How to Study Languages By Yourself
Learning a language is not an easy thing for most of us. Classes are expensive, it's hard to find time to study on your own, and it can often be difficult to gain real exposure to the language you want to learn. But if you're learning by yourself - or if you're taking a class and want to take your skills to the next level - then there are things to keep in mind that'll make the process easier.
Learn the structure, not set phrases
When learning a foreign language by yourself, it's tempting to start with a basic phrasebook with a list of set expressions and phrases, or a resource that's very easy and holds your hand a lot. Especially when you're first starting out, learning things like grammar and pronunciation off the bat can be really intimidating. While it's important that your self-study resource - whether you're using a podcast series, textbook, or website - be accessible, it's equally important that it does a good job of actually teaching you the ins and outs of the language.
Make sure that the resource you're using takes the time to explain things like grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation (having audio files is a BIG help for the latter!) - and that it does a good job of building on previous lessons in a logical, yet easy to understand fashion. This is especially important in languages with a vastly different writing system or grammar structure than English - East Asian languages in particular (Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) come to mind.
Reach out to native speakers and learners
Even though you may not be interested in taking classes and enjoy going through textbooks on your own, language is all about communication. This is the case even when learning a foreign language by yourself. Try making friends with native speakers or other learners. Things like language exchanges, Meetup groups, and private tutoring are all a great asset on the road to fluency. Try a Google search for sites that let you meet up with language partners (Conversation Exchange is a great example) If there's no one in your area, then there are plenty of online communities (such as Lang 8) or tutoring services (such as Verbal Planet) that let you practice through the internet.
Take Proficiency Exams
I know what you're thinking - you're learning on your own to avoid things like exams! But proficiency tests are invaluable if you're learning a foreign language by yourself, for three reasons. First, they give a lot of structure to your studies. Having a concrete goal to try to reach will have a far more positive effect on your progress than aimlessly using textbooks by yourself. Your score will also give you a good idea of how much you've achieved. It also makes a good line on your résumé if you ever want to use your skills professionally.
Finally, resources for higher level exams often contain much more advanced material than other textbooks. Examples of language exams for in-demand languages include - the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), the HSK (for Chinese - Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi), TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean) and the CELU (for Spanish - Certificado de Español).
There's no quick fix for learning, but the above tips will help you give the structure and practice you need on your path to mastering the language of your choice.