How to learn a language

Following is a summation of observations and advice put together by Julieta. If you are studying, or interested in studying another language, it is well worth the read.

To our students, with humor (and love):

This is a serious explanation of what to expect when studying a foreign language that is written with humor. The idea is not to offend anybody, but to start with laughing at ourselves, like it should be, when studying another language.

The first question most people ask when they start studying another language is: ‘When am I going to be fluent?’

Personally, I believe the answer depends on a few variables, mainly dedication and personality.


This is simple. The more you study outside of class and the more time you dedicate to the language you are learning, the more progress you will make.

Students usually ask what else they can do to improve their Spanish (or English, German, etc.) and the answer is: everything helps. You can watch movies, read books, and listen to music, even those online programs and books that say ‘Learn Spanish (or French, Italian, etc.)  in 2 weeks’ help!

But don’t just do one of those. Some programs are really good, but remember that the goal is to interact with people, real people; you have to be used to talking to real people as well. With a computer program, you can practice, but you always know what comes next or you can play it again. Real life does not have that option. You can find people that are really nice and willing to speak slowly, but others, if they are in a hurry or they are in a working environment, will choose to start speaking in English.

Regarding those books that say, “Spanish in 2 weeks” (or German, Italian, etc.), they are just a lie. No matter how smart you are or how fast you learn, nobody can learn another language in 2 weeks. It’s simply impossible. So if you tried those, don’t feel bad because it’s not just YOU!


Perfectionism and shyness are not good traits when it comes to learning a language. If you don’t like making mistakes (who does?), you are less likely to participate in class or to turn in a written assignment because you know it’ll have a lot of mistakes. With these traits, the longer it’ll take you to learn because participation in class (practice and speaking) is very important. It sounds like a cliché, but we all learn from our (or somebody else’s) mistakes.

With a little bit of humor, I am going to describe some of the most common student characteristics that DO NOT HELP TO LEARN A LANGUAGE.

– The Lazy Traveler. “I want to learn X language to travel, I just need a few phrases”

I always wonder what that means myself because even if you learn how to ask for a beer or where the bathroom is, what if they don’t have beer and they offer you something else? Or the bathroom, instead of being at the end of the hall to the right, is behind the double doors, down the stairs to the left, and then through the kitchen where you’ll need to explain to the cook what you are doing there?  This type of student shouldn’t be taking lessons, but rather he/she should buy a bilingual travel guide.

– The Perfectionist. “I get in a bad mood if I don’t get it”

All types of perfectionist are a little bit ‘obsessive’. They need to know absolutely everything all the time. First of all, this causes frustration because it is impossible to know every single word as you go. Second, they want to know so many different things, that they don’t learn anything because they are not focusing.

– The Defensive. “Oh yeah, I get it, I get it. What? I’m wrong?!”

Usually, when a ‘defensive’ does not understand something  he/she does not ask. But if the instructor realizes that the student did not understand, the instructor will most likely ask a question just to be sure whether he/she did or did not get the explanation. If the defensive did not understand, he/she will ask to the instructor to explain again. This process can continue with increasing frustration from the defensive student. Frustration is actually part of learning a new language, but the defensive student will ALWAYS blame the instructor, the book and/or the language. For example: the topic wasn’t well explained or the language does not make sense, etc.   If the defensive student is taking private lessons, this will be a repetitive behavior that eventually both the student and the instructor will get use to. If the defensive is in a group class, it is more likely that after a few ‘defensive episodes’, he/she will quit.

The main problem with the defensive student is that when they are put on the spot – everybody knows that he/she did not understand something that they said they did. They get really uncomfortable and they shut down, so even if the instructor tries to explain the subject again, he/she will not understand it, at least not that very same day.

– The Shy. “Pass.”

We all know the shy, he/she is, well, shy. They have difficulty talking to people, they get all red if they say something that sounds funny to others, and therefore, they don’t like talking in class or reading their homework out loud because they don’t like to be embarrassed. Usually shy students go straight into private classes.

I think we all have a bit of the characteristics explained above. Just try to realize it when you are acting in a way that will not help you, and try to change your attitude. It will make it easier for you. We go through school and college reading books we don’t like, listening to teachers or professors we thought were not good, but we don’t blame any of that for not being able to graduate, right?

Why do people quit?

We all start things (yoga, guitar lessons, cooking classes, etc.) and then we realize that that is not something we really enjoy. But why quit doing something that we always wanted to do, or if part of our family speaks Spanish, or if it’s needed for work?

Most people quit because learning a language is very difficult. 

Especially in a group class, some students feel that they hold the rest of the class back, and then they quit or they are too embarrassed to ask the same thing for the fifth time. It might be true that it takes you longer than the rest of the class to understand, but there’s no other way. Everybody will be in your situation eventually. The good thing is that everybody can learn. It could be very slowly or amazingly fast, but everybody can learn.

One of the most important things for beginners is to ‘learn how to learn’. At first, every text and every sentence is overwhelming. Where should I start? With the grammar, vocabulary, masculine, feminine?

In an immersion class, no matter how easy you want to make it, everything (and this means EVERYTHING) is going to be in the language you are learning. So, the best thing to do is to pay attention to what the instructor is trying to teach. If the teacher is trying to show you that adjectives also have to agree with the noun in gender and number, for example, just pay attention to that. Don’t try to learn the vocabulary, don’t try to think of the verb tense, etc.. Take things one step at a time.


The curve for learning a language is very deceitful. The first stage of learning a language can be pretty easy for some: short and simple sentences (that can be easily translated) in present tense, with a few prepositions, etc.  That stage does not require much more than a little bit of memorizing.  In this stage, everything is easy to understand and with all the new vocabulary, the curve goes straight up. In the second stage, on the contrary, things don’t translate as easily. Students realize that it requires more than just memorizing new vocabulary, or that a very similar word in their language has a complete different meaning in the other language, and that pronouns, verbs, and prepositions go in different places in the sentences. And the worst part is that the same word has or could have more than one meaning!!! OH MY GOD! WHAT DO I DO NOW? You just study or quit.

If you keep studying, you’ll notice that the learning curve will plateau, and after a few months you will notice that the curve will gradually start rising again.  Students will go through this cycle/crisis at least two times.

First crisis!

At level A2 you are not a complete beginner anymore, and if you haven’t been studying much, you will realize that you now have to do a lot more to keep up with the rest of the class –if you are in a group class- or if you are taking private lessons you will notice that the teacher cannot move forward because learning a language is ‘accumulative’. What does this mean?  You need to study in order to keep making progress. You need grammar + vocabulary. What’s the point of learning all the grammar topics if you don’t have the words to make a sentence? You are at the point where you have to start reading more (that means more homework).

Second crisis (and hopefully the last)!

Somewhere in level B1-B2 you will find yourself with all these verbs conjugations, all these new words, all sorts of pronouns, but you still speak with broken rhythm, but you are capable of getting around. Here is where a lot of people stop studying. The learning curve is almost imperceptible. Some students, on the contrary, feel that they’ve been working so hard to get here that they don’t want to stop, but rather keep going. And here it gets complicated again because it’s all about ‘details’.  It’s like putting a puzzle together, you have the main image, but there are still some pieces of blue sky that are indistinguishable. The advice here is, be patient, you are almost there!

Common problems:

  • Translating. The tendency of beginners to translate everything is normal, but you have to be aware that the more advanced you become, the less likely you are going to be able to translate everything literally. Of course, this makes students say that whatever they are reading does not make sense. Actually, it does make sense in another language; translating is a completely different story and it does not mean that you are supposed to write the same words in a different language, but rather express the same idea in different words, which of course is a big enough challenge by itself.
  • Reading. When students read out loud, they are so worried about their pronunciation that they cannot comprehend the text they just read, so they feel embarrassed that they cannot say what they have just read.  That’s not JUST YOU, it happens to everybody. So if the instructor does not realize that, ask him/her if you can read it again for yourself.
  • Changing levels.  When students change level, they think that they should know everything covered before. Often times they get very disappointed when, in spite of being in a different level, the instructor has to explain a certain topic again as if the student had never heard it before. But it is also completely normal. It is almost impossible to remember and absorb everything. That’s why it is necessary to review constantly.
  • Changing from private classes to group classes. When you are taking private lessons, the class moves at your own pace. This could be a ‘normal’ pace or could be very fast or very slow. But if it’s fast or slow, or even normal, neither the student, nor the instructor, care very much about how fast the class moves – unless the student has a special need or for example, needs the language in order to apply for a job. So, if the student does not do the homework, or he/she did not read or write the assignment, it does not matter because it does not affect others. But when they change to a group class: BOOM. Nothing is their ‘own’ anymore (own pace, own homework, own instructor, etc.). There’s a standard pace, there’s homework to keep up with that pace, there are exams, etc. This situation could easily lead to a crisis.


Why is it necessary to take exams?

  • First of all, because no one likes to get a C, so students usually study. If you study regularly, there’s no need to study more unless you want to aim for an A.
  • Second, when students get their exam back, they will see the corrections and the instructor can point out whatever needs to be reviewed.
  • Third, if all of the students got a C on the exam, usually the instructor needs to review his/her explanations and explain the topic that was not understood by the group again.

If the results of the exam were satisfactory for the majority of the group, then the class can move on to something new.

Fluency vs. accuracy

Why do I need to fill in the blanks when everybody says that ‘speaking is the best way to learn’?

How am I supposed to speak if I don’t have the words?

How am I supposed to speak if I don’t know the different conjugations?

Filling in the blanks is necessary for practice, but most importantly it is good because in order to write the correct answer, you have to read the whole sentence for context. Most likely, especially in beginner levels, there will be words that you won’t know, and you’ll have to infer the meaning from the context. Most of the time, students rush to ask the meaning of the words without even trying to ‘guess’. And that is not advisable because if you travel, or meet someone that does not speak your language, you’ll have to guess the meaning of words. I am not suggesting not to ask, but at least try, just try to make the effort of inferring the meaning instead of asking right away.

After 13 years of age (more or less), we stop learning ‘as kids’.  We lose the ability to, let’s say ‘learn without rules’, and that’s another reason why we need to fill in the blanks a thousand times.

Speaking practice has two main goals: one is accuracy and the other one is fluency.

If the instructor wants to practice something that has just been covered in class, it is most likely that he/she will want the students to focus on accuracy. That is, the students must answer questions orally in order to practice a specific topic. In that case, the student will need time to think before answering and try to be as accurate as possible.

But fluency is also important because you need it in order to communicate with others. If you are fluent, you will be able to communicate no matter how bad your grammar is. In this kind of exercise, students don’t have to use correct grammar, but should focus on speaking.


  • Always go back to the previous, or even to your first, book. Read them all over again, even if you think it’s too easy.
  • For more advanced levels, watch movies in the language you are learning with subtitles also in that language.
  • Be ready to make fun of yourself or you’ll end up devastated.
  • If the instructor does not go through the whole book in class, read those pages on your own time and know that the instructor is not trying to sabotage your success. On the contrary, if there’s something in the book that has not been covered and the instructor says that it is not important, TRUST THE INSTRUCTOR.
  • Use what you know from day one and try to express yourself, even if you don’t have the exact words. You might not know the word, but you might be able to explain the meaning of the word.
  • Whenever something seems too difficult or you think that you will never get it, just let it be. This means, maybe you are having a bad day (we all have bad days of speaking a language, even advanced students), or you shut down, or you just don’t get it although you’ve been trying to understand it for a while. Just keep trying whenever it crosses your way and keep reading. Reading always helps because it shows you the usage of the words and gives you a context. Usually the problem is that you cannot translate the pronoun, or the verb, etc. You have to change all the words in a sentence in order to make sense in your language. The advice here is: don’t get stuck, keep trying now and then and you will eventually get it.
  • Be aware that languages are not a science; there are rules and there are many, many exceptions. And even two different rules may be correct in the same case.
  • Write. Take notes in class. Students that don’t write anything down, think that they will remember…but then, they find themselves trying to do their homework and come back the next class saying they couldn’t remember what they were supposed to do. And then, keep writing, writing helps remembering. And if the instructor corrects an assignment and gives it back to you with corrections, go back and rewrite it.

How can people learn and speak more than three languages when I can’t even learn one?

Learning your first foreign language is the most difficult. Once you learn a foreign language, you usually get pretty good at your own language and that is the key. First, after learning one, you’ll know all the problems you will face. Second, all the languages have things in common.  Italian and Portuguese have very similar grammar, for example: the ‘B’ in Spanish becomes ‘V’ in Italian and Portuguese, and the ‘H’ becomes ‘F’; Italian and French share pronouns (y, en, ne, ci) that don’t exist in Spanish or Portuguese; German has a lot of words that sound like English (house/Haus, English/Englisch, etc.) and the past tense in German has the same structure as the past tense in Italian and French.

Of course these are just a few examples of a much more complicated scene, and by no means is learning a third or a fourth language easy, but it is definitely EASIER. Your brain is already trained, it knows that certain things cannot be translated, it knows that languages have or could have a completely different structure (and it doesn’t get mad about it!).


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  1. Awesome, I have tried learning languages and have quit because of many of these problems! Pointing them out helps me to not only know that it isn’t just me, but also that I can start learning again, with all these pointers in mind!! Thank you so much!