This blog has been turned into a book: Zilch to Conversational
Language learning is an understandably daunting task. There are many programs out there that will claim to have you learn a new language in no time at all. But how do you know which one to trust? The decision is hard for many, and with this article I will provide you with notes on a system that I have tried and know to be very effective!
I began my journey to learn Spanish in October with 40+ hours of online research to understand the best and most efficient way to learn a language. Below are my summary notes largely based on Gabriel Wyner’s book Fluent Forever. I recommend this book and think it is a great tool for learning a new language.
Hopefully, these notes will help you to avoid the common mistakes and pitfalls of learning a new language. There are methods out there to seriously decrease your studying time and have you picking up a foreign language faster than you thought possible.
These are tried and tested skills, and help you to pick up on languages with great efficiency. This article will run you through the key points of this valuable book, which will help to provide a foundation for your language learning. Let’s get started:
The whole concept is based on the Spaced Repetition System. You need to research this to understand why it is so powerful. Likely it will become a tool you use for the rest of your life to memorize anything.
Essentially, the Spaced Repetition System is a tool to help you memorize and learn something. It can be used for many things, but its application in learning a foreign language is very powerful.
Spaced repetition, if used effectively, is quite a complicated system based on complex algorithms. But the gist of it is similar to using flashcards. You see a word in another language, test yourself to see if you know it, and then reveal the answer to yourself.
What makes spaced repetition unique is that it spaces out the time between you seeing each word, and also ensures that you see the word enough times, while also ensuring that enough time has passed so that you are forced to dig into your memory to find the definition.
Yes, it does sound complicated, but luckily you don’t have to know the science behind it. There are many apps and helping hands out there to help lower the learning curve and help you to learn a foreign language fast. Additionally, the constant feedback and recognition that you know more and more words will up your motivation to keep going.
Anki is an application for both your computer and phone that will allow you to use the SRS system. Download it and learn how to use it. I find that learning 30 new cards per day is maximum and I lower it to 10 if I’m learning advanced words or grammar rules.
A very important note: Each flashcard should have one answer. Do not force yourself to recall 7 conjugations of a single word with one flashcard as this will not help you recall quickly during a conversation.
Two URLs that you will frequently use are:
The first step in your learning is simply to become accustomed with the basics of the language. This includes the type of sounds that are made, the alphabet, and how to pronounce different types of words. This gives you a great baseline so that you can continue to learn the language and grow your vocabulary.
Pronunciation guide. This will introduce you to all the sounds of a language and teach you how to properly make them with your mouth. Learning the International Phonetic Alphabet will prove useful. The videos introduce you to how to make any sound. Hint: Every sound on Earth has to do with where your lips are, where your tongue is, whether or not your voice box is moving, and if the air is going through your nose, mouth, or both. Mimic Method is a solid resource here.
These are both great resources to get you started on a foreign language. They teach you the baseline of how to say and pronounce words, and then you can move on to actually learning what the words and the grammar actually mean.
Create minimal pairs flashcards to rewire your brain to hear new sounds (an example of a minimal pair in English is ‘wide’ and ‘wise’. If you were learning English, you would add this card into your Anki)
This minimal pairs method helps you to distinguish especially tricky and similar sounding words. You will find that if you are able to point out the difference between the most similar sounding words and pronunciations, then you will be well equipped to not only pick up on the differences between words, but you will be able to start pronouncing them yourself.
Now that you have covered the basics of how pronunciation works and how to identify different sounds within the language you are learning, you can move on to learning what these words mean, you can start to learn vocabulary, and you can learn how to string it all together with proper grammar.
Of course, this is a lot of memorization work, and it does require commitment, but here are some techniques to make this big task seem a bit easier:
Memorize the languages most common words. Usually around 600 words make up 80% of spoken language, including cognates. You can search ‘frequency list [target language]’.
These are the most important words to learn first, as if you are able to understand the most common words that are used, you will be able to understand a big chunk of a language’s conversation. And of course, based on simple odds, it makes more sense to learn these words first.
Find conversation partners. Finding a conversation partner can be an excellent way to learn a language. Either use www.ITalki.com or go on www.CouchSurfer.com and message folks in target language to talk to you in exchange or a meal or coffee. Fluent in 3 Months has a forum dedicated to this.
The conversational method is proven to be effective, as it essentially forces you to be able to understand, otherwise, you can’t properly respond!
Buy a grammar book. (If you have a teacher, you do not need this). Use the book to create flashcards with grammar rules using a common sentence. Sometimes a great way to learn something is to take your time and read about the rules. While it should be combined with conversation as well, a book can be a great tool for learning grammar.
Buy a phrase book. This way you will not get caught up while speaking with natives when they use common phrases that don’t have exact translations based on the words you know.
Buy a familiar, low-level book in the target language with the audio. Read along with the audio and this will train your ears. You MUST focus here. Don’t passively listen, instead actively listen. It is ok to stop the audio to look up a word or sentence. The goal is just to understand the whole book from start to finish.
You can also buy a book of short stories in the target language which will identify new words, have short chapters, and ask a few multiple choice questions at the end of each chapter. Note: If you choose the wrong things to read, you will stop reading in the target language. For example, I bought a newspaper and it was extremely unenjoyable because it was too advanced, the text was too formal (goal is to speak and listen well), and the subjects didn’t interest me (not to mention they were all sad!)
Watch TV series/cartoons in the target language with subtitles in the target language. Eventually, you can turn off the subtitles. Avoid comedy until you are advanced. Read a summary of the episode in the target language before watching.
By having subtitles, you will begin to associate the words that are being said with the proper meanings. Just be sure to be actively listening, not just a passive watch. Try to connect the words in the subtitles to the words said on screen.
Of course, these are not the only resources that you can use to learn a new language. There are plenty of things out there that can help. Below I have included a whole section on other things that can help you to learn a new language.
The key throughout this article, and a major point in your quest to learn a new language is to follow a formula. A language is a massive thing to learn, with many rules, many words, and many tricks. Therefore, applying a formula, and learning important things before others will really speed up your progress.
The method that I covered, along with spaced repetition techniques, is a great tool to learning any language. Starting by learning basic pronunciation and sounds, and then moving onto learning vocabulary and grammar, are an excellent method to pick up a language. For more details on these strategies, pick up Fluent Forever and get started now.
Of course, there are just so many tips and tricks out there to learn a new language that I couldn’t include them all in the section above. Here are a bunch of helpful tricks for learning a new language. Some will work for you better than others, so the key is to find the ones that work best for you. The formula above is great, but there are many ways to learn a language, so here’s some inspiration: