The Ultimate Language Learning Guide Part II: Foundations

Shannon Kennedy
Published in
6 min readSep 18, 2018


You know why you want to learn a language and have a clear goal in sight, but you still have trouble getting started.

What do you need to do to get there?

Photo by Ramin Khatibi on Unsplash

Recapping Part I

In the first part of this series, I shared the myths we tell ourselves about why we can’t learn languages and how to overcome them. These myths often keep us from reaching our full potential as language learners because they block our path. But once you have the path cleared, you can then move on to figure out your “why” for learning a language, then set a destination and checkpoints along the way. You can then find the confidence to take the first step along that path and maintain the courage to keep going.

But now what?

The Four Core Skills

Your ability in a language is made up of four core skills: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. How you’ll mix these up to form a strong foundation in the language won’t be an even 25–25–25–25 split. Instead, you’ll focus on the skills you need most to reach your goals.

Deciding what the right mix is for your foundation will help you figure out what language tools and resources you need to use and where to focus your time, but if you’ve never learned a language on your own before, this can feel like a daunting task.

The truth is, it isn’t as scary as it seems, and even if you don’t find the right mix on your first pass, your language learning future isn’t doomed. Rather, a small, painless course adjustment is all that’s needed to get you back on track.

Let’s take a look at the examples used in the previous post. You can use these as templates for formulating your own mix to start laying down your language foundation.

I will be able to hold a fifteen-minute conversation in my target language at the end of three months.
Approximate focus:
Speaking: 40% Listening: 40% Reading: 15% Writing 5%

If your focus is conversation, the two most important skills you’ll want to work on are speaking and listening. Second to that is reading. Why? Because as your practice speaking and listening, you may want to see what you’re hearing. Having the ability to read in your target language will allow you to do this. And finally, knowing how to write in the language you’re learning gets a little attention because there’s a good chance you’ll want to take notes as you’re learning.

In three weeks, I will be able to order my entire meal in Spanish when we go out to eat at our favorite Mexican food place.
Approximate focus:
Speaking: 45% Listening: 45% Reading: 10% Writing: 0%

Because this is a scenario where you’ll want to learn highly specific vocabulary for a highly specific context, the focus here is again on speaking and listening. When you communicate with your server, you’ll need to be able to say your order (not write it down) and then understand any questions the server may ask you. Reading, depending on the restaurant you visit, may also need attention if the menu is in Spanish.

I will be able to confidently use public transportation and ask for directions or recommendations on my trip to Portugal in six months.
Approximate focus:
Speaking: 30% Listening: 60% Reading: 10% Writing: 0%

If you’d like to get around on your own using public transportation, listening will be the most important skill for you to work on. You’ll need to understand instructions and directions when they’re given to you and make out announcements on trains and in terminals. From there, speaking is the next key skill. You’ll want to be able to ask for directions or anything else you might need as you make your way around Portugal. Finally, reading is next in line. Figuring out where your stop is on a map or what an address might be will help make your trip successful.

I am going to meet my 5-minute study goal on Drops every day.
Approximate focus: Speaking:
10% Listening: 20% Reading: 30% Writing: 30%

When using Drops to learn vocabulary, reading in your language is key to picking up tons of new words. That’s why we have sections that help you learn the writing system or alphabet for whichever language you’re learning. From there, writing is next, but not in the traditional sense. The reason a lot of language learners ignore writing is because it can slow you down a lot. That’s why Drops teaches you to write in your language using intuitive taps and swipes rather than typing. That way, you can spend time learning how to write the words you’re studying rather than waste time trying to figure out where a letter or character is on a different keyboard. As you learn each new word, repeating them out loud is where you get speaking practice. It’s a great way to internalize what you’re learning.

I’m going to use German when I go to Hamburg this summer.
Approximate focus:
Speaking: 40% Listening: 40% Reading: 20% Writing: 0%

Our last example was using German on a trip to Hamburg. This is similar to being able to order in a restaurant or get around via public transportation and will likely include a bit of both! The most important skills are speaking and listening. You’ll need them to communicate with the people you encounter on your trip. Whether it’s a server in a restaurant, staff at the train station, or a pharmacist, most of what you’ll do will involve being able to listen and speak. Reading again makes an appearance — you’ll want to understand menus, instructions, and other written materials you come across as you travel around.

Language Tools Assemble!

Once you know which of the four core language skills you need to focus on, you can begin to pick language learning tools, apps, and resources that help you build them.

With listening, you’ll want to look at:

  • Podcasts
  • Audio lessons
  • Apps like Drops that include audio recordings of native speakers so you can hear the words you’re learning read by a real person and not a computer
  • Conversation exchanges or tutors
  • Music
  • Video lessons
  • Native materials: music, movies, and tv shows in the language that you’re learning

With speaking, you might want to try:

  • Conversation exchanges or tutors
  • Recording short videos of you speaking your language (here’s an example)
  • Podcasts or audio lessons (the ones that require you to answer out loud)

With reading, you can use:

  • Coursebooks
  • Apps like Drops or others
  • Readers (these are books written with learners in mind)
  • Native materials: books, articles, or magazines

With writing:

  • Coursebooks
  • A journal (writing an entry in your language each day is good practice)
  • Apps like Drops or others

Regardless of the Four Core Skills, This is the One Thing You’ll Always Need

Vocabulary. Words are the most important part of the mixture that make up your language foundation. They’re the glue that holds everything together.

If you don’t know words, you won’t understand. If you don’t know words, you won’t be able to speak. If you don’t know words, you won’t be able to read. If you don’t know words, you won’t have anything to write down. And if you don’t know words, you won’t be able to make sense of any of the grammar structures you’re learning.

There’s another myth that’s prevalent in language learning that I didn’t mention in the first part of this series. It’s the myth that grammar outweighs vocabulary in terms of importance, but my experience has proven the opposite is true. Words are worth their weight in gold.

Even if I don’t know the right grammar structure to communicate my point, I can stick the right words together and get across whatever it is I’m trying to say — even if it’s full of mistakes.

Not sure what I mean?

Here’s an example:

“If this train to take, Paris suburb which go to?”

Could you figure out what I’m saying?

If you got something like, “If I take this train, which Paris suburb will I get to?” You’ve got it.

Here’s another:

“Want food something no meat, please. On menu, what you to recommend?”

Any ideas?

It’s: “I’d like something without meat (vegetarian), please. What do you recommend?”

It may not be pretty, but it works and it will help you communicate in the language sooner rather than later. And once you know the words, you can then start to hone in on all the other things you need to know to get to the next level.

What about you? What are your language goals and what skills do you need to lay down to set your foundation? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

Drops: the new way to easily learn a language that combines engaging and fun word games with beautiful design. Learn up to 35 languages with fun, visual games. Try the fastest-growing language app in the world for free on iOS or Android.



Shannon Kennedy

Resident Polyglot & Language Expert at Drops. World Explorer and language enthusiast at Eurolinguiste.