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How to learn a language (and stick at it)

Forget about fluency and how languages are taught at school: as an adult learner you can take a whole new approach

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John Gallagher

is a lecturer in early modern history at the University of Leeds. He is the author of Learning Languages in Early Modern England (2019). He lives in Leeds.

Edited by Sam Haselby





Need to know

One of the first things I learnt to say in Dutch was ‘we beat them to death with sticks’. Not exactly standard fare for the first week of language classes, but then again this wasn’t an ordinary language class. As a historian working with 16th- and 17th-century documents, I was taking a specialised class to learn to read the Dutch of the period – so, instead of learning how to talk about hobbies or ask directions to the train station, we jumped straight into texts from the so-called Golden Age of the Netherlands.

As someone who had learnt a few languages before, this was a whole new experience for me. I was used to the kind of language learning that might be familiar from school: an orderly progression through the basics of grammar, the steady building-up of vocabulary, some basic dialogues on tape or practised with a classmate. But, with Dutch, I had to change my methods and find new learning aids that worked for this project. I use spreadsheets I fill with 17th-century terms of abuse, and historical dictionaries that help me zero in on what words used to mean. What I’ve learnt from the process is that while language learning is often presented as a task with a one-size-fits-all solution, what’s central to success in learning a new language is working out the goals and strategies that are specific to you.

What I want to do in this guide is to help you think about the how of language learning. Every language is different, and every language presents its own challenges, but these are some tools and techniques that can make every learner’s job easier. And while independent learning comes with its own challenges, these tools might also make the process more efficient and enjoyable, as well as easier to maintain over time.

What to do

The first thing to do when learning a language is to forget about fluency (whatever that means). It’s easy to get disheartened if your goal is something that’ll take years to achieve. Setting achievable, measurable goals is crucial to successful language learning. You wouldn’t go out on your first jog with the aim of running a marathon: so, when starting a new language, think about tangible, short-term goals that will give you a sense of achievement. Right at the beginning of your journey, this might be learning to read a new alphabet or a certain number of characters, or learning some basic phrases to introduce yourself. As you make progress and start to hit your goals, you can formulate new ones – maybe you’d like to be able to have a short, simple conversation with a native speaker, or read a news article. Your goals don’t need to be the goals of your textbook; it’s fine to skip learning colours or professions for now if what you need is a suite of basic verbs that you know you’re going to use every day, or a grasp of key linking words (so, then, but) that show up in every single conversation. As you work out your goals, you’ll also get better at analysing your own language needs at every stage and identifying exactly what you need to learn next.

Deciding on goals also means deciding on how to get there. People spend a lot of time thinking about which language to learn, but it’s easy to neglect the how of language learning. If you studied another language at school, you might not have had to think about process and technique very much – your teacher will have made most of the decisions about what you learnt and when. But as an independent learner, you need to think about how you’re going to get to where you want to be. So, think about what you actually want out of learning a new language. Do you want to chat with locals when you’re on holiday, or are you hoping to read untranslated novels? Clarity on your goals will help you to think strategically about the methods that are going to help you most. This isn’t a new insight – the field of ‘language for specific purposes’ has been around for years, helping learners who need a new language for work or their studies to focus on the material that’s most relevant to them. But its principles are applicable for ordinary language learners, too. Be specific in your goals and ask what you want to be able to do with your new language – at least to start with.

And methods really are crucial. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to language learning – what works for me might not work for you. But it’s worth remembering that if you hate sitting with a textbook working on written exercises, you don’t need to let that stand in your way. If you’re more comfortable with listening and speaking, an all-audio method like those pioneered by the Michel Thomas and Pimsleur courses (and offered for free in some languages by Mihalis Eleftheriou of Language Transfer) could be a lifesaver – and, while some are pricey, I’ve found that they’re often in stock at local libraries. I first encountered the dulcet tones and much-debated backstory of Michel Thomas when I started learning Italian. I walked 40 minutes to and from work each day one summer and couldn’t believe that there was a course that only required me to listen, think and speak, and that seemed to leave me with an understanding of Italian verbs and grammar that felt more natural and intuitive than I had any right to expect.

I’m talking here about more or less independent learning, but we shouldn’t dismiss the power of a language course taught by an expert teacher. The COVID-19 pandemic means that travelling to a language school or sitting in a classroom isn’t possible for many learners right now, but many language schools and educational organisations are offering online equivalents, which can even prove more affordable and easier to fit into a busy schedule. Over the summer, I studied basic Arabic online in one-on-one lessons with a teacher from Natakallam, a fantastic organisation which offers Arabic, French, Persian, Armenian, Kurdish and Spanish language-learning programmes delivered by refugees (for a similar organisation based in the United Kingdom, check out Chatterbox).

When it comes to finding a language tutor these days, the truly game-changing resource is Italki, a website that allows you to book online lessons with professional teachers and experienced conversation partners. Italki has a couple of strengths: you can try out different teachers to find someone who works well with you, and they’ll offer a pretty substantial discount on your first few taster sessions. This also means that you can ‘speed-date’ with teachers, with the option to settle down to a series of lessons with just one, or to work with a variety of tutors who help you hone different skills. Something I find invaluable about Italki is that it empowers the learner to set the agenda for lessons, meaning that you can focus on the goals you’ve set yourself and learn what you need to. Whether you want to practice your conversational German or nail down some tricky Japanese grammar, you can arrange what you want to focus on and benefit from one-on-one attention from your teacher, at a time that’s convenient to you. The benefit of Italki’s all-online nature is that it tends to be more competitively priced than a face-to-face lesson ­– but if you’re not in a position to pay for language tuition, you can also use the Italki website (or apps such as Tandem and HelloTalk) to find partners who will talk to you in your target language in exchange for some conversation in English or another language you speak. And Italki is diverse, too – their community of tutors can work with you on a variety of different global languages such as Spanish, Arabic and French.

And then there are the apps. Perhaps the biggest revolution in language learning in recent years has been the emergence of often-free and sometimes surprisingly sophisticated software aimed at language learners and accessible through a phone, tablet or laptop. You might already be familiar with Duolingo – of which more below – but that’s not the only one. It’s worth checking out other big hitters such as Memrise and Babbel, or vocabulary-building apps such as Drops, while hardcore polyglots often swear by Anki, an app that uses the ‘spaced repetition’ method to help you learn and retain information about many topics, including languages. You can access ‘decks’ of flashcards created by other users or create your own – for some tips on getting started, see here. Some languages have dedicated apps, such as the popular Chineasy for Mandarin Chinese, or Keefak for Lebanese Arabic. For a small but growing number of languages, including Arabic (both Modern Standard and dialects) as well as Spanish and Russian, I’ve been seriously impressed by the resources created by Lingualism, who work with native speakers to create materials that actually reflect language as it’s spoken by ordinary people, and teach relevant content for situations you might actually encounter.

We’re living in a golden age for free and easy-to-access language-learning content. Lexilogos is an essential website with links to courses, dictionaries and resources in more than 100 languages: there, you’ll find links to everything from the free MP3 course in modern Icelandic, designed by a colleague of mine at the University of Leeds, to materials on learning Gujarati from the University of Pennsylvania or this beginners’ Yoruba course made by the University of Georgia. My own Norwegian learning started with the professionally designed and totally free Norwegian on the Web course run by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. If this all seems a bit much and you could use more help structuring your learning and building good language-learning habits, the Open University offers a free course full of expert advice on how to learn a language, which is a perfect starting point for any new language learner.

Beyond more formal online language-learning materials, YouTube and podcasts can be a goldmine for goal-oriented learners. If you’re thinking strategically about your progress in language learning, and you can identify what you need to learn right now in order to improve, YouTube’s content creators will often have videos that fit your needs. If I’m struggling with a grammar rule in a language that I’m learning, these days I’m as likely to reach for the YouTube search bar as a reference grammar. Not all the videos you’ll find online are great, but many teachers and language schools have taken to creating video content that addresses learners’ questions and common problem areas. As I took my first steps in learning Arabic, I got help learning the script from short YouTube videos by ArabicPod101, and learnt basic vocabulary and conversational expressions from Maha, an Arabic teacher whose lessons in Modern Standard Arabic and Palestinian dialect have a devoted following.

Podcasts are fantastic learning resources for listeners at all levels – series such as News in Slow German (also available in other languages) can help build listening comprehension without the pressure of listening to the language at full speed, while more advanced learners can use podcasts and radio programmes in the target language to practise their listening skills. And if you can look past the petty rivalries and microspats that come with the content-creator territory, it can be worth dipping a toe into the world of language-learning podcasts and YouTube videos for advice and strategies from experienced polyglots (even if their claims sometimes need to be taken with a pinch of salt).

As you hit your goals and grow your knowledge of the language, it’s time to seek out content that will help you improve. Language-learning experts often talk about the importance of ‘comprehensible input’ to learners (see an interview with the originator of this theory here). Put simply, this is about consistently exposing yourself to language that’s just above your current level – close enough to what you already know that your brain can work to fill in the gaps and raise your language level. Services such as LingQ aim to offer graded reading so that you can find the kind of input you need for your level, but once you’ve mastered the basics of a language you’ll often be able to work with what you can find online, whether with simple news articles (in some languages, you’ll find sites such as the one run by Al Jazeera offering content aimed at learners) or, as you develop, books in the language you’re learning. I normally find it easier to learn from material where I have some pre-existing knowledge of the content – so I’ll pick up a popular history book or watch a documentary about a topic I’m interested in. The Penguin Parallel Text series means that you can read short stories in a variety of languages with a translation on the facing page, and the language YouTuber Olly Richards has created a series of simple short stories for beginners in languages including Turkish, Korean and Brazilian Portuguese.

While just hitting play on a foreign film isn’t likely to supercharge your language skills, there are ways to make the most of foreign-language TV shows and movies. Netflix is full of content in other languages but, irritatingly, seems determined to make it almost impossible to find. Some tips on finding and making the most of programming in other languages can be found here. I often recommend reality TV in the target language – the heightened emotions and formulaic structures make it easier to grasp what’s going on. I can confirm that not being able to speak Swedish only marginally dented my enjoyment of the Swedish version of the show Come Dine With Me. Keeping the subtitles in the target language will help you break the barrage of sounds down into recognisable words and phrases, too. The crucial thing is to find content that’s compelling to you – something you want to read or listen to, and that’s at a level where you’re being stretched but still just about able to figure out its meaning. There are cultural benefits to this, too: without language learning I’d never have become obsessed with the Dutch TV show Hier Zijn de Van Rossems (‘Here Are the Van Rossems’), where three elderly siblings visit different cities and bitch about the architecture, or a programme called 71 Grader Nord: Norges Tøffeste Kjendis (‘71 Degrees North: Norway’s Toughest Celebrity’), which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

As you progress in your language learning, motivation becomes a crucial issue. Intermediate learners often speak of a plateau – the frustrating stage after the quick wins of the early stages of language learning, when gains can become more marginal, less immediately rewarding and harder to perceive. It’s a long road to fluency, and reviewing your progress and your methods periodically will help with focus and motivation. This is where targeted and achievable goals pay off: you’re more likely to have a sense of progress in the language if you’re hitting and renewing your goals relatively often. While independent learners can find the experience of plateauing particularly tough, it’s worth bearing in mind that, by this stage, you’ll have honed the skill of analysing your own abilities and identifying gaps in your knowledge, meaning that you can work out precisely what you need to do next – a real skill in itself. And if that’s still proving difficult, you can always hop on a Zoom call with a teacher and ask them to assess your performance with an eye to what you need to work on. When we follow a pre-existing curriculum, it can be hard to ditch the standard order of things and do this kind of targeted work, but with the resources I’ve described here, and the help of a teacher or tutor, an independent learner can make efficient progress on exactly the areas that need improvement.

As you improve, you’ll also want to think of ways to embed your new language into your life. Everyone has their own preferred techniques: I talk to myself. A lot. Whenever I’m learning a language – or trying to slot back into using one I know – I’ll talk myself through whatever I’m doing in that language, like I’m doing the voiceover for the movie of my life. It keeps the machinery greased but also lets me know what I’m not able to express, where my vocabulary is lacking or what I need to focus on learning next. And it works, even if it can get you some funny looks – if the man who stared at me muttering to myself in the mirror of an Italian airport bathroom is reading this, mi dispiace. Another technique which combines practice and motivation is keeping a diary or notebook in your new language – noting down the events of the day means that you’ll practise different verb tenses, for instance, as well as having a record of your progress over time. If you’re on the more extraverted side, you might enjoy recording videos of yourself speaking the target language (such as this one, by a learner of Levantine Arabic), which can be great for accountability or as a means of getting helpful comments and tips from other speakers.

There’s no natural endpoint to language learning: if you’re doing it right, you’ll be doing it for the rest of your life. And it won’t always be a question of grammar drills and vocabulary lists – you’ll be able to replace the hard grind of study with literature and ideas in your new language, as well as the joys of travel, conversation and multilingual friendships. With the right goals and motivation, the slog of learning a language can soon give way to living it.

Key points – How to learn a language (and stick at it)

  1. Language learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Approach the task as an independent learner, identifying your language-learning goals and methods that are specific to you.
  2. Be specific in your goals and ask what you want to be able to do with your new language. How and what to learn and practise won’t be the same for, say, being a more proficient traveller in the country compared with doing genealogical research or reading historical documents.
  3. Give up on fluency. Instead, set tangible, short-term goals, and enjoy the pleasure and sense of achievement you get from learning a new alphabet, having a short conversation with a native speaker, or reading a news article.
  4. Think about the how of language learning. If you’re most comfortable with listening and speaking, an all-audio method might work for you. Others learn well from textbooks or from children’s TV shows.
  5. Use online language-learning platforms to find people to learn from and practise with. Italki allows you to book online lessons with professional teachers, while Tandem and HelloTalk work as language-exchange programmes with conversation partners.
  6. We’re living in a golden age of language-learning apps. Beyond Duolingo, check out Memrise and Babbel, or vocabulary-building apps such as Drops. There are also excellent language-specific apps that may work for you.
  7. As you hit your early goals, it’s time to seek out content that will help you improve. Try to consistently expose yourself to language that’s just above your current level.
  8. Think of ways to embed your new language into your life. Whether this is talking to yourself or keeping a diary or notebook in your new language, it’ll keep you motivated and help you identify gaps in your knowledge.

Learn more

If you’ve tried to learn a language in recent years, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Duolingo – a gamified app in which a judgmental green owl guilt-trips you into language study. The internet’s polyglots love nothing more than a bust-up over Duolingo’s effectiveness, and there are certainly legitimate criticisms of the app. But I think its effectiveness is often underestimated and that, instead of lamenting the fact that Duolingo (like all language-learning methods) is imperfect, it’s worth learning how to use it strategically.

First, the downsides. Duolingo’s courses aren’t created equal; it provides a huge amount of material for learners of Spanish or French, while some languages are known to have particularly strong courses – Norwegian and Hebrew are two examples. Other languages are less well-served: the Arabic course is growing, but for a major global language the materials are disproportionately poor, at least for now. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2018, Duolingo added courses in two endangered Indigenous languages, Navajo and Hawaiian, though these have faced criticism for the limited range of material they offer. New courses are in beta, including Hungarian. One popular Duolingo course will teach you Klingon.

Duolingo’s reputation isn’t helped by seeming to hide some of its more useful features from the casual user. People often complain about the lack of explicit grammar teaching on the app – it can seem as if you’re expected to work out complicated grammar rules yourself. The forums can be a useful source of explanations and helpful suggestions from fellow learners, native speakers and, of course, designers – if there’s a task or a question that you don’t understand, check out the comments on it for some deeper insights. And, while the blog section might not be the most popular part of the Duolingo website, posts such as this one use data from the app to offer suggestions for optimising your learning.

The key to using Duolingo effectively is an awareness of what it can and can’t do. It’s not an all-in-one language solution: it helps build vocabulary and drill grammar skills, but it’s only minimally useful in teaching you to actually speak in your target language. You’ll learn to construct sentences, but you won’t encounter much authentic spoken language or read longer texts. But, as I’ve argued above, there are great resources for these things, too, and used alongside Duolingo you’ll find them mutually reinforcing. In my experience, using Duolingo regularly can help to lay the foundations on which you can build a strong knowledge of your target language, while it’s also a great resource when you’re learning a language but find yourself without much spare time for a while – a Duolingo session a day can help you keep your hand in and maintain your language level while your attention is (mostly) elsewhere.

Links & books

The Open University offers a free course on how to learn a language, which will lead you through the concepts and skills underpinning successful language learning.

Stephen Krashen’s ‘input hypothesis’ is a concept dear to the hearts of many contemporary polyglots. Krashen laid out the case for this model of how language acquisition works in articles and books such as Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1982), available – like much of Krashen’s other work – free on his website.

Lexilogos is an essential website with links to courses, dictionaries and resources in more than 100 languages.

Italki can help you find professional teachers and experienced conversation partners in a wide variety of languages. It’s generally significantly more affordable than traditional face-to-face lessons, and you can also use it to seek out conversation-exchange partners.

Language Transfer is a labour of love run by Mihalis Eleftheriou. It offers all-audio courses to varying levels in Greek, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, French, Swahili, Arabic and English for Spanish speakers – and they’re entirely free, though users can donate to the project in a variety of ways.

There are good and bad polyglot podcasts out there, but two worth listening to are Olly Richards’s I Will Teach You a Language, and Lindsay Williams and Kerstin Cable’s The Fluent Show. The hosts of both podcasts are interested in methods and feature language learners’ reflections on what’s worked for them in learning a variety of languages for different reasons.

Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot, rose to prominence with the Fluent in 3 Months blog. His claims and methods have often been debated, but his advocacy of ‘[speaking] from day one’ (as laid out in this TEDx talk) continues to inspire many language learners.