever tried They have both Latin American Spanish and Spanish from Spain. They have culture shows, music shows even a cooking show. Have you tried it? Espero te guste, me gustaría que criticaras nuestro producto y saber si te gusta.

  6. Pimsleur is really very effective. I’ve already finished the first level (about 30 lessons per level). You might chide me for being such a hack, but I downloaded all my language material via torrent. I’m also studying Spanish and hopefully I will also want to have fluency in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Hebrew, Russian, Mandarin, Arabic and Farsi (with the exception of Hebrew, Farsi, Italian, and Arabic I already downloaded Pimsleur audio of these languages). If you want to know how I downloaded these, just try to email me. Good luck in our language learning efforts!!!

  7. Thanks for mentioning my no English policy! Although I was talking about not using English when abroad (i.e. not falling into the typical trap of only socialising with other expats, or just with locals that want to use you to practise their English). If you can extend it to your hometown, that’s great! Although if your hometown is in an English speaking country you can’t stop speaking English entirely so my suggestion can’t work so well… in that case it’s a good idea to communicate at a particular place or with a particular person just in your target language and never allow English to be spoken, although I haven’t tried that myself.
    I highly promote the practicality of self-studying. I’ve never tried any of those courses; usually a grammar and vocabulary book is all I use and just go straight to practising it with locals, but when you can’t travel you need the extra boost.

  8. I agree with most of what you have to say… although when you’re learning a language that’s not Spanish, German, Japanese or any of the other popular Western European languages, it becomes much more difficult to source CDs, DVDs e.g. Live Mocha doesn’t have Indonesian … a language spoken by almost 200 million people.

    For some Indigenous languages, even written sources are scarce, thus far more creative (or desperate) measures are needed.

  9. Thanks so much for this article! I’ve been attempting to brush up on my French for years, but haven’t found a self-learning system that works. I just signed up with LiveMocha and am really enjoying it.
    And you’re right about practicing daily being the key. It’s such a basic piece of advice, but one often forgotten, so thanks for the reminder.

  10. I very much liked your idea about immersion, I totally support it!
    Speaking of study guides, I would also add one more section: Functions. That is to say, conversational clichés, such as “How can I get to … ?”, or “If I were you, I would rather …”. I find it practical to learn these as set expressions (because they are set expressions, aren’t they?). It helps a lot for the communication when you have them ready.

    @John Fotheringham: I can’t possibly agree with you on the idea that we should not talk to native speakers until we reach a certain level. Of course, beginners will not be able to understand fluent conversations that native speakers hold when they communicate naturally between themselves. But, a learner can always find a native speaker who will take into account their basic level and adapt their speech to the learner.
    Otherwise, speaking skills will not be developing, and the learner will not be gaining self-confidence.

  11. Nice article.
    I am learning Italian and Spanish at the same time and sometimes I get confuse. My other problem is that I am not able to really practice it as I know nobody near me that I get to talk always in the said language.

  12. I am a trilingual (quadrilingual if you count dialect as a language). But as a M’sian, that does not give me an edge when it comes to job hunting as most Malaysians (my generation at least) speaks at least 3 languages. So I’m trying to learn French. Due to the fact that I’m living in Malaysia, it is quite hard for me to find anyone who speaks French. I don’t think i would have problems with reading (basic) French words, it’s the speaking that bothers me. Do you have any way for me to practice speaking? Is there any one who can help?

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