A lot of people ask me questions about how to learn a language. Just this morning, I woke up to a two-sentence e-mail from someone asking me how they could improve their English. I’m not sure what kind of answer this person was expecting… But if you ask me a general question (like “How do I learn a language?”), I’m probably going to give you a general answer. A lot of people don’t seem to like general answers, but you know what? The truth is that learning a language is just not that complicated. I’m not saying it’s not difficult (it is), but it’s not complicated. And if you can see past all the details of methods and techniques and hacks and focus on the big picture, that broader point of view is actually going to make you a better language learner.
For a few years I spent a lot of time browsing language learning forums and blogs and other places online where people talk about how to learn languages. But after a while, I stopped frequenting such places because I realized that when it all boiled down to it, everyone was basically saying the same thing and there was just nothing more I needed to learn about how to learn languages. I realized that my time would be much better spent actually learning languages rather than reading about how to do it.
My goal with this post is to give you the “big picture” of how to learn a language so you don’t have to spend all that time browsing forums to figure it out for yourself. So you can focus on what really matters and spend more time actually making progress. Despite the number of methods out there and how different they seem to be from each other, I really do think that any effective method boils down to a few very basic things. Take the following steps and apply them to your own situation, and you will succeed in learning a language. Guaranteed.
Step 1: Know what you’re in for before you say “I do.”
If you start learning Russian only to find out two months in that Russian has six cases and two different versions of every verb, you’re probably going to feel overwhelmed and might want to give up. Especially if you don’t even know what a case is. You might find that you’ve been spending most of your time on something like listening, and now you can barely form a simple sentence on your own because you don’t know how to use cases or imperfective verbs. You’ll be frustrated because you can understand what people say, but you can’t speak beyond the level of a caveman. This is because you didn’t start out with a general picture of what Russian is like. Or if you did, you didn’t adjust your learning method to this picture.
But if you know ahead of time that Russian has a particularly complex grammar completely different from English, and if you understand the basic concept of what a case is and know this is something Russian learners tend to struggle with, you’ll be prepared. You’ll know that with Russian, you’ll probably need to spend more time on grammar than you would for, say, Mandarin. Mandarin, on the other hand, actually has such simple grammar (think “Me go store”) that you probably won’t need to spend much time on it at all, at least not for a while. With Mandarin, you would need to focus more on the writing system and on tones, since those are the main things Mandarin learners tend to find difficult.
My point is that it simply does not make sense to use the same exact method for every language. Languages are as different as the people who speak them. Think of it this way: You wouldn’t agree to marry someone without going on a first date with that person and finding out things like what they do for a living, what their beliefs are, and what their goals are in life, would you? I mean, of course you can’t find out everything about a person on a first date, so there are bound to be a few surprises no matter how careful you are. We all know the story of moving in with someone and suddenly finding out they have a nasty habit of leaving wet towels on the floor. But even so, you can save yourself a lot of frustration by doing your due diligence. And the more you know about a person ahead of time, the easier it will be to win them over, right? The same thing applies to a new language.
Getting a general picture of a language is not difficult. All you really have to do is Google “overview of language X,” or “about language X,” or “how to learn language X.” Wikipedia is a good resource for this, and this website has a very nice collection of summaries of a lot of commonly learned languages. This initial research shouldn’t take more than a couple hours of your time, and it will save you a lot of trouble in the end.
Step 2: Find something you suck at. Practice that until you don’t suck anymore. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Of course, when you first start learning a language you’re going to suck at everything, so it almost doesn’t even matter what you choose to focus on as long as you’re doing something in the language. Seriously, just find anything that seems useful or interesting and go ahead and try learning it. Want to get your Mexican friend to teach you some Spanish swear words? Cool, go for it if that’s what motivates you. Want to memorize lines from your favorite Japanese anime? Great.
But I promise you that as soon as you start trying to learn anything at all, there will be some aspect of it that you find particularly difficult. For example, you might learn some basic greeting phrases and find there’s a certain sound you can’t pronounce. So what do you do? You listen to those phrases over and over and really focus on that sound. You try to pronounce it over and over, and you record yourself to see if you’re getting it right. If you still can’t get it, you look it up and see if you can find a website that tells you what exactly you should be doing with your mouth and tongue to make that sound. Or you find a native speaker on a forum or a language exchange website (or in person if possible) and get them to help you. Then if you’re exhausted and you still haven’t gotten it right, you come back the next day and you do it all over again. You keep working on it as long as you have to until that sound is no longer difficult for you. Then you go try to learn something else (again, it doesn’t really matter what as long as it’s useful to you), and when you come across another aspect that’s difficult, you focus on that.
If you come across a grammatical concept that’s really confusing to you, you do whatever it takes to understand it. You read different explanations, do exercises, ask about it on a forum, look for instances of it while listening and reading, or try to make up sentences with it and get natives to correct you. You keep coming back to it again and again.
If you get really frustrated (which you will— and if you don’t, you’re doing it wrong), you can take a break and do something easy for a while, or even take a break from the language altogether if you feel you need to. You don’t overwork yourself, but you don’t allow yourself to slack off either. As soon as your brain feels rested, you go right back to working on that thing you still suck at. You don’t give up.
In the meantime, you have to remember that general picture of the language you got in step 1. If you keep this picture in mind, it will be much easier for you to maintain the right balance between all the different skills you’ll need to acquire in the language. Going back to my first example, in the case of Russian you would need to remember to spend enough time on grammar to prevent your active skills from lagging too far behind your passive skills (unless you don’t mind talking like a caveman, I suppose). With Russian, you would probably need to spend a seemingly disproportionate amount of time on grammar in order to achieve an overall balance in all the basic skills. If you let your skills get too far out of balance (for example, if you understand a lot more than you can speak, or if you can read but can’t comprehend spoken language, or if you can say anything you want but natives don’t understand you because of your thick accent), this will inevitably lead to frustration— unless you happen to be that rare type of learner who only wants to use a specific skill like reading. The majority of learners want to be able to use their new language both actively and passively in a variety of ways, so it’s important for the majority of learners to maintain the right balance between these different skills.
Step 3: Lose your ego, get feedback, and pay attention.
I hinted at this in step 2, but now I’m going to spell it out for you: If you really want to stop sucking, you must be willing to accept honest feedback (a.k.a. constructive criticism).
Now, keep in mind that not all feedback necessarily has to come from another person. Feedback can come from an answer key in the back of a workbook, for example, and you can even give yourself feedback by evaluating how much of a passage you’re able to understand or whether or not you remember a word on a flashcard. There are even computer programs, called Spaced Repetition Systems, that are designed to give you this kind of feedback in just the right amount for maximum efficiency. Some language learners swear by these programs, the most popular of which is Anki. Recording yourself saying something and comparing that to a recording by a native speaker can also be a very effective way to give yourself feedback. All of these things are very valuable.
However, if you only rely on yourself for feedback, you’re inevitably going to miss some things because there’s just too much you don’t know about the language. A native speaker or a teacher will be able to point out things you never would have noticed on your own, and you’ll make much better progress as a result. You want to catch any mistakes you’re making (and I promise you are making them) as soon as possible, because it will be much more difficult to correct them later on.
Fortunately, thanks to the Internet it’s quite easy to get this kind of feedback without ever going to the country, taking a class or even paying a cent. There are all kinds forums (Word Reference is especially good for major European languages, and the How to Learn Any Language Forums are good for everything else) full of language experts happy to answer questions from learners. There are language exchange websites such as SharedTalk where you can find yourself a native speaker to practice with over Skype or e-mail. All you have to do is help that person with your own language in return. I especially like the website Lang-8, where you can practice writing in your target language and get natives to correct it for free. You could even post sound recordings there (or in a forum for that matter) and ask for feedback on your pronunciation.
You might be thinking it sounds demoralizing to have someone point out your mistakes, but you really have to get over the idea that making mistakes means you’re a bad learner or you’re doing something wrong. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. Making mistakes means you’re doing something right! I assure you that I’ve made a ton of mistakes in all the languages I’ve tried to learn, as has everyone who’s ever tried to learn a language. Obviously you eventually want to reach a point where you’re making little to no mistakes, but there’s just no getting around the initial stage of making mistakes in the beginning. The sooner you make a mistake, the sooner you can correct it. And the more responsive you are to corrections in the early stages, the higher your chances of fixing those mistakes for good. So don’t just give a quick nod to a correction and move on to something else. Repeat the word or phrase in the correct way. Write it down. Think about why it is the way it is. Ask your corrector to give you more examples. Put the correction on a flashcard, or use whatever you think would be an effective way for you to remember it. By definition, a mistake is something you suck at. So use the process explained in step 2 to fix it. And instead of beating yourself up for making a mistake, be glad because you know you’re making progress.
“But natives won’t correct me!”
Before I move on to the next step, I have to address a common objection to the advice of seeking feedback. Many learners complain that they can’t get natives to correct their mistakes. They say natives are too polite and simply compliment learners, ignoring mistakes as long as they don’t hinder communication.
First of all, let me suggest that this is probably a good thing to a certain extent. The reason many people tend not to correct mistakes is because they don’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation. Prioritizing smooth communication is a natural human tendency, and it may actually be difficult for people to correct all your mistakes even if they mean to do so. Even professional language teachers don’t correct every single mistake their students make. They want to encourage their students to speak and enjoy the feeling of communicating in a foreign language without being paranoid about mistakes. It would also be impossible for most students to remember and permanently correct every single mistake they make, because there are just too many of them. So most teachers strategically point out just the mistakes a student is making constantly, or just the mistakes that cause an actual misunderstanding. The idea is that with time, the student will make less and less mistakes and eventually be able to correct them all. But there has to be a balance between correctness and communication.
One thing I would suggest is that you focus more on getting mistakes corrected in your written practice, and focus more on communication and fluency when speaking. People are generally more willing to correct mistakes in writing because there’s no conversation to be interrupted, and mistakes are also more noticeable in writing. This situation is also great for you as learner because you can take all the time you need to review your mistakes. Having an e-mail exchange partner or keeping a journal on Lang-8 are both great ways to practice writing and get corrections.
Also, when speaking, pay close attention to the way your native partner speaks and try to emulate that person. Although the person may not correct your mistakes directly, they may repeat back something you said in a slightly different way. This usually means you said it wrong, and they are confirming what you meant by saying it correctly. When this happens, you have to force yourself not to just say, “Oh yeah, that” and go on with the conversation. (I had so many ESL students who always did this, and it was the most frustrating thing!) Make a point of repeating the word or phrase back again, and ask the person for confirmation if you’re not sure you said it right. This is a great way to learn, and it also encourages the other person to continue correcting you.
The most important thing about this is having an attitude of humility and eagerness to improve. If you have that, you will get better.
Step 4: Know thyself.
One reason I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all language learning methods is because every language is different. The other reason I don’t believe in such methods is because every learner is different. I know it’s annoying when the answer to every question is “It depends,” but it’s the truth. Deal with it.
The methods and techniques you should use depend on the language you’re learning, and they also depend on you. They depend on your personality, linguistic background, location, goals, interests, and lifestyle.
There are countless different methods and techniques out there, and most of them are good. If you can manage to follow them, they will work. But the fact is that you’re bound to find many of them too boring, or too time consuming, or unhelpful, or impractical. Just because a certain method worked for someone else (or even lots of other people) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best method for you. So experiment, tweak, and test. Don’t feel bad about abandoning a course or a technique midway if it’s not working for you. The most important thing is that you keep going, always doing something with the language and pushing yourself to improve your weaknesses.
You also have to know what exactly it is you want. This depends entirely on you, and no one else can decide it for you. If you ask me, “When will I know I’m fluent in this language?” I’ll say “I don’t know. What does fluency mean to you?”
It doesn’t matter if you saw some hotshot on Youtube who can recite Molière in a flawless Parisian accent. If you find this person inspiring, that’s awesome, but don’t think you have to measure your success in a certain way just because he did.
Maybe you just want to learn enough to be able to communicate with people, and maybe you don’t care if you have a bit of a foreign accent as long as you’re understood. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and in fact I can tell you from experience that this level of ability can be extremely rewarding. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not good enough if it’s good enough for you.
Or maybe you do want to have a perfect accent, write a best-selling novel in your target language, and appear on television in that country. Hey, if that’s what you really want, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it. The only person who can stop you is yourself.
Know where you’re going, and if you see a path that appeals to you go ahead and follow it. But don’t be afraid to forge your own path if that’s what feels right.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that learning a language is easy. But I do think it’s something anyone can do. All you have to do is put in the work, and as long as you don’t give up you will succeed. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. If you’re spending all your time trying to decide what course you should use or how exactly you should go about memorizing vocabulary, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Keep the big picture in mind, and the details will take care of themselves.
What do you think about this? Agree? Disagree? Have any questions? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. Thanks so much for reading!