My Language-Learning Method

You can go about learning a language in a variety of ways – for instance, you could pick up a textbook and start memorizing grammar rules. Or you could pick up a dictionary and start memorizing each type of fruit or vegetable. That’s typically what you learn in school, but it’s not a very effective method and discourages a lot of people.

Another popular method is ‘immersion’ where you are forced to converse in the language, starting very simple, and without English as a recourse. I believe this is a great method if you can truly become immersed. But it requires at least one other person and ideally a bunch of people speaking the other language.

As someone who tends to memorize words ‘visually’ (I rarely make spelling mistakes), I prefer seeing the words I’m learning. I want to read them before I hear them in conversation: with a lot of languages, when you hear a word it’s difficult to figure out the letters behind it until you see them. From a native speaker, “t” and “d” might sound alike, or even “t” and “g.” Of course, knowing proper pronunciation is important, but I like knowing how given letters map to give sounds.

The method I’ve settled on as most appropriate for me, when learning a new language, is trying to read in the foreign language as soon as possible, while tracking vocabulary with flash cards.

For flash cards I use Anki, which is a popular spaced-repetition flash card system. The idea behind spaced repetition is that you don’t need to see easy flash cards as frequently as difficult cards. The program will automatically track the difficulty of a card and this will change how many days it takes you to see the card again. So you start seeing the word every day, and then every week and then every few months, when a simple reminder will keep it fresh. This drastically reduces the clutter in a set of flash cards.

Along with Anki, I will typically have two books open, one in English and one in the foreign language. If I’m not familiar with the language I will read a few sentences in English, and then re-read them in the foreign language, slowly working my way along. If I’m more familiar with the foreign language, I will try to read entirely in that language, and use the English as a reference. Sometimes I will pause and try to understand every nuance of a sentence; in other cases I will just try to get the gist. I trust that I will pick up grammar subconsciously.

If I see a word a few times I will have some idea what it means, at which point I will refer to a foreign language dictionary and add it to my flash cards, for review the following day.

If you’re very lucky you’ll be able to find the same book in English text, foreign text, and as a foreign-language audio book. This is the best scenario: read the book in the foreign language, and then just listen to it in that language and see how much you understand.

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  1. Debbie M

     /  January 12, 2012

    Cool. I have a similar learning style and had not thought of having the English and foreign books (and foreign tape) all together. Nice.

    Another idea you might like is reading children’s books in the foreign language. You can do that with just a dictionary much earlier than a regular book, plus it lets you see all those ordinary irregular things that don’t make any sense more often so that they come to sound right more quickly.

  2. Based on this idea, I’ve installed the google Chrome translate extension, and now I’m occasionally reading websites in Spanish. It’s pretty convenient, you translate the entire page in an instant, and you can hover over a sentence to see the English translation.

    Of course, I’m assuming the translate tool is good. I have heard from some bi-lingual people that it’s surprisingly accurate with word choice and grammar.

  3. I intend to become more fluent in Spanish. I had a couple years of Spanish in High School but that is long gone. (semi) Immersion will likely be my biggest aid. My son has begun rudimentary Spanish and a few co-workers want to learn and are at about the same level. One guy makes frequent mission trips to Guatamala. He is helpful with slang that does not always show up in traditional adjuncts.


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