Advice on Language Learning

I recently answered the question ‘how should I learn a new language’ on a friend’s Facebook thread because I have a bit of experience with this myself, and I saw no reason not to repost here:


I’m really not an accomplished polyglot, but I did pick up Spanish considerably more quickly in high school than did the rest of my cohort and maintained my level longer, I learned Korean while teaching English in that country from a cold start and was able to hold fairly long conversations by the time I left two years later[1], and I’ve since dabbled in Russian, German, French, and even a teensy tiny bit of Chinese.


All the usual caveats apply; your focus will be different if you’re trying to go to graduate school in Graz and if you’re trying to talk to Austrian exchange students. That said I think the same basic principles apply no matter what, especially in the beginning.


There are two things I think are important in the beginning. The first is building a vocabulary base and the second is maintaining contact with the language.

AFACT the best way to do the former is with a word list like Gabriel Wyner’s ‘First 625’ series, which lays out the 625 most commonly used words in English for translation into your target language. Some polyglots like Daniel Tammet scoff at this approach, but plenty of others have found it effective.

I usually supplement this with reading children’s books, which have much simpler syntax and word choice. Children’s books usually won’t wander outside the thousand or so most common words anyway, so by the time you’ve got that list down you should be able to read fairly freely, building a sense of the grammar as time goes on.

Maintaining contact with the language can be done in many ways, but two favorites are watching t.v. in the target language and listening to music in the target language. By and large you will understand next to nothing, but I find this exposure motivates me to continue my studies and exposes me to a variety of sound combinations which are delightfully exotic.


I’ve always found accents easy, but I know that a lot of people have benefited from Idahosa Ness’s Mimic Method, which trains your accent via a combination of mimicking rap lyrics in the target language and receiving targeted pronunciation feedback.


There is simply no substitute for interacting with natives. Through italki you can find a reasonably-priced tutor specializing in your target language and take lessons over skype.

One thing I used to do in Korea was to ask different people a question whose answer I already knew. For example, I would find the bathroom, then feign ignorance and walk around asking random people where the bathroom was. After they answered I would walk somewhere nearby and ask a different person.

Each time you’re going to get slight variations on the same answer. One person might say ‘behind you’ and another might say ‘by the food court’. Since you already know you’re less likely to be utterly overwhelmed by their answer, but you’ll still be learning new things.

It’s important that you branch out and find different natives to speak with because after a while they will begin to understand and adjust to your weaknesses. I could have whole conversations with the secretary at my school but then struggle to talk to someone on the bus.


I endorse the spaced-repitition software ‘Anki’. There are no two ways about it: if you properly format your cards and faithfully review them everyday, you will remember what you learned forever.


Gabriel Wyner’s ‘Fluent Forever’ and related materials; Idahosa Ness and the Mimic Method; Dr. Alexander Arguelles, who also talks about methods like ‘shadowing’ and ‘scriptorium’, the latter of which is indispensable when tackling alien scripts.

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