This post is the first in a series of articles on learning foreign languages. It focuses on mastering the principles behind successful language learning. For the article that provides specific details into becoming fluent in speaking and writing (the output half) in a foreign language, see ‘Language Learning: How To Speak And Write Fluently‘. For the article on becoming accomplished in reading and listening (the input half), see ‘Foreign Language Learning: How To Listen And Read With Fluency‘. For advice on how to get the most out of immersion and learning overseas see ‘Learning A Language Abroad: How To Use Immersion To Achieve Fluency‘. For the article on using language to develop understanding of a culture and vice versa, see ‘How To Better Your Foreign Language Ability Through The Language And Culture Relationship‘.


If you’re reading this, you understand the most dominant lingua franca there has ever been and likely ever will be: English. In the last century, English reached a point at which it’s spread to become the most useful language in the world became inevitable. Among other linguistic conquests, English is the de facto language of the internet – English content takes up the largest portion of the web and markup script for code is based on English.

So when you travel or move abroad, you can settle with the comfort of knowing whoever you speak to will reply to you in English without needing to worry about their language, right? Wrong. This article will show why learning languages is always be valuable no matter the continued expansion of English across the globe. It will also provide advice on how to make your own language learning journey successful.

There is no universal language, not even English

There’s no denying that English is the world’s most important language.

Approximately 1.5 billion people speak it and there are far more people who speak it as a second language – estimated to be 1+ billion people. These numbers strengthen the network effects of English creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop of a size that other languages don’t have. The more people that learn English, the more others want to learn it to be able to communicate with those people and so on. Native English speaking countries no longer have to promote more English usage worldwide because the billion plus second language speakers of English spread it for them.

This means that if you’re a non-native speaker of English and you want to sharpen your ability with the language, you’re doing the right thing by advancing your English skills. From a global perspective, English affords you more opportunities than any other language can and honing it is always time well spent.

Yet despite its dominance, English isn’t the common tongue of the world. It’s not clear that there ever will be a universal language as some speculate.

At the time of writing, the world’s population is close to 8 billion people meaning less than 20% of the world speak and/or are learning English. The 1+ billion second language speakers includes learners so not everyone speaks it with high proficiency. English may well be the language of travel but even if the number and skill of speakers increases, the likelihood is that in countries that don’t use it as a native language, a vast array of opportunities, insights and connections will be missed from not knowing the local language to some degree.

As the numbers show, you can’t depend on everyone converging upon a second language in the country you’ve travelled or moved to. In some countries, English proficiency is high among the general population but these are a minority. In most countries, proficiency tends to be high for those who work in certain industries such as tourism but the majority of the population has mixed skill or little to no use of the language at all.

Avoid ‘language chauvinism’

There’s an interesting phenomenon occurring where those from non-English speaking countries, particularly those of working age and younger, feel an obligation to improve their English. As discussed, this motivation is useful since learning English will always be beneficial. However, the looming pull to learn English worldwide has resulted in a ‘language chauvinism’ among native English speakers.

Most native English speakers have encountered foreigners in their own country who have no choice but to improve their English. They’ll have seen the international influence of English language media such as films, series and music. They’ll have interacted with hotel staff and tour guides on holiday whose English seems impeccable.

These observations lead to an assumption that knowing only English is fine regardless of where one lives in the world. The danger is that complacency sets in for native English speakers resulting in a close-mindedness towards learning languages.

Language classes in school become perfunctory with students going through the motions to get grades rather than developing proper speaking proficiency. Phrasebooks for travel become increasingly ignored and any words picked up on trips are forgotten. Holidaymakers return from trips grumbling at the ‘surprising’ lack of English in the country they visited oblivious to the fact that the locals never had an obligation to know English in the first place.

If you’re a native English speaker like me, it’s presumptive to assume that the people from another country should have a certain level of English because other nations have managed to attain it. If you’re visiting another country, you shouldn’t lament a lack of English ability among the locals there as you’re in their country and so will have to adapt to their way of life and not the other way around.

We forget that so many people’s lifestyles haven’t compelled them to learn English and that their language classes in school may have been as grade-oriented and perfunctory as our own. As a former teacher of English as a Foreign Language living abroad, I inevitably met students who bemoaned their English ability. I reminded them that despite their client-status, I should feel more pressure to learn their language since I was living in their country.

Adapting to a new location is the single most important skill you can have as a traveller or emigrant. Expecting a place and its culture to bend to your whims is a sure-fire way towards dissatisfaction with where you’re living.

If it’s clear that a language barrier would hinder your lifestyle goals in a country you’ve moved to, your best bet is to learn the local language. For those who truly wish to integrate into new cultures, learning languages isn’t just desirable, it’s a necessity.

The (many) benefits of learning languages

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart”. — Nelson Mandela

You don’t need to have read anything on language learning before to know that the greatest benefit it provides is better communication with people who you’d otherwise have a language barrier with which grants you more social and networking opportunities. What’s less known, particularly among native English speakers, are the multiple other benefits that come from learning languages.

Bilingualism has been shown to confer a surplus of cognitive benefits. Learning another language improves memory, problem-solving skills and enhances creative-thinking capacity. Studies also show that speaking more than one language can stave off mental aging and significantly delay the onset of brain disorders such as dementia.

Learning languages to reasonable proficiency also does wonders for your strength of character and confidence.

Unfortunately, most people who begin learning languages as adults abandon their learning before reaching an intermediate level. However, most of these learners don’t live in the country of their target language and so don’t have the benefit of assimilating the language via immersion like those who move abroad or travel.

Therefore, if you persist in your learning, experience immersion of the target language, and study in a way that is tailored to your personality, you are bound to gain proficiency.

As with other challenging skill sets, enjoying the process and reaching proficiency provide considerable self-belief in your ability to get things done.

You’re also more likely to thrive in social situations because a large part of language learning is consistent interaction with fluent speakers of the language. Making mistakes when practicing is inevitable but successful language learners realise early that making mistakes in front of others is not the end of the world but a chance to cultivate the way they express themselves. Such learners develop a sense of ease with how they interact with others.

Then there are the job benefits. Knowing another language to a good level will inevitably boost your career skill set.

There are countries where knowing the local language is mandatory for any type of job. Nonetheless, in countries that offer opportunities for those who don’t know the national tongue, speaking and understanding the target language(s) of a country you’ve moved to will give you a huge advantage in career progression.

For example when I lived in Japan, most of the English speaking foreigners working were in the English teaching or recruitment fields. While these fields are the most common ways to start working in Japan for those proficient in English, people in those careers can end up feeling restricted to them if they do not learn Japanese. The only realistic way to broaden their career horizons should they wish to pivot to another job is to become proficient in Japanese. The flexibility that learning languages gives you shouldn’t be underestimated.

Last but by no means the final benefit of learning languages is probably the greatest one of them all and that is the deeper understanding that you gain of the people and culture from knowing their language.

Understand that practically nothing else can enrich your perception of a country’s culture like using the same building blocks (a language’s words) to express yourself in the way the natives have to.

This ties in with something so fundamental about a language journey but also so overlooked that it’s almost a secret – by learning their language you appreciate a people and their culture and they in turn appreciate you. The law of reciprocity works in your favour when you commit to the profound journey of learning the system of communication of a people.

For the native English speakers out there, note that this effect is often amplified for you. Everyone around the world is aware that you don’t have to learn a language as you already wield the most important one which means that if you do, you’re even more admired. I’ve certainly found this to be the case as someone hailing from the UK. Paradoxically, there’s more emotional clout to be gained among natives of another country if you’re a native English speaker learning their language so use this as motivation rather than resting solely on the laurels of English.

There are more perks to learning languages but the listed ones are some of the most significant and if you’re not learning a language already, hopefully they’ve enticed you in to doing so. Let’s now look at how to set yourself up for success on your own language journey.

Learning Languages Understanding People

Principles for success on a language learning journey

  • Find your intrinsic motivations

    Learning sustained by intrinsic motivation is the most important factor towards success on your language journey along with habit formation. Intrinsic motivations are sourced from within, they are considered the ‘purest’ types of motivation because they aren’t underpinned by something external. You’re engaging in the activity because it’s internally rewarding. Examples include enjoying language lessons, feelings of accomplishment as you improve your competency and fulfillment expressing yourself to others in another tongue.

    In contrast, extrinsic motivations are derived from external sources. The motives are focused on outcomes rather than internal satisfaction. Learning languages to pass an exam, get a pay rise or impress others are examples of extrinsic motivations.

    Extrinsic motivations aren’t bad, any motivation is better than none, but the more intrinsic motivations you have compared to extrinsic ones, the more likely you’ll succeed in the long run.

  • Gauge the language

    Before beginning the learning process, determine your goals in learning a language – do you want to reach fluency or have a solid conversational ability? Do you want to acquire technical jargon for work/study purposes or learn basic communication for travel?

    Once you know your goals it’s important to have realistic expectations about the time it’ll take for you to reach that competency in your target language. Speaking and understanding with fluency will take a lot longer than reaching a basic conversational level.

    Another factor that can be overlooked by first time language learners is relative difficulty. A Portuguese person will learn Spanish to fluency far quicker than they’ll learn Chinese to fluency. This is because Portuguese and Spanish belong to the same language family meaning the languages are linguistically similar to each other.

    Using language families as a benchmark for linguistic difference between any two languages will provide a rough estimation for how long it’ll take to gain competency in a target language. Generally, a native English speaker will learn an Indo-European language quicker than ones that fall outside of this language family.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has provided a ranking system to help English speakers estimate the number of learning hours involved with acquiring a foreign language based on the target language’s proximity to English. While the times listed shouldn’t be taken as precise measurements, they do provide general guidance on how easy or advanced a language is relative to English and indicate shorter or longer learning times respectively.

Set aside time slots for learning

Allocating consistent time for learning can be the difference between making language learning a good habit or falling by the wayside with the process.

There are two types of successful language learners.

The first are the passionate polyglots whose raison d’être is learning languages and then learning some more. These people are obsessed with languages and eat, sleep and breath them.

The second type are what I call the amateur marathon runners. These people are not linguistic aficionados nor necessarily prodigious at learning languages but they persevere, keeping at a pace that’s right for them and reach the finish line eventually.

Media and various other sources would have you believe that most multilingual people are gifted passionate polyglots but the truth is that the majority of successful language learners are amateur marathon runners. Extensive polyglottery (meaning speaking several languages to good competency) requires consistent dedication not just for learning languages but also maintaining them, almost to the point of doing nothing else. This isn’t a lifestyle that most people have and if after a period of learning your target language you aren’t head over heels for polyglottery, then like the majority of people your best bet is to set yourself up to be a successful marathon runner.

To do so, ensure that you set aside specific time periods in your week to concentrate on learning your chosen language. Ideally, you should study every day as more frequent study accelerates your competency – learning for 30-60 mins daily is better than 7 hours solely on the weekend. For best results, confirm the specific time period in your day that you are going to study (e.g. 6-7pm) so that it concretises your commitment.

Commit to making language learning a habit

If you’re following the above and committing to the time slots you’ve set aside for learning then within a relatively short period of time, you will have instilled the habit of learning languages into your life.

This is one of the best things that can happen to any aspiring multilingual person. The language learning habit will substantially improve the likelihood that you’ll cross your language learning finish line. Like any good habit, it’ll keep you persistent and make sure that you show up on days where your learning would have otherwise been compromised. Combined with ample intrinsic motivations, learning languages will be inspiring rather than a chore and if you’re living in the country of your target language already, your progress will be quickened even more by the opportunities for application of your learning.

I’ve seen many adult language learners in my lifetime and can say with absolute conviction that the number one factor that separates those who’ve gained competency from those who haven’t is whether they truly made learning languages a habit. Build the language learning habit and reap the rewards.


From a global perspective, English is undoubtedly the most influential language and that significance is here to stay. That doesn’t mean that learning other languages is futile, especially if they’re languages of a country you’re moving or travelling to.

If you’re a native English speaker, avoid the ‘language chauvinism’ of expecting everyone to speak English well. Understand the impact of appreciating someone making an effort to communicate with you no matter their level in your language. Understand that you making an effort to learn their language will bring a range of benefits including a type of respect and understanding from locals that can’t be cultivated in any other way. True cultural integration is difficult to achieve without competency in the country’s native tongue but the rewards are high for those who undertake the language journey and persevere.

There are certain principles you can follow to give yourself the best chance of succeeding on a language journey. Draw motivation from aspects of the learning process that are internally rewarding rather than purely focused on outcomes. Know your language learning goals and be realistic about the time and effort it’ll take to achieve them. Crucially, ensure you make your learning process a habit to maintain momentum with the language.

In later posts, I’ve covered the components of learning languages in greater detail to help improve your language journey. I’ve also explained how language informs culture and vice versa in more depth, a concept that once truly understood will help elevate learners from bookish polyglottery to holistic multilingual communication. The latter type will better advance your lifestyle goals overseas.