Overwhelmed While Learning a Language? Time to Get Back to Basics

Have you ever felt overwhelmed while learning a language?

Maybe you’ve decided which language you want to learn, are excited to dive in, but you have no idea where to start?

Or maybe you’ve started a course, even created a study routine, but are constantly distracted by the dozens of other methods, podcasts or the newest language learning apps that are available?

Learning a language can be very overwhelming indeed. So many things to learn, and so many ways to learn!

The worst thing you can do, though, is hopping from one method to the other without ever finishing one.

You see, the problem is: when you’re looking for the best resources to learn a language, you’re not learning. Having many language learning materials at your disposal is as much a trap as it is a blessing.  And if you want to make rapid progress in language learning, you need to avoid this trap.

How, you ask?

First of all, by making a simple language routine that contains everything you need to make progress.

Once you have that in place, you need to make sure it stays simple.

If you do it right, this approach will make it easy for you to know every day what you’re going to do to improve in a language.

It will give you clarity of purpose.

It will motivate you, and make progress inevitable.

Sound good? Then read on to find out exactly how to design your bare-bones language learning routine!

Back to Basics: The Ingredients of a Successful Language Learning Routine

Go back to basics

Language learning revolves around the 4 ‘big skills’: speaking, listening, reading and writing. And that’s a good start.

However, if you want to design an efficient language learning routine, there’s another – more effective – approach. This method divides language learning activities into two categories:

  1. First of all, you study regularly to learn new words, patterns, grammar,… As little as 10-20 minutes per day can be enough.
  2. Then you expose yourself to the language in real-life situations and put into practice the things you’ve learned.

Obviously, the distinction between study time and exposure isn’t that clear-cut in reality: you’ll learn new words, expressions, etc.  when you’re out there using the language, and your study time can also serve as ‘exposure’.

Moreover, how quickly you improve depends on many factors: how much time you have available, your experience with language learning, similar languages you already know, etc.

One thing is for sure, though: if you want to make fast progress, the distinction between just getting exposed to a language and actually sitting down to study needs to be made.

If you don’t, you run the risk of neglecting one of these two categories. And you absolutely want to avoid that

Why It’s Vital to Find the Balance between Dedicated Study Time and Exposure

 Find the Balance between Dedicated Study Time and Exposure

I often see people who try to learn a language ‘purely through immersion’: they just start using a language and expect to assimilate everything on the way.

Almost as often, I see people who study word lists every day and know their whole grammar textbook by heart but never have an actual conversation in the language.

Without a doubt, both approaches will yield some results, but you’re missing out on a lot of fast progress by focusing exclusively on exposure or studying.

When people are learning a language and they don’t improve quickly, it’s usually because one of the two is underrepresented.

Are you watching TV and listening to podcasts in your target language for 3 hours a day, but you’re never doing any focused studying to get the foundations done? You’ll probably pick up some words and expressions, but progress will be painstakingly slow.

Are you rigorously studying vocab and grammar for several hours every day, but you never have an actual conversation with someone, or you never listen to someone speaking your target language? You’ll end up with a thorough ‘academic’ knowledge of the language, but when the time comes to use it, you’ll be totally lost.

Find the right balance between study time and exposure, and I promise you that your progress will soar.

This might sound like common knowledge to you. But trust me, an imbalance between these two categories lies at the core of an awful lot of language learning problems.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Keep it simple,Stupid

So now you know what the foundations are, the next step is building an actual plan around this.

I find working out at the gym a useful comparison. A good personal coach will give you the following advice: make a simple workout plan that progresses in difficulty and is easy to follow. Then stick with it until the end.

Most successful programs recommend only a couple of exercises per session. You don’t have to train every muscle in your body every time you go to the gym: that would take too long, lead to burnout and people giving up.

You also don’t need 50 different exercises for the same muscle group: that only leads to confusion and makes it difficult to track progress.

It’s the same with learning a language. If you make a simple study plan that’s clear and easy to follow, gradually teaches you new things, and you stick with it until the end, I can guarantee that you’ll make progress in your target language.

Just like you don’t need to train every muscle in your body every time you work out, though, you don’t need to focus on every language skill every time you study. You’ll end up studying 2-3 hours a day, something most people don’t have the time for. And even if you do have the time, you’ll get burned out before you’ve achieved anything meaningful.

And just like you don’t need 50 different exercises for the same muscle, using 50 different resources to train one skill will add to your confusion. For example, following 50 podcasts at the same time to practise your listening skills won’t do you any good. Just choosing which one to listen to will make you lose time, and maybe you won’t even start listening at all.

So What Does a Good Study Plan Look Like?

So What Does a Good Study Plan Look Like?

In the previous paragraphs, we established the foundations of a good language learning study routine. Such a routine:

  • consists of regular focused study sessions, and exposure in real-life situations;
  • is simple and easy to follow;
  • becomes more difficult progressively;
  • chooses limited skills to focus on every day;
  • uses limited materials per skill; and
  • is easy enough so you can stick to it until the end.

Did you get that? Great. Let’s take a look at what that would look like in practice.

Focused Study Sessions

How much time do you need? Usually, 15 min – 1h a day, if necessary spread out over multiple sessions

What do you need? One course. And one only.

This is where the real progress happens. During this study time, you want to learn new vocabulary, grammar, expressions,…

To make these sessions go as smoothly as possible, you need to make them systematic and easy.

The most convenient (and in my eyes the best) way to make sure you’re learning something new every day and don’t skip essential grammar, vocabulary, etc. is by working your way through a self-study course.

Choose a course (there’s a good overview of methods here (link lingholic -I personally prefer dialogue-based methods like Assimil) and do 1 lesson every day (or every other day if that suits you better).

Regularly review the things you’ve learned the days before (e.g. by making flashcards).

Note: stick with one course until the end! Even if you get bored. These study sessions are not the aspect of language learning that’s the most fun. However, without them, there is no fun, because you won’t progress.

Once you’ve finished your first course, you can start diversifying your approach and learn the language from new angles. But if you want to speak, listen, read and write with ease in your target language, you’ll need the foundations.



What do you need? One audio resource, one reading resource one speaking opportunity.

How much time do you need? As much as possible

This is the fun part! You can now use everything you’ve learned during your focused study time, in a fun way.

Use your newly acquired vocab while reading a book. Listen to a podcast or watch TV series.

Talk with natives, either on the street, during a language exchange or through Skype lessons (like italki).

If you like writing, write some short texts and get them corrected (e.g. on lang-8).

The best part? This language exposure can easily be integrated into your lifestyle.

If you want to make this work, though, there are two things you need to keep in mind.

First of all, don’t go overboard with the resources you use. In this approach, you’re using one audio resource, one reading resource at a time. This will eliminate all confusion about what your practice sessions will look like. If you think you’ll get bored, switch materials every couple of weeks, but following ten different podcasts is usually a bad idea.

Second, try not to add these things to your daily routine, but replace activities you do daily anyway by activities in your target language.

If you’re frequently listening to a podcast in your mother tongue, change that to the podcast of your choice in your target language.

If you always read a book before you go to bed, start reading one in your target language.

And so on.

If you do this right, these exposure sessions will feel a lot less like studying.

My Personal, Back-To-Basics Italian Study Routine

So how do I know that this basic study routine works?

Simple: I’m currently using this bare-bones approach to learning Italian. And it works wonders.

  • I use one course book (Assimil: Italian with ease) and do 1 lesson every day for my focused study sessions (ca. 30 mins).
  • I regularly listen to one 15-minute podcast: Al Dente. They only release one episode every two weeks, but there’s enough of an archive to keep me busy for a while.
  • I started watching one TV series: Un medico in famiglia. There are a lot of episodes available online.
  • I started reading Olly Richard’s short stories for Italian.

And that’s it!

I don’t use a grammar book. I haven’t used a vocabulary book (I will only start using one when I finish the whole Assimil book, that brings me to a B2 level). I don’t listen to another podcast, and I don’t follow other series.

I’m never confused about what to do to improve my Italian. I just wake up and know exactly what I’m going to do to improve my Italian that day. I use these resources consistently, and I’m getting amazing results.

This routine is clear. It’s simple. It’s easy to stick to. And it works.

A Word on Progress

You might wonder about goal-setting and measuring your progress. To me, it’s very simple. For my focused study time, if I do one lesson of my course book every day and I review it regularly, and it sticks, I have made progress. Even if it doesn’t show immediately, if it’s in my head, I’m sure it will come out at a certain point, if I get enough exposure.

Language Learning Progress

The same goes for the exposure time: it’s quite easy to see your progress if you’re just using one method. When I started watching this TV series ‘un medico in famiglia’, I didn’t understand much. Now, however, I can understand almost everything. Did I make progress? You bet I did.

You see, language learning is not a linear process. You have good days, you have bad days. Sometimes you’ll talk effortlessly with people about the most varied topics, other days you can’t even remember how to introduce yourself. You might be doing fine, but then you learn a new verb tense and all of the sudden you’re completely confused and not able to say a single sentence anymore.

It’s easy to blame bad days on the method you’re using, whereas the real reason could just be fatigue, your mood, etc. That’s why I just ask myself the following questions:

  1. Am I doing focused study sessions regularly?
  2. Am I getting enough exposure to the language, by listening, reading and speaking?

If I can say yes to both questions, I know I’m on track to improve my language skills.

The key is to keep working every day, keep learning and exposing yourself to the language and not give up. Consistency trumps everything.

Over to You!

Now it’s your turn. Choose the resources you’re going to use in your target language and set up your schedule. Follow it rigorously for a set period (e.g. one month). After that month, you can switch up the podcast, tv series, etc.. (Stick to the same course book until you finish it, though!) Then review how much you’ve learned over that month.

If this whole article sounded too simplistic to you, then that’s precisely the point. Learning a language is no rocket science, and you don’t need methods designed by rocket scientists!

Is this the most efficient method for learning languages? Well, I’m sure that with a lot of tweaking and using more personalised resources, you could make some efficiency gains. The problem is that this often leads to a complicated routine, which will slow you down.

Don’t fall into that trap. Stick with the basics, get some work done and start making progress! Good luck!

About the writer:

Lukas Van Vyve is a translator, interpreter and avid language learner who helps others to learn languages quickly and easily. Visit his blog, www.thepolyglotlife.com for strategies, tips and inspiration that will take the guesswork out of your language learning journey!

4 thoughts on “Overwhelmed While Learning a Language? Time to Get Back to Basics”

  1. Grandma's Footsteps

    Great post Lukas – so helpful to see that I’m on the right track. I really appreciated your personal study routine. I’ve been following a Zagreb University online course for Croatian and do 20 minutes a day. Exposure is a bit of a problem, although I do spend time in Croatia in the summer. Also difficult to find on line audio or reading material of the right sort of grade and I know I would improve if I did – so you’ve inspired me to make an effort to find some more resources. Thanks!

    1. Ahh, finding the right materials is always the problem, isn’t it, especially for ‘less popular’ languages like Croatian. For reading material you could take a look at children’s books or adolescent literature (depending on your current level, of course, and whether or not you’re interested in reading these things). And spending time in Croatia is the best thing you can do, of course! Good luck!

  2. I’m absolutely guilty of jumping from one app/method to another constantly and never completing any of them. I definitely feel like this has slowed my progress despite putting in a lot of time. This article really made so much sense and am going to follow it to a t for the next month, and finally complete that assimil Russian book 🙂
    How are you using the assimil Italian course Lukas? Generally, I only spend 10 mins or so per lesson, so curious what you do for 30 mins, and whether I’m not being thorough enough squeezing out of every dialogue.
    Thanks for such an interesting article Lukas, looking forward to reading your future works 🙂

    1. Hi Ben! Sorry for the late answer!

      Glad you liked the article! Absolutely, I believe jumping from one method to the other is the biggest problem for most language learners; and the internet with its mountains of resources doesn’t make it easier to stick to one course 🙂

      So what I would do normally with an assimil dialogue is the following: I read the whole dialogue, compare it with the translation and read the grammar explanations and cultural background in the footnotes. Then, in every sentence, I identify the words, expressions etc. that I want to memorise. I make flashcards of these in Anki (Cloze cards, so I copy the whole sentence into Anki and then ‘blank out’ the words/expressions that I want to learn). And then, finally, I do my daily Anki session so I review flashcards from previous lessons. I agree that you can go through the lessons in less than 30 minutes and sometimes I do 2 in one session, but combined with flashcard reviews (I have flashcards for German, French, Spanish and Italian haha) it takes me more or less 30 minutes a day!

      Can’t really explain the whole method in this comment and I plan on writing a post on this soon, but I can tell you it’s based on the lexical method. Feel free to send me an email if you’d like to talk more about this!



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