How to learn a language
If you want to learn a new language, or improve one you know, here's how to do it.
There are lots of different ways to learn a language, and the best way is to simply figure out what works for you. If you haven’t figured that out yet, here are my best tips, the things that have worked for me in my experience as a language learner and teacher.
People often say things like “I’m not good at learning languages” or “you must have a special skill for it.” Not true! Anyone can learn a language. It doesn't take skill or aptitude, just persistence. If you can do even a little every day, and stick at it, you will learn.
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What do you want to be able to do?
The first thing you should do is to understand why you want to learn the language. This will impact both your motivation and your methods. What do you want to be able to do with the language? Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are independent (albeit related) skills, and if you want to be well-rounded in a language, you’ll need to cover all of them—but also, not everyone needs to be well-rounded.
For example, if you want to be able to talk to your grandmother, reading literature in her language is a less effective way of pursuing that goal than watching TV and movies. Reading the written word is still helpful, but it won’t give your listening skills a workout, and listening (along with speaking) is what you need for conversation. Conversely, if you just want to be able to read literature, focus on reading books and forget the listening exercises.
Of course, many people want to cover all four skills. If that’s your goal, seek out materials that can help with different skills, and develop a good ‘gym routine’ that works all of them over time.
What kind of learner are you?
Another thing you’ll need to figure out, if you want to find useful materials, is: what kind of learner are you? If you don’t know, try out different methods until you find what clicks.
If I’m starting to learn a new language from scratch, I like to begin with audio: Pimsleur, Michel Thomas Method, Language Transfer. This helps me train my ear and get the pronunciation right from the start.
Pimsleur is great for pronunciation, as it trains you to get the sounds right. It’s very slow going, which is good for laying a solid foundation, but the pace might be boring for some. I like to listen to Pimsleur on my daily walk, but not while driving since you need to be able to pause it easily in order to respond to prompts.
If you learn well by ear, Michel Thomas is even better than Pimsleur. Pedagogically I find it highly effective - it helps you form mnemonics to remember vocabulary, and it’s really good if studying grammar isn’t your thing. Just be careful not to pick up his Polish accent (unless you’re learning Polish!)
I haven’t personally used Language Transfer, but I’ve heard good things about it. I like that it seems modeled after Michel Thomas, and that it’s free!
If you’re self-motivated, you can use a ‘teach yourself’ book, a textbook, or a reference grammar. If that doesn’t work for you, a tutor or a class can help with motivation, or find a buddy to learn with. More intermediate learners can seek out partners on a language exchange site like Tandem. Best of all is to combine methods and materials. The more the better! Ultimately, what it really comes down to is time.
Spending useful time
In many ways, learning a language is about time. The more useful time you put into it, the more you’ll progress. ‘Useful time’ is what I call time spent engaged with the language at an appropriate level. Engagement can be studying a textbook, having a conversation, or even just listening to music in the language, as long as you find the level that’s right for you. It’s like working out: if it’s way too easy, or impossibly hard, you won’t get as much out of it.
For example, if you’re an English speaker who’s never studied Chinese before, time spent listening to music in Chinese is not that useful; trying to understand the music is too far above your level. It can help a little in adjusting your ear to the sound of the language, but since you don’t understand anything yet, you’re not getting much more than that. If you don’t combine this activity with any other (like taking a class), you can listen to thousands of hours of Chinese music and never learn a thing.
However, if you’re an intermediate learner and you know enough to understand a good portion of a song, listening to music becomes a useful activity. Now what you’ve learned is getting reinforced, and you can start to guess at the meanings of unfamiliar words from context. Translating the lyrics to songs you like is a fun and effective way to study.
By the same token, an activity that’s far below your level is not especially useful. Reviewing basic grammar and simple vocabulary on Duolingo is usually not the best use of your time once you’ve progressed far enough to start enjoying media in the language. (In general, I do not recommend Duolingo. It’s one of the weakest tools at your disposal, highly efficient at keeping you using it but not so efficient at teaching you a language. There are so many better ways to spend your time!)
Hanging out in the language
If you want to get better at speaking a language, one of the best things you can do is to hang out in the language, especially for extended periods of time. Spending time immersed in a social setting where everyone around you is speaking the language is extremely valuable. Be a little nosy: pay attention to other people’s conversations happening around you. Of course, this kind of immersion is not always possible without travel, depending on your circumstances. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to fully immerse yourself, you can often still cultivate relationships in your target language. Whether it’s making new friends at language meetups or just briefly chatting with an acquaintance who speaks the language when you cross paths with them, try to ensure there’s someone in your life who you only communicate with in the language you’re learning.
Building a routine
So you’ve found some language learning resources you like, media in the language that you enjoy, maybe even made a friend with whom you only speak your target language. How do you retain the new things you learn?
Firstly, write down new things you learn. Treat life like a classroom and take notes wherever you are, not just when studying at your desk. Words you learned or want to look up later, interesting turns of phrase, full sentences, song lyrics, anything you want to remember: write them in a notebook, jot them down in the notes app on your phone, scribble them on the back of your hand in the middle of a conversation. Just note them somehow, and look them up later when you have the chance.
My favorite way to acquire new vocabulary is reading a book in a foreign language before bed. I’ve put my phone away (not in the bedroom), so I have no distractions and no temptation to look up every single word I don’t know. Instead, when I come across an unfamiliar word, I try to guess its meaning from the context, underline it, and move on. The next morning (or whenever I get a chance), I look up the words I underlined. If there were a lot of words and I’m feeling lazy, I just look up the ones that seemed especially important or intriguing.
Now you need a regular routine for reviewing your notes. One of the most time-honored review techniques is making flashcards. I’ve made this an integral part of my daily routine, and it’s worked extremely well for me. I use ANKI, probably the best flashcard software out there, which you can use on your computer, phone, or in a browser from anywhere. One of the main advantages to ANKI is that it uses spaced repetition, which helps you spend more time reviewing cards you have trouble remembering and less time on information you’ve mastered. Whenever I learn a new word, I make a flashcard for it, preferably with some context like a sample sentence.
I’m obsessive about my flashcards. I review them in little snatches of downtime throughout the day: waiting for tea to boil, riding the bus, walking to the store, etc. I’ve formed a strong habit of reviewing ANKI flashcards every single day, and after more than a decade of doing so, it feels as much a natural and necessary part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth.
If you get overwhelmed with ANKI reviews, change the settings to see fewer cards each day. Or if flashcards don’t work for you, try something else altogether: make lists, have a friend quiz you, write short stories using new vocabulary, or come up with your own technique for reviewing. The important thing is that you make some form of review into a regular habit.
Make the language part of your identity
My last tip is subtle, and not always easy to follow, but it can have significant results for advanced learners: if you want to truly become fluent, you have to make the language you’re learning a part of your identity.
This is easy if you’re learning a language you already identify with in some way—like a heritage language, maybe one with a family connection, or one that’s significant to your religious background. But identity doesn’t have to be ethnic, national, or cultural. It can be professional, or just personal.
If you’re learning German (for example) to an advanced level, you don’t have to identify as a German person—but you should identify as someone who knows German.
Why does this matter? It has to do with motivation, mindset, and memory. Earlier on in learning, we tend to take a utilitarian approach to learning. Faced with an ocean of vocabulary, we focus on the words most crucial to basic communication, and tune out the rest. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, and for many people it’s enough to just learn to communicate, without understanding everything. But if your goal is to achieve a higher degree of fluency, eventually you have to stop saying to yourself “I don’t need to remember the word for ‘rollercoaster,’ it’ll never come up in conversation.” Instead, try to think of yourself as a German speaker. As a German speaker, wouldn’t you feel a little embarrassed to not know how to say ‘rollercoaster?’
This change of mindset makes a difference. You start to look at the world around you and say: “oh, there’s a daffodil. I should know how to say ‘daffodil’ in my other language.” (At which point, you look it up, and maybe even make a flashcard for the word!) And, I’m convinced, you remember that word better, because subconsciously you think it’s important: you start to feel that knowing the word reflects on you as a person, or at least as a speaker of that language.
Do what works for you
Above all, take the time to experiment with different methods and figure out what works for you and what you can keep doing every day, or at least every week, without getting frustrated, bored, or burned out.
None of what I’ve described here is terribly original; other experienced language learners will no doubt be familiar with most or all of these tips, and might recognize concepts (like comprehensible input) which I’ve tried to put in my own words.
If you’ve read this far, I’d love to hear from you. Do you have questions? Your own tips to share? What worked for you? If there’s interest, I’ll write another post specifically about learning Persian.
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Thank you! Please do the Persian specific post.
Even though I'm a "native speaker", I have a really challenging time with the written, formal, and poetic versions of the vocabulary being so wildly different than the everyday spoken one. I've tried forcing myself to read newspapers or Saadi's simpler works, for example, but I end up having to run to the dictionary every third word and don't end up even understanding the message. I've tried listening to Clubhouse conversations or radio/video, and I can sometimes infer meaning based on context, but running to the dictionary is much harder there.
I suspect what I really need to do is learn some Arabic because I particularly have trouble with the loanwords with Arabic prefixes (انتظار, انضمام , انفراد , انتقال or توسل, توکل ,تجسم). The pluralization is also sometimes annoying (اساتید vs استادها threw me for a loop).
This is very nice and very useful. Thank you for sharing it.
I promised myself that by age 70 I would be "fluent" in Chinese (中文， 汉语)
and I've been enrolled in classes in the last 3 years, achieving a little base in
Reading, writing, listening, and speaking at the advanced beginner level.
Age is a drawback as one forgets quite soon after learning; but I also love flashcards
and compose my own, by theme, by groups of nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on.
I need to work harder at establishing the daily routine. Thank you for the inspiration
and the sources cited. Montserrat Gorina-Ysern