How to Learn Any Language

Tips and Techniques I have Learned

The majority of people have thought about learning a foreign language, and many have attempted it. Why is it so few of us succeed in it? Because language learning is exciting at first, but becomes very difficult to stick to in a long term. We tend to give it up before seeing the results. Another major issue, especially for beginners, is choosing the most effective approach to the learning — where to start from and what to do. Here are some tips and techniques that I find useful:

1. Have a Reason.

Why do you want to learn the language in the first place? Maybe you’ve been exposed to it while travelling and have been captured by it, maybe you need it for enhancing your career, maybe you want to be able to read the books of your interest in the original language, or something else. You have to have a reason, whatever it may be. Without it, your resolve to learn will not last long. With it, you can overcome all the difficulties you may run into.

2. Good News!

a) 300-350 words comprise about 90% of all conversations.
b) 80/20 rule (Also known as Pareto Principle) states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes (input, effort, material). It applies to almost every aspect of our lives. With language learning, the ratio is extreme: 3500 out of 100,000 words (3.5%) of Spanish language make up to 95% of all the written and oral communication.
c) Benny Lewis knew only English until he was 21, had troubles learning Spanish in school, and look at him now: www.fluentin3months.com
d) If you learn 10 words a day, you will know 3,650 words in a year.

3. Have a specific objective.

Depending on the reason why you’ve decided to learn a language, set yourself a specific learning goal. Determine the type and the level of skill you want to reach, and the time limit for the achievement of your objective. An example of a well-defined goal would be: “To be able to maintain a conversation in French for 5 minutes with a native speaker in 3 months from now” or “To know the language well enough to travel (navigate, ask for directions) in rural China on my own after 6 months of studying” or “To read my favourite book in the language it was written after 9 months of learning.” Being specific matters immensely — it will shape the way you study and give you something to strive towards, as opposed to aimless word repetition and mind-numbing grammar exercises.

4. Set aside the time.

At this moment, you are enthusiastic about learning, but this excitement is not likely to last more than a week. You will still want to learn, but things and people will come in the way. To be able to ignore all the distractions and stick with the learning, you have to set a specific period of time each day for language practice. For example, an hour from 9:00PM till 10:00PM. If you don’t have a whole hour to spend, 30 minutes will do. The most important part is to incorporate the study time into your daily routine, to make it a habit.

5. Use the time you didn’t know you had.

We spend an enormous amount of time waiting, commuting, etc. Use this time to memorize words, practice grammar, and listen to songs and podcasts in the language you’re learning. Download language learning apps for your smartphone, if you have one. If you don’t, make word cards and carry a bunch of them everywhere. Get an audiobook and listen to it on the go. When you wash the dishes or clean the house, find a language lesson on YouTube and play it as a background to whatever you’re doing. You have more time than you know.

6. Turn the time you waste into learning time.

Do you play video games? Watch TV shows? Spend your days and/or evenings on Facebook or other Social Media sites? Pause and count the average time you spend on these and similar activities in a day. How about a week? Now imagine what you could do with all of this time! Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you should stop having fun. Quite the opposite, I challenge you to find ways to transform these activities to bring you even more joy and satisfaction. Video games: change the language settings to the language you’re currently learning. TV shows: watch them in the language you’re learning, but run the subtitle track in your native language. Facebook and Social Media: main advice is to limit the time you spend on those, and live your life! However, you could join groups and communities for language learning, and make your social networking time a little bit more productive. Ideally, you want to limit all of these activities to take up a reasonable portion of your time, and not more — it is very easy to lose track of time spent on them.

7. Focus

If you have set aside an hour a day for language learning, make sure it is an hour well spent. After each learning session, do a 2 minute evaluation of the activities and their effectiveness. You should plan the time according to your own learning style and the objective you’ve set. If you are a visual learner, try to incorporate more pictures and videos into your routine. If you happen to learn faster by writing everything down, do that. An example of a schedule (remember to keep it simple) would be: Grammar — 15 minutes, New vocabulary — 15 minutes, Writing — 15 minutes, Translation — 15 minutes. Experiment and optimize the schedule for yourself, because only practice will tell you what works and what doesn’t. Keep in mind the 80/20 Rule: 20% of your activities bring 80% of the results. Increase the time you spend on those highly effective activities, and don’t be afraid to ruthlessly cut out the activities that don’t work for you.

8. Above all, have Fun!

It is so easy to let any activity become a grind, something very serious and boring. Remember your objective, but do not be too concerned with the technical parts of language learning. Take time to play, watch funny videos, try new ways of learning. Go to the country where the language you’re learning is spoken, and make a promise to yourself to only speak that language (It will be fun, I promise). If you’re learning Japanese together with your significant other or friend, resolve to speak only in Japanese. Turn it into a game: whoever says a word in your native language has to sing a song, or put a dollar in a jar, or whatever you decide the appropriate punishment should be.

9. Make yourself accountable to others.

One of the great ways to increase the chances of sticking with a new habit (language learning, in our case) is to let other people know about the changes you’re making in your life. You can announce it on your social networks. If that’s too uncomfortable, ask a friend to help you. You might choose to talk between the two of you every week, discussing the progress you’ve made and what else you could do. You may also opt for a daily update, which can be as simple as a text message, just to let the friend know you’re on track. This makes you reluctant to quit, because there is more at stake now, not only your own potential disappointment, but also the fear of looking bad in the eyes of another person.

10. Read only what you are interested in.

When you go beyond the short texts from textbook, make it your rule to only read what you would read in your native language. Many people make a mistake of reading the adapted texts, and the classics of the target language first, because it is a good thing to do, and even feels a bit noble. I was guilty of that too, reading the first 15 pages of books I thought I had to read, and giving them up after a few days. I overcame that barrier by making a decision to read only what I really wanted to read. It didn’t matter that I could only understand 70-80 per cent of what was written — I was interested enough to go forward. If you are into classics, read them. However if you usually read novels about crime, read those. If it’s business books for you, don’t try to read “Pride and Prejudice”. Again, the key is to read what really interests you, and it will be much easier to look up the words you don’t know and to plough through the text.

11. Keep vocabulary notes

What I use is a simple notebook where I write down the new words I learn. You may want to consider the digital format instead, but it can be difficult to track the transcription of words (how they are pronounced) as it involves using a lot of special symbols. Hence, I recommend going for a simple notebook. Why bother? First, it can be very encouraging to see the daily progress you’re making, and to see how far you’ve come, which will stimulate you to try even harder. Second, repetition is the best way to memorize new material and retain the knowledge. That means you should come back to your vocabulary notes and go through them once in a while.

As for myself, I have recently started learning French, to add to English, Russian, some Japanese and Spanish

This article was also published on Medium
Title Photo Credit: flickr