Tag: learning languages

How much structure do you need in language learning?

I speak to people about language learning a lot, and occassionally I manage to talk someone into giving it a shot. I always put enormous stress on the joy of it all – let your curiosity lead you! If a textbook is boring for you than do something else! And yet, time after time, people get stuck grinding on Duolingo or trying to memorise every word they come across as though they have heard nothing I have said.

I sound bitter: I’m not, but I am slowly realising just how big of a hurdle our psychological need for a particular kind of structure, nurtured by our language education and education system at large, is for most people at the beginning of their language journeys. Our experience of schooling makes it tempting to think that there are clearly demarcated stages that we need to surpass before we can start the next, like chapters in a textbook, and that we haven’t learnt a word or a grammatical point unless we can easily reproduce it.

What that ends up meaning is that people end up bound up in the grammar of it all or in memorisation at the expense of allowing themselves get caught up in the flow of the language. Being able to recognise (not reproduce) a few major verbs and pronouns, the basic sentence structure, and any frequently occurring unique grammatical features is typically enough to set you on the path to engaging with the language; and engaging with the language in the form of ‘comprehensible input’ – that is to say any listening or reading material that you can understand, albeit imperfectly, whether through knowing the words or through other context up to and including translation – is always going to be the major way you learn.

I don’t mean to imply through my concern that we can’t make our studies more efficient by adding structure, or even regular study of any grammatical points for which you feel you need clarification. It is rather to say that curiosity has to come first, especially for those of us who don’t have a pressing need for our target language and who haven’t undertaken that kind of self-motivated study before. Curiosity is not a distraction, it is both our major motivator and it is how we learn, and for that reason input should be the bulk of your learning time. It will always be easier to remember a word and understand it in context if you have seen it come up in diverse and interesting contexts, than it would be if you have seen it repeatedly on a list or a flashcard that has no context at all. (Flashcards with context can have their place, as long as you aren’t bored out of your mind as I tend to be!)

I also don’t mean to imply that your comprehensible input can’t benefit from its own kind of structure. Focusing on particular kinds of input for a while and then deliberately switching it up as you notice that your needs (and perhaps your interests) change is a great way to spur progress and continued motivation.

It remains for me to illustrate these points with a couple of examples from my own language-learning career. When I started learning Hindi as my first second language, I had a textbook and I religiously went through it, at first refusing to move on until I was able to complete the tests at the end of each chapter. However I was fortunate that I was drawn to learning through watching Hindi movies, and that ultimately I was too impatient to do the exercises before pushing forward, and on reflection I think that led to actually a pretty good balance of unstructured input, structured learning, and curiosity-driven progress.

With Russian, the next language into which I put significant time and effort, the case was different. I had learnt the importance of input, but in my rejection of school-like structure I went a little too far and rejected structured/gradu, and sank a lot of time into input that was almost completely incomprehensible to me, leaving me with few footholds in the language. Pretty silly on reflection but I think not all that uncommon.

With Romanian, by far my best language, I read read read, listen listen listen, and when I need to know a grammatical point or I need more context around a word, I look it up; when I feel that progress is slowing down with a particular type of content I switch to another; and when I feel that my speaking and writing skills are dragging too far behind my comprehension, I warm them up with practice. I structure my learning around my needs and I’m very happy with it!


Beginner language materials are boring, you don’t need to rely on them

I will preface all of this with the caveat that this is the advice I have found useful for myself and my own learning style – you may find the beginner materials much more rewarding than I do, especially at the very beginning, and I don’t want to discourage you if that is the case! For me, though, especially in my more recent languages, I have relied on them less and less. OK, on with the show…

As an absolute beginner in a language it can be very frustrating to discover that the majority of learning materials directed at you are either boring, or are games (which, in general, I find pretty boring). The moments of excitement that come with understanding somebody speaking naturally, even when you are only catching a few words, are difficult to find when you are relying on one lesson format or another. If you are learning your first second language, it is not necessarily obvious to you that Duolingo, textbooks, and videos/podcasts for absolute beginners (often children) aren’t THE ways of doing things.

They aren’t, though. I have given some suggestions for language learning methods and resources here, but the key is to know that, especially with new technologies, you don’t have to be using material that feels boring and/or childish. You’re learning a language! You want to understand what people are saying! You don’t necessarily want to be learning rules or passing tests.

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When I started learning Hindi and when I started learning Russian I didn’t have textbooks in those languages, and I certainly didn’t have Duolingo. Mostly I watched movies and looked up things on the school computers when I was stuck or curious. I bought some textbooks later, and as reference materials they were extremely helpful, and saved me printer money, but they have never formed the basis of my learning. To be clear, I am definitely not saying that these resources are bad or aren’t useful, but if you want to enjoy language learning and feel like you are really understanding native speakers, even as an absolute beginner it is good to base your learning around immersion. That means listening to and reading interesting materials in your target language – with subtitles or translations first, and perhaps later without (more on how to do this later). Textbooks and google searches are valuable support for that – I’m sure it would have taken me a while to work out the differences between gender and case endings without them and that is obviously an important piece of information – but hearing them used by native speakers in a context not aimed at me was what really helped me to learn.

My Hindi textbook was useful for me in part because I actually really enjoyed the content on offer. It had a story that had an arc across the whole book, and because of that I was motivated to learn the grammatical points that supported the context. Without the fun of interesting content I wouldn’t learn. I would go so far as to describe the textbook as a valuable support to my learning. That is all a textbook can be, and probably all it is trying to be, but as a beginner it can seem like it is the language itself, the test to be passed before you’re allowed to do the fun bits. Interspersing your exposure to a language with grammar study can be great, but just studying grammar rarely is.

It is through the fun of so many movies, TV shows, websites and podcasts that I have learnt most of my vocabulary. They are also how I learnt how to actually care about and use the grammatical points, which I occasionally look up when the content has made me curious. Recognising and imitating a flow of words is, for me, a far more effective way of deepening my use of grammatical constructs than actively trying to learn and remember them. And interesting videos and texts are available to you as a beginner, you don’t need to wait until you have passed a certain number of tests. If you are lost in a piece of audio, just recognising the patterns of sounds and slowly starting to match them with subtitles, then great! You are doing it, and besides, the show is good!

Finding interesting (and useful) content

It seems as though there is rarely an opportunity, as a beginner, to feel as though you are engaging with the interests and materials of native speakers, which is very likely what motivated you to start learning in the first place. But there are ways, and those ways are getting better! I have written about beginner methods in more detail here, but the relevant points are below

  • Videos – if you are an absolute beginner (or if you aren’t) videos with subtitles are a great way to go. Listen, pay attention, see what you can learn. Then, if you enjoyed something, watch it again – and again, and again. The key is to enjoy yourself, so if you don’t like this repetition – which I’m not suggesting you have to do all in a row -you can skip it. However, I have found it very useful for really starting to hear through the blur of fast dialogue and thick plot. If you are inclined to, repeat the things you really enjoy – perhaps, when you are ready and know the video well, repeat without subtitles.
  • Reading – with LingQ or the opensource but slightly clunkier equivalent Learning With Texts. If reading material is more up your street, LingQ and LWT provide audio for each word through Google Translate. LingQ also has separate recordings for a lot of its user-provided materials, many of which are transcribed podcasts and news broadcasts. If you find your own material for LingQ (and I think that is where the fun comes) you can upload associated audio. There are also, significantly, translations for each word to help you through a piece even as an absolute beginner. When you have learnt each word you can mark it as known, until then you can select a word to see translations. I learnt the Russian alphabet using LingQ by playing each word of a book aloud until I knew all the letters. If you use my referral link to LingQ you get some free LingQs (words you mark as recognised) as a referral benefit, and I get a small commission if you upgrade. I have found this site, especially with texts displayed in classic mode, so much easier to operate than LWT that I have been very happy recommending it above LWT on this site even before I discovered the referral benefits. It really has been the bedrock of my Russian study, more than any other resource – though shout out to masterrussian.com for having the answers to the questions I came up with while reading. The major advantage that LWT has is the greater range of languages available – usually if you can find them on Google Translate, you can find them on LWT.
  • Podcasts – I will throw in a quick note in favour of a type of podcast that I find too difficult to find, but is perfect for me as a beginner who doesn’t want to explicitly learn grammar or repeat every syllable slowly. That is, I love podcasts that take sentences on a theme and say them once in English (or your best language) and twice in your target language, as they are neither patronising nor needlessly slow. They provide a good opportunity to hear how related words work in context. Certainly check out the other podcast offerings for your language, though – you might not be as impatient as me and sometimes you have to commute!

Especially when you have subtitles and/or translation software, you don’t need to restrict yourself to reading/watching/listening to material that is at or only a little above your level – you absolutely can if you feel you are getting something out of it, but I habitually work with (enjoy) content that is significantly above my own level because it is what is interesting to me. As I have said, I didn’t know the alphabet when I started reading a book in Russian. I tend to avoid particularly descriptive texts with vocabulary that I will rarely use, but that is a personal preference – again, do what feels best for you! If you have subtitles, LingQ, or LWT to support you you should be able to make your way through difficult material anyway, and have a good time along the way. When you find the material that is really interesting, it is valuable even if it is hard.

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 this 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 is 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!

A Hindi starter kit

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My route into Hindi was a roundabout one. Everybody finds their own path into language, and for some that path is a textbook. But for most people (an in my opinion anybody who wants to have fun) that is not the beginning and end of it. I absorbed as much Hindi content as I could, long before I understood much of what was being said. For the most part that meant movies. Often the same ones over and over again (if you are inclined to repeat watch it really helps, as you stop focusing on understanding the whole meaning and get a chance to pick up on smaller parts of speech). I owe most of my vocabulary to movies.

I did use a textbook, though, and it would have taken a lot longer to absorb the grammar without it. I still think Rupert Snell’s older Teach Yourself Hindi course is one of the best textbooks I’ve used, and I have a lot of fondness for it. Grammatical points are laid out clearly and structured around genuinely enjoyable dialogues that actually kept me reading the book. It is certainly better than the other Teach Yourself offerings, which take you more slowly to a lower level, but I can’t compare with too many other Hindi textbooks.

To be clear, this post and most of the content on my site is primarily for people who want to build a solid grounding in a language, however patchy it may be depending on your own interests. For people just looking to learn a few phrases so their travels run a bit more smoothly, this phrase book looks promising (but not released until 2019 – others in the series are well-reviewed but I haven’t used any of them). Other than that, though, I think the best resources are online. Why not do some of the other stuff in this post anyway? Nothing to lose in a bit of fun!

Also, this list is absolutely non-exhaustive! The basic point is to find content you like at a level you feel comfortable in – which may or may not be ahead of your actual level. If you have an idea of what that might mean for you then you needn’t read on. If you don’t, then go ahead.

Hindi movies

A lot of people are put off watching Hindi movies because of their reputation for all-singing all-dancing drama. For most of the films I watch that’s no exaggeration, but it is not all that India produces! I’ve collected below a few examples of my favourite movies of various styles. As I mentioned above, I’m not suggesting that watching films is a quick way of getting the grammar of a language, but if you are paying attention and willing to rewatch the same films a few times you will definitely pick up a lot – especially in more quotable movies with less varied vocabulary. For that, the cheesier the better! A lot went into my Hindi education but I think most of it was Kal Ho Naa Ho.

Piku – a much more naturalist movie than is typical (with no dance numbers), and a genuinely lovely story about a woman, her father, and his constipation. The difficult but loving family is experienced by the owner of a taxi stand, who has to drive them from Delhi to Kolkata when all of his employees refuse to get in a car with Piku.

Fanaa – a movie that has it all. I have heard Aamir Khan describe it as a masala movie, and it is definitely that, but I found it much calmer than most. It is set largely in Kashmir, and there is a deliberate shift in style between the more colourful scenes set in the capital and much bleaker tones in Kashmir. There is cheeky love story, but that doesn’t form the bulk of the film. I won’t say too much, and I recommend you don’t find anything out. I may be rare in having known nothing about it before I went in but oh boy was that fun.

Kal Ho Naa Ho – for the full on Bollywood drama experience (“Bollywood” is a contentious term and I avoid using it, but I think if it applies anywhere it is here). Again, I would recommend not knowing much going in, but it boils down to a love triangle and a strained family. Shah Rukh Khan’s character is surrounded by a lot of not-so-subtle angel imagery, but very little in the film is trying to be subtle.

Don – there is no hiding the cheese in this one. You could go either for the Shah Rukh Khan remake or the Amitabh Bachchan original, but I’ll admit I have only skim watched the original (so far), so I’m talking about the remake. It is a film about Vijay, the perfect doppelganger of a crime boss who is roped in by the police to infiltrate his gang. Events unfold and 70’s pastiche blends seamfully in with bad Matrix stylings. My guess is that the remake is more entertaining if you have already watched the original, for the comparison (avoiding spoilers is hard!), but it is kind of fun watching it with fresh eyes and having no idea why Kareena Kapoor is dancing like that.


For a beginner there are things like HindiPod 101. I find it difficult to find the right episodes things for my level, but if you enjoy them they can be a good way of getting some input guided. I have little patience for guidance, but there are plenty of people who are much better with authority than I am!

If you’re at an intermediate level then I highly encourage you to search for the Hindi-Urdu flagship.

When you have some basics down you can also go for podcasts made for native speakers. For this you’ve gotta go with what interests you (searching something you’ve google translated is probably more effective than putting “Hindi” in the search bar), and trial and error is key. Since there won’t be subtitles, you will want something with a heavy English component to start you off – they aren’t hard to find, as a lot of the Indian audience is English-speaking.

Reality TV

If you are happy to watch reality TV in your regular day, switching that out to Hindi is a great option for you! I have spent many an hour watching an Indian dance competition with Hrithik Roshan but I’ve forgotten the name! I will come back to this post later with better examples when I find good content with subtitles.

Soap operas

I haven’t spent much time watching Indian soaps outside of hotel rooms in India – probably four full evenings’ worth of viewing. From what I remember, there was a lot of dead air as characters glared at each other, but I definitely encourage you to look into it. If it turns out to be something you’re into then great!


This post needs work, and I’d welcome your help! I have included what has been valuable to me personally – though I have left out the shopping network for shame – but if you have suggestions that I’ve missed that would be accessible for someone at a beginner level (i.e. with subtitles or whatever other help is available) let me know!