How to Teach Yourself a Second Language

Matt W. asks:

“Without formal education/classes, what are the best ways to become fluent in another language? I would like to increase my ability to speak German and begin to learn Russian by using many different resources. Advice?”

Excellent question, Matt!

Okay, you gotta immerse yourself as much as possible.

From experience, you gotta learn that language is like a filter through which ones’ mind/heart/intentions are shaped. Then, you master getting into the pre-language state of mind that has no language, and from there you train yourself to see the world with a different organization of concepts.

First, learn the 200 most common words in the language. Do whatever it takes to learn all the verb conjugations. Spend countless hours listening to real humans talk in conversation and repeat exactly as well as you can over the tracks whilst listening (like singing along to a song) so you can master the ups and downs of tonation in pronunciation.

Top 2 Tips

1.) 15 minutes every day is worth so much more than 150 minutes in one day every 10 days. Meaning: frequency is key, and quality over quantity.

2.) To truly become “fluent,” that is, to make the leap from “this is something I can use” to “re-experiencing life through the frame of a German person / Japanese person / Swedish person / whatever” you must spend time in a place culturally saturated in the language.

That said, you can spend 2-3 years of your life immersing yourself in radio, news, television, movies, and learning mnemonic methods (whacky stories and images that help you retain meanings) and make incredible progress.

Steve also had some excellent things to say:

I’ve recently moved from Scotland to Finland, and I agree with your post 100%. Immersion is what made me learn more than anything else – just being able to pronounce the difference between “o” and “ö” was hard at first, but with more exposure it became natural.

I’d also suggest learning sets of words, as you say the most common. I started with days of the week, months of the year, numbers up to 20, and similar.

Though I’d probably suggest having lessons, be they official at a college/university/academic location, or low-key chats with locals over coffee/beer/cake is a good thing to do. I had a lot of questions about grammar and how to chain words that were easily resolved with chat.


One of the best ways to acquire the most necessary terms swiftly is to use a Frequency List or a Frequency Dictionary. At Japanese Complete, our curriculum is based on the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese, which means that one is getting efficient and effective learning with every step, and learners come across newly learned glyphs and words right away in natural text. We have a list of the 777 most frequent kanji, which provide 90% coverage of kanji in the wild.

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