I ask myself if it's possible become fluent in a language without studying it. When you are 1/2 years old, you learn a language without studying it. You need just to listen and listen. So, is it possible learn a language without studying it and just read and listening it?

For example, I'm 13 and I've been studying English for 4 years. I started to learn it watching cartoons. Anyway, I studied it in school and I had some basics (like verb to have, to be, subject and a few things).

Anyway, is it possible learn a language without studying it when you don't know anything in it? How to do so?

  • 2
    Welcome to Language Learning Stack Exchange. This question has some overlap with Is it possible to learn a language just by being exposed to media and books? and How does immersion passively help with learning a language?.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 17:14
  • 6
    This depends on your definition of "study." Watching cartoons is just as much a form of study as reading a grammar book.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 21:04
  • Can you please clarify whether your question is about proficiency (which is more general, i.e. the level you reach) or just about the more specific aspect know as fluency (which is often contrasted with accuracy)?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 9:28
  • I don't think it's that easy to become passively fluent in a language. Consider people who live in a foreign country for years, presumably hearing it all the time, but never learn the language well, if at all. Immersion needs to be combined with some sort of independent work on digesting what you hear and making private sense of it. This doesn't need to be "formal" but it does need to be deliberate and sustained
    – SAH
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 14:40

8 Answers 8


First of all, we need to define what "study" means. A 1/2 year old is certainly studying the world, the movements our mouths make to pronounce words and sounds. The baby doesn't have access to grammar books, but learns by observing and repeating. Babies learn that grammar exist and overregulate what they know - they say "horse" and "horses", "sheep" and "sheeps". The advantage adults have is that we don't have to sit and wait until those around us say the words we want to learn - we can ask them for it! We can even buy books and study materials to accelerate our learning. It is possible to learn a language without ever opening a book about it, but you need to dedicate some time to learn it. You need to learn words and sentence structure by listening or reading. You need to produce the language and have your errors corrected. Look up Benny Lewis' method on fluentinthreemonths. If this is time spent joking around with friends and enjoying yourself, it might not feel like studying.


I guess when you are not a child anymore what you mean by “without studying” is without resorting to a traditional method like reading grammar books or having a teacher.

I do think it is possible to attain a certain level of proficiency in a language through immersion.

You can use movies or cartoons of course but they are quite unidirectional. It is a passive method. Unlike playing video games.

How can videogames be a boon for autonomous language learning?

*They’re immersive. You can practice a lot of things: listening, reading, writing, speaking, comprehension.

*You learn words in context so you can memorize them better. It’s not just a vocabulary list.

*There can be a feeling of urgency if you can die in the game. It can boost motivation to learn and thus retention.

*If you like the social aspect of learning a language, for example with a friend, there are a lot of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) where you can socialize and practice conversation. So you can also have output.

*Repetition. Unlike a conversation in real life you can play a scene again and again.

Video games test your comprehension better than any other media. You may have choices to do and for that of course it is better to have an idea about what is happening.

It seems that Duolingo works for a lot of learners due to its gamification. So a real game may be even more satisfying and effective. Nevertheless, people complain a lot about Duolingo’s weird sentences. You might think you will encounter that kind of sentences in video games too. But it is not necessarily the case. There are a plethora of games now which are more intimate and where you can learn useful, daily conversation. You have to find the game that fits. In any case you will increase your vocabulary.

Yes, you can play a game without understanding anything (many for instance play Japanese games without knowing Japanese) but games can increase the motivation to understand and so reinforce the commitment to learn a language.

Here are two quotes from "Applying videogames in language learning and teaching" by Satu Eskelinen, a study about learning English in Finland where generally only video games for children are translated:

A recent pro gradu thesis by Olli Uuskoski at the University of Helsinki showed that Finnish upper secondary school students, especially boys, have significantly better English grades if they have played computer games at least 16 hours a week (YLE Uutiset Kotimaa 2011). These nationally remarkable and statistically significant results show that computer games play a great part in informal learning of English as a foreign language in Finland. It is not uncommon to hear from English teachers in Finland that their pupils, even at the age of 8 or 9 when they begin to study English at school, may know words they have not heard before.

On the specificity of video games:

Good, well-designed games are engaging and can aid learning because of numerous features they have (Prensky 2001: 106): they have rules and clear goals, they are interactive and adaptive, they give feedback, they are fun and they tell us a story. The goals motivate the player to achieve and to be creative with problem-solving, as often games can be won in more ways than one. Interactivity means that the player is not passive, but an active part of the gaming and possibly learning experience, and adaptivity means that the player will have enough challenge to enjoy beating the game, but will not be frustrated with too much difficulty. Feedback is one of the major benefits of computers and games in learning. Feedback in games is instant and memorable, and it can be provided though different senses: visually, audially or motionally (e.g. tremble effect of the game controller).

  • Yeah! I learned English in 2 way: With cartoon when I was 9/10 and I used subtitle in Italian, I learned the sounds and something like basics. I learned a lot of things in English when I was 11/12 and this year too because I used Discord and Telegram forum and tutorial in English of programming.
    – Skxrda
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 19:36

The linguistics uses the term language acquisition to describe the process of becoming fluent in a given language. This term is selected to address the ambiguity of language studying or language learning.

Can one become fluent in a language without (formally) studying it?

Of course. Every baby picks up the language of their parents and/or environment he is being brought up in. Many children until certain age are able to pick up languages in the same manner as toddlers do that, without requiring any textbooks or dictionaries. Even some adults do, as there are always exceptions.

When I was about 9 years old I went to a small town where my grandparents lived. It turned out that the majority of this town were Tatars, an folk of Turkish origin, who used predominantly Tatar language for communication. As a native speaker of Russian I could understand only some words (3-4%), which were borrowed from Russian.

It was a nightmare in the beginning and I felt embarrassed every time I used a wrong word or said something wrong that made everyone (well, children) laugh at me. Ultimately I become fluent in it just by listening to my grandparents, watching some TV with them and talking to people around me. But I can't read or write in this language, and if I need to read something, I first read that aloud and only then I can understand it.

What is the requirements to become proficient in a foreign language?

The most crucial requirement is exposure. You need to be exposed to the language, it should be a part of your environment, your daily routine.

Second is involvement. I have friends who've been living in countries like Finland, Denmark, Greece and still not speaking it beyond 2-3 common phrases and 20-30 everyday's words. If you want to learn it, you must need this language for doing something, e.g. be (deeply) involved with the language.

Third is reference. In order to learn the language you need to grasp the reference between what is said/written and the actual context. How you grasp this reference: either using a dictionary/grammar book/memorizing some rules (the academic way), or inferring its from the context/people's reaction/friend's explanation -- it is up to you.

Computer games in language acquisition

I have never studied English. My foreign language at school was French, I spent 6 years at school diligently learning it, being jealous of my friends who went to another school offering English as foreign language (in Soviet Union where I went to school the language you learn was determined solely by the district school you are assigned to, no choice was given to pupils whatsoever).

When I was around 12 my uncle purchased me a home PC, a clone of the popular Sinclair Spectrum 48K. It had some nice games completely in English, including several adventure games, like "LOTR: The Shadows of Mordor", "A Worm in Paradise", "The Hobbit".

Unlike today, back in those times adventure meant that you have to communicate in (simplified) written language with the game, giving commands like "go north", "examine room", "take knife", "cut rope with knife", "pick stick" etc. No mouse, no clicking over object, just hardcore English. I remember being stuck in one place while playing "The Shadows of Mordor". The game implied that there might be a hole under the tree stump, but how to get to there? I literally spent days trying to figure out what I need. Ultimately I tried "over stump with sword" -- oops, my sword breaks in halves, but the stump is uprooted and I finally can proceed to the next location (turning out to be an underground maze). So, I learned a new word, which, alas, I've never used since then.

Time changes, today there is no need (unless you are really interested in this genre -- as I am!) to play those kind of games. Start playing any games pretending to be open-world (like Terraria or Minecraft), keep reading all the articles in Civilopedia while playing Civilization. You'll soon find yourself knowing and understanding many everyday's word, as well as some not really much useful, like "potion", which still comes to my mind first when I feel thirsty.


I'm going to say both yes and no

Babies don't study with intent. Meaning that they don't know they are studying. They also have nothing to fill their minds except learning how to communicate.

People that already speak one language though generally have that language floating in their heads. There minds are full of thoughts and unlike a baby those thoughts are in a specific language. Those thoughts will IMO, prevent someone from learning another language without intent as they did for their first language when they were a baby.

I'd argue that intent effectively means study in this case. Someone that already knows one language has to actively try with intent to learn a 2nd language. They might not have to sit in a class with books but they do have to consciously force themselves to memorize and use phrases, words, and to construct sentences in the new language. I'd argue that's still study.

I'd also argue it's an extremely slow and hard process and that if you really want to learn another language you'll get far further faster if you aggressively study rather than relatively passively study.

The exception might be if you go live somewhere where you're the only non-native speaker and you have no other distractions (no internet with your own language, no speakers of your native language nearby, no smartphone where you can talk to people in your own language). Basically for most people if they can be lazy they will. In other words, if they can get by without really using the new language, watch TV in their native lang, browse the net in their native lang, chat with friends locally or remotely in their native lang, they will. Only if those avenues are not available will they really start to pick up the new language.


I understand your question as "can someone become fluent in a language with almost no (recognizable) effort.

In order to answer your question, I have to tell you a story about myself. I'm not gifted at languages at all. It has been always hard to me to learn a language. Especially English has been for me the most difficult one because of not having it at school, because of its irregular pronunciation and because of not living in an English speaking country. I spent a lot of time to get better in it but was not really fluent in the end.

Once, I occasionally started to learn Esperanto. I was curios about this language. And something has changed my mind. I understood that one has to enjoy the learning process itself, that is the key! One must play with the language, speak with people, troll them, watch funny videos on Youtube. And so I did. I progressed incredibly fast and even used the Duolingo Esperanto course for English speakers to become better in English because my Esperanto was already really good.

To answer the question: yes. One can become fluent in a language with almost no effort. Today, I am fluent in German (it is not my native language but I live in the country for many years). My English is still not perfect (I still make mistakes) but I am fluent and can use it sufficiently well for my daily work. My Esperanto is far beyond of my English level and now I use both of them to learn French. I still enjoy the process of language learning and make it almost with no (recognizable) effort.


According to me, it's totally possible because an important part of citizens of a country speaks fluently their language without to know its vocabulary. The only thing that we have to do for speaking a language is to connect words with the objects of the reality. The grammar form is brought to us through our entourage (friends, coworkers, etc.)


A really good way is movies with subtitles.

For example, if you already know English and are trying to learn French,

  1. Get a French movie.
  2. Watch it with English subtitles. You're already picking up a few words if you're paying attention.
  3. Watch the same movie again, this time with French subtitles (same as the audio).
  4. If you liked the movie, it's good to watch the same movie several times in this way, alternating the subtitle language.

If you watch hundreds of movies in this way, you're bound to learn quite a lot. One of my friends who is Italian says she became fluent in Dutch this way. She never studied anything formally at all.

Some extra things you can do: (although they might amount to "studying", depending on your definition):

  • Pause at each line and read it carefully.
  • Use a program like Aegisub to replay each individual line many times.
  • Use a program like VLC to slow down the playback speed, to hear better what they are saying.
  • Switch back and forth between English and French subtitles while watching. Go back and watch short fragments over and over, alternating between French and English subtitles.
  • This last one would certainly count as "studying", but what the heck: Use a dictionary to look up some French words here and there when you feel curious.

I have a friend who learnt a language entirely by watching T.V. in it when he was young (by young I mean around 5-7 years old). The language was similar to his native language, but it was still impressive. I wouldn't consider this studying at all, since he was watching the T.V. because he enjoyed it, not to learn the language. I'm sure that most people could learn a language the same way, just by exposing yourself to it enough that you absorb it and learn it subconsciously. A good start could be watching movies in the language you want to learn with subtitles you understand, and then later watching the same movies without subtitles. That's something enjoyable that has helped me a lot.

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