How to learn a new language without a teacher

With the range of tools freely available online and in the real world, learning a language by yourself is now easier than ever. 

Learning a language without a teacher means that you take complete responsibility for what you are learning and how you are learning it. This process is much more personal than, for example, lessons at school or group language classes as it is based on your needs and interests. 

You may be eager to jump straight in and enthusiastically work through a course book you picked up or simply to watch your favorite shows dubbed into your target language and let the sound wash over you. However, read through our suggestions on how to support your language-learning journey before you begin to help set yourself up for success. 

Understanding your motivations 

Your starting point should be to think about yourself and how you learn. A key question to ask yourself is Why are you doing this? Are you learning a language as a necessary part of your school or work life? Perhaps you need to reach a certain level for immigration purposes? Or is it something purely for your own interest? Whatever your reasons for studying, keep your end goal in mind to help with motivation – be it passing an exam, getting a promotion, or being able to achieve a certain goal in your target language. 

Setting SMART goals

Learning a language is a mammoth task, one that can appear daunting and off-putting. However, by setting SMART goals you’ll be better able to direct your focus and monitor your progress.  

SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound

When applied to language learning it means that rather than having a vague, undefined goal such as learn German, you should aim for something more concrete. For a beginner, a SMART goal could be being able to say your name/birthdate/hometown/hobbies within two weeks. A SMART goal for more advanced learners might be to post a comment online under a YouTube film review clip in your target language and respond to another three times a month. 

Setting and sticking to your SMART goals will help keep your language learning on track.

Developing your skills

Hey, Siri … 

Practicing your speaking skills can be difficult if you are studying alone. Of course, you can have conversations with yourself but there’s no way of knowing how well you’re pronouncing words. To test your pronunciation skills, use the voice typing function on your word processor or speak to an online translator, like Google translate, and see how well the software understands what you’re saying. Whatever device or application you are using, make sure you have switched the settings to your target language!  

Netflix and … listen closely 

Whichever platform you use to stream your favorite shows, having it on in the background and letting the sound or text wash over you unfortunately won’t do much to help you reach your goals. Instead, you need to challenge yourself to be an active listener or an active subtitle reader. 

As you’re watching your show, think about alternative wording or phrasing that could have been used. If you were part of the conversation with a character, ask yourself how you would respond in the target language. If you don’t quite catch what was said, skip back and rewatch that scene. 

If you are using subtitles, be aware that the words displayed on the screen may not always match exactly what is being spoken. Be especially aware of the auto-generated subtitles on YouTube – the quality of the text varies depending on the speed and clarity of the speaker. 

Linguistic Landscape

If you are lucky enough to live where your target language is spoken, pay attention to the various advertisements, signs, and notices that you pass by as you go to the supermarket or on your daily commute. It’s a good idea to understand your environment for many practical reasons, but also to notice word choice and sentence structures. If you don’t want to go outside, or live in a different country, an alternative option is to simulate the experience by taking a walk with Google Street View or other similar applications. 

YouTube explainers 

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, there are likely to be language points that you need help understanding. One solution is to find help on YouTube, simply search for the particular language point that’s causing you grief and you’re likely to find several professional language teachers or linguists that are able to explain. For example, if you need some German pronunciation advice check out Learn German with Anja. Or, if you want to expand your phrasing in Spanish, check out Butterfly Spanish.


There is no shortage of apps available to help you pick up a new language, however, few have the flexibility and personalization available with DuoCards. DuoCards will help you learn and remember new words in context through its libraries of flashcards, video clips, and articles. Furthermore, you can also save your own words using your phone or through the Chrome extension. 

It is absolutely possible to improve your foreign language skills as an independent learner regardless of your ability level so long as you’re able to stick to your goals, remember why you are doing this, and take advantage of available resources. It also helps to make use of a good language-learning app to discover and store new vocabulary. 

And finally, the best way to learn a language is to do a little every day.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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