Have you tried learning a language on your own? It's pretty difficult, which sends most people running. However, learning a language can be really rewarding. Most people where I'm from dream of visiting Italy, Spain, and various other parts of Europe, and it's much safer and more enjoyable to travel if you can speak even a little of the native language. Similarly, most natives prefer tourists who can at least somewhat understand them. Sadly, even with compelling reasons, learning a language on your own can seem impossible, but you don't have to worry. There's only three things you need to learn a language: interest, determination, and the right source.
STEP ONE: Choose your source.
How do you learn best? Do you remember pictures? Can you remember your teachers almost word for word after lectures? Do you prefer to read about something and take notes? There are hundreds of different language learning sources and not a single one of them is the wrong way to learn. If you learn best by looking at pictures, study vocabulary by looking at a picture of a table and saying la mesa (spanish word for table) over and over again.
There are ample sources available, both free and quite expensive, for learning languages and most can be found right online. I personally find websites the easiest to work with, probably because I'm poor and they're free. There are websites like about.com, LiveMocha.com, and wordchamp.com that cater to several different languages and either offer lessons from a real teacher (about.com), lessons created by native speakers and homework that will be graded by native speakers (livemocha.com) or a web reader that allows you to read in a foreign language with the aid of a dictionary that appears when you hover the mouse over the word you don't recognize. (wordchamp.com) Similarly there are books like Spanish for Dummies, Survival Japanese, and pocket dictionaries. The most important thing is to find a source that makes learning fun. If you like grammar, find a book on grammar. If you want to pump vocab so that you can say cute expressions like I'm from America Where's the bathroom? and do you speak English? find a book that gives you only simple expressions. Basically, know what you're looking for and don't waste your money on The Guide to Japanese Grammatical Structure if you just want to spend a week in Tokyo and all you really care about is asking where the Sushi bar is.
STEP TWO: Learn some vocabulary.
This guide assumes that you want to learn an entire language, not just the week in Tokyo and Sushi bar scenario. So, the second step to learning a language is to pump up your vocabulary so that you can read, watch shows in, or perhaps listen to songs in the language you've chosen. Unfortunately, that's the way to become fluent (to immerse yourself in shows, readings, etc in the language) and that's impossible without knowing at least some vocab. (A lot is better.) Most languages have thousands upon thousands of words but don't panic. We probably use a few hundred a day and using the genius of my tenth/ twelth grade Spanish teacher, you can memorize about 1-200 in a week.
So, I give you the wisdom of a former Spanish teacher, who presumably discovered this technique through one of her teachers:
Basically what you need to do is find a lot of flashcardsusually I buy the ones that come 300 in a packand make as many as you want (anywhere from 30-200, I'd say) with your native language on one side and the foreign language on the other. It's easiest if you find a vocabulary list to go from, like Spanish beach, travel, or work words or something like that. After you make the cards, divide the entire stack into piles of seven, because the brain remembers things best in sevens. Take the first pile (remember, there's only seven cards in this pile) and go through it twice from the foreign language to the native language. Next shuffle the pile, since if you remember the words in a sequence it won't help you when you want to have a conversation without the flashcards. Go through the pile again, still from foreign language to native language.
Usually in my Spanish class, we would spend about a week going from Spanish to English and then after that week was up, we would begin to divide the piles into seven and go through looking at the English words and flipping to Spanish. So, eventually you have to switch and start going through piles from your native language to the foreign language. Eventually, you will have these words down, and usually when I am studying on my own I do Spanish to English and then immediately afterwards I go through the pile again from English to Spanish. I find that I can memorize up to two hundred words in a week. It works even better with a smaller list, so definitely try this if you're trying to learn vocab. Making the flashcards is the most arduous part, but it's completely worth it in the end.
STEP THREE: GRAMMAR
Take it from someone who tries to learn way too much at once, you're going to want to tackle a few small grammatical structures at a time. It's hard for people who don't know much about language to see the big picture of a foreign language, but I think the most important things to understand right off the bat are sentence structure and agreement.
Sentence structure isn't too difficult a concept to grasp. In English, a sentence is a complete thought that contains a subject and a verb. Our sentence structure becomes subject-verb-object. Basically I eat cheese, where I is the subject, eat is the verb, and cheese is the object. This may not seem that important to an English speaker, especially where French and Spanish are the most popular languages where I'm from. Spanish and French follow this same pattern. Yo como queso. Je mange le fromage. Always subject-object-verb. However, try learning Japanese and you'll quickly see why sentence structure is so important. They use subject-object-verb, essentially always saying I cheese eat. If you walked up to a Japanese speaker and spat out Watashi wa anata ni ageru hon wo (literally To you I give the book) they may or may not understand you because the correct sentence would be Watashi wa anata ni hon wo ageru (where ageru to give must come at the end of the sentence.)
Agreement is just as important to understand. In English the verb must agree with the subject, for example, to a native English speaker I eats is clearly incorrect. Eat is the form that goes with I, and while a native speaker would understand what was intended, sometimes if you mix up every verb form between subjects a story can get very confusing. Similarly, in languages like French and Spanish, not only must the verb form agree with the subject, but adjectives must agree in number and gender with their subject. Basically if you're talking about a group of girls your adjective must be feminine and plural. Now take Japanese where there is no agreement, not even between the subject and verb! Tabemasu means I eat, you eat, she eats, AND they eat depending on the context. Basically, it's just important to be aware of agreement rules in a language so that you don't get confused when you're having a conversation or reading something and so that you don't confuse others.
Hopefully this isn't starting to sound incredibly difficult, since I'm attempting to make learning a language sound easy. Knowing these things about grammar is important, but if you make errors here and there they won't be fatal. Chances are that a native speaker will be able to figure out what you're talking about. You just have to be aware of the basic structure of a language so that it's easier for you to learn.
STEP FOUR: Use what you have learned!
While it completely sucks, if you memorize a thousand vocabulary words tomorrow and never look at them again, you're going to forget them. It's a sad fact of life. Living in a primary English speaking country, especially since I don't live in a community where I can speak the language I'm trying to learn with really anyone, makes it pretty difficult to use what I'm learning. Thank goodness for the internet! There are hundreds of ways to use the language that you're trying to learn on the internet. You can join a message board that speaks primarily the language you're trying to learn or sign up for free websites like LiveMocha.com which allow you to have conversations with native speakers of whatever language you're going for. If you can't find anyone or are uncomfortable speaking the language with someone else, at least find a podcast where you can listen to native speakers speak the language. Watch as many movies and TV shows as you can in the language you're going for and beginners are encouraged to use subtitles to help understand. However, eventually the subtitles have to be dropped if you're looking to become fluent. The only way to learn to think in the language you're trying to learn, which is basically the only way to be fluent, is to completely submerge yourself, which means eventually listening to native speakers with no subtitles and reading without a dictionary as a crutch.
STEP FIVE: Complex Grammar and Say No to Anglicisms
Eventually, if you're a serious student, you're going to become advanced enough in a language where you're either almost fluent or fluent. If you want to reach fluency, you have to take the fifth and final step. You must learn the most complex grammatical structures, which can be found in text books or online if you know what you're looking for, and you have to stop speaking in Anglicisms. Basically, an Anglicism is when you take an English phrase or idiom and say it word for word in the other language. You can do this from Spanish to English too, I imagine, but I don't know what the word for that is. Spanglicisms? Just kidding. Anyway, an example of an Anglicism would be to go to Spain and tell everyone 'esta lloviendo los gatos y los perros' (it's raining cats and dogs.) Spanish speakers probably wouldn't have any idea what you were talking about unless they spoke English or were aware of this English saying. Now, they might get the gist of what you are saying since it's an easy expression, but imagine telling a foreign person in their native language that someone 'kept their eyes peeled.' He peeled his eyes? How gross! It's an English expression that is meaningless in another language. Now, surely they have a way to convey that idea in Spanish, but they wouldn't say it that way. The easiest way to figure out how they WOULD say it would be to go on Google and type in Spanish idioms or French idioms because there are extensive lists online.
Learning a bit of slang is another important part of step five as well, but you have to be careful that you know what country the slang originates from and in what situations it's safe to use. Some words that are common in one country (like coger that is used in many expressions in Spain) can be vulgar in other parts of the world. I do still think it's important to learn about swear words and perverse words in foreign countries though. If you don't know the slang for Hey Babe, how 'bout tonight? you could agree to anything and get yourself in a terrible situation. You might also want to know just in case someone thinks they can get away with calling the unknowing foreigner a swear word and then laugh behind their back. Don't make yourself the butt of anyone's jokes! Learn slang. You don't have to use it, and in many cases you probably shouldn't, but at least recognize it.
Well, that's all I've got. Learning a foreign language is a truly rewarding experience, even if it seems super hard sometimes. Following these five steps should help, and I sincerely hope that they sound as easy as I thought they did, since I tend to over complicate things. The key is to love the language and not to give up, because sometimes it will seem like you'll never become fluent. If you just stick with it and practice your vocab and grammar, you'll be fine. If something is too difficult, seek help online or find another source. Make sure that you choose a language you love, decide what level you want to reach, and remember to have fun. If a source is boring you, find a new one. Don't ever waste your time or force yourself. To learn a language you have to want to learn it and you have to enjoy learning it.