How To Learn A Language Without Buying Any Products

Judging by the number of page views and retweets I've had, this year's exciting new plan for language-learning has got a lot of people interested! However, judging by many of the comments and emails I've received, I haven't done a good enough job of explaining my intentions and my purpose. I will try to clear that up today.

Challenging assumptions

The first, most important aspect of this year's new strategy is that it challenges the popular assumptions. I think today's assumptions are mostly based on a capitalist society, and that they have very little to do with how actual learning takes place.

When faced with the task of learning a language, most people begin in a book store. Perhaps you start with a phrasebook, or maybe you jump right into a 40-lesson self-guided instruction book with an accompanying CD pasted to the back page.

There are a lot of common thoughts on this: "you need something with audio included", or "it needs to be conversation-based", or "it should explain the grammar clearly", etc. But nobody ever questions the need for the product. We all just quietly assume and accept that buying a language-learning product is a benefit.

It's common sense, right? How could that product possibly be a bad thing? But if you're truly honest with yourself, you can see that it could be a bad thing! It might, or it might not. Anything can be bad! We shouldn't just assume all products are helpful.

So this year, I'm going to attempt to turn language learning on its head, by not just learning a language in one year, but by doing it in one year without any of those products.


I want to be very clear about the fact that my goal is, first and foremost, to learn to speak Turkish. I fully intend to be a fluent speaker of Turkish in December, just as I was with Italian last year.

Therefore, when discussing the "rules", it is important to remember that this isn't some "game", and these rules were not constructed for the purpose of making this more interesting or more challenging for me — my goal is not failure!

The point of this experiment is to turn the assumptions of language-learning upside down, and to prove to you that you don't need all those things you buy, and they might even be holding you back. All you really need is a desire to learn, some curiosity, and some practice.

So, the rules are as follows:

I will not purchase any product designed or marketed to teach language. In other words, no Living Language, no Teach Yourself, no Colloquial, no Pimsleur, no Learn in Your Car, no Michael Thomas, no Berlitz, no Rosetta Stone, no Fluenz, no For Dummies.

I will not use any online products designed or marketed for the purpose of teaching language. No Busuu, no LiveMocha, no LingQ, no Mango, no Foreign Service Institute. On this point I want to be clear, however, that I will use Lang-8, which is not a product designed or marketed for the purpose of teaching me language, but rather as a way for me to practice using the language.

Also, regarding human interaction, I will not use any instructors or tutors. No classes. No teachers. No tutors. If someone corrects a mistake, good. That's what friends do! But I will not be hiring, bartering for, or accepting for free, any formal language instruction.

This is, of course, all an extension of a theme from last year, I will not be studying or using any "tools" intended to assist the study of language. No flashcards, no word lists, no grammar books, no Anki, no Byki, no SRS, no "Post-it" notes all over the house.

There's still plenty left on the table. I will be using Google, including Google Translate. I will be using dictionaries, including WordReference.


You may think this experiment sounds difficult, challenging, even crazy. But I think it's going to give me an advantage! Yes, you read that correctly. I actually believe that spending a year learning to speak Turkish without all of these things is going to make me a better speaker!

When you study, you fill your short-term memory with facts. You can remember, use, and recall those things for a short time but eventually they slip out of your mind. An emotional trigger is required in order for your brain to move short-term information into long-term memory... and for most people the only emotional trigger they know is boring, tedious study! You study until the point where frustration triggers that memory and now you've learned the material, but it will always be colored by this negativity!

By learning without study, I am left only with the using the language to learn it. And when you use it, you provide more opportunity to connect with it emotionally. When I see something scary, hear something sad, read something funny, I will make emotional connections with those words and I believe I will learn them faster, and remember them better, than I ever did with any study or learning materials.

Moreover, I expect to spend as close to nothing as possible on the task of learning Turkish this year. Every penny I save from the process of learning the language is another penny I can spend next year on the process of using the language while I travel!

And finally, it bears repeating, that I expect this to be successful, and to prove to everyone how much of a waste of time and money current language-learning products and programs are.

Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Hey man, I think this is an admirable challenge. And, I cannot wait to read about it here. Best of luck as you begin this new challenge!

  • Thanks a lot!

  • Interesting. I predict this will be a powerful demonstration of two things.(1)The superfluousness of so many teaching tools. Some may be better than others, but none of them are really necessary to learn. Hand-in-hand with that, (1.5) we'll see the power of a learner who's willing to take full responsibility for his/her learning. If by December you don't speak Turkish, you can't whine about how useless X tool is. You're to blame if you fail, and you'll get all the praise if you make it.(2) The power of the internet. Google can bring you fresh content in almost any language, in the form of videos, audio, and text. Online you're connected to virtually anyone (and everyone) on Earth. Those connections allow for communication, and communication is the whole purpose of language in the first place. So you will indeed be learning rather than studying, because every part of your learning process with be centered around the language in real use.I look forward to seeing how this plays out.

  • That's definitely an interesting thought. I'll keep it in mind over the course of this year, and update on my observations!

  • Started using Lang-8 today, wrote a passage in Chinese corrected an English passage and already two people had corrected my text. That was my first 10 minutes of use. Fantastic site.I'm looking forward to see how you get on with this, good luck!

  • Hope you don't mind, I don't often post links to my own posts but I think this one is relevant to my view on whether you need a teacher/class: http://chris-thai-student.b...I am of the opinion that that anyone who even goes so far as to slow down their speech a little or use slightly simpler language is a kind of teacher (and I am grateful to them all) but only in the same way that your parents did when you were child. So big difference from a "professional" teacher.Hmmm I am a bit chatty today, I think it is just work avoidance.

  • Actually I am trying to do something similar - although I don't feel ready yet to go the same path as you. I've started with a couple of audiobooks and am currently working through them with a special language learning technique. I can see why you are doing this and am definitely curious to see how you progress.Maybe I can add that I do think that language learning material is actually useful, but not equally useful to everyone alike. I for one do not gain anything from using "traditional" language learning material, as is often used in classes. I do a lot better with Assimil or such, but only to a certain degree. After all, the goal in language learning is to be capable of understanding and speaking/reading a language. At some point you have to let go of all materials and just go out and actually use what you have learned, and I think that many people forget that. I see language learning courses or materials like crutches - once your leg is fine, you don't need those anymore.Good luck!

  • Couldn't agree more, I use Lang-8 everyday, and it is of the most useful resources I've found on the Internet for language learning

  • I think your year of Turkish will be one more chapter in helping re-shape the beliefs of language learners everywhere. This is important as we need to help everyday people understand that they not only do they need to step out from behind the teacher driven mindset and into the self directed language learner mindset, but also that it is possible. It's a whole lot more rewarding and fun - but most people just don't know it yet. Empower us!

  • I'll do my best! Thanks!

  • You're never "ready". You just have to make the decision to do it.Sure, many materials can be "useful", but they don't lead to fluency.

  • Hahaha. No problem. Who wants to work, anyway?

  • Yeah, Lang-8 is a must-have tool. Thanks!

  • Language *USE*, not language learning. :)

  • Good luck with this experiment. I'll be watching it quite closely. And I'm expecting some great results from you so don't let me down! :-)Seriously, though, regardless of the outcome I think it's worthwhile trying this. If you don't try to expand your horizons, you don't grow.And don't let the naysayers (and I'm sure there are more than a couple of them) get to you.

  • I've spent my live proving naysayers wrong. If they stopped telling my I can't do things, I might stop doing them!

  • No learning products: it is a real Quest with dragons and evil magicians!
    I bought a Chinese guide: more than 2000 basic characters with writing strokes order, pinyin, main meanings and some combination of them (and no more, no grammar, no "vocabulary" or useful sentences). I need it because I can't sit always in front of my computer using the internet and its resources.
    So, I have a book and I use anki with the Heisig's method in order to familiarize with hanzi (I begun with radicals). I listen to radio and watch tv via browser. I'm collecting songs for my mp3 player. I use online dictionaries and tool like perapera-kun (translation of hanzi while you move your mouse over them).
    I'm using the simpler way...
    I like your method, but it isn't for me, not yet: I'm a beginner in language learning :D

  • I never stop being entertained by the irony of those with little or no experience thinking they know better than those with more experience. :)

  • Cool plan! I never shut up about using people rather than products, but I have to admit I still have a couple of products I use every time. Devotion to products actually caused me a major problem I'll write about next week.Looking forward to seeing what ways you do this! :)

  • Yeah, I'm really excited about this plan. I've got a lot of ideas of how to do it, and I've already tried some and found some success. Updates coming soon!

  • I had a similar sort of idea last year when I noticed all the courses in a shop were only teaching you around 5-10 words in a lesson . The emphasis was mostly on grammar and so it felt like no progress was being made. I could do a whole lot more "constructing my own course".Good luck ! Oh, and is using rhinospike and sbs radio podcast okay for getting pronunciation right?

  • I have been using a very similar method to study a few languages and it works for me! I also make great use of the various versions of Wikipedia as material to glean some of my "lessons" from. (Actually, a bit of a confession on products... I do use online flashcards, but I make them myself.)

  • I'm not sure that this particular method will necessarily give you an "advantage" but I certainly don't think it'll put you at a disadvantage, and I don't doubt for a second that it's a perfectly viable and practical way of learning a language, and I don't doubt for a second that you're going to be fluent in Turkish within a year by doing this, I'm sure it'll work.I would also say this: I think you could get fluent in a language with the following three things quite easily, presuming you've got the necessary motivation and self-discipline:1. A good-sized (300-600 pages), contemporary, interesting novel in the language you want to learn (I'm currently reading the Spanish version of The Bourne Identity, for example--anything like that, Grisham, Crichton, Dean Koontz, Stieg Larsson, etc. Just pick something you like).2. The English (presuming that's your native language) version of the above book that will serve as a superb contextual translation allowing you to learn everything you really need to with regards to vocabulary, grammar, and usage.3. A native speaker to practice with.That's it. You don't even need Google...or a dictionary, lol. Now, that's not to say that the above method is necessarily the best or the most efficient, but I'd be willing to bet money that most people could damned well learn a language to fluency inside of a year with just those 3 things.Again, I think this will be fascinating and very useful and educational to all your readers, and I am looking forward to it.Cheers,

  • The advantage I'm expecting will be in the form of fluency. Anyone can "learn", however they want. But by connecting witht a language, I expect to skip the painful, tedious translating-in-your-head stage.

  • I just recently started using Wikipedia's other language versions. They're not direct translations, but completely different articles, so I do find that interesting. It skips the temptation to do learning by translation.

  • I've never used Rhinospike or SBS Radio podcast, but they seem like things I would allow for myself this year.

  • I love this idea! It seems to be both empowering and practical. I look forward to following along. Best of luck with Turkish! Inspired by your 1-year to-fluency without-travel mantra, I have decided to tackle Arabic starting from square-one this year, in the same fashion. I am excited about this!

  • I believe that the advantages of this method could be multi-fold. First, it will most certainly be economically advantageous, as most language learning products are quite expensive and Google is free. Second, by "creating your own" language usage track, you are making it personal- thus increasing the strength of your emotional attachment to the language (as you mentioned).I've heard it said (and this seems to confirm my experience in learning and using Portuguese while I lived in Brazil for a few years) that the stronger the emotional connection is to the usage of the language, the more native-like you are able to sound.Keep up the great work Randy!

  • Excellent! Good luck!

  • Thanks!

  • I've also heard that the Turkish grammar resembles that of Korean and Japanese. Indeed it seems like a good gateway language. Good luck!

  • cool!

  • I like your ideas!I'm currently studying German, and the only 'tools' I'm using are the sorts of things I would use daily for my own native English (of which I am *extremely* fluent) anyway: a dictionary, a verb-book (don't really use that for English, actually), and some good old fashioned stories! I read a lot of Goethe and I've been purchasing everything of his in a Bilingual Edition if I can find it. After all, it was the reading of fantastical stories when I was younger that drove me to my English fluency - the curious pounding away at the rhythms of the imagination, and constant asking those around me 'what does that mean?' when I stumbled across unfamiliar terms.Apart from that, I do the other thing that really impacts people on an inherent level: I listen to music. A large part of the music in my collection is German - everything from some good ol' Classical or Romantic Opera to modern Death Metal.I say surround yourself with everything you can in that language. Before people even learn to speak, we spend months upon months just *listening* to our parents, and then we're constantly around it!I definitely aim to spend some time in Germany in the future, and until then, I'll stick to my classic literature and music.

  • Thanks for the comments!

  • Interesting!

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