Tag: how to learn a language

Finding your way through language learning

There are a lot of methods to choose from, and a lot of prominent proponents of different methods – many of whom have impressive track records in learning languages and so seem thoroughly believable. The advice is there to be listened to, and you should listen to it, but when it comes down to your own study your regime (regimented or not) is going to be a lot more haphazard.

Different people, different languages, different experiences, and different content all demand different approaches – I have never learnt any two languages in the same way, beyond a basic reliance on a lot of input. For example:

  • Maybe you’re a person who used post it notes for objects in French, but now you’re learning Spanish and you’d rather just get on with speaking
  • Maybe your course says you should be learning to use the dative case but you are actually more interested in this weird instrumental case right now
  • Maybe you keep coming across a word ending you don’t understand so you look it up
  • Maybe you read a lot in one language but mostly talk with a friend in another
  • Maybe you are learning Persian, for which there is no Google Translate audio, so you have to find another way to match what you are reading with what is spoken
  • Maybe you’ve found some Russian radio stations that are the perfect balance of good Russian music and interesting Russian chat, but now you are trying out a new language and all of the stations just play English songs
  • Maybe you used Memrise a bunch for one language but are bored of it and need a change
  • Maybe you love the cinematic offerings of one country but are mostly bored by another

This is a quick post just to let you know that you will find your way through, and that that sort of a haphazard approach is a lot of what learning is. You don’t have to learn in a straight line and you can really pick and choose methods. That includes the methods I don’t mention much on this site – I don’t ever use things like the Gold List method, for example (though I do find some kinds of lists useful when I have the right sort of motivation), but if you enjoy that sort of an approach then go for it!

My posts are generally aimed at people who don’t find a sort of course and test model very rewarding, either because they don’t stick with it or just because they don’t find it satisfying, but there are lots of people who love the motivation they get from clear goals and you are welcome to be one – and to be haphazard too!


What do you want to do with your language? Speaking and/or listening.

For some of you learning a language, communication is your primary goal. For others, it is the ability to understand the world around you a little better. Both are good and valid, and if you are comfortable that your strategies for language learning give you what you want, then they are valid too! No matter what anyone says.

There is a lot of pressure from within the language learning community to attain fluency measured by the ability to speak fluently – including a lot of YouTube videos of polyglots that alternately inspire would-be language learners, and reinforce their lack of self-belief. The Speak from Day One method is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but it does drive home the idea that language-learning is ultimately about speech – especially your own.

But when people give advice it is often just advice for people whose goals and habits resemble their own. People take their own experiences and make them general – because it feels validating! I’m a chronic advice-giver, trust me. (For more detail, see thisĀ song.) But your priorities in the language learning process should be organised according to your own goals and with sympathy for your own ways of learning – for what you actually find valuable.

So what do you want out of learning a language?!

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If you don’t want to speak yet (or at all!)

I have been learning Hindi for years but almost never speak it, partly through lack of opportunity but mostly because I’ve been pretty happy just listening. It has been more important to me to pay attention to others than it has been to be heard by them. Combining listening with other activities may make you progress quicker, in the sense of being able to understand better, but whether or not you do anything else, listening and paying attention to material you really value is the good of language learning. It is not just learning, it isĀ using the language. I have found it hugely valuable!

In fact, for most (but not all) of the languages I learn being able to listen and understand has been my primary goal. As a result, however, my Hindi speech is a stilted and infrequent. I take a a while to find vocabulary, so haven’t felt confident doing it in conversation with a native speaker.

But here’s the great thing: now I have Hindi-speaking flatmates and I have been trying to talk to them, and the rate at which I am turning words I understand into words I can use in speech is really exciting, and faster than it could have been without the underpinning I have acquired through so much listening. (As I have started to be more creative, I have found this method useful to get me forming more sentences and to remind me of words I have never used – if you are beginning to speak maybe try it, but do what works for you!)

If you are just starting to learn a language and you are too nervous to speak, or just not motivated to, that is absolutely OK! If you want to speak later, you will have given yourself an excellent grounding for it. If you never want to speak, you never have to! As I have said over and over, it is way more fun to be bad at a language than not to speak (read: know) it at all!

If you really want to speak…

If, however, you really want to speak, find ways to do it! If fear is too demotivating in a public setting and you can afford to find a tutor, or just find a language buddy, then that is a great alternative.

If being on the spot is scary, I suggest allowing yourself to use translation technology. For Russian I found it very useful to be able to use Google Translate whilst talking to my tutor – some teachers will complain when you do this but I was way more motivated and way less nervous when I had that option. If I tried not to rely on it too heavily and always considered the words to double check that they are appropriate, the result was to speed up conversation while also exposing me to new vocabulary and grammar points, and I don’t think that’s any bad thing!

Oh! Also talking to yourself is great, in whatever language. I mean, I guess I should add the “advice is for the advice-giver” caveat, but who doesn’t love chatting to themself a bit? It’s a great clarifier.

But not quite yet…

If speaking is too scary for now but you still want to prepare to communicate in the language, try combining a lot of listening with a lot of writing. It is especially good if you can have your writing corrected by native speakers on a site like italki (or anywhere else you can find them! I find italki is a really great resource when you don’t know where else to look for correction or are worried that people are being too polite to correct you).

I reckon you could talk to yourself too. Also, while I know I would find asking for comments on a recording of me more scary than actually talking face to face, I know that there are many people who don’t feel the same. Maybe see what YouTube can do for you!

What it all comes down to is this: there are lots of ways to get what you want from a language. Maybe for you that will involve speaking, maybe it won’t. Listen to yourself before you listen to anyone else, and find strategies that work for you!