24 Language Experts Share Their Tips For Learning A New Language
- Olly Richards – I Will Teach You A Language
- Andre Klein – Learn Out Live
- Gabriel Wyner – Fluent Forever
- Lindsay Williams – Lindsay Does Languages
- Alex Rawlings – AlexRawlings.com
- Luca Sadurny – MosaLingua
- Michele – The Intrepid Guide
- Kerstin Cable – Fluent Language
- Shannon Kennedy – Drops
- Malachi – Itchy Feet Comic
- John – Language Mastery
- Bill Price – HowToLanguages.com
- Lizzie – Global Graduates
- Shahidah – Black Girls Learn Languages
- Olle – Hacking Chinese
- Simon – Omniglot
- Idahosa – The Mimic Method
- Lydia – Language Mentoring
- Martin – Kamusi
- Luca Lampariello – The Polyglot Dream
- Elisa – Speak From Day One With Elisa
- Ellen – Grammar Table
- Vladimir – Forever A Student
- Emma – Emma Loves German
Learning a new language can be tough. When you learn your first foreign language, you need to learn how you learn. I made a tonne of mistakes which slowed me down in the beginning. So I thought, why not go to the people who are experts at learning languages and ask them how they do it?
I asked 24 language experts, prolific language bloggers and polyglots to answer a simple question: What are their favourite tips for learning a new language?
Needless to say the advice in this post is epic and I urge you to read right to the end. Each of these experts has their own advice based on their own experiences so you are sure to find a tip or technique that appeals to you.
A huge thank you to all these wonderful people who gave their advice.
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Olly Richards – I Will Teach You A Language
Read, read, read!
Let me explain…
If you learnt a language at school, or spent any time in a language class, you’ll be used to a “rules-based” way of learning. You know, learn verb tables, memorise a list of words, fill in the gaps.
Now, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with this (or anything wrong with ANY way of learning – we all learn differently), but it’s all very intellectual.
My tip for you is to balance out the “intellectual” with the “intuitive”.
And “intuitive” in this case means… reading!
See, you can learn a lot through rules. But not everything. Some stuff is best learned naturally, by seeing it over and over in real life. A bit like learning a musical instrument — the theory helps, but you learn an awful lot by playing, and more by just listening to music!
So when it comes to languages, you can learn intuitively by reading.
Here are 3 tips for doing this:
- Choose simple books at your level
- Spend 1 hour reading for every 1 hour you spend with your textbook
- Read every day and don’t stop
Do this, and you’ll flood your brain with huge amount of language. You won’t always understand everything… and that’s fine. But you WILL find that your comprehension goes through the roof, your brain starts to pick up things at random, and you expand your vocabulary at an impressive rate of knots!
You won’t regret it!
Andre Klein – Learn Out Live
(Author of the Dino Lernt Deutsch book series)
First of all, learning a language, any language, is hard work. It means opening yourself up to a new way of thinking, of processing and expressing your experience. I don’t believe there are any shortcuts, silver bullets or one-size-fits-all solutions to this weird and wondrous process.
There are so many moving parts in a language, from the basic mechanics of how to position your tongue and teeth to produce a certain sound, the cognitive effort of identifying and dissecting syntactical and morphological constructs, committing new vocabulary to memory while fighting that slow rot of forgetfulness, to grappling with sometimes completely foreign cultural concepts.
On top of that, people have very different motivations for learning a language. Some need to quickly acquire a basic working knowledge in order to find employment in a certain country or field, others are more interested in the process of language learning itself as a personal hobby, social activity, or even as a way of life, i.e. lifelong learning.
The advice I’d give to both groups would be very different. If you need to learn a language as a means to an end (nothing wrong with it) within a certain timeframe, follow the structure of time-tested textbooks and courses on a regular, possibly daily schedule, use apps and flashcards in between official study sessions to make things stick, and you’ll soon ace your proficiency tests.
If, however, your aim is to learn a language for the simple joy of discovering new words, patterns of expression and cultural riches, my advice would be to slow down. There is no absolute immovable goalpost of “fluency”, so you won’t get there faster by huffing and puffing.
Personally, the more I learn a language, any language, even my own mother-tongue, the more I become aware of how little I know, how many more strange wonders are encoded in even the slightest subtle differences between two words or grammatical alternatives.
And sure, you still need to learn the basics somehow. Pick up whichever app, course or textbook speaks to you. But after that, go and seek out real cultural content as soon as possible. Don’t wait for years before trying to watch a movie or read a book in your target language. After all, you’ll have your own reasons for learning a certain language.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to read Kafka in the original German, watch a Fellini flick in Italian, or converse with the Russian babushka from next door. It doesn’t matter what. Use this passion to your advantages! Don’t let courses and textbooks tell you what is too difficult. Just jump in! You can’t have immersion without getting wet.
As I’ve said above, learning a language is hard. There will be eureka moments, but there will also be many setbacks. You’re going to need every ounce of motivation you can find. Why not use the natural interests you already have and let them guide you on this journey?
And sure, maybe it will take years to read through that Kafka novel, maybe you’ll split that Fellini movie into hundreds of bite-sized study sessions. But the danger of getting bored and overly frustrated will be so much smaller if you’re working with content you’re truly passionate about.
Gabriel Wyner – Fluent Forever
(Author of Fluent Forever)
Suppose you were learning a Germanic language and needed to memorize a bunch of genders for your nouns. Here’s an intentionally annoying set of noun-gender pairs:
Tree—masculine, Tree bud—feminine, Leaf—neuter, Horse—neuter, Dog—masculine, Cat—feminine, Mouth—masculine, Neck—masculine, Hand—feminine, Nose—feminine, Knee—neuter, and Heart—neuter.
You might be able to memorize these by rote repetition, but not for more than a few minutes. Try this instead: I want you to imagine all of the masculine nouns exploding. Your tree? Kaboom, splinters of wood everywhere. A branch gets embedded in the wall behind you. Dog chunks splatter all over the ceiling and floors. You wipe bits of fur and gore from your forehead. Make your images as vivid as you can stomach.
Feminine nouns should catch fire. Your nose spews fire out of it like a dragon, a flaming cat sets fire to your bedroom. Feel the heat of each image; the more senses you can involve, the better.
Neuter items should shatter like glass. Jagged, brown-red, sparkling shards of horse spread across the floor, as does your broken heart (sniff). Take a moment to imagine the remaining images yourself: an exploding mouth and neck (masculine), a burning hand and tree bud (feminine), a shattering leaf and knee (neuter).
No, really. Go back and do this. It shouldn’t take you more than a minute.
Once you’ve done it, see how many of these images stick. We’ll even mix up the order to be tricky: tree, leaf, horse, dog, cat, mouth, neck, hand, nose, heart, knee, tree bud.
Depending upon how vivid your images were, you may have remembered all of them, and if you missed a few, you’d get better with practice. Mnemonic images work for reasons you might already surmise: we’re really good at remembering images, particularly when those images are violent, sexual, funny, or any combination of the three. While “gender” can conjure up some images—you can probably imagine a male dog—it falls flat on others (a neuter knee—meh). Vivid, action-packed verbs are much more memorable.
Lindsay Williams – Lindsay Does Languages
Make language learning a regular habit and tie it to something else in your life. Learning a language doesn’t have to mean sitting down for hours each day with your study books. If all you can fit in every single day is 5 minutes on Memrise while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or watching a YouTube video in your target language while you’re brushing your teeth, that’s fine! Once you’ve accepted that that still counts and that if that’s all you’re doing then your progress will be slower but still happening, then you’re golden.
Alex Rawlings – AlexRawlings.com
(Author of How To Speak Any Language Fluently)
Learn the languages that you would love to speak, and learn the things you would love to say in them. Learning a new language is a life-long endeavour, and so it’s really important that from the get-go it’s fun, enjoyable and motivating.
Try to find a way to measure your progress, whether it’s keeping a diary or recording yourself saying short things, and remember to embrace that slightly unsettling feeling of uncertainty that might come across you when you try to speak or understand anything in that new language and not knowing a word or phrase.
It can feel strange at first, but to be successful learners we have to get used to not being perfect all the time, to not always being sure of ourselves, of not always hitting the nail fully on the head, but if we can do that then we’re setting ourselves up for long, sustainable and rewarding learning for the future.
Luca Sadurny – MosaLingua
(Co-founder & creator of MosaLingua Apps)
One of my favorite tips for learning a new language is practicing with self-conversation. When I learn a new language, I always spend some time talking to myself. I know it may seem strange, but I think that before talking to native speakers it can be very useful to test your language skills by simulating a conversation.
Especially when you can’t live abroad or don’t have time for language tandems, talking to yourself is a good way of keeping your language skills active and getting some practice. Self-conversation can give you the confidence you need to start speaking, so I think that everyone should try it at least once, especially those who are introverted and shy. It makes it much easier to talk to native speakers online or in person later on, and puts you on a faster track to fluency!
Michele – The Intrepid Guide
Identify your learner type
Before you start learning a foreign language it’s important to identify what your learner type is. Knowing what kind of language learner you are will not only save you time, but it will ensure your time spent learning is catered to your individual needs. This in turn makes the language learning process both effective and fun.
By taking a short quiz, you will know if you’re a visual, aural, verbal, or a kinaesthetic learner. Armed with this important information you can then start to seek out and use specific tools, techniques, methods, and resources that resonate with you to meet your specific needs.
Understand how the memory works
A key aspect every learner should understand is how the memory works. Once you understand how the brain retains and recalls new information from short-term and long-term memory you’ll be able to use it to your advantage. It’s easy to get impatient with the process and ask questions like “How long does it take to learn a language?” when the real focus should be on enjoying the journey to fluency.
There are a myriad of different ways to improve your memory. My two favourite techniques are to write things down on paper as this requires more in-depth processing of the information thus making it better understood. The second is to use mnemonics to create meaningful associations between information you already know with the new information you want to remember.
Kerstin Cable – Fluent Language
It depends on the language. I apply the method I describe in the Language Habit Toolkit, which focuses on core skills and independent study with regular contact.
- I always set personal language goals
- I work towards short-term goals
- I focus on listening, speaking, reading and writing
- I review my progress regularly
There are lots of ways to learn a language successfully. I believe that the method I use is flexible enough to allow for many learning variations. The core principles are what matters, and they are the best way to progress.
Shannon Kennedy – Drops
Consistency is key to learning a new language. A little bit each and every day adds up overtime, keeps you from forgetting what you’ve already learned, and and offers you regular exposure to your new language. Even on busy days, I try to spend at least five minutes with the language(s) I’m learning (Drops is great for this!). It’s hard not to worry about when you can’t fit a full study session in, but it’s always better to squeeze in 10-15 minutes rather than skip a study session because you can’t do the full hour.
Malachi – Itchy Feet Comic
Grow a thick skin. If you can make yourself impervious to public embarrassment and looking and sounding like an absolute idiot, that is the only language learning superpower you need. Then you can venture out and practice speaking – which of course is the only real way to learn it – without your brain trying to stop you from acting stupid. You WILL look and sound like a four year old until you can power past that phase, so grow a thick skin and get comfortable!
John – Language Mastery
My favorite tip for learning a new language (or really any new skill) is to learn as directly as possible.
It is far too easy to choose indirect methods that feel like learning but won’t help us reach fluency. Many of today’s most popular language apps and programs fall into this category. They may be fun, but few are very effective.
Instead, we should do everything we can to flood our brains with direct, authentic exposure to our target language (e.g. listening to podcasts, watching shows and movies on Netflix, reading comics or books, etc.) and then get as much direct communication practice as possible with native speakers via tools like iTalki and HelloTalk.
Consuming authentic content and speaking in a new language can be intimidating, but it’s far more effective and efficient than the indirect methods most learners use. If you want to learn to speak, you have to actually speak. If you want to understand people speaking at a natural speed, you need train your brain using full-speed audio.
If fluency is your goal, there is no alternative.
As Scott H. Young shares in his great book Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career:
“Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don t trade it off for other tasks just because those are more convenient and comfortable.”
Bill Price – HowToLanguages.com
I have two equally important tips or hacks for new learners:
The first is do not neglect listening. The amount of listening you need to be active in a language is always more than new learners think. Even if you don’t understand everything (or anything really) your brain still benefits from listening to the language. In truth, you should be listening twice as much as speaking. I’m a fan of speaking early, but not at the expense of listening.
The second to is to learn vocabulary that you use in YOUR daily life first. If you’re not a veterinarian or a zoo keeper, maybe hold off on learning animal names. If you are a musician, learn music vocabulary. This keeps you interested and avoids wasting time with words you will rarely use.
Lizzie – Global Graduates
One of my favourite tips for learning a new language is to read a favourite/familiar book in your target language while listening to the unabridged audiobook in English. That way you can follow the words, notice patterns, add any notes in pencil, and – crucially in my experience – have no need of a dictionary.
I did this with the first Harry Potter book, as I was familiar with the story (and already in possession of the wonderful audiobook read by Stephen Fry) and enjoyed the translations of words like “bumbled” (from the verb “bisbigliare”) and noted wonderful new adaptations to the story like Crabbe and Goyle becoming “Tiger e Goyle”. My vocabulary certainly improved quickly and it was a really enjoyable way to pass the time in an educational way.
Shahidah – Black Girls Learn Languages
My favorite tip is to use every opportunity to speak your target language. Speak until you can’t speak anymore. No matter what you know, speak and as soon as you’ve reached your limit, let the native speaker know. If you do this each time, you’ll push yourself a little further. This helped me become conversational in German very quickly!
Olle – Hacking Chinese
Learning a language is an excellent way to learn how to learn! Simply put, how much you learn depends both on how much time you invest and what method you use. Spend at least some time learning about what strategies work well for other people, especially if this is the first foreign language you learn, or there are some unique features of the language you’re learning, such as characters or tones in Chinese.
We are all different and we also learn languages for different reasons, so don’t expect to hit upon the perfect method at once. Time and method are also related, so if I tell you that using flashcards is an excellent way to boost your vocabulary, but you thoroughly detest it, find another way! A mediocre method that you actually use is better than a supposedly great method that makes you want to quit. Since how much time you spend engaging with the language is important, making sure you enjoy it is also important!
If I were to give advice for each language skill, it would be: Listen as much as you can, all the time, preferably to things you can understand already. Mimicking is the best way to improve speaking and pronunciation; take samples of native speech and try to create your own exact copy.
Read as much as you can as well, again mostly text at or below your level, not the next chapter in your textbook, which is crammed with new words and grammar; use graded readers. Writing comes later, based on a solid foundation of reading; text chats or a simple journal can get you started! Good luck!
Simon – Omniglot
My favourite tip or hack for learning a new language is to make the language part of your everyday life, and as much as possible, to do things you would normally do in your native language in the language you’re learning. For example, you could switch the language on your phone and other devices.
You could listen, watch and/or read the news and other things in the new language. You could try writing shopping lists and other things in the new language. Talking to yourself, perhaps describing the things you do and see around you, can be helpful, as is writing a blog, journal or diary. Try to find interesting videos, TV shows, podcasts and other things to watch and listen to, and where possible, leave comments and maybe get into discussions in your new language.
Idahosa – The Mimic Method
Stop listening for words and train your mind to listen for syllables. Words don’t actually exist, so when you look for them, you won’t find them in fast, blurry native speech. Syllables are the basic discrete units of speech, and they occur in certain rhythmic patterns depending on language. Train your ear to catch these syllable rhythms, and your listening comprehension will dramatically improve, even if you’re a pure beginner. I explain in more detail in this video.
Lydia – Language Mentoring
The one thing which should always be present in your language learning plan is FUN! If you don’t enjoy the way you’re learning your language, something is wrong, and it’s your primary job to change it, whether it is a change of methods or resources which you are using. Go, experiment, try something else, but make sure you enjoy this time spent with your language!
Martin – Kamusi
I’ve got four hacks for language learning. Two of them can help you learn any language, one of them is useful for languages with some available machine translation software, and one is only for languages that have already seen a lot of industry investment.
The first general hack is time. Although I’ve been working for years to develop learning tools for a lot of embattled languages (to become public one of these days, I swear), the specific things you do are less important than the time you put in. Read what you can, speak with a language partner, study a grammar – every minute you are learning words and how to use them is a minute more that your brain is wiring itself for the new language.
The second hack is music. Pay attention to the sounds of a language, and talk talk talk to make your words have the musicality you hear from the mouths of native speakers. People can fill in the gaps if you make mistakes with grammar or vocabulary, but they won’t have a clue if you butcher the words beyond recognition.
I spent 6 months repeating French R’s from audio files, with amazing improvement in how people understood what I was saying. The way people say R is different and important in every language. Vowels are even harder to hear and reproduce – maybe you’ve heard an English learner ask for “cheaps” when they want some chips? My French vowels are often still awful, but people appreciate the
effort and usually figure out the intent, if what I say lands close to what they are prepared to hear.
Hack three is to get in arguments with Google Translate, DeepL, Bing, or Systran. Give them something to translate, and then try to figure out where they might have gone wrong. Are they using the right vocabulary? The right word order? Of course, you won’t know if the machine translation is wrong or right, unless you have a native human translation to compare with.
One way to use machine translation by yourself is to find some text that has been translated by a thinking, breathing human (globalvoices.org is a great place to look), and then compare the real translation with the computational output. And you should absolutely 100% read When and How to Use Google Translate, which is the last chapter of my analysis of Google Translate in all 108 languages they claim.
If DeepL has the language you are learning, use that – not because the translations are better than the others, but because their app lets you wrestle with the output on the target side, which gives you more options to learn from.
The fourth hack only works for languages that have movies with subtitles or closed-captioning, as well as original or dubbed audio in the same language. The trick is to watch your show with both the audio and the subtitles set to the language you are trying to learn. This only works sometimes, when the tracks are in sync.
For example, I watched the French show “Lupin” on Netflix, and could read along in French perfectly as the audio went flying by. On the other hand, watching many of the “Harry Potter” films on Netflix with the audio and subtitles both set to French is a disaster – they use two different translations of the English script, and your head will explode trying to read something different from what you’re hearing. Also, you might get delays between the audio and the text, especially if you are watching live events like sports or news. Mileage for this hack will vary, but it’s tremendous when the stars align.
Luca Lampariello – The Polyglot Dream
My number one tip to learn a language – any language – is to understand WHY you are learning it. After 30 years of learning languages, I have understood that the most important ingredient for language learning success is to establish an emotional connection with your target language.
In other words, If you understand your why, you will surely figure out the how. How to establish this emotional connection in practice? Here is a simple and powerful exercise you can start with: Take a piece of paper and a pencil (or a pen). Think about a person you are going to speak to in your target language. Think about the circumstances where this is going to happen. What are you going to talk about? Where? Why? Connect all that and create a story through the power of your mind.
Einstein used to say that “imagination is more important than knowledge. Imagination is the language of the soul. Pay attention to your imagination and you will discover all you need to be fulfilled”.
With Einstein’s wise words in mind, jot down a vivid, compelling and realistic story of you living through, in and with your target language. Keep that written story next to you every time you learn as a powerful reminder. Whenever the road towards fluency becomes bumpy, whenever you get tired and discouraged, you will reach your destination if you know why and where you are going there.
Elisa – Speak From Day One With Elisa
Like anything else worthwhile in our life, language learning requires a bit of patience, perseverance and consistency. And when you learn a language as an independent learner, you also need to find the right material and the right method. Anyone can learn any language, but if you discover, develop or improve your own method, language learning becomes not only possible but also much easier, rewarding and fun.
How to do that? In just a few words: you need focus, emotional intelligence and method. If you master these three elements when learning a language, you’re setting yourself up to succeeding. If you want to know more, here a video for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
These are some of the things I teach my students. I hope it will help you, too.
Ellen – Grammar Table
I never hack anything, because hacking sounds painful and I am a language hedonist. My tip is to be aware of what gives you pleasure in your language studies and to pursue that. I know when I am having fun studying a language, and I also know when I am not. If I am sick of a learning tool or strategy, I switch to a different learning tool or strategy.
I used to write about my favorite learning approaches on my website Words & Worlds of New York, but a few years ago I grew tired of being on my computer so much and wanted to talk to people more. In 2018, I created the Grammar Table, which is a traveling grammar advice stand.
These days I often find myself sitting on urban streets at the table, answering grammar questions from passers-by and learning new and surprising things from people of diverse linguistic backgrounds. Since I love talking to strangers, it suits me and feeds my linguistic curiosity.
Vladimir – Forever A Student
My favorite tip or hack when learning a new language (if it’s not a too difficult one – let’s say it is a language from the Indo-European language family) is to find a naturally spoken podcast in the language I would like to learn with a word-by-word transcript of what is said and work with that.
Emma – Emma Loves German
How could I end this epic post without giving you one of my best tips for learning a new language myself? My favourite tip has to be to immerse yourself as much as possible in your target language. Read books, listen to music and watch TV and YouTube videos in your target language. Aim to weave your target language into your day to day life as much as possible.
Try to surround yourself with the language at home. Try sticking post-it notes on household objects with the noun in your target language. This will help you to make a physical association with the foreign word and the object, especially when you see the word and the object every day.
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Ready for more language learning tips? Check out my 5 Language Learning Hacks next!
I loved reading these summaries, so much rings true. But it also struck me that one major strategy tip (for me) wasn’t mentioned that perhaps others could benefit from? I called it, “Don’t take what you’re given.” Whenever I began a new slog in a language, I tried to customize, customize, customize all my content. Nothing was worse for breaking my train of thought than throwing in an English word when I didn’t know the brand name in the target language, and it’s a given that no language-learning materials include brand names. So, take whatever sentence your materials (or teachers) give you (‘the market”) and localize it to either your experience or your teacher’s experience (裕毛屋 Yumaowu Supermarket in Taiwan, for example). Learn the names of businesses, markets, food brands, movies, etc. in the language you’re studying instead of the generics you’re given. They come up in natural conversation surprisingly often. Just my 2 bits.
Hello! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 3gs! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the superb work!
Thank you so much! I’m glad you’re finding it helpful 🙂