Monday, 20 December 2010

How to start learning a language

Youtube is a great place to pick up some basic vocabulary in many languages. This is not the best example of these particular lessons (they are pretty good ;)) but it is at least seasonal.


I don't feel I wrote a single good summary of how I would start to learn a language so here it is.... I am not a polyglot yet, and I have higher personal standards for fluency than many, but this kind of approach works for me, I am currently successfully applying it to Japanese.

Start by listening

If the sounds of the language are unfamiliar then listen to it, listen attentively and listen whilst doing other things, get a feel for how it sounds, get a feel for words, word barriers sentence intonation etc. You can listen to radio, watch TV, news, drama, comedy, people what ever you can get your hands on. You should feel the language get more familiar. At the same time you can watch the style of the native speakers, how they move, how they express themselves, also pay attention to how they speak your language, if they have an accent this gives you clues about the sounds in their language.

A good test is to determine how well you can distinguish the language from others (especially languages that are similar). If you are learning German, you should be able to easily distinguish it from Dutch or Norwegian or Afrikaans. learning Spanish then distinguish Portuguese, learning Japanese then distinguish Korean.

You may find it hard to listen to something you don't understand, I never have had a problem so long as I can feel the progress. You can listen for word-boundaries, mood, names, conjugates at some point the stream of random sound becomes a stream of words that you don't understand. It sounds trivial but the difference is huge.

You may have done most of this stage already if you have been exposed to the language before and you can continue this process whilst doing other things. You have probably done enough when you can say "right that is the language, now what the hell does it all mean". You are going to be speaking in the style of a new language, for most activities if you are going to do something "in the style of" you would expect to have some experience of what that style is. Play music in the style of, dance in the style of, paint in the style of ......

Pick up some basic vocabulary

A few hundred high exposure words and simple phrases, this is not a significant feat of memory in yours or anyone else's life, if you get stuck in you will learn them.

There is much debate about how to pick up vocabulary, in the early stages though I really don't think it matters. Children learn the basic vocabulary for their own language by massive exposure, you can do the same. Find whatever lessons, videos, podcasts you can online that are teaching basic vocabulary in the language you are learning and get exposed. The words will stick with enough exposure. These very high frequency words don't need tests, flash cards, SRS, lists or similar. If you are being tested on or testing yourself for example on simple words like "yes" or "no" or "thank you", then stop. Just get a bit more exposure and you will just know them. Save the arguments for how you are going to learn vocabulary later on, even guys that have a "bad memory" still seem to manage to remember all the names of the players in a bunch of football teams or similar, so at this level of memory exposure is all that is required, no special tricks or techniques needed.

Youtube is a great place to pick up basic vocabulary, many languages have countless little lessons teaching language, some free offerings from commercial organizations and some from members of the public. Quality doesn't matter too much, get as much variety as you can and it will all even out. Free introductory lessons to learning podcasts, free cut-down versions of learning software, all may give you audio you can practice.

People are obviously a good source of vocabulary, friends, family, associates, people around you, anyone who can speak the language. If you are in a foreign country then you are surrounded by sounds that will help you, don't ignore them. If not in a foreign country then rejoice at all the technology available to you that will help.


If you watch small children learning a language you will see them play, babbling, making their toys have pretend conversations etc.. When playing they don't stress about whether it makes sense. Sometimes they may have to talk to a big scary adult they don't know and then you can see the stakes raised, suddenly they are more careful, perhaps more nervous. Have fun with the language, pick up a few words and start mashing them together in ways you think they may work, play in your head or with a trusted friend, or in safe environment (where your ridiculous accidents will spark humour rather than a fight).

Think about when you will talk

Start to think about how you will talk the language and to who. Maybe that bit is easy at first, perhaps there are friends, colleagues people there already, so armed with the style of the language and some basic vocabulary start practising. If not then just start to work out where you will find the opportunities when you will need it. When the speech is bursting to come out you want to have planned an outlet.


Get yourself used to the sounds of language and when you speak your pronunciation will be OK at least. It doesn't take long to get used to a language, if you really don't like the sound of it then you are going to struggle learning it anyway (you can get to like it but not if you resist it).

Don't stress about the initial basic vocabulary that gets you started, that bit is easy. It is high exposure, you will learn it. If it takes you twice as long or twice as fast then over the course of learning the language it is not a big deal. Keep getting exposed, pay at least some attention and if you have any interest in the language you will learn the basic vocabulary.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Chris! I'm all for your advice on play: Have fun with the language, pick up a few words and start mashing them together in ways you think they may work, play in your head or with a trusted friend, or in safe environment (where your ridiculous accidents will spark humour rather than a fight).