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…

  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. [Tweet “I expect language learning to take a long time. I'm not in any rush. I want to enjoy it.”]
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. It's usually better to go back and revise something you learnt recently, than to go ahead and learn something new.learn a new language
  20. 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.
  21. 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.


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!

Image: masraa

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