A complete how-to guide for learning languages from A1-C2

A complete how-to guide for learning languages from A1-C2

Published: Oct, 16, 2022 | By: Lucas Weaver

(Written by Thomas Plaatsman)

Hi, I'm Thomas

My name is Thomas Plaatsman and I met Lucas (the founder of the Weaver School) back in 2019 when we were working together at the same company in the Netherlands. Aside from being colleagues, we quickly became friends through our shared interest in topics like learning languages, basketball, travel, and many others.

Although he did give me the occasional suggestion to improve my English, at the time we first met, my language learning focus was primarily on studying Spanish.

Thomas traveling in Mexico

My story 

Back in 2014 I started learning Spanish to prepare for an upcoming exchange semester in Barcelona. I was in my 4th year at university and at that time I had very little knowledge of the Spanish language.

I knew if I wanted to get the most out of my experience in Barcelona that learning the language would be a huge help for me. For my first step, I started attending a group Spanish language course at my university and so my journey began.

Flash forward eight years later and I’m now a certified C2 (Proficiency) level Spanish speaker. I’ve travelled across South America from Peru to Ecuador, all the way up to Mexico in North America.

Thomas plaatsman learning a language in Spain

I’ve made new friends, negotiated business deals, I’ve even interviewed Spanish authors and musicians (in their own language!) for my own blog where you can learn about the cultures of different countries by reading about their most important books, films, and songs.

I never imagined just how rewarding my language learning journey would be for me, both professionally and personally. And now, I’m starting a new challenge learning Portuguese for my newest job.

The journey of learning a new language

As you start your language learning journey, I want to share with you my experience, as well as a large amount of advice that I’ve collected over the years for improving your language skills.

You’ll learn what I wish I knew before I started learning languages as well as what you should expect to be able to do at each new level you reach. 

I’ll also explain which skills you should prioritize at each stage of your journey, which tools will be helpful for you, and how you can most effectively and quickly move from one level of your new language to the next.

But first, let’s start with you, and the most important question: 

What is your why for learning a new language?

Thomas Plaatsman practicing learning languages with friends

What is your why?

Finding your "WHY" is the most important and most overlooked aspect of language learning.

Studying a language takes time. It took me 7 1/2 years to get to the C2 level in the Spanish language, so you need strong motivation to keep learning and studying over an extended period. 

I once read that the five reasons for learning a language are: Work, Love, Living, Family, and Friends. To stay motivated, the author recommended that you need to meet at least four of these five criteria to meet your language learning goals.

Don’t let it discourage you if you don’t meet the minimum of four. Use it to your advantage instead. You can find friends who are native speakers of your desired foreign language, go on holiday in your target country, or find a host family to compensate. 

The further you get along your journey the more critical these factors will become.

So ask yourself, what is your WHY? 

Do you want to have basic conversations at a surf camp? Do you want to become fluent for work? 

Write your reasons down on a piece of paper or in a Google Doc. Your WHY will be your motivational lifeline when your language learning experience gets tough.

Travel and languages are two of my biggest passions

Key focus per language level

The European framework divides language skills into 6 levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2.

In short:

  • A1 is the tourist level
  • A2 contains the basics
  • B1 enables you to have short conversations
  • B2 students can talk about almost any topic, although not always at a high level
  • C1 means you’re fluent, you can express yourself in your foreign language in complex and high level conversations
  • C2 is considered proficiency level (about as close as you can get to being a native speaker)

Make your goal clear for yourself in the beginning. What level do you want to reach?

Traveling with other people interested in languages

The A-levels | Learning the basics

A1: Everything you do feels like progress

A1 is probably the most fun phase of language learning. Everything is new, and you can make progress quickly. Because you’re building a foundation for the coming years, you should focus on two things: 

1. Pronunciation.

If you start forming bad habits now, you’ll probably keep making the same mistakes forever, and it will be difficult to correct them later

2. Basic vocabulary words

Master the basic words, such as numbers, colors, food, prepositions, and key verbs and phrases. Because you’re a beginner, you don’t necessarily need private lessons yet. Maybe try a group course instead. It will probably be more fun anyway, since you’ll meet other students and share their stories and experiences.

Whether you start taking language lessons in person or start watching recorded online courses, it's important to start getting exposed to native speakers as early as possible. Listening to native speakers will allow your brain to notice the patterns and ways they speak. You'll pick up on: the vocabulary words and phrases they use, the rhythm they speak with, and how the make sentences. All of these are crucial in language learning.

My experience with new languages through travel

A2: Adding in some difficulty

A2 becomes a bit messier. Aside from the present tense, you will have to learn the past tense. At this stage, I would recommend getting a language buddy. 

Meet up with someone who speaks your target language and wants to learn a language you speak. Do this at least once a week for 60 minutes. You can divide your practice time 50/50 between you and your language buddy's native languages. Continue with group classes and start watching movies in your target language with subtitles in the target language (keep a focus on vocabulary in this activity since the words are written on the screen for you).

Don't forget to make time for flashcards in your practice schedule. The quicker you memorize the vocabulary words of each level the faster your language skills will improve. How many minutes a day can you add in for language learning? Even just a few new words per day will help you later.

Going on a business trip speaking with native speakers

B-levels | On your way to great conversations

B1: Starting to feel a bit more comfortable

Now that you know the basics, you should return to your WHY. What is it that you want to learn? In which situations do you want to use your new language? Do you want to focus on speaking or writing? Now is the time to consider taking private courses, and if you can fit it in your schedule, you should keep practicing with a language buddy outside of your classes.

B2: Getting the picture of what confidence feels like

Congrats! All your practice has resulted in some serious progress! When you pass B2, you should master the grammar rules. Now is also the time to consider living abroad. Most language institutes recommend living abroad for several months before reaching C1. Of course, it depends on your means and your life situation, but consider volunteering, remote working, Workaway, being an au pair, or if you’re a student, an exchange program your school offers.

B2 is the point where you know that you're getting pretty good at your new language, and you're starting to feel confident as a result. You're not by definition "fluent" like you will be at C1, but when you start to feel this level of confidence, you won't hesitate anymore to start conversations with people, get involved in social situations, and you won't feel uneasy speaking for longer periods with native speakers.

Upping your game

You can still use helpful tools like flashcards for learning vocabulary, or language apps to practice the grammar, but you need to start thinking about upping your game here. It's time to start only watching TV shows in your target language instead of your native language. It's also time to start looking for long-form content like podcasts and audiobooks.

Challenging real world material like these will help push you through the C levels of languages.

C-levels | “Are you a local?”

C1: Hello fluency

C1 is a level accepted by all companies which shows you have “advanced fluency”. That’s why now would be an excellent time to get an official certificate. For example, the C1/CAE certificate for English is valid for life, and will allow you to study in any English taught program in universities across the world, and works as proof of language mastery for most English speaking countries immigration requirements.

And being able to put at C1 certification in any language on your CV will make hiring managers of potential jobs realize that you are definitely as good in the language as you say you are.

If you haven’t been reading books, you should start now, as this will open a world of new benefits in your language learning. Not only vocabulary, but knowledge of foreign countries and cultures, pop culture references that may come up in conversations, historical information, books you can now read in their original language, as well as the documented neuroscience affects reading has on speaking ability.

And don’t forget, keep practicing by speaking in real world situations as much as you can! 

C2: You're so good you can teach the language

The C2 level is the level you need to achieve if you want to become a teacher of a language that's not your native language. Certified C2 means you're as close to a native speaker as you can ever get.

Thomas Plaatsman getting his C2 certificate for language learning

Do you need a certificate?

C1 certification is good enough for most situations, and very few people ever get the C2 certificate. So if you don't need it, don't worry about getting it. But if you want to go for it, my advice for achieving it is pretty straightforward:

Get a teacher that helps you prepare for the exam and focus on nothing else. When you want to do an official exam, 50% is about the language, and 50% is understanding how the exam works and practicing the types of questions you will have to answer. Your writing skills will be important here. The writing part of the exam is difficult, and you'll need to write a lot of practice essays to prepare.

Take as many practice tests as you can and then when you feel ready, register for the exam and take your shot!

What I wish I knew before I started my language learning journey

There are many misconceptions about learning languages. For one, many people think just because they weren’t good at learning a language in school that the situation will be the same now. But things were different back in school. The learning environment is completely different when you’re an adult out in the world, and you might actually perform much better in a supported learning environment such as a language course.

Others might think that if you’re an adult you’re too old to learn a new language, but that’s not true either. Although it is much easier as a kid, it’s far from impossible to learn a new language as an adult. In fact, there’s plenty of research that language learning improves your brain functioning in older age.

Misconceptions about language learning 

I had a lot of misconceptions when I started, and the main things I wish I’d known before are:

  • You need to start speaking as soon as possible. It’s the single most important activity to progress. The quicker you start speaking the more comfortable you get, the more confidence you build, and the more you can improve.
  • You don’t need to live abroad to get better. Find someone who speaks your target language in your own city or use one of the many only tools to meet other people who want to practice. 
  • Find what works for you. If you’re someone who watches a lot of TV and Netflix, use the same habits and routines you already have, just adjust them! Keep watching Netflix but watch serieses in the language you’re learning. Are you a bookworm? Start with easier (primary school level) books in your desired language and then focus on slowly improving your reading level.
  • Keep your learning fun. Do everything you can to feel excited about using your new language skills frequently. Your motivation and WHY are fundamental to this.
  • Accept that the process is messy and takes time. It’s cliche, but remember: it’s all about the journey. When you’re fluent in the language you want, you’ll miss those days when everything was new and you made progress quickly. Try and enjoy each step as much as you can and be patient with yourself. Mistakes are how you learn, and no one ever learned anything without making mistakes along the way.

The best language learning tools

To help you start, below I’ve listed several valuable tools to learn more efficiently, from traditional flashcards to my favorite smartphone apps.

What is the best way to learn? 

Everyone is different, and language learning is no exception. The best way to learn is simply the way that works best for you and the one you will actually stick with. You'll need to find activities that you enjoy because they'll be easier to continue doing over longer periods of time. To get better with languages the key is always consistency.

Learning how to learn

Meta-learning is the art of learning how to learn. To study more efficiently, check out the book Fluent in 3 Months or Tim Ferris’ articles on language learning, like the 12 rules, learn any language in 3 months, and fast learning

One trick is to learn the most frequently used words or words that are almost the same in your language. An example is this list of the 1000 most common English vocabulary words, or these Spanish words. Study these words early on in your learning journey so you won't struggle with them later.

Improve your vocabulary

To improve your vocabulary, consider using flashcards. A great and straightforward app with online flashcards is Anki. It uses spaced repetition, a method that repeats difficult words more often than easy ones. You can also use Quizlet.

Anki also allows you to upload Excel sheets with vocabulary. Type in the words you want to study in Google Sheets and use this formula to translate them. 

Another trick is to use drawings instead of translations. Instead of translating the word “dog,” put a picture of a dog on the other side of your card. Learning a language without translation will help you reach fluency faster down the road.

Improve your reading

To improve your reading, you can use Amazon Kindle or Apple’s iBooks. These e-readers have built-in dictionaries. You click on words or phrases while reading a book and directly get the translation. 

To translate phrases, check out Linguee. This language learning app provides translations with examples for different contexts. Another excellent tool is the Transover. You can install the Google Chrome plugin, and when you hover over any word online, it will give you the translation.

Improve your speaking

To improve your speaking, you can use a platform like the Weaver School for live online language lessons to get live speaking practice and corrections from experienced native speaking teachers in several different languages. 

There are also plenty of helpful Reddit forums with many people who will answer your questions. 

Improve your writing

To improve your writing, install the Swiftkey Keyboard on your phone. You’ll get an autocorrect that helps improve your writing and correct spelling of words. 

If your computer’s autocorrection tools don’t work, consider installing the Chrome plugin Language Tool which will help you learn new words for each different writing situation.

What will change as you learn a language?

Humans think linearly about the future, but that’s not how life or language learning works

As you get better at learning a language, people will start to notice, and new opportunities will arise. Your life may take some exciting and unexpected turns because of it. 

When I started learning Spanish, I thought about eating tapas and making friends in Barcelona. Little did I know that I would later translate for an Ecuadorian minister, work with the Peruvian Red Cross, or live in a trailer in the Andalusian countryside. 

Learning a new language was honestly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It led to many new friends, work opportunities, and adventures that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

That’s why whether or not you want to learn English, Spanish, Dutch, or any other language, I urge you to embark on your language journey now. If not now, when? There’s no time like the present, and the sooner you start, the longer you get to enjoy all the rewards.

Any questions?

I hope you found this info helpful, and I’m happy to help if you have any questions. You can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.

You can also find me on Cultural Reads, a blog I started two years ago where you can learn about the cultures of different countries by reading about their most important books, films, and songs. Make sure to check out my newsletter if you want my best content delivered in your inbox every two weeks.

Good luck on learning your new language! Hopefully it’s you one day giving tips to your friends asking how you did it ;)

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Lucas Weaver from the Weaver School

Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.

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