Steps to learn a language from scratch

It’s a secret for no one: learning a language if far from being easy. Even the most experimented polyglot will acknowledge it. This is even more difficult for someone who only speaks their mother language and still can’t speak a first foreign language. Many people follow language classes at school or elsewhere because they will be taken care of. Many students struggle to learn with lessons because it may be difficult to know what to learn at what stage in order to see progress. In order to find a solution to this problem, I propose here a method divided in steps in order to structure your language learning. For each step, I suggest what you should do to learn a language, whichever language, from scratch, in order to understand the language and converse with natives. The time needed to go through all these steps will depend on the person, the language, the experience, … it’s impossible for me to say whether you will be fluent in 3 months or 1 year. Nevertheless, with regular work and by following the guidelines, you should see some progress without without waiting too long and without paying a teacher. Nevertheless, you will need to work on yourself and find the documents, books, listening material and so on, although you can find them for some languages on this blog.


N.B.: this is a global list. I haven’t done it for a specific language ora specific person, although it does follow my own method that I have designed through the years. It may not suit everybody. It nevertheless works (for me anyway)


N.B. 2:  although this list suggests to focus on one skill at a time (only listening, or reading, or speaking, …), all four skills have to be practiced regularly (although I do suggest to practice one more that the others at certain stages). The only golden rule is, in my opinion, to focus on passive skills at the beginning, because they’ll make sure you can do things automatically later on.


  1. Before study grammar and vocab, you need to be okay with the sounds and the alphabet (for languages with a new alphabet or new sounds, such as Mandarin Chinese). Some methods (Assimil or Harrap’s) begin with just that by having us listen and read some basic words
  2. Study basic words (in sentences or alone, with Duolingo for example) and try to find frequency wordlists on the internet with the 500 most frequent words. Don’t hesitate to make lists yourself, with complete sentences if possible, it’s useful to have context
  3. Study the fundamental grammar rules: present first, then past. Look at how these basic tenses are formed. Use them, repeat them, conjugate a certain number of verbs. It’s important to understand how these tenses are formed. For languages such as French, classify the verbs in groups (ar/er/ir) to study the regular formation. Study them on books or websites, or make a Word list. Make sure to use a layout that suits your study method. Don’t forget to study irregular verbs, these are often the same in various languages and are also the most frequent verbs that you’ll soon need. Use apps such as Spanish Verbs or Italian Verbs to have the conjugations of most useful verbs and to see irregularities as well. Some of these verbs will already be in the 500-most-frequent-word list.
  4. Develop your vocab with easy/beginner texts (or videos, podcasts, …). Begin with the easiest materials you can find (Assimil, Pinguin Reader for English, Wablief in Dutch, Lola Lago in Spanish, …). You can also use the “90 lessons in 90 days” book with easy texts + grammar and exercices with rising level. Keep on making vocab lists where you ONLY put the recurrent words that you have seen in CONTEXT (to know how to use it).
  5. Don’t forget grammar rules! Study them little by little, there is no need to swallow it all at once! And don’t worry if you keep forgetting, it’s part of the learning process, it’s normal! Choose what you want to focus on a given moment, some grammar points (subjunctive in Spanish) can wait a bit while others (place of the verb in Dutch, correlatives in Esperanto, question-making in English, …) are already useful at beginner stage.
  6. Keep on watching the easiest videos possible (or videos at your level) with subtitles in the target language if possible (have a look at the Dutchpod101, Frenchpod101, … videos on youtube).Watch these videos several times until you begin to know things by heart. If it’s too fast, slow the speed down with a programme. Make a playlist on your phone with these videos in MP3 files and listen to them while walking, backing, cleaning, in the metro, ….
  7. As your level increases, increase your input. Have a look at some Facebook pages and Youtube channels so that you can have contact with the language on a regular basis. Listen also to the radio, podcasts (Slowgerman for German, Juliana Selem and Julia Jolie for Portuguese, Françaisauthentique for French, Evildea for Espéranto, oneworlditaliano, Learn italian with Lucrezia, sgrammaticando and Alberto Italianoautomatico for Italien, Enzoknol and Dylanhaegens for Dutch, NotesinSpanish for Spanish) (have a look at my articles gathering references!). Keep listening to the same files regularly, it will eventually work and your ears will slowly get accustomed to the sound and the speed. Keep doing that until you can understand a bunch of what’s being said. That’s when you have to focus on speaking skills!
  8. Begin with speaking skills! When you can understand a big part of what you hear, begin to think in the language with easy and short sentences even if you keep using the same words. Some (and I tend to follow this method) begin speaking at the beginning stage of the learning process. It’s a personal choice. It’s up to you to decide what method to use. Beware, listening and reading have to be more important than the active skills, but active skills are, in my important, my less important at this stage.
  9. When you’re ok with the basic tenses, work on the more advanced ones (future, conditional, …)
  10. Keep working with the listening skills and keep adding MP3 podcasts on your playlist. Find podcasts with the right level: not too slow, not too fast and with a clear pronunciation, ideally from a native speaker (as your level increases, you can use videos with a tougher pronunciation). As soon as you notice that you can understand pretty much everything, find something with a higher level!
  11. In the meantime, read stuff at your level. You should understand about 80-90% of what you read to enjoy reading while learning new things. When you’re at 90-95%, find something harder. Read the first couple of paragraph of a book to judge the level.
  12. When the listening skills are very good, let’s dive in the last step: activate speaking skills to never forget it again. To achieve that, use ONLY the target language when you think or talk to yourself (which is what I do). With the right method, you can see big improvements in a couple of days (sometimes more). At this stage, you’ll be able to talk with natives quite easily.