We all get wrapped up in figuring out how to learn something, right?
“Should I practice speaking right away, or should I undergo a silent period?”
“Is reading more important than speaking?”
“How could I possibly learn a language through native materials?”
It can feel overwhelming.
But here’s the thing—there’s no “right” way to learn anything!
Whether you’re just now picking up a new language or whether you’re one of those seasoned language learning warriors, you can always switch things up and find what works and is most comfortable for you.
While some people are drawn to books and traditional study, others are drawn to conversation partners and language exchange. One is not better than the other—the only thing that matters is how well you respond to whatever learning technique or study approach you’ve picked.
And as you progress in your studying, you’ll find you need to borrow from other “methods” to improve certain skills.
The learning system or study technique you choose doesn’t and shouldn’t represent everything you need to learn a language. It instead helps define how you spend the majority of your time, and helps prioritize the aspects of learning that are most important to you.
So, are you looking for a main language learning technique that fits you? Or are you looking to spice up your studying life by trying something new? If so, keep on reading!
3 Bold Language Study Techniques That All Lead to Victory
1. For the Experimental and Devoted: Massive Input and SRS
What’s the Deal with Massive Input and SRS?
This language learning method is for those people with a strong devotion to their target language. Does that sound like you? Well, massive input is a language learning method inspired by the blog All Japanese All The Time and Dr. Stephen Krashen’s academic research into language acquisition.
Essentially, you learn the language almost through osmosis, through 18-24 hours a day of input. That means listening to and reading native media… and tons of it! The principle is that, much like how a baby or young child learns, you learn the language by hearing the same vocabulary and grammar structures over and over and over.
Of course, unless you’ve chosen a language very similar to one you already know, you’ll want to have context with that input. That means using translations of books you’ve read before, dubs of cartoons and movies with which you’re already familiar and even textbooks and translations as needed.
To seal all of that freshly gained knowledge into your head, try using a spaced repetition system (SRS). An SRS is a flashcard app that presents you with the cards you’ve made based on an algorithm—you’ll get cards you’ve gotten wrong sooner, and cards you find easy later. Because an SRS presents you with the same cards over and over, you’ll find that the repeated timed exposure helps you retain all that information you’re absorbing through media.
SRS works even better if you enter in sentences and translations of those sentences (from textbooks, or from novels and comics where you look up words you don’t know). That way, you’re exposed to grammar, verb conjugations and noun cases right along with that vocab.
How Do I Get Started and Keep on Going?
First of all, you need to acquire media and an SRS.
As for media to feed that input, try Amazon third-party sellers for books and DVDs in your target language. You can also try Project Gutenberg for free older novels in your L2. Podcasts are great, often free resources for native listening, so set your iTunes store account to a country in which your target language is spoken—that way, you’ll get suggestions for popular podcasts. Use TuneIn for plenty of target language talk radio and music.
For super convenient learning, subscribe to FluentU for a personalized SRS program with built-in media for massive input. FluentU provides you with short clips of native media—like cartoons, news, vlogs, music videos and interesting talks—so you can get in those short bursts. It automatically keeps track of the words you struggle with, and lets you learn with multimedia flashcards that link up to different usages and context in various videos.
As for keeping up a listening schedule, try to listen whenever physically possible. That could be while doing chores, while at work, while doing homework, while commuting—anything! There’s no such thing as too much listening, so take a look at your day-to-day life and see where you might fit in some much needed language exposure.
Passive listening can benefit your language learning, too, so don’t feel bad if you’re not always paying attention to your audio. Set a schedule for watching movies or TV shows—an episode a day, or two movies a week, whatever is reasonable for you.
As for SRS, do reps every single day. Believe me—once you slip up a day or two, you build up quite the backlog of flashcards. And anyways, SRS works best when used consistently, over months and months. Make it a point to add cards every day, too. There’s no hard and fast rule for how many you add—just be consistent! Adding a ton of cards in one sitting will only give you a mountain of work the next day, so think before you add. I’ve personally had luck consistently adding 20 to 25 cards a day, but if you can do 10, or 50, that works, too.
For a systematic approach to learning vocabulary using SRS, you can see what polyglot Olly Richards recommends in his guide to foreign language vocabulary memorization, “Make Words Stick.”
There’s no need to switch things up too much as you progress. Because you’re learning through native-level media, your regimen will still be great for you at the intermediate and advanced stages. Basically, time is the key factor here. If you keep up your media consumption and SRS-ing long enough, you’ll progress!
Pros and Cons
If you’re thinking about traveling down the media-based language-learning road, keep in mind that conversational skills will develop later than with other learning methods. You’re not necessarily taking in the most important vocabulary at the beginning—you’re learning what interests you.
But while massive input is definitely a slow burn, learners who have followed through on this method have achieved high levels of fluency. Some, like Khatzumoto (All Japanese All The Time) and Ramses (The Language Dojo), are even mistaken for native speakers!
2. For the Analytical and Old-fashioned: Textbooks and Wordlists
What’s the Deal with Textbooks and Wordlists?
Those of us with Luddite-esque tendencies just want to sit down with a nice notebook and pencil and turn off the technology once in a while. Some of us find comfort in the step-by-step approach of textbooks and rote memorization of grammar. And of course, that is how people used to learn foreign languages!
While these days learning styles trend towards making the most out of our globalized internet, that doesn’t mean you can’t stick to the tried-and-true ways of doing things. Especially when cleverly supplemented with modern tools, textbooks can take you farther than ever before!
Wordlists are to textbooks what SRS is to massive input. User Iversen from the How to Learn Any Language forum created the wordlist memorization method. Basically, you take groups of 5-7 words (usually within a theme for context) and write them down by hand. You memorize the translation from L2 to L1, and vice versa! It’s a great way to systematize your rote learning, especially if you don’t like SRS. The context and the physical act of writing both boost your memory so that you’re always moving forward.
How Do I Get Started and Keep on Going?
First, check out blogs, like FluentU’s language specific ones, to find recommendations for textbooks. User reviews are key to finding good textbooks that are accurate and use the learning style you like!
If you’re short on cash, use Google Books to hunt down older textbooks in the public domain.
VitalSource is a great place to search for e-textbooks for your target language. You can get them for much cheaper than your average physical textbook, and they carry books for many modern world languages.
Textbooks with supplemented audio are great, because us bibliophiles can sometimes neglect the listening comprehension side of things. Finally, wordlists are relatively simple—grab your notebook and follow this wordlist tutorial to get the hang of things.
To get the most out of your study, make sure you’re consistent! Choose a doable number of vocab words you want to learn each day and commit to that—though you can change it up if it’s too much… or if you can do more! Maybe you can complete half a textbook lesson everyday, or three lessons a week. However, if you find you’re not retaining information, redo each lesson as many times as necessary to get a handle on the material.
To top it all off, you might want to tear a page from the book of massive input and get in a little native-level listening every now and again. Listening and understanding the spoken language are important and can really boost your textbook-based learning.
As you progress beyond the beginner stage, textbooks can become a little tricky. Most popular languages will have intermediate and advanced textbooks, but they can be harder to find. So, what to do? Readers (like this German one) are great, because they give you that native-level literature while also giving you the support of a textbook.
More advanced grammar books also can take the place of comprehensive “intermediate” textbooks, because they (obviously) introduce more complex grammar concepts, and even more complex vocabulary. But once you’ve reached the intermediate stage, it should feel natural to start nosing around some native-level books and websites to see what you can understand and where your learning gaps are!
Pros and Cons
Textbook learners will be great at reading and grammar. Where other folks struggle with conjugations and noun cases, textbook learners will excel at them through natural interest. On the other hand, textbook learners will lag behind in speaking and aural comprehension, but that’s no big deal. Once you’ve got the basics down, feel free to improve your skills through language partners and listening!
3. For the Outgoing and Talkative: Conversation Partners, Tutors and Learning by Doing
What’s the Deal with Conversation and Output?
While some of us are happy to stay inside with a textbook or movie for the day, other learners just love to talk! And talking and interaction can be a great learning method—check out Benny the Irish Polyglot’s techniques to see how far you can get. By building in-person relationships with real people, this method helps you remember the language you’re learning by tying it to fun memories and experiences. Using the language helps to cement it in your mind.
And, of course, making an embarrassing mistake might be awful in the moment, but you probably won’t make the same mistake again, right?
If you don’t live in a target language country but you still crave that conversational interaction, never fear! Set up language exchanges with folks in other countries who want to learn your native language. You can meet up with them on Skype and practice to your heart’s content.
You can also hire an online or in-person tutor to help you out. Tutors are great for people who just want to practice speaking, because you won’t feel pressured to teach your native language, and the tutor will likely force you out of your comfort zone and expand your working knowledge of the language. People who use this method definitely get to a conversational level faster than those who use other methods!
How Do I Get Started and Keep on Going?
Well, if you’re in a country where people speak your target language, what are you waiting for? Get out there and socialize! You can find clubs and meetups online if you want a structured way to meet people.
You can also find an online tutor on italki and schedule regular lessons. All you need to do to get started is to select your preferred teacher, then schedule your first paid trial lesson.
If you’re going the tutoring route, dedicated tutoring sites offer some big advantages as well and are worth checking out: You can use WyzAnt to find a tutor near you who meets your exact specifications, and Verbling for a streamlined online tutoring experience.
Once you have your tutoring or language exchange sessions set up, be like Benny the Irish Polyglot and get your hands on a phrasebook and dictionary in your target language. Lonely Planet is a great phrasebook resource for a wide variety of languages, even including some regional variations and harder-to-find language options.
Memorize some basic phrases and dive right in for your first Skype meeting! As you go on, try to practice the language regularly, and brush up on the basics with a phrasebook or online resource.
And if no one is around for the time being, don’t let your language skills fall flat! Sing along to music or read the language out loud to yourself. Practice conversations in your head, or even talk to yourself—no judgment! Down time is also great for supplementing with some L2 listening through podcasts or talk radio. After all, understanding the other person is half of the conversation.
Even though this language method seems totally different from massive input, they’re really two sides of the same coin. Conversation-lovers are still getting tons of input—it’s just from friends and acquaintances in real time. So, progress with this method is similar to that of massive input: it’s a function of time. Keep on finding new people to talk with, look up the things you want to say, and watch yourself progress!
Pros and Cons
Conversation-lovers will clearly reach conversational level first. They’ll have an easy time talking naturally with native speakers! However, reading and grammar can fall behind if you’re not careful, so pay attention to weaknesses and borrow from other methods from time to time to round yourself out.
No matter your personality or preferences, there’s an effective way to study the language you want to learn.
Each technique has its own strengths and weaknesses, but you can balance those out as you progress.
Cross-pollinate as much as you want.
After all, as the Hindu proverb says, “There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading in the same direction… The only one wasting time is the one who runs around and around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.”
And One More Thing…
If you’re digging these techniques, you’ll love using FluentU. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks.
With FluentU, you learn real languages—the same way that real people speak them. FluentU has a wide variety of videos, like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover over or tap on the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “quiz mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.