To learn a language faster, practice the alphabet. This and other steps beat rote memorization.
Most people teach you to memorize words and phrases, I teach these techniques instead.
I’m fluent in three languages and have been teaching them to both natives and non-natives for over seven years. My youngest student was nine, studying English as a second language at school, struggling to get better grades. My oldest was 75, he made it a challenge to learn some Russian by the end of summer but ended up going all the way to fluency.
Working with them and hundreds of other people, I’ve found that there is no such thing as “too early” or “too late” when it comes to learning a new language, and regardless of your age, motives, resources, and the amount of free time you’re ready to put into it, the process is more or less identical up to a certain point.
Start by Setting Up a Schedule
Most teachers insist on three to four lessons a week, which is half correct, but also half wrong.
True, three to four hours a week has proven to be a very efficient frequency. It’s also the most convenient, especially for those who work or study regularly. But if you don’t have enough time or energy, it doesn’t have to be three to four hours. The same goes for those who are excited to spend more time learning but hold back because of media-induced fear to overwork and lose interest. Don’t be discouraged!
My English lessons were scheduled once a week, often once every two weeks because my teacher was also a stay-at-home mother of an unpredictable five-year-old. That was way less than the glorified three to four hours, but I did alright.
One of my students ended up in a very unfortunate situation two years ago: They failed their Romanian exam and had but three weeks to prepare for a reexamination. As a result, we agreed on a lesson once a day, often with calls and emails that piled up way over the scheduled time. He passed, scoring 79/100.
Consistency is the key. Feeling overworked? Adjust the schedule. Eager to learn more? Add a few hours. But as soon as you’ve found your ideal rhythm, stick to it.
Learn the Alphabet
Many languages use the same or almost the same letters as English does, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn them like you’re a first-grader again. There are two notable reasons to do this:
- The letters may look the same but are pronounced differently. Consider English ‘C’ (pronounced “see”) and Romanian ‘C’ (pronounced “cheh”). I actually made the mistake of not learning the difference right from the start, and my pronunciation was messed up for years as a result.
- It gives you “the feel,” according to some of my students. You’re getting yourself familiar with the phonetics of the language — the way it’s supposed to sound when you get to actual words. I myself noticed it the most when trying to read in French. The moment I heard those ‘ah,’ ‘beh,’ ‘seh,’ ‘deh,’ it hinted at what would be extremely difficult for me, and I was never so right in my entire life.
You’ll also find that some more exotic languages use different writing systems.
- Languages like Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew are consonant-based, which means they use letters for consonants and diacritics (small shapes that add onto letters) for vowels.
- Some Eastern languages, like Japanese, use a syllabic writing system, where a character represents a syllable instead of a single sound.
- Finally, some languages — most notably Chinese — are logographic, which means they use characters to represent polysyllabic morphemes. To put it simply, a character may be a sound, a syllable, or a whole word on its own.
- There are other unique writing systems, most of which may seem complicated and overwhelming. But if you approach the subject with due attention and logical thinking, you’ll notice that it’s almost always well-structured.
So, no matter what language you’re learning, the alphabet is a good place to start.
Follow Up by Learning Your Pronunciation Rules
In my experience, English is the most inconsistent language when it comes to pronunciation. It was giving me hell back in the days (the memory of trying to pronounce “great” as “gree-t” because that’s how it’s supposed to sound keeps me up at night), but for you, it’s actually a good thing.
Don’t try to memorize all the exceptions. Right now just stick with the general rules and try to mimic the unfamiliar sounds as closely as you can.
Practice reading names
People, cities, towns — these kinds of names. The key is turning your knowledge into actual reading skills without overloading your head with new information.
If you feel like it’s too easy, just remember how many natives can’t pronounce “Worcestershire.” And my teacher made me say it properly at least a dozen times just to make sure I get the ‘sh’ sound right!
This is also a great time to practice the sounds that exist in your new language, but not in English. You’ll probably get them wrong for the first thousand times, but that’s OK! It’s just a build-up to when you’ll have to do the actual speaking.
If you feel like adding words — go for it
If the language goes easy on pronunciation and doesn’t give you much trouble, feel free to add new words. This is a good chance to memorize something you likely won’t have the time to learn in context. When I notice my students are getting comfortable reading proper nouns, I teach them colors, seasons and months, or numbers.
Don’t pick a vast subject, though. You’ll have plenty of time to learn all the fruits and vegetables, body parts, family members, and clothing elements — all in due time. Actually, schools often get this wrong, which results in children being overwhelmed with information and new students coming to me unable to construct a basic sentence but proudly claiming they know how to say “eggplant” in Russian.
It’s OK if you just went and looked up “eggplant” in your new language out of curiosity. Just don’t get too excited and try to keep your focus on the task at hand — pronunciation.
The Most Important Verbs
We’re getting to the good stuff, aren’t we?
Now, these may vary from language to language, and different teachers might have different opinions on which verbs to consider the most important. I’ve always used “to be” as the fundamental one, “to have” being a close second. Find the most basic tense — it’s usually Present, and if there are many of those, search for Present Simple — and learn how these verbs behave with different pronouns.
Yes, now is also the time to learn your pronouns. If there are cases, don’t touch them yet! Better get the basics down first.
Pay attention to the word order: Some languages have it the same way English does (Subject, then Verb — ‘SV’), and some are vice versa (‘VS’)! If you’re feeling extra productive, notice where the rest of the sentence goes, too (it’s called ‘Object’, and usually goes after the first two, unless you’re Master Yoda or Slavic).
Affirmation, negation, question
“Are you X?”
“I am not X. I am Y.”
Notice the word order? The little changes in the structure of these three sentences? Watch them in your new language. Get down the formula. From now on, when learning a new tense you’ll always study its behavior in affirmative, negative, and interrogative sentences. It may feel like a lot of patterns to memorize, but it’s easier this way in the long run.
You’ll also notice that in many sources the three types of sentences are listed differently: declarations, questions, and orders. While true, the imperative type has its own grammatical structure that often doesn’t fit under the umbrella of tenses. It’s also important to not overlook negations — in some languages, such as French, they can be very tricky.
Some sources you may stumble upon also list exclamatory sentences as an individual type, though in my practice it was never a grammatical issue.
Talk about yourself — add new words!
What do you do when you get new clothes? You try them on, of course! Well, language functions the same way your new Nikes do — when learning something, you use it to talk about yourself.
“I am Ray. Am I a woman? I am not a woman. I am an engineer. I am a writer. I am a tutor. I am handsome. Are you interested?”
Kidding, kidding — you don’t have to be this insolent. Just translate whatever springs to your mind, write it down, say it aloud a few times — you’ll be surprised how many words there are in which you can describe yourself.
If you’re feeling like exercising, take every affirmation you wrote and turn it into a negation, then a question. That should keep you busy for a good couple of hours!
Always in Context
I despise those huge lists that offer my students “100 words that you absolutely need to know,” “1,000 words you must learn immediately,” “1,000 words that will make you fluent,” etc. What’s the point of memorizing words if you can’t put them in the right place?
Never make it your goal to know a certain amount of words, or even worse, to learn a certain number of them per day. When you’re more familiar with grammar rules and structures, you’ll find it natural to explore new topics. Right now just open a dictionary, make up a sentence about something very familiar, look up the necessary word, and put it to good use immediately.
If you don’t remember it right away — that’s OK. You can write down the words you look up more often than the others just so it’s easier to find them next time. Rest assured, you’ll have plenty of stuff to memorize later. No need to add words to it when humans have such a wonderful natural ability to pick up on repetitive actions and remember them without you even noticing.
Careful — some languages are gendered!
That is, now that you’re expanding your vocabulary, nouns may turn out to have genders! The Russian language has three. Romanian has two and a weird case of “neutral”, German has three and for some reason “girl” is neuter. It comes up mostly when interacting with cases, adjectives, and articles.
I can’t give you much advice here because each language has its own rules. But I can and will strongly insist that you do not learn each word’s gender by heart. It ruined my learning French for years until I picked it back up a few months ago! It’s so much easier to remember “la fenêtre” than “the word ‘window’ is feminine in French.” Thus, context!
Walk Around the House — Add W-Words, Possessive, and Directional Pronouns!
“Where is your kitchen? The kitchen is not here. What is this? This is a plate. It is white. Who are those? Those are my cats. They are hungry.”
I could go on for hours, and so can you with your dictionary and a bit of imagination. Your options will feel very limited in the beginning, but instead of diving head-first into more complicated grammar, see what you can do with what you’ve got at the moment. One of my students, whom I asked to write down his monologue, came up with this magnificent piece: “This is my house. I’m in my home. The city is my home. My planet is my home. It’s your home too. The universe is our home. My homework is not done.”
The moment you learn how comparison works in your new language, everything will turn into a scale. “Y is large, X is larger than Y, and Z is the largest of them all.” Does it feel like a good enough cause for another walk around the house?
If you haven’t done so already, now is a great time to add more adjectives to your sentences. Look, you can talk about your friends now! Or your pets. I myself compared my dog to everyone, but you do you.
Cases might also become an issue here. If they do, learn them one by one, not all at once. Ideally, learn the ones you intend to be using regularly from this point on. Deal with the others as they come.
It’s Getting TENSE, Ha Ha
Present tense, that is. If you’re feeling comfortable with what you’ve been learning so far, that urge to add some action to your sentences must have built up, and no more need to hold it back will make for a wonderful relief.
Remember affirmation, negation, and question! Once you have all three formulas down, you’ll be surprised by how many options you now have. And that’s considering you haven’t yet even touched Past and Future!
If your language has more than one Present tense, don’t rush to learn them all. Focus on the simplest one, then judge for yourself whether the rest is worth picking up now or later. At this point you’re quite safe with your basics, so no worries if you miss a bit of important information. You’ll get back to it. Nothing will stop you.
You’re on Your Own From Here
Up until this point, the similarities between different languages were prominent enough, but from now on things will only get more hectic. And more unique, making the learning process different for each language as well as each student. You’ll learn those things as you go, and, if you were following this general guide, you will find yourself ready for the big game.
All that’s left of me to offer is a piece of advice.
Textbook definitions aren’t for everyone
You might find yourself struggling to understand them. It’s normal.
The form of the verb used for actions or events that have been completed or have happened in a period of time up to now.
And here is (roughly) how one of my students defined it:
“If you imagine yourself teleporting into the past and can still see yourself doing the same thing that you did before you teleported, and haven’t finished it yet at that time, then at the moment from which you teleported the time would be Present Perfect!”
Can’t say I understand where he was coming from, but there wasn’t a single case where he would identify this tense incorrectly. So go ahead, teleport all you want — it’s not weird or anything. And if you don’t understand your teacher’s explanations, it might be not your fault at all. Nobody can get into your head and sort things out. All that’s left to do is to set aside the definition you’re struggling with and look for a different perspective.
Think — don’t translate
When presented with a task to write or talk about something, do your best to do it directly in your new language. It won’t come easy!
When you learn to think in that language instead of translating every line, you’ll notice how much faster you can write and talk. It will also rid you of the ordeal that is restructuring a sentence when the way you wanted to say it doesn’t work in the language you’re using.
If you wanted to say “I have a dog” in Russian and started translating with “I-,” you’d end up going nowhere because the proper construction would be something that roughly translates to “At my place, there is a dog.”
Explore every possible way to practice
You probably know all the usual ones — podcasts, YouTube, movies, language exchange sites, moving to another country… Here are a few less popular ideas:
- Playing crosswords, scrabble, and other word games.
- Translating a foreign song in your head as it plays. If you’re hardcore enough — translating an English song into a foreign language as it plays.
- A bonus of learning with friends — choose a random word, explain it in your new language without naming it, and make your friend guess what it is. Start with simpler words like “life,” “sun,” “book.” Move on to more complex ones, and if you’re hardcore, don’t choose them yourself. Instead, get them from a dictionary by opening a random page and pointing at a random word.
- Start a diary in your new language.
- Switch your phone to your new language, do the same for your PC, and all the games on them both.
- Find some Facebook groups that post in the language you’re learning. Join them. See how long it takes you to build up the courage to leave a comment.
Depending on your lifestyle, you can come up with plenty more options. Just don’t let yourself get lazy!
I’ve been trying to gently get you to do it from the very beginning. Don’t stop! The sentences will get longer, the grammar will feel confusing, and you’ll find you’re way slower than the natives. You’re not the only one.
One of my students found it helpful to send voice messages to herself. She would practice speaking in the privacy of her room, not feeling confident enough about her pronunciation. Recording, listening, and noting down the mistakes helped her get more comfortable with her own voice.
Another student used chatbots with the “speech to text” function. He out-grew them eventually and moved on to practicing with real people.
The point is, no matter how you do it, never allow yourself to stop speaking.
Do it any way you can, and soon you’ll be able to pull out a monologue any time you want.
That would be all. Thank you.