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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 nine 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.
Start with Pronunciation
The greatest challenge in learning a foreign language is the challenge of memory. With thousands of words and grammar rules to remember, you need all the help you can get to retain what you learn. This is where an early focus on pronunciation comes in: if you look into the science of memory, you’ll discover that it’s much harder to remember words you can’t pronounce well. And one of the reasons that foreign languages can be tricky is that they’re full of hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-memorize words. You can eliminate that challenge by training your ears from the very beginning. You’ll also get a number of side-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.
So how do you do this? Learning accurate pronunciation takes two main steps: first, you’ll need to train your ears to hear the new sounds of your target language, and second, you’ll need to train your mouth to pronounce them. For the first step, I’m in the process of Kickstarting a set of apps that will do the work for you (and designing a free guide to developing those apps yourself for any languages I’m not covering). For the second step – training your mouth – I’ve released a series of videos and flashcard decks to help teach you the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). With its help, you can learn how pronunciation works in your mouth (in English), and apply those ideas to your target language.
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 flashcards a week in 30-40 minutes a day.
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 training your ears to hear the sounds of your target language, understanding English pronunciation (assuming you’re an English native speaker), and then fine tuning your pronunciation with the help of the IPA (or 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 my basic word list – a list of extremely frequent words that are easy to visualize. 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. Once you’ve absorbed most of the material in a basic grammar book, move on to a frequency list and learn the top 1000-2000 words in your language, along with any specific vocabulary you need for your particular 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. Put every writing correction (from a tutor or lang-8.com) into your Anki deck, which will continue 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.