language learning

Language Learning 101: Top Strategies and Tools

Kató Lomb is my favorite polyglot.

She was, to put it mildly, a total badass.

She became one of the first simultaneous interpreters and learned 16 languages.

The primary part of her learning method involved reading books.

Let me say that again: She taught herself languages to the point where she was able to do the most mind-bogglingly difficult kind of interpretation, by reading.

But how? Like, what exactly did she… do?

I’d love to know, because I’d like to do it, too.

Lomb’s book “How I Learn Languages” goes into some detail about her methods, but not as much as you might expect considering the sheer level of awesomeness she achieved.

Polyglots today, too, willing as they may be to share their language learning philosophies and opinions, can often be difficult to emulate.

It can even seem like many people who have learned languages have basically no idea how they did it.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to gain useful tips from language learning superstars. And yes, there are strategies that have actually been shown to be effective for language learning.

But more importantly, there are multiple strategies that seem to be effective for language learning.

As a learner, you owe it to yourself not to be limited by any one person’s idea of what works.

Today, we’re going to take a long, relaxed look at some tools, strategies and resources that seem to be helpful for learners. We’ll also see what research and science have to say about them.

Consider this post a sort of dashboard you can use to maximize the comfort, efficiency and fun of your personal language learning.

Ready to get started?
 


 

Language Learning 101: Top Strategies and Tools

Learn a foreign language with videos

The Best Way to Learn a Language: What Language Learning Strategies Really Work?

Below are some language learning methods that show promise.

It’s important to remember that no study about something as subjective as language learning will be 100% definitive.

It’s also worth mentioning that one approach probably won’t do everything for you. In fact, there’s evidence that using more strategies can mean more successful language learning.

And one more thing before we begin: We talk about “learning styles” in the language learning community a lot, with the best of intentions. But you should know that, scientifically speaking, the idea of learning styles is bogus.

Sure, you may prefer certain ways of learning to other ways of learning, and if they help you feel inspired to study, great! But again, there’s no reason to limit yourself based on a preconceived idea of how you learn best. This is an open bar, so help yourself.

Spaced Repetition

You may have seen some language learning programs advertising that they use some form of SRS, meaning a “spaced repetition system” or “spaced repetition software.” Simply put, the idea behind spaced repetition is that when you’re studying to memorize something, reviewing the material at spaced intervals is more effective than mashing it into a single session.

Spaced repetition isn’t just about algorithms in apps, it’s a broader concept that’s been shown to be generally effective. What this means in plain English is that regular review is important and helpful.

Many hardcore learners swear by the flashcard system Anki, which has become a staple of input-based learning. Some use it as their regular method of study and to learn a lot of vocabulary very fast.

Here’s something to keep in mind, though: It’s not necessarily important to make SRS-based learning your main study approach. For many people, that’s not even realistic, especially if you’re making your own flashcards. Continually creating your own learning system is a lot of work.

Thankfully, you don’t have to be an input hound to take advantage of SRS. In fact, using SRS for review for just a few minutes a day can improve your retention by leaps and bounds. One study involving EFL students showed that students who spent as little as three minutes a day on computer-generated spaced repetition exercises retained nearly three times as much vocab as other students.

Later on in this post, we’ll look at some specific SRS-based tools you can use for your learning.

Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible input is a term used by linguist Stephen Krashen to describe a concept that means pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s the idea that learners need to be able to understand the material they’re reading or listening to in order for natural learning to take place.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t be taking in material that’s a bit over your head. In fact, that’s part of the idea: By deducing the parts you don’t know from what you do know, you learn the language.

Comprehensible input seems to be effective for vocabulary retention. There’s additional evidence that input-based study can have many positive effects on language acquisition.

So that’s all well and good, right? But it may not immediately be obvious how you can apply this to your own studies. How can you ensure your study material meets comprehensible input standards?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Use graded readers. These make it easier for you to select and read more material at your level, which gets you more appropriate input, faster.
  • Learn core vocabulary first. This doesn’t directly provide you with level-appropriate material, of course. But learning the most common words in a language first will give you a greater variety of texts and listening material to choose from. Which will, in turn, give you more input.
  • Listen to and read your input extensively. In order for comprehensible input to be effective, it doesn’t just need to be comprehensible. You also need to actually take in a substantial amount of it.

For some insight on what exactly extensive reading and listening is, read on.

Intensive and Extensive Reading and Listening

You can read for enjoyment over a longer period of time (extensive), or read in shorter bursts in order to more closely analyze and interact with the material (intensive). You can do the same for listening.

Both of these types of input are important and can help your learning in different ways.

There’s evidence that extensive reading can not only aid in vocabulary retention but also increase motivation. Extensive reading may be more effective overall because it provides exposure to more material. However, intensive reading may be more important at the lower levels of learning (the article in this link downloads automatically).

As with extensive reading, there are indications that extensive listening may not only increase proficiency, but also motivation. Intensive listening may have its own distinct benefits. In one study, students who did a series of dictation exercises even discovered that their speaking capabilities were positively affected by the listening exercises.

We’ve already discussed some ways to implement extensive reading above, including using graded readers. If you find readers that include reading comprehension questions or exercises for short texts, you can use these for intensive reading as well. Otherwise, try searching “[your target language] reading comprehension practice” to find online reading exercises.

For intensive and extensive listening, you may want to try keeping a listening journal. An article by Anthony Schmidt details suggestions for engaging in and tracking intensive and extensive listening using a journal. These involve using sites like FluentU (more on this below) and TED Talks. The article is written from the perspective of an ESL teacher, but the activities can easily be adapted by independent learners for their own studies.

Shadowing

Shadowing revolves around a pretty basic concept: You read along with an audio resource, matching its pace, intonation and pronunciation as closely as you can.

It was introduced under the name “shadowing” by polyglot Alexander Arguelles. In its original, now rather quaint incarnation, shadowing is weirdly specific. You’re supposed to go outside with a text, corresponding recording and headphones. Then, you stand up straight while walking around, blasting yourself with the language and speaking along with it as simultaneously as possible in a loud voice.

Arguelles is another one of my favorite polyglots and I love that this technique is a thing. However, I’ve tried shadowing the old-school way and I’m not entirely convinced that the fresh air and exercise part of it is in any way crucial.

Look, it makes logical sense to me that attempting to speak along with a recording could be really effective for pronunciation. It also makes sense that occupying yourself with walking and reading while also speaking might help override your normal inhibitions and allow a deeper level of learning.

But sort of like with making large amounts of SRS-optimized vocabulary input one’s primary learning method, I don’t think it’s a realistic option for the average person. I get stressed out having to go to the grocery store some days; I’m not going to be out in a park seven days a week yelling in Korean and opening myself up to any number of awkward interactions.

However, multiple studies have shown the basic technique of shadowing to be an effective learning method. And it’s simple enough to do the reading and listening part on your own, indoors or wherever you want. It’s also simple to alternate shadowing with any “listen and repeat” prompts you encounter in language learning materials.

Speaking of types of learning materials…

Learning with Authentic Materials

There are certain advantages to using materials specifically designed for language learners. As we’ve explored above, learner-based content can better aid comprehensible input by better pinpointing a certain level.

But there are marked advantages to using authentic materials, or materials intended for native speakers, too.

From the study mentioned in the extensive reading section above, we already know that extensive reading itself may increase motivation. However, a separate study on extensive reading with online content showed that authentic texts, specifically, may be motivating for students.

Also, the value of learning with authentic materials is somewhat self-evident. After all, interacting with authentic material is the goal, the dream. It’s the ideal outcome, something that any learner will need to do eventually.

The trick is balancing the need for authenticity with level-appropriate material for comprehensive input. To an extent, this is a balance you can achieve as a learner. There are some sites or programs that sort out authentic material for you. You can also use certain tricks to find level-appropriate content.

Once you get to an intermediate or advanced level, the exact level of authentic material tends to be less of a concern. When you’re still a beginner, however, you may find appropriate authentic material on:

  • Shopping sites.
  • Travel or real-estate sites.
  • Children’s educational sites.

language learning

Some Wikipedia articles contain more complex sentences, sure. But they also tend to contain more cognates than your average reading material, making them easier to decipher. Additionally, they follow a certain basic format of headings and subheadings that can help you make more accurate guesses at what you’re reading about.

Learning with Feedback

The importance of feedback, especially early in your learning process, is also somewhat self-evident. If you don’t have any opportunity or capability to correct your mistakes, it’s tough to improve your language skills. The question surrounding feedback is more a question of when and how much.

Feedback in the language classroom is a complicated and delicate subject. There are ongoing discussions about exactly how corrective feedback should be applied. As a learner, you don’t necessarily have control over how any tutor or teacher you work with might choose to incorporate feedback. (Though you should certainly feel okay about taking some control over your own lessons.)

When you learn independently, however, you don’t have the potentially extremely valuable personalized feedback that a teacher can give you.

But there’s also something to be said for taking responsibility for your own learning. One study showed that students who worked out the correct answers to their own errors with other students and a teacher improved their language skills more than those who were only given corrections and a possible follow-up to ask a teacher questions.

Whether or not you’re primarily learning with a teacher, it may be beneficial to go over your wrong answers from tests, quizzes or apps with others. You could do this with friends, or you can get in touch with native speakers through HiNative or another language exchange app.

If you’re learning on your own and have questions that require more detailed explanations, you may want to get an online tutor, even if only temporarily.

Now that we’ve looked at some strategies you can apply to your language learning, let’s look at some resources that align with them.

Are Language Learning Apps and Online Programs Actually Beneficial?

The short answer is “yes.” Here’s the long answer:

In 2018, The Atlantic published a piece by David H. Freedman titled “How to Almost Learn Italian,” which details the author’s experience using the popular language app Duolingo.

In the article, Freedman talks about how he was sucked in by Duolingo’s addictive features but found, a week before leaving for Rome, that he didn’t have the Italian language skills necessary for basic interactions. He quickly grabbed some other resources, including a phrasebook, and found he was able to cram practical language pretty effectively.

In other words, it seems Duolingo hadn’t given him the exact vocab he needed, but it had given him an understanding of the language that made vocab memorization easier and faster. He later got in touch with the CEO of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn, who verified that the way the app had worked for Freedman was the way it was supposed to work.

This story illustrates a couple of important aspects of language apps. One is that they’re still new enough that we often don’t really know what to expect from them.

Another is that it’s only logical to assume that an app that drills you with complete sentences and gets you to study every day would be effective… up to a point. It doesn’t make sense to expect a language app to do everything for you, no more so than expecting a textbook to do everything for you.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t expect greater and greater developments from language apps in the future. It also doesn’t mean that they aren’t already a wonderful tool to use now. In general, studies have linked positive results to popular language apps (we’ll look at some in a moment).

They may offer some unique positive benefits as well. For example, researcher Fernando Rosell-Aguilar suggests that learners may find apps useful for making errors privately and quelling performance anxiety.

Here are some apps (also available to use online) you may find useful for your own learning.

FluentU

language learning

FluentU is unique in that it already brings together many of the strategies discussed above, and gives you material to practice all of them.

FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news, commercials, vlogs, speeches, comedy skits and more—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

The program sorts these authentic videos into six levels and gives you interactive captions, customized quizzes and multimedia flashcards that can be used in a variety of ways.

All of this means that you get…

  • The opportunity to use authentic materials early on, and comprehensible input via authentic materials.
  • Level-appropriate materials and features for both intensive and extensive reading and listening.
  • Corrective feedback through quizzes, along with explanatory grammar notes.
  • SRS that helps you know when it’s time to review words, but that you don’t have to adjust yourself or think about too much.
  • Audio that can be used for shadowing.

FluentU is a great way to consolidate your learning and to hit a lot of important points in your studies. Plus, it keeps track of all the vocabulary you learn, so you get a 100% personalized experience.

Duolingo

language learning

A study done with learners of Spanish suggested that for beginner learners, an estimated average of 34 hours with Duolingo was roughly equivalent to a semester of college. It was found to be more effective for beginners than advanced students. It was also more effective for those who were motivated by the prospect of using the language for travel.

This all seems consistent with the story linked above, and probably with what most of us already know about Duolingo: It’s fun, it’s popular, it’s geared towards earlier learners and you have virtually nothing to lose by using it.

Getting started is easy, and the format is simple. You work your way through a variety of quiz-like exercises that serve as lessons, and there are grammar explanations available if you need them.

With Duolingo, you get corrective feedback that you can explore further on your own. Input should be fairly comprehensible since it’s doled out by level.

Duolingo tests both your reading and listening skills, though the robotic audio can sometimes give you pronunciations that sound a bit off. It also spaces out your learning by letting you know when it’s time to review material you’ve learned.

You’ll eventually need more, but Duolingo has likely gotten a lot of people learning a language who wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. For more on what you can expect from Duolingo, check out this New York Times article on the subject.

Babbel

language learning

Queens College conducted the study on Duolingo above and did a similar one on Babbel, which showed that Babbel may be even more effective than Duolingo. It was found that beginner users only needed 15 hours with Babbel to cover the equivalent of a college semester of Spanish.

I’ve tried Babbel myself and I haven’t found it as engaging as the two apps above. However, that’s not the same as saying that it’s not effective—in fact, I understand why it would be. Babbel is a bit more sophisticated than Duolingo and some similar apps. It focuses on practical language and situations. It allows you to interact with the language through a variety of exercises, some of which include voice recognition.

With Babbel, you get intensive work with the language. You get native speaker audio that’s comprehensible for your level. As with most apps, you get corrective feedback.

What you get with Babbel is probably more like what you get with classroom learning than any of the other apps on this list. If you’re more of an independent learner like me, you may find that stifling, but if you want a lot of guidance, you may find it’s perfect for you.

busuu

language learning

busuu’s lessons are topic- and communication-based. The program covers level-appropriate material and prompts for reading, writing, listening and speaking. With busuu, you can easily track your progress and test your level at any time. I think this is all fantastic.

Personally, however, I find busuu a bit too involved for my tastes. There are different stages of each lesson you have to pass—there are activities and rewards and opportunities to connect with native speakers, too.

For me, that feels like a bit much for one app. I enjoy gameification, but I like to have more control over my learning than busuu offers. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have advantages for those who want it all, though.

I’m bringing up my personal feelings about busuu and Babbel to show that, regardless of what’s supposed to be efficient or effective, individual preferences can make or break whether you’ll actually get any studying done.

On the other hand, you can miss out on a lot if you just listen to what other people say about a given product. If I wanted, I could gripe about how these apps are actually bad for language learners just because I don’t prefer them myself, when solid research suggests exactly the opposite is true.

busuu has also gotten high marks in the efficacy department, falling between Babbel and Duolingo in terms of how good it is at replacing college coursework (which, it should be stressed, isn’t everything). Like Babbel, I’m including it here because research indicates that it gets results and that a lot of people like using it. You could very well be one of them.

50LANGUAGES

language learning

I don’t have a study to cite for this app. I’m including it here because, like FluentU, it offers content that aligns well with some of the strategies discussed in this post.

It’s pretty basic, but it’s free and includes great material for beginners. Lessons are vocabulary-based, with complete sentences for context and audio recordings of each word or phrase that can be played separately or together.

This makes it compatible with shadowing, comprehensible input for earlier learners and material for intensive reading and listening.

It also offers corrective feedback in the form of flashcards and quizzes.

Online Language Learning Course Resources: Your Structure and Support

Online language courses come with their challenges and may not give you as thorough of an experience as an in-person class. However, they may still be a good option for learners who aren’t currently in a college class, due to the low cost and accessibility.

The main catch to taking online courses may be that it takes self-discipline to actually finish them. Harvard Business Review reports that only 4% of people who watch a Coursera lecture (see below) actually go on to do the whole course. However, many people who do complete courses report they experience practical benefits as a result.

Here’s where you can get your language learning course fix online.

Coursera

language learning

Coursera is a big name in online learning and currently has courses for Spanish, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, English, French and Russian.

It’s always worth checking the latest offerings. Courses are taught by professors from actual universities but can enroll thousands of people. You can generally join and complete open courses at any time for free, with certificates available for a fee.

Alison

language learning

Alison is more of an all-you-can-eat buffet when it comes to language courses. You can pick and choose between specific subjects in a language, like tourism, dining out, writing skills, conversation skills, etc.

They currently offer courses for English, Spanish, German, Irish, French, Chinese, Arabic, Swedish and Japanese. Like Coursera, Alison provides free materials to learners, but charges a fee for certificates.

Open Culture

language learning

Here’s a list of free course resources that may be especially helpful if you’re learning a lesser-taught language.

Open Culture includes materials here for learning Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Luxembourgish, Maori, Urdu, Tagalog, Romanian and many more.

Language Learning Podcasts: An Underestimated Study Supplement

Podcasts can be fun, informative and, best of all, anyone can have one, right? As it turns out, the podcast format may be just as useful for language learning as for dispensing any type of information. Multiple studies have shown podcasts to be a great all-around learning tool.

Native-language podcasts are perfect for extensive listening practice, and some podcasts intended for language learners are great for intensive listening practice, particularly for beginners. Let’s start with those.

Innovative Language

language learning

Innovative Language delivers some lessons that are available on their YouTube channels for free; others become accessible when you subscribe. Either way, you can carry engaging, level-appropriate audio featuring native speakers on your phone with you throughout the day. Lessons are currently available in 34 languages.

Coffee Break Languages

language learning

Coffee Break Languages gives you podcast-style lessons that teach French, Italian, Chinese, German and Spanish. You can access lessons for free on their website but have the option of signing up for additional content. Lessons include discussions of cultural subjects, grammar points and more.

News in Slow

language learning

This collection of slowly-spoken news podcasts is fantastic for learners of Spanish, French, Italian and German.

Simplified audio based on cultural material is such a good language learning tool, especially around the intermediate level—though News In Slow is available for beginning, intermediate and advanced learners. It’s essentially learner-friendly material with an authentic flavor.

More Language Learning Podcasts

Looking for more podcasts for a specific language? Here are a few lists to get you started:

Native Language Podcasts and Radio: Necessary Language Listening Practice

So now about that extensive, authentic listening. We already discussed why extensive listening is important. However, you may also be interested to know that even passively listening to speech while doing other activities can be beneficial to your learning.

Here are a couple of sources to provide you with a continuous stream of your target language.

TuneIn

language learning

TuneIn gives you access to stations and podcasts from all over the world. Browse by language or location to find what you’re looking for.

RFI Languages

language learning

Don’t want to spend time searching? RFI (Radio France Internationale) broadcasts world news in 16 languages.

More Authentic Language Podcasts

Want more? Below are some lists of radio stations and podcasts for specific languages:

You’ll Need Lots of Foreign Language Reading Material, Too!

And all the better if it’s free. Here are some accessible resources for your intensive and extensive reading needs.

Project Gutenberg

language learning

You won’t find the freshest reads here, but you do get public domain texts in over 60 languages.

The Foreign Language Library Online

language learning

This is a simple, non-intimidating resource you can use to read short articles in your target language, provided your target language is English, French, Spanish, German or Russian.

You can search by language or topic category. Categories include “Literature,” “Movies,” “History” and “In the News.”

Deutsche Welle

language learning

Here’s another news site offering up a linguistic smorgasbord. Choose from current events in 30 languages.

Everything Else: Language Learning Websites for Additional Language Practice

So at this point, we’ve covered almost everything in terms of language learning resources you can access from a computer or phone, but not quite everything. There are always those resources that serve their own very specific purposes or are just handy to have bookmarked.

Here are a few you might find helpful for practicing and testing your skills along the way.

italki

language learning

On italki, you can quickly find an online teacher and pay by the lesson with no long-term commitment. This makes it a convenient resource for getting speaking practice or having your language skills evaluated.

It’s also a great resource for getting in-depth feedback or explanations of concepts you’re struggling with.

Lang-8

language learning

With Lang-8, you’re able to test your other language output skill: writing. On the Lang-8 website, you can write posts that’ll then be corrected by native speakers, and you can provide the same service for others.

It’s like an open pen pal platform that’s focused on corrections and more convenient for everyone. This is a good way to get personalized feedback without a teacher.

Freerice.com

language learning

Here’s a straightforward vocabulary game that includes quizzes for English, German, Spanish, French, Italian and Latin. There’s nothing mind-blowing about it, but it’s an easy and fun way to memorize new words.

If you play regularly enough, you’ll see some of the same words go by again as you work your way up through the levels, which will help you get in some review and repetition.

Plus, as you play, you’re earning donations for the World Food Programme.

BBC Languages

language learning

BBC Languages is just an all-around good free resource to be aware of. It gives you access to audio and video courses and links to sources for authentic materials. Content is available for 40 languages.

 

Whew, that’s a lot! Hopefully, you see now that effective language learning isn’t about any one big solution. It’s more about applying certain key principles and strategies when and how you can.

Most of the resources above are instantly accessible, and many of them are free. So there’s no reason not to start building up a language routine that works for you right now.

Happy learning, and have fun!

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