How to Get Good at Learning Languages

I enjoy learning langauges. It’s a hobby of mine. I have learnt loads of languages. I have taught languages in schools, to corporate groups and to individuals of all ages. Just finished my Masters in Linguistics, the focus of which was on how we learn languages. So, it’s safe to say that I know a lot about this stuff. The truth is most people don’t.

People like to volunteer that they’re “not good at languages”. If I had a penny for every time I heard “I did French for six years and I can’t even order a French baguette with a side of French baguette”. Well, my friend, that it isn’t a reflection of your linguistic inability, that’s more a reflection of a system that prioritises exam results over actual learning.

Je suis un baguette

Then there is the assumption that I am somewhat “gifted”. The truth is, I am not. The people that thrive at learning languages are the disciplined. And over the years I’ve just gotten good at following a process. You too can make your own process. But this is mine. It’s split into five sections: 1) getting ready (doing the research, 2) setting up the resources, 3) setting goals, 4) make a schedule, and 5) using the damn language!

Do the research

The first thing you want to do is get a better understanding of the language you’re about to learn. Go on the Wikipedia page for that language. Have a look at the grammar and the sound system of that language. Constantly compare back and forth. “Oh yeah…this is like English in this regard but very different in this regard”. Here are the key things you want to achieve with this stage:

What’s the cannonical sentence structure of this language?

The sentence Bob played football. How does it look in your target language? In Arabic, this would be “played Bob football”. This tells me that the verb comes first whereas in English the verb comes second.

Are there any consonants that your language doesn’t have?

This can be an important consideration. Specific constants have definitely put me off learning languages. For example if a language has a click…I’m not invovled. Too many affricates?…see ya. Here is an example of a language I’m never gonna go near.

Salish…I’m not involved.

Are there any vowels that your language doesn’t have?

Reason I’m never learning Swedish. I heard it’s got some dirty vowels.

What will be the challenges of learning to read this language?

Pray it’s written in a Latin alphabet. If it’s characters…what will this mean for your learning process? Will you be limited to just speaking? This is an important consideration. I know myself. I want to speak as soon as possible. I don’t want to faff about learning a difficult writing system. But you might be different.

Who speaks this language? And how will my life be enhanced by it?

It’s important that you be properly motivated. Why are you learning this language? If it’s just a passing interest…you’ll probably stop after a while (lol at me with Korean). There needs to be a genuine reason you want to learn a language. By genuine I mean for work, for family, for travel, interest in the culture, etc.

What other languages are in this family?

I’m constantly thinking about the next step. If I learn this language…what other languages can I step into and learn at a discounted rate.

How many verb forms will you have to learn?

The fewer the conjugations the better. Basically…don’t go crazy.

Does it have cases?

Don’t do Hungarian.

What resources are there in this language?

If it’s European languages…you’ll find loads of resources. If it’s Mandarin, Korean, Arabic, Japanese, you’ll find loads too. But other non-European languages have limited resources. Think about the type of learner you are and what this might mean for you.

Get the tools

This step is about setting up a workflow. Think of language learning as a type of work. What tools are you going to need to do this work? Here are tools/things that I have found really useful.

Books

Research. A lot. It’s important that the textbook you’re using is 1. your level and 2. it is suited to your style of learning.

Anki

To be fair, this requires a bit of commitment. But once you’ve got it on your laptop, you will not look back. It uses space repetition. To get the most of it, you’ll need to use it everyday. I’ve got a daily reminder on my laptop which tells me “hey…go do some Anki”. It’s just part of my day now. Thanks to it…I have learnt thousands of words on it in several languages.

If I now press “Easy”, I won’t see that word for another month.

Quizlet

I love this website so much that I made the modern languages department at my old school start using it. I would not shut up about it. It’s got a slick app too. In essence, it’s a flashcards app. But it’s the community that gives it life.

For European languages Conjuguemos

This is a wicked tool for learning to conjugate verbs. Basically, you set up a timer, choose a verb group (say regular -er verb in the present) and go! It gives you a precentage at the end of the exercise.

Learning with Text

Someone made a pretty cool tool for importing text of any language and keeping track of the word you know/words you’ve never seen before. It’s in php but you won’t actually need to know any php. There are loads of Youtube videos helping you set it up. This is a life saver when you’re at the intermediate stage in a language and you want to learn highly specialised vocabulary.

Set goals (make sure they’re measurable)

Figure out what you’re trying to get done in the next six months. Do things in six month blocks. Make sure that it is a measurable goal. This might be a number of words you want to know, a number of lessons, perhaps an exam at the end of the year.

Make a schedule

I actually think language learning is 85% discpline and 15% experience which people sometimes mistake for linguistic genius. Make a language learning timetable and stick to it.

Smaller blocks better than big blocks that are less frequent

Don’t do a single 3 hour block at the end of the week if you can do 30 minute blocks six hours a week.

Hold yourself accountable

I don’t measure language training in terms of hours but tasks. Hours don’t really mean anything. Every week I print out a list of things I am supposed to do for my language training. I then tick them off. It’s not a good week unless I’ve ticked off my language training tasks.

Use the language

Local teachers are best

If you can afford to have lessons, have lessons. If you can’t afford to have lessons with local teachers…find online teachers.

Online teachers are also good

Italki is a great resource. I used to have Indonesian lessons for $5/h a couple of years. So, yeah…just because you’re broke doesn’t mean you can’t afford a teacher!

Conversation exchange is a must

If you live in a big city like London, you will find a weekly language exchange meet-up. Go to it. Every week if you can. Talk to native speakers that want to exchange your English for their native language.

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