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How to become a self-directed language learner

28 Feb 2012
Cover and ad for the guide

Most people associate language learning with school and a classroom and - above all - with a teacher.

When you're taking a traditional course, the teacher guides you through the language: "Today, we're going to work on the past tense. Next week, there is going to be a test. You need to work on your pronunciation of the th sound."

The student is passive and just along for the ride. This can be both good and bad.

On the positive side, everything is planned for you - you don't need to worry about finding good resources. You also have a great source of advice and feedback.

But on the negative side:

  • The topics might not be connected with your personal needs and interests - it could be boring
  • The course might move too quickly or too slowly
  • There tends to be too much focus on what is easy to test or evaluate, i.e. grammar

And let's face it: some people just don't learn well in classrooms! A few might excel in this environment, but the rest learn better from experience and self-guided exploration.

But how do you get started as a self-directed language learner?

Today I'm going to review The Everyday Language Learner's Guide to Getting Started. It's a cheap ($8) e-book that can guide you from not knowing how to start to being a totally self-sufficient language learner.

(Full disclosure: While I did receive a free copy of the e-book to review, I don't receive any money if you decide to purchase it.)

Read more for the full review!

Aaron Myers

Photo of Aaron Myers

Aaron Myers is the author of The Everyday Language Learner (blog), a number of language learning guides (including the one I am reviewing today), a site to help Turkish speakers learn English, and more.

You may recognize him - he is an avid reader of LinguaTrek and has commented a number of times. I also read his blog and respect Aaron a lot.

We share a lot of the same views on language learning and have emailed from time to time. Last week we talked for 90 minutes on Skype about our experiences with language learning and he told me about this e-book.

Aaron is an American who has been living in Istanbul, Turkey for the last four years with his wife and two children.

About two months before leaving the USA, they took a two-week course on how to learn a language and purchased Rosetta Stone. The entire family set out on the same language learning journey together and they were ultimately successful.

You can find his e-book Sustaining: Your guide to sticking with it for FREE. There's even a Polish translation!

What's in the guide?

The guide itself is 103 pages long and consists of 7 chapters with a long resources section at the end.

You can also buy the guide in audiobook format ($4) or the "first class" version ($20) which includes the audiobook, one of Aaron's other guides (The Guide to Self-Assessment), three audio interviews with other language learners, and a set of 20 audio lessons to expand on the ideas discussed in the guide.

It includes two worksheets. The first will help you identify (1) your ultimate language learning goals, (2) where you are right now, and (3) how to find the resources to get where you want to be. The second worksheet helps you plan your weekly self-directed study.

The guide starts with a description of Aaron's language learning history - which has a lot of parallels to my own! He studied German in school and achieved little. Then he spent many years learning Spanish and reached a decent proficiency level. Finally, after re-evaluating everything when he began learning Turkish, he eventually attained a high level of success with that language.

Aaron then walks you through the basics of how to plan your language learning journey (using the worksheets). He then dives into what he calls the 3 principles for language learning, which can be used to maximize the effectiveness of any method. And finally, he offers some practical tips and examples of actually using those principles.

My review

While I was reading this e-book, I was constantly struck by the similarity between Aaron's views on language learning and my own. I kept thinking to myself, "Yeah, right on!"

Throughout out the text, Aaron makes great use of stories, analogies and drawings to help clearly convey his ideas. I like the step-by-step approach and the use of worksheets. Not to mention the resources section at the end, which covers pretty much every language learning resource I know about on the internet and then some. :-)

If you want to become a self-directed language learner, but your only prior experience was in a classroom environment with the help of a teacher, and you don't know where to start - this guide is perfect for you!

One thing I really love about this e-book is that it isn't for language learning enthusiasts like Aaron and me. We both love learning languages and would do it just because it's fun for us. ;-) But the guide is targeted at normal people who are primarily interested in their individual language learning goals (for travel, getting a job, etc).

From this e-book and our conversation last week, Aaron also introduced me to a concept that was completely new to me: a language helper. A language helper is not a teacher and is not a casual conversation partner. Instead, a language helper is a native speaker who you draw the language from. See this post on Aaron's blog for more information. I might write a full post about this in the future!

I learned a number of great things from this e-book that will definitely contribute to my language learning. And I know you would learn a lot too! Click here to learn more.

Anonymous's picture

Hi David,

Did you read LHG by Benny Lewis (the irishpolyglot) and you can compare Aaron e-book to it? Worst or better for normal learning students? I consider that Benny e-book is not helpful for someone who don't live in target language country in my opinion, is this ebook different?

All the best

David Snopek's picture

Hi Tom!

I haven't read LHG by Benny Lewis (maybe I should ask him for a copy to review!) but this guide is definitely useful for people who don't live in the country.

While there are specific tips, it's mostly more general than that. I gives you the principles to help you pick the best methods for you and to make them more effective. So, you still pick the method which will depend on your situation, ie. are you in your home country or abroad.

I think it's best for people who have only ever learned in a class and haven't ever done any self-study. Which is probably the majority of all people but the minority of people who read my blog, which is kind of ironic. :-)

So, if you already have lots of experience with learning a language on your own, outside of a classroom: most of the information in the e-book won't be that useful for you. But there will definitely be a few new and interesting ideas - there were for me!


Posted by: David Snopek | Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 12:21
Anonymous's picture

Funny thing David. I've just published a post about the Aarons' "Sustaining" ebook - a surprising coincidence!

Posted by: gregloby (not verified) | Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 15:29
David Snopek's picture

Yeah, it is funny! I should have mentioned it when we were talking yesterday on Skype because I had already written the article. :-)

Posted by: David Snopek | Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 16:20
Anonymous's picture

Thanks Greg. I’ve just subscribed to your blog! :)

Posted by: Wojtek (not verified) | Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 03:05
Anonymous's picture

Howdy David!!! Yes you are right;-) I have been at College in Englad ( an ESOL course) for 5 months and there are 10 students in the clasroom. I am an intermediate level, it means I make many mistakes. The problem is which method should I use?? It is not easy to learn, because I admit self-study is most imported ( Maybe I am wrong) Have heard about this Website wrritten be polish people?? I think they are right.

I have no talent to learn English, but I have no choice, because I am in Englad. Let me know about your method.

Kings regards
Radek Peter

Posted by: Peter Pan from never never land (not verified) | Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 16:59
David Snopek's picture

Yes, I have heard of Antimoon! They have some really good materials. They're big on SuperMemo - personally I use Anki, but basically everything they say about SuperMemo can be applied to Anki too.

If you want to learn about the method I used to learn Polish, I recommend this article (in English) and this video (in Polish):

I don't think that talent is necessary to learn a language! Here is an article I wrote about that:

Best of luck in your English learning journey!


Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 07:18
Anonymous's picture

Hi David!

A few days ago I finished ‘The linguist on language’ by Steve Kaufmann. He is an experienced language learner who have learnt 11 languages so far.
Your and others’ method is similar to his.

Have you read it?
And thanks for the review. I’m going to take a peek at it!

Posted by: Wojtek (not verified) | Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 02:58
David Snopek's picture

Yes, I have! I'm big fan of Steve Kaufmann and his blog. Although, I haven't read it in a while. :-/ He kind of tends to write the same thing over and over again. It's good stuff but after a while I slowly stopped reading regularly. I should start again! :-)


Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 07:07
Anonymous's picture

Howdy David!!! Thanks for advise!!! I am going to use your method, because I have no money for a private tutor ;-(. Would you let me know about a dictionary Englisg -English. I am sure I will have to use one. There are many dictionaries ;-) ;-). I would like to pass the Exam of English. Maybe CAE or TOEFL with Harry Potter ;-). I would like to study in the U.K ( part-time). I am 34 and I am looking for a job as teaching assistant in a Primary School. In nearest future I would like to be a teacher like you ;-) ;-. I have to make progress like you.

Another a good Website written by doctor of University Katowice ( propably)But he used to study Phd level

Kings regards

Posted by: Peter Pan from never never land (not verified) | Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 04:28
David Snopek's picture

Hi Peter!

That's fantastic! Please let me know how it goes when you start using the method. :-)

Personally, I don't really use paper dictionaries anymore (although I have large collection of them!). I tend to use online dictionaries because they are faster. For English-English, I really like Merriam-Webster:

But it's primarily American English and might lack some Britishisms.

Thanks for the link, I hadn't heard of that site before!

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | Friday, March 2, 2012 - 09:20
Anonymous's picture

Hello David!!! I will let you know, because self-study is the most imported. How can I learn English if there is 12 people in the clasroom???
I have for another Website ( the same method like you)

Kings regards

Peter Pan

Posted by: Peter Pan (not verified) | Saturday, March 3, 2012 - 07:04
David Snopek's picture

Thanks for the link! I'll check it out. Regards, David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, March 7, 2012 - 07:40
Anonymous's picture

Obserwuję cię od czasu powstawania twoich pierwszych filmików :). Jesteś obecnie dla mnie jedną z kilku osób, które najbardziej motywują mnie do działania. Ściągnęłam ścieżkę dźwiękową z twojego filmiku jak nauczyłeś się polskiego. Wgrałam to na mp3, a teraz przed pójściem spać, albo rano podczas jazdy autobusem, słucham tego nagrania, aby dostawać kopniaka do pracy. :) Bardzo dziękuję ci za to, co dla nas robisz. Od dziś również czytam twoje artykułu po angielsku, uwielbiam naukę w ten sposób. Proszę, dodawaj ich jak najwięcej! Przydałyby się też jakieś ciekawostki językowe. Pozdrawiam i oby nie zabrakło ci tej energii, którą tryskasz! Polakom przydałoby się takie podejście do życia.

Posted by: Ewa (not verified) | Saturday, March 3, 2012 - 16:00
David Snopek's picture

Dziękuję bardzo za przemiłe słowa - to wiele dla mnie znaczy. :-) Bardzo się cieszę, że mogę Ci pomóc. Pozdrawiam serdecznie, David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, March 7, 2012 - 07:41
Anonymous's picture

Czy znasz może jakieś linki, gdzie mogłabym czytać książki bezpośrednio na stronie? (nie pdf) Korzystam z usługi w stylu biblobirda na innym portalu. Mam Pottera w formie papierowej, ale chciałabym dodawać słówka od razu na komputerze.

Posted by: Ewa (not verified) | Saturday, March 3, 2012 - 16:15
David Snopek's picture

Jeśli kupujesz książki w internecie, to będzie PDF. Ale są darmowe (i zwykle bardzo stare) książki na stronie Project Gutenburg:

Mam nadzieję, że to pomoże!

Pozdrawiam serdecznie,

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, March 7, 2012 - 07:43
Anonymous's picture

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Anonymous's picture

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