21 principles for learning a new language

language learning principlesSo you want to learn a new language.

What do you do?

I have certain language learning principles that I strongly believe in, and I thought I’d share them with you here.

These principles are things that, through a lot of trial and error, I’ve found work for me, and they guide me through the first few months of learning, and beyond.

Any specific study decisions that I make (exercises, methods, technology etc) are all made in light of these principles, so I thought it would be helpful to set them out clearly.

As I write this, I’m just starting to learn Egyptian Arabic in preparation for a move to Cairo, so you’ll see me putting these principles into practice over the next month.

Here goes.[wpsr_facebook]

  1. I have a lot of questions about the language and culture – but they mustn’t prevent me from getting started.
  2. Getting started is the hardest part, so I start today. If I don’t have any resources yet, I’ll make do with what I can find and get started anyway.
  3. I know nothing about the language. But instead of worrying about that, I look forward to learning about it. It’s a reason to be excited, not to be scared.
  4. My initial knowledge will come mostly from commercially produced language materials. That’s what they’re for.
  5. Speaking with native speakers will quickly become scary if I don’t do it soon. Therefore, I will start speaking in the first week.
  6. At the beginning, I won’t understand anything and everything I say will be wrong. That’s fine. The aim is to beat the fear of speaking and get started, not to show off my (non-existant) knowledge.
  7. I have no reason to be embarrassed when speaking for the first time. The other person will know it’s my first time, and they’ll have agreed to help me. Fair deal.
  8. It’s better to learn a bit of the language before going to the country. That way I can avoid “defaulting” into English when I first arrive.
  9. Pronunciation is a priority for the first month. I don’t want any bad habits to creep in. All the more reason to work with a native speaker.
  10. Even in my native language, I don’t randomly chat to people in the street. Therefore, I don’t feel any need to talk to strangers in my new language.
  11. Now that I’ve done away with the pressure of talking to strangers, I should focus on finding 2-3 people who I can practise with regularly. They can be friends, teachers or language exchange (tandem) partners. iTalki is my best friend.
  12. I tend to get bored easily. Therefore, I need a few different resources to keep me entertained.
  13. If at any point I feel like I’m burning out, or other things in my life get in the way, I will take time off.
  14. I don’t set long-term goals. They only bore and frustrate me when I fail to stick to them. Instead, I have my own system of short-term, focused activities based on my priority at the time, which I call Sprints.
  15. There are two procedural things that will bring me 80% of my progress in the new language. Firstly: speaking with people. Secondly: a routine of studying little and often.
  16. In terms of the language itself, my #1 priority for the first 6 months is to build vocabulary. Pretty much everything else I can figure out as I go along.
  17. I don’t remember much of what I read. I remember even less of what I hear. But I remember a lot of what I read and hear.
  18. learn a new languageIt’s usually better to go back and revise something you learnt recently, than to go ahead and learn something new.
  19. 99% of what people will tell you about “how you should learn your new language” is either wrong and misguided (at worst) or simply not relevant to you (at best). The quickest way to improve is to reflect on your progress, identify what you’re weakest at, and make your own decisions about how to proceed.
  20. Grammar is best learnt as and when I need it. I will certainly absorb any grammatical knowledge that comes my way, but I will not let fear of incorrect grammar stop me to do anything.

Hopefully, this list will have given you some insight into how I’m approaching the task of learning Arabic.

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If you’d like to follow my progress in Arabic over the coming year, feel free to sign up to my newsletter by using the form below. I’ll send you things that don’t make it onto the blog, including free language learning books that I’ll be giving away to readers each month.

I’d love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment or question below. Sharing this post on Facebook also helps me out!

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Image: masraa

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • Bob

    About #19 revise, I like to re-read Assimil lessons before moving on to the next lesson. I go back 3-5 lessons and read them again. It does my review and I have a running start at the new lesson.

    • Hi Bob. I do pretty much exactly the same thing. After moving on, I’ll often go back to a previous lessons for weeks afterward… there’s always more to pick up!

  • Brad Stokes

    I think #14 is great a short break of a few days can save you weeks or months of lost time if you push to far.

    • Yeah.. it’s happened to me before. If you push too hard and lose the will to study, it can be difficult to get it back.

  • Nice list! I particularly like 2, 5 and 10. Re: 19, I think that people are often so focused on moving forward that they underestimate the importance of going backwards sometimes.

    • Brad Stokes

      So true about #19. When you study education in general, the importance of reflection for consolidation of learning cannot be overstated. Pausing to reflect or re-evaluate can cement an idea so much better. Plus there is the proven increase to memory retention if a subject is revisited multiple times in the first week and once a week for the next few weeks and finally every other month or so. It is the basis to all flash card systems.

      • I think of it like a huge, macro “spaced repetition system” for lessons rather than for vocabulary! 🙂

    • Hi Stephanie…absolutely!

  • Alberto De Carli

    Great list! i like all of them! i have my personal one which i try to follow every day, and i think i’ll add some of your hints, expecially 2,5,14,17,20. Olly Keep on providing us tons of useful articles likes this one!

  • Perfect! Love this list! 🙂

  • I am a YouTuber from Thailand. I am currently attendign a college in the US, which is quite a rare thing for someone from my socio-economic background. I make YouTube video to inspire other Thai students to realize their potentials, set their goals and dreams and JUST DO IT.

    I think another point that you could add here, just to bee a little more blunt, is that you should not be afraid or ashamed to be wrong. Why? Because you will! You will say something wrong, mix up vocabs, confused the locals and much more. There will definitely be some funny/ embarrassing moment, but anyone should recognize that this is part of the learning process. YOU WILL BE WRONG AND IT IS NATURAL TO DO SO!

    Embrace the mistakes! They only make you memorize the language faster! LOL

    Here are the points that I REALLY REALLY DO AGREE 🙂

    Getting started is the hardest part, so I start today. If I don’t have any resources yet, I’ll make do with what I can find and get started anyway.
    Speaking with native speakers will quickly become scary if I don’t do it soon. Therefore, I will start speaking in the first week.
    At the beginning, I won’t understand anything and everything I say will be wrong. That’s fine. The aim is to beat the fear of speaking and get started, not to show off my (non-existant) knowledge.
    I have no reason to be embarrassed when speaking for the first time. The other person will know it’s my first time, and they’ll have agreed to help me. Fair deal.
    I know nothing about the language. But instead of worrying about that, I look forward to learning about it. It’s a reason to be excited, not to be scared.

    I expect language learning to take a long time. I’m not in any rush. I want to enjoy it.
    99% of what people will tell you about “how you should learn your new language” is either wrong and misguided (at worst) or simply not relevant to you (at best). The quickest way to improve is to reflect on your progress, identify what you’re weakest at, and make your own decisions about how to proceed.
    Grammar is best learnt as and when I need it. I will certainly absorb any grammatical knowledge that comes my way, but I will not let fear of incorrect grammar stop me to do anything.

    • Hi Uzma, that’s a really great point! Trying to frame mistakes as an essential part of the learning process is one of the best ways to start to overcome them!

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