Here’s a five step process for getting started with learning a new language.
I’ve experimented with a few different methods and resources for language learning – this guide is the product of that experimentation!
I’ve still got a long way to go with my language learning journey but I hope that this guide helps you all skip a few of the steps I’ve taken so far!
By the end of this guide you will have all the resources required for a quick and simple daily routine of language learning.
Why do it?
As you’re already here, I’m guessing that you’ve already got your own reason to learn a language! If you’re not yet convinced that learning a language is for you, there’s a great list of reasons to learn a language over at Omniglot
What do you need?
- Either a computer with a browser or a smartphone
My method makes use of technology to make getting started with language learning ridiculously simple.
I use Memrise – that’s it. It’s available via browser or as an app for Apple, Android or Google phones (apparently there’s no Windows phone app unfortunately). Oh and it’s free!
There are lots of other apps and resources available – some I’ve tried, many I haven’t. What I love about Memrise is two things:
- It’s really, really simple
- It uses a learning methodology that is backed up by learning theory (more on that in the next step)
So either download the app or head over to Memrise.
Learning theory can be pretty mind-bending. Whilst researching language learning I came across a whole treasure trove of insight on how and why we remember and forget things. But that’s for a later post.
For now, I’ll just introduce the concept of Spaced Repetition.
Our brains forget things over time (makes sense) and the amount of time it takes for us to forget something is correlated to the number of times we have practised it (hopefully still makes sense).
All we have to do is make sure that we practise things frequently enough that we don’t forget them. Each time we practise something, our brain is able to remember it for longer. So each time we practise, we have longer before we have to practise again.
This should fit with experience – as you get better at something, you can go longer and longer without needing to practise it before you need a reminder of how to do it.
The really cool part of this is the actual application of the theory – this is Spaced Repetition. Really smart people (like Robert Bjork and Piotr Wozniak) have developed algorithms to determine how often we need to practise.
That’s how Memrise works – you practise only as often as you need to.
Now that you know the science behind Memrise, it’s time to get started.
You can browse (on both the app and the website) for courses. Memrise actually isn’t just for learning languages – the Spaced Repetition method works for learning anything! However the majority of their courses are language courses so that’s what you’ll mostly see when you browse.
You’ll be offered a list of languages (with the most common ones at the top). Pick a language and you’ll be presented with either (depending on whether you’re on the app or the website) a list of all the courses or a suggestion of the best course to start with.
It’s worth pointing out that whilst there are courses created by Memrise themselves, the vast majority are created by the Memrise community. This means there are a ton of options and it could be a little overwhelming.
But don’t fear! You can see how many people have taken a course – I’ve just picked courses that are popular and am yet to have any problems!
Pick the course that fits your existing knowledge level and click the ‘Start learning’ button!
Now to the practicalities.
Memrise has two types of ‘session’ – learning sessions and review sessions.
They’re pretty much just what they sound like. In learning sessions you learn things for the first time. You complete a certain number of repetitions, learning the word in various ways (hearing the word in the foreign language and picking the translation in your language from a list, reading the word in the foreign language… etc!).
As you complete the repetitions you get closer to fully learning the word for the first time. Your progress is indicated by a little cartoon of a flower – first you plant the seed, then you watch as it gradually grows. Once it’s a fully-formed flower, you’ve learnt the word!
As you complete learning sessions you will build up a list of words that you’ve learnt. As explained above, you need to practise to ensure that you won’t forget the words. That’s where review sessions come in.
The Memrise algorithm will determine when you need to practise words and will prompt you to complete review sessions for those words whenever you need to. These are simplified versions of the learning sessions, where you just complete a few repetitions to ensure you maintain your understanding.
As with anything, the more time you spend on learning, the quicker you will learn!
Clearly we aren’t all going to spend hours every day on language learning – we have other things to do!
I keep my routine super simple. I aim to practise for 10 minutes each day. I spend these 10 minutes as follows:
- I open the app and go straight to any review sessions I have outstanding. When Memrise prompts you to review a word it’s because the Memrise algorithm thinks that you’re pretty close to forgetting it. So I complete my review sessions first to ensure that I get there in time. Leave a word for too long and you might forget it entirely, sending you back to the start of the learning process for that word!
- Once I’m done with my review sessions I move onto new learning sessions. I complete as many as I can in the remaining time
Whilst I’m certainly not learning at a rapid pace, I think it’s more important to be consistent. My routine allows me to keep up with my previously learnt words (I generally have around 10 to review each day at the moment, which just takes 2 or 3 minutes) and learn a few new words each day.
So that would be my final recommendation – do whatever works for you and do it consistently!
Spread the word
Enjoyed what you just read? Please share this guide with your friends so that they can comment with their thoughts and suggestions!
Once you’ve got familiar with the basic learning routine, check out some of the following resources for further information on grammar and other more technical stuff:
Fluent in 3 Months – An awesome blog by Benny, a guy who has learnt a ton of languages and picked up endless knowledge along the way. He also has premium language learning courses / services that I haven’t used – the blog is free (and great).
dict.cc – A free online dictionary. Has audio clips, examples and lots of other stuff that I’m yet to discover.