How to start learning a language

Language learning has been a hobby of mine for a while. I wasn't able to learn a second language growing up, and I think that's motivated me even more.

In the past year, I've gone from nothing to having simple conversations in German and Spanish. I think my process is replicable with almost any Western language. With CEFR as a reference, I've been able to go from A1 to B1 in both.

There are still many things I can't understand in each language, but that comes with time. I'd recommend starting by reading this popular Quora post, which is right to say: "Learning a language isn't hard. It's just LONG." 

Methodology

Memrise

Memrise is app on web and mobile that helps you through decks of flashcards. I use it for at least 15 minutes a day — it's the best thing you can do to build vocabulary. Look for decks like 5000 German Words (top 87%), or Comprehensive German Duolingo Vocabulary instead of Memrise's generic courses.

Anki is also a good alternative, but I've found it a bit more cumbersome to use.

Michel Thomas

Michel Thomas was a WWII veteran who grew up speaking Polish. As a child, he moved to Germany, then later to France (where he joined the French Resistance) when the Nazis came to power. After the war, he learned a few more languages, then moved to the United States to teach diplomats and celebrities. 

Later in life, Michel created a series of audio courses, which are incredible. They're heavily focused on speaking, and constantly challenge you to produce sentences in the language.

The sentences start out simple, but Michel aims to give you building blocks to form increasingly complex sentences. In French, you might hear something like:

  1. Je voudrais manger
  2. Je voudrais manger avec vous
  3. Je voudrais manger avec vous ce soir
  4. Je voudrais manger avec vous ce soir, mais je n'ai pas une réservation.

Fairly soon, you're speaking several sentences at a time, and you understand every part of it. You realize those parts can be used to form other sentences, which feels great. Actually producing sentences on your own is critical to develop speaking skills.

Easy Languages

Easy Languages is a YouTube channel that helps people learn through street interviews with locals. It's a good way to hear native speakers say simple things.

Each episode has a themed question. They're usually straightforward, like "quel est votre lieu préféré á Paris?" (what is your favorite place in Paris?). 

Most languages have a 100+ episodes, so they cover many topics — including the oddly morbid German episode where they asked people, "was passiert mit dir, wenn du tot bist?" (what happens after death?). 

I watch about one episode a day, but I'll usually play through it several times at 0.5x speed to really hear the pronunciation.

Netflix

Netflix has lot of good content in other languages (especially if you're savvy enough to use a proxy). If you're not in the mood to do flash cards, you might learn a little by watching a show in another language, even if you're using English subtitles. Try to pick out each word a character says, and repeat it out loud to yourself, even if you don't know what it means.

Take advantage of word frequency

Spend any time learning languages, and you'll come across the notion that some words are used much more often than others. In English, for example, it's commonly accepted that 3000 words will cover about 95% of written text, 1000 words will cover 89%, and just 25 words will get you to 33%.

There are similar curves in other languages. Lingvist, an app I'm using to learn French, includes this chart as you progress.

Make sure you're learning the most common words. Just 10 words a day for a year is already 3,650 words!

Be consistent

Momentum in language learning is huge. You will constantly forget things, and the best way to stop yourself from slipping too far is to practice. You'll be amazed at how quickly you can progress by doing something every day. Get into a routine, and stick to it.

 

Best of luck,

Austin