The Hard, But Effective Way to Learn a New Language

Since learning French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean, I get asked a lot about what’s the best way to learn a language. In this article, I’d like to share what I think works, what I think doesn’t and what I think doesn’t matter to learn a new language from zero to a conversational ability.

Before I start though, here’s three caveats:

  1. This is just my approach. There’s lots of ways to learn languages and plenty of people who’ve learned it not following this advice. So I’m not providing the method, just a method.
  2. The focus is on having conversations. I think conversational ability is the foundation of most languages and the reason most people want to learn them. That doesn’t mean reading novels or watching movies isn’t important, it’s just that’s not the first goal I try to reach.
  3. The focus is on starting from zero, or near-zero, to an intermediate level. Going from conversational to fully fluent is a somewhat different goal and it has different obstacles. I’ve addressed my philosophy on that goal here, but I’m not going to discuss it much in this article.

That being said, here’s what I would do if I wanted to learn a new language and waste as little time as possible.

The Best Strategy

The best strategy, in my mind is simple:

  1. Go to a country that speaks the language.
  2. Grab a phrasebook and learn a few basic expressions.
  3. Commit to only speaking in that language from Day One.
  4. Arm yourself with a dictionary to translate whenever you get stuck.
  5. Hire a local tutor (mostly to pay someone to talk to you while you’re still a beginner)

A mistake many people make in viewing this strategy is not realizing the importance of “Day One” and “Only speaking in the language”. Many people think if they wait a few months to start speaking or speak 50% of the time in the language the process will be comparably effective. Those are not the same, and they are not nearly as effective.

The reasons for why departure from the strictness of these rules isn’t effective are subtle and hard to realize if you haven’t tried this before. The purpose of starting from the day you arrive is that this is the optimal time for designing your environment. If you wait even a few weeks, you’ll have already established an English-speaking environment which will make later immersion much more difficult. This is what happened to me when I went to France.

The reason for only speaking in the language is that if you have a ratio (say you aim to speak half the time) you’ll find half of your speaking situations much harder than the other half. This creates a natural momentum which pulls you towards speaking less and less of the language you’re trying to use. The end result is that aiming for 50/50 usually ends up being only 5-10% in the language. (Note: This effect is mitigated somewhat if you have specific languages for specific people or situations, but 100% immersion is still best.)

Unfortunately, this is not a realistic strategy for most people. Most people can’t afford to travel for extended periods of time. When they do, they often have jobs or other responsibilities that prevent staying 100% immersed.

But just because it’s not possible for everyone, doesn’t mean it won’t work. If you have this option when learning a language, do this. It sounds really hard, but it gets easier fast and you’ll learn the language very quickly. Don’t use a second-best strategy if you have the option to use the best.

The Second-Best Strategies

So let’s consider some alternative scenarios where you can’t do the best strategy: full immersion from Day 1.

Situation #1: You Can’t Travel to Learn

In this situation, you can’t travel to learn the language. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have partial immersion. Here, my suggestion would be to start by picking a friend or partner who also wants to learn the language and have an agreement with them: we have to talk at least once per day, and whenever we do talk it’s always in the target language.

Depending on who your partner is, this could actually add up to quite a bit of immersion. It’s not actually very important that the person be a native speaker or already fluent to practice. Actually, in some cases it’s better if they aren’t. Simply use a dictionary or Google translate whenever you get stuck with words or phrases.

You will need to supplement this with some time speaking with an advanced or native speaker of the language to make sure you’re not learning mistakes. But I think having as little as 10% of your time in this way would still allow you to progress quite quickly.

Note: This situation is the same as one where you can travel, but for some reason can’t do 100% immersion. Pick people or settings where you have to speak in the language you’re trying to learn. The broader a net you cast and the sharper and more clear the situational rules are the better. None of this beats the best strategy, but it can be a useful approximation where the best strategy isn’t possible.

Situation #2: You Can’t Find a Partner

Say you want to learn an obscure language, or you can’t find someone who is willing to commit to only speaking that language with you. Here, the option is pretty simple: hire a tutor. Go onto iTalki.com and find someone who will teach you the language. You can get community tutors there for fairly cheap.

If that’s too expensive, you can also opt for language exchanges with people who want to learn your language. In that case though, you need to be really strict about what time is in each language, or an intermediate speaker might push you to speak a lot more of the language they’re trying to learn.

For tutors, I also recommend explaining to them your immersive approach, in English (or whatever language you speak well) before you start. Many tutors have a different teaching philosophy and may be resistant if they’d rather you do grammar drills or more traditional exercises. Sometimes it takes a couple teachers to find one that will work with you well, so don’t give up.

Situation #3: You Only Have a Few Hours Per Week

This isn’t a problem either. In many cases you do the same as Situation #1 or #2, you just end up studying less.

The important part if you only have a few hours per week is to commit to the time in advance. With 100% immersion, practice is unavoidable. With only a small amount of your week devoted to speaking, you’ll need a lot more effort to push yourself every time to practice.

How Much Preparation Should I Do Before Speaking?

This is a tricky question for two reasons:

  1. Most people wait way too long to start practicing and don’t practice enough when they do start. Speaking a language poorly is uncomfortable and so people avoid it. Waiting until you’re “ready” is a recipe for failure.
  2. If you’re going from zero to 100% immersion, it probably helps to do *some* preparation. Doing too little can make the initial ramp up to speaking so hard as to be almost impossible without tremendous willpower. Therefore, doing some prior preparation is helpful. I found for myself that about 25-50 hours was more than enough for European languages, whereas more like 100 hours was the minimum for harder Asian languages.

This preparation is assuming you’re using the best strategy of 100% immersion. If you’re not traveling to the country and going 100% from Day 1, then the issue of prior preparation isn’t important. You can start with just an hour or two of preparation and use Google Translate in the first conversation if you like.

What Kind of Preparation Should I Do?

What kind of preparation should you do to start speaking a language? This is actually, in my mind, a lot less important than people think. There’s lots of ways you can get a general understanding of the basic words and phrases in a language. Some might be somewhat more effective than others, but fretting over which one to use is silly.

If I was planning on learning a new language from scratch and I wanted to do some preparation before traveling to the country to do 100% immersion, I would probably do about 50% conversation practice through something like iTalki.com, and about 50% of some kind of beginner learning resource like Pimsleur, Duolingo, Teach Yourself, Rosetta Stone, etc.

The key to remember is that the non-speaking parts of learning are to supplement conversation practice, not to replace it. If your goal is to avoid using the language directly in real conversations, you’ve already picked the losing strategy.

How Do I Stick to Speaking the Language With Zero Ability?

This is also easier than it looks. The simplest option is just to open up Google translate, type whatever you want to say in English (or another language) and translate to the language you want to speak and try saying it to the other person.

If they understand you and say something back which you don’t understand, ask them to write it down (a hand gesture of writing with a pen is pretty universally understood for this) and then pop it back into Google Translate and see the result.

Your conversation doesn’t need to be fancy, fast-paced, or even make sense. Sometimes when I’m learning a new language I’ll list off a bunch of almost identical sentences to train up a certain grammatical pattern: “I like to swim.” “I like to run.” “I like to eat.” “I like to travel.” “I like to paint.” “Do you like to swim?” “Do you like to run?” and so on…

As you get to the level where you’ve memorized some basic phrasal patterns for saying “I want” “You want” “Where is?” etc. you can stop translating whole sentences and instead translate specific words. So you’ll look up the word for “chicken” instead of the whole sentence, “Do you like to eat chicken?”

This isn’t actually hard to do at all. The difficulty people have isn’t a mental one, but a social one. Doing these baby-talk sentences feels very awkward and there can be an intense embarrassment as you go from fully fluent adult to barely comprehensible toddler in your linguistic abilities.

The best thing you can do to get through this is to find a tutor or partner who (a) is either in the same boat as you, so therefore you don’t feel weird because their ability is also terrible or (b) understands what you’re trying to do and is supportive of it. If you have a tutor or partner who isn’t supportive, ditch them immediately and find another. Some tutors don’t understand this method of language learning. The problem is with them, not you.

Should I Do Anything Other Than Just Speaking?

When learning a language I don’t spend 100% of my time speaking. However, because the speaking part is the part most people avoid, I have to reemphasize: my strategy doesn’t work if you eliminate the speaking in the language part. Don’t skip over the parts you think are too hard and do the stuff you think is easy, because without the speaking all the other stuff doesn’t work.

However, assuming you actually have followed my advice and are spending at least 50% of your learning time in conversations, the next step of where to invest your time is up to you. I usually focus on aspects of the language that I can’t focus on enough while juggling the mental difficulties of a conversation but are nonetheless important. This may be different for different languages.

In Spanish, for instance, I found the conjugation system a little overwhelming. It was too hard to juggle saying what I meant and also making sure I was remembering the dozens of different forms a verb could take to indicate exactly what I wanted. To fix this, I bought grammar exercise books and worked through conjugation exercises until I had memorized all the major forms regular verbs take (and the most common irregular ones). Then, when I would speak, I could more quickly remember the form I needed.

In Chinese, in contrast, grammar wasn’t a huge issue. Instead I was plagued by pronunciation and vocabulary issues. Pronunciation, especially tones, were brutally hard in the beginning and it was difficult to juggle that with trying to speak. So I would do pronunciation drills to work on my tones. Vocabulary was also difficult because it shares few cognates with English. I felt that learning the characters would be an important mnemonic aid to learn new vocabulary, so I invested my non-speaking time doing a Anki decks which taught these.

These activities were helpful, but they’re a supplement, not a replacement to speaking.

I Don’t Want to Speak Yet, Is There Anything Else I Can Do?

I’ve tried almost every method for learning a language. Immersive practice is by far the most effective. And, yeah, it is scary and hard and you might not think you’re ready to do it. But, if you give it a shot you’ll often find yourself speaking much faster than you realize.

There are other ways to learn a language that are less intense and awkward. I’ve seen people who’ve started with reading or watching movies, and plowed through that until they have high listening comprehension. Other linguists swear by a passive listening approach rather than speaking.

If those methods work for you, then great. I just haven’t found they work very well for me. The reason in my mind is that most media you can learn from is either way too difficult to understand or designed for learners and therefore is boring to sit through. Watching movies without the subtitles on quickly gets frustrating once you’ve sat through a dozen or so hours of media you don’t understand.

The difference with conversation practice is that there’s an automatic difficulty adjustment—a real person. The person you’re speaking with, when they see you don’t understand, will automatically try to simplify to communicate. As a result, you can get into interesting conversation situations much sooner than you can get into interesting media.

It’s my opinion that, despite appearances, a passive studying approach to learning a language is actually a lot more difficult in the long run than just getting over the fear and starting speaking.

Concluding Remarks

The best strategy is to go to the country and opt for 100% immersion from Day 1. Not only does this maximize practice time, but it builds an environment that will support your learning in the future.

The second-best strategies are to find a partner or tutor who you commit to speaking to every day and only in the language you’re practicing. Pull out Google Translate or a dictionary to fill in any gaps. Do practice on your own to fill in your weak points but never more than 50% of your studying time and never as a substitution for actual conversation practice.

This strategy is difficult, mostly because adults can’t stand to not speak fluently. Unfortunately, you have to push through a low level of ability before you can get to a higher one, and so avoiding speaking usually prolongs the learning process.

Have a question about language learning I haven’t answered here? Write in the comments and I’ll do my best to follow-up with everyone!

  • lily

    Hello, Scott, I came across to your story and blog from my wechat circle today. I am Chinese, i am living in Austria and learning Korea now. So I could speak Chinese, English, German…….Korea a little bit. I must say that I am very happy to see your blog because I believe “no body can stop you being successful, except yourself”. Somehow, every day you are surrounded by different negative voices, such as “I don’t think it works”; “you put too much pressure on yourself”;”don’t you think it is so greedy to want so many things”. And your story and blog came in to my eyes at the moment when I really need a bit support with a positive voice.
    I like also very much to learn languages, especially Korea. To make the story short. I will only make some comments on your very interesting and helpful language learning skills.
    (1) 100% immersion works at some points but not always.
    I am talking all from my own experience. No means of judging your opinion.
    I had tried this 100% immersion strategy with German studying at A2 level. I had a native speaker who taught me German in German, it ended up with frustrating feeling and no interests of further studying.
    I tried it again after I already have certain vocabulary and grammatic, and I went to Germany where people speak “Hoch Deutsch”. I could manage to understand and talk with them with many mistakes. But I felt encouraged to keep doing it.
    To conclude, it does help you to also think in the language, which is very important in my opinion for learning a language. Because only when you think/fight/make jokes/even curse in this language, will bring you to another level of understanding the language and culture.
    (2) Postpone of talking will only prolong the learning process
    I am 120% agree with you(it is a Chinese way of saying I couldn’t agree with you more).
    Honestly, I am postponing of talking into Korean now. I have a very good native speaker teacher. Theoretically, I could speak with her 1.5h per week in Korean, but we only do some dialogues during the private course. Because I am a bit shamed…of not remembering the words, just learnt 5 mins ago. But I will change it immediately now from my next course.

    Above are my comments on your tips.
    Here I would like to share my experience. I call it “Ferment theory”
    I think that language needs time to launch in your brain or knowledge frame. By ferment, I mean that it takes time for me to get the feeling of a language, to a level that I could think in this language without translate into my mother languages when I talk.I heard very often from friends who talk sadly about their English skills. Because they don’t use it after school. They also don’t believe that they could pick it up again. But I think it is not true. Because the language memory is always there in their brains.

    I could manage to speak German after 1-2 years studying but I have always translate silently into Chinese or English in my mind. But after few years now, even I don’t study it for couple of months, and use English and Chinese in most time, only read from time to time in German, still I could feel that my understanding of the language ferments, so does the Germany way of thinking, it comes together with the language. Whenever I have 1-2 weeks time, I work intensively on German in order to pass an exam, I could feel the difference of my understanding. Of course, I forget some words because I don’t use them very often, but many words make more sense for me after all.

    To conclude, the earlier you start to “touch” a language, the early it will ferment. Maybe after 1 year, or 2 or 7 in my case of German. For those people who have ever learned a language but gave up for different reason, don’t doubt of picking it up again.

    At then end, I would like to share a Korean learning tool, may you know already. It is TTMIK, talk to me in Korea, it is a radio, video show, they have also books. I found it is very interesting and they are teaching in English.

    I wish you good luck of Chinese and Korean learning. 加油哦!

  • Arthur Guerrero

    Lily,
    Great long comment! I’m currently in the process of learning my 3rd language, French. I’m using the Duolingo app and now that I’ve read Scott’s tips, I need to find someone I can speak french with a few times out of the week. Also, I like your Ferment Theory!

    If you like reading blogs with positive messages, check out alearningaday.com . I’m not affiliated with it in anyway. I’m just a fan of it for almost 1.5 years now. Everyday there is a new post that is either interesting, informative or positive. I’m sure you’ll like Rohan’s (writer of blog) writing.

  • LalalaTank

    I just recently decided to start learning Mandarin, mostly by myself sadly since there aren’t very many Chinese people around who could help me and I can’t really travel at the moment. BUT I did find a couple of guys online who are also learning and so we’re helping each other out, I hope to use your method from now on and try to speed up my learning of this very challenging language.

    The tones are just awful and hard to learn at the moment I feel quite incompetent, and on top of that I don’t know how to pronounce some of the compound finals but I’ll get there. Hopefully having people to work with and maybe speed up my progress will get rid of the frustration and eventually I’ll find a native to practice with and correct all the problems I have in my pronunciation. Thanks a lot for this article, I’ve been a fan of yours for quite a while, keep it up.

  • John

    Hi Scott,

    Do you still use anki regularly for all your languages? At what point do you give it up?

  • Scott Young

    I keep up my review queues, but I’ve stopped adding new cards.

    I don’t really have a principled stance here. If it were truly inconvenient I might start to evaluate the long-tail usefulness of them, but for now I don’t mind.

  • Scott Young

    The pronunciation takes practice.

    My advice is to not sweat the tones too much in the beginning. Instead focus on imitating how other people speak and say it like they do. I find when people learn via imitation they tend to get the tones right, it’s only when they try to be deliberate (say pronouncing a new word with a particular tonal combination they’ve never heard before) that they tend to screw it up. Also your ear will adjust with more practice and you’ll pick it out over time. I definitely feel like I overemphasized tones in the beginning because I thought if I didn’t get them right immediately I’d be doomed (which I don’t feel is correct, now).

  • Eng We

    I wouldn’t recommend Rosetta Stone (and Duolingo, to a lesser extent) as useful non-speaking activities to boost one’s language abilities. It’s too easy to adopt a gaming, completionist attitude, and at the end of three months, not be able to hold a basic conversation with a native speaker (happened to me with Rosetta stone for Portuguese and Duolingo for Italian).

    During non-speaking hours, I recommend Anki (the community-made decks are sometimes very professionally done) and Pimsleur (can’t go wrong with this).

  • LalalaTank

    Thanks a lot for your reply Scott.

    I find that for the pronunciation, the videos that explain how you should position your tongue and the shape of your lips to be really helpful. So now I pay a lot of attention to that whenever I watch a video about mandarin and things like that.

    There is something I would really like to hear your opinion on, since I’m mostly teaching myself through classes in coursera and the assimil books, what is a good way to self examine my progress outside of talking to others?. Mind you, I do talk to my two non-native friends but when I don’t have them or a native speaker, what should be my weekly goal so that I can aim towards it and feel some sense of progress?. Should I start learning characters at the same time, maybe with anki decks, should I try to learn about a specific topic and try to have a conversation about it? should I try to learn X number of new words/characters per week? or should I just focus on learning the content of the book and online courses and let that be the benchmark?.

    A lot of online resources suggest to ignore characters for a few months while you’re still getting familiar with tones and the pronunciation, so I’m not sure if I should tackle characters. Thanks again for your feedback.

  • Firas Sawaf

    I definitely agree with everything you suggest, Scott.
    Here are my best tips when I’m asked by friends:
    – Chat to native speakers for no reason at all, anything will do
    – Don’t try to workout everything in your head before saying it
    – Have a few well rehearsed openings, like “is there…?”, “I think…” etc
    – Launch into what you want to say right away, using one of your openings
    – Figure out how to get your meaning across along the way
    – If you get stuck partway, abandon all grammar and just say the 2 or 3 keywords
    – Before long you’ll get to say more in your 10 seconds of each exchange
    – Don’t overthink grammar, you’ll eventually just know what sounds right
    – Think in the language all day long “I can’t find my keys”, “I’m feeling hungry” etc
    – Imitating foreign pronunciation feels like acting, that’s fine, it’s normal
    – It is said you don’t learn a language, you live a language
    – Enjoy your new life!

  • Bjarke Tan

    What do you do if you want to improve a language you already know how to speak?

  • Scott Young

    I think as you get into the intermediate-to-advanced arena, you need to start setting more fine-grained goals. Just “improving a language” isn’t a narrow enough goal anymore, you need to be more specific (like I want to be able to deliver speeches in language X, read literature or watch movies fluently).

  • Scott Young

    I’ve done a bit with Duolingo (never Rosetta Stone) and I think it can help, but again, only in the context of regular background speaking practice. You’re correct that many people opt for using these apps instead of using the language to their detriment.

  • Scott Young

    Use iTalki.com to find people to speak with. Honestly, until you’re at the level where holding a basic conversation is possible, I wouldn’t focus on anything else.

    Learning the characters can be a good supplemental activity, but even then I’d recommend caution as it can be easy to slip into acquiring new characters believing you’re making progress but lacking the relevant conversational foundation to ground that knowledge in. The goal isn’t to become a character dictionary but someone who can communicate in Chinese.

  • LalalaTank

    I actually met a native in r/language_exchange the other day and we had a chat, which was awkward as hell since I sound like Tarzan, it was some painful 20-30 minutes we had with him correcting almost everything I said before we switched to me helping him with English. Chinese pronunciation and tones are definitely challenging but I felt like I learned a ton from that experience. Also had a few practice sessions with my two non-native friends who are also learning Mandarin and I feel they help me improve how awkward I sound and feel speaking Mandarin.

    You are right, no point in learning a lot of words/characters if I won’t be able to use them when I need during conversation. I do not know how to write yet but I do recognize some 30ish characters when I see them in music videos and things of that nature. I remember what Vat said in your China video that the initial shame is quite bad but I hope in some weeks/months that will wear off when I feel competent using basic ways of communicating. Thanks a lot for your feedback Scott, I’ll try to find some more people online to practice with more often and focus on these sessions to measure my progress.

  • Keri Peardon

    I’ve always wondered at around what point you start thinking in your target language? While I made decent grades in Spanish in high school, I always felt like I was a failure because I was so slow at it. Mentally, when I would hear a sentence, I would translate it word by word into English, then, once I knew what was said, I would come up with my response in English, then translate it word by word back into Spanish before speaking.

    But I know there comes a point at which you hear something and automatically know what it means without having to translate it into English, and you come up with your response in the target language without starting in English first. I just wonder at what point that happens.

  • Scott Young

    I’m not sure how to think about the question. I feel like we tend to have poor intuitions about what is going on in our own heads so the idea of “thinking” in another language is likely to be somewhat misleading.

    My personal intuition is that you tend to “think” things in a nonlinguistic way which later bubbles up into words and sentences. My feeling is that the mental inventory of concepts in the world tend to be tied to different languages, and words in different languages tend to be tied to each other, so when you think of a concept it will probably activate multiple words, possibly in different languages. If the language is imprinted deeply it may activate the foreign language with enough force that there isn’t much hesitation to find the word you’re seeking in that language (especially with the joint activation of other foreign-language words which helps you separate languages from each other).

    So essentially, the words and expressions you use most will come up automatically without any trace of the English word, the moderately common words will activate the English alongside it so it can be difficult to say which is more dominant (but by the time you speak the word the English one has been suppressed), and the infrequent words have their English translation jump out first so a slower search process needs to occur before you can find the corresponding word in another language.

    Your sense that you “think” in a language, will probably correspond to the proportion of the words and expressions which first pop up in the language you’re trying to speak rather than English, but if you’re better at English than the other language and you’re using somewhat infrequent words, you’ll probably always have some words that pop up first for English and therefore give you the feeling that you’re not “thinking” in that language as you prepare what you’re trying to say.

  • Thanks for the informative post Scott. I agree that people really need to immerse themselves in the language in order to get real results.

    You mentioned the fact that using materials like movies and books in the second language are frustrating for you since without subtitles it’s really hard to understand them. Have you tried the listening-reading method for books? It really helped me with my vocabulary and listening comprehension. For example if you are learning Spanish, you get an audiobook in Spanish accompanied with the book text in both Spanish and English (usually in parallel text format so you can match the English sentence with the Spanish sentence). Then as the Spanish audio plays, you’ll be immersed in Spanish and if you get lost or don’t know a phrase, you’ll be able to refer to the English text as you are listening. It’s explained in more detail here: http://learnanylanguage.wikia.com/wiki/Listening-Reading_Method

    I used that over the past year and I swear by the results. If you are learning Spanish and are in lack of materials to try it, I created an app to help with my studies that you can use. It’s pre-loaded with 32 novels already and syncs the Spanish audio with the Spanish and English text for easy reading. You can check it out here: https://diveintoespanol.com

  • LalalaTank

    I have to thank you Scott, I posted here about a month ago and I’ve made a lot of progress since. Since last I commented here I found a wealth of language exchange partners through a website called hellolingo, in fact, I have so many now that I’m having trouble scheduling so many practice sessions. I guess there’s just way way more Chinese people wanting to learn English than foreigners wanting to learn Chinese, so there’s no lack of partners if you know where to look.

    I do about 2 hours of self study every day and then 2 to 3 hours of practice with language partners, my tones still suck, same for my pronunciation of R and I can’t pronounce Z and C differently enough that it’s correct but baby steps I suppose. I usually try to practice basic phrases like you said I like X or Y or Z, or Today the weather is hot(I have trouble saying 热) or cold, today I wake up at X,Y or Z o’clock or go to work or go to school, nothing fancy. It really gets a lot easier once you get over that initial embarrassment and I’m beginning to have fun, I honestly look forward to studying just so I can try to use it with my new friends.

    I applied a lot of what you mentioned here and I’m finding learning Chinese to be an overwhelming but manageable and fun challenge.

  • Raquel

    Hi Scott,

    I love your blog and I find your personal projects really inspiring. I’m using some of your methods to improve my German. I was wondering, do you have any particular process to learn a new software as you do with languages? Did you find a more efficient way of learning them without the classic way of doing lots of tutorials until you get use to the program?
    Thanks for all your valuable information!

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