How do you learn a language effectively?
Language learning is one of my greatest passions in life. Up to this point, I’ve studied 13 languages, and I’ve used two of them at a high communicative level. Even though I can’t claim near-native fluency in any of them (yet), I’m happy to say that learning a foreign language isn’t as complicated as you might think.
These five principles aren’t meant to be comprehensive or the ultimate authority on second language acquisition. They are simply my reflections and knowledge I’ve gathered over the last few years. Even so, boiling all of the information down into a <10 minute read was a challenge in its own right (remember that ENTIRE BOOKS are written on this topic)!
Below are five ingredients I’ve found that make language learning effective:
Let’s get started!
Please note: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning that if you click on them and decide to purchase the service or product, I will earn a small commission.
What are your reasons for learning?
Motivation is arguably the most crucial aspect of learning a language. In my past three years as an ESOL teacher, I’ve met students who pick up skills almost effortlessly— not only because they’ve spent time memorizing vocabulary lists or practicing grammar drills, but because they’ve fallen in love with their target language through movies, music, and conversations.
The reverse is also true; those who haven’t yet found their passion for the language often resist opportunities to learn. Without knowing or believing the reasons why you’re sitting in a classroom, it becomes hard to learn anything at all.
All of my languages have their unique origin stories. French and Spanish came with living and working in West Africa and Latin America. Tagalog and Ilokano are how I connect to my cultural heritage and extended family. I’ve studied Mandarin to visit my friends in China and Taiwan, Russian to communicate with my former host family, and Portuguese simply because I like how it sounds.
Are you learning a language because you want to travel? Are you starting a career that requires a foreign language? Have you fallen in love with somebody from another country? Whatever your motivation is, it needs to be strong enough to push you towards your long-term goals.
Pro-Tip #1: Keep your Goal Visible
Write down your ultimate language goal somewhere and keep it somewhere where you can see it. This will constantly remind yourself of what you want to achieve, as well as give you a boost when your motivation is low.
What do you really need to learn?
When you learn in a traditional classroom, the teacher might start off with the alphabet, then introductions, then split off into different units such as food, clothing, etc.
The problem with this approach is that you end up with vocabulary that you really don’t need— at least in the beginning. I remember going through the Duolingo French course before my summer research trip to Guinea and learning phrases like “Do you like apples?” and “I eat butter”.
While Duolingo did help me build a foundation, it did not prepare me for everyday conversations in Guinea. Instead of ordering apples and butter, I had to learn how to order riz sauce and yassa. Instead of talking about lions and sharks and monkeys, I had to learn local music vocabulary and how to formulate questions for qualitative interviewing. Duolingo also didn’t help me for more technical situations, such as buying a SIM card or getting stopped by the police.
You don’t need to check off boxes or finish a Duolingo tree to achieve a false sense of ”fluency” because fluency doesn’t work like that. Instead, prioritize the language that you need and want— starting from a core and then branching out like a solar system.
Pro-tip #2: Learn High-Frequency Words
Not all words are equal. The verb to eat, for instance, should hopefully be learned before quantum mechanics or “I think we need to break up”. These everyday words and phrases are known as “high-frequency” and should be your main focus when starting a language.
Don’t know where to start? Try the ”Super 7”, a list by Terry Waltz of seven everyday concepts in all languages.
- Location (to be somewhere)
- Existence (there is/there are)
- Possession (to have)
- Identity (to be)
- Preference (to like/dislike)
- Motion (to go)
- Volition (to want or to feel like)
III. Quality Resources
Are you receiving comprehensible input?
What makes a resource or material “good” or “high-quality”? There are many language programs and teachers out there, but a good resource should, at the very least, provide you with comprehensible input— in other words, language that you can understand.
In the early 80s, Stephen Krashen first published five hypothesis on Second Language Acquisition, which included the concept of comprehensible input. His ideas have influenced language pedagogy today, giving birth to the Natural Approach, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), and in part, the widely-used Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach.
In short, Krashen claimed that we acquire languages when we receive comprehensible input at a proficiency level just above our current one (this level is called i+1). There are plenty of ways learners and teachers can provide/elicit comprehensible input, but Krashen’s recommendation is for students to participate in Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), otherwise known as Extensive Reading. The activity of reading engaging, level-appropriate texts thus satisfies the learner’s need for comprehensible input at i+1 in a low-stress environment. The same concept can apply to listening skills as well.
I’ve found that language materials which are fun, engaging, and maximize comprehensible input are highly effective. Try to limit the time you spend on grammar drills, and instead immerse yourself in content like short videos, podcasts, and readings which use language in context.
Pro-Tip #3: Memorize through Context
As you progress, you’ll realize that words carry meaning because of the context around them (whether spoken or unspoken). A “joint” can change its meaning, depending on if you’re referring to human anatomy, a bank account, or marijuana. Instead of learning words by themselves, memorize them in a meaningful phrase or sentence, such as in the phrase “We hit up the burger joint last night.” This approach is known as chunking.
Do you welcome outside perspectives?
I refer to openness with respect to two concepts: the first being openness to correction, and the second being openness to culture.
Openness to Correction
I emphasized receptive skills (listening, reading) in the previous section, but what about the productive skills of speaking and writing? Comprehensible input helps you to acquire a language, but you can’t use a language just by listening and reading to it. You need to actually produce it.
Language resources which train speaking and pronunciation incorporate feedback. For instance, a native speaker teacher can correct your mistakes, while a pronunciation video can be rewound as many times as you want.
However, a lot of people (including myself) tend to get anxious about making mistakes. And for introverts and/or shy learners, it can take a lot of self-preparation to step into a new environment and say a simple “hello”.
Pro-tip #4: Find a Native Speaker to Practice With
One of the best ways to practice speaking in a low-stress environment is to make friends with a native speaker. If you’re not able to travel abroad to your target-language country, I recommend finding native speakers through iTalki, a site where you can book lessons with a variety of one-on-one tutors in your target language. Click here for $10 off your first lesson!
As a heritage learner of Filipino/Tagalog, speaking has always been difficult for me because of an unspoken pressure I feel to be “already fluent” in the language. I tried to fix this problem in middle school, when I found an old Tagalog textbook in one of our storage bins. On the first few pages, there was a lesson on introductions, and within this conversation was a long, intimidating phrase:
Ikinigagalak ko kayong makilala.
I practiced this for a couple days until I was able to shoot it off my tongue automatically. Years later, when I went to college, I met somebody from the Philippines and used this phrase.
Their response? They giggled at me and then switched to English. Because honestly, why would anyone say a huge Tagalog sentence when you can simply say “Nice to meet you (po)?” Filipinos rarely ever say “Nice to meet you” in English or in their native language. It’s not a common concept in the Filipino culture, unless used among foreigners.
I was, of course, terribly embarrassed. But you know what? Who cares? I’ll probably never see this person in my life again.
The truth is that making mistakes is part of the process. You won’t always understand everything you hear. You won’t always speak correctly. But in my experience, many native speakers are willing to be patient with you if you are open and respectful.
Adopting a growth mindset can help you to view these miniature failures and criticisms as opportunities to improve.
Openness to Culture
In my previous example, my Tagalog grammar was perfect; however, I didn’t speak in a culturally-appropriate way. Vocabulary and grammar teach you how to communicate, but cultural understanding teaches you when, where, and even why you should communicate.
Language can sometimes reflect cultural beliefs, such as those tied to hierarchy, formality, and politeness. English speakers, for instance, address everyone in the second-person singular using the pronoun you.
Compare this with Spanish, where you have both a formal and informal way of addressing another person. You might use the polite form usted when speaking to a stranger or somebody of high status. But you would use the informal tú when praying to God, and depending on the country and region, you might use either tú or usted with parents and close relatives. And furthermore, Spaniards will use the ustedes form to address a group of people formally, while in much of Latin America, speakers use ustedes to refer to everybody in the second-person plural, for both formal and informal situations. And to make things more complicated, Argentinians throw in the vos form, but that’s another blog post for another day.
Sometimes, linguistic differences are more complex and may require greater adjustment on behalf of the learner. In the Manding languages, the act of greeting someone on the street is a ritualistic art in itself. Take the following two typical dialogues of how one might greet in English vs. how you might greet in Manding:
Greeting in English
-Good morning! How are you?
-Fine, and you?
-Have a good one!
-Thanks, you too!
Greeting in Manding
-I ni sɔgɔma.
-Nba, i ni sɔgɔma.
-Nse. Hɛɛrɛ sira?
-I ka kɛnɛ?
-N ka kɛnɛ.
-I muso dun?
-A ka kɛnɛ.
-I denw dun?
-U ka kɛnɛ.
-Ala kɛnɛ a di!
-Ala bi nogoya!
If I’m in a rush in the morning, I might not greet other English speakers as extensively as I would in Manding. I won’t ask if everyone in their family is healthy, or if they slept well the night before, or pronounce a multitude of blessings over them. Especially as an introverted/shy person, I sometimes prefer not saying hello to all to people in the village. But when living in a Manding-speaking community, this is a normal and expected custom that points to deeper beliefs of how community relationships function.
Whatever language you decide to learn, make sure to include cultural study by interacting with native speakers and various forms of media in your target language. Language study and culture study cannot be separated.
Are you in this for the long run?
Consistency means doing something regularly. If you want to see genuine improvement, I suggest you practice every day.
But wait! I’m too busy. I have school / work / chores / a social life / kids / the gym / to save the world from flesh-eating aliens. I don’t have time to practice my language every day.
That’s okay. Consistent exposure starts small. Find small ways to incorporate language study wherever you go.
A former colleague of mine labels her house with nouns and places an index card with “What did you just do?” in Nepali on her bathroom mirror. Whenever she looks into the mirror, she sees the card and answers the question. Personally, I’m a fan of switching my electronic devices, social media, and apps into the target language. There’s a lot of vocabulary that can be gained, especially by associating them with familiar images.
Pro Tip #5: Quality over Quantity
Work in short bursts, as opposed to long hours. You’ll retain more information and feel less burnt out. Working for 30 minutes a day for five days a week is far better than studying for four hours straight every Saturday.
Another way I define consistency is with respect to the quality of our practice— not just the quantity. Listening 24/7 to the news in Polish might help tune your ear to the language, but if you don’t comprehend the words and concepts being discussed, you won’t be able to acquire these words to use in the future. Instead of overloading yourself with a language, spend a small slot of time (e.g. 15 minutes a day) and devote all of your focus towards developing a deep understanding of a text or interaction.
Finally, consistency means showing up for the long term. Unless you are a genius (which at this point, send me a message because I’d like to learn from you please!), you cannot gain native-like proficiency in a matter of weeks or even months. Our brains just don’t work like that. Anyone who tells you that you can learn a language fluently in 72 hours is lying to you. Language learning is not a sprint; language learning is a marathon.
Some Final Thoughts…
There is a proverb about languages that goes like this: ”Learn a new language, gain a new soul.” It takes time and effort to develop a new version of yourself. So be patient, be courageous, and be humble.
Of course, following these principles won’t mean that learning a language won’t be difficult. There will be days when you don’t want to study and days when you wonder if you’re making any progress at all. Keep going. Over time, you’ll look back and see just how far you’ve come. The process of language learning is stimulating, challenging, and even life-changing— but only if you put in the effort.
Hopefully, you’ve gained a better idea on how you can better learn a language effectively. Are there any other principles that you would add to this list? What strategies have worked for you? Feel free to reflect and comment below!