How We’ll Learn Languages – Lessons Learned From False Starts

How to Learn Languages using All The Books
How to Learn Languages – Lesson Learned from False Starts

“If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening the axe.”

– Unattributed, not actually George Washington so don’t tell me it is

We’ve learned a few languages, spent too much time on some and failed to learn many more. We’ve learned a lot of lessons, and intend to apply them all to our future endeavours. Consider this a living document – we’ll update it as we learn more.

Learning languages – or anything – to us is one third philosophy, one third analytical theory and one third practise. We’re strong believers that you can’t do anything without aspects of all three.

The below is everything we have learned (and are still learning, and occasionally re-learning) about studying languages.

Get in the right mindset

Probably the most important part of learning is believing we CAN learn. We’re only dedicating this small part to it, but only because this is repeated in so many places (on this blog, and elsewhere). But essentially, we’ve realized we’ll get nowhere without a strong core belief that we can and will progress. We need to be in the right mindset to learn.

Here’s a brief summary of what we will do:

  1. Meditate every morning for 10 minutes. Still the mind.
  2. Tell ourselves “I speak xxx language fluently.” Ideally write this down, and read it (or write it) twice daily.
  3. Imagine what that’s like for 2 minutes. Believe it. Visualize it, hear ourselves speaking.
  4. Immediately start learning to start the day. (Well there are a few immediate things to do, like make coffee, work out, eat protein… but fit this in quickly.)
  5. Record ourselves speaking in that language. Take a picture of writing down some basic sentences. Store them in an archive.

We don’t make any progress unless we believe that we can and that we believe that we ARE making progress. The frustrating thing is that it’s so easy to hit a roadblock. We can have one awkward interaction, and our confidence gets set back a LOT, and we need to start believing in ourselves again to get through those times.

Choose one language or dialect and be persistent

If learning Arabic, we need to carefully choose what dialect we’re learning. Pick one, like Modern Standard Arabic or Egyptian Arabic, and stick with it.

Note this includes two commitments we’re making: pick one, and stick with it.

Pick one. As language learners, we’re always tempted to chop and change. We want to learn two (or more) languages at once. We embrace it when Spanish words pop into our minds when learning Italian, and think it’s cool. There’s a few things going on here. We understand these to be

  • Our minds being activated into ‘multilingual learning’ mode. This is great! Similar to how exercising one muscle increases overall fitness (and in fact can lead to development of other muscles). But even though it’s great, we still need to focus on learning the one language we’re trying to learn in that moment.
  • Our minds are looking for easy ways to solve the problem. Can’t remember a word in Italian? Well it’s this in Spanish. Happy now? The mind is trying to give you an answer to a problem… which will solve an immediate question (how to say a word), but doesn’t solve the question we actually have (how to say it to a person who only speaks the language in question).

Don’t fall for the your mind’s tricks. Learn the word.

It’s also just easy to get excited. Some friend is learning Russian. We recall our mother tongues are Korean and Persian. Whatever. It’s no secret that learning languages is hard. Unfortunately,  and we say this from experience, knowing 1/4 of four of them is equivalent to knowing zero in any of them.

Stick with it. Related to the above, it’s easy to give up whenever you get to one of those times when things get hard. Learning languages always means passing a few event horizons of difficulty. The first hundred words are fine. Then you get to

  • “Wah there are so many words!”
  • “Wah the grammar is so hard!”
  • “Wah I can’t pronounce this!”
  • “Wah I can’t understand anything!”

We have to know in advance we’re going to hit those challenges, and learn to persevere through them.

Set a realistic target

It’s super critical to set a realistic target. “Fluency” or “conversational fluency” is too vague. Using the European standards is better, but they’re abstract.

Set a target that makes sense like

  • “I want to be able to understand a song, maybe not at first pass but after reading the lyrics and looking up a few words.”
  • “I want to be able to go to a study group with friends and not have to use English.”

Especially as we’re setting time limits on how much we learn, we have to set super-realistic goals for how fluent we can get in one to two months, and be happy with hitting that limit.

We’ve set our target as being “fluent enough to keep learning in that language”. This means, being able to ask what a word means in a language, and understand the reply.

Note all the things that this target is NOT:

  • Listening in to strangers (limited benefits anyway; they’re never talking about me. I guess I’m not that interesting). They usually speak colloquially and quickly and that’s a whole other level
  • Reading the newspaper or listening to the news. In some languages this is largely the same and just needs extra vocabulary (‘earthquake’, ‘attack’ and ‘president’ get you pretty far), but in case it’s quite different like for a colloquial language, it’s not a priority.
  • Reading poetry. We don’t often read poetry in English, so this isn’t our goal.

Any of the above goals might be yours, so just know what you want to do.

Find a tutor

One thing we’ve learned over the years is that a great tutor or coach can be life changing.

In our earlier years, we were arrogant. I taught myself Spanish so thought I could teach myself anything. This is true to a degree, but in my twenties I had infinite time, whereas in my thirties I know my time is about to expire with the onslaught of children (and eventually, death). It was when I learned Chinese with a few great teachers (and one in particular) in China that I learned the value of a teacher: three hours study a day with one teacher would progress me as much as several days of independent study, because of the high degree of coaching he gave me, tailor made to my level. Think about how much your time is worth, and invest in your own education.

Yes, they can get expensive. In China, you can pay $30/hr for a great tutor, or as little as $8-10/hr for a basic one. You not only get what you pay for, but a cheap tutor is (usually, and relatively speaking) just a waste of time and money.

More on how to find a great tutor soon, but this is what I’ve learned a great tutor does.

  1. A great tutor takes the time to get to know your goals, and maybe help you set them. They understand your interests (e.g. comedy, music, business) and find content that’s relevant, and specifically ignore content that’s irrelevant.
  2. A great tutor only talks to you. Basic tutors will just get you to read out of a book and correct your reading, or ask you to repeat phrases after them. But a tutor will engage you in conversation, take notes, and then set homework on what they observe the patterns of your mistakes to be.
  3. A great tutor creates custom material for your interests. At a basic level, textbooks are usually the best resource (there are so many!). But they won’t blindly go through them; they’ll select the right chapters, and won’t automatically go to the next level textbook when you’re done.

This is a huge topic and one we’ll explore in more detail. But tell us if you’ve had a great tutor. What made them great?

Get the right tools

It takes time and experimentation to understand the right tools. We’ve wasted a lot of time trying apps, notebooks, textbooks, CDs (what’s a CD? Well it’s a thing that replaced a cassette, which is actually where I started), lists, flashcards (physical and app-based), various dictionaries… and yes, experimentation is part of the process.

Here’s what we currently really like using

  • A notebook. This is to note down every new word, and practise writing them out, as well as drilling exercises (e.g. repeating a sentence over and over to learn it).
  • A vocab list spreadsheet. We refer to these sometimes, but the important part is just to start it and take notes. Even if you never look at it again.
  • An app to learn from. I used to like Teach Yourself textbooks, but these days I travel light. I like Memrise lately.
  • A way to set up teacher appointments. I use a combination of iTalki and Skype.

Things we’ve learned don’t work (for us):

  • Duolingo. It’s fun, but just creates a false illusion of progress.
  • Anki. So complicated! I just get lost creating the perfect flashcard deck.
  • Chatting apps that don’t go to conversation. These never go anywhere and don’t help much.

Start with a conversation

We always start with an easy tool, but then when we have our first conversation… that’s when things REALLY start. It always goes like this:

“Hi! I’m Dana.” [Oh cripes how do I say all the many other things I need to say right now]

At that point, we alwasy realize how much you need to learn. Then we have a second conversation, and learn even more. There’s no limit to how many of these we can stack up. So if we have a teacher, we can have the same conversation over and over until we nail it and all the variations. Why not?

The thing is, this never stops being scary. I believe we only get more and more used to the feeling of being scared, but also conditioned to understand the benefits.

Learn the pronunciation and sounds

I really like the way French people express that they don’t know something. It can only be described as:

‘Eh, ben… [farting sound]’ (accompanied by a short shoulder shrug)

Seriously, like a small farting sound through pursed lips. It sounds so silly if you say it in ANY OTHER LANGUAGE. But say it in French and it’s super French. Try it!

Sounds are an easy thing to drill, but also enjoyable. Make the sounds! Most languages have unique sounds.

In the past, we’ve suffered from not just drilling difficult-to-pronounce sounds (and words in them).

Some common ones you’ll encounter:

  • The trilled R like in Spanish, particularly vexing after an L, like in alrededor
  • The ZH sound like in French (rouge)
  • The hard D, B, S and T in Arabic (same as standard, but harder)
  • Tones in Chinese, plus the X sound that’s halfway between an English SH and S

The list goes on. There are some that I find it very hard to master (and it bugs me).

One hack we’ve learned is to just pretend we can make the sound… even mimicking the accent in English helps. I like to find a muse, someone who I enjoy listening to, and then copy them. In my head, I’ll be them, mimicking their accent and intonation. After a while, it becomes natural.

Learn the alphabet and how to read basic words

We’ve in the past learned to speak only (e.g. with Hebrew back in the late nineties), but almost immediately got to a point where we had to learn to read and write. And the benefits are TREMENDOUS. In every language other than Chinese or Japanese, it’s way easier to learn to read and write than you may think.

We did an exhaustive review of the most popular writing systems here. But in general here’s why we’ve learned you should learn to read and write:

  1. You’ll learn more quickly. Sometimes without even trying. E.g. I have unwittingly learned the Estonian words for shop (pood), cheese (juust), chicken (kana) and open (avatud) without even trying (or wanting to). 
  2. Menus. You can eat food. It’s surprising how little you need to know – just meats, maybe a few vegetables and core food names. You’ll learn out of desperation, eventually – it doesn’t take going far off the beaten track to get to a place without an English menu, even in a well-developed country (as we learned in Helsinki over the weekend). If you’re on a special diet, this will be even more critical.
  3. Street signs. You won’t get lost. This includes using Google Maps when you’re in the country and street and area names come up primarily in the local language.
  4. Apps. Some places have their own apps, much better than what Google can provide. China is a primary example of this, where there is no Google and you’ll be using Tencent Maps or Baidu Maps.
  5. Communicate. You can understand notes, text messages and blog comments written to you by your friends in another country.
  6. It’s really fun to write another language!

Can’t emphasize the last one enough. It’s so cool to see another script coming out of your hand.

Learn basic phrases and structures with very little vocab

Despite learning a whole bunch of formal structures, we keep finding, again and again, that in day to day life, language is mostly things like

  • Excuse me, is it OK if I…?
  • Hey, I don’t think that’s a good idea
  • What the heck is that?
  • Hey where’s my…? It was just here

My brother Riaz once put it elegantly, that the phrase “Argh! My pen just rolled off the table and now it’s fallen under my chair” is really complicated to say. How do you exclaim “Argh”, for one thing? But think how easily a native speaker can say phrases like that. That’s where you need to get to.

Start memorizing groups of vocab

Sometimes we just have to memorize stuff. And there’s no two ways about it… no real ‘fun’ way to do it. There’s just a practical way, and that’s the best way.

Here are eleven things we need to know in every day life… I think this is all the things

  1. Greetings (“Yo!”) 
  2. Core phrases – purchasing things, getting directions (“how much is it? which way is the train station?”)
  3. Places (bus stop, school, building, church)
  4. Numbers (at least to 1000, beyond that it usually gets easier anyway)
  5. Currency/coins (colloquially). (E.g. a dime, two bucks)
  6. Fruit, vegetables, meat (markets)
  7. Food and drink you’ll buy
  8. Professions (teacher, police officer)
  9. Vehicles (motorcycle, car, bicycle)
  10. Around 100 common verbs (run, walk, go, turn, stop, start, get on, get off… basically all the ones that come up in every day life!)
  11. Around 30 common adjectives. They come in pairs! (big, small, long, short, far).

You can’t really rely on phrasebooks for these unless they’re very colloquial. Try hard to actually learn the words people use in every day life. For example, a phrasebook will teach you that in Arabic countries you greet with “ahlan wa sahlan”. Technically correct, but you’re much more likely to hear a colloquial version depending on where you are.

Similarly, for common vehicles, foods you’d order, currency word (think how often you hear ‘dollars’ vs ‘bucks’ informally) you’ll have to dig a bit. These days, Youtube is your friend.

Core hack… you don’t need to learn complicated directions like every textbook teaches you. Most people just wave their hands and say ‘that way’ or ‘go straight’.

Build sentences and phrases with this everyday vocab until it becomes natural.

Learn what’s around you and what you do every day

My friend Ralph, who was German but learned English fluently while living in a tiny village in the south of Germany, once gave me a great tip on learning languages: Talk to yourself and describe things around you.

This starts with pointing at things and calling them names. Cup. Street. Tree. Sky.

Then getting more granular… Blue sky. Nice day. Full cup.

Eventually it becomes translating things. There are many trees next to the road. The cup is full of coffee and it’s too hot.

These are super simple phrases and don’t demand much vocabulary, but do demand that you have it on constant recall.

Final thoughts… anything to add?

We’ll add more to this as time goes on. But if there’s something you want to add, tell us below.

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