How to Learn a Language: An Overview
Language learning is complex; it’s one of the reasons I love it so much. You’re dealing with four separate, yet linked skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking – which are in turn linked to thousands of separate, yet linked facts – grammar rules, vocabulary words, pronunciation rules, etc. Figuring out how to work on each of these aspects individually and as a whole has been a hobby and passion of mine for the last eight years. While a detailed discussion of each aspect of this method is quite a bit of material (hence the forthcoming book!), this should get you well on your way. If you haven’t seen it yet, do check out the Lifehacker article as well:
Start with Pronunciation
To learn accurate pronunciation, you need to train your ear to hear the language accurately. Learning to pronounce the language correctly from the beginning provides huge benefits: better listening comprehension, better speech, faster vocabulary acquisition, and native speakers who will continue to speak to you in their language instead of switching to English.
How does this work? After a quick study of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as it works in the English language, you can use IPA to understand the sounds of your target language. Following this with carefully designed recordings to train your ears (I’ll make some available here for the languages I’ve learned and show you how to get them for free from internet sources), you can perfect your accent from day one and avoid years of practicing bad pronunciation habits.
The moment you cut English completely out of your language studies is the moment you begin to think in your target language. You can do this from the very first day. Starting with pictures and graduating to simple definitions and fill-in-the-blank flash cards (see below), you can teach yourself the vocabulary and grammar of a language without the added mental step of translating back and forth from English, and actually build fluency instead of translation ability.
Use Anki for Vocabulary and Grammar
Anki is a free software program that relies on more than a century of research proving that studying a concept in intervals (For example, only on days 1, 4, 10, 20, 35, 60, etc.) is much more effective than studying all at once. Anki automates these intervals, showing you facts at the optimal times to push them deeper and deeper into your long-term memory in the least amount of time possible. It’s a shortcut to memorization that gives you total control of what ends up in your long-term memory, and it is so efficient that the you will be able to memorize hundreds of words a week in 30-40 minutes a day. The trouble with using this software is that most people decide to memorize translations.
Choose your Vocabulary Efficiently
Computational linguistics has given us new tools to study languages, and what we’ve found is that learning the first thousand most frequent words in a language will enable you to read 70% of every text you’ll ever encounter, but learning the next thousand will only give you 10% more (and the next thousand, 4%). Use this to your advantage! Learn the first one or two thousand most common words, and then customize to your own needs. Why learn academic language if you just want to travel? Why learn business language if you just want to read academic papers? Choosing your vocabulary to suit your needs makes your study time much more efficient.
So what does this look like in a new language?
Stage 1: Learn the correct pronunciation of the language.
This starts with understanding English pronunciation (assuming you’re an English native speaker), and then moving on to your language with a good pronunciation book. You should know the sounds of your target language, how they’re different from English, and all that language’s pronunciation rules.
Stage 2: Vocab and grammar acquisition, no English allowed
Start with a frequency list and mark off any words you can portray with pictures alone (basic nouns and verbs). Put those in an Anki deck and learn them. Once you have some words to play with, start putting them together. You can use Google translate and a grammar book to start making sentences (but make sure that what you put into your Anki deck has no English!), then get everything you write yourself double-checked at lang-8.com. Turning them into fill-in-the-blank flashcards builds the initial grammar and connecting words. As your vocabulary and grammar grow, move to monolingual dictionaries and writing your own definitions for more abstract words (again everything you write should be double-checked at lang-8.com). This builds on itself; the more vocabulary and grammar you get, the more vocabulary and grammar concepts you can describe in the target language. Eventually you can cover all the words in a 2000 word frequency list and any specific vocabulary you need for your specific interests.
Stage 3: Listening, writing and reading work
Once you have a decent vocabulary and familiarity with grammar, start writing essays and journal entries, watching TV shows and reading books. Every writing correction (from a tutor or lang-8.com) gets added to the Anki deck, which continues to build your vocabulary and grammar.
Stage 4: Speech
At the point where you can write ‘fluently’, find a place to immerse in the language and speak all the time (literally! No English allowed or else you won’t learn the skill you’re trying to learn, which is adapting to holes in your grammar or vocabulary by going around them rapidly and automatically without having to think about it). I prefer Middlebury College, but a few weeks in the target country will work as well if you’re very vigorous with sticking to the target language and not switching to English. If you’re extremely strict with yourself, your brain adapts pretty quickly and learns how to combine everything you learned in stages 1-3 together into fluent speech.
You’ll find more detailed discussions of the four key aspects at the links to the left and language specific resources in the Languages section.