Aside from my mother tongue (English, sort of), I’ve been studying and thinking about studying languages for twenty-five years. Back at school, I studied Ancient Greek, Latin, French and German. Since leaving, I’ve tackled (to varying degrees) Arabic, Dutch, Farsi / Dari, Pashto, Russian, Toki Pona, Turkish, Urdu and Japanese. If there’s one thread that connects it all, it is this: variety.
Each language brings its own challenges, and each language is learnt amidst a unique set of circumstances. The way I studied Latin — in a classroom, two or three times a week, with tests and homework over a period of several years — is probably irreproducible for me. Each language that I’ve studied came, therefore, with its own context.
Ignore your own particular context at your peril.
Here are some of the approaches I’ve tried:
- vocabulary-heavy approach — learning lots of words first, usually from a list of most frequent terms
- grammar-heavy approach — skipping the vocabulary and focusing on adding words later on once the main structures are present and solid
- speak from day one — I tried this with Japanese, where the emphasis is on talking to people (in my case, various iTalki teachers) even though it’s still too early to be having long conversations
- university-degree — I have a BA in Arabic and Farsi from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (UK)
- intensive immersion-heavy language schools — I’ve done this for Arabic and German, both summer programmes
- learning from textbooks
- learning without any textbooks — when I started Pashto, there were no decent learning materials available, so I mostly learned through speaking to Afghan friends in Kandahar
- learning online via a computer-driven course — I’ve studied French, German and Turkish via Duolingo
- writing lots — I use Lang-8 to get corrections on materials
- speaking lots — iTalki is the best option for this (cheap lessons, usually great teachers / conversation partners)
- listening to lots / watching lots — I’ve used Beeminder to set myself input / consumption goals for most of my recent languages
- learning lists of key phrases — this helped a lot with Japanese at the beginning
- learning using listen-and-repeat audio courses — Michel Thomas and Pimsleur are the best known and gold-standard for this kind of thing. If the language you’re learning is available for either of those, it’s probably worth just doing the entire course before you start your formal study.
- learning from friends — just talking to people with whom you share interests or activities is often a great way to pick things up along the way. You’ll usually find that (especially with obscure languages) people are enthusiastic to help when they learn you are interested in their language.
- learning through music — in a previous life, I was heavily invested in a career in music(ology) and I mostly learned German as a way of being able to read more about Wagner.
- travel — there’s nothing like the motivation that comes from knowing you’re travelling to a new country. For many years I would even try not to travel to countries where I didn’t at least speak the basics of their language.
- meta-study — I’ve studied language learning techniques for a little over ten years. I wish I’d come to read more about these things much earlier. It can seem like a waste of time, especially if you’re only studying one language, but taking a bit of time to read about the most efficient techniques and, increasingly, technologies is time well spent.
I’m sure I’m forgetting some. (I’ll update as and when I remember more). And note that not all of these were successes. The more I’ve tried, the more I’ve realised what does and doesn’t work for me. That last bit is important. There is no one method that works for everyone. You have to figure out what works for you.
I’ve had the opportunity to try so many things out because I’ve been studying languages for a decent number of years, but also because my circumstances have been changing as I’ve grown older, left school and so on.
If you’re learning a language at the moment, make sure you don’t allow yourself to stagnate. Sticking to things that worked in the past may mean you’re missing out. So try something new. (Let me know how it works out for you.)