Here, all in one place, are one hundred of the best, brief, language learning insights I’ve come across in years of language learning and years of learning about learning languages. This is celebratory piece to mark a mini milestone: the one hundredth post published here on Howtogetfluent.com.
I hope you’ll enjoy my selection. Of course, it could only ever be incomplete and maybe you’d like to add a few insights of your own in the comments at the bottom 🙂 .
Mindset and motivation
1. You’ve got fluent in one language, so of course you can get fluent in another.
2. While some people are more talented at languages than others, we all have a unique mix of talents we can bring to the language learning party. We may not be the best, but we’re all good enough!
3. It’s not really easier for children to learn languages (except maybe the pronunciation). They just have different strengths and weaknesses, fewer inhibitions and eons of time. Older adults may not have such good memories, but have more context and experience. So, no, you’re never too old to learn a language.
4. Like the kids, you should not be afraid to make mistakes.
5. It helps to be really clear as to why you are learning the language.
6. Initial enthusiasm may wear off, though, even when your reasons are strong. You won’t get far without making a habit of effective study and practice.
7. Developing a social dimension in which to use your language will force you to speak…and could help make it all feel more worthwhile.
8. Aiming for fluency is like chasing the horizon…When you do that, of course you certainly move forward….
9. …but it helps to set interim goals: specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound.
10. Exams can be very useful in as a spur to drive you forward.
11. Others can hold you accountable too, if you ask them to.
12. You can get a great start – even get fluent – without living in the country….Being away from home may even be a massive distraction.
13. There’s no one magic method….but some methods are better than others….
14. Still, consistent use of somewhat sub-optimal methods is better than flitting from one method to another or not doing anything at all.
15. Because language learning is all about making a habit out of practising the four skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking….
16. All those skills are intertwined and if you want to excel, do all of them as much as you can (I usually fall short on the writing).
17. Make sure you get constructive, corrective feedback.
18. Short, frequent study sessions trump long, infrequent ones…
19. That’s partly because focus is key.
20. Research shows that “interleaving” (practising one thing then another during one session) is more effective than “blocked practice” (focussing on just one thing until you feel you’ve mastered it). It may not feel that way at the time, though.
21. You can’t buck the system: it takes 650 hours (French, Spanish, Swedish) to 2000+ hours (Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic) to get a good working knowledge of a language, depending on the distance of the language from ones you already know.
22. Focus on core vocab and structures for rapid early progress.
23. Your engagement should be as active as possible. That means:
24. Elaborate your material (retell it, imagine it, personalise it)….
25. …test yourself…
26. ….and return to vocab and structures at intervals. When you do, don’t just look at the material and repeat it. Force yourself to recall. Think “spaced recall” not just “spaced repetition”.
27. Learning should often feel hard and at times will discourage you (a sign it’s working).
28. For when you’re flagging, have less demanding downtime activities and fun things to do in your target language….
29. …..and to make doubly sure you’re getting a binge diet of language input.
30. As for specific learning materials: keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself.
31. Use a textbook to provide a framework and progression (and maybe a second one alongside for variety).
32. Make sure those textbooks have audio and exercises with answers.
33. And, once you’re approaching lower intermediate, get a good dictionary. Here, paper trumps electronic because…Erm….just because 😉
34. Technology can be distracting and some apps just feed an illusion of progress…. Still, kept in its place, perhaps tech can be great as part of a wider approach 🤨
Learning grammar and vocabulary
35. If “grammar” puts you off, first think of it as the core patterns and regularities…..
36. Prefer courses with light explanations and lots of example phrases. Because even if you just lurrrrvve grammar, you can’t speak from a memorised table of declensions or conjugations.
37. You can “study” exceptions and explanations in-depth later, as needed. Grammar books that come with exercises (and the answers) are great for this.
38. The top one hundred functional words come up again and again….and the first one thousand words make up about seventy-five per cent of your typical conversation or text.
39. So, start with these words and also tool kit words and phrases and learn vocab specific to your life and needs as well.
40. Next, your task is to get to about three to five thousand words as fast as possible. Without that, reading and listening will be too slow and inefficient.
41. That’s not such an overwhelming goal if you pay attention to the component parts that make up longer words (prefixes, suffixes, roots, compounds)….
42. Increased awareness of these is a reason why vocab learning gets easier the further in you get. Another is that you’ll be able to take more info from the context.
43. Which brings us to chunks: learning words in set phrases (“How’s it going?”) or as “collocation” pairs (you “sit” an exam in English, “put it down” in German and “stand” it in Welsh). This helps you to remember the word and means you’re sure you’re using it correctly.
44. Plus, deploying chunks is probably the way native speakers do it so fast with only limited processing power (“working memory”).
45. Don’t assume there’s a literal translation in meaning….or in phrases. In English you say “everybody”, in French it’s “all the world”, with no bodies in sight.
46. Language is first and foremost sound. Listening and speaking trump reading and writing.
47. Speak as early and often as you can….though just speaking alone won’t be enough.
48. At the beginning, learn about phonemes and allophones…..and, if your target language has them, tones.
49. Work on your pronunciation with a native….and return to this now and again throughout.
50. Unless you want to be a spy, you goal is to be understood with ease, not to disguise your origins.
51. To ensure you’re understood, intonation beats accent….
52. ….and speaking a language is a whole performance. Model your voice, your body language, your persona…on a native speaker similar to you.
53. To keep the conversation moving, don’t neglect “fillers” (“I mean…”, “actually”, “basically”, “right”,…. “and I was like basically, literally….erm…..speechless” 🙂
54. Repeating back what you’ve heard and asking questions can help make sure you’ve understood what you’re told.
55. Don’t know a word you need? Describe your way round it!
56. If you’re shy, focus on the other person. Others are probably more interested in the content of what you have to say anyway…and in how THEY come across.
57. As a beginner, there’s nothing wrong with anticipating and preparing phrases you think you’ll need.
58. You can also develop “islands of fluency” – frequent topics relevant to you, that you’ve practised talking about many times before.
59. Learn about the body language and wider cultural conventions and associations (that’s “pragmatics” in the jargon). Your new language, after all, is a new culture.
60. If they switch to English, explain you want to practise their lingo….and stick to your guns. If that fails, ditch them and seek out a better milieu 😂
61. Talking to yourself? Having pretend conversations on the phone? Bonkers? Maybe. Yet many successful learners do this.
62. Recording yourself is a good way to check your intonation and accent and to hear your own mistakes (you could then work through the recording with a teacher).
63. As you move towards the upper intermediate level, make sure you’re still pushing yourself out of your comfort zone…Or you risk getting stuck on the dreaded intermediate plateau of mere “functionality” (though that’s a very respectable place to be, if you want).
64. For wannabe speakers, listening is an oft-neglected skill…Remember, it’s half of every conversation.
65. No, you can’t learn a language by listening in your sleep….Or by just listening passively and hoping you’ll just “pick it up”.
66. At the start you won’t understand much and you’re listening for pronunciation and rhythm.
67. We’ve already mentioned phonemes, allophones and tones. Learn about connected speech early on, too. Sounds may merge (elision: “the next day” sounds like “the nex(t) day”). Sometimes, new sounds appear (liaison: “four o’clock” sounds like “four Ro clock”). Othertimes, sounds are assimilated (“handbag” sounds like “hambag”…).
68. Dictation can help you listen intensively.
69. Listen to material at or below your current level is good for reinforcement. Just above where you are now is for pushing on upwards. The holds true for reading.
70. A long way over your head is less effective….but I, for one, love it all washing over me all the same.
71. Songs and podcasts can be a great way to get downtime exposure to the language and culture.
72. Video and films don’t feel like work and have pictures to help. If you switch on the subtitles, only in the target language.
73. Don’t listen to slow audio. If anything – speed it up!
74. Then, if you can’t follow, use a transcript to help with the tricky bits. You could use course material combos, an audio book plus the text. You could pay your teacher or a freelancer to create transcripts for you.
75. Be aware of the different roles of different types of reading. Like listening, reading can be extensive (a novel) or intensive (a legal contract, a recipe). You can read (or listen) for gist (a report of limited interest to you) or to extract key information (from a bus timetable, for example).
76. Once you’re off the ground (heading for intermediate), extensive input is great to help imprint vocab and patterns. The further on you got, the more you’ll even start picking up words without realising it….
77. As a beginner/lower intermediate you need graded material….Your textbook is a great place for reading to start.
78. For extensive reading, focus on flow and gist. Underline words you don’t know if you want, but don’t stop to check, unless they recur and seem key.
79. Don’t overface yourself with length. Try magazine articles, for example.
80. Anything heavy in dialogue will help more directly with speaking too (contemporary plays, comics?)
81. For down time, read what you enjoy….Even a favourite text that you know already in English. If you wouldn’t be into something your native tongue, why would it appeal in a foreign one?
82. Follow people on social media in the language.
83. Change the interface language of your devices for some extra reading practice…and a feeling of “virtual immersion”.
84. You can learn another alphabet like Russian, Greek or Georgian in well under a week.
85. More complex writing systems, especially Chinese characters or the Japanese system will take a lot longer….but are also fascinating.
86. Remember that rules of punctuation and capitalisation differ. What? You don’t bother following them in English? 😡
87. Writing helps you learn because it forces you to recall and produce and…there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t use context, fillers or body language to smooth over your mistakes.
88. Learning to write well doesn’t come quickly. Remember how long it took you to learn to write your native tongue? Yet you already spoke that REALLY well.
89. Try and write a couple of lines, then paragraphs, each day. How about keeping a diary or a commenting on a news or sports event ?
90. Start writing short posts on social media or commenting in discussion groups.
91. As you move beyond intermediate, be sure to be aware of different writing styles and registers.
92. Writing by hand is supposed to help with muscle memory. Whether it really does or not, I have no idea!
93. Translation is a supplementary written exercise…but can be a great core technique for that strenuous, active recall that leads to memorisation and active command.
Classes, teachers….and self-study
94. Group classes can be inefficient….but are relatively cheap and can also give you structure, variety and a social dimension.
95. One-to-one work with a teacher is much more efficient. I recommend italki.com and here’s my personal link (we both get $10 credit if you sign up as new user). If you can’t afford it, how about trying a language exchange?
96. Book slots in advance…to box yourself in.
97. Remember, your teacher can’t learn for you. So take responsibility for your own progress.
98. Tuition has a real role to play but most of the magic will happen OUTSIDE formal tuition…
99. Learning on your own and with others, getting exposed to and producing the language…building it into your life.
100. Which takes us back to mindset, motivation, habit, priorities and focus, to get off the ground rapidly and keep going over the long-term!
That’s what this site and the YouTube channel are all about.
Thanks for being with me for the first hundred posts…. I hope we’ll still be in touch for all that’s yet to come on the site 🙂
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Have I missed some insights from YOUR top one hundred? Have any of the points I’ve listed really clinched it in your language learning? Do you disagree with any of them? Let us all know in the comments below or shoot me an email!