12 Best Language Learning Methods and Strategies That Actually Work
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’d love to learn a foreign language but it’s just too hard”?
I have good news for you.
There are effective, surefire ways to learn a new language that make it easier to stay motivated and make consistent progress.
So sit tight and keep on reading, because here are my twelve best language learning methods and strategies —and they actually work!
- 1. Apply the 80/20 Rule to Prioritize Your Time
- 2. Schedule Time for Language Study
- 3. Harness “Hidden Moments” Throughout Your Day
- 4. Make Language Learning a Robust Habit
- 5. Find a Program and Stick with It
- 6. Set Goals for Yourself
- 7. Label Your Stuff in the Language
- 8. Use Flashcards Consistently
- 9. Read the News in the Language
- 10. Find a Conversation Partner
- 11. Think Like a Kid
- 12. Use Children’s Stories
1. Apply the 80/20 Rule to Prioritize Your Time
In today’s busy world, it can feel like there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. In reality, however, the problem is not a lack of time, but a lack of prioritization.
This is where the “80/20 Rule” comes in. This simple but extremely powerful tool can help you identify the most important, high-yield activities in your life, eliminate unimportant, low-yield activities and free up extra time for language learning.
In a nut shell, the 80/20 rule states that a comparatively large number of outcomes tend to be the result of a very small number of causes. The ratio is often 80 to 20, but can sometimes be as extreme as 90/10 or even 99/1.
Spending just 10 minutes now to run an 80/20 analysis with these steps can free up massive swaths of previously unavailable time:
- Jot down as many recurring daily, weekly and monthly tasks as you can think of (work, chores, play, exercise, study, etc.)
- Review the list and star the tasks that produce the greatest, most perceivable pay-offs. These are the high-yield activities that you should prioritize.
- Now identify which tasks create the least benefit or greatest misery. Cross these off the list and do everything you can to cut them out of your life.
By applying the 80/20 rule to your language learning endeavors, you’ll increase results and have more time to practice.
2. Schedule Time for Language Study
Another effective language learning strategy is to make it a higher priority in your life. No matter how busy you are, you can carve out time for a few high-yield, life enriching tasks if you put them first.
If learning a foreign language really is important to you, it’s up to you to make time for it in your day. Here’s how you can make sure it doesn’t get sacrificed for the endless flood of little things that fill our days.
- Study first thing in the morning. Starting your day with a study session ensures that you put in at least a little study time every day, no matter how crazy your day becomes. It also reminds your brain and that language learning is a top priority in your life and reinforces material you studied the night before, driving the language further into your long-term memory.
- Study again right before bed. By ending your day with another study session, you create a “habit sandwich” which increases your motivation and helps to strengthen the language learning habit. Studying before bed can also help your brain to interpret, consolidate and store the information while you sleep.
- Add language study to your calendar and to-do list. A simple way to put language learning first is to schedule blocks of study time on your calendar each week. Treat these like urgent appointments you can’t miss or reschedule. Or you can use a task management system to remind you each day to put in some study time. My two favorites are Asana and OmniFocus.
Putting language learning first by scheduling time—or even doing it first every day—will result in more time spent on your foreign language goals, and in return, more progress.
3. Harness “Hidden Moments” Throughout Your Day
There are many ways that you can take advantage of small amounts of free time throughout your day, which can add up to a substantial daily practice.
- Listen to audio as you do other brainless activities. Listening is one of the most important components of learning to communicate in a foreign language, and one of the easiest to fit into a busy schedule. You can listen to audio lessons and podcasts as you go about your daily activities like cooking, doing household chores and exercising.
- Review vocabulary whenever you find yourself waiting. Even 10 seconds is enough time to review a few vocabulary words. Using an app will make it even easier to do this on the go. Whenever you find yourself waiting in line, on hold or even for the elevator, turn it into a learning session.
- Schedule a 15-minute tutor session during every lunch break. Just 15 minutes of speaking practice with a native speaker or tutor is enough to help solidify the material you’ve learned in your input activities, identify holes in your vocabulary and grammar, and build motivation to continue learning the next day. Moreover, knowing that you’ll be speaking with a tutor each day gives you that much more incentive to put in the study time beforehand.
4. Make Language Learning a Robust Habit
You don’t have to rely on the whims of willpower if you transform language study from a conscious daily decision to a hardwired habit.
The “habit loop” is the reason you check your e-mail 100 times a day even when trying to do more important tasks, and the reason you reach for a box of doughnuts even after you’ve promised to quit sugar. As Charles Duhigg lays out in “The Power of Habit,” these powerful loops are comprised of four steps: cue, routine, reward and craving.
But not all habit loops are bad for us. With a little psychological engineering, you can hijack the habit loop and apply it to language learning. Here’s how you can create positive habit loops to increase your language learning:
- The first step is to create an obvious cue for language study. Place a stack of flashcards on your nightstand. Put your favorite language learning apps on the home screen of your smartphone. Set a recurring alarm or calendar event to review at set times each day, or plan to study for 15 minutes after completing another task you do daily.
- The routine part is fairly straight forward; just do whatever language learning activities you enjoy most or get the most benefit from. Listen to a podcast or read a news article, blog post or a few pages from a book. Talk to a tutor or try language exchange for speaking practice.
- Next comes the reward. This is the most important part of the habit loop; the piece that keeps you coming back for more without even thinking about it. Make sure to identify innate and external rewards that will provide true gratification for you. You can use treats or other guilty pleasures, like watching your favorite reality show, to reward yourself for completing your language study for the day. Study streaks are another great motivating force. Each day in row you study, your streak gets longer and longer, and you’ll be that much more motivated to not break the chain. (Apps like Duolingo track this to keep you practicing consistently.)
If you’ve chosen inherently enjoyable language learning routines and effective rewards, you should naturally find yourself craving your next study session. You may even end up adding more than one session a day or extending the length of each.
If not, try mixing up your routine and testing out more immediate or tangible rewards (e.g. placing a piece of chocolate on your desk that you can’t eat until you finish).
You can also use a habit tracking app to monitor your progress and build momentum. While your smartphone won’t miraculously change your behavior for you, habit tracking apps like Chains.cc or Habit List can at least help monitor your progress and create a positive feedback loop to help keep you going.
5. Find a Program and Stick with It
For those who need order and organization, a full-service language program that guides you step-by-step may be the best language learning method. There are many different types of language learning programs, such as:
- Language textbook with written exercises and audio listening components
- Online course or program
- A language learning app
- YouTube channel playlist
- In-person or online class
Once you find a program you like, stick with it or you won’t get the most out of it.
Especially in your most frustrated moments, you need a consistent method to allow the natural learning process to take over. Switching back and forth between different programs may deter your progress since they don’t go at the same pace or follow the same patterns.
A few online programs I recommend are:
- Mango Languages (read our review here)
- Pimsleur (read our review here)
- FluentU (read our review here)
- italki (read our review here)
- Busuu (read our review here)
For more language learning courses, check out our post here.
6. Set Goals for Yourself
You wanted to learn a new language for a reason. Maybe you’re traveling abroad for business, pleasure or you’re starting a new relationship with someone from another country.
Whatever the reason, you can use it to keep yourself motivated. Regularly remind yourself why you decided to learn the language in the first place. Keeping the end goal in sight will help you stay on course.
To get there, follow these tips:
- Set well-planned goals and deadlines for reaching them. For example, if you’re going to the zoo on your vacation, you might want to learn 10 words about animals by the end of the week. Setting specific goals with concrete deadlines will help keep you on track. Simply write them down, or use an online goal-setting application.
- Choose a partner in crime. Pick at least one friend to study with, or better yet, compete with. Not only is it more fun to learn with other people, but a little friendly competition can significantly boost your motivation and learning.
- Make your goals and daily progress public. Beyond just your study buddy, share your learning goals and daily progress with the world at large. You can start a language learning blog or share daily updates on social media. Knowing that people will see whether or not you have studied each day can help provide the added push you need on days when you really don’t feel like studying.
- Set financial stakes. If friendly competition and public accountability aren’t strong enough motivators for you, try leveraging a more tangible stake: your money. Services like StickK and Beeminder allow you to tie specific financial stakes to each of your goals. If you fail to hit your daily or weekly targets, a predefined amount is charged to your credit card or sent to a charity in your name.
Don’t forget to track and celebrate your progress towards your goals!
7. Label Your Stuff in the Language
When you can’t travel abroad to a country that speaks your target language, the next best thing is to pretend you’re there.
In Spain, it’s not a pencil, it’s un bolígrafo. In France, it’s not bread, it’s pain.
Put Post-it notes or sticky labels on items around you to help you learn their names in your target language. You can even buy yourself a pre-made Vocabulary Stickers set, which gives you fun, color-coded labels for the most common items in your home and office.
When you can’t label things—like in public—try to think of the word in the language.
If you don’t know it, jot down a note and look it up later! Be curious about the world around you and how it would be talked about if you were in another country.
8. Use Flashcards Consistently
Flashcards are a proven way to memorize learning material.
When you’re learning a language, you want to learn it for life. Flashcards can get vocabulary to stick, but only if you keep using them consistently. The best way to remember words and phrases is to be exposed to them frequently.
Keep your memory sharp by using flashcards every day—even for just 5 minutes.
I also suggest rotating your flashcards in logical themes, such as objects in the kitchen, verbs related to sports and vocabulary for the workplace.
Introduce new vocabulary regularly—but if you find yourself forgetting words you thought you knew, you might want to go back and revisit them.
A few of my favorite flashcard resources are:
- Brain Grinder
- Anki (read our ultimate guide to Anki success here)
- Memrise (read our review here)
Check out our post here for an even more in-depth list of flashcard apps.
FluentU also has a built-in flashcard system that uses spaced repetition software (SRS), so if you enjoy learning your target language through authentic videos produced primarily for native speakers, FluentU is an excellent way to kill two birds with one stone.
The videos on FluentU come with interactive subtitles, which let you click on words you don’t know to add them to your flashcard decks.
9. Read the News in the Language
Reading the news in your target language is an effective language learning method and a great way to stay connected to current events happening in the country, regardless of your level.
Regularly reading in the language exposes you to various words and grammatical structures, many of which you might not encounter in your regular language studies.
You can find an online newspaper from just about any country. For example, a quick Google search for “newspapers in China” brings up Asia Today, Beijing Daily and Chinese Daily.
The website Online Newspapers provides comprehensive lists of newspapers around the world. Look for simple topics like celebrity news or local crime events when browsing headlines.
A bonus to this technique is that you’ll learn a lot about the culture and people that speak the language you’re learning. As you continue to read more, challenge yourself to try more difficult texts. You may be surprised by how quickly you’ve advanced using this technique!
10. Find a Conversation Partner
Of all the ideas about how to learn a language, there’s one that can’t be denied: Practice is the best way to improve.
Joining a Meetup group can connect you with other people learning the language.
You’ll likely meet people who are farther along than you that can bring you up to step, but you’ll also meet those who aren’t as skilled in the language. Teaching them some new words and phrases can help reinforce what you’ve already learned.
A language exchange partner can give you some one-on-one time and is an opportunity to make a friend.
In a language exchange, you’ll meet regularly with someone who speaks the language you’re trying to learn, and instead of paying them, you’ll spend some time tutoring or conversing with them in a language you know.
Here are a few language exchange apps to get you started:
11. Think Like a Kid
Adults always comment on how children seem to absorb information like sponges—especially when it comes to language.
Past a certain age, learning new things appears to be more of a challenge. However, there’s no scientific proof of the link between age and learning ability. Instead, it might be a case of mind over matter.
As we age, we form certain thought patterns that connect the circuitry of our brains. In short, we become rigid in our thinking.
We’ve also developed a distaste for the all-too-familiar experience of failure. These elements of adulthood can be blocks to learning something new. We don’t have these patterns established as kids, so our minds are more open.
Children are less judgmental and more willing to try new things and make mistakes. They also have less prior knowledge of the language, so preconceptions of how it should work don’t get in the way.
Try to think like a kid when it comes to learning your language. Keep an open mind, and actively break down your own notions of how the language “should” be structured based on what you already know.
Don’t judge yourself, and don’t be afraid to use the language you’re learning—even if you make mistakes. You’ll never become fluent if you don’t let yourself try.
12. Use Children’s Stories
Children’s stories have characteristics that make them ideal tools for learning a new language. These features make them “approachable,” within reach for even the most beginner learners.
- Start by translating children’s stories from your target language to your native language. This exercise lets you not only add loads of vocabulary to your bag, but also learn how grammar and sentence structure works. The key is to start one word at a time. Begin by using free translation apps (if necessary) to translate individual words.
- The next step is translating a children’s story into your target language—the reverse of step one! Like in the previous step, start by translating word-for-word, then translate entire sentences (and identify grammar points like verb conjugations, parts of speech, etc. along the way!).
- Finally, the last step is writing your own children’s story, first in your native language and then in your target language! Be flexible when you do this. If you discover that the native language version you have written is too hard, go back and make it a little bit easier. And as a check, try translating your story back.
I know this sounds a bit redundant, but looking at things in reverse will show you the holes in your translation. You have no idea how things look when you do them in reverse. In addition, it will cement your learning.
Working on your story forwards and backward, from one language to another, will strengthen the neural connections in your head.
The more repetition and consistency you have with your language learning, the faster you’ll advance towards your targets. And by using proven psychological tricks and learning strategies, you can make it even easier to stay consistent.
Implement these twelve language learning methods, or even just a few, and see how your results improve!