Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

How do I learn a language?

student studying languagesThink you're hopeless at learning other languages? Well, University of Southampton modern languages student Elizabeth Grant believes she can prove you wrong. Read on as she explains why anyone can get the skills to master a foreign language.

Learning language is a habit you picked up from your childhood. I don't believe that people are "good" or "bad" at languages, because if you are able to communicate in your mother tongue, then you are, in essence, a successful language learner. So picking up a second, third or even fourth language shouldn't be so difficult, considering you succeeded so well at it the first time!

Bearing that in mind, it is useful to break language down into four separate areas. Think about English and all the ways in which you encounter language: speaking to people, listening to music, reading books or road signs, texting friends, writing emails etc. All these activities in which you encounter language can be divided into four specific skill areas: reading, listening, writing and speaking.

Breaking the entire concept of "learning a language" down into these four areas makes learning it a WHOLE lot easier! Whether you are in secondary school, university, college or are working or unemployed, it is important to monitor each of the skill areas to ensure they are receiving the attention they need. Find ways of challenging and exercising each skill area and practice, practice, practice!


In order to learn new material to practice with and progress in your language learning, use already designed resources such as textbooks, online course materials or the school or course curriculum. These will give you a clear projection of how you are expected to progress in your language learning over a period of time. However, you will find that resources may or may not be geared towards all of these skill areas. For instance, a comprehension based text book with lots of passages and questions is useful for developing reading skills, yet not so helpful in practicing speaking. Breaking language learning down into these four areas allows the learner to plan for their learning.Many textbooks come equipped with audio CDs and speaking exercises incorporated. These are particularly useful since the general opinion is that learning is most effective when most senses are engaged. So an activity where you saw some of the language written and read it out loud, listening to your own voice as you speak each word, and then wrote down answers to the questions, would be the most effective in that it involves all four skills tasks AND your senses of sight, sound and touch.

And remember to supplement your learning with as many authentic resources as you can! The internet has a wealth of resources from online news channels, newspaper websites, tandem partner exchange programs, music videos, films and TV programs etc. Try meet native or very fluent speakers and practice with them. If you're at school then your teachers and language assistants would probably be more that happy to sit and have a conversation in the language with you. If you go on holiday, try not to speak English to the local people, try ordering food, asking directions, talking about the weather and making enquiries all in the native language. This is probably the best way of all to learn language.

Related links