Top 10 Hacks for Learning a New Language
Working on my large how-to guide for learning languages, hoping to leave as much room for individual plans as possible, as there isn’t a wrong way to learn and there are so many ways to pursue your goals. However, I’m still putting a guide together, if only for my own reference.
Here’s a fun preliminary article, though!
Technology has made taking up a new language, even rare and ancient ones, way more accessible for people. In the little community of polyglots that I visit, it seems like people are learning new languages left and right, making steady progress until they’ve reached a level they’re comfortable with.
However, I’ve noticed that for all the new technology out there today (Duolingo, iTalki, Lang-8, and more) people are still prone to getting discouraged and giving up. Since we now know that learning a new language in adulthood isn’t a problem (the problem lies with learning your first language as a child) and there’s no genetic predisposition toward learning a language, the problem lies with people not having a clear direction.
Here are my top 10 hacks for learning a new language!
Number 1: You’re getting overwhelmed. Stop it!
So you’ve decided that you want to learn a new language. Great! You aren’t totally sure the best way to start, though, so you start looking through all these beginner courses. You grab one, decide that maybe you don’t like it, and move on to another one.
That’s okay. You should like the course, and I’ve been guilty of going through many different courses myself (don’t even ask me how I finally managed to make it to an intermediate level in Japanese), but you eventually have to stop and stick to one.
Find a course that plays to your strengths and work through it. Then you can start working on the areas of a language you aren’t that great at.
For example, when I started Norwegian, I was doing sentence mining almost from the start. It wasn’t terribly different from English, so as I was going through the Mystery of Nils course I was also trying to read books and things.
I couldn’t do that with Japanese, however. It was very, very different from English and I stuck to my books for a long time. The fact that I kept looking for different books and resetting my progress didn’t help much, though…
Number 2: You need to find your way and not forget it!
You need to make sure that whatever has motivated you to start learning a language is strong enough to carry you through the dreaded Intermediate Plateau — the place where you get really frustrated because you try to watch movies and read books only to realize that you still have a lot to learn, but the rate at which you learn new things is further apart.
In the beginning, everything you learn is new and exciting, but by the time you hit the intermediate stage, the dating part is over and you have to decide whether or not to commit to the language.
Make you your reasons are starting are strong enough to finish! Even if it seems like something insignificant to others, if it’s good enough for you, stick with it.
When I first started learning Japanese (I come back to this one often because it was the first foreign language I learned) I wanted to learn because of anime. It was the early 2000s, I was in high school, and anime was everywhere. Most people might not think that was a good enough reason, but when I hit the intermediate stage, it really helped. All I had to do was grab one of the True Tenchi Novels or the ICO novel (both now have English translations) and see how far I could get. When I couldn’t read them, I hit the books again!
Number 3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Part of the learning process is going out there and screwing up… a lot! Unfortunately, most of us are pretty self-conscious about it. We don’t like to mess up, especially in front of others.
We go to schools where teachers tell us it’s okay to screw up, then we suffer from the punishment of poor grades when we do. We hate to flop!
Time to let go of that fear and realize that you’re going to screw up because it’s the only way to get better. Make an account on Lang-8 and start writing some journal entries. You’ll mess up big time, but everyone else will be messing up right along with you.
Number 4. Make learning a habit, not a binge.
It’s easy to get in the zone of language learning and start hitting the books and consuming all the media in sight. That works for a while, but then you get bored and go on a dry streak.
You need to make it a habit, like brushing your teeth or reading before bed. Set aside a time, even if it’s just 30 minutes, to do something — anything — in the language. If you go through a chapter of the learning material, great. Doing a few lessons on Duolingo? Fantastic. Reading a chapter of Harry Potter translated into your target language? Excellent. Just make sure you’re consistent!
Number 5. Look for repetition and patterns.
One of the fastest ways to learn grammar and basic conversation patterns is to examine sentences closely.
I eat apples.
I’m eating an apple.
I’m eating apples.
I like apples.
I’ll take an apple.
Please give me an apple.
I’ll give you an apple.
I would like an apple.
I should have eaten an apple.
I shouldn’t have eaten the apple.
I must eat the apple.
I must not eat an apple.
I wish I’d have taken the apple.
I have apples.
Each of these sentences, however similar, is constructed in a different way. By learning patterns, you can start picking up on things people are saying or asking quite quickly, especially as you build up your vocabulary.
Number 6: Break your goal down into small steps.
While it’s important to know where your ultimate goal lies, whether it’s perfect fluency, conversational skills, or just literary ability, you should be breaking it down into smaller pieces. Little wins will help keep that momentum going and feed your brain with positive emotional stimuli.
For example, if you’re end goal is just to have some basic conversational skills you can use when you’re going to visit or live someplace for just a period of time, you could start with, say, getting the basic greetings down and working on your self-introduction.
Some might want to read a children’s book in the target language or complete a graded reader.
Number 7: Find a movie or TV series you like in the target language.
I always recommend listening to a language before you start studying it unless your goal is just to read books in the language. It’ll help your pronunciation a lot, rewire your brain to prepare for the new language, and help you identify where accents and emphasis fall on words and in sentences. Of course, it’ll help your listening skills, too.
Some learners recommend watching without subtitles, but I find that using subtitles at first isn’t too bad so long as you’re actively listening to the speakers instead of just letting your brain treat it as background noise.
I’d watched anime exclusively with subtitles for a year or so before I began to learn and still reaped the benefits of having exposed my ears to the language repetitively. I did the same with all the other languages I learned after that unless they were ancient and have no audio.
Number 8: Don’t be afraid of your accent!
There are a lot of people who are afraid to practice speaking because they won’t sound like natives. Trust me, there are a lot of things that will give you away as being a foreigner, even if you can fool someone for a time with your spot-on accent!
Having good pronunciation is important, but a slight accent isn’t going to hurt you. Do you cringe when you hear foreigners speaking English? Probably not, unless you’re on the helpline for a computer issue and the person’s English is so bad you can’t make out what they’re trying to say.
Most of the time, however, an accent won’t get in the way. If you want some good help, though, I suggest checking out Idahosa Ness’ Mimic Method site.
Number 9: Play to your strengths!
Are you introverted or extroverted? Do enjoy chatting, or would you rather curl up with a good book?
Understanding your own preferences and personality will help you decide where you should focus in relation to your goals. If you enjoy talking with people, maybe you should start with a phrasebook and practice your conversational skills on language exchange sites.
If you don’t care for conversation all that much, then head over to Lingq or grab a good book-based course to start your studies.
Number 10: Never stop having fun.
Language learning should be fun. Yes, you’ll get frustrated at times or think you’ve hit a plateau. That’s okay and part of the learning process, but try to keep it fun.
If you’re working through a book or trying to improve your listening through music that you hate, do something else. Don’t do something that’s going to make you bored or frustrated. Read the books you want to read and talk to the people you want to talk to. You can afford to be picky while you’re learning.
Well, those are my top ten hacks. Trust me, it’s easy to overlook them.