Can I Learn a Language Completely by Myself?

“We know that there are many different ways to learn languages. What works for one person may not work for another, and there are many different ways to learn.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, right?

I mean, I guess it’s partly true, but I have an issue with it – it’s poor practical advice for someone who wants to learn a language effectively and in a time-efficient manner.

We acquire language through our eyes and ears. People incorrectly assume this means having a person speak to you in your target language while you look, listen and just ‘pick up’ the language. What it actually means is copious amounts of independent study in the form of reading, listening, and time spent with the language.

Do Different People Learn Languages Differently?

Not really.

It doesn’t matter what kind of personality you have as a language learner – you still need to acquire the language. When acquiring a language, there aren’t many different ways to do it. Sure, there are a bajillion different language learning courses and apps on the market these days, but with each of them, you’re doing essentially the same thing:

Reading, listening, and to a lesser extent, writing. Very rarely do language learning materials include a speaking element.

All of these activities (yes, even speaking) are something you can do by yourself.

In fact, reading, listening, and writing are all things you should be doing by yourself.

It’s important to point out that it doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, either. In fact, another commonly held (and incorrect) assumption is that extroverts are better at languages because they generally speak more.

In my experience, many introverts make faster progress with languages as they’re happy to spend more time alone to do what needs to be done: acquire the language.

How Do I Learn A Language By Myself?

In case I haven’t made myself clear by now, you start by spending time with the language in the form of reading and listening.

This can (and should) be done by yourself in an environment with preferably no distractions. The good news is that the vast majority of the tools to do this can be free or purchased rather cheaply.

“But I’m a complete beginner and I don’t know how to read and I don’t understand anything I hear.”

In that case, I refer you to the following articles which should hopefully be of much help.

What About Speaking?

Most of us learn a language with the ultimate aim of being able to communicate with people in our target language. This makes sense. But surely to improve our skills in speaking, the emphasis of our studies should be on speaking, right?

Not necessarily.

By all means, over time, speaking will form a big piece of the pie that feeds our progress in a language. I find being able to converse in Mandarin Chinese probably the most fun aspect of learning the language. My conversations bear the fruits of my labour.

However, the most effective response to a language learner’s problem of being unable to communicate effectively is to acquire more of the language.

After all, you can’t output what you haven’t already input.

How About Language Classes? Are They a Waste of Time?

I’ve had my fair share of language classes.

I’ve studied on a Mandarin Chinese language course at Sun-Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, and I studied one-on-one with a tutor at Omeida Chinese Language Academy in Yangshuo.

Although I enjoyed both experiences and learned some Mandarin Chinese at both institutions (more at the latter), the majority of the Mandarin I’ve learned has been a result of learning independently.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t pros to learning with a tutor.

The following are my favourite reasons to take a language class:

  • You get to practice speaking and listening in real time.
  • You can’t procrastinate in lessons, especially if it’s one-on-one.
  • You get to mix with other learners of your target language (depending on whether you have group classes).

By all means, classes aren’t a total waste of time. However, that doesn’t mean your time and money couldn’t be better spent elsewhere…

Elsewhere, studying independently, acquiring more of your target language.

How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language by Yourself?

This is one of the most common questions asked by newbie language learners and one of the hardest to answer.

The answer? It depends.

What does it depend on?

If I had to oversimplify it down to only one thing, I’d say it depends on the overall time spent with the language. Specifically, how much time you spend acquiring the language and then practicing what you’ve learned.

Now I get it, in life we all want to know that we aren’t putting loads of effort into something with no reward. Language learning can be frustrating at times, especially as you become more advanced. It’s not like computer games or maths where you can quantify what you’ve achieved or learned day by day.

Seriously, have I learned anything over the last day/week/month/year?

Every language learner. Ever.

What you have to understand is that the moment you put a time limit on achievements in language learning, you suck half of the fun out of it.

Language learning is a long process. You must find a way to enjoy it, or you’ll end up on the huge heap of quitters.

If you’re after some motivation, check out this article.

Seriously, How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?

There is no concrete answer to this, and I know you’re after numbers, so I’ll put ‘that’ table from the US Department of State below.

Can you learn faster than these guidelines suggest? Absolutely, given the above is based on class hours. As I’ve tried to argue already, language learning in a classroom isn’t the best use of time.

Other important factors have to be considered into how fast you might learn a language:

  • Desire – the most important factor.
  • Daily study time – 8 hours daily spent with the language is obviously worth so much more than let’s say, for example, one class a week with a tutor.
  • Talent – the importance of which is over exaggerated. Desire in language learning easily trumps natural talent.

The fastest I’ve ever seen anyone learn Mandarin Chinese from scratch was a Japanese student on my Mandarin course at Sun-Yat Sen University.

He went from a complete beginner to passing the HSK 5 with a decent score in one calendar year.

Most people don’t have the time or tenacity to do this, and if they do, they end up paying for it one way or another.

Most of the time, it’s through burnout.


Whether we like to admit it or not, language learning can be a rather lonely pursuit.

The legendary polyglot Steve Kaufmann has done a YouTube video all about this.

This post isn’t to advocate locking yourself in a dark room all day until you emerge completely fluent in your target language.

It is, however, an effort to help beginner language learners realise what it actually takes to learn. If the dream is to be out there in the world making connections in a foreign language, then that’s an excellent goal. It’s why I learned Mandarin Chinese.

Just be aware that you’ll have to put in the work to get there.

And much of that work requires learning completely by yourself.

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