5 Ways to Actually Learn a Language

Learning a new language is a goal many of us have but few of us ever achieve. OpenLanguage provides a highly-effective, convenient, and entertaining language learning system that will put you on the road to linguistic success. In addition to an effective learning system, however, it’s important to focus on how you approach learning a language. Here are some key ways that will help ensure that you don’t just study a language but that you actually learn it.

1. Choose a language you actually want to learn

The fundamental thing that will result in language learning success is of course motivation – you can have all the resources in the world, but if you’re not up to using them you’ll get no where. Thus to be truly successful in learning a language, it’s best choose one that you really want to learn. Maybe you have a close friend that speaks Spanish that you would like to be able to communicate with in their native language. Maybe your company also does business in China and learning Chinese will help advance your career. Or maybe you love Japanese films and want to be able to understand them in their original language. Whatever the reason, choosing a language that motivates you enough to push through those periods of difficulty is the key first ingredient in the recipe for language learning success.


2. Find ways to connect the language to the real world

Language learning is traditionally the stuff of classrooms, water-damaged textbooks, and endless repetitive exercises. What this method fails to acknowledge is that language is about people, not words and grammar points. And, believe it or not, the people that speak the language you want to learn do not live on page 76, exercise 3; they live in the real world, using that language to talk to parents, write work emails, and fall in love. Seek out ways to connect the language you’re studying to the worlds where its actually spoken. This could mean finding music or TV shows in that language to see what native speakers are into, seeking out versions of the websites you love to find out how they actually talk about stuff, or (of course) finding someone who speaks that language natively to chat with. In doing this, you’ll better understand how the language is used and feels when spoken by real people, which is almost always different from how it is used and feels when being taught from a textbook. OpenLanguage is unique in that it provides real language taught by real people, making this real world connection a central part of your studies. Through this real world connection, the language you’re studying will go from feeling like a fossil that you study as a specimen to being a living, breathing thing that you actually want to continue to get to know.


3. Try to continue studying even when you’re not “studying”

It’s easy to study for a little bit and then go on with your day without ever once thinking about what you were learning earlier. But to really internalize a language, which is the ultimate goal when studying a language, you have to bring that language with you wherever you go. You’re walking to your car – how do you say “car” in Italian? You head to the store to buy some bread – what’s the right way to say “bread” in Arabic? You just remembered that you need to call your friend – how do you say “I call my friend” in French? By teaching your brain to constantly think about the language you’re learning, it will become second nature to constantly reinforce everything you’ve been learning.


4. Go back

Make a point of regularly going back to things you’ve previously studied. You may be years into your studies, but upon returning to beginner topics you may be surprised to find things that you’ve been doing incorrectly all along. Often times these things that were glossed over earlier on in your studies will add a great deal to your now more advanced abilities. Most importantly, going back is an important motivational tool: remember that lesson that was once so difficult for you to understand? Go back and listen to it after a few months of studying and realize how much you’ve progressed.


5. Make your learning your own

People love to make big statements about one-size-fits-all language learning tricks, but the bottom line is that you have to make your learning your own. Did that trick or method of studying that you just tried work? Keep doing it. Are you learning Russian in order to communicate effectively during a month vacation in Russia and don’t care much about being able to write the alphabet? Then focus on speaking. Do you only feel like learning how to talk about food and don’t care about learning hospital-related vocabulary? Then food it is. Learning a language is about enriching your life and reaching your goals, and getting there requires initiative on your part to find the method and approach that fits your needs.


OpenLanguage Podcast Host Spotlight: Q&A with Jason Bigman

Lesson hosts are the heart and soul of OpenLanguage. They bring language expertise, life stories and charisma to the learning experience. Today, we introduce Jason Bigman, host for OpenLanguage Japanese, Spanish, and English.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Aside from my obvious passion for languages, I also love good design, dumplings from various global culinary traditions, writing, and dry climates.

Q: You are quite the language nerd. Besides English and Japanese, what other languages do you speak?
A: If we go with “speak” meaning I can have conversations that involve original sentences that I’m coming up with on the fly, I can also speak Spanish, Mandarin, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Arabic.

Q: Why do you keep studying different languages?
A: I love the experience of a learning a language well enough that new worlds open up, both in terms of how to express ideas and describe the world around me but also the cultures and people of communities where that language is spoken. We live in an interconnected, globalized world and being able to personally connect with people from hugely varied geographic and linguistic backgrounds never gets old to me.

Q: What is your strategy when it comes to learning a new language?
A: One of the biggest factors to successful language learning is making sure that you’re studying a language that you truly care about, whether it be for personal or professional reasons. If you have the internal motivation, then the rest comes easily. I also tend to speak aloud to myself when I’m alone to practice speaking languages for which I don’t have regular conversation opportunities. I promise I’m not crazy.

Q: What’s your favorite OpenLanguage lesson that you’ve recorded so far?
A: I really enjoy recording Japanese lessons where my co-host Wakako and I get to delve into the complex relationship between the Japanese language and Japanese culture. The lesson “My Mom Buys Me Gifts” has some good examples of this.

Q: Any thoughts or suggestions for fellow OpenLanguage learners?
A: Keep studying! Take lots of notes and go back to lessons that you’ve already done to reinforce what you’ve previously learned. With words that are hard to remember or complex grammar patterns, try to come up with your own personal tricks or methods of comprehending them. You have to make your learning process your own.

How Important is English in Your Career Development?

A recent article in The Economist titled ‘The English Empire’ noted that an ever increasing number of international companies are adopting English as their first language. While this comes as no surprise for most English learners, what’s worth noting is that global firms from non-English speaking countries are adopting English to replace their native language as the official language.

Taking China’s Lenovo for example, its CEO Yang Yuanqing set a very personal example when he made it his priority to become fluent in English at the age of 40. Despite a grueling work schedule, he made sure to set aside time studying English everyday from learning with a personal tutor to watching American TV. He now conducts board meetings in fluent English. Another Asian boss who exemplifies commitment to learning English is Hiroshi Mikitani, the boss of Japan’s Rakuten Group which operates the ubiquitous Uniqlo chain. He made his staff learn English and once warned to demote or even fire staff who didn’t reach desired fluency. Companies from Asia to Europe recognize that it’s far more efficient to conduct business in English.

This trend means that English is becoming ever more important in one’s career development. On top of communications benefits, some business leaders including the aforementioned Hiroshi Mikitani also think that the English language helps promote attributes such as free thinking and creativity amongst employees.

Does your personal experience reflect the bigger trend? We hope you can share your experience by answering the following questions:

  • How much of a role does English play in your professional development?
  • What’s your view on the role English plays at work?
  • Do you think it’s sometimes mistaken for professional competency?
  • Did you have to learn English on the job?
  • Does your employer provide English training?
  • What key factors do you consider when looking for English training?

As the creator of English learning materials for busy adults, we want to hear your thoughts!

New OpenLanguage Design

At OpenLanguage we believe the more time you can spend connected to your studies, the more likely you will achieve your learning goals. Increasingly, a large number of our students are using 3 different devices (tablet, phone & computer) during the day to study. According to a 2013 comScore report, device usage varies heavily throughout the day. Smart phones are most popular in the morning, computers during the day and tablets at night.


To help ensure our students have a consistent study experience with web browsers on their tablets, phones & computers, as well as with our iOS and Android apps, we are implementing ‘responsive web design’ on the website and working towards a consistent design interface within the apps.

New Study Menu

The biggest change students will notice is with regards to the revised study menu.


Of note:

  • the Library of courses and lessons has been moved to a more prominent position
  • the previous ‘Courses’ and ‘Self-Study’ sections have been renamed ‘My Courses’ and ‘Saved Lessons’ to improve clarity

Additionally, many of the administration pages have been moved to a revised Account section.


This update is a work-in-progress so please let us know your comments and suggestions.


Updated Feature – Vocabulary Deck Management

We have updated the management of vocabulary decks and flashcards on both our Android and iOS mobile apps, as well as on the website. The highlights of these changes include: easier deck management, full-screen flashcards, easier vocabulary card management and a new SRS mode.

Deck Management
After you tap ‘Vocabulary’ you will be re-directed to a newly designed Vocabulary section. We have simplified and ‘flattened’ the design to draw more attention to what is important – the vocabulary decks (or ‘stacks’ of vocabulary flashcards). Each deck box displays the deck name and the number of target terms. Options for this view allow you to create a new deck or change the target language that you are studying. If you ‘long-press’ on a deck box, options to rename the deck will appear. If you ‘pull’ the page down, the decks will sync with your cloud account.


After you tap a deck box, you will be immediately be taken to the flashcards. The first thing previous students will notice is that the cards are now much bigger. Tapping the icon in the the top-left will even make them full screen!


You can navigate the cards by swiping left and right to switch between the cards, or tapping to flip the cards. You can choose what to display on the ‘front’ side of the cards in Settings with the source language translation available by default, but also the option to display the target term, the term phonetics and the term audio. On the back side of the card, you will see all the information related to the target term in addition to a green ‘View Sample Sentences’ button that will direct you to the Glossary so that you can browse sample sentences for how the term is actually used in context.


Vocabulary Card Management
In addition to Settings, in the Options section you can Manage the entire deck, Shuffle the cards, Autoplay the cards, Move the active term to another deck, Copy the active term to another deck or Delete the active term from the deck.

SRS Mode
By default the flashcard section is set to Normal Mode. For those students who want to take advantage of spaced-repetition software (SRS) technology, you now have the option to switch to SRS Mode in the Options section.


In SRS Mode, you cannot freely switch between different cards, but instead need to indicate how well you remembered the term, by selecting between Again, Hard, Good or Easy, before proceeding to the next card. This feedback is used by the SRS SM-2 algorithm to ‘smartly’ present this term to you in the future. In layman’s terms, the goal is to use technology to help more these new foreign-language terms from your short, to you medium, to your long-term memory.

Please let us know you questions or ideas below in the comments.


New Feature – Speech Accuracy

A big challenge when learning a new language is knowing whether or not what you are saying could actually be understood by a native speaker.

If you attend a language class, your teacher can quickly give you feedback, but you might have to fight with other students for their time and perhaps you might be a little shy or afraid to make mistakes. If you are studying on your own, then you are likely in a worse situation being not able to even get this minimal feedback.

At OpenLanguage we take pride in our engaging lessons, which provide lesson input, and our software tools, that help provide review opportunities, but we also realize facilitating practice opportunities and providing corrective feedback is critical for developing your new language skills.

To help with this, today we are adding a new ‘Accuracy’ feature to the Sentence and Word Review tools available in our iOS and Android mobile apps.


To take advantage of this feature, simply tap the Accuracy button to get started. To hear a native speaker read the term or sentence press the play button. Then it is your turn to try. Press record and read the term yourself. The app will analyze your recording and give you an Accuracy score.


Now, this feature utilizes speech-recognition technology which is notoriously not 100% perfect. You should approach your score, not as an absolute measure of your performance, but more as an indicator of how likely you would be understood by a native speaker. The higher your score, the more likely you will be able to engage in a conversation with that native speaker.

This feature is simply designed to be a low-risk way for you to get feedback on how well you are pronouncing those foreign-language terms.

From a technical perspective, the app converts the spoken audio to a text string (with Android using the Android SDK and with iOS using Nuance) and then compares the resultant text string with the original for the native speaker. The app then uses a string comparison algorithm (Levenshtein distance) to determine an approximate accuracy score.

If you have any suggestions please let us know in the comments.


Koestel Family

Raising Multilingual Children: Interview with Franck Koestel from earlylanguages.com

Today we focus on language learning for the little ones. Children have an amazing ability to learn new languages. As parents, how do we inspire and help them acquire new languages? Listen in as OpenLanguage co-founder Jenny Zhu talks to Franck Koestel from earlylanguages.com, one of the most popular blogs on the topic about inspiring children to learn languages through daily activities and create rewarding family bonding experiences. Both Jenny and Franck have a professional as well as deeply personal interest in the area and they share their own trials and triumphs in raising multilingual children. Whether you are in similar situations as them or simply would like to ignite your children’s interest in languages, we hope today’s conversation will help you along the way.

OpenLanguage Learner Series: Inspiring Children to Learn Languages