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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, Chinese and Portuguese.

The most common word that comes out of someone's mouth when they find this out is some variation of gift: I have succeeded in learning multiple languages where many have failed, thus the difference must be some magical genetic gift that I possess that everyone else doesn't.

As much as it puts one at ease to ascribe everything to divine determinism, there is no mystical language learning gift. Instead, the ideal language learner will possess a number of traits, among them: diligence, passion, memorization, extroversion, and accent imitation. While high skills in each of these traits means high potential for quickly and efficiently learning languages, they are useless without one thing:

A method.

Over the past twelve years, I've obsessively refined my method that I've used to learn each new language from zero to fluency, and, having consumed a ton of language learning content, I believe that mine is among the most optimal. If you're detail-oriented, progress-motivated and value efficiency, while balancing all of the former with a healthy dose of fun, this guide will probably speak to you.

Note: Like any skill, people are surprisingly different in how they best learn languages, so it's impossible to make one guide that fits everyone. Instead, I've decided to present my own personal process in the hopes that you can take bits and pieces and apply it to your own learning.

MINDSET

Before we get started with the actual method, I would be remiss not to mention that most people who set out to learn a language fail.

For most, learning a language is a pipe dream. How many times have you been in a conversation with someone about travel or languages and heard them say "Oh, I'd love to learn Italian!" As they fantasize about their dream vacation carousing through Naples eating unlimited pizza and pasta while spending nights under the sheets with their olive-skinned partner of choice, whispering sweet nothings in each other's ears. They might get as far as even creating a Duoingo account, using it for a couple weeks, never speaking the language with a single person in real life, and then forgetting they ever made the attempt in the first place.

Early on in my language learning experience, I came across the following quote, which has stuck with me to this day:

 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

Learning a language is not something one does idly. It requires intense dedication and a massive time commitment.

If you're not willing to spend 10-30 minutes a day doing something related to your target language, don't learn a language.

If your sole motivation for learning a language is that "it would be cool", don't learn a language.

If you don't plan on solely speaking your target language every time you encounter a native speaker to get some practice in, don't learn a language.

The brain is a stubborn beast that resists any piece of information it doesn't need. To be successful, you have to make it believe it actually needs to learn a second, completely different form of communication — this is more important than any tool or study method.

Now, all is not doom and gloom. Though most fail, you won't, especially if you read and apply what will follow in this guide. Remember: we are living in the greatest time in the world to learn languages. The rise of the internet and smartphones means that for the first time, a near-endless amount of resources are available to assist you as a willing learner. It's all about finding them and applying them.

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

LANGUAGE-SPECIFIC PREPARATION AND RESOURCES

To learn most effectively, you must first learn how to learn.

The first thing you should do when you choose your target language is spend an entire day reading about the language itself and compiling a list of study resources. You should find:

As you're reading, take notes on what you find. I personally create a text file in Dropbox for each language I learn and break it out by sections:

Now that you're done reading and taking notes, get your language learning environment set up. This means:

GENERAL PREPARATION AND RESOURCES

In addition to resources that may be specific to your target language, there are also a number of resources that are valid for any language.

Flash Cards

A flash card application is indispensable. It will help you track and massively improve your vocabulary with very little effort. I recommend Anki, a spaced-repetition flash card system that has helped me stay consistent with learning more than any other resource. It runs as a browser-based tool, via phone apps (Android is free, iPhone costs, but is worth it), and via a downloadable application for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. I explain how I set up and use Anki later in the guide.

Courses

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 a few course options I recommend:

Free options

Paid options

Chat

With the rise of smartphones and high-quality videochat, options for chatting to native speakers across the globe have exploded. There are two specific resources I recommend that are nearly mandatory for any language learner:

Writing, Reading, and Listening

Once you've installed Anki, any mobile apps from above, and bookmarked any other websites you want to use, stop for the day. You might be very motivated to continue on and actually start "learning", but in my experience this never ends up going well. First, you need a process to follow.

PROCESS

This is your bread and butter. This is the exact daily and weekly process I follow that has been fine-tuned over many years to give you the best bang for your buck as far as study time.

Two notes before we get started:

Anki Setup

First, open Anki and create a blank deck for your target language. Resist the urge to download any pre-made decks, or pull vocabulary from another source. The most efficient way to improve your vocabulary is simply to input every unrecognized word that you come across during your language practice 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 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.

By only inputting the words you organically encounter, you'll also reduce the total number of words you learn, which will prevent you from being overwhelmed with hours of flash card review a day. Also, you'll be able to get a quick idea of the current size of your vocabulary by looking at how many total cards are in your Anki deck, which can help motivate you to make progress.

Once you have Anki set up, open whatever structured course you decided to use (DuoLingo, Pimsleur, a textbook, etc.) and start following the course. As you encounter new words, write them down in a words list for later addition to Anki. I recommend the word list method, as interrupting your study to add each new concept to Anki in the moment can break your focus. Personally, I use Evernote.

Word List to Anki

At the end of each study session, look over the words you added to your word list and add them to Anki. You may decide you want to add all the words, but in my experience this quickly becomes overwhelming. I use two criteria to decide whether to transfer a word from my word list to Anki:

This ensures you don't go adding the translation for "contingent sovereignty" on day one, given that you may never encounter that phrase again. In the same vein, only add the meaning of a word in a context you learned it in. For example, if the most common usage of a word is what you learned, but you open up the dictionary and see that it has two alternate, but obscure meanings, don't add them until you actually hear the word used in this way.

When you're adding words, use the "Basic (and reversed card)" card type. This will create a native language -> target language card, as well as a target language -> native language card. You'll want to make sure you're reviewing both to insure that both your input and output are tested.

Note: grammar concepts can be added to Anki as well, just like words. Feel free to make the front and back of the card in your native language, if it helps you to better understand grammar tips.

Anki Review

The great thing about Anki is that with the mobile app, it can be reviewed at any time. Waiting for the bus? Pull up Anki. Feel the urge to scroll through your Instagram feed? Pull up Anki. Procrastinating on completing that project? Pull up Anki for a quick break. Even if you only use Anki when you have idle time, you should have no problems reviewing all your due cards each day.

It's helpful to use mnemonics to remember certain words when reviewing. For example, say I'm trying to learn the Chinese word 游戏 (yóu xì), which means "game". In my mind, I associate it with Yoshi, making it easy to remember the translation to "game".

Conversation

This is the most important step.

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 might actually develop a strong interest in your new language and learn more efficiently as a result!

If you're an introvert, I recommend a stepwise approach: use text chat first, then work up to audio, then video, then finally to in-person interactions. If you're some sort of unabashed extrovert like me, go ahead and find a meetup and attempt to have a conversation in Chinese about artificial intelligence after having studied for a grand total of five hours (this example may or may not be based on an insane thing I once did).

Asynchonous Conversation - Text and Voice Messages

Let's imagine you're using HelloTalk. Open it up, shoot out a greeting to five or so people, and wait for them to respond. When they do, use the very basics you've learned to have a conversation with them. Every not-yet-known word they send back, add to your word list. If you need to write something back and you don't quite know how to form sentences to say it, type as much as you know, then use Google Translate to check your work (Note that you should never use Google Translate to do your work for you, you will only be cheating your brain out of opportunities to learn naturally.)

Protip: Tinder and other online dating apps can be used in this exact same way, and may give you a little extra... well, motivation to maintain your language study. For $9.99 a month, Tinder Plus will let you change your location to anywhere in the world.

Once you're ready to make the next step, upgrade to audio chat. Start sending audio messages to your HelloTalk partners and wait for them to send some back. It's normal to not understand what they're saying at first. Use the transliterate option to convert their audio to text to get your "subtitles".

Synchronous Conversation - Video Chat

Once you feel like you're ready to take the training wheels off, make the jump to video chat. Get the Skype ID of one of your HelloTalk partners or book a lesson with a teacher on iTalki. The switch to synchronous communication can be jarring at first; for the first time, you won't have time to look up every new word in the dictionary, and you won't have a text transcript of what your conversation partner is saying.

However, just like anything, there's a method of how to make this work. Make sure you have your word list open in another window and write down every new word you learn during the session. You may have to pause and make the other person wait to do this, and it may feel awkward. This is fine. I've found it's helpful to announce to them at the beginning of the call that you're going to be doing this (so it doesn't look like you're off-task in another window). If you're unsure about what they said, ask them (by the way, "How do you say?" and "What does <word> mean?" should be some of the first two phrases you learn in any language.) Remember, at the beginning, this is not about having a pleasant conversation or obeying social conventions. You can worry about that once you hit an advanced level. As a beginner, your goal with these chats should be to provide a sandbox for efficient learning.

In-Person Conversation

This should be the ultimate goal of your language learning, and, as discussed before, will form the main source of your language progress as your study advances. Let's imagine you're going to your first language meetup. Just like the voice chat, there is a way to efficiently use language meetups to provide for optimal learning, and as you'll soon find out when you arrive, most people don't do this. Often, I see first-time language meetup attendees do one of two things:

  1. Arrive too scared/embarrassed to talk to anyone, then leave.
  2. Arrives embarrassed about their own language level and spend the entire meetup talking in their native language.

When I go to to a language meetup, I have a specific goal in mind. I am there to use the meetup as a resource to improve my target language as much as possible. Nothing will come between me and my goal.

I find it's helpful to "warm up" by studying Anki and/or listening to Pimsleur on the train ride over. Once I'm at the meetup, I try to talk to as many native speakers as possible. I always have my phone out with Evernote open. Every time I learn a new word, I note it in Evernote. Inevitably, people are incredibly surprised and impressed that I am diligently writing down all these words! I am, naturally, always dumbfounded as to why they are surprised: why would anyone come to a meetup and not want to absorb every useful piece of information they can?

When the meetup is winding down, find a couple people who you had good rapport with and get their contact information so you can text and meet up for further language exchange. This is infinitely useful in cases where there aren't that many native speakers of the language in your area: you want all the face time you can get.

Conversation Tips

Get Your "Story" Down

Every time you meet a new person, especially in the context of them knowing you're learning their language, they're going to ask the same questions.

I highly encourage you to "cheat" by preparing the answers to these questions, and any common follow up questions, in advance. For example, if you're a chemical engineer that specializes in machine automation for paper mills, just go ahead and learn a quick paragraph containing all the relevant vocabulary for how to explain your job, even if you've only been learning your target language for a couple weeks. This  may seem like basic advice, but many people actually don't do this, and then struggle through answering the same questions over and over, because they're focusing on learning from a textbook that has them explaining other people's jobs.

Talk to Yourself

This sounds weird, but it works, especially if you don't have too many opportunities to talk to someone in the language you're studying.

As you're going about your day, keep an internal monologue going. Describe the things you're doing in your head and translate them to your target language. If you're alone, it's even more helpful to say them out loud.

Learning a Language by Speaking with Non-Natives?

I've seen many pieces of advice on the internet that speaking with non-native speakers is somehow bad, as it will instill bad habits and bad pronunciation. I vehemently contest this.

In fact, I'd even say that as a beginner, meeting with a few non-native speakers and getting their thoughts on learning your target language is actually more useful than diving right in and talking to native speakers. A few reasons:

  1. You have immediate shared context with someone who has learned your target language the same way you have. Non-native speakers can usually explain grammar rules better than native speakers, for example.
  2. It's more comfortable to speak to non-native speakers the first few times you speak your target language, as they're less likely to judge you for making errors.
  3. Non-native speakers are easier to meet. This is especially true if you're in a country with a high language barrier and a large expat population.
  4. It may be easier to understand the pronunciation of a non-native speaker. This is especially true for tonal languages like Chinese. Jumping into a conversation with a native Chinese speaker after a week of learning may be suicide, but with a non-native speaker, it's very possible, and outweighs the fact that you may be internalizing bad pronunciation habits.

You may be tempted to switch back to English or your native language when speaking with a non-native speaker. Don't do this. You want to be all target language, all the time.

Other Input and Output Methods

If you've been following the guide until now, you should be following a course, writing every new word down, maintaining regular Anki practice, and conversing in your language at least three times a week.

While it's entirely possible to learn a language with just the above, the following methods are simply supplements that will enhance your language learning experience:

Music

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

Once you have the music, don't just sit back and enjoy it. Pull up the lyrics and follow each word as it's sung. Highlight the words you don't know and add them to your word list.

Once you know all the words in the song, learn to sing it and mimic along with the singer. One polyglot, Idahosa Ness, has a whole method dedicated to this called The Mimic Method.

Movies, TV, and Videos

Use IMDB's Advanced Search to find movies and TV shows in your target language and sort by rating. If you're watching downloaded TV shows or movies, you can often 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.

I highly recommend using subtitles in your target language only. This is because if you start by using subtitles in your native language, the brain has a tendency to disengage and only read the subtitles, losing the connection to the original audio. That being said, there is a certain level of study where enjoying a movie without some form of native translation is downright impossible.

Your progression should go something like this:

native language subtitles ---- (as soon as possible) ---> target language subtitles --------> no subtitles.

Tip: you can also watch media in your native language with subtitles in your target language. This is especially helpful for native English speakers, as you might find the quality of media in your target language to be... lacking.

YouTube is a fantastic source for language media with subtitles. YouTube search allows you to filter for only videos with subtitles, just perform a search, click Filter, then click the CC/Subtitles button.

Podcasts

Podcasts are a key integration into a language learning routine, as they allow for native-level input while you're completing other tasks. I often listen to foreign language audio while riding my bike, for example. There are too many languages to list them all here, so just run a google search for "*your language* podcast".

Writing

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.

Find forums or Facebook groups in your target language and become a regular contributor. You'd be surprised at how many language-specific groups there are out there for niche interests, so if you're studying Hungarian and you love medieval bow hunting, don't despair, you may just find something.

Reading

Use PaperbackSwap or BookMooch to get cheap books in your target language. Wikibooks 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 software and mark words that you learn within them.

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, and most languages usually have dedicated online grammar wikis or resources.

Accent and Pronunciation

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 regimen, 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.

FAQ

Q: I can't travel to my target language's country, so I can't think of a way to speak it.
A: It's not necessary to be in-country to find people to speak your target language with. In any medium-sized city, there's bound to be at least one native speaker of your target language. Find that person and make them your friend. There's always a way.
Q: I hear that, but I live in the middle of nowhere and there are literally no native speakers of my target language around.
A: If you're reading this guide, presumably you have internet access, which means you have a pretty much unlimited amount of people to speak your target language with. Failing that, talk to yourself. Seriously, it helps.
Q: Learning languages is pointless, because machine translation is getting so good that soon we'll all just have a babel fish in our ears that will interpret everything for us.
A: In my estimation, the technology and accuracy of this is still a long way off, so language learning is still a worthy investment in the meantime. Plus, even in some future world, there will almost definitely still be a status component to actually doing the work to learn a language yourself, rather than having a machine translate it for you.