The Best Way to Learn a Language

What is the best way to learn a language? Follow these ten steps and you will pick up your target language quicker than you ever thought possible.

1. Define fluency for your own purposes.

Let’s get something straight right now. Being fluent in a foreign language does not mean speaking like a local. There are different levels of fluency. At the very least, being “fluent” means being able to communicate well enough to take care of daily tasks, including shopping, ordering food, communicating with drivers, getting medical care, etc.

That’s a lot different, for example, than being fluent in the business lingo of your target language. To keep focused, and motivated, define your fluency goals based on your own needs. Then, when you reach a fluency goal, congratulate yourself on a job well done. After that, if you so desire, make a new fluency goal. Doing this will give you motivational “victories” in what can otherwise seem like a never-ending conquest.

2. Get Structure

Some people can grab a book, start practicing, and, after some time, master a new language. For the other 99% of us, the best way to learn a language is to use a product that provides some structure. For me, computer-based learning is the best. I can study whenever I feel like it. I can study at my own pace, and I can focus on the topics that I find most meaningful. CLICK HERE to see my review of computer-based learning programs. If you are going to learn on your own instead of joining a class or buying a computer-based product, be sure to design yourself some kind of program that has daily, weekly, and monthly learning goals.

Click here to visit Fluent in 3 months.

3. Be consistent.

The best way to learn a language is to study it every day. That is not to say that you have to study it all day, every day. It just means that all of your high school teachers, and your parents, were right—cramming is not an effective way to learn something. You will learn far more if you study one hour a day five times per week than if you study five hours on Monday and take the rest of the week off. Be consistent.

4. Speak Out!

I am the co-author of two sets of English language textbooks. What did my partner and I title the books? Speak Out! Why? Because speaking out is the most important part of learning a language. You can memorize a million vocabulary words, but if you are not actively using them, you will not be able to recall them when you need them most. I don’t know what it is, to be honest, but there is something about actually getting the words to come out of your mouth that makes them stick in your head. Linguists often say, “Once you use a word three times in conversation, you own it.”

5. How to Speak Out.

Learning to speak Chinese while living in Idaho? Don’t worry. You can still Speak Out! You don’t even need a speaking partner. This is one of the only situations in life where it’s perfectly acceptable to have conversations with yourself. Or, even better, sing to yourself. It’s a great way to learn! In fact, I’d like you to give it try right now. I have written a song in Chinese for you. It’s called Just Speaking Out!

The first thing you need to do is get the beat of your favorite song into your head. Once you’ve got it, sing these lyrics in the beat of your song.

Ni Jiao Shenme Mingzi?

Wo Jiao Chow Yung Fat…

Ni Chu Guo Beijing Ma?

Chu Guo… oh yeah… chu guo…oh yeah…. Zhe Shi shenme mingzi…oh yeah…

Great job! You just learned your first Chinese sentences. What were they? The answer is at the bottom of this page.

Of course, at some point, you are going to want to talk to a real person. For that, turn to the language learner’s best Internet friend—Skype. Skype is a free Internet chat program that has both video and sound. Get yourself a free Skype account, search forums for a language learning partner, and then get talking! There are millions of people on the Internet who want to speak in your target language. Don’t be shy! Get out there and talk to them–it’s the best way to learn a language fast!

Click here to visit Fluent in 3 months.

6. Categorize

The human brain naturally likes to categorize things. If you want the best way to learn a language, be good to your brain and give it what it wants. You’ll be glad you did. Here, I’ll show you how.

Memorize these 25 words.

wheel, blue, apple, Thailand, electrician, green, engine, accountant, pear, Korea plumber, purple, tire, grape, Japan, banana, China, red, hood, mechanic Vietnam, pink, writer, fender, coconut

…that’s going to be a pain in the neck, right? ..but look at the same 25 words when categorized.

Places Fruits Colors Jobs Car Parts
Thailand Apple Blue Electrician Wheel
Korea Pear Green Accountant Engine
Japan Grape Purple Plumber Tire
China Banana Red Mechanic Hood
Vietnam Coconut Pink Writer Fender

…Isn’t that better?

7. Work in Phrases

Understand that you can get a great deal done knowing just a little bit of your target language; it’s amazing how repetitive daily conversation is. The quickest way to learn a language, at least at a rudimentary level, is to learn these basic survival phrases.

I want…        I don’t want…

I like…           I don’t like…

I go…              How do I…

Where is…    How much….

Let’s look at just one example in Chinese.

“I want.” = Wo Yao…

pijiu = beer

niu rou fan = rice with beef

Wo yao pijiu. Wo yao niu rou fan.

See that? After learning just one simple phrase and two vocabulary words, you can walk into a restaurant in China and get yourself a beer and meal! The key is to remember that you are trying to communicate, not trying to show how eloquent you are. You can be eloquent later.

8. Use Flash Cards

If you want to speak another language, you have to memorize vocabulary. There is no way around it! The simplest, most effective way to learn vocabulary is to make your own flash cards. It’s easy. Just get a pack, or two, of 3 X 5 note cards and follow this procedure.

1. On one side of a card, write the vocabulary word you want to learn. On the other side, write the word in English. Do this for each vocabulary word you want to learn.

2. Now separate your cards into stacks by category, for example, “food,” “colors,” “numbers,” etc.

3. Pick up a stack of cards, and look at the top card, English side up. Read the word in English. Now flip the card over and read the word in the target language. Pause for a moment, look away and try to remember the word in English and then in the target language. Put the card at the bottom of the stack. Repeat for each card in the stack.

4. Shuffle the cards. Look at the top card, in English. Now try to recall the meaning in the target language. If you recall it correctly, put the card to the side. If you get the answer wrong, put the card at the bottom of the stack. Do this for each card.

5. Repeat step 4, using only the cards you did not recall correctly. As you do this, your “correct” stack will get bigger and bigger, until you have gotten each word correct.

6. Now all your cards are in the “correct” stack. Pick them up, shuffle them, and repeat the process until you can go through the whole stack without missing any.

7. Once you have memorized several categories, start mixing the stacks together. This will help you practice using the words outside of their categorical context.

IMPORTANT: With new vocabulary words, do not make stacks of more than 25-30 cards. It is not efficient to memorize too many words at once. Also, make sure you continue to shuffle the cards as you learn; otherwise, your mind will memorize the order of the words, and you will have difficulty recalling their meanings in a different context.

9. Review Basic English Grammar

I see you cringing, and I understand. Most of us can’t really explain English grammar. We just “know how to use it.” I also understand that you probably don’t really care to be able to explain it, and I’m not suggesting that you do a comprehensive review—just review the basics. I’m talking about knowing the difference between nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. I’m talking about understanding subjects, predicates and articles. Understand basic sentence structures.

Why do I suggest this? Because when you learn the sentence structure of a new language, you will not just “know how to use it.” You will have to learn, for example, where to place verbs and nouns in a sentence. Still not convinced? Look at this simple example in Korean.

English: “I am a teacher.”

Korean: “Na neun (I) sunsangnim (teacher) imnida (am).”

Direct translation: I teacher am.

If you can pick up on two simple grammar differences in this sentence, you will Learn Korean much quicker.

1. There are no articles in the Korean sentence.

2. The verb in the Korean sentence is placed at the end.

Of course, if you can’t recall what articles and verbs are, you will not be able to take advantage these learning tips, and it will take you much longer to figure out how to structure sentences.

Spend an hour or two reviewing English grammar, and you will save many hours trying to figure out how to structure sentences in your target language.

10. Figure out what kind of learner you are.

Ask yourself, “Do I recall information better after hearing it, or after reading it?” “If I write something down, does that imprint it on my brain?” “Do I learn grammar intuitively, or do I need to learn each rule and then dissect sentences.” Each of us learns differently. Find out what learning style works best for you and focus on learning in that way.

Remember, though, that when learning a new language, you should always use a variety of strategies. For example, you should not just read and memorize, even if that is your best learning strategy. Focus on that, but also listen to recordings, speak dialogues, write sentences, and learn grammar rules.

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Answer from tip 5 song.

What is your name?

My name is Chow Yung Fat (Chinese actor)

Have you been to Beijing?

I’ve been… oh yeah… I’ve been… oh yeah …I like it very much… oh yeah…

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