How much time do you spend preparing to learn a new language?

Once you decide which language you’re going after, how much planning do you do?

Odds are, not enough.

In this article we’ll discuss the mindset you’ll need to adopt before you even consider grammar or vocabulary.

Learning a second language is a marathon, not a sprint. Training for a marathon takes approximately 20 weeks/4 months, and learning a language is not so different.

With the right preparation, the proper support network and a solid training routine, acquiring a second language is entirely possible.

So, what’s the best way to prepare?

It begins in the mind

Before you invest in a course, phrasebook, app or tutor, you need to ask yourself some questions:

  • Why do I want to learn XXX?
  • How will I measure my success?
  • Am I learning for fun, to improve my career or another reason?
  • How much do I want this?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.

The first one is very important. Why do you want to learn it?

Let’s use Portuguese as an example. I’m just about to start my second 90-day language challenge using Fluent In 3 Months.

This is my second time studying Portuguese. Does this mean the system doesn’t work? Not at all. It means I was lazy and didn’t follow through after completing it. I discuss my laziness in this post.

I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for the challenge. Hindsight has a beautiful way of revealing our flaws.

This time is different. This time I’ve had time to reflect, prepare and lay some solid foundations.

Why do I want to study a new language?

There are countless reasons why you may want to learn a second language:

  • New hobby
  • Upcoming holiday
  • Increase your job prospects
  • Communicate with new friends
  • Keep your mind active

I’ll be exploring all the benefits of learning a foreign language in a later post, but for now, let’s stick with your preparation.

They’re just a small sample of the reasons you could have, but they all require different preparation.

If you’re learning just for fun, for a new hobby, there’s no urgency. There are no looming deadlines so motivation becomes an issue. You have all the time in the world, so you get to choose exactly where you’ll begin.

Learning for an upcoming trip means there’s a deadline. There’s also a specific purpose, which should influence what content you’ll study.

Learning for a new job will require subject-specific language, which would be completely different from the vocabulary you’d need if you just wanted to chat with new friends.

How will you measure your language learning success?

If you’re studying to pass a language exam, that’s an easy one. Otherwise, it gets a little tricky.

If you’re using a language learning app (I compare some of the best in this article), you’ll earn XP or points every time you study. This is an easy way to track your progress, although XP doesn’t always transfer to the real world.

I earned thousands of Duolingo XP for Spanish, yet when I landed in Venezuela I couldn’t understand a word! My brain was full of phrases about cats, dogs and milk, but I couldn’t hold a 30 second conversation.

I hadn’t prepared properly.

I knew I was going to meet new friends, go to parties, travel around and play some music. That’s where I should have focused my learning.

If I’d studied with that in mind, learning words and phrases useful in those situations, then I could measure my progress by the length of conversations I had, the friends I made and the trouble I got myself into.

In that situation, Duolingo XP was más flojo que la mierda e’ pato.

If your goal is to speak another language then you’ll need to get in the mindset of logging every minute you speak.

Create a system to log the minutes and hours, whether it’s speaking with a tutor on iTalki, a Skype call or talking with friends. Have a system in place, keep it handy and stick to it. Use it as both a carrot and a stick during your language journey.

The more organised you can get before you start, the easier the process will be.

Is it really worth it?

You’re going to ask yourself this question a thousand times. Keep this question at the front of your mind when you’re preparing to learn a new language.

You’ll need to set up systems and safety nets for when times get hard.

You might hit a plateau where you feel you’re making no progress and you’ll never succeed. You might simply get bored and start chasing the next shiny object. Life might get in the way.

Whenever something like this happens, you need a solid ‘Why’.

You’ll want to remind yourself exactly why you started in the first place. What initially lit the spark?

For me, I want to communicate with my girlfriend in her first language. I want to tell jokes, chat with her family and sing Brazilian songs.

For me, that’s a strong ‘Why’. That’s always at the front of my mind.

When I get bored, tired or lazy, that’s going to keep me pushing through.

Before you start studying, find your ‘Why’ and cement it in the front of your mind. Write it down, stick it on the wall and your desk. Put it on a sticky note on the front screen of your phone and computer.

Remind yourself of it daily.

This is different from why you want to study. That’s your purpose and goal, but this second ‘Why’ is the motivation. It’s the determination which will keep you powering through the hard times.

And believe me, you’ll need determination.


Before investing any time in your chosen language, spend a day or a week focusing your mindset.

This will be your foundation.

When you’re preparing to learn a new language, having this grounding and unshakeable mindset will make everything that comes after so much easier.

There will times when you’ll want to take the easy way out and quit. Understanding why you’re learning, your motivation and the end goal will help keep those negative feelings at bay.

Couple that mindset with a consistent way to track your progress. They’ll help to reinforce each other and it’ll snowball.

In the next article I’ll discuss what programs, courses and apps I’ll be using.

If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below.

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