Self-Education 101: How to Teach Yourself Languages and Anything Else!

1280px-thumbnailAs I’ve detailed before, I’m a big fan of self-education of all stripes. I think the world is just a much cooler place if we view it as something to explore and discover. So, whether you’re an academic geek like me, or you just want to learn a practical skill for work or a hobby, it’s valuable to know how to learn things on your own.

Unfortunately, most of us spend our childhoods in school and then move on to more school when we’re older. This isn’t bad– I loved classes!– but the emphasis on classroom education can obscure the freedom we should embrace when we decide to learn things on our own. We become so entrenched in classroom learning methods that we forget that when we learn on our own, we are the ones who are in control. And when we realize that, self-education can really take off.

Here are some suggestions for maximizing self-education in your life. These tips aren’t unique to language learning– you could use them to pick up carpentry, literary criticism, gourmet cooking, whatever you want 🙂

Resources, Resources, Resources!

You need resources to learn anything. It doesn’t make sense to try to learn an entire subject or skill from one book, even if that’s the way ordinary classes try to teach (Khatzumoto gets into this subject in this time management article). With language learning, you’ll want to collect textbooks that look interesting, native reading material, favorite TV shows, and lots and lots of music. Don’t worry about choosing any particular learning method or tool.

Essentially, you can build an “immersion” environment for any skill you want to learn or anything that interests you. It’s best when you can easily switch between resources with very little downtime– that means amassing a lot of resources right at the beginning. You can do this cheaply, too. I abuse second-hand bookstores, Amazon third-party sellers, and online resources. Nevertheless, it’s fun to buy nice, shiny new things every once in a while, and it keeps you motivated!

Last summer, I wanted to teach myself calculus, so I borrowed college textbooks off people and looked up resources like Khan Academy and other video lectures. Unfortunately, I found Khan Academy to be boring, and the textbooks were a little too in-depth for me. I tweaked what I wanted (a conceptual overview of calculus), and eventually ran across a really great books that provided a broad overview of the subject. I combined that book with some MIT lectures from YouTube, and I reached my goal. Right now, I’m toying with the idea of learning to code, but the popular resource, Codecademy, just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve tried it several times and… meh. So, I’m ransacking my brother’s books on various programming languages while I’m at my parents’, and we’ll see where this leads 🙂

Remember that boredom and frustration are the enemy. If anything starts to feel just a little bit tedious, switch materials or take a break. With self-education, you need to remember that you are always the one in control. If you don’t like something, you can change it. You have to change it, because motivation is everything. If you start to resent your fragile, new project, then it’s out the window, because there are no outside forces keeping you focused. This isn’t school– in fact, it’s more fun than school– so don’t treat it like school.

Choose materials that tap into your personality and interests.

Here’s another beautiful thing about self-education– you can tailor your learning to your individuality.

If you’re a couch potato who never liked school, tests, or academics, that’s great! Learn a foreign language through TV, movies, and radio. Learn a new subject by trying out the plethora of online learning games and creative courses that are out there. If you love people, practice your target language by speaking. Check out the huge number of blogs that promote language learning through socialization and conversation. If you want to pick up a non-linguistic skill, try learning through mentorship or with a study group. If you’re a hyper-introvert like me, then feel free to relax with textbooks and the internet.

Schools use curricula designed for a particular kind of student– someone who is capable of performing fine on multiple choice tests and sitting still in a classroom. I was that kind of student, and guess what? That particular learning style is still very limiting. Open up to new kinds of learning and new kinds of experiences. Don’t limit yourself in thinking that “learning” always looks the same from person to person.

Read others’ experiences, and then move on.

Advice is wonderful. In fact, I suppose I’m writing advice right now. When you’re at the beginning of your self-education journey, you need all the advice you can take. Read interviews with famous people in the subject/skill you’re learning. Read blogs and newspaper articles. Read tons of books. And then, slow it down to trickle, because you’re going to have to forge your own path.

As you can tell from my blog posts, I really like the language learning advice from All Japanese All The Time. But as you also might notice, I don’t really use Khatzumoto’s method exactly as it’s prescribed on his site. Khatzumoto promotes heavy immersion, excluding all other languages to the greatest extent possible. SRS is the cornerstone of his method, and he’s not fond of the canned language used in textbooks written for foreigners. I like to immerse, but I also like textbooks. Sometimes I take extended breaks from immersion and only use textbooks. I haven’t seriously used an SRS in quite a while. I adapted the advice from AJATT to fit me and my preferences, and I recommend you do the same with any of your projects. You have to get out there are try stuff. Experiment! And believe me, as someone who likes books, sometimes I wish I could learn everything through reading only.Sadly, this isn’t quite the case (although you can learn a heck of a lot), and eventually, I have to try some stuff out to see if it works.  I spent years reading novel-writing advice online and in books before I finally grabbed a pen and started experimenting with fiction myself.

Make goals and tweak them– decide how much you want to learn.

I think this is where the classroom mentality really trips us up. When I start a project, I often think, “I’m going to learn all of this subject!” That ambition-fueled adrenaline rush feels fantastic at the beginning of a new undertaking.

Turns out, a lot of the time, all I wanted was a taste, an overview, or just some of the basics. However, when I reached the point at which I was no longer interested, I felt guilty for quitting. For not becoming a master at something. This goes for languages, too– oh, the self-flagellation!

Sure, you can start out thinking that you want to master this skill/language/subject, but keep in mind that you’re allowed to change your goals. Dabbling in a lot of things gives you the chance to try something out, and you never know when it’ll be something you want to delve into further.

Back to math, I thought I wanted to emulate a rigorous, university-level calculus course, when it turned out that I was happy just learning about concepts and then moving on. I can always go back to math if I want to know more. With languages, it was so freeing when I figured out the magic of setting three and four month goals (enough to get a good feel for the language) and reevaluating my commitment to the language after that. It’s okay to try something out for fun! Set goals– these keep you motivated, after all– but be ready to change them up when you have more knowledge under your belt in a week or a month.

And don’t feel guilty for letting something go if you decide you want a break or if you’re just no longer interested. After all, we can’t devote our time to every single thing, and sometimes activities need to be dropped. Triage!

What are you learning?

To wrap up my ramble about self-education, learning can be anything you want it to be. Be open-minded about your goals and the tools you’ll use to reach them, and self-education can be an absolute joy.

Leave a comment if you’re currently teaching yourself something! Whether it’s language-related or not, I’m always up for new project ideas for myself.


8 thoughts on “Self-Education 101: How to Teach Yourself Languages and Anything Else!

  1. When I learn something myself, boredom and frustration are not at all my enemy, they are in fact the friends that warn me about something wrong. The “mistake” usually is a subject that was beyond my capabilities at that moment, too many hours studying the same thing, starting to read the wrong book… but thanks to them I can identify those issues and correct my path. Boredom and frustration are to the working brain what pain is to the body, without them we couldn’t survive.

    You then add “you are always the one in control…if you don’t like something…You have to change it,” but if you have to change according to what you like or not you are not in control, your whims and tastes are. You are in control only when “Make goals and decide how much you want to learn”, as you correctly recommend later on.

    Dabbling is certainly a positive thing if you want to discover new things and want to know if they fit with you but it is a very poor companion if you want to learn something yourself. Let’s take Chinese for instance. According to this web ( ) “it takes seven to eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three thousand characters” and this professor in particular says that “At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn’t yet read a single complete novel.”. The situation of Japanese is even worse, Japanese kids only finish the long list of jōyō kanji when they leave High School (do you imagine if you were able to write properly in English only when you are 17 or 18?) It is then impossible to learn those languages without some form of discipline and personal commitment but your article doesn’t cope with those issues in spite of being at the heart of the learning process.

    Wanderlust, like sex, is a primary drive in all of us and they are great. It is OK to say others that it doesn’t make sense to feel guilty if you enjoy both of them because many people out there still may have such kind of negative feelings but if you really want to educate yourself and study something, you’d better forget about it. Curiosity and the joy of learning is to education what sex is to marriage, it is exhilarating and one of the main forces to start everything, probably the main one, but without ulterior commitment, effort, realistic plans and goals… you will only get a few firecrackers for your life


    1. I recommend you check out All Japanese All The Time– this guy learned Japanese to fluency in 18 months through manga and movies. With Japanese and Chinese, I do know that people tend to stick with methods that are more “traditional” and this results in years and years of study without much to show for it. Learning kanji by rote ( like Japanese schoolchildren) might take 10 years, but an adult can learn them in less an a year using Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (a great book– I’ve used it myself to learn the kanji). Heisig’s method uses mnemonic devices to aid memory and it’s incredibly efficient! You can find the introduction by googling the title– I’d give you the link, but I’m on mobile right now.

      I think curiosity and joy are equivalent to love and friendship in marriage. They’re the heart and soul of the whole endeavor, and they keep you going even when through challenges 🙂


      1. To begin with, recommending a guy who says online that he has learnt such and such thing in such and such time is not the best way to become trustworthy. Internet is full of people like him. If you learn through manga and movies you will learn the Japanese of manga and movies, not the Japanese language.

        I checked All Japanese… before you recommended me to do it and if you do it too you will find posts like this one where the only advice he has at hand to learn how to read Japanese newspapers is the most rote and classic I can imagine. If you then for instance check his 10000 sentences post you have basically the same and you will find again a list of rules, as if learning were a recipe or a mathematical algorithm. He says things like

        1. Read it in full, aloud, with kanji.
        2. Know the meaning of every word in the sentence.
        3. Understand the meaning of the entire sentence
        4. Write (copy) out the sentence by hand

        Stage 3 is great, isn’t it? Supposedly, once you know the meaning of every word he then feels the need to tell you to remember that now comes the moment to understand the meaning of the sentence. He told you in the other post that you didn’t need to understand every word of the newspapers because he applied the principle “The sum of your partial knowledges [that guy didn’t know that knowledge is uncountable] will add up to complete knowledge” but if you have to read 10000 sentences then that idea is forgotten and you have to know every single word. Why? It is not explained. Fortunately he is sincere and he says in the “about me” section “I am not telling you that I am going to teach you Japanese. I won’t. I can’t”. He says that he learned Japanese so fast because he was “spending 18-24 hours a day doing something, anything in Japanese”. I would love to do the same but unfortunately I have to sleep 7-8 hours every day. He adds that at the same time he “had a life” (of course, who could have doubts about it?) and his basic idea is this: keep reading, thinking, speaking… in Japanese every single second of your life and, voilá. you will become Japanese. Life is as simple as that and all the academic papers about bilingualism and learning languages when you are an adult can be thrown away, somebody already solved the problem for all of us… Come on, stanzzii, is this your “teacher” of Japanese?

        If you agree with him and learning how to read newspapers is “a problem finite and tractable” (people who think so don’t have a deep grasp of what’s a language) I recommend to you this article ( ) Peter Barakan, a British broadcaster who has spent around 40 years in Japan and learned Japanese the hard way, says “After 35 years in Japan,he still has difficulty understanding newspapers and TV occasionally, but doesn’t blame it on a lack of ability.” He adds “One key to improving language skill, Barakan feels, is daily exposure, in much the way he learned Japanese. Exposure and hard study”. Exposure is what every language learner is recommended since he starts to learn English (Spanish or other languages in USA) in primary school and it is just plain common sense. Even Khatzumoto knows that and he is clearly his most fervent advocate when he recommends to you “giving your life to Japanese every-single-day-24/7/365” while he assures you that everything can be fun. The hard study part is also well known but less welcome by people and they learn it the hard way, through experience.

        As for the “Remembering the kanji” book, I agree with you, it is a very good one and a great help to learn kanji but it also has clear limitations. When you have to learn thousands of kanji, the “sun”, “fire”, “moon”, “house”… and many more mental images it uses they start to mix each other in your brain in a huge mumbo jumbo and if you need to resort to that trick every time you see a kanji, your reading speed will be painfully slow. That book is a great way to start but only repetition and commitment will make you read in Japanese fluently.

        Finally, curiosity and joy are the heart and soul of the whole endeavor, I agree with you (on second thoughts, my comparison with sex was not very good) but without effort and hard work neither marriage nor language learning nor any other thing important in life will go ahead.


  2. Hi again, just a short comment to send you a link with the opinions of an advocate of “Wanderpain” who thinks that we must embrace difficulty and explains why: It is not directly related to the subject you deal with in this post but those ideas provide a better grounding for what I said before. I copy and paste here the main point

    “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other … You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy… The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt [nor learn something without a lot of effort, I would add myself]; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation.”


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