Learning a second language involves understanding how its sounds, words, and grammatical patterns are used to express meaning in different situations. Second language learning is a long journey that has many stages, but can be extremely rewarding: studies have shown that knowing two or more languages can slow cognitive decline. What’s more, knowing a foreign language also looks great on your resume! However, it can take a long time to go from a beginner to an expert language user. The time it takes to become fluent in another language partly depends on which language you choose to learn, as some will be easier than others. But even if you’re learning an easy language, you’ll probably run into problems at some point in the language-learning process. That’s why you should know what to focus on when learning, what factors affect the learning process, and what myths about language learning are floating around out there. At the end of the day, learning a second language is a great way to learn about a new culture, and a fun way to spend your free time. And since these days there are so many tools you can use to learn a second language (like the Mango app!), there’s no reason not to give it a try!
So where should you start? Well, with the Mango Languages Guide to Learning a Second Language, of course! The guide you’re about to read is designed to be a roadmap for your language-learning journey. We’ll talk about what goes into language learning, give you some tips and tricks for how to learn a language quickly, and answer common questions about the language learning process. We’ll also point you toward additional resources that will help you along the way.
You’ve got some work ahead of you, but we promise the view from the other side is worth the climb!
Table of Contents
What Are the Different Parts of a Language?
There are two main parts of a language: language structure and language use. The structure of a language includes its vocabulary (words), grammar (rules to put words together), and pronunciation (sounds and ways of putting sounds together). Language use, on the other hand, refers to how you use your knowledge of language structure to understand and express meaning in the real world. Knowing a bit more about these parts will help give you an idea of where to start with language learning!
Speaking is another big part of using a second language. And perfecting your pronunciation is just one part of speaking; you’ll also need to learn to have a conversation! This can be difficult since different cultures might have very different expectations about things like, “how to be polite” and “how to take turns when speaking”. They may also have different ways of using physical behaviors (e.g., gestures, eye contact) to communicate meaning. And of course, to really sound fluent in conversation, you need to learn to use filler words like “um” or “so” or “y’know”.
So as you can see, language is made up of a lot of different parts that need to be applied in the real world. And if this seems a little intimidating, don’t worry! In the next section, we’ll give you some tips to help you learn and practice everything we’ve just mentioned!
What should You Focus on When Learning a Second Language?
When learning a second language, you should focus on studying the structure of the language (vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation) and on figuring out how to use those structures in the real world. Let’s take a look at how you can best approach each of these.
Learning new words is one of the most important things to focus on when learning a second language. Why? Well, studies have consistently shown that learners who know more words are more fluent speakers. A great way to increase your vocabulary size is through reading or listening to something that you find interesting and can mostly understand. This could be a book you find at the library, a magazine you pick off the shelf, or a TV series on a streaming service that catches your eye. In fact, it doesn’t matter what you choose as long as you try to maximize your exposure to second language words! Producing language (speaking, writing, or signing) can also help you increase your vocabulary size because if you want to use words that you don’t know, you might be motivated to look them up. Chatting with native speakers and keeping a diary in your target language are great activities that can promote this behavior. You can also make and study flashcards using pre-made lists of important vocabulary.
Once you learn the basic meaning(s) of a word, you will also need to figure out how that word is used in the real world. This means that you’ll need to learn the different aspects of a word, like how it sounds or is written, what other words it relates to, and how it’s used in context. While you’re likely to pick up on some of this information just by using your second language, you can help yourself learn even faster if you use strategies and study habits that help you organize and remember information about new words. Check out our post, “14 Easy Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary Skills” if you’re interested in learning more!
You’ll also need to focus on grammar to learn a second language. The grammar of a language refers to the rules that speakers use to put words together. Grammar gives us information about how words are related to one another and about how individual words can be changed to express different meanings. Learning grammar is often emphasized in foreign language classrooms, and for good reason: Studies have shown that instruction can improve grammar skills, and that grammar is a key part of becoming a skilled reader, writer, listener, and speaker.
In general, there are 2 main ways to learn second language grammar: implicitly and explicitly. Implicit grammar learning happens when you pick up on a rule without realizing it, typically while you are using your target language (e.g., reading, having a conversation, etc.). Explicit grammar learning, on the other hand, happens when you are aware of the fact that you are learning. This may involve intentionally memorizing a rule and practicing it again and again until you have it down pat. Implicit and explicit learning are both important parts of improving your grammar skills, but for different reasons. If you learn a rule implicitly, you may eventually be able to access and use it automatically. However, this process can take a long time, and may still result in mistakes from time to time. Explicit grammar learning, on the other hand, is quick, effective, and can help you notice how rules work. This could in turn help you be more accurate when using the rule. However, if you exclusively focus on explicit grammar learning, you may have trouble becoming a fluent language user, simply because you may not have enough experience using the rule. Thus, to fully develop your second language grammar skills you’ll need to learn both explicitly and implicitly! You can read more about implicit and explicit learning in our post from our Science Behind Language Learning Series, “Can I learn a language without trying?”
Pronunciation is another key part of language structure to focus on when learning a second language. Improving your pronunciation involves becoming familiar with the phonemes (i.e., individual speech sounds) and phonology (i.e., how sounds should be combined) of your target language.
Learning how to pronounce phonemes could be a difficult task, depending on how similar your target language is to your first language. For some languages, you might have to learn entirely new ways of moving your mouth, lips, and tongue.
If you’ve ever tried learning Spanish, for example, you may have found it difficult to make the rolled “double r” sound (called a “trill”) in the words arroz (rice) and perro (dog). For other languages, you might simply need to adapt movements you already have in your first language. For example, the “r” sound in Japanese (called a “flap”) is very similar to how American speakers pronounce the first “t” in the phrase “get out”.
You can learn the phonemes of your target language through explicit study (e.g., using information from the internet or a textbook), or better yet by actually practicing producing them. Some good activities for practicing phonemes include reading aloud and studying the mouths of native speakers.
In addition to learning phonemes, you’ll also need to learn about how they change depending on what sounds come before or after them, or where they are in a word. For example, did you know that there’s a different “t” sound in “top,” “cat,” and “kitten”? (Go ahead, try it!) You’ll also have to focus on other phonological rules like stress (which parts of a word or sentence to emphasize), rhythm (the time between syllables), and intonation (how to properly change the pitch of your speech). Some good activities for practicing the phonological aspects of your pronunciation include shadowing (i.e., listening to and imitating the way someone speaks), transcribing and analyzing speech, and even singing songs.
It may sound surprising, but listening activities are also a great way to improve your pronunciation. Some speech researchers have even suggested that you won’t be able to pronounce new sounds until you are able to perceive them! We recommend the following listening-for-pronunciation activities:
One thing to keep in mind is that having an accent does not mean that you have bad pronunciation. In fact, in the United States alone, there are at least six different regions with millions of people who speak in different accents. Besides this, second language speech researchers have shown again and again that people can still understand you even if you have an accent! Above all, it’s important to set realistic goals for pronunciation learning. So try to focus first on being understood instead of sounding like a native speaker!
Focusing on how language is used is a key aspect of learning a second language. This means learning how to read, write, listen, and speak in that language. Although each of these skills develops differently, you will need to master all four if you want to reach an advanced level of language proficiency. Read on more to find out how you can become a master of language use!
Learning to read in your target language is an important part of becoming a skilled language user. Reading is one of the best ways to increase your exposure to new words and grammar, and is a fun activity to boot. To learn how to read in your second language, you’ll first need to become familiar with the writing system of your target language. This may be easy or difficult, depending on whether this system is similar to the one in your native language. For example, if your native language is English, you would have an easier time learning to read Dutch, whose alphabet and spelling are very similar to English, than learning to read Arabic, which uses an entirely different set of letters and rules for combining them. Luckily, most textbooks offer some information about the writing system of your target language, and there are tons of online resources available.
Once you learn about how your target language is written, you can start working towards becoming a fluent reader. Fluent readers are able to quickly recognize words, connect them with each other, and relate the message they express to what they already know. The first of these three processes is particularly key to focus on. One way to become better at recognizing words is to make word learning a part of your study plan. For example, try using flashcards to memorize the written form of words and set up a regular time to quiz yourself. This can help make sure that you’ll be able to spot words when you see them in context. Another way to build your sight vocabulary is to simply read something in your target language every day. And if you’re just starting out, don’t worry—you can start small and work your way up. Try reading a short passage from a textbook, a news headline, or even just a few text messages. Eventually, you can move on to reading short stories or novels written for native speakers!
There are a number of other steps you can take to accelerate your development as a reader. For instance, you can try reading the same book in two different languages to compare how sentences are translated. Or, you can discuss what you’ve been reading with a friend who shares your language and reading interests. You can find more tips like this in our article on how to improve your reading skills in a second language. Why not have a look?
Learning how to write is another important aspect of mastering language use, even if you only want to have conversations. When you write in your target language, you’re actually practicing stringing words together (i.e., using grammar rules), which can actually help you form sentences in speech. Writing can also help you identify gaps in your ability to express yourself fluently, and lead to language growth. As with reading, you need to learn the writing system of your target language to learn how to write it. If you are learning an entirely new writing system, try practicing writing the letters of the alphabet (or characters) by hand or typing your language on a computer.
Once you’ve learned the writing system of your target language, you can start to write to practice your language skills. The simplest way to practice writing is to pick a topic you like and put your pen to the page (or your fingers to the keyboard!). You could also try keeping a journal, finding a pen pal (websites like InterPals, PenPal World, or Lang-8 are great places to find a pen pal), or starting a blog about your language learning process. Because writing is a slower-paced activity, you can take the time to find the words you want to use to express yourself. And if you can’t find those words, you can use an online dictionary like Reverso to fill in the gaps!
Learning how to edit what you have written is another important part of learning how to write in your target language. Try asking a native-speaking friend to make sure what you’ve written is accurate, or simply use an online spelling and grammar checker. Once you get feedback on your writing, it’s important to both apply it and understand it. Ask yourself, “Why was what I wrote corrected?” and “How can I make sure I remember to write it this way next time?” For more, check out our post on tips, tools, and resources on writing in a foreign language.
You’ll also need to develop your listening skills to use your target language in the real world. But becoming a skilled listener can be a challenge, especially if you are just starting out. You might have trouble picking out words, and feel that what you’re hearing is so fast that it goes in one ear and comes out the other. The best way to overcome these problems is to become familiar with the sounds of your target language so that you can recognize words and phrases. But that’s not all it takes to become a skilled listener. You’ll also need to quickly understand how the words you hear relate to each other and to what has already been said.
There are many activities you can do on your own to develop your listening ability. For instance, listening while reading is a great way to learn the pronunciation of words you can recognize by sight. You can also try listening to your favorite podcast while reading a transcript, or watching your favorite TV series with the subtitles on (in your first language at first, but eventually in your target language!). You may also find it helpful to concentrate on getting the bigger picture of what you’re listening to instead of focusing on understanding each individual word. This way, you can practice filling in what you haven’t understood by using what you have understood. If you are interested in learning more, check out some other techniques you can try to improve your foreign language listening skills.
Learning to speak in a clear and natural way is important to focus on, especially if you want to have conversations in your second language. Fluent speakers are able to apply their knowledge of language structure – so vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation – in their daily lives. This takes time and practice, so you should try to speak in your target language whenever you have the chance. The most straightforward way to access speaking opportunities is to immerse yourself in a country that speaks your target language. But there are plenty of ways to practice speaking in your home country as well. For example, you can grab a coffee with a friend who speaks your target language, or set up regular video chats. Don’t have any friends who speak your target language? No problem! Try setting up a language exchange using a website that helps find people in your area looking for conversation buddies. Having trouble finding anyone to talk with in your target language? You can still practice speaking by talking out loud alone or imitating what you hear while watching your favorite TV series. This can help you get a feel for what kinds of mouth movements you need to speak the language. Be sure to check out our tips on other unique ways to practice speaking in a foreign language.
One good way to accelerate your speaking progress is to practice using memorized phrases (e.g., “Can you please repeat that?”, “Where is the bathroom?) Just open any phrasebook, choose an expression, and say it to yourself over and over again. Then, when you’re out in the real world, try using what you’ve practiced and see how people react. Even if you get it wrong, the feedback you receive could help you know where and how to improve in the future. But since you can’t learn how to speak from a phrasebook alone, you should definitely keep an eye out for any phrases that you hear over and over again in conversation. Make sure you try to memorize these (writing them down helps!) and then experiment with them in your own speech.
If you want to become a really proficient speaker, however, you’ll need to understand when and where it’s appropriate to say certain things. Try observing conversations in different settings (e.g., informal vs. formal) and look out for differences in language use. Ask a native-speaking friend about how to express yourself differently in different settings. Be on the lookout for YouTube channels designed to help explain linguistic and cultural differences! Or better yet, head on over to our post on “11 Unique Ways to Practice Speaking a Foreign Language.”
What is the Best Way for Beginners to Learn a Language?
If your goal is to reach advanced proficiency in a second language, you’ll eventually need to master aspects of language structure and language use. But if you’re just getting ready to embark on this journey, where should you start? Well, a good first step is to learn the most common words and phrases in a language, since these are what you’re most likely to run into. To get you started, try downloading a freely available list of common survival vocabulary curated by language researchers, make some flashcards, and practice on a regular schedule. You can also find some children’s books in your target language and start reading as much as you can. Remember: Reading is a great way to learn new words! Apart from vocabulary, you should also start learning the basics of grammar. Find a textbook, take a language course, or better yet, check out the Mango app, which introduces you to the language you need to have authentic conversations in over 70 languages bit-by-bit. Speaking and writing are other great ways to practice grammar, even if you are still just getting your feet wet. Just remember to keep it simple to start with: Try memorizing some basic conversational routines (like greetings and farewells) or writing simple messages to your friends in your target language. And to practice listening, try watching your favorite TV series or movies in your target language with subtitles in your first language.
One last tip if you’re just starting out: Don’t worry too much about making mistakes. Instead, keep your head up and remember that there are opportunities for learning every time you use your target language, including when you make mistakes! So get out and start studying!
Now that we’ve taken you through some of the best ways for beginners to learn a language, let’s talk about some burning questions learners often have about second languages. In this section, we’ll give you the short answer to each question, and direct you toward some resources that can help you plan your language-learning adventure.
What are the Stages of Learning a Second Language?
In broad terms, second language learning involves three different stages of proficiency: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Language educators often use frameworks from CEFR and ACTFL to tell learners at different stages apart. These frameworks describe what language users can or cannot do in a language at each stage of achievement. Generally speaking, learners at the beginner stage can understand the basics of a language and communicate using simple words and memorized phrases, but may not be able to use language independently. Learners at the intermediate stage can generally understand and produce enough language for everyday language needs, but may not be able to handle complex topics and situations. Learners at the advanced stage should be able to understand nearly everything that they read or hear, and should be able to discuss complex topics with ease.
It’s important to keep in mind that these are just broad descriptions of the different stages of second language learning. Make sure you check out our article on this topic to read more about the standards used to determine language proficiency!
How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language?
How long it takes to learn a second language depends on a number of different factors, including what language you are learning, what methods you use to learn it, and how you measure language fluency. For the easiest languages (those similar to your native tongue), with intensive study, it takes 24 weeks to reach professional working proficiency. (With Mango languages, it can take as little as 8 hours to go up one ACTFL proficiency step!). Harder languages (e.g., Mandarin for native English speakers) may require between one and two years to reach the same level. Keep in mind that these estimates are based on high-achieving, highly motivated adults who are able to dedicate a lot of time to studying — in other circumstances, language learning can take several years, decades, or even a lifetime. Interested in learning more? Mango’s got you covered! Take a look at our article, “How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?”.
What are the Factors that Affect Language Learning?
There are many factors that affect language learning, including:
These factors can affect not only how quickly you can learn a second language, but also how proficient you can become in the long run. Other factors which have been shown to affect language learning include your level of motivation and how good your brain is at processing information. Are you interested in learning more about why these factors can matter for language learning? Wondering how you can get these factors on your side? Check out our article on the factors that influence language learning!
What are the Myths about Learning a Language?
As a language learner, you’ve probably encountered quite a few myths about language learning such as, “it’s always costly to learn a language” and “you need to have a great memory to learn a foreign language.” Once you understand the truth behind many prevalent myths about language learning, you’ll have a better sense of how language learning really works. This will allow you to focus your energy on learning your target language in the most productive way possible. Are you asking yourself what other myths might be out there? Head over to our page on the myths of learning a new language to find out!
What are the Best Sources and Tools to Learn a Language?
There’s no one tool or source of language knowledge that’s going to be perfect for everyone. But let’s talk about some of the most common sources and tools people use to learn a language. We’ll talk a little about the pros and cons of each method, so you can get a better idea of what might work best for you.
Can You Learn a Language from a Course?
You can definitely learn a language from a course. Are you a person who needs a little extra motivation to keep to regular practice schedules? Do you learn best in a social setting? Then a language course might be the right choice for you.
A language course can take different forms:
There are many benefits to studying a language with a course. For example:
Some drawbacks to language courses are:
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you are thinking about signing up for a language learning course:
Can You Learn a Language Online?
Yes, you can learn a language online. There are lots of resources online that can help you learn a language on the internet. It is very possible to become an excellent speaker of a new language without ever needing to leave the house. We’ve already mentioned online language courses above. Some other helpful resources you can find online include:
Here’s one quick tip for finding the best online language learning resources: Rather than searching for broad terms like “Learn French” try searching for specific resources like “French-English Dictionary,” “Practice French pronunciation,” or “Forming the past tense in French.”
Can You Learn a Language from an App?
An app can be a great way to learn a language. Like other learning methods, apps have advantages and disadvantages. Some advantages of learning a language through an app include:
Some disadvantages of learning a language through an app include:
Even though an app can be a great replacement for a language textbook, the best way to learn with an app is to complement it with real-life practice.
Can You Learn a Language on Your Own?
The short answer to this question is, yes, you can definitely learn a language on your own! The long answer is that some skills are easy to learn on your own, while others are more easily learned from a teacher or a native speaker. Apps and online learning tools are great for learning on your own because they can help organize your learning. You can also work through a textbook or a workbook on your own to work on your language skills. And of course, you can learn a language on your own by consuming written or spoken media in your target language.
The one thing that’s hard to do on your own is practicing speaking, or having conversations. For this, you’ll need to find someone to talk to, be it a classmate in a language course or a live tutor. Nevertheless, there are some things you can do on your own that will help you practice speaking naturally:
When you play back your recordings, pay attention to any sounds, words, or grammatical structures that interrupt the flow of your speech. These techniques will help you smooth out your speech for when you’re ready to use your language out in the real world!
What are the Best Practices of Learning a Language?
There are a number of best practices you can follow to optimize your language learning experience. Some of the best practices we recommend include:
Learning a language is more than just reading a book about the language and memorizing some facts! It’s going to take some practice and you’ll probably have to push through some embarrassment in the early stages, but it’s worth it in the end. Interested in learning more about the best practices for learning new languages in general? Have a look at our articles on the most effective language learning strategies!
What are the Most Popular Languages to Learn?
English is the by far most popular language to learn in the world. More than 2 billion people speak English worldwide, and less than a third of those are native speakers. This means that over a billion people speak English as a second (or third, fourth, or fifth) language!
The next most common languages people learn (with the number of second language speakers, according to Ethnologue) are:
If we’re just talking about what people from the United States tend to learn, though, the list of most-learned languages doesn’t quite look the same. In the United States, the languages people tend to learn (with the number of college enrollments in parentheses) are:
That’s a pretty big difference! People in different parts of the world have different reasons for choosing to study different languages. Want to learn more about how to choose the language you want to study? Check out our article on the best foreign languages to learn. Still not sure which language is right for you? Take our quiz on what language you should learn to help you pick something and start your language learning journey!
What are the Easiest Languages to Learn?
The easiest languages to learn are those which are similar to your native language. These languages will generally be the easiest to learn because they contain vocabulary, grammar rules, pronunciation, and/or writing systems that you already know. For English speakers, the easiest languages to learn are:
For a larger list of languages, and more information on why these languages might be easier for you to learn as an English speaker, be sure to read our article, “The Easiest Languages to Learn.”
What are the Hardest Languages to Learn?
The hardest languages to learn are those which are very different from your native language. A language can be harder to learn if it contains unfamiliar vocabulary, grammar rules, pronunciation, and/or writing systems. For example, native English speakers might have difficulty learning:
There are also languages that could be very hard because they belong to an entirely different language family. Some languages that are very hard for English speakers to learn include:
Although these languages can be a bit trickier to learn, they could also expand your language learning skills in ways that will help you learn other languages more quickly in the future! What’s more, because they are more difficult, they may also be in higher demand (think: jobs in the US government). Thus, studying these languages could be a benefit to your future career!
If you’re interested in learning more about what makes a language hard to learn or which languages are hardest for English speakers, check out our article, “What are the Hardest Languages to Learn?”
So there you have it! We hope that this guide has been helpful for your exciting journey towards language fluency. And we hope that you make Mango a part of your language learning experience. Be sure to check out the pages we’ve linked in this article if you are curious to learn more about a particular topic. Thanks and so long for now! Au revoir! Chào nhé! Aloha!