Learning a Language, Part II: Methods & Techniques

In this article, I will let you in on all the studying methods that I have developed over the years that I have spent learning languages. I would appreciate if you would leave a comment with your own strategies that I have not mentioned here. They would likely be of great help to me and to any others who might read them. If you are coming here straight from a search engine or link, I would recommend reading Part I first, which will help you ascertain whether or not you really want to commit to such an endeavor. Let’s get into it.

Verb tenses are hard, and there are way too many. You need to know them all, without exception, and without excuses. Create a blank verb template with every verb tense on it. Pick a verb, and after intense study online or in a verb book, fill in every tense in every person without looking at the answers. You may also recite them, especially if you are focusing on oral communication. Start with the most common verbs, and if your language has several verb groups that are conjugated in different ways, try to alternate so that you become comfortable with the different forms. After you’ve filled them in, verify. In every verb tense in which you made even a single error, delete the entire tense. Restudy those ones, and redo them. Verify again. Do this until you have filled in each group by memory with no errors. This takes me at least an hour to do, especially for more irregular, difficult verbs. That sucks, right? An hour is a lot. There are video games to play. Too bad, you have to do it anyway or you will fail. And if you fail, you suck and are just like all the others who started and gave up.

Here’s a verb template I made for Spanish. You can make something like this for any Latin language, and many others with similar structures.

But how does one acquire vocabulary to study? A good question. A friend recently provided me with this list of words which are universally common. Start with these. After this, find some form of media that you know will expose you to the language naturally. For instance, you could listen to lectures in another language on YouTube, or you could follow someone on Twitter who tweets in the language you are learning. Right now I’m watching TED talks in Italian. Commit to spending time every day reading or listening to these sources. Every time you encounter a word you don’t know, look it up and add it to your vocabulary flashcards. Split them up into categories that make sense for you. Personally, I split vocabulary into verbs, nouns, adjectives/adverbs, and numbers/dates. This is helpful because the word ‘work’ can refer to a noun or a verb, and you need to know which one to guess. I also find I more easily retain vocabulary if I study on a category by category basis.

Pro tip: put related words in the same deck of flashcards, if you can. It is very difficult to differentiate words with similar meanings. I often mix up the meanings of words such as ‘say’, ‘speak’, and ‘tell’, or ‘up’, ‘above’, and ‘high’. By studying them during the same session, you will always encounter them simultaneously and be forced to subdivide them in your mind.

The following is a setup I use. Actually, mine is more disorderly than this, but you get the gist of it. I have a video in the language I am learning, Google Translate, and my Flashcards.

At the beginning of your learning, you will likely have a false feeling that you are actually getting the hang of it. You aren’t, sorry. You are nowhere. You only know some tenses and some words. You can say, “I eat the orange,” or, “I will talk with Jon,” or, “I went to the park.” Then you’ll go try and talk to someone and immediately be thrown into practical scenario in which you’ll want to say something like, “The company for whom I work is called [company]” and after a moment of panic, you will instead say, “I work for [company].” What’s worse is that, because you figured out a way around your knowledge gap, you’ll feel like you did well and forget about the fact that you have no idea how to say ‘for whom’ or ‘with which’ or anything like that. Don’t be lazy. Keep track of these grammatical occurrences and look up a hundred examples of how to use them in sentences. Read them out loud so your brain gets used to how they sound and you can recall them more easily in conversation.

Now that you have a few tips on how to go about studying all the different aspects of a language, let’s think about what an actual study routine would look like amidst your already bustling life. I’ll me give you an example for someone who wants to be able to converse in a language that uses the Latin alphabet. First, do what you need to do to be able to look up words you hear, or to pronounce words you read. This means having some basic knowledge about how each consonant and vowel is pronounced, as well as common diphthongs. Monday to Friday, wake up and make your breakfast. While eating, go to YouTube and find something in the language you would like to learn. “Munch munch munch, oh, I don’t know this word!” Look it up on Google Translate. Do this for a half an hour and you will likely have added quite a few words to your study list. As you take transit to work, open that Flashcards app and study your vocabulary. While at work, daydream about your future linguistic adventures. Better yet, if you are allowed, keep listening to the language at work. You can have tabs open for translating and editing flashcards, but if this is too distracting for your work setting, listening alone is still good practice. Afterwards, refer to your Google Translate history and add those words to your decks. This shouldn’t take long, and you can spend the remainder of your time on general study via Duolingo, or some other service, or a book you bought. If you haven’t invested in any resources, start with these subjects using whatever resources you can find online: basic sentence structure; in what context to use each verb tense; in what context to use conjunctions and prepositions; how intransitive verbs are structured; how the subjunctive mood is used. By the weekend, your morning routine should have allowed you to accumulate quite a few vocabulary words to study, including some verbs. Spend an hour on Saturday and Sunday memorizing your vocabulary, and an hour conjugating verbs in each tense. If you do this, you can feasibly (though never easily) have a 5000 word vocabulary within a year, and virtually master verb tenses. A few times per week, call a friend who is a native speaker of this language and try to talk with them for ten minutes. Don’t forget to bake them something to return the favor of bearing tortured small talk with someone who can hardly speak.

Really put an effort into finding opportunities to practice the language with native speakers. This is one of the hardest things to do, because it requires patience on the part of the people helping you, and commitment from you. And, if you live in a monocultural setting, there may just not be anyone with whom you can practice. You could try one of those online pen pal things, but I can’t vouch for those since I’ve never tried one. I live in Montreal, where every seven people you pass on the street represent six nations. See if there are any language socials in a major city near you. I used to attend one called Mundo Lingo, which is great, especially for extroverts.

It may seem obvious, but I cannot overstress the importance of regular practice. As I mentioned in Part I, I attended French immersion for all 13 years of my elementary to high school education. I understood my francophone teachers perfectly. Because of this, I was under the false impression that I was bilingual. When I moved to Montreal, I realized that because I had very little practice with conversation (all my peers being anglophone), I hadn’t actually learned to speak. I assumed that language was bidirectional, that if you can understand, you can probably speak. It isn’t that way. If you aspire to speak, but only practice through listening and reading, you will choke when the time comes to converse. Take note, introverts. You have to get out there.

Let me give you one more example, this time with a reading focus, and a language with a different script. Contrary to our first example, you cannot dive into YouTube lectures or Twitter, since you will have to learn the script before you can even look up a word. This means that the initial push is going to be 100% memorization. Advantage: it’s simple. Disadvantage: it’s tiring, and the pay-off comes so late. For instance, in Japanese, a few hours of study will allow you to read the Hiragana and Katakana with difficulty, but Japanese isn’t written primarily in those scripts, so before you can read basically anything at all, you need to memorize about 2000 basic kanji symbols. This will occupy all of your initial study. Anyway, Japanese is particular in that respect, but whatever you’re learning, work on mastering the script until you can read it out loud, even though you don’t understand what you’re reading. Then, practice reading it until you are relatively comfortable. Only when you can read sentences with some fluidity should you begin vocabulary and grammar. If you’re still having to double-check pronunciation of the script, you’re not ready. But, when you are, focus more on vocabulary at this point than grammar. This will create a sense of reward for all your hard work, as you will begin to recognize words as you read. “Oh my gosh! Dog! That means dog! I know that word! Yay!” This is what you will say in your head, and it will make you want to keep learning. Expand your vocabulary significantly before focusing on grammar. You can be flexible with this rule, but I would say you should be able to recognize about 50% of the words in your reading practice before adopting a grammar focus. The reason for this is to avoid becoming frustrated and hating the studying experience.

I made this mistake while I was studying Latin. I bought a Latin translation of Winnie the Pooh, and I was so excited to start reading that I dove right in with very little vocabulary. Not only was I looking up grammar, because I had not yet learned much of it, but I was still looking up so many words that it was very mentally draining and not that enjoyable. I wish I had learnt more vocabulary first, by skimming through the book. That way, I would have been able to go back and read it with a grammar focus, already having memorized the vocabulary.

Here’s my pretty Pooh book.

One advantage to focusing on reading only, is that you only need to learn in one direction: text to brain. Not having to communicate yourself through speaking or writing will knock off a lot of study time. I can’t imagine there are a lot of people with a read-only focus though, unless it’s a dead language like Latin.

No matter your focus, one overarching piece of advice I would give you would be to avoid periods of inactivity in your study. The reason immersion is the best way to learn is not only because of the volume of information you absorb, but also because your attention is undivided. Switching between tasks is always less efficient, and it is the same with language. If you revert back to your native tongue for a whole week without studying, you will lose a lot of progress. If you are extremely busy for a period, try to devote even fifteen minutes a day to your study, so that it does not fade from you.

I hope that these tips have made you feel more equipped to begin learning, and that you have an better idea of what kind of study focus best suits your particular linguistic ambitions. If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I promise I will be honest with you if I have no idea how to answer.

In the final installment of this language-learning series, I will give you all my favorite tools that make studying easier for me.

One Response

  1. Pingback: Learning a Language, Part I: Know What You’re Getting Into | DAVID SHORTEN

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