Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

How to learn a language

It’s New Year’s Eve, a time when a lot of us make resolutions for the coming year. One of them may be to finally learn that language you’ve been meaning to work on for years. But where do you start?

I often describe myself as a language addict. These are the languages that I’ve had a go at learning so far and the levels I’ve reached (based on the CEFR):

  • C1/Advanced: French, German, Spanish
  • B1/Intermediate: Polish
  • A2+/Pre-intermediate: Czech, Russian
  • A1/High beginner: Italian, Mandarin
  • A0/Beginner: Greek, Thai, Bahasa Malay, Japanese, Maltese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian

It’s definitely true that learning one language helps you to learn another, but I wouldn’t say that I have any particular talent for language learning – just lots of tried and tested techniques, and many many hours of practice at it. Over time, this practice has become more focussed and more efficient. Here’s how…

(By the way, if you don’t want to work your way through this quite long blog post, you can download this one-page pdf summary instead.)

ŸMake it a habit

As with anything you want to add to your life, habit formation is the most important thing you can do.

5 minutes a day

Even if you’re super busy, you can definitely find 5 minutes each day (see below for how!) It adds up really quickly – in one week that’s 35 minutes. In a year, it’s 1825 minutes, or over 30 hours. That’s the equivalent of twenty 90-minute classes, or 10 weeks of lessons if you’re having them at our school 🙂

Record what you do

I have a calendar where I make a note of whether I’ve completed my daily habits. Since I started using it, I’m much more likely to do them, as I hate seeing a ‘X’. In this example, the ‘P’ in the top left corner means Polish:

Record achievements

Sneak it into your day

I’ve tried lots of different ways to do this. With Polish, I currently use a few apps in the mornings and read in the evenings before bed (see ‘surround yourself with it’). Again, this is all about habit formation – making it ‘normal’ makes it easier.

Memrise at breakfast

It takes me about 10 minutes to eat my breakfast. While I’m doing that, I work my way through four Memrise sets of Polish, one of Lithuanian and one of Mandarin. I always revise old vocabulary first, aiming for a minimum of 1500 points in each set to maintain my streak. If I haven’t hit 1500, I’ll learn a few new words. I love memrise because it uses the principles of spaced repetition to keep reminding me of vocabulary and testing my memory of it. Since I started using it about 8 years ago, the site reckons I’ve learnt 8836 words as of today – I won’t pretend I’ve remembered them all, but even if it’s only half of them, it’s still a lot of vocabulary!

Carry a few flashcards with you

Sentence cardsWhen I was learning Russian, I cut up bits of yellow paper to create flashcards – yellow because it makes me happy. One side had a sentence in Russian, and the other had some kind of prompt. This was generally a picture or series of pictures if I could think of one, but occasionally an English translation of one or two words from the sentence if I couldn’t.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

I kept 10-15 of these cards with me all the time, in a little pouch with two pockets. When I was on the bus or waiting somewhere I’d flick through them to test myself. When I thought I knew one, I’d put it in the second pocket. Back at home, I’d take out anything that was in the second pocket and add an equivalent number of cards from the pile that was waiting for me.

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

After a year, the pile of sentences I’d learnt was about 3cm tall. I would periodically test myself on the whole pile and see if I’d forgotten any of them – generally I’d still remember about 80-90% of them.

Use apps/websites when you’re waiting

If, unlike me, you have a smartphone, then building your vocabulary using language apps is probably a much more productive way to spend your waiting time than looking at social media (again) and pretty easy to fit into your day. Here are four I’ve tried:

  • Memrise (the one I’ve used almost every day for years)
    + Spaced repetition managed automatically
    + Some curated sites created by the company (look for XXX 1, 2, 3 e.g. Polish 1, Polish 2…)
    + Can create your own content
    + Can choose to ignore words if you don’t want/need to learn them (only via the website)
    + Unlimited range of languages/content, with more company-curated sets added all the time
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Not all sets have audio
    – Can be challenging to find the sets that work for you
  • Quizlet (the one I use as a teacher)
    + Quick and easy to create your own content
    + Unlimited range of languages/content
    + Can take other people’s content and edit it to suit you
    + ‘Star’ words to choose what’s most challenging/important for you
    + Fairly easy to find what you need (here’s some help if you’re learning English)
    + Audio automatically added
    + You can choose the games you play, including matching games, spelling, etc.
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can use it again offline on the app
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Although there is now a spaced repetition option, it’s pretty clunky
  • Duolingo (the one everyone else seems to use – I’m not a huge fan)
    + All content created by the company, so shouldn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can suggest alternative answers
    + Mostly sentence level
    + All content has audio
    +/- Limited languages available
    – No teaching before testing – you need to not give up easily
    – Not that helpful for beginners, as there are no language explanations
    – On Apple devices, (I think) you can test out of level 1, but have to earn gems to test out of other levels, so not ideal for higher-level learners either. On Android, I believe you can test out of any level
    – Multiple choice options often nonsensical, so don’t really test you
    – No ability to tailor what you’re learning
  • Lingodeer (my current favourite!)
    + All content created by the company, so generally doesn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can correct any mistakes which are there
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can study it again offline (great for flights!)
    + Very clear language explanations, available at the start of each category and by clicking on any word while in ‘test’ modes
    + Wide range of activity types
    + Can choose what to revise
    + Can ‘test out’ of whole sections at a time
    + All four skills tested, including chances to record yourself speaking and to write characters from Kanji and Mandarin
    + For Japanese, there’s a great ‘story’ function where you can listen to somebody and record yourself
    + Multiple choice options are logical and really make you think
    + Everything has audio, and the pictures are very cute 🙂
    + No annoying advertising or Freemium prompts!
    +/- Limited languages/content available, with about 8 languages at the moment (more than are listed on the site!), though more being added
    – Only available via the app, not on browsers
Repeat what you hear

Don’t just read or listen to it, say it. Having a go at pronouncing the language you hear makes your brain process it a little bit more, meaning you’re more likely to remember it. Listen and repeat improves your confidence with pronunciation over time. Read and repeat gets you experimenting with sound-spelling relationships. Try a few words or phrases each day while you’re doing other things, and again you’ll notice it building over time.

ŸŸSurround yourself with it

Even if you’re not living in a country where the language you want to learn is around you all the time, you can still add it to your life in lots of different ways.

Label your home

A classic 🙂 Here are some of my Russian labels:

Russian has taken over my fridge!

and a Polish man doing the same:

Make little posters or index cards

The process of categorising and copying information over to another piece of paper goes part way to helping you to remember it. By then sticking them up, you see it lots more times and remember it for longer. Here are some I made for Russian:

Index cards everywhere!Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Read to read

Extensive reading is one of the best ways to improve your knowledge of a foreign language. I’ve been reading in Polish for about ten minutes every night before bed for 2.5 years now, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for learning. I started with the first Harry Potter book when I was a low A2 level, choosing it because I was familiar with the story and knew that would help me to understand more.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Originally I could read 2 pages in about 10 minutes, and now I can read up to 6, depending on how tired I am. I estimate that I could understand about 10-20% of any double-page spread when I started, and now it’s about 70-80%.

Importantly, I read to read, not to learn vocabulary. My aim is to finish the book, not to understand everything. It takes a bit of a mindshift to do this, as you have to stop worrying about what you don’t understand and concentrate on what you do.

When I first tried to read a John Grisham book in German, I wrote down every word I didn’t know and translated it into English. After three pages or so of the book, I had around 150 words and felt pretty depressed – oddly enough, I stopped reading it! In Paraguay, I went to a weekly Spanish meeting. We took an article from the Economist and translated it word for word. This was the result, from which I don’t remember anything!

When I started reading Harry Potter, I only looked up words if they appeared repeatedly and felt important for the story, limiting it to 2-3 per double page. Now, if there aren’t any words in that category, I’ll pick one word to look up at random. I’ve now nearly finished book 4 and really look forward to it every night.

Writing a journal

Writing is the easiest of the four skills to neglect. Writing a journal worked really well for me in Russian as my teacher looked at it and replied each week.

Russian journal

Russian journal

With Polish, I wrote a couple of sentences a day for a few weeks, then gave up because nobody else was reading it. I almost never write in Polish, and this is something I need to change in 2019 if I want to pass the B1 exam I’m thinking about taking!

Podcasts and radio

Apparently there are now over 600,000 podcasts available, so there really is something for everyone. I experimented with listening to the news in other languages when I was at uni, but got bored with listening to the same things over and over again, especially considering I didn’t listen to the news in English. If you’re learning English, here’s an introduction to podcasts for language learning, including some of my favourites.

Alternatively, choose a radio station playing the kind of music or presenting the kind of programmes you like. This is particularly easy if you have a smart speaker – “Alexa, play radio station Antenne Bayern“. I’m now really good at traffic updates in Bavarian German 😉

As with reading, listen to listen, not to understand everything. You’ll understand more and more as you become familiar with the rhythms of the language and build up your vocabulary from other places (like the apps above).

Make it aesthetically pleasing

Do you prefer to look at a plain black folder or a multi-coloured one? What about a page of text or a page of pictures? By carefully choosing the things you use to learn a language, you’re more likely to want to look at them again.

Stationery that makes you smile
Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which one to buy? Both of course!

All of my language-learning notebooks have pictures on them, sometimes themed (like the Polski język ones I have here), sometimes just fun, like the ones I used for Russian above. At various times I have also bought a Kung Fu Panda and a Pirates of the Caribbean folder. Because I enjoy looking at them, I’m more likely to pick them up and use them.

Pictures – colour in printed ones or draw rubbish ones!

Whenever possible, use pictures to help you remember things – your brain responds to these much better than words. You can colour in ones you have printed, like these ones I used to help me learn daily routines in Czech:

Coloured in pictures to help me learn Czech daily routine

or draw your own ones, regardless of how rubbish you might think your own drawing is!

Sentence cards with pictures

Think about colours and layout

Laying out what you are learning in a consistent way does some of the work for your brain. Colours also attract the eye, and again can be used to help you to process information.

Show patterns

I often use layout to help me to remember grammar. With gendered words, I always have masculine on the left, feminine in the middle and neutral on the right. If I can remember the position, I can remember the gender.

Colour-coding mistakes can help you to focus on them without needing long explanations:

Deciphering the rewrite code

And you can combine both layout and colour, which is particularly good for grammar:

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...And here are stress patterns in Greek numbers:

Categorise languagef

As I said above, the process of categorising language helps your brain to process it, and therefore remember it for longer. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to categorise, but you can do it with phrases too. Here’s a page one of the two vocabulary notebooks I filled in a year of studying Russian:

My vocabulary notebook - English

Every page of the notebook had a fold down the middle so I could test myself.

I planned to do this with Polish, managed a couple of pages, then got bored and decided Memrise would be enough.

Highlight exceptions

Judicious highlighting helps your brain work out what to focus on. Highlighting letters or words (like in the picture above) helps you to notice what is different, and the extra attention you therefore pay to these exceptions or unusual things means you’ll remember them for longer. I find this works particularly well for spellings.

Make your brain work, but not too hard

Learning a language means you need to do some processing. The more processing you do with a single item, the more likely you are to remember it. However, it’s easy to get frustrated if you have to do too much processing – that’s when you end up giving up.

Give yourself as many ‘hooks’ as possible

Imagine a large, heavy picture you want to put on the wall. You use a single picture hook, and pretty quickly it falls down. Now use three or four – it stays up for a little while longer, but eventually it still falls down. Now use twenty hooks – it’s likely to stay there for much, much longer. And the bigger the hooks, the better.

The same is true of new language items, whether vocabulary or grammar. Here are some possible ‘hooks’:

  • Meaning
  • A situation/context
  • An image
  • Something that makes you laugh/surprises you
  • (Odd) connections to other things you already know
  • Translation – preferably at sentence level/within a larger context (this could be to other foreign languages you know, not just your native language(s))
  • Collocations for vocabulary/common verbs used with the structure for grammar
  • Examples in use – if you create them yourself and get them checked, the hooks will be bigger and stronger
  • Encounters – each time you see/hear the word, you’re adding a little hook
  • Using it yourself – saying/writing it adds a pretty big hook or makes the hooks that are already there bigger

Each ‘hook’ you give yourself keeps that bit of language anchored in your brain for longer and more securely.

Hide translations

Humans are lazy. We always take the easiest route. That means that if we see a word in a language we’re comfortable with, we’ll read that before we make the effort to process something more difficult, like the language we’re learning.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid translation entirely, as that can just make you feel frustrated. Instead, make your brain work harder to see the translations so that processing the foreign language becomes the easier route. Two ways I’ve done this are by writing the English in yellow pen:

English is on the right – look carefully!

and by writing it in tiny letters in a different part of the page, or on the other side if possible:

English is in tiny letters

Avoid arrows

When you get two answers the wrong way round in an exercise or copy two words next to the wrong definitions, it’s tempting to draw arrows to correct them instead of crossing them out. Don’t! This adds an extra step of processing, where your brain has to ‘undo’ what it first saw. It might not look as pretty (unless you use Tippex/whiteout) but it makes life easier for your brain! Number 5 in this picture is an example – I don’t remember what it means though!

Use monolingual dictionaries as soon as you can

Again, humans are lazy. I use Google Translate all the time, as do many of my students. But, and this is important, NOT for learning. For that I use a monolingual dictionary as soon as I can, preferably a learner’s dictionary if they exist.For Polish, I’ve been using PWN. For English I tend to recommend:

My university teachers would be pleased to hear this, as they used to tell us all the time to go monolingual, but it took me ages to listen to them. Now I prefer the information that I can find there, including collocations, example sentences, alternative uses, phrases, and (especially online) pronunciation and conjugations. It also provides extra reading practice, and the fact you have to process the language more means you are more likely to remember it more, or be more picky about which words you look up. If you’re a teacher, persevere with persuading your students – it’s worth the effort!

ŸBe proud of your mistakes

Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they show that you are learning. As with reading to read, this can require a shift in your mindset, as far too many of us have been brought up thinking that mistakes are bad.

Collect them, highlight them

Try creating a ‘My favourite mistakes’ page. Once a week/after a lesson/when you’ve done some writing, choose one mistake you made which you know you make a lot. Add it to the page, along with the correction. In the correct version, highlight the bit that you had problems with. This will draw your attention to it. This photo shows problems I was having with Czech accents on words:

Rewrite them

With the journal writing I mentioned above, I was motivated enough and had enough time on my hands to rewrite my entries and colour-code the mistakes, which made a huge difference to the accuracy of my writing.

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

It was great to see how the things I was making mistakes with changed over time, even in the few weeks that I did this for.

ŸPersonalise language

Making the language you are learning feel like yours can be hugely motivating, and adds some of the ‘hooks’ mentioned above.

Use your own experiences and opinions

Personalise example sentences so they mean something to you. For example, only learn ‘I like chocolate’ if you actually do. If you don’t, change it to ‘I like cats’, ‘I like computer games’ or whatever is most relevant to your experience. You’ll remember it faster, and it adds another ‘hook’.

Learn what you need first

When learning a foreign language, I try to start with numbers and food, as these are normally the things I need first on arrival in a new country. If I can eat in a restaurant and understand prices, then I can get a long way. Phrases like ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m ____ years old.’ are much less immediately relevant.

If you’re not sure what you might need first, consider working your way through a course (maybe online or using a book) and feel free to skip bits that don’t appeal.

Be selective

It’s easy to feel like you need to remember every new word or phrase you come across, but this is impossible. Choose the language which most appeals to you and/or which is most relevant. Start with ‘easy wins’ – the more you build up your vocabulary, the easier it is to understand things you read and listen to, and the more you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary and grammar from all the extensive reading and listening you’re doing (by surrounding yourself with the language as above).

Record phrases you like

When you’re listening to or reading something, write down words and phrases you like and want to use again. If you’re talking to somebody, ask them to repeat it so you can make a note of it. Again, by picking out what you’re interested in and things that appeal to you, you’re giving yourself more hooks.

ŸRise above the word

If you’re self-studying, it’s very easy to just learn lists and lists of vocabulary. While this is useful, in the long run, you need to do more to truly learn the language.

Look at chunks

When you’re reading, look at the words that appear around that new word you’ve just written down. Is there a preposition (in, on, from…) after the word? Is there an adjective before it? Are there other words a bit further away in the sentence that might be connected? These are all hook that can help you to better use new language.

Write out conversations

Take grammar structures you’ve learnt and have a go at using them in conversations. Would the other person in the conversation use the same grammar to reply? For example, in English a present perfect question can be followed by a past simple reply. Can you make the structure shorter or add to it in any way? For example, English relative clauses can often be reduced, or added into other sentences. If you can, ask somebody to check the conversation for you, or have a go at recording it with somebody else you know who’s learning the language.

Mini dictations

Take one sentence of something you’ve listened to and use it as a dictation. If there’s a transcript for the audio, or lyrics for a song, check how correct you were. This is a great way to spot little grammar mistakes you’re making, and to better understand the rhythms of the spoken language.

Try out a corpus

A corpus is a collection of language as it is really used. For learners, this can help you to expand your understanding of particular items of vocabulary or grammar structures. My favourite English (and Spanish/Portuguese) corpus tool is the collection at BYU, particularly the new ‘word’ function. This is a snippet – there’s far more information as you scroll down the page:

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Lizzie Pinard has an introduction to using www.wordandphrase.info/academic which shows you a lot of the features.

I use NKJP for Polish, for example to check whether I’ve chosen the right verb to go with a particular noun.

Be patient

Nobody learns anything overnight. But with language learning people seem to find that particularly frustrating – ‘I already speak my language. Why can’t I learn this one?’ Patience is key to getting to the level you want to achieve.

Grammar will come – don’t agonise over it

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll notice that mentions of grammar are few and far between. Although I do have a grammar book, I only glance at it occasionally, and I’ve never done a grammar exercise in Polish. My grammar has improved though, through exposure, reading snippets of grammar explanations, and trying to notice patterns. Reading and listening to as much of the language as possible will help you to develop an instinct for correct grammar. Exercises might help you get there a bit faster, but they’re not essential.

Think about the process of children learning

Think about how children learn their first language. They start with essential everyday words, like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then add vocabulary they need all the time, then add grammar later. It takes them a couple of years before they say anything, years when they have 24/7 exposure to the language they’re learning. When we learn a foreign language, we generally expect to speak from day one, and don’t give ourselves a ‘silent period’ to absorb what we’ve been exposed to before we have to produce it.

Children also make lots of mistakes, but they persevere, and eventually they speak the language they need to the level they need to in their everyday levels, providing the conditions are right for them.

It’s a long process, and it’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the end.

Be kind to yourself

Languages are big, complicated beasts from the outside. It can feel pretty daunting when you’re starting out. But if you’re kind to yourself, if you allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, and to try out the new language you’ve learnt without fearing failure, you’ll make it. As with everything in life, there’s no point beating yourself up if you find something challenging – all that does is makes you feel depressed. It doesn’t actually make you learn any more effectively.

ŸDon’t listen to me!

If you were patient enough to read the whole post, you’ll see that although I’ve tried everything I’ve described, I don’t do all of it now. Not everything works for everybody, and not everything works all the time. Be flexible with your learning, experiment, and work out what works for you. That way, you’ll enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Good luck!

P.S.

These tips are all based on my own experience. I know there’s science behind at least some of them, but I’m feeling too lazy to find the links! If you feel like sharing them, please do…

Comments on: "How to learn a language" (6)

  1. Some great advice here, Sandy! Really impressive how you’ve managed to learn so many languages.
    I just wanted to quickly pick up on the advice to use monolingual dictionaries. There’s actually no research evidence showing they’re better than bilingual dictionaries. In fact, research quite clearly shows that it’s significantly easier to memorise lists of words with translations than with a definition in the target language. Similarly, it also seems that the less context, the easier it is to memorise the word. If you haven’t read Folse’s “Vocabulary Myths”, I’d highly recommend it. Webb and Nation’s “How Vocabulary is Learned” is also really good.
    Szczęśliwego Nowego roku! 🙂

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    • Thanks for the comment Marek, and for the science.
      Just to clarify, I don’t think that monolingual dictionaries are necessarily better than bilingual dictionaries for the basic meaning of words, but I think it’s important to train yourself/your students to access a monolingual dictionary for the richer content available in a single dictionary entry if you’re a higher-level student. Beyond a certain level I think you need that extra information. Personally I find that I tend to remember a word for longer if I’ve made the effort to look it up in a monolingual dictionary and decipher the meaning, generally translating it in my own head. Though I probably need to be pre-intermediate or above to be able to do that.
      I tend to aim for pictures with words rather than translations, but again that doesn’t mean I don’t mentally translate the words as I’m going through the list. That’s why I add the translations myself if I think I won’t remember them.
      When you say ‘the less context, the easier it is to memorise the word’, what does that refer? Context in terms of the word list you create? Or in terms of understanding it in the first place?
      Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!

      Like

      • Hi Sandy,
        You’re probably right about the richer meaning. However, as far as memorising words is concerned, bilingual dictionaries seem to be more effective. I guess the ideal situation would be to have a bilingual translation with example sentences and collocations. Linguee is a great online tool that has such features.
        The only time I used monolingual dictionaries is when I learned English. This was mainly because I was told by my teachers that I should use them as translation was discouraged. Since then, I’ve never used a monolingual dictionary. But I do tend to look up how words are used in context once I’ve memorised the basic meaning.
        Interestingly, with regards to pictures, research has found them to be less effective than learning words from lists, in particular bilingual word lists. One thing related to pictures that does work very well according to research are mnemonic devices.
        Regarding context, in the study by Laufer and Shmueli (1997) learners were divided into four groups: 1) words presented in isolation 2) words in minimal context, I.e. a sentence 3) words in context 4) words in elaborated context. Each condition was further divided into a monolingual or a bilingual, I.e. with translation, presentation. For all four conditions the group with a translation always outperformed the one with no translation. In addition, the group with no context learned significantly more words than that with minimal context, which learned more than the one with context. In other words, the less context, the better, it seems, at least as far as remembering words is concerned.

        Like

  2. […] Experiment with methods of language learning myself. […]

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  3. […] Experiment with methods of language learning myself. […]

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