Note: This is a part of a new series on Smart Polyglot called “You Asked”. You ask your questions and I try answering them as efficiently as possible in a blog post! Enjoy and feel free to ask me your questions on Twitter or Instagram!
First of all, thank you for trusting my opinion and taking the time to ask this question!
My thoughts might be a little disappointing. I don’t think there’s one single best way to learn a language. Like all beautiful, valuable things in life, language learning can come in many shapes and forms.
From my experience, language learning doesn’t come with a strict method that applies to everyone. Rather, there’s a set of key principles that can guide you through any method you choose. I believe these principles make up efficient language learning for all:
1. Show up regularly!
I’ve seen people suggest different methods, but all of them agree with one thing. You just have to keep doing it. It’s all about consistency. This will always be number one.
It’s very hard to go wrong with this one. Whatever you do to learn a language will bring more results if you do it every day. That’s why many people complain that a language course didn’t help them years ago, when they only attended 2-3 hours a week. You won’t get fluency forever if you stop learning once the course is finished.
2. Trust that any exposure is better than no exposure.
Some time ago, I decided to let go of any strict schedules. I started to welcome any chance to get exposure to the language, regardless of format or length. Spontaneously. No daily goals in terms of hours, no weekly commitments (unless I was actually participating in an in-person course, which I have – and loved it), no points or rewards from apps, no numbers or percentages. Only one rule: do something every day.
I told myself: “From now on, if you feel like reading, read. Feel like listening to music or watching a movie? Do so. Feel like creating twenty flashcards but not reviewing them that day? So be it. Any chance I have to go out for coffee and practice my target languages? Love it. Anything will always be better than zero exposure.”
I started giving value to the little things. Many one day I only learnt one new word, but I learnt it in such a special context that I never forgot it again. Quantity is not always quality. Sometimes 5 or 10 minutes can prove more valuable than 5 hours! Just make sure you’re keeping yourself exposed to the language on a regular basis and keep showing up for more.
3. Aim for exposure in many different formats.
A gigantic weight that came off my shoulders when I stopped obsessing about the one. You know, that one app or resource we all look for, thinking it will save our language learning. I’ve discovered that many apps and courses may come close to it…but they are never it. Why? Because our brain learns better through variety and repetition in different forms!
Rather than sticking with one resource only, I started mixing things up and noticed great improvements in my productivity. Completing one chapter or even one exercise a day from a book and mixing that up with having coffee with a language exchange partner the same day worked better for me than 3 hours studying alone.
Finding the same word in different contexts (in the classroom first, then in a movie, then in a song, then in a flashcard review) helps me remember it more efficiently, and many other language learners will confirm this! Think about different media you use on a regular basis, what your favorite type of tools are and give up looking for “the one”: I promise you’ll see results if you do it regularly!
4. Be active with your learning.
I saw the most gigantic difference in progress since I started becoming more active in my learning.
For example, I started listening to dialogues with the specific goal of understanding details (in opposition to listening to music while relaxing, for example). Same with reading: instead of just reading a text and moving on, I started answering multiple-choice questions about it to test my comprehension. I did this by buying readers adapted to my level, and it worked wonders. In a month, I saw more progress than I had in the previous three!
Using what you’ve learned immediately is also a fantastic memory aid. As soon as I found myself with enough money to afford an intensive language course or a couple of iTalki lessons, I did. I found myself using words I had learned 5 minutes ago, and guess what! I actually remembered those much better than those I had studied at home in isolation.
5. Realize that different languages, different levels of the same language, different stages of life, different goals and different moods require a change in method.
Some people will try to sell you one way of doing things. But the more I grow and the more languages I learn, the more I realize one single approach might not work for different people.
Most language learners have already accepted that. But one revelation came to me even later: one approach might not work for different languages, different levels of the same language, or even one same person who is going through a different mood or stage of life.
The way I improve my advanced Spanish differs in almost everything from the way I learn beginner’s Italian. If I can speak a language very well but my grammar sucks, the strategy for improving that will differ greatly from a language I can’t speak at all because I lack the confidence to.
The reason behind learning a particular language also counts: studying German because I have a job interview next month or learning German to communicate with a family member will require a definite change of program. Don’t limit yourself to one approach because somebody else said so!
6. Make your learning as personal as possible.
While I love the structure a language course or an app course brings, I always try to make things as personal as possible.
I learnt that the hard way. Until recently, I would write down hundreds of words and create incredible amounts of flashcards that I never had the time to review. To make matters worse, I would write down words I barely even used in my own mother tongue, like “executioner”, “perpetrator” or “reconcile”. I would also feel overwhelmed, because I wanted to learn vocabulary about all fields to be as fluent as possible and know impressive words, rather than focusing on my areas of interest or filtering words as they came.
Have a filter on in order to avoid being lost and overwhelmed, at least when you’re getting started. Ask yourself: “do I even use this word regularly in other languages? Is this a word I see myself needing anytime soon? Is this a topic I talk about often or am likely to need in a near future?”.
The same goes for writing texts or completing app exercises. If an exercise asks you to write a letter to your partner for Valentine’s Day but you have no partner and zero intention of having one anytime soon, why not write about something more useful instead? You can write about your opinion on Valentine’s Day and relationships, how Valentine’s Day is celebrated in your country, why you think people like Valentine’s Day, and so on. You can even forget the occasion entirely and write about the topic of love, relationships or friendship. Your call!
Just remember: your goals with the language, the reason you want to learn it and your personal interests should always matter when you approach a new topic.
These are principles I believe anyone, using any method could see results from, regardless of what language you’re learning and which tools you use (but remember, diversifying is a clever idea!).
Thank you for your question, and I wish you much success!