The Six Parts of Language Learning

Or, “The Right Tool for the Right Time”

Brandon Istenes
3 min readNov 12, 2016

[Leer en Español]
[Bi Kurmancî li vir bixwînî]

Let’s start with the crux of it: there are six parts to learning a language.

  1. Vocabulary — Use a flash card app like Memrise. Use a built-in deck to start with. At the intermediate level you’ll want to build your own deck e.g. with paper or in Anki. I can’t emphasize enough how essential a good tool and hard work in this category is.
  2. Speaking — Talk to people. You can’t get better at talking to people if you’re not talking to people, no matter what magical app you’re using. If you’re not living in a place where your target language is a primary language, connect with people using iTalki. If your target language involves funny noises, watch videos to learn how to make them and practice making them relentlessly. For extra practice, audio-journal into your phone’s “memo” app. Always read aloud.
  3. Listening — See above. Shows or online videos of people talking can be helpful, but don’t rely on them too much. Listening skills are only really improved though “active listening,” which mostly only happens when there’s a little bit of stress involved, e.g., when you’re talking to a human or trying to transcribe something.
  4. Grammar — Get a textbook. There’s really no replacement for a good grammar text. If you’re not yet at an intermediate level, work through a learner’s textbook — you don’t have to do it very carefully nor completely, but you should do a meaningful chunk of it, cover-to-cover. At any level, a reference grammar is indispensable to help answer questions that come up as you learn.
  5. Reading — Your grammar textbook should have passages to read. As you approach an intermediate level, start looking for other texts, like news or children’s stories. News works well because it refers to things in the real world you’re probably aware of, so learning from context is easier. Children’s stories are good because of the simple language, but note that you’ll probably need to learn the names of a bunch of animals and old-timey stuff which may or may not be a priority to you (how often do you say “hand-spindle” or “sheepskin” in English?). As soon as you can, start into reading poetry (or whatever it is you love to read, if not poetry).
  6. Writing — Get extra practice on vocabulary by making sentences using new words. Do some journaling. Do the writing exercises in your grammar book. Text or email people. Translate poetry or songs into your target language.

So then, assuming you’re studying enough (cough cough), the question of how you should study is really a matter of balancing these six things. Every week or two, depending on your pace, re-evaluate what you’re excelling at and what’s holding you back. Over time you’ll discover patterns in your relationship to each of these. For me, for example…

  • If I’m having trouble understanding people speaking, I either need to be having more conversations or studying vocabulary.
  • If I’m having trouble forming sentences, I either need to be having more conversations, get some sleep, or have a drink. The drink can help with the more conversations part, the latter of which is the real key.
  • I used to not get enough vocabulary early on. I’d get like four verb tenses and about twenty words, which is not a functional way to speak. Nowadays I focus hard on vocabulary right after I get the most basic grammar.

You get the idea.

I recommend the tools above because they each train one thing well (except the most important one of all, conversation). I recommend against all-in-one solutions like DuoLingo* and Rosetta Stone because they try to do everything at once in a really unfocused way, and so end up being a frustratingly slow way to learn for a remotely self-aware or self-directed learner. Navigate the above six categories and the corresponding tools according to what you’re struggling with and what you’re motivated to learn.

Good luck, buena suerte, serkeftin, iyi şanslar!

And don’t forget to have fun!