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Marcin Wosinek for How to dev

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How to Start Speaking a New Language

A language learning story that is far too common: you learn a language for some time, months or years, but you struggle to say the simplest thing in it. But when you consider how the average language lesson looks, this result is not a surprise.

Most of the language classes I had at school were heavily focused on:

  • reading articles about random topics—rarely about something I was remotely interested in
  • learning the theoretical part of the grammar
  • doing exercises where you ‘practice’ in the most artificial way possible

If there were any talking involved, it was mostly with other students—who were as incompetent as me with the target language.

Most private classes were just more of the same thing—still a waste of time, but at least going there increases your exposure to the language.

My language learning journey

I started learning language in a typical way—learning English at a public school, with a bit of help at home, and later on with additional classes in a language school. My results in school were good, but I was hardly able to speak it.

It all changed when I switched from a normal language school to a school using a direct method—an approach focused on having the students talk during the class. It ‘unblocked’ my ability to speak, and for the first time I experienced learning how to use vocabulary and grammar constructs in conversation.

Around the same time, I discovered software for spaced repeating—an efficient way of drilling vocabulary. I was so impressed with the efficiency of learning languages ‘my own way’ that it developed into a hobby or a phase that lasted a few years. During that time, I moved my focus from English and first learned French from scratch, and then I started again with learning German—this time willing to learn it. At my peak, I spoke both German and French pretty well, and use of those languages was a big part of my social life—even though I was living in Cracow, Poland.

The last language I applied myself to seriously was Spanish after I moved to Spain. Even though my fascination with learning languages was pretty much over, being surrounded by a language and a population that encourages you to learn it helped me a lot with motivation.

How would I learn another language now?

So, I learned how to learn languages while studying English, and then I refined my approach while learning French, German, and Spanish. What would I do now if I were getting back into learning languages?

Few online classes per week

We have so many online teaching platforms right now—for example italki—and with them, you can access natives speakers of your target language, no matter where you live. I would go with a few classes per week. In case of time or money constraints, I would keep them at 30 or 45 minutes, but still spread over the week to have contact with the language every few days.

Because I know that I don’t need many theoretical explanations, I would go with more affordable, non-professional teachers. It’s not only cheaper—it helps to avoid the situation when the teacher brings habits from the schools that I wanted to avoid. For example, spending a lot of time discussing subtleties of the grammar. I would love to learn grammar well—but on an intuitive level, not an analytical one.

Focus on conversations

My classes would be focused on talking only. The very first phrases to learn are:

  • “how do I say … ?”
  • “what does … mean?”

With those in place, I can start having the lessons in my target language from day one.

What would I talk about? Hopefully, I have enough in common with my teacher so that the conversation flows naturally. If not, then there are always topics that are relevant:

  • who I am
  • what I do
  • what plans I have for the next weekend
  • what I did recently
  • the news overtook conversations recently—not any news, but the news that you cannot avoid talking about

Those are precisely the things you will talk about when you meet someone with whom you need to use your new language. People who you interact with during vacation, your in-laws, people you meet while socializing abroad, etc.

Take notes

For all the cases when my teacher gives me some words or phrases, I would write them down so I could repeat them outside of class. While I was learning Spanish intensively, I had a chain of notes stuck to the wall, which I was trying to reread a few times per day. The notes were even useful during the lesson itself—if I kept forgetting the new word, I could just find it among my notes.

Repeat with another teacher

Ideally, in one week, each class I had would be with a different teacher. In this way, I could learn some words related to my current topics with one person and the next day use those words telling the same story to my other teacher. Plus, it’s less likely you will run out of topics with somebody you see once per week instead of a few times per week.

Use software for vocabulary

Spaced repetition is a great way of optimizing efficiency of learning. The idea is to repeat the word as it starts waning from your memory—so on one hand, you retain it, but at the same time you don’t spend too much time on it. You could find paper card implementations of a system like this, but the most efficient method is to have an application that does it for you. Example programs:

  • SuperMemo—a paid program I used a lot while learning English French and German, or
  • Anki—a free and open-source program, especially convenient if you want to create your own lists of vocabulary

In both cases, the application asks you about words you should already know, allowing you to check yourself and auto-evaluate. Based on the evaluation, it will schedule the repetition of this term sooner if you failed, or later if you succeed.

The things I liked the most about learning with SuperMemo:

  • audio files for all words and example sentences—so I could repeat them, instead of deciphering the phonetic alphabet
  • size of their databases—across all the levels, the applications had tens of thousands of words
  • spaced repetition

Unfortunately, there are fewer materials available for less common languages—so for English or French you will have countless resources, but for Polish or Basque not so much.

What are your language learning tricks?

How did learning languages go for you? Do you have any tips you would like to share with other readers? I would love to see them in the comments!

Top comments (4)

armousness profile image
Sean Williams

The website has a bit of a Time Cube feel to it, but I'm curious what you think of it:

marcinwosinek profile image
Marcin Wosinek

Time Cube feel indeed:)

I think this method could work. It would benefit from being presented in an easier-to-digest way.

armousness profile image
Sean Williams

Regarding presentation, I mean, don't you like reminiscing about the good old days?

Thread Thread
marcinwosinek profile image
Marcin Wosinek

I don't mind the brutalist website vibe - my first attempt at blogging was similar: I meant the method could be described in a more concise & more straightforward way.