For foreign languages learners

fabric

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My question is: what is the fastest/easiest way of learning a new language nowadays? Any new methods or techniques?

I don’t think there is an easy and fast way! There are also many different things that work better for some and others that work better for others. As Chu mentioned, you’d have to try different things to see what works best for you, and that you also enjoy. If you find them too much of a chore you won’t do them, at least that’s how it is for me.

In my case, this is what I found worked best for me:


Vocabulary

Learn pronunciation alongside the first 500-600 most frequently used nouns/verbs (better yet 1000). I do that alongside other things but focus on that since that helped me to build a base with which I can look at other parts of the sentence and get more context out of them. Those few hundred words make up to 70-80% of words that you’ll see/hear in basic material or everyday speech. But don’t expect to have a proper conversation as you still need grammar to tie everything in together.

A frequency dictionary helps but you’ll probably want to skip the first 50 or so since they count pronouns, conjunctions and adverbs etc among which don’t really mean anything without context (and grammer).

A quick to do that is to use SRS (spaced repetition software), something like Anki, Supermemo or Lingvist. I personally like Anki as it is the most flexible when it comes to creating your own flashcards.

While useful it shouldn’t be the only thing you do, that can be supplemented by other things but Anki is great since it doesn’t take much time and you can see easily measure your progress and there’s all kinds of cool add-ons you can get. For example, if you learn 20 cards every day, in 30 days you’ll have picked up 600 words – and remember at least 80-90% of them. This will come in handy when it comes to doing grammar exercises or reading simple texts and from there you can build on the vocab.

Even if you ditch the flashcards later, picking up those few hundred words quickly at the beginning makes things easier later on. Another thing you’ll want is to make sure the words are pronounced by a native speaker or at least a quality text-to-speech program. Forvo is a great website to get the pronunciation for some common languages.

But generally, for learning new words quickly and remembering them, SRS is far superior to any other method I’ve tried.


Grammar

I’ve always found grammar hard because in order for it to stick you have both do passive and active learning. Passive is the easier of the 2 since you just read or listen to something to hear what grammatically correct sentences sound like. It’s also when you read an explanation of what the rule is and how it’s used. But then you actually have to learn how to use it and that’s when it becomes active. I personally like doing quizzes and tests but basically anything that you can do that requires you to actively recall the correct grammar will help make it stick. I also find it repetitive but when it comes to grammar, repetition is key!

For learning verb conjugation, I did find these courses by Memrise to be very good (French and Spanish):

Learn French Conjugation

Learn Spanish Conjugation

They cover the most common verbs (both regular and irregular) and while a bit repetitive, you’ll know them pretty well by the end of it.


Speaking / Writing

At first most learning is going to be passive since one simply doesn’t vocabulary or grammar to output anything substantial aside from a few phrases but don’t let that discourage you. The sooner you start to use what you do know the better it will stick and this part of it is all too often neglected. Start small and work your way up. You absolutely have to produce in the target language in order to make real progress. There’s no way around this. It’s also the best way to put into practice anything that was being studied in the passive mode.

A Jay had mentioned Italki – and I second that. The tutors there are great and pricing pretty decent. It’s a great way to practice talking. Even if you do it badly, as JP says, better than not at all. You will improve. In addition to Italki, there are also language exchanges. This might be a better option if you don’t want to (or can’t) spend money on a tutor or instructor.

The difference here is that you’ll spend half your time speaking in your native (or fluent language) and the other half in theirs (ie, the language you are learning). Now I haven’t tried these yet but these are ones I found that seemed pretty good to me and plan to check them out sometime:

Speaky - Social network to learn languages online

Free virtual language exchange site using Skype by Dickinson College | The Mixxer

Writing is a bit easier in that you can check what you are doing as you go – but don’t do that until the end or you’ll never get through the sentence! The nice thing is you can get feedback on your own (for example you can write what you want to say in your native tongue, pop it into a translator like DeepL and compare its translation to what you wrote). Another way to check is to use a grammar checker. I like these two for Spanish and French.

But even better is to get feedback from other native speakers by using something like Lang-8. This is another language exchange except what you do is correct other people’s written entries. In turn they correct yours. I used it a lot when I was studying Japanese and found it really useful.

Two things that really make a difference is to be consistent and to set goals. If you’re not consistent and there’s large gaps between studying or doing some form of learning you won’t make any progress. And depending on what your goals are you might want to look at doing a proficiency test, especially if what you’re aiming for is fluency. But even if just conversational language is your goal, I would still recommend looking at the requirements and studying towards that. It’s a great way to add some structure to your studying and makes things more efficient when trying to figure out what to focus on. It’s also a great way to get a real measure on your progress as you work your way towards fluency.

Ok this ended being a bit longer than intended, but hope it helps!
 

Gaby

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My question is: what is the fastest/easiest way of learning a new language nowadays? Any new methods or techniques?

IMO, the fastest ("easiest") way of learning a new language is by complete and total immersion while being signed up to an intense language course in the country in question where you are not allowed to speak in your mother tongue at any time. Your brain will hurt, but you'll learn the language in no time.

I'm not good with languages, but I studied 6 of them for some reason or another. It's always difficult, even those that are considered to be very easy. The one that I picked in no time was the one where expressing myself well in that language was the key to my very survival. The other languages where I can get away with not knowing them well have taken too long to learn (4 years learning curve vs a 6 months one by total immersion), or they have stayed at a level that is not good enough. Unless I'm immersed in that culture or language, then my brain really does cooperate to allow for the communicating channels to flow.

I suppose that if you can convince your belief center of the importance of picking it up quickly, then the total immersion can be spared. It will anyway involve a lot of practice and exposure though. On the other hand, if there's no hurry, may as well take all the time you need and enjoy the process. A likeness to a particular language will make the process much easier. Curiosity to know people and their culture also helps a lot.

My 2 cents.
 

Chu

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First I plan to learn 1 language at a time, just haven't decided which one. It is for practical reasons, I plan to move abroad, don't know where yet. Priority is to communicate verbally, but of course being able to read and understand basic texts.

Well, in that case, even more reason to choose carefully, IMO, after spending some time listening to and learning ABOUT the languages and cultures you are interested in. That may or may not help you make the decision about where to move to, but at least you can use that to see if it's really something for you.

English and Swedish are "cousins", but Spanish or French will be challenging, so having an idea of what they are about may help.

Audible or visual learner…..? Hmm, don't know, but I prefer learning by watching when it comes to practical things, how my "language center" works I don't know. I think I'm quite intuitive when it comes to communication in general.

You can probably find little tests online to see. Another way to know is to take two super beginner dialogues. With one you only read and write, and maybe use a visual system to remember the words, with the other you listen several times and try to speak. In both cases you have a translation to help you. And see which dialogue you learnt better. You'll still need to use all skills if you want to progress fast, but knowing how you learn better will help. You are probably visual, from what you said.

Vocabulary

I know that what fabric explained works for many people, but definitely not for me. I tried different kinds of flashcards, and not only do I find them utterly boring, I don't learn well for them. Well, it also depends on the language. For Chinese they are very useful, but for any words that involve changes (gender and number, cases, conjugation, etc.), I find them to be a waste of time unless they are accompanied by phrases in context.

A Jay had mentioned Italki – and I second that. The tutors there are great and pricing pretty decent. It’s a great way to practice talking. Even if you do it badly, as JP says, better than not at all. You will improve. In addition to Italki, there are also language exchanges. This might be a better option if you don’t want to (or can’t) spend money on a tutor or instructor.

Via Italki you can also find language partners. I think it's an awesome website for that and the tutoring option.

What works for me is to learn by spaced repetition, alternating tasks, and periodic testing. For that, I make a schedule (30 minutes a day), and stick to it. The advantage is that once I know what works, and I make a plan, I don't waste any time thinking what I need to do. But to get to that point, you have to first get a very basic level, find out what works and what doesn't, find material that suits you, and plan for using the fours skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. In the beginning, I think it's crucial to read and listen the same support, never reading without the accompanying audio. Otherwise, later on it's harder to understand sounds and speech, and to speak. It's also important to write fairly early on, so that you get to associate sounds with letters. And speaking with native speakers is a must, but you can wait a bit if in the beginning it's too difficult.

For me sounds are SUPER important. I always start with that. Better intonation&prosody come later, but knowing how to distinguish the sounds makes a BIG difference. For that, I use "minimal pairs". E.g. "sheep/ship", "eat/it", etc. It would be a bit long to explain here, but the idea is that your brain needs to create new connections for those sounds, because as adults, we have forgotten the ability to make the distinction automatically. And those differences mean a difference in meaning, so they are important not just for understanding, but for being understood!

I agree with Gaby about full immersion. However, I think it's possible to get pretty good without, provided that one does language exchanges, and has a very regular routine. At least that's my hope with Russian. I've been learning it for one and a half year fairly regularly, and although it's definitely not as good as it would if I was in total immersion, I have started to get by, and still feel I'm making progress slowly but surely thanks to having a routine and someone to talk with at least twice a month (I just started the latter, and it makes a huge difference). If you have time, more often is even better.

This is already too long, and I could write pages about what not to do, LOL! The main thing, IMO, is that languages are not like a school discipline. They are alive, a vehicle to learn other things, to expand your worldview, to build bridges. So, the method needs to be equally alive, and like an ecosystem, where each task, grammar point, topic, etc. is interacting with each other. You learn like forming a snowball, from a few elements you do a lot, and continue adding on, expanding, using what you already know. Most people try to learn them like they would learn an academic discipline, and I've yet to see one who really succeeds. The languages I speak really fluently are part of my life, not just a dissociated thing I studied. And the others I don't quite master, are still "alive", just a smaller part of my life for lack of time/exposure. But never only in books.
 

Yas

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Apart from the great advice you've been given here, I'd only add 2 things.

One: you can also buy/download a beginners textbook to learn the language and use it as a guide to create your own plan. I find this useful as a guideline, but I wouldn't stay just with the textbook because it can be a bit boring. What's good about textbooks is that they are made in such a way that builds up from the basics in a manner that is convenient for the learner (if they are good books), so you'll know where to start and how to progress, they're usually focused on the 4 language skills as well. Also, textbooks bring exercises you can use to practice.

Two: There are resources that are made specifically for basic conversation which teach you whole sentences and expressions to use in everyday life. I think this shouldn't be the focus of your plan, but I find that doing this kind of exercise from time to time is encouraging because you learn how to say things and become able to have short dialogues even if you don't understand the grammar behind it... you will understand the grammar later on.

I haven't got resources for Spanish or French, but what you can do is to find short beginners dialogues in the target language as Chu suggested and practice them (make sure they come with audios because I agree that it is very important to associate written language with its sounds). This kind of dialogues can be found in books/websites that are made for travellers. Something like "Spanish for travel", or along those lines. This is because the programs made for travellers focus on useful sentences and expressions that are essential if you want to greet people, have a short and simple small talk, ask for information, etc. Again, I wouldn't suggest to make this the main focus, but it can be a big plus to your plan.

My 2 cents.
 

Yas

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I know that what fabric explained works for many people, but definitely not for me. I tried different kinds of flashcards, and not only do I find them utterly boring, I don't learn well for them. Well, it also depends on the language. For Chinese they are very useful, but for any words that involve changes (gender and number, cases, conjugation, etc.), I find them to be a waste of time unless they are accompanied by phrases in context.

I just wanted to add that I agree with this. It works for some people maybe, but I wouldn't learn vocabulary out of context. I would probably use the flashcard technique but only if it is always accompanied by exercises that put those new words in context so that you can grasp their meaning and how they are combined with other words in a sentence.
 

Altair

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Personally I can recommend Anki and Supermemo. Supermemo was a pioneer of spaced repetition software. Most of their courses are paid but affordable and are of very high quality. They offer also some free courses: Catalog | Languages | SuperMemo.com

If you start learning a language from level zero, I would also recommend Assimil Without Effort series. And don't neglect learning grammar - it's crucial to know the language structure. Those who promise you learning a new language "in 30 days" just by using flashcards or listening are insincere, IMO.
 
Ok, thank you so much för everything! Will go through your posts a couple of times and make a list of things to try and a summary of key suggestions. :grad:
 

jhonny

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And don't neglect learning grammar - it's crucial to know the language structure.
It may sound weird, but I like learning grammar. By just learning words you are exercising memory, but by learning grammar you must think and make an effort to understand, osit.

I just wanted to share one experience I had when I moved to Belgium.
We you move to a new country, and you want to work, you must learn the language asap, so I went to school twice a week. As you may guess I had a lot of time. I decided to boost my learning process, but how?
Well, I took a bus or a metro at rush hour, and I sat or stayed just to listen to people. Although I couldn’t understand, I tried to notice the intonation and pronunciation. That’s why I did it at rush hour, otherwise people could think I was an spy😀.
At school I learned a proper language, but “on street” people spoke differently, and that was why I decided to do that way.
I don’t know if this may be a recommendation, but it worked for me

My 2 cents
 

Chu

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If you start learning a language from level zero, I would also recommend Assimil Without Effort series. And don't neglect learning grammar - it's crucial to know the language structure. Those who promise you learning a new language "in 30 days" just by using flashcards or listening are insincere, IMO.

Ditto! And I'd like to second the recommendation: Assimil is great for beginners, especially if you use it with spaced repetition and the kind of routine I described above. I've used it and recommended it to one student who is making huge progress. It is not good with grammar, and even in English, I'd say it falls short, and you need to do much more grammar on the side. But you'll get used to the basic structures, the sounds, and most common phrases. Plus, depending on the language, they have a good sense of humor, so the dialogues tend to be funny, which makes them easier to remember.

Another excellent one for right at the beginning is the Michel Thomas method. It's only audio, but it really gets you familiarized with sounds and basic concepts. It uses a "snowball method" as well, building more and more from basic elements.


It may sound weird, but I like learning grammar. By just learning words you are exercising memory, but by learning grammar you must think and make an effort to understand, osit.

Ditto! I just love it, and think it has a bad reputation because of the way it's taught at school. It's a super good mental exercise to figure out the logic behind the rules, remember the exceptions, the little words like pronouns and their place in the sentence, etc Just comparing how time and space is perceived by each language is fascinating, IMO.

One more thing I remembered: Many people in this day and age do a lot of language learning on the computer. That's great, if it works for you. I may be biased because I'm not a "techie" person, but I find that writing by hand is way more efficient (even for flashcards). I do most with audio, pen and paper (and colors). On SOTT we have some articles about how hand-writing helps memory, and I think it's very true for languages as well. Although videos and software are a great addition too if used actively.
 

fabric

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We you move to a new country, and you want to work, you must learn the language asap, so I went to school twice a week.

That's something I wanted to mention - if possible, enroll in a class. Understandably some people hate 'school' but for me it really helped. I could only do so much to motivate myself with self study but having a class and the 'responsibility' that came along with it helped push me those times I didn't feel like studying. But it wasn't only that, the organization and structure provided some direction and feedback so I could see my progress - I didn't have to manage that on my own. That went a long way to keeping me motivated and also to gauge what areas needed more work vs others.
 
There are all kinds of things you can do to help you learn a language. Watching movies in that language with English subtitles is a good option. What I started to do a while ago is the other way round. I watch English speaking movies with Japanese subtitles. I pause the movie a lot and just try to read and understand as much as I can. It's fun and pretty efficient.

Once you get to a decent level, watching the movie in the target language with the target language subtitles is even better.
 

irjo

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I didn’t see this thread before! I always been interested in Asian languages so I decided to start learning Chinese (mandarin). So what it’s been helping me is that I try to “immerse” myself in the language by listening lots and lots of mandarin either watching chinese series on Netflix or watching YouTube videos. With subtitles at first of course, so I can get my ears a little bit used to the sound and pronunciation of the languages. Then I went to download Duolingo and star translating the most basic phrases with google translate (which doesn’t work that well with Chinese but it helps with the most basic stuff) after that I needed to put in practice what I have learned otherwise it would be hard for me to see if I go in the right direction or not.
So I did a little experiment, I downloaded WeChat (which is the most popular Chinese application to chat or meet people) and I got to meet this chinese friend who I occasionally speak with, and that helped me a lot. Because he is native Chinese speaker and he speaks English of course and he helped me how to pronunciate certain words with the Chinese tones and corrected me of how to say certain stuff, at the same time he practice his English with me.
So I sometimes if I have the time, I go out to a chinese place to eat (they do this delicious plate with only sweet potato noodles and beef) and try to say the most basic stuff to the waiter and see if they can understand me. It makes me happy when they act surprise and reply to me back in chinese (of course I don’t understand many times what the replies means but I act cool lol)
The thing is: Practice with a native speaker because that’s going to help you a lot, don’t feel embarrassed at all if you make mistakes and I even recommend to watch kids videos in the language that you want to learn. I even watch pepa pig in mandarin (I know I know) and it really helps. If you are using a smartphone download learning apps for kids in the language you want to learn! Hope these recommendations helps!
 

Mari

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Hi,

I even watch pepa pig in mandarin (I know I know) and it really helps.
I´ve just wanted to suggest watching simple cartoons and to recommend Pepa Pig :)

When I moved to Germany, I knew only basics. And since my kids watched Pepa Pig in Croatian, I played them the same cartoon in German language.
It is a perfect cartoon for learning basic stuff that you need in everyday life.
Also simple children rhyme songs worked for me.

That's something I wanted to mention - if possible, enroll in a class. Understandably some people hate 'school' but for me it really helped. I could only do so much to motivate myself with self study but having a class and the 'responsibility' that came along with it helped push me those times I didn't feel like studying. But it wasn't only that, the organization and structure provided some direction and feedback so I could see my progress - I didn't have to manage that on my own.
I agree.
Since I´ve already knew the basics, it was very helpful to me to do A2 intensive course - instead of going for months on a normal course 1-2 per week, in intensive courses you go every day for 2,5-3 hours and learn.

... I find that writing by hand is way more efficient (even for flashcards). I do most with audio, pen and paper (and colors).
Me too. :) That is why I took a course - so I can see and feel the languague (I don´t know how else to say this).
I was also very lucky to have a great teacher and she explained grammar in different colors so when I wrote it down and marked the sentences, rules became more clear.

As for Duolinguo; I use it every day but for me it is only good for practice and new words - the course was for me more helpful to better understand the language structure and grammar rules.
 

Chu

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Good one, Keit! That reminds me: one way to find out what methods work for you is to check out what polyglots do, and try to do it yourself. Here is a list, for example:

Now, I think some of them are a bit of a "scam", because they can hold a simple conversation, but aren't really fluent even when they claim to be. Others are quite amazing. But in the end, it's like Lydia Machova says in the video you shared, IMO: each person is different, and one has to find what is best.
 
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