The Real Method for Learning a Language

Photo by Soner Eker from Unsplash

Do you remember your French classes at high school? You probably remember the mountains of conjugation tables and useless vocabulary lists you were forced to learn. Hours and hours of answering questions in a textbook, listening to the teacher droning on about l’imparfait tense.

No wonder most students hated their language class. Those memories hold you back now, stopping you from learning a language.

There are so many excuses that your brain can make. “I’m not smart enough”, “I don’t have time”, “There’s no point”. But the real reason behind what’s stopping you from learning a language is this:

You’re using the wrong method.

Ever thought why those years of study at school and the pass grade you scraped at the end of school didn’t get you to fluency? Ever thought why you’ve forgotten most of the conjugations and vocab from those hours of study?

Well, now you have the answer.

You may have the answer to why you have the wrong method, but the most more important thing to know is what the right method is.

I’m a language learner myself, learning Mandarin Chinese, French and Sinhalese. In my years of study, I discovered why the way languages are being taught are holding people back from learning another one or two after school.

And the answer I found to this problem can be simplified to just one word: variety

When I say ‘variety’, I mean variety in the learning medium. In the traditional language learning environment, the only learning medium is textbook and possibly the teacher showing a PowerPoint presentation. A lot of the time, rote memorisation is the only method used for vocabulary.

This might be the method used traditionally, and maybe that’s the reason why most people use it, but it isn’t effective at all.

Through my own mistakes, I’ve discovered an effective method for language learning that even people with no language experience can use.

Tailor to your learning style

There are four different learning styles under the VARK model: Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic.

My method combines all of these methods, but depending on your learning style, you must incorporate more of each method in your study.

Here’s a breakdown of the four learning styles:

  1. Visual- a learner who works best with graphics, symbols and images in general.
  2. Auditory- a learner who works best through listening and speaking
  3. Reading/Writing- a learner who works best through information in words and writing texts
  4. Kinesthetic- a learner who works best through experience and practice; i.e. demonstrations and practical activities.

Some of you might already know what type of learner you are after reading this breakdown. And some of you might not know what works best for you. If you’re part of the latter, it’s best to start with the guidelines I give you and adjust as necessary.

How to Study with this Guide

  1. You should not attempt to complete every single section in one day. If you do, you will be spending hours and hours on your language every day and you will probably burnout.
  2. If you do not know what type of learner you are, use the suggested study times and try one method a day until you find one that you especially like.
  3. If you already know (or now know) what type of learner you are, do NOT skip the section that are not your type. Just adjust the suggested study time for each section. For example if you’re a visual learner, do three days of visual learning instead of just one. My method’s point is to integrate the different types of learning.
  4. By no means do you have to pay. Sometimes a paid program is better, but other times a free program might actually be the better than the paid programs! I use a variety of free and paid programs and that’s working perfectly for me.

Visual

Use flashcards, visual mnemonics and a secondary language program.

These are all types of learning that works best for the visual learner, but they should also be used to some extent by all learners.

I would suggest having input information from a YouTube video, language learning app/program or live lesson and writing notes on a physical notebook. Using a language app as a side resource is helpful, but they shouldn’t be your only or primary resource.

Every time you find a new vocabulary word, use a SRS flashcard system like Anki, Memrise or Quizlet to learn and revise new words easily. If you prefer making flashcards by hand, this is something you can do as well.

Furthermore, I would suggest using pictures in your flashcards so you can visually conceptualise a new word.

Visual mnemonics are especially helpful for languages like Mandarin Chinese, Japanese or Arabic where they use a different writing system. A visual mnemonic system is where a character or letter is assigned an object that looks like the character or letter itself.

For example, the Japanese Hiragana letter ぬ (nu) looks like a bundle of noodles. Essentially you find an object that looks like the character/letter and has an English name similar to the pronunciation of the character/letter itself.

This method is especially useful for pictographic (characters that look like what they mean) like Chinese Hanzi and Japanese Kanji.

Suggestion for study: Input (videos, app, live lesson): 25–30 minutes

Revision (flashcards with images): 10–15 minutes (depending on how many flashcards you have)

Auditory

Use audio based systems, podcasts, videos and full conversations between native speakers. Flashcards with native speaker audio is recommended.

The best audio based systems should be audio only, and when you use them, you shouldn’t write notes or read during the lesson. The two audio based systems I use is Pimsleur (50 languages but paid) and Language Transfer (8 languages plus English in Spanish but free).

There are many podcasts for learning languages and a similar to audio based systems like Pimsleur. I use Coffee Break French from Coffee Break Languages which has a collection of seven languages.

Videos are also great for Auditory learners as well as Visual learners, especially videos purely in your target language.

They could either be simple conversations between speakers, or a regular video in your target language. Sometimes you can also find your target language version of popular English shows and comes with subtitles.

For revision, it is recommended to add native speaker files to your flashcards which you can find on sites like Forvo. This is also highly recommended for non-auditory learners.

Suggestion for study: Input (audio based system, podcast, video): 30 minutes (this is the length of one Pimsleur/Language transfer lesson)

Revision (flashcards with audio): also 10–15 minutes

Reading/Writing

This can be seen as a more traditional approach to learning, an approach that I have said to be ineffective. However, if used in the correct way and not in the way that school teach it, it’s definitely a very effective method.

Use textbooks of your choice, books in your target language and have a pen pal. Your textbook will probably assign you texts to write. Cloze (fill in the blanks) flashcards are very useful for Reading/Writing learners.

Textbooks have a bad reputation in the world of language learning, and well… everywhere else. The reason being is that they are seen as boring, ineffective and unimaginative.

This stereotype has emerged because textbook work was the only method of learning at school. But with the new method I’m showing you now, a healthy amount of textbook work doesn’t do any harm.

A very important step is to choose a reputable textbook that interests you. Don’t ever choose a dry textbook because all it will do is demotivate you from learning.

Choose one with various reading and writing exercises, as well as good explanations for grammar. Even better is a textbook that comes with audio to support the exercises.

Teach Yourself books are a very reputable brand that I use for my French. It has all the exercises that you need and plenty of text exercises. But for many languages, there are language specific book series that might be better. For example, Genki books for Japanese. My own site Hangul Beuja is great for Korean reading/writing learning.

Another way is to simply buy books in your target language without any English translation if you’re an advanced learner. But for beginners, this can be intimidating.

A book seller called Interlinear Books sells a few books in 12 languages where the original text is paired with an English translation for each word or phrase.

For intermediate and advanced learners, you can try changing your device language to your target language. There are pros and cons but you can trial it and see if it’s right for you. Though for beginners be aware: this is probably not a effective solution.

Having a pen pal is nothing new, but now, you can also find pen pals on the internet. There are quite a few pen pal finding websites, although I haven’t used them. Reddit, specifically language subreddits are great places to find study partners and pen pals across the world. Remember to follow cyber safety advice.

I use Anki flashcards so I know you can create Cloze (fill in the blanks) flashcards. There is also a website called Clozemaster where Cloze exercises are premade (no option for making your own). There are 67 available languages at the time of writing.

Suggestion for study: Input (textbooks, books in your target language, pen pal): 15–20 minutes

Revision (Cloze): also 10–15 minutes

Kinesthetic

This final type of learning is where the interactive activities and experience is the best way to learn.

Speaking with natives (online or person to person), practising dialogue and watching natives in conversation (like for auditory learners).

Whatever type of learner you are, you should always try to speak with natives. It can be difficult to get past that obstacle, but once you do, I promise, it will work wonders.

Even with a relatively uncommon language like Sinhala, I managed to start a very simple conversation with a native speaker, and it gave me an amazing confidence boost. If you talk with them regularly, they can start giving you constructive feedback, teaching nuances and improving your pronunciation and grammar.

After all, what’s the point of learning a language if you’re not going to speak it?

It may sound silly, but talking to yourself and creating dialogues are actually helpful. Every time you learn a new word, repeat it when you are revising. For kinesthetic learners especially, speaking and doing things that are practical are essential.

There are always dialogue sections in textbooks, and even if your learning through self study, you can still practice by speaking to yourself.

Minimise too much book work or reading work, and do more speaking and interaction.

Although you can do some flashcard revision, Kinesthetic learners should revise through speaking and practising with natives/fellow learners.

Suggestion for study: Input (speaking, dialogue, watching conversation): 20–60 minutes (depends on the circumstance)

Revision: integrate into the input stage

Creating a Schedule

Schedules help you be motivated, through healthy pressure. As long as you don’t be unrealistic in your goals for practice per day, creating a schedule is an excellent way of making your language study more manageable.

As I have said before, you should not do more than two ‘learning methods’ a day, and if you have more time on your hands, you should change the ‘suggestion for study’ to your liking (instead of cramming more learning methods).

For example, if you have two hours on a Saturday, you should not try to cram Reading/Writing, Visual AND Kinesthetic learning in that study session. Instead, you should spend more time on two of the three.

I’m not using the number two because it’s magical or scientifically proven, etc. I’m using the number two because it sets a boundary and helps avoid burning out and lack of motivation.

Another reason why the number of learning styles a day is relatively low is that it’s also more efficient. Essentialism is a viewpoint where spending time on less things is more efficient. This is also true for language learning and so cramming all four learning methods in a study session is far from effective.

Remember the ‘suggestions for study’ in each learning method is just a guide. Don’t feel held back by it and change it whenever you feel necessary.

My philosophy is that a method like this is to help you start, not finish.

Here are some things you should consider when creating and adjusting a schedule:

  1. How much time do I have for language learning? Am I able to change that number if necessary?
  2. Why am I learning this language? Curiosity or education? Culture?
  3. What are my goals? Conversational fluency? Ability to read and write?
  4. How long do I want to take to reach that goal? A few months? Years?
  5. Which language method is best for reaching that goal? Am I still taking into consideration my own best learning method?

Consider these things when making your schedule to best optimise for your needs.

Now I’ve shown you my method for language learning, it’s time to actually take action.

Stop procrastinating and get to work. Yes, now! Find the resources you need and start with your study now, when you have the motivation.

There’s no point in reading a method like this if you’re not going to actually use it.

Good Luck!

Luca from Hangul Beuja

FYI, if you’re learning Korean, a great place to start is my website Hangul Beuja where uses the Reading/Writing learning method. Make sure to sign up to the newsletter when you get there!

Lover of learning languages, founder of Korean learning website Hangul Beuja, hungry for knowledge. Subscribe to my newsletter at https://hangulbeuja.ck.page

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