How to learn a foreign language is a question that has interested me for a long time. After all, I wanted to learn many languages. More importantly, I wanted to do it efficiently. By now I speak six languages. In this post I will share my favorite language learning techniques and explain what worked (and didn’t work) for me.
Since this blog post is going to be about what worked for me, I must remind that if your memory works differently than mine, then you should do whatever works for you. There is no right way how to learn foreign languages, no magical one-size-fits-all approach that will make you able to speak many languages. People learn differently, thus what works for one person may not work for somebody else.
I know some language teachers who almost fetishize effort and hard work. According to them, you have to diligently attend language classes, do all the homework, memorize grammar tables, spend many years being bored to death, and then at some point all your effort will pay off and you will speak the foreign language. They claim that learning a language requires hard work, the process must be boring, tedious, and miserable. I even have had language teachers who tried to shame me for being lazy and refusing to memorize all those annoying grammar tables. They insisted that for me it might be boring as hell, but I had to toughen it out. After decades of effort, my hard work would be rewarded one day when I would finally be able to speak the language I had been struggling to learn for so long. Supposedly hard work also developed will power and discouraged “laziness”.
In my opinion, wasted effort is just that—a waste. Language teachers, especially those who teach adults in universities, should not reward their students for “effort.” A teacher should not encourage their students to continue doing something that is pointless. If some language learning technique doesn’t work for a student, there are two options, they can either (1) try different language learning approaches, (2) give up on learning languages. When it comes to learning, people should experiment and search for learning techniques that work for them, because if you work hard but not efficiently, you aren’t going to get very much done. More often than not, the outcome isn’t directly proportional to how much effort you put in some task.
When it comes to language textbooks and courses, those tend to be all the same. There are grammar rules with conjugation tables for students to memorize. There are word lists. Personally, I am highly critical of traditional language courses, because they utterly failed me.
I had to take French lessons at school since I was seven years old. Learning languages by sitting in some classroom and studying didn’t work for me. Not only I was bored and hated the process, I actually couldn’t learn anything. I simply cannot memorize grammar tables. My memory doesn’t work this way. I imagined that I had no talent for languages. I assumed that I just didn’t have “the right type of brain” for languages, and only a select few geniuses could be good at mastering foreign languages. I almost gave up any hopes of succeeding with learning other languages.
By the time I was twelve years old, I was monolingual. I discovered that I’m actually great at learning languages only by accident. I accidentally learned Russian after making a friend who was a native Russian speaker. The two of us didn’t study each other’s native language. Instead we spent time together and talked in a mix of Latvian and Russian. As a result, we both learned each other’s language. I also learned English unintentionally. Playing with a computer and utilizing the Internet required knowing English. Latvian translations don’t exist for most software. Internet pages in Latvian are very rare. Thus I had to use a computer in English, and I learned the language in the process.
By the time I was seventeen, I had become fluent in English and Russian. I realized that I can successfully learn languages after all. I became hooked. I wanted to learn more of them. This was when I started researching efficient language learning techniques and experimenting in order to find out what worked for me. If I wanted to succeed with this whole polyglot thing, I had to learn efficiently.
Why the language learning process itself needs to be at least somewhat enjoyable.
Hard work per se doesn’t work when it comes to language learning. If you feel that you are trying really hard to learn some language, then you won’t succeed. A person can work really hard for short periods of time. You can toughen it out for a month or two, but after a while you will be sick and tired of all this boring and tedious hard work. Learning a language is a long term time investment. Two weeks of hard work won’t do the trick. Do you have the dedication to spend five years doing something you absolutely hate? If you hate the very process of language learning, you won’t succeed. In order to be willing to keep on learning the language for years (or at least multiple months), the learning process itself must be at least semi pleasurable and not totally boring. For example, if grammar tasks make you yawn, then you shouldn’t do many of them. If having online conversations in some foreign language makes you excited, then that’s what you should do instead. You won’t learn a language unless you can remain dedicated for a prolonged period of time. And that won’t happen unless you are passionate about learning the language.
For me this I meant that I had to give up language courses and studying. Instead I watched films and read books in my target language, I made friends who were native speakers of the language I was trying to learn, I used a computer and the Internet in this language, I had online conversations and I wrote blog posts in said language. I lived my entire life in the language I wanted to learn, I did most of my hobbies in this language. Since I enjoy my life in general, I could also enjoy leading the same life in whichever language I wanted to learn.
Why you need to be passionate, and emotionally involved.
During the language classes I was forced to take, I used to be bored and half asleep. That’s not the right state of mind for memorization. Right now you can try to recall some experience that was emotionally intense for you. Do you remember all the details vividly? Probably yes. Now recall some experience that was boring for you. Can you even recall it clearly? Probably no. Human memory works better when we are fully alert, emotionally involved, and present in the moment. Language lessons didn’t provide such an environment for me.
For example, personally, I really enjoyed being a member of my university’s debate club. I always utilized every opportunity to debate in German and in English. Debates in English were actually relatively easy given how by then I already knew the language reasonably well. Debating in German was the hardcore stuff. By the time I joined a German debate club, I struggled to put together coherent sentences. It was hard for me to express even simple ideas, and debates tend to be about topics that require complex and wide vocabulary. It was hard. But this was also the perfect learning environment.
In order to learn languages, I had to step out of my comfort zone. I had to accept all those painful social interactions in which I was going to appear clueless due to being unable to express myself. Even if I felt publicly humiliated, at least I wasn’t going to forget the mistakes I made, and I knew that I will remember the new vocabulary I heard during some particularly disastrous conversation. Of course, most of the time talking with people in foreign languages was fun and I did just fine. I tried to maintain a positive attitude and just laugh about all the mistakes I made, so the conversations usually were fun and pleasant (even if hard to maintain and mentally taxing).
How to efficiently memorize new words and phrases.
People have to cooperate with how their memory works. You cannot force yourself to remember things with “hard work” and “effort.”
In language lessons my teachers told me to memorize word lists, grammar rules, conjugation tables. That didn’t work for me, because my brain simply doesn’t accept such information inputs. Yes, I could temporarily memorize some grammar table, I would pass the exam, and I would forget the whole thing a week later. Even if I repeated the same grammar table so often that I didn’t immediately forget it, then that was still useless for me, because I couldn’t utilize said knowledge in an actual conversation.
My brain memorizes words in their contexts. If you asked me to recite the English alphabet, I would respond with, “A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, I, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z.” I know the alphabet, and I am capable of reciting it. Now, let’s imagine you asked me which letters follows after “k.” In order to answer the question, I would think like this: “A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, I, j, k, l, the letter than follows after ‘k’ is ‘l.’” I cannot recall an individual letter from the middle of the alphabet, instead I have to recite the whole think from the beginning.
Back when I started taking French lessons, my teacher told me to memorize this sequence: “Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sont, elles sont.” It translates as: “I am, you are, he is, she is, we are, you are, they are.” This is the conjugation of the verb “être” (“to be”) in the present tense.
Now let’s imagine I wanted to say “he is happy” in French. In my mind I would be thinking: “Je suis, tu es, il est heureux” (“heureux” means “happy” in French, “il est heureux” means “he is happy”). Do you see how this is detrimental to actually being able to speak a language? When I am trying to say something, I have to speak reasonably fast. I do not have the time to recite grammar tables in my head while I am trying to put together a sentence.
Language teachers also tell their students to memorize word lists. For example, in order to learn the word for “sun” in French, I was told to recite in my head: “Sun—le soleil—sun—le soleil—sun—le soleil.” After doing this for a while, I would sort of remember this word. Unfortunately, a week later I would probably be thinking: “How was ‘sun’ in French?” On top of that, let’s say I actually succeed with memorizing the word “le soleil.” The problem would remain that I would only remember this word in the context of its translation in some other language. My brain memorizes words in their contexts. And that’s important.
There is a vast difference between words that a person can recognize versus words that they can also utilize in their own sentences, either spoken or written. In order to be able to utilize some word in my own sentences, I need to know this word in various contexts how it is actually used in the language.
I always think in whichever language I am speaking at the moment. Whenever I am using some language that I don’t know very well, my ability to think tremendously decreases, the complexity of thoughts I can have gets reduced. It almost feels like getting temporarily mentally impaired or handicapped. I say “temporarily,” because I am always free to switch back to some other language in which I can think more freely. Right now, as I am typing this text, I am thinking in English. I do not think in my native language only to translate everything, sentence by sentence, into English. Thus the only words I can possibly produce, the words that surface to my conscious thoughts in order to form the sentence I am now typing, are those words that I know in the context of their usage in English. Therefore memorizing translations for some list of words is utterly useless for me.
For example, I wouldn’t be capable of using the word “abuse” in an English sentence, unless I had previously heard about “abuse of power,” “drug abuse,” or “domestic abuse.” I also need to be familiar with numerous ways how this word can be correctly utilized in a sentence in order to be able to freely use it.
The same goes not only for words, but also their various forms. Consider, for example, verbs, which tend to have all kinds of forms and conjugations in most languages.
If you learn English as a foreign language, the chances are that your teacher will tell you to memorize a list of irregular verbs. The list consists of the verb’s base form, past simple, and past participle. As is:
And so on, this is a long list. For me memorizing such a list would have been utterly pointless. Just because I know the theory how to conjugate some verb or what form it has in some tense, doesn’t mean that I will be actually able to use said verb form in a real sentence. I won’t be able to use the verb form “arisen” unless I have heard this word in various sentences and in numerous contexts. Only then it will feel natural to me, only then I will be able to do something useful with it.
Here is another example from my French lessons. L’imparfait (the imperfect) is a French past tense. It describes states and actions that were ongoing or repeated in the past. The imperfect can correspond to the English simple past tense, but also to structures such as “used to” and “would” and even the past progressive.
For example, “Quand il était petit, Andreas aimait beaucoup les gateaux,” means, “When he was little, Andreas really loved cakes.” In this French sentence both verbs are in the imperfect.
In order to conjugate the imperfect tense in French, you take the present-tense stem of the 1st person plural form of the verb, and add the following endings: “ais, ais, ait, ions, iez, aient.” For example, “I loved cakes” are “j’aimais les gateaux.” “You loved cakes” are “tu aimais les gateaux.” And so on for the rest of the forms (I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they).
My French teacher told me to learn to recite “ais, ais, ait, ions, iez, aient.” Even though I had learned this short list of verb endings, and even though I knew the theory how to correctly use some verb in the imperfect tense, I still couldn’t freely use these verb forms in actual sentences, because my brain simply refused to construct these verb forms in the middle of my normal thinking process. I just couldn’t simultaneously think about what I wanted to say and how to construct the imperfect tense of some verb I needed to use.
Now that I have provided an overly long explanation of why traditional language lessons didn’t work for me, next comes the explanation of what did work.
By the time I was twelve years old, I got a Russian speaking friend. While we were playing hide-and-seek, whenever she found me, she would say the phrase “я тебя нашла” (“I found you”). Whenever I found her, I just repeated the same phrase. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I used the verb “to find” in past tense. I wasn’t thinking about the various forms of pronouns. Instead I was repeating the words after her and using the language in order to communicate. In the process, I learned the language, I also learned the grammar rules. (Note: nowadays I would instead say “я тебя нашёл,” because in Russian verb forms change depending on whether the verb refers to somebody who is either male or female; I was raised as female, but nowadays I live as a man.)
Right now, if you asked me, “How to say ‘I loved cakes’ in Russian?” I would immediately respond with: “Я любил пирожные.” I know how to use any Russian verb in the past tense. I never learned any grammar rules about how to conjugate Russian verbs, but I just know how to say any Russian verb in the past tense. On the other hand, if you asked me a general question about how to form the past tense for Russian verbs, I would struggle to answer. I never learned these grammar rules. Of course, I could think of a few verbs and try to analyze in my head how their forms are constructed, so after some thinking I could come up with an answer about the underlying rules, but I never even try to think about any such rules while actually speaking in Russian.
I prefer to learn languages by actually using them. I memorize words and phrases through spaced repetition. I don’t bother with flashcards or anything similar. As I use the language in various everyday contexts, I am bound to encounter the same words again and again. After hearing the same word for several times in different contexts, I will have memorized it. That’s it. Simple, isn’t it?
Let’s say that two weeks from now I need to be in Germany in order to attend a computer security conference in which I will have to talk about said topic in German. Here’s how I would prepare for it. I’d find a bunch of German online articles about computer security. Every evening I would read a couple of such articles. Probably I would also look up some YouTube videos about computer security in German. In the process, I would naturally encounter new words as they are used in normal sentences and in their context. I would also encounter the same words again and again every time I read a new article. Thus I would naturally memorize the new vocabulary.
In situations where I don’t have the time to acquire new vocabulary gradually and naturally, I can also use the brute force method. Let’s say that tomorrow I will have to speak about computer security in German. I don’t know the relevant vocabulary. I have very little time to prepare. If I needed to memorize a few new words immediately, I would use mnemonics. It works by creating very strong and vivid associations. You don’t forget them exactly because of how weird they are.
Back when I studied German philology in a university, I needed to memorize the German word for an “auditorium” (“der Hörsaal”). This word kept slipping out of my head. So I imagined students bringing a horse to my university’s largest auditorium. This room was located on the third floor, thus students dragged the poor animal up all those flights of stairs while the unhappy horse kept resisting, clearly struggling to adapt to the new environment. Whenever I thought about an auditorium, I would remember the silly scenario involving a horse. This reminded me of the word “der Hörsaal.”
What to do with grammar.
Language courses usually contain lots of grammar theory. Some language teachers insist that you need to study grammar in order to learn to use the language correctly. In general, I disagree. For example, let’s consider the list of English irregular verbs (arise—arose—arisen; awake—awoke—awoken; be—was/were—been, and so on). I didn’t bother to memorize the list, instead I picked up these verb forms naturally as I used the computer, browsed the Internet, and argued with people in the comment sections of various blogs. On countless occasions, I have seen language textbooks providing theory for trivially simple things that any person would just pick up naturally while using the language. For example, I remember an English textbook in which an entire lesson was devoted to theory about how “much” differs from “many.” This is unnecessary.
That being said, I won’t suggest that language learners should always avoid grammar books. Occasionally they are really useful. The only English grammar topic that I utterly failed to pick up naturally were the conditional sentences (if-clauses). I’m referring to these constructions—“If I study, I will pass the exam. If I studied, I would pass the exam. If I had studied, I would have passed the exam.” In order to learn to use these constructions correctly, I really needed to pick up a grammar book and learn the theory. I also needed a theory book to learn the difference between “its,” and “it’s.” Or when to use “who” versus “whom.”
I can also give a German example. I learned German mostly on my own under strict time pressure. I had applied to study German philology in a university. My classmates already knew at least a bit of the language, I knew nothing. I needed to learn at least some German on my own within a couple of months in order to pass the exams at the end of the semester.
Back when I just started learning German, I routinely used the wrong word order in sentences. My professor told me that I kept on making the same mistake again and again and that I needed to get a grammar book and memorize the correct word order in German sentences. I did that, and it helped. So, yes, occasionally grammar books actually are useful.
I believe that learning grammar is useful in order to understand what something means or why the language works the way it does. But most of the time I treat grammar rules as something that doesn’t need to be memorized. Every now and then, familiarizing myself with some grammar rules for the sake of better understanding how the language works is useful, but actually memorizing the grammar rule, especially if it is a list of tables, is no longer useful for me. Besides, I cannot really easily memorize grammar tables anyway.
Last time I worked as a language teacher, a native Swedish speaker had hired me to teach him Latvian, because he lived in Latvia and wanted to learn at least the basics for simple conversations. Those were private lessons, I wasn’t affiliated with any institution, thus I was free to do whatever I wanted. I didn’t tell my student to memorize any grammar rules at all. I mostly focused on phrases that he could use in actual conversations, like ordering food in a Latvian restaurant. Every now and then I explained a bit of grammar so that he could better understand why some phrases meant something.
For example, here is a list of phrases in Latvian with their English translations:
Kaķis ēd peli—a cat eats a mouse.
Peli ēd kaķis—a cat eats a mouse.
Pele ēd kaķi—a mouse eats a cat.
Kaķi ēd pele—a mouse eats a cat.
“Kaķis” means “a cat,” “pele” means “a mouse,” and “ēd” means “eats.” If you know Latin, you probably already understand what it is that you are looking at. Otherwise, you probably need an explanation. Word order in sentences is flexible in Latvian. Instead meaning is expressed via word endings. The subject is in the nominative case, the object is in the accusative case.
In order to get my master’s degree in German philology, I had to take university courses about how to teach languages and also how to create language courses. As you can see, when I actually worked as a language teacher, I threw out of the window some of said ideas that my professors had taught me. Since my student only wanted to learn how to have very simple conversations and he didn’t have any hopes of mastering advanced grammatical constructions, I tailored my lessons to his needs. And it worked just fine, he didn’t complain that there was too little grammar in my lessons.
How to avoid forgetting languages.
Once you have mastered multiple languages, the probability of forgetting them becomes a serious concern. If you don’t use some language, you will forget it. Except that sometimes it’s much more complicated than that. I haven’t used Russian at all for the last eight years. Nonetheless, I still remember it perfectly, I know it just as well as back when I used Russian on a daily basis.
French is more interesting. I haven’t used French for eight years as well. I have forgotten all the grammar rules and grammar tables that I used to (sort of) know. But I still remember all that French that I actually used in my real life, in real conversations. I can use French just fine, it’s just that I am, for example, no longer able to utilize le plus-que-parfait, a verb tense that corresponds to the past perfect tense in English. This tense is used to talk about an action or situation that took place before another past action. Back when I was using French on a regular basis, I didn’t actually use le plus-que-parfait that much in normal conversations. Thus I have totally forgotten all the grammar theory about how this thing works. But I do still remember all those words and phrases that I actually used in real life.
Latin, on the other hand, is something I studied a few years ago. I never actually used Latin, I only studied it. Thus I forgot everything almost immediately after passing the exam. Fun fact: In my Latin exam I actually managed to translate some of Julius Caesar’s writings from Commentarii de Bello Gallico. Nowadays I couldn’t understand a single word from that text.
People forget more easily boring things that they only temporarily memorized. They are much less likely to forget all those words that they actually used for real in their daily life. Think about some teen slang that you used decades ago, words that you haven’t used for a long time ever since you were a teen. Do you still remember it? I do. Now think about some obscure terminology that you learned in some university course and haven’t used ever since passing the exam? Can you remember it? I cannot.
How you learn some language determines how quickly you will forget it once you stop using said foreign language on a daily basis. Of course, a better way how to avoid forgetting languages is to regularly use them.
As you can see, for me traditional language classes didn’t work very well. They were inefficient. Instead, I needed to experiment with various learning techniques in order to figure out what did or didn’t work for me. I finally succeeded with learning other languages only when I figured out how to cooperate with how my brain memorizes things. I am not claiming that my own learning techniques will work for everybody. People learn differently, our memory doesn’t always work in the same ways. Instead, in case you have been trying to learn a second language and had limited success, I encourage you to experiment with various learning techniques and try to figure out some learning approach that works for you.
Traditional language classes usually are all very similar. There will be some textbook with grammar theory, vocabulary lists, some dialogues. There will also be an exercise book with various written tasks. This is the standard, which is pretty much universal, unquestioned, and unchallenged among language teachers and people who prepare language courses. In university, while studying for my master’s degree, I took courses about how to teach foreign languages and how to prepare a language course. I was taught how to utilize these traditional methods. And nothing else. I wasn’t encouraged to experiment. I wasn’t even allowed to test various approaches in order to custom tailor a course for a specific student. My professors didn’t even mention or acknowledge that there can be various ways how to learn a foreign language, that one size does not fit every language learner.
Most language courses are structured the same way, because they do work for many language learners. I do not deny that learning grammar rules or vocabulary lists could be useful for somebody else. It just didn’t work for me.
Here’s the problem—foreign language teachers are a self-selected sample. They are the people who did well with the traditional methods. They successfully learned a foreign language with some textbook and grammar tasks. Thus they imagine that this is how people learn languages, and that this is how they must teach languages also to their students. People like me who fail miserably with traditional language learning methods usually just give up, assume that we don’t have the right kind of brain for learning foreign languages; thus we don’t learn any foreign languages, and don’t become language teachers either.
There exists a myth that if you cannot successfully learn a language in a classroom setting, then you have no talent for language learning, the wrong kind of brain for becoming a polyglot. This is false. If language classes do not work for you, then it might be worth trying different approaches and testing whether some alternative learning strategy might be more suited for your needs.
I don’t think that there are people who are absolutely incapable of learning several languages. I personally know a guy who has autism, dyslexia, and who really struggles with languages, nonetheless he is fluent in three languages. On this planet, there exist countries where pretty much every single person is a polyglot. I grew up in such a country. On average, people know between two and three languages where I live.
In Latvia, most children speak only one language by the time they start school at the age of seven. Of course, there exist mixed families in which a child is taught two languages since birth. This usually happens for children with one Russian and one Latvian parent. But, in general, most people learn foreign languages during their teen years and early adulthood. This is what happened also with me. Of course, language lessons at schools exist, but mostly people learn other languages by actually using them in their daily lives.
In the Soviet Union, a native Latvian speaker needed to use Russian in order to buy their groceries, communicate with work colleagues, watch television, and read the newspapers. Nowadays, we instead need to use English to browse the Internet, use social media, watch funny cat videos, study in a university, communicate with foreign trade partners at work, and accommodate the needs of all the tourists. When people actually use some foreign language in their daily lives, they usually succeed in learning it.
Languages are something I am very passionate about. It would be great if I could inspire more people to at least give it a try and see if they can learn another language. It is immensely fun. Even if you have little time and no hopes of becoming fluent in some language, it is still worth learning at least the basics of another language.