What can business teach you about learning a language

Over the last 10 years I’ve interned for startups, been a freelance developer, and ran my own websites.  Having a less structured work environment, and having to be self-motivated and disciplined is remarkably like language learning.

So much so that I noticed the quotes and advice I came across relating to building a business almost always applied to language learning too.

Here’s a selection of advice from the world of business that you can use to keep your language goals on track.

Create a plan and set SMART goals

If you don’t have a plan for where you want to get to, how are you going to get there?  Having realistic goals, broken down into monthly and weekly plans is essential for success in business, and you should be doing this for your language learning too.

Read my guide on setting language learning goals here.

Embrace mistakes

Fearing mistakes holds you back from progressing, mistakes are good, mistakes are how you learn to be better. Reframe mistakes as a positive chance to improve and go out there and make them.

Done is better than perfect.

The working mantra of Facebook. In order to make progress you need to let go of the desire to get it all perfect, and just get it done, get it out there and improve over time   

This means using your language skills even if you know they’re not perfect.

Live by the 80/20 rule

This is the idea that 80% of the results come from 20% of your efforts.

In business this means you should focus on the 20% of customers that bring in 80% of your profits. With languages the same concept applies to vocabulary and grammar. Focus on the 20% of words that make up 80% of the written language.

The best time to invest is 20 years ago, the second best time is now

Originally an old Chinese proverb about planting trees, this applies to anything of high value that takes time to achieve.

Stop thinking you wished you’d continued with languages after school, and start now. You will thank yourself in a few years time.

It's not just a young person's game

Never give up

One of Elon Musk’s rules for success. Resilience and grit is the number one factor in success when starting a business.

Likewise, with language learning, however long the journey or slow the progress, if you just keep going you will get there.

The more you put in, the more you get out

Another of Musk’s rules is to work twice as hard as the next person. If you do that, you’ll get to the same place in half the time.

There is no magic shortcut with languages. There is no set time limit, and everyone has a different amount of time to spend on it – but it’s a simple fact that the more time you spend on it, the quicker you will progress.

Success isn’t easy, no matter how easy successful people make it look

We only see the end results other people achieve, not the process. Most businesses fail, the people who succeed are the ones who work hard and keep going through the failures.

It’s easy to look at polyglot bloggers like Benny Lewis and Olly Richards and think - yes, but languages are easy for them – until you actually read their blogs.

Both Benny and Olly talk about just how much time they put into learning, and it’s a lot. Language success isn’t something that just happens to them, they make it happen.

Don’t start more than one business at a time

Whatever time you can spare should be spent working towards one goal/language. Diluting this is just going to hamper your progress, and slow progress is a real motivation killer.

Don’t go it alone

There’s a reason investors don’t like businesses with a single founder as much as those with co-founders. Doing difficult things on your own has a lower chance of success than having a network of partners, mentors and advisors to turn to.

With language learning, having a tutor, fellow students, being part of a community are all going to make it easier to overcome difficulties AND make it more enjoyable.

Be ok asking for help

Related to the last point. If you are struggling with something, find someone who can help.

This may be a tutor, an exchange partner or an online community. Many people shy away from admitting their weaknesses and reaching out to people to fix them.

Push yourself out your comfort zone.

If you start a business you are forced to do jobs you are neither good at, nor like. It’s not always fun, but doing them makes you better.

Striving to improve your language skills means pushing yourself beyond your abilities a bit. You may make mistakes, and feel silly, but you’ll learn something, and next time you’ll be better.

But also…

Make the most of your strengths.

If you’re struggling with motivation to do something you find difficult, sometimes it’s good to know when to stop, and just do something you enjoy or find easier, but that still moves you in the right direction.

This might be to put the text book to the side and play on a gamified language app, or watch a movie in your language on Netflix.

A little progress each day is better than a week of avoiding doing anything at all.

Have a good sense of humor about it.

Things are going to be hard sometimes, and you’ll feel demotivated. Remember to not take things too seriously.


Forget multi-tasking, learn to do one thing at a time with laser like focus.

Turn off the TV, and music, find a quiet spot with no distractions (and no phone) and nail that one language learning task you set yourself.

Even if you have a terrible attention span (like me), set yourself a short time limit, even as little as 5 minutes where you are completely committed to the task, and this will likely run on for longer than you planned.

Right now, writing this I am using the Tomato Timer, Podomoro Technique, and white noise to help me focus.

Look after yourself

It’s easy to get bogged down with all the tasks we set ourselves and not look after the basics. Staying healthy in mind and body will help you stay happy, relaxed and ultimately more productive.

Eat well, exercise, meditate, take breaks and remember to reward yourself when you reach your milestones.

Author Bio

Richard is the founder of Linguasorb. An avid traveller, his language learning journey started on a trip cycling the length of South America.