Language learners are a brave bunch who take on one of the most daunting intellectual challenges in life. I have experience of both learning languages and helping people learn languages as well as meeting a lot of inspiring learners along the way. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about how to learn a language that I hope will be useful to you. Note that I am primarily writing for the busy adult learner. If you are student preparing for a proficiency exam for instance, this post might not be the most applicable.
1. It’s NOT going to be easy.
Language learning is not like many other subjects or skills where there’s a more linear and structured system of teaching and learning. Language learning is a lot more fluid and challenging. Whether you are learning a new language out of necessity or as a hobby, realize that it’s not going to be easy. You are going to have to put in a lot of work on a daily basis, run into frustrating moments and be forced out of your comfort zone. You are not going to succeed if you think it’s going to be easy with minimal effort. But at the same time, you’ll find it to be a deeply enriching experience that expands your horizons and let you interact with a new world.
2. Define your own goals.
Your teacher should not define your goals. They offer you advice and guidance to help you get there. But no one knows what you are trying to achieve better than you. If you are learning the language to help you get through daily life in a new country, it’s totally OK just to learn the basics. I’ve seen many students struggle and suffer in learning because they outsoure learning to teachers and books. Most foreign language teaching content (perhaps with the exception of ESL) is written for school students who can dedicate 2 hours a day to learn a language. Are you that person? Are you learning a language to get credits? Do you have that much time? If not, don’t let other learners’ goals dictate your learning. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time learning things not relevant to you and ultimately cause you to give up.
3. Go through a boot camp period in the beginning.
To say that each language has its peculiarities is an understatement. You really need to go through a boot camp phase in the beginning to build a solid foundation to get the hang of things. The foundational knowledge in each language is different. For instance, pinyin (the Romanization of Chinese characters) and tones are an absolute must for any learners of Chinese. Without them, you are not going to learn the language. These things should be dealt with obsessively in the beginning. But they need to be approached in a way that encourages students rather than discourage them. I’ve seen many teachers who obsess over certain technical aspects of the language as a an end in itself rather than a means to an end. For example, many English teachers in China make students transcribe IPA after hearing a word instead of helping them using IPA to learn pronunciation and speak the language. Disembody the language is one of the most harmful things one can do to teach or learn a language.
4. Self-learning is an illusion.
There is plenty of products designed for the self-study learner. I’ve indeed seen many learners do well studying primarily on their own without going to a class or working with a teacher. But DO NOT confuse that with learning on your own and never interacting with a person. The truth is no language can be learned without a combination of input, study, practice, feedback and review. These are pillars in the language learning feedback loop. Not going to a class is fine but you need to get practice and feedback from other sources. Don’t obsess with what, but make sure you understand why.
5. Embrace the repetitive nature of learning.
Repetition is key in language learning. As dull as it sounds, there’s no way around it. Don’t expect to hear a new word or phrase and be able to internalize it, our brains do not work that way. In order to move new language from your short term memory into long term, you need to repeat hearing, saying and using it. But repetition doesn’t need to be dull and uninspiring, there are many ways to let yourself embrace and enjoy the repetitive nature of learning. One key element I found is that software programs make the worst repetition coach. Rather, find repetition with a human element. A real person can say the same thing 10 times but sound differently with emotion and intonation thrown in. In a similar way, you need to repeat what you hear and apply the same kind of real life subtleties that make learning alive.
6. Smaller chunks everyday work better than big chunks once a week.
The gym analogy effectively illustrates the point: it’s much more effective to do 20 minutes of workout per day than to do 90 minutes of workout once a week. There have been numerous studies on how shorter but more frequent chunks work better than longer and infrequent chunks in language learning. Smaller chunks are easier to implement and you are less likely to be bogged down by them. Many learners gradually dread the 2-hour language class and many stop going. We all know the slippery slope of missing one session, feeling guilty and unprepared and missing even more afterwards. But this isn’t saying that doing smaller daily chunks require no effort. You still need to find the time and space for it. So utilize ‘dead time’ throughout the day, e.g. the daily commute. If we can use it to read newspaper, listen to music or nap, so can we use it for language learning.
7. Create fun and reward in learning.
We are all triggered by pleasure. If you are going to spend a lot of time doing something, it had better be fun. But when I say fun, this doesn’t mean fun in the sense of watching a comedy. It’s the kind of fun and joy that feel when you are fully engaged in an activity. Often you need to create that sense of fun for yourself by choosing resources and activities that are relevant to you and also find rewards to stimulate and motivate yourself. Once again, the reward isn’t the same kind of reward you get from eating a piece of chocolate cake. In language learning, rewards often come when you are able to complete a task using the language you’ve learned. This could be that the taxi driver took you to the right place based on the instruction you gave him or you were able to buy groceries from your local shopkeeper. The key is put yourself out there to find and create these opportunities that give you a sense of reward and accomplishment.
8. There’s no magic moment in language learning.
I’ve seen many people think as long as they study for X number of hours, memorize X number of words and phrases, they will be able to speak the language. (Language books and schools are partly to blame for the misconception.) The truth is this will not happen. You need to constantly be hearing, learning and speaking the language and be able to get feedback and use it to improve. If you only get the input part and never practise or produce any language on your own, you are not going to learn how to use it. Once again, be obsessed about the feedback loop and constantly repeat it. Stop thinking that you are going to magically speak the language one day because you’ve put in the work to read books or memorize vocabulary. And stop trying to get everything perfect so that you feel secure and confident when using the language. You are going to sound imperfect in the beginning. That’s part of the deal. But you’ll get better. The magic of language learning happens in the everyday, the mundane, the miscommunication.
9. Mix and match products and services.
There’s no single silver bullet solution in language learning. A single class, book, software program or app won’t solve all your problems. You need the elements in the feedback loop that I mentioned before: input, study, practice, feedback and review. Being in the language learning business for 8 years now, I’ve come to realize that different products and services excel at different things in that loop. My own startup, OpenLanguage for instance is focused on input and learning technology. But we don’t provide teachers. But we suggest that students work with a teacher or language partner when using our product and we are also looking at ways to work with schools and teachers. As a learner, this is something you need to realize and try to mix and match different products and services who do different things well. I’ve yet to see one company that does everything well and I am not sure that has to be the only way. I think collaboration will make our industry better.
10. You are not going to look at the world in the same way.
If you are ready to take on the challenges posed in the previous 9 points, you’ll likely be rewarded in the most profound and fulfilling way for all your hard work. To borrow the words from the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, learning a new language will give you a ‘passport for your soul that allows you to travel freely across national borders’. You will see different sides of the world; connect with people and civilizations that you never dreamed of understanding; and you will also create so many wonderful and serendipitous personal and professional opportunities that enrich your life.