Are you wondering how you can learn a language?
Is there a “best” way to do it?
Which strategies can give you the most bang for your buck?
When you learn at school, your teacher chooses the language learning strategy and method for you and the rest of the class.
And judging by most people's experiences at school (including my own) it didn't help you get fluent in a foreign language.
I've learned 8 languages over the years by myself. And I've also taught languages too. And in that time, I've put together my principles of language learning and teaching that I use with myself and others.
In this post, you'll discover 10 principles for language learning that will help you get started on your language learning journey. Or that will inspire you to go beyond the intermediate level.
So let's get into it.
#1 There Are No Right Or Wrong Ways To Learn A Language
Don't listen to anyone who says that a particular way of learning is right or wrong – they don’t know how you learn. For more on that, see language learning principle number 5.
#2 Don't Assume That Any One Teaching Method Will Work For You
Most teaching methods, including those derived from the mammoth field of second language acquisition (SLA) research, are based on sweeping generalisations about learning.
By definition, a method will aim to work for most people. But you’re not most people – I know that because you have enough initiative to be reading this.
Don't assume that any one method will work for you, no matter hard they sell it.
#3 Find The Method That Works For You
…but it might! If it does, exploit it. I've personally found the Pimsleur series to be helpful for me at certain points in time. Others, however, consider it a waste of their time.
I go over my own language learning method here.
#4 Learn The Script
Your goals become key here. If you only need survival Japanese, for example, or want to be able to chat people up in Shanghai, learning the script would be a significant and costly distraction.
If, however, you intend to progress beyond an intermediate level at any point, learning the script is essential.
This is because, if you don't, you are denying yourself well over 50% of the input you will ever receive in the language – if you can't read then you are completely reliant on spoken language for input and are missing out on the richest source of all: written material.
This is especially pertinent at higher levels (see principle 10).
#5 Learn About How You Learn
Build up your metacognitive awareness. In other words, learn how you learn.
- Is there a certain number of times you need to hear something in order to really get it?
- Does it help you to remember something if you write it out five times?
- Or say a particular sentence backwards in the shower?
Whatever it may be – this is your learning style and it's key. Listen to it, and allow it to trump whatever anyone else tells you to do
#6 Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Repetition is the mother of skill. Some estimates say you need to encounter a new word seven times before it is committed to long-term memory.
Factor this into your study. Learning something once may not be enough.
#7 Learn High Surrender Value Language
Focus on language that has the highest surrender value – a term borrowed from the insurance world.
If you live abroad, start with your surroundings. What do you see and hear everyday? Most likely it's things like:
- station names
- road signs
- shop names
- sign-in sheets
- train announcements,
- the name of that fruit you buy every morning from the local shop
Because you encounter it daily, you don’t have to work to get the practice in – hence the high surrender value. That sign you see everyday on the door to your building – write it down, ask someone what it means and commit it to memory.
# 8 Learn Chunks Of Language
I learnt my early Japanese grammar from memorising announcements on the Tokyo subway and repeating them word for word, day after day. Despite being quite complex language, and although I didn’t understand all the nuances at first, the grammar entered my subconscious mind and went to work.
When I actually came to encounter those particular grammar points in textbooks, I realised that I’d been using them for a long time and understood their usage. It's grammar for free.
#9 Keep A Language Notebook
Keep a notebook. Don't assume you'll remember something. Write everything down or it might be lost.
Then, if you can, rewrite your notes in an organised way later (it could be organised by topic, but whatever allows you to find what you're looking for later is fine).
#10 Read In Your Target Language For Massive Exposure
As you reach higher levels (and at all levels really), reading becomes key (hence the need to learn the script). There is an acknowledge ‘intermediate plateau‘ – reaching a point where progress seems to stall.
The only way to break through this plateau is by getting massive exposure to quality language. And if you are going to have time to process all the information, it has to be written rather than spoken.
If you've relied on transliteration up to this point (writing the language in the western alphabet for foreigners to understand) you're now stuck because only basic material is usually available in transliteration.
Principles Of Language Learning And Teaching
So there you have it, 10 principles of language learning and teaching that have guided me to becoming a polyglot and language educator.
You may already be familiar with some principles. You may not agree with some of them. And there are surely many more I could have added to this list.
As I said in the post, there are no right or wrong ways to learn a language. And you may have your own set of principles to guide you that work for you.
Speaking of which, if you've enjoyed this post, then you'll probably like this interview series I did with fellow polyglot Lydia Machova on about her principles of language learning and teaching. Check out part 1 here.
Otherwise, let's continue the conversation. Do you agree with these 10 principles? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!