10 language learning principles I follow

I’m a big opponent of these damned 44 tips to learn Spanish!!! list posts. They serve only to game search engine algorithms, which in turn penalizes good, authentic content.

But I still wanted to share the principles that I follow when learning a language. In true skin-in-the-game fashion, I’ll only recommend things that I do myself and share how exactly I apply them and how you can do the same.

1. Keep your list of resources short

As you can tell by my posts on resources I use(d) for Spanish and resources I used for Russian, I don’t use a ton of them. I don’t use any grammar exercise books, I don’t have extra books with phrases or any of the stuff that I have seen learners do. One book at a time. Admittedly, for Russian I had many different books but I used them one after another and never more than maximum two at the same time (and that only if it was something very specific).

A mistake that I see many people make is that they have shiny object syndrome and start buying different books and/or courses to help them learn. But you don’t need any of that fancy shit, what you need is to sit down with one resource that you consider good enough and that you will use for deliberate practice. That’s it. I’ve said it before and I will say it again:

In deliberate practice, it’s better to do the same thing three times than to do three different things once.

This applies to learning in general, by the way.

With your complementary material like podcasts, books, Youtube channels and the likes, you get a bit more leeway but only a little bit. I never use more than two extra sources, simply because there isn’t enough time for all of them. If you never start engaging with one type of source material deeply, you’ll find it harder to remember vocabulary, get used to one type of pronunciation that you can imitate and internalize how sentences are constructed.

That’s not to say that you cannot or should not change. If you only ever listen to politics talk in Iberian Spanish, you will find it hard to understand Argentinian football commentators. But you shouldn’t jump between things every other day. When you find something that you like, stick with it for a few weeks. When you get bored or feel like it’s time to move on, you can try something entirely different.

2. Listening is the mother of all success stories

It takes two to speak a language and usually only one of them can speak so the other has to listen. That is to say that you cannot communicate well in a language if your listening skills aren’t good and they’re not going to be good unless you train them.

You should start listening in your target language as soon as possible.

Pretty much the first hour is a good time to do that. Depending on how alien the language is, you start with something easier, like single words or a very easy dialogue, or a more complex dialogue. I haven’t yet tried myself at a really difficult language, so I cannot give any guidance on how to approach something like Japanese. But in terms of listening there are three things you need to learn:

  • Intonation
  • Sounds
  • Word stress

Intonation is the “flow” of a language, so how the tone of your voice changes. Sounds are distinct sounds in a word, like different ways to pronounce a vowel. Word stress is where the stress on a word falls.

In European languages this isn’t too difficult to learn and all you need to do really is listen and repeat and listen and repeat. You have to make sure that you are able to hear the difference between different sounds and how the intonation flows, otherwise you won’t be able to produce it. If you have trouble with this, you can self-correct with a recording of yourself reading or producing a short text. Even better is to work with a native speaker that can show you how to produce the correct sounds. Ideally you should share a language with this person, otherwise it becomes very difficult to understand instructions.

Once you have basic pronunciation down, your job is to listen as much as possible, the more authentic and free-flowing the better. It’s better to listen to or watch something without a text but if it hinders your understanding of the text too much, use a transcript. The most important thing is that you are eventually able to understand what is said – what is commonly known as “understanding every word”.

3. Pronunciation work pays

On the topic of listening, I’ll add this one as well. Pronunciation is the unsexy stepchild in language learning but it really pays to get your pronunciation down well. It will earn you more respect from native speakers and make you feel more confident about your skills. You don’t have to go overboard – apply the 80/20 rule: get so good that people compliment your accent but it isn’t necessary to speak like a true native speaker.

I’ve always gone about this with loads of reading out aloud, consciously and subconsciously shadowing what I hear and not being shy about overexaggerating when I practice by myself. You feel a bit stupid when you repeat words after an audio but it really works and pays dividends in the long run.

4. Get the basics right

In my experience it’s not worth trying to move on quickly if you haven’t mastered something. Especially at the early stages of a language it pays to make absolutely sure that you have mastered basics like:

  • Correct conjugations
  • The aforementioned pronunciation (at least somewhat)
  • Word order
  • Knowing how tenses are formed
  • Correct use of connectors
  • Irregular verbs

Probably a few others as well that I cannot think of. Conjugations are a really important one because they are actually really easy to learn. Simply drill them every day for a few minutes for a couple of days until they’re ironclad. That’s really all there is to it, I did the exact same when learning Spanish and Russian. It doesn’t take a lot longer than a few days and elevates you from chimpanzee status.

Later it’s not as useful and you shouldn’t stop progress until you have completely mastered subjunctive for example because it is not such an essential part of the language. But things that you notice trip you up constantly need dedicated practice. Otherwise you will end up with fossilized errors that are difficult to get rid of.

5. Use your dead time to learn

Walking somewhere, public transportation, kitchen or housework are all examples of dead time that you can use for having contact with the language. It’s not deliberate practice, so you shouldn’t bust out a book or exercises. But it’s ideal to listen to something that’s easy enough so you can follow without having to concentrate too hard to understand the gist of it. It shouldn’t be just background noise but it shouldn’t be so difficult that you have to interrupt what you are already doing. You can also use it for revising vocabulary with flashcards, especially at lower levels this works well enough. It won’t work with new words though, just refresh old words that you already know but keep forgetting.

By the way, working out is not a good use of dead time in my experience. I found it impossible to focus in anything except for music, even in my own language let alone another. Maybe I just work out too hard but that time is actually better used for refreshing and resetting your brain.

6. Better do one thing three times than three things once

I have a couple of books that look quite worn. No wonder I learned the languages so well because that’s how they should look. All your materials should be heavily annotated because they are there to be revisited and revised. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no genius and don’t have a photographic memory. I had to go over things multiple times in order to get them right.

Say you have a sentence and struggle to understand why you should use one verb over another although they sound very similar. In my experience, it is worth spending extra time on fully understanding why one option is better than the other because it will create a correct example in your memory. This in turn will help you with remembering and using the language correctly. If instead you move on to the next example without having fully understood the previous, you will likely struggle because you have no working example in your memory and no blueprint to compare it against.

That also goes for material you use. It is actually better to go over stuff that you still haven’t completely mastered in the same book than trying to do it in a different one. You will see something you are familiar with but your skill and experience level will be higher than the first time you were exposed to it. Chances are that you’ll understand it the second or third time round.

7. Do as much as feels rewarding to you

The point of learning is to learn but it shouldn’t constantly feel like a grind that you need to do. Inevitably you will have good days and bad days and times when motivation is high and when it is low. It’s necessary to push through the bad days but it shouldn’t get to the point where you secretly start to despise the language and the time you spend with it. That’s why I don’t like gamified apps for example. Their streaks make you feel guilty for missing a day, yet at the same time the hours you put in would be better invested somewhere else. That’s working hard but not smart.

The same is true for dead time. You don’t need to squeeze out every minute, when you notice that your brain is not up for it, don’t force the issue. I don’t listen to podcasts every single time I am in the metro, sometimes I play chess or read a book or just piss away my time. I try to do something productive every time but I am not a machine and can tell when my brain is hungry and ready to learn and when it isn’t. Find the right balance between not pussying out of learning and overdoing it.

8. Set smart targets

Management speak is not something I am fluent in but smart stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-sensitive

I am a very strong proponent of having concrete goals when picking up a language and the other things on this list make a lot of sense as well. Something like “I want to speak better and know more words” is fluffy as shit and you will not get far with this. You need to be more specific and you need to be able to measure it. There should be a time limit on it, otherwise it will never get done. And it should be realistic and achievable, so for example fluent Russian in a year is achievable but maybe not very realistic, whereas conversational Russian would be both (though a bit ambitious).

I have always used language exams for that because they’re a good way of measuring your progress and it feels like a competition, which I don’t want to lose. It can be something less specific though, I’ve seen challenges that force you to have a 30min conversation after three months. That would work as well for example.

9. Combine language learning and learning about something else

Maybe the most useful “hack” on this list. I have experienced that once your level is good enough to understand more than the restaurant menu and a holiday email, you can start learning about stuff that you are interested in in the target language. I am interested in politics for example, so many of the podcasts or Youtube channels that I watch or listen to are about that topic. That way I learn something new about the country and I learn it in their language. In English, for example, I learned quite a bit of English playing football manager. Even something like dating counts since you are building up knowledge, or in this case another skill, while practicing your target language.

Once you distract your mind from focusing on how difficult the language is hat you are trying to learn, you will be amazed how easy it is to actually learn it. Not only that, but it will be genuinely satisfying and fun and you will see your progress skyrocket. Pick something that you are interested in, a topic or an activity, and start doing it in the language you are learning.

10. Be consistent

I saved the most boring for last. Nothing new to see here, you know all of this already:

  • Do a little bit every day
  • You are in it for the long run
  • Better to do a bit consistently than a lot at once

And so on and so forth. The rule of thumb is: more is always better. The optimal amount of learning is 24 hours minus your sleep time, that way you will learn the fastest. The second-best amount of time is what you can put in consistently. Any language can be learned eventually, it is only a function of time and work put in. The more consistent you are with the time, the better the results will be.

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