What is the best way to learn a language? – Definitive guide – battle tested

In February 2016, I was having a lazy morning at the office. I was drinking a coffee, trying to focus after the weekend, when I received a phone call telling me that I had successfully passed the final stages of the recruitment process and my job application to eBay in Amsterdam had been accepted. I was thrilled and terrified – my heart was thumping! Till then I had happily lived my entire life in my hometown of Kielce, with short breaks here and there in Poland, but had never moved abroad as part of my professional career.

I knew I had to learn Dutch, fast. Although it was not a requirement for the job, I thought it was the best way to connect more with locals, to feel just a little less of a stranger and to be able to understand what was going on around me. I spoke pretty good English and French, but it had taken me years to get to that level, while my start date was next month. I desperately needed something better than the approach I had taken so far.

Bear with me

In the next six chapters you will discover the best way to learn a language based on my personal experience and numerous talks with other people who were facing the same problem that I was. We’ll go over modern techniques of language learning, such as spaced repetition, the language immersion method and comprehensible input, and we’ll try to understand when and why they work and how they complement each other.

Have you ever wondered why your teachers pushed grammar so hard? Have you felt there was something wrong with this approach? Did you find it too complicated and feel that it was taking you too long to produce fluent sentences? We’ll look at why this method fails and whether grammar can be useful at all. We’ll also explore some common mistakes people make while learning a language and how to avoid them. If you want to know how to build a strong foundation for rapid language acquisition, keep on reading.

Spaced repetition

Back when I found out I was moving out to Amsterdam, I started pondering what I could do about learning Dutch. Time was ticking away. I thought back to when I had been learning Spanish a couple of years earlier. Just for kicks, for a couple of months I had played around with an old-school Polish software package based on a spaced repetition algorithm. It was a fascinating tool. Although the content was generally rubbish, it made me remember hundreds of words and sentences. I still could remember the feeling when words, phrases and whole sentences in Spanish started coming to my mind out of nowhere. I decided to give it another try – and, as it turned out later, it was a brilliant idea.

Why is spaced repetition important?

I can’t really stress this enough. Spaced repetition will greatly speed up the whole process. As I’ve said, I have studied languages with and without a spaced repetition system, and the difference is huge. I’m not saying it’s impossible to learn a language without spaced repetition, but it’s much harder. Learning a foreign language is a long slog and you really should be efficient with how you use your time and memory. Whether you attend classes, take an online language course or learn on your own, you have to lay the foundations, and that where SRS comes into play. Obviously spaced repetition won’t teach you a language in any magical way, but it will enable you to build strong foundations very quickly.

By the time I started working in Amsterdam, the Dutch language class had started a few weeks previously, organized by our company. As an external consultant I was not allowed to participate, but it was a great point of reference for me.

The class structure was pretty standard: four to six people, led by a native-speaking instructor, two times a week for one and a half hours. I estimate I was spending a similar amount of time working with the app. After a few months, the difference was huge. While the people from the class were still on very basic topics, I was far more advanced. I was still making a lot of mistakes, but I knew at least that I was moving in the right direction, and I was moving fast.

What is spaced repetition?

Spaced repetition is a learning technique based on a simple phenomenon called the forgetting curve, discovered by German psychologist Ebbinghaus in the 19th century. All Ebbinghaus’s complex calculations and laborious work led him to the conclusion that you should increase the time between repetitions of a given word, as long as you know the correct answer. If you’re wrong, you’re back to the beginning of the cycle.

According to Wikipedia:

Spaced repetition is commonly applied in contexts in which a learner must acquire a large number of items and retain them indefinitely in memory. It is, therefore, well suited for the problem of vocabulary acquisition in the course of second language learning.”

Learning whole sentences

Whatever method you follow, you have to learn lots of words. As it turns out, spaced repetition is so efficient that it also enables us to remember whole sentences in an impressively short time.

It not only reduces the workload, reducing the number of items you need to revise each day, but also allows you to remember better and recall faster for a very long time. Linguists call this high retention.

You might have heard that many studies show that learning around 800 words will allow you to handle 80% of everyday conversations. To start with, 800 words is quite a lot; but there’s more to it. You should be able to use them really fluently, almost without hesitation, and combine them in various ways and orders. And here comes the second part of the secret. For this reason, you should practice variations of similar simple sentences. However, the number of possible combinations, even for 800 words, is almost endless. That’s why SRS is a game changer. By learning 800 words and another 1000 or 2000 sentences, you can attain real fluency in a relatively short time. Your brain will start recognizing patterns very quickly and you will gain reflexes similar to those of a native speaker.

For example, when you learn the words:

I, you, he, she, we, they

Want, can, like

Eat, play, dance

you should also learn some sentences built from these words:

I want to eat something.

You should eat something.

Are you not going to eat?

Do you want to play tennis?

Why don’t you want to play with us?

I can’t play with you.

I don’t want to play with you.

I don’t want to dance with you.

What tools are available?

There are many tools based on spaced repetition algorithms, such as Anki. There is also an old-school pen-and-paper version of a spaced repetition tool called the Leitner Box.

We’re working hard to release our own tool – called, obviously, Taalhammer – which will allow you to build strong foundations with useful and easy-to-understand content. We’ve analyzed massive amounts of texts, conversations and dictionaries. We’ve applied heavy mathematics and statistics so we could ultimately organize the language content for you, starting with the simplest and most popular words and sentences.

The app is designed so you can extend your learning material with no effort. Whenever you search for a translation or you note down a new word or sentence, it will be added to your repetitions stream automatically, and we’ll suggest other sentences around the topic so you can learn the most relevant content for you in various contexts and from different angles.

What about grammar?

As I progressed with Dutch, I become more and more interested, not only in learning languages, but also in learning how to learn. It became obvious to me that we can do much better in terms of learning techniques and how we use the tools we have at our disposal. Grammar is one of those tools.

Is grammar useful or harmful?

These days, grammar has as many supporters as opponents. In my view, the confusion comes from the fact that, for many years, grammar was used improperly. Due to the lack of other efficient learning methods and ideas, teachers were trying to make students produce sentences based on the grammar rules. This proved to be very inefficient, as our brains are extremely slow in processing such rules. During conversation especially, when we want to produce sentences fluently, there is no time to recall the rules and solve logical equations.

How to use grammar properly

Recently I’ve seen a lot of articles claiming grammar to be the root of all evil and the reason people fail in language learning. I believe this is going from one extreme to the other. In fact, grammar is just one tool, and it can be helpful when used properly.

We shouldn’t be learning grammar in order to produce sentences. We definitely should not start learning a language by trying to master complicated grammar rules.

What we can do, however, is use grammar as an auxiliary tool when trying to memorize sentences. As our brains are constantly looking for patterns and trying to categorize information for easier and faster recall, that’s where the grammar comes into play. It is simply a set of language patterns observed and written down. In particular, when we want to load a lot of similar sentences into our long-term memory and the differences between them may be very subtle, a glimpse at a well-known pattern can speed up the process.

How to stay motivated over time

Travel to the country of your target language. I know that for some of you this piece of advice can sound irritating, as not everybody can afford to travel abroad every time their motivation drops, due to time, budget, or both. It can be even harder for those learning languages from the other side of the globe. Nevertheless, I deeply believe it’s the best motivation booster. The fact that you can immerse yourself in local culture and taste local food keeps you much more motivated. However, the most important part of language immersion is the fact of interacting with other people. That’s the main driver. We want to talk with other people. We want to listen to their stories and we also want to be appreciated.

So if you can afford to travel, next time you are choosing a destination for your holiday, please consider the country of your target language. It may also be a good idea to travel alone, as doing so naturally increases our exposure to interaction with others. Think also about language immersion programs that get everything organized for you around your favorite topic, such as photography or sailing.

I can’t travel. What can I do?

If you’re not traveling, it’s best to schedule lessons with a teacher. This can be online or face to face. There is one important thing to understand when it comes to learning with a teacher. He or she won’t do the hard work for you. You should consider these lessons only as a checkpoint. They’re a great way to motivate yourself. You can also gain some useful sentences, tips and hints, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

If you prefer online lessons, you could try italki or Verbling along with Skype calls. Don’t forget one thing, though – please ask your teacher to type all the words and sentences into the Taalhammer app. Actually, the fact that 90% of online teachers were using Google Docs for lesson vocabulary was one of the reasons we created the Taalhammer app. With all due respect for Google Docs, it was not designed for language learning. After a few lessons you will end up with a very long document, which you will probably not even open after the lesson. With Taalhammer, everything you’ve searched for, everything you’ve subscribed to and everything your teacher has shared with you will be put into your long-term memory, one by one, in the optimal way.

How to understand and be understood

Listening and comprehensible input

You have to listen a lot, like A LOT. You have to train your ear. It’s best if you can listen to something you’re already familiar with, at least partially. In linguistics this is called “comprehensible input”. The idea behind it is to listen to things that are a little challenging for you, but not too difficult. This is particularly important with listening, as very often we have problems catching even the words we already know

  • For beginners, you could start with Peppa Pig or something similar.
  • At an intermediate level, there are many more options such as podcasts, radio, news, etc.

Practice pronunciation

Speak to yourself. Record yourself to hear how you sound. Say it out loud. This is similar to listening. You have to practice a lot. Let your mouth and tongue know there are new things coming. Your speech apparatus needs to get used to new combinations. You can do that virtually everywhere. Whether you’re taking a shower or riding a bicycle, you can repeat words and sentences many times. The same goes for singing songs in your target language. It is also a very good exercise to record yourself and listen to how you sound.

Listening in Taalhammer

Listening exercises are one of the upcoming features in Taalhammer. We’re doing our best to deliver hands-free listening exercises as soon as possible. You will be listening to all the content you’ve already seen, doing repetition, and saying things out loud. It will be all read by different lectors – including you and your teacher if you wish – at various speeds and in different accents for even better adoption.

Start speaking

One of the biggest challenges in learning a foreign language is to actually start speaking – not only in class or with a teacher, but to strangers on the street or over the phone. A big problem for many people is that they never actually overcome the fear of making mistakes in front of strangers and they never start speaking the language, regardless of countless hours spent on studying.

Why speaking from day one can be very challenging for many people

One approach to learning a new language is to start speaking from day one. “Just go and start talking to someone,” they say. I can see some challenges related to this approach. First of all, you have to be lucky enough to have native speakers around you. Secondly, you can’t really have a normal conversation knowing only a few words. Even the most sympathetic native speakers can get impatient when you struggle with the most basic expressions.

There are many companies offering language immersion programs. We touched on that briefly in the chapter about traveling. While I think it’s a brilliant idea to participate in such a course, in my opinion it simply won’t work for complete beginners. During these courses there are a number of activities that you do with native speakers, not only teachers. You may take part in some sports together, you may eat dinner at somebody’s home, etc. This is all great, but if you want to get the most out of it you should have some basics upfront.

On the other hand, the more you study, the more aware of your own mistakes you are. That’s why people wait for first conversations till they have become more comfortable with a language. The truth is, you’ll never feel ready enough. No matter how long you study, there will always be room for improvement.

Experience tells me that the remedy for this is to do just a little bit of preparation before the first immersion, whether this is a short conversation at the store or participation in a week-long immersion program. Before you can say something, you must listen. Before you can write something, you must read.

How to survive first conversations

The beginning can be hard. I know that very well. I struggled with Dutch for two years while I was living in Amsterdam. I found it really difficult to learn Dutch due to the fact that almost everybody in Amsterdam speaks perfect English, especially Dutch people. They are also a very pragmatic society, so whenever they hear you struggling with Dutch they immediately want to help you out by switching to perfect English. It can be extremely discouraging.

The best thing you can do in such situations is to stay calm. You should not give up. It can be tricky. I’ve been there many times. I wanted to ask about something, and when I saw that the person didn’t understand, I said “Never mind” and walked away. However, you can prepare yourself for these situations too. How? Just master a couple of nice, simple sentences in your target language, such as asking for a repetition and explaining that you’re learning – and it doesn’t have to be the infamous “Sorry, I don’t understand”! 😉

Could you please repeat?

Dutch, please. I’m learning. Give me a chance.

You’re talking very fast.

What did you say?

Have a good incentive and enjoy learning your new language

Last but not least, you have to find a good incentive and your key to really enjoying learning a foreign language. You must find something interesting for you. It could be anything: movies, food, holidays – you name it. Not only will it help you to keep the momentum high when motivation drops, but it will help you survive the moments of frustration that will inevitably come.

I recommend watching the video of Lydia Machova’s TED talk about why it is important to enjoy learning a language.

Conclusion

Language learning is like bodybuilding. The trainer can show you exercises and tell you how to work in sequence, but that’s about it. You have to execute it all by yourself. The trainer won’t keep to the diet for you. They won’t lift weights for you either. The teacher empowers you to take responsibility for the task. Be prepared to work hard, and don’t forget the tools. Especially the good hammer. 😉