How I learn languages
So, depending on the level of interest people have in my way of doing things, I might create a more thorough guide in the future. However, in the interest of brevity I will create a very rough step by step guide for people because why not.
1. Pick a language - Pick one you like; don’t worry about it being “practical” or “useful.” If you don’t like the language you’re studying, it’s going to be a miserable experience and learning languages should be fun!
2. Learn IPA - Learning how to read IPA characters (International Phonetic Alphabet) is imperative to being a successful language learner. If you haven’t already, put some time into learning how to read IPA transcriptions because it will save you a lot of time and give you a much better accent when learning the sounds of your target language. Avoid “english-y” transcriptions (e.g. très = TRAY) like the plague. They’re bad and people who make them should feel bad.
3. Learn the alphabet/writing system - Usually it doesn’t take a super long time, and if you’re studying a language like Japanese or Chinese it’s best to get used to using the writing system from the very beginning. You’re gonna have to deal with it eventually so you may as well hop right in. Relying on latin character transcriptions will only put off the inevitable.
4. Learn the pronunciation of your target language - I advocate a pronunciation-first approach. This will be easier or harder depending on how many unfamiliar sounds there are in your TL, but it’s worth going over the phonology (sound system) of your language early and getting used to how its sounds interact. If you don’t learn proper pronunciation in the beginning, you’ll ingrain incorrect pronunciations into your brain which will be hard to undo later on. You don’t have to try to make your accent perfect, accent reduction can come later, but it’s worth spending some time on. This is especially true for language with odd sounds or features (tones, voicing distinctions, etc.)
5. Pick ONE course/book - A problem I see a lot, and one that I have fallen into many times myself, is hording language learning resources. In the beginning, and especially for beginner polyglots, it is better to pick ONE really good course or book to follow, and focus on mastering the material within. If you try to split your time between too many resources or books or websites, you’ll quickly become overwhelmed. Some books/courses/series I recommend that can commonly be found for all languages are: Teach Yourself, Assimil, Duolingo, Linguaphone, and Pimsleur among others. You can always use one of those while you keep searching for more resources, but resist the temptation to dig into multiple books at once.
6. Use an SRS to learn vocabulary/grammar - SRS’s (Spaced Repetition Systems) are my bread and butter when it comes to memorization. Put simply, they are tools for spending your studying time more efficiently, and they warrant an entire post by themselves. Rote memorization is for the birds, so use a spaced repetition system such as Anki, Supermemo, a Leitner Box, or Memrise to avoid wasting your time. (Use Anki. Just use Anki. You’ll thank me later.)
7. Don’t translate - I used to learn vocabulary and grammar using English translations, but you’ll soon find that it’s only useful to an extent as your vocabulary gets bigger and you start running out of unique ways to translate synonyms. A more robust approach to flash card creation can be found in the book “Fluent Forever” by Gabriel Wyner, which I would definitely recommend reading. The short version is: use pictures instead of English translations for picturable words, for more abstract words and grammar concepts, use example sentences with cloze deletion cards (easy to create using Anki. seriously, just use anki.)
8. Speak the language! - Probably the only thing I actually learned from He Who Shall Not Be Named (anyone who’s been in the polyglot community for longer than 30 seconds knows who I’m talking about.) It seems simple but you should really speak the language as much as you can straight from the beginning. “But how can I speak the language if I’m not fluent or if I’ve just started?” Simple, use what you know, and do whatever it takes to make yourself understood. It really doesn’t take much, maybe 100 words or so (a day’s worth of work if you’re dedicated) to start to be able to put sentences together. Learning phrases is even better for this. For this reason, a phrasebook (Lonely Planet is a popular choice) is a worthy investment.
9. Immerse yourself as much as possible! - Watch TV, read books, nespapers, and articles, and listen to music in your TL. Get yourself used to being around the language. Ideally, you’d be able to move to the country or region where the language is spoken and truly immerse yourself, but for many total immersion can be either unrealistic or overwhelming. It’s totally possible to give yourself enough contact with the language and even create a 100% immersion environment all from the comfort of your home. The important thing is to have contact with the language and get used to being around it. This is where you’ll pick up on the rhythms of the language, tonality, intonation, all that good stuff. More importantly, it will get you used to how FAST people talk.
10. Keep looking for things you don’t know. - This is probably the best advice I could give anyone. There are things out there that you don’t even know you don’t know, so the best thing to do is to keep surrounding yourself with new facts, new vocabulary, new grammar structures, etc. If you’re looking for a new course/book, look for one that seems like it has a lot to teach you. Don’t rehash things you already know, it’s a waste of time. This is the basic principle of SRS’s, don’t review until you forget. Going back over concepts you already know is pointless and it contributes to “plateau syndrome” (when it feels like you’re not making any progress in your TL). Review what you need to, when you need to, only so long as you need to. Learning one new concept is worth more than going back over two you’ve already mastered.
11. HAVE FUN - The road to fluency is long. Like super long, I can’t stress this enough. You may not be fluent in 3 months, a year, two years, maybe even 5 years. It all depends on how much time you are willing to spend on the language and to a VERY VERY SMALL DEGREE how talented you are. The important thing is to not rush it and enjoy the experience. If you’re not having fun, modify your goals and your approach until you are.
This is nowhere near everything I have to say, but it’s a start. These are just some things I wish I had known when I started studying languages. So if it helps at least one person well hey that’s enough for me. :D