How to start a new language: everything works if you are enjoying it

Language learning methods

There are many ways to start learning a language – everybody is different. I like to jump in at the deep end – and anybody who has read this blog will understand that for me that doesn’t mean sitting down with a textbook and getting to grammatical work. It means reading complex texts immediately, before I know a word. I won’t deny that sometimes I go too far with this.

Nonetheless, my approach varies hugely from language to language, and approaches vary hugely from person to person. I have collected below a number of in-routes to language learning, so that if you don’t find Duolingo a satisfying way of beginning you can have a look at the options. Pick what suits you! I am suggesting all of these for an absolute beginner, but not everybody works in the same way, so it may be that it would be more useful for you to start with a learning style you know and then incorporate others later on. The most important thing is that you pick methods you enjoy, so that you don’t get bored of your new language before you’ve given it a fair shot.

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More regimented

Get a book

If you are learning your first language and want some proper guidance, a book is a good investment. I would highly recommend reading reviews first, as some are better than others. If you are considering the Teach Yourself books, go for the older complete courses over the newer beginner-intermediate options, as they provide much more support as a reference material and, in my experience, take you further faster. For me, the best courses have some sort of narrative – my Hindi course is delightful in that it has a narrative arc that goes throughout the book that actually kept me reading – but you may be different. These days I use books as reference materials, so I find detailed grammars good to have but not necessarily the place to start.

Language apps

I am not a great proponent of apps like Duolingo. In my experience – and bear in mind that I haven’t tried them all – apps will focus your attention on a small set of vocabulary that don’t really prepare you to start experimenting with a language. When used in moderation and in addition to other methods they can be useful, but I would beware of relying on them for your progress. It is much harder to remember what you learn in a frustrating and generally boring context (even when it is structured like a game). I have heard of people enjoying them, however, and since that is my number one rule I can’t rule them out just because they don’t suit me!

Get a teacher

If you really love speaking then there is nothing wrong with doing it immediately. You will need a fair bit of hand-holding before you reach fluency, but for people who love conversation and have the resources to have it then this is perfect. When you are past the earliest stages a mix of grammar lessons and discussion is good, if that’s what you want. There are lots of teachers with different teaching styles, so if you can afford one then try some out until you find a good fit. If you don’t want to pay, try to find a conversation partner learning your language, or someone you know in real life – if your target language can become a secret code between you then all the better.

More intuitive

I find the below methods generally most entertaining, because of the content and because I love the experience of picking up bits and pieces by myself, but the real key with any of the methods on this post is that you can and should adjust them to suit you. If dealing with complex (by which I probably mean B2-A1 for me) material immediately is neither fun nor an effective way to learn for you, then adjust!

Watch a movie (dubbed into or made) in your target language

Ideally this would be a film that you have seen enough times in your first language/with subtitles to already have an idea of what is going on. Depending on how much you rely on subtitles, you may find them a useful way to pinpoint exact meanings, or a distraction. If you find that you are just absorbed in the action and aren’t really listening for the words then try slowing down a little and taking a more active approach – maybe replay a scene a couple of times to see what you can pick up.

I had some success with this approach in Hindi. I didn’t have much understanding of fundamental grammatical structures until I started studying them, but I loved already knowing a set of words and phrases I had learnt intuitively and could plug into sentences as soon as I picked up some grammar. The process went something like this: “I’m sure they make this ‘pyaar‘ sound a lot… ‘pyaar’ must mean love!… so what’s ‘pahela pyaar?’… it’s first love… ‘pahela‘ must mean first!” So exciting.

If you want something with less complex language then kids’ cartoons are translated into loads of languages.

Read a text in your target language

How complex the text is is up to you – I wouldn’t suggest a text that would be difficult in your own language, and again it can be useful to try something you know well in another language already (though do what you like!) Lots of people go with Harry Potter, I plump for Pride and Prejudice (rather embarrassingly, I know it well).

Since you will basically need to translate every word, and it is best to have some audio so you know how words should sound, I would suggest you use LingQ or its opensource counterpart Learning With Texts. These both provide instant translation and can play audio for each word, so you are just left to intuit grammatical structures and the odd strange idiom (the software does its best to help but doesn’t always succeed on that front). I would caution you not to try reading a complex text without one of these resources, as it will quickly become draining manually looking up each word.

I used LingQ with Russian before I even learnt the alphabet, and I can’t express my joy at not having had to learn the alphabet the boring way. Every word played for me and over time it became obvious which symbols were for which sounds. It is a site I really love – though my tip would be to switch to classic mode when you are actually reading.

Listen to example sentences (with translations) around a particular topic

This could be Pimsleur if you want detailed help following the pronunciation. For me, Pimsleur is too slow and I would rather be exposed to new words than endlessly repeating until I have perfectly memorised, but it’s all down to what makes you comfortable and happy. If you are likely to just listen and repeat without breaking down for meaning, Pimsleur or something with more English explanation would probably be better for you. If you enjoy picking up on patterns – “sounds like ‘mikhoram‘ is some form of the verb to eat, ‘am‘ is a common verb ending, ‘do‘ must mean two”, etc. – then you will do better with a faster pace and direct translations. I find knowing a language or two already really speeds up this process, because you know cognates and are looking for patterns, but anyone can do it. This is probably my favourite way of learning Persian, I just can’t find enough resources!

You may want a basic grammar including pronouns and a couple of verbs before you start with this method – or you may not!

Use YouTube

Depending on your needs, this can be targeted lessons for beginners, or more complex videos for native speakers that happen to have subtitles. It may help you to find the latter if you use YouTube’s regional sites or put in search terms translated into your target language. Love books and want to learn Russian? Search “мои любимые книги” (you can just put English phrases through Google Translate if you want to) and see what happens! Depending on the language and the size of a niche there will be varying amounts with subtitles – give it a go and see what you find. Again, you may want a grasp of the basics first, especially with videos aimed at fast-speaking native speakers, but it’s up to you. Finding the right resources can be tough but is very rewarding.

OK! I think I have exhausted my list – I will update with anything I remember later. If you think I have missed anything important then let me know!

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