How to Teach Yourself a Language (Part 2)

Now that you have a better idea about what you want to do, let’s move on to how you’re going to do it. The first tool that I want to put into your toolbox is flashcards. I’m talking about them before I even fully deal with particular skills because flashcards are so fundamental to language study.

What’s so special about flashcards?

It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: to learn a language, you need to memorize a lot of stuff. Active recall is the best way to memorize, and flashcards are the single most straightforward way to study using active recall.

The way it works is like this: when you’re forced to remember something and reproduce it, you strengthen the neural connections much more effectively than if you are simply exposed to the information. Your brain improves only in the ways in which it is exercised, so if you read a vocabulary list, even if you do it every day, you’re not really challenging your brain to produce, only to recognize. Flashcards let you hide the answer from yourself, so you can test yourself and engage that active recall.

Now, you could do flashcards the old fashioned way, with 3x5 index cards, but there are some major disadvantages to that. First off, you’ll need a lot of index cards (in the order of thousands), and those can take up a lot of room. But a more serious issue is that you won’t know when’s the best time to study your flashcards, or which ones you should focus on. Active recall is even more effective when combined with the principle of spaced repetition.

A lot of smart psychologists studying memory have over the years come up with a pretty accurate model that tracks the rate of decay of long-term memories. For the sake of efficiency, it’s best to study something right as you’re about to forget it. Not before (no need to study something you already remember well), and not after (it’ll take more effort to relearn than to refresh, and besides, the whole point of memorization is that you need to not forget). There are ways to do this with physical flashcards, but why bother? People have already figured out how to get computers to help. Here is where I introduce the number one most useful application for a language learner: Anki.

It’s so useful (and free), I’m going to name it again and make the link all caps, bold, italicized, and underlined: ANKI

Really though, if you’re trying to learn a language and not using Anki, you’re wasting a lot of time. Because it focuses you on the things you need to review, you spend less time on the easy stuff, more time on the harder stuff (but that ultimately means less time than if you were studying the harder stuff by other means), so in all, you’re spending less time studying. The other added benefit is that even years later, you may need to review something, and the algorithm won’t forget to bring it back to you, so if you put a bit of info into Anki and commit to studying every day, you can rest assured that, for all intents and purposes, you won’t ever forget that bit. At least, not long-term forgetting; you may forget it and then have to relearn, but the algorithm will make sure you do that.

I use Anki myself, and this efficiency means that I can review nearly 50 languages every day, across hundreds of thousands of flashcards. That scale would be impossible to handle if I didn’t have an algorithm telling me what to review. Of course, you may not be interested in studying 50 languages, but even to learn the one single language you’re interested in, you’ll eventually need at least 10,000 flashcards, which would necessitate Anki. It’s not the only spaced repetition app out there, but it’s the best (and did I mention that it’s free?)

You can use flashcards not just for vocabulary, but for grammar as well. You don’t need to limit yourself to single words. Short phrases work well for learning word order, particularities of usage, whatever. The most important thing to keep in mind when making a flashcard is that you are including all the relevant information, and that the question you are implicitly asking is as clear as possible. You don’t want to waste time trying to interpret the question, because that’s less important than answering it. What information is relevant will be discussed later, as I get to each section.

Two things to understand before you get started with Anki: you have to review every day (otherwise the algorithm won’t work correctly), and you have to make your own flashcards. You can download somebody else’s decks if you want, but most likely they won’t have read these articles, so won’t really know how to make good flashcards. You’re a lot better off with your own.

People talk about reinventing the wheel as a waste of time, but humans reinvent writing all the time…

I’m going to move on to reading, because no matter what you want to do, large parts of my method (like flashcards) require that you have at least rudimentary reading skills.

Obviously (unless you’re using Google Translate) you can read English, which is written in the Roman alphabet. If the language you’re interested in is also written in the Roman script, you have it a bit easier, though you’ll have to get used to the idea that the sound associated with a letter in English may not be the sound that same letter is associated with in another language. For example, while in English x is usually a /ks/ sound, but in Portuguese, it’s most often /ʃ/, in Venetian, /z/. Heck, in Zulu, it’s used to represent a lateral click, and in French it’s usually silent!

But generally speaking, that’s less intimidating than if you’re learning a language using a different script. Luckily, many of the world’s scripts are related to the Roman one (in that they are descended from the Phoenician alphabet; hence the word phonetic), but there are exceptions of course, like Chinese, Amharic, or Cherokee. Oh, and don’t be intimidated by scripts that go from right to left, you won’t even notice the difference after a couple weeks.

Whatever the case may be, I highly recommend that you learn the script that the language is officially, or at least most often, written in. The reason for this is that quite a lot of information can be encoded in the script, and you’re going to want those clues for your own studying, even if high levels of literacy isn’t one of your goals. Furthermore, it makes for better flashcards (the importance of flashcards will be stressed over and over again throughout these articles).

There are a couple free, online resources for learning scripts and orthographies. Wikipedia and Omniglot are the easiest and most complete. Most likely they’ll give you the sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet (“IPA”), but don’t let that scare you, you can search those on Wikipedia to find recordings of what the IPA letters sound like, as well as descriptions on how the sounds are produced.

At rough count, the majority of the world’s orthographies are fairly strictly phonetic. This is unlike English, in that with those languages, what you see is what you get, and for every letter there’s just one sound (or at least, not a dozen like some English letters). Isn’t that nice? You’ve already learned one of the hardest orthographies, so it’s only easier from here on out. Thus if you can read the orthography of your target language, you know the sounds, and how to pronounce the words, and if you know how to pronounce the words, everything is easier.

Flashcard tip: In cases where a critical bit of information about pronunciation isn’t included in common writing, I highly recommend that you include that information in your flashcard. For example, stress in Russian isn’t indicated, but is crucial for knowing how to correctly pronounce vowels (e.g., write your flashcard as хорошó, not хорошо). Another example would be Hebrew, and Perso-Arabic scripts, where short vowels aren’t written in because native speakers don’t need them…but you do! So write שָׁלוֹם instead of שלום, and سَلام instead of سلام.

For learning to read a new script, simply make a flashcard for each letter or character, with the sound on the other side. That could be IPA, or a transcription into English, or if you’re feeling fancy, the actual mp3 recording you downloaded from Wikipedia. Just make sure it’s unambiguous for you. This advice applies only to scripts with a relatively limited number of characters. Chinese/Japanese, that’s a whole other story for a later, specialized article. If you’re using Anki, I recommend that you keep the script deck separate from the rest, because eventually you won’t need it any more and can delete it.

Obviously learning to read the script isn’t the same as learning to read the language, but much of the rest is equally applicable to reading and speaking/listening, so stick with me. Also, if your goal is to read advanced or technical literature, you’ll need an advanced or technical vocabulary, which is another subject we’ll talk about later.

Ok, now you’re really, actually, honest to God ready to start learning

Sorry, I know it’s been a ton of prep work to get to this point, but by making sure you’re starting off right, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble down the road. Luckily, the next step is fun!

The best thing I can recommend, once you’ve got the orthography and sounds, is to start learning some basic words. Things like greetings, animals, colors, body parts, food, whatever. Focus on what you find interesting. The idea here is that you want to let your brain know that you’re learning a new language, and that it needs to partition off some space for that. The important thing is to pick words that you will be able to remember easily (short words are good, as well as cognates if they exist), so that you don’t become demotivated. Staying motivated is key, throughout your studies (that’s why part 1 is a big pep talk). In any case, you won’t be able to say much right now, but you’re priming yourself for further study, and of course, this kind of vocabulary is always useful. I’m not alone in doing this, masters of language learning such as Ken Hale and Kenneth Pike also started off each new language this way.

To be frank, you can stay in this stage for however long you want. It’s the kiddie pool. You’re getting your feet wet. If you want to start swimming though, you’re going to need to face your fears and get in the deep end. You’re going to have to study some…grammar. *gasp, scream*

I’m kidding. It really shouldn’t be that scary. But if you actually want to learn a language, it is necessary to learn that language’s grammar. If anyone tries to sell you on some method that lets you learn “without grammar,” and, “the same way you did as a baby,” just remember…20,000 hours. Studying grammar is one of the major ways you cut down on the hours. Luckily though, when I say grammar, I don’t mean the same thing as what your high school English teacher meant. You’ll see what I’m talking about, when we continue next time.