Generally speaking, the first language you learn on your own (not from a class or teacher) is one of the hardest because you don’t know what works for you yet. You need to experiment until you find materials and methods that you can sustain and persevere through (and preferably enjoy, at least a little). You also need to learn how to adapt the way you learn as you become more advanced in the language: What you listen to and read at the intermediate level is different than what you listened to and read as a beginner. And you need to learn how to manage your motivation and habits through a roller coaster of emotions until you achieve the proficiency level you want. But once you’ve been through it, you can use your first foreign language as a template for languages you learn afterward.
In my case, I studied French and a little Spanish, Japanese, and Russian in high school and college. I was going to teach French, but then I changed my mind. I didn’t study French for over 20 years after that, but then I suddenly had a strong motivation to learn it. I had a Bachelor’s degree in French on my resume, but I had forgotten it and couldn’t use it. (Unfortunately, my teacher said I was only “moderately fluent” when I graduated: I could carry on basic conversations, but my vocabulary was still too small and I didn’t like to speak it because I thought my pronunciation was bad, especially the letter “r.”) My plan was not only to revive my French, but bring it up to a fairly high level, so that my resume could properly reflect my skills.
When I returned to French, I was surprised to learn that I still remembered most of the grammar, but only the most basic vocabulary. I had studied a half-dozen languages on my own during those two decades, but only achieved a high-beginner level in them (partly because I kept changing my mind about which languages to learn, partly because I only had books and audio courses to work with—no conversation partners, etc.). My plan was to use reading and listening to build up my vocabulary, which would have the extra benefit of reviewing grammar without effort. I focused on meaning, not form, this time around. I started with graded readers, then graded readers with audio, then LingQ, and finally novels for older children (starting with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and building up to novels for children by French authors).
Meanwhile, I discovered the online polyglot community and learned what other resources were available to me. I hired italki tutors for Skype conversation practice and took advice from Olly Richards about how to prepare for conversation. I quickly achieved B1 (low-intermediate) conversational proficiency–and eventually, after a lot of reading, B2 (high-intermediate).
Now I had a template (French) which I could use to eventually bring other languages up to B2. And once I reach C1 (low-advanced/academic-level) in French, it will serve as a template for bringing other languages up to C1.
My successful template for French was to work on form (grammar and pronunciation) first, then switch to meaning (reading, listening, and conversation practice). I used courses such as Michel Thomas to help me with the grammar. My goal as a beginner is not to make my grammar perfect, but to learn enough to express my ideas in conversation. Over the past two years, I brought my Spanish, Japanese, and (briefly) Russian up to B1–and Korean will likely reach B1 by the end of this year. Meanwhile, I’m slowly building my Japanese up to B2. Japanese is more difficult than French because of the complex writing system and different grammar, so it’s taking longer.
What if the template is hard to apply? Then I innovate. I use trial-and-error, but eventually I sometimes have to create my own materials and find my own way to make them work. This was the case with Korean. I tried a wide variety of beginner materials (Pimsleur, FSI, textbooks, etc.) but couldn’t find anything I enjoyed enough to continue studying for very long. In fact, courses that were relaxing and fun in other languages were stressful to me in Korean. Finally, I discarded them all.
Now I skim through textbooks and grammar reference books, looking for grammar which I’m likely to use frequently in conversation. I write grammatical constructions in notebooks and create my own sentences aloud in Korean. I skim through topical vocabulary books and create paper flashcards for words I think I’ll use frequently, then talk to myself in Korean. Meanwhile, I read just the dialogs in beginner textbooks and listen to the audio recordings of those dialogs over and over until I understand them easily. I prefer textbooks whose audio is recorded at native or near-native speed.
This innovation has been working well for me in Korean. And lo and behold: Korean has become a second template which I can use for other languages, especially languages that have few irregularities (few apparent exceptions to the grammatical rules or few additional rules which are needed to account for the variations in word endings). I’ve been using my Korean study methods for Japanese with a lot of success, and I think I can apply them to other Asian languages I might learn in the future.
Russian was a source of frustration for me because of its many irregularities, because of the need to match prepositions with cases, and because occasionally a different case is used than I expect. I studied 13 or 14 Michel Thomas CD’s, and these gave me the confidence first to talk to myself and then to practice conversation with tutors. But then the tutors corrected seemingly every other sentence. I tried out many italki tutors and got rid of half of them who corrected me the most or who were not good at conversation. I finally achieved B1 conversational proficiency but was completely demoralized and worn out in the end. Now I don’t know when I’ll ever have the strength to return to Russian, even though I love the way the language sounds. If I do resume it or learn a similar language, I’ll need to use trial-and-error or even innovate in order to master enough grammar so that I will be willing to continue conversation practice again. Then Russian will become a template for other languages with complex, irregular grammars.
Once I master kanji, I’ll be able to use Japanese (for learning kanji), Korean (for learning grammar), and French (for learning conversation) as templates for Mandarin Chinese, if I choose to learn it. (Yes, Mandarin does have grammar, it just doesn’t have word endings.)
If you’re working on your first foreign language but plan to learn more, take heart: You can use your current language as a template for future ones, making the next ones easier. If you’ve studied several languages but are now struggling with one that you find too difficult, try different materials and methods and then, if needed, innovate. There’s a lot of frustration in language learning (sometimes with the language, sometimes with the available resources, and sometimes with yourself), but a lot of fun along the way–particularly as you find yourself able to use it in more and more situations. Templates and innovation will allow you to learn a wider and wider variety of languages, if you choose to do so.