Tips for language students who want to learn without a teacher

I am a language teacher, so I spend a lot of time working with people who want to improve their English with me. However, not everyone who wants to improve their language skills is looking for a teacher.

Maybe there are financial reasons for this. Maybe they don’t have time to commit to a course on a regular day. Maybe they prefer studying alone.

When I was learning Turkish, I started with no prior knowledge and it made sense to sign up for classes. I stayed with the teacher until I reached upper intermediate level, but I did a lot of additional activities on my own too.

With German it was different. I did complete a course with the Goethe Institute because I wanted a certificate to confirm my C2 language proficiency, but between my German A-level and that course when I was about 30, everything else that I did was on my own. Or at least, the activities were things that I planned on my own. Other people were involved, but I didn’t attend any classes or workshops for German learners.

It may seem counterproductive for me to be giving tips to adult learners who don’t want language training, but I do have some tips to share from my own experience, and not all of my services are specifically around language courses.

Tip 1 – have a plan

How detailed this plan is will depend on you. I love lists and spreadsheets and things to tick off. You may be like me, or you may have more general goals.

The main thing is to plan what you want to learn or improve, and decide how you want to do that. Otherwise, you’re likely to give up because you don’t know where to start, or you won’t be able to measure any noticeable progress, because something will always come up that needs your attention more.

So think about what you find difficult now, or what you would like to be able to do, and start working out how you can make it happen.

I have some more tips about this on my language coaching page. The planning meeting is a paid service, but the PDF with the exercises to build your study plan is free.

Tip 2 – being in control of your own learning plan can also involve other people

I did all kinds of things to improve my language skills. These included chatting on forums about my hobbies, volunteering for a German organisation, arranging a local meet-up for German speakers, taking part in language tandems, and getting on a plane alone to travel to another country for a meeting with people whom I’d only ever met online. Actually I did that a couple of times – the first certainly didn’t go as planned – but every time was good in its own way, and I learned a lot – both through pushing my own boundaries, and having to communicate in German.

I’m not naturally gregarious. I enjoy being on my own with a book and don’t like hanging out in big groups of people. Speaking was my least favourite thing, but I quickly learned that the only way I was going to fix that was if I actively searched out activities where I had to speak. So I did!

If you’re looking for similar activities, have a look at what meet-up.com has to offer in your area. Or, if you’re interested in something online, check out this post about my WhatsApp club.

Tip 3 – Find the right learning resources for you

We’re all different. In a school, the whole class does the same activities, but as an adult learner, you don’t have to learn with these restrictions. Try out different ways of learning. Download multiple apps. Subscribe to different podcasts. Try out a couple of different ways to keep track of the new words that you’re learning. This isn’t to make you feel overwhelmed, but it’s like a language learning buffet. Have a taste of different dishes and then you can go back for more of the things that you like.

What works for someone else might not work for you. That’s ok. If you’re a visual learner and the other person learns in a different way, you’ll need different things from your materials.

Tip 4 – let others inspire you, but don’t waste energy comparing yourself to them

This was a mistake I used to make. I’m a perfectionist and I always used to find the most advanced learners I could and give myself a hard time because I wasn’t as good as them. This is wasted energy. That time could have been spent more productively!

Tip 5 – make time for learning if it will save you time later

Sometimes it’s hard to fit one more thing into your diary when you’re already busy.

When I was having Turkish lessons it was easy. I blocked out the time for my lesson, and I also had to make time to do the homework, because I didn’t want to turn up to the lesson and have to explain why I hadn’t done the exercises.

When you’re learning on your own, there is no teacher who will ask what happened to your homework or why you didn’t read the chapters of the book that you had planned to read last week. It’s easy to let things slide when there are no consequences.

The problem with that is that most people have a goal in mind when they want to learn a language. I work mainly with professionals who need English at work. If they keep putting off working on their English, but actually need to use English at work, they tend to spend longer worrying about their emails or stressing out over the small talk that they’ll need to have with colleagues or customers at the next event. Investing a bit of extra time working on their language skills could save them time later.

There are so many other activities I could suggest, but really what each person needs to do will depend on the answer to basic questions like why someone wants to learn English, what tasks they find difficult, and what they want to do that they can’t do at the moment. Once you have the answers to these questions, you can start with the plan that I mentioned in tip 1.

If you have any questions or comments after reading this, you can get in touch through my contact form.

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Kirsty working with students



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