Beginner's Guide to Language Learning

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CONTENTS

PART I: INTRO Q&A AND GENERAL MYTH-BUSTING
PART II: MINDSET
PART III: FOLLOW A COURSE
PART IV: FLASH CARDS
PART V: CONVERSATION
PART VI: EXTRAS

INTRO

Since age 20, I've learned five languages to fluency: Spanish, German, Catalan, French, and Dutch, and can communicate at a decent level in Italian and Portuguese. I've also made failed attempts to learn Japanese, Danish, and Swedish.

Apparently, people are convinced that I might be good with languages, because from time to time, I get asked for advice on language learning tools and how to go about learning a language. 

Here's my take: I'm not especially good at learning languages. What I am good at is being passionate about languages, talking to people, and being diligent, which are just some of the skills required to effectively learn a language.

In any case, after giving the same advice over and over, I finally decided to write a short guide that explains how I go about learning a new language. Keep in mind that there are many different theories about language learning, and people are surprisingly different in how they learn languages, more than perhaps any other discipline, so it's hard to make a routine that fits everyone. But the below method is cheap, fairly simple, and I believe it will work very effectively for most people.

MINDSET

 If you are serious about learning a language you have to be ready to use it every single day for years. I am a Chinese major and also take 4000 level German classes. In the first semester of Chinese about 70% of the class is "I want to do business in China, their economy is really taking off and learning Chinese will give me a huge advantage."

What these people don't understand is that while they are generally really motivated to work long and hard when it comes to internships or getting ahead in their job by putting in extra effort and doing the job requirements better than anyone else, these people do not have the proper motivation for learning Chinese. Every semester there were less of these people left in the program, I'm in the fifth semester now and there are literally none left. In the German courses it was similar, but the motivations were usually more along the lines of "my family is German and I want to learn it." This also was not enough and these people are gone by fifth semester on, especially when they realize German has almost no use for an American and that no German company wants to hire them just because they can speak German. The only people who are ever left are the ones who really just love learning the language and would do it even if it offered no tangible benefit (though they usually find a way to make it beneficial).

- systran, Something Awful Forums

I agree with the above quote so much that I'm going to start out this guide to learning languages by telling you not to learn a language.

Seriously, don't do it.

Let me ask you a question, dear reader: why do you want to learn your language of choice? If you can understand this text, you're probably a native English speaker or close to it. You can communicate with most of the world already, and people will fall all over themselves to get to practice English with you.

When will you use your foreign language of choice in your daily life (outside of simply learning it)? What is your greater purpose?

Over the time I've been interested in languages I have seen numerous people set a goal of learning a language, only to eventually fail. The commonality between all of these people is that they had no set motivation except for simply wanting to learn the language itself.

The brain is a stubborn thing. It resists against any piece of information it doesn't need. You have to make it believe it actually needs to learn that language — this is more important than any tool or study method.

If you believe you have this mindset, and you're ready to start, read on.

FOLLOW A COURSE

Follow a comprehensive course. While you'll be supplementing along the way with various forms of media, it's helpful to follow a general course that guides you through the language step-by-step. There are several course options I recommend:

Free options


Paid options

Pimsleur - often touted as the best method, but it's quite expensive. There are 90 lessons for each language, which costs about $700. It was invented by Paul Pimsleur, a linguist. It features spaced-repetition in the vocabulary part, which is quite smart and is now being recognized as very effective today. One note about Pimsleur: it's great for comprehension and speaking, but there are little to no textual components, so visual learners may struggle. I recommend that you combine Pimsleur with a written course.

Assimil - I've heard mixed reviews about this one. It is a bilingual textbook with recorded material in the target language. Almost all exercises are in the target language as well. They are a French company and have about 50+ languages available. Professor Arguelles, a respected Polyglot, thinks it's the best program, and you can read his description here. He describes his method of learning, first he listens to the audio until he is familiar with it, then listens until reading the translation until he can understand what is being said, then listens while reading the target language, matching words up with audio, finally typing the text out in the target language while listening to the recording, until he has the whole thing basically memorized. All the while he is "shadowing", or repeating instantaneously the words that the speaker is saying, which has been shown to improve accent tremendously. Long story short, you should be prepared to use Assimil in a creative way or combine it with other methods.

Michel Thomas - these are recordings of Michel Thomas, a language teacher, teaching two students, one with a good grasp of the material and one who is struggling. It attempts to mimic the classroom effect. The one problem is that Michel is not a native speaker of a lot of languages he teaches, so the pronunciation suffers a bit. It can also be frustrating to watch some of the students not get it.

FLASH CARDS

I could not live without Anki, a spaced-repetition flash card program that has helped me learn languages more than any other resource. Runs as a browser-based tool, via phone apps, and via a slick downloadable program for Windows, MacOS, and Linux.

People always ask how to assemble vocabulary to make flash cards for, or where to download word lists. However, I strongly recommend against doing this.

Really, the best way to improve vocabulary is just to input every unrecognized word that you come across into Anki. There are two good reasons for this: relevance and reference.
  
Relevance: I like lifting weights, so I'm going to run into German words like "Kreuzheben", "Kniebeuge", "Stellring", "Hantel" and more that are important to me, but might not be in a prevalence list or in any sort of common vocabulary list. On the other hand, I only learned that "die Eule" means owl in English after six and a half years of learning German. I never had to use that word and probably never heard anyone say it, and learning it straight off would have been a waste of time.

Reference: When you find a word in a text or hear a word on the street, you instantly make a mental reference to this word, which will stick with you when you put it in your flash card program. This has been proven to help memory. For example, for approximately 1000 of the German words in my vocabulary, I can tell you which of my German roommates taught me which one during my study abroad year, and often what I was doing or what the rough date was that I learned it.

Doing it this way means you'll be able to quickly glance at your Anki deck and get a great running count of the total size of your vocabulary.

To define the words correctly, you'll need a good dictionary. WordReference is the best dictionary for French, Spanish, Italian, and more, but a quick google search for "best dictionary for <x> language" should get you to where you need to be.

CONVERSATION

This is the most important step. For most people reading this guide, you're learning a language because you want to talk to people (unless you're some sort of weird history PhD that just wants to memorize ancient Greek texts).

Once you've had about 10 hours of focused study in your target language, your goal should be immediately trying to seek out and converse with native speakers. The instinct is always to wait for this step until you know the language better, because you're embarrassed, or you're wasting your time, etc. Hogwash. Get out there immediately and start talking. This will give you instant feedback on your language and, via the magic of positive human interaction, you'll find that you will develop a strong interest in your new language and learn more efficiently as a result. There are two ways to go about doing this:

a. Real life. Do you know anyone who speaks the language? Would they be willing to converse with you? Do you have any friends of friends that you could tap to act as a tandem partner? If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are there's a Meetup group for your language of choice. These groups often have meetings at bars and plan different language events with a mix of language speakers and learners. You might also check if the local university has a tandem partner program.

b. Online.

Italki - Chat one on one with native speakers.
Unilang - a huge forum with subforums for different languages.
MyLanguageExchange - find a tandem partner in your target language

The above are general resources aimed at language learners, but resources and communities in your native language are much better, as they'll allow you to actually interact with native speakers who aren't necessarily interested in learning languages. Look for the biggest online forum in your target language and join it.

EXTRAS

By now, you should be following a course, writing every new word down in Anki, and conversing in your language at least three times a week.

The next steps are simply supplements that will enhance your language learning experience:

Listen to music: Ask your native speaker friends for recommendations. What are the best artists that sing in your target language?

Watch movies in your target language: A handy tip I use here is using IMDB's Advanced Search to find movies in my target language and then sorting by rating. This way you can find the best movies.

Watch movies in your native language with subtitles in your target language: Even if you're watching downloaded TV shows, you can find subtitles for your target language. OpenSubtitles has the largest connection of subtitle files on the Internet. Subtitles can be downloaded for free and played by VLC player or other media players.

Listen to podcasts: It is important to to this to get an idea of how a native speaker sounds. There are too many languages to list them all here, so just run a google search for "*your language* podcast".

Write and get feedback: Start a language blog. Start a twitter account where you post only in your target language. Submit texts to Lang-8 and get feedback from native speakers.

Read books: Use PaperbackSwap or BookMooch to get cheap books in your target language. http://www.wikibooks.org may also have some open-source content. Fluent in 3 months has an innovative idea called "Learning With Texts" that allows you to input texts into the software and mark words that you learn within them.

Study grammar: I've waited until the end to list this one because most people have a natural aversion to grammar. It's fine to feel that way, but grammar is often a necessary evil. It can be avoided for a long time, but if you want to speak correctly, you're going to have to crack open a grammar book. I recommend the "Comprehensive Grammar" series.

Study and perfect your accent: This is rather theoretical. Accents are the absolute most effective way at convincing, or even fooling people into believing you speak a language well. If your goal is to speak, your accent needs to be a huge priority. A large vocabulary means nothing when people can barely understand you, but if you have a near-native accent, you can probably convince people you're a native speaker even with a vocabulary of under a thousand words. To work on your accent, you can try mimicking native speakers that you talk to. Forcefully overdo the accent at first. It may sound silly, but it will help your brain to recognize how to move your lips in a way that will pronounce the sounds more accurately. After that, just keep asking people for feedback on your pronunciation and perfect it bit by bit. 

So there you have it. Some simple steps that can be combined in any way possible to find the way that best works for you. Remember, the best method is something you will actually DO. If you plan out a 2-hour a day regiment, but it ends up being too much, cut it back. Just try to get some interaction in your target language every day, and you'll be on your way to fluency in no time.