How to Learn a Foreign Language at Home, and Stick to It

Do language learning apps really work?
Confused woman with a post-it note on her mouth, foreign phrases in the background.
Photo: Getty / PeopleImages. Collage: VICE.

During lockdown, the thought of learning a new language has probably crossed your mind.

Of course, that thought may have quickly exited your mind, because learning a new language is famously hard. But if you studied French for years at school and only have the hook of "Lady Marmalade" to show for it, all is not lost. As a recent study published in the journal Cognition showed, although there is an advantage to learning a foreign language before the age of 18, adults can also reach native fluency.


Given the impossibility of hopping on a plane and immersing yourself in a foreign language, you might have turned to language learning apps, which claim to make the process easy and fun. But do they really work?

Currently, one of the most popular apps is Duolingo, which offers free courses in over 30 languages and has seen a huge boom in new sign-ups since the beginning of the pandemic. Options are more limited if English isn't your first language, but according to Kris Broholm, blogger and podcaster for the website Actual Fluency, "Duolingo is by far the best language app out there." However, even though the app scores points for making language learning easy and convenient, it's definitely not all you need to master a new language.

"Language apps often give people the impression of being more fluent than they actually are," says Richard Simcott, a world-renowned polyglot who has learned over 50 languages. "Language learning is over-learning: you learn something to the point that it just becomes part of who you are, so that it comes to mind without hesitation when you need it."

Language apps gamify repetition to help people memorise words and expressions, but they often don’t give you a good sense of how much vocabulary has not been included in the exercises. "I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing," Simcott continues, "because I prefer to have someone be told that they're better than they are and have the confidence to continue."


To get that initial confidence boost, Broholm's advice to new learners is to focus on words or phrases that they need to describe themselves and their lives. "You’ll be surprised at how many initial conversations boil down to the same information," he says. Simcott agrees: "If you want to be able to speak a language, it needs to have real meaning for your life." When people start out, they often make the mistake of memorising relatively useless information that could be picked up at a later stage, like long lists of nationalities or professions. But if you're able to say a few things about yourself early on, you’ll feel confident and have a solid base to expand on your skills.

In challenging times, staying motivated for a long-term project like language learning can be tricky. A good way to face the daunting task is to set small, manageable goals. "If your only goal is to be fluent, you’ll be disappointed for many months. But if you want to be able to introduce yourself, you might be very happy after a single lesson," says Broholm. Another technique you might want to try is building a routine out of the learning process. Simcott suggests setting calendar reminders at specific times of the day to practice: "At some point, by sheer repetition, you just get used to it and build the habit."

Of course, anyone with an internet connection has access to plenty of free resources for language learners – Simcott himself offers free weekly advice. Foreign movies and videos, kids' stories and even news articles can also be great tools to perfect your skills. But, as Simcott explains, practising can start with as little as spending time thinking about what you’ve learned while doing chores or commuting. "The difference between a successful language learner and a non-successful language learner is that the second doesn't think about the language at all until they get to the lesson again," he says.


The key here is to find a way you can rehearse what you've previously learned throughout your day – and that can change a lot from person to person. For instance, if you're more of an oral learner, it might be helpful to speak out loud and narrate what you're doing throughout your day, using the vocabulary you’ve learned. If you're more visual, Simcott recommends trying the free app LingQ, where users can read stories and easily learn new vocabulary. Traditional textbooks can also be very helpful, and their Kindle versions won't break the bank. Lastly, if you learn better by listening, focus on music and podcasts in your target language.

But the most difficult part of learning a language in lockdown is practising your speaking skills, since most of us can't physically meet up with native speakers to chat and interact. "I think there is no real substitute for one-on-one tutoring," says Broholm. Unfortunately, tutoring can be expensive, especially if you look at official language schools, and during this time of (job) insecurity, most people can’t commit large sums of money to a hobby.

One option is to find online language exchange groups (on Facebook or websites like Conversation Exchange), where you can volunteer your time as a native speaker of your language and be matched with someone who speaks the language you want to learn. However, Broholm argues it’s hard to maintain a balanced, two-way exchange when people are doing it for free. Instead, he recommends ITalki as "a real gem". The website groups native speakers of different languages without formal accreditation who offer conversation lessons for a few euros per hour.

Finally, be realistic about your expectations. Even if you work hard, you'll probably have to continue learning for many months after lockdown to actually become fluent. There's a lot of pressure to use this isolation time to better ourselves, but if you're forcing your practice every day, you won’t get very far.

"As adults, we have the privilege of picking a language we want to learn, but it has to feel like fun," says Broholm. It's why those years spent learning a language in school often amount to nothing. "Ultimately, you can show people the wonders of languages, but it's only a deeper connection with their goal that can keep them going."