How to Start Learning Any Language

Kanji by Chrissam42
If you’ve been through traditional language classes, you know how awful they tend to be. Chances are, unless you took measures outside of those classes to build up your ability, you barely speak the language that was being taught now that you’ve been out of the class for more than a year or two. I honestly think, in America anyway, that the poorly designed language classes we all go through are the main reason learning a new language is viewed as such a Herculean task.

The problem with these classes is they teach a second language like it’s just about knowledge. It’s treated the same way a history or math test might be. You’re asked to memorize and digest information and rules, and then regurgitate that information onto a test or vocally from time to time. As I mentioned previously when posting about the method I’m using for my language learning challenge, speaking a new language is a skill.

You don’t get to be a very good archer spending 90% of your time reading books on archery, memorizing techniques and watching other people shoot. Nor would you learn to be a very good swimmer reading books about swimming and watching other people swim to study their technique. Sure, those things might help. If you really want to get good though, you have to go out and do it.

For languages, that means ditching all those lessons and just getting out there to chat with some native speakers.

You may be saying, ‘That sounds great, but I don’t speak a single word of [target language]. How do you expect me to go talk to people in it?’

Obviously you can’t just go out and have conversations with people in your target language if you’ve just started learning, if you could do that you wouldn’t need to learn. You have to start somewhere. So I’ve compiled a short list of things that you should know first and foremost to start talking.

The Basics

This is hardly comprehensive, but is actually more than you need to get started. Feel free to add some to the list, but don’t get bogged down with grammar study. You don’t gain fluency hunched over a book memorizing rules for the subjunctive clause, you gain it by practicing.

The Grammar

  1. Learn the basic structure of a sentence.
  2. Learn how to conjugate for past, present and future tense.
  3. Learn how to form the interrogative / ask a question.
  4. Learn how to form the negative.

You can actually stop here. The rest can be picked up from native speakers. Say ‘It is I water’ and have enough people tell you that you mean to say ‘my water’ and pretty soon you’ll understand possessive forms without ever looking up grammar rules. For those of you who like to do a little more studying, you can flesh things out a bit with the following.

  1. Learn how plurals work.
  2. Learn how the possessive works.
  3. Learn how modals (can, will, may, might etc.) work.
  4. Learn how prepositions / locations work.
  5. Learn how comparatives & superlatives work (-er, -est etc.)
  6. Learn how conjunctions work.

That should be more than enough grammar to allow you to start talking to people. Keep in mind, not all of these may apply, and some from the second list may be too advanced to worry about right now. Don’t worry about it, at least get the first four down and move on. Now you need some words to use with all those grammar rules you learned.

The Vocabulary

There are three different methods I’m fond of for learning new vocabulary, all of which are based off of that old standard the 80/20 principle. The idea here is to learn the most used, most important words first, and then pick up the rest as you go along. The first of those methods involves using frequency lists.

Frequency lists, as the name implies, are lists of the most frequently used words. Unsurprisingly, about 80% of conversation is made up of only about 20% of the vocabulary, after which the returns for learning additional vocabulary diminish rapidly. The idea behind frequency lists is that by learning the most frequently used words first, you maximize the benefit to time investment ratio. Knowing the word for ‘defenestrate’ (or even something more mundane like ‘ski lift’) is nice, but not likely to come up until you already have enough language skill to ask what it means.

Frequency lists can be found on Wiktionary in a variety of languages, or you can find one for English and look the words up in the target language. Keep in mind though that there’s not always a 1 to 1 translation for words between two languages.

The second option is to find an average text in your target language. A Google search for a newspaper in your target language should get you one (hint: look up the word for ‘news’ in your target language and search for that). If you don’t want news, look on Amazon in the target language for a book on a topic that really interests you. Once you have your target language newspaper or book or whatever, start trying to read it. Every time you hit a word you don’t know, look it up.

This will honestly get extremely tiresome, and the first page will probably take you an hour or two to get through at least. If you keep at it though, you’ll quickly find that you need to look less and less up. Even better, since a newspaper is likely to use very common words, and since any publication is likely to repeat words regularly, you get a nice, focused spaced-repetition system for learning new vocab.

The last (and my least favorite) is to go about your day and every time you do or see something, jot it down to look up in your target language. Before long most of the things you come across or do will have been learned, and you can start branching out into more uncommon words. I say this is my least favorite because it’s somewhat impractical, some people have said they had a lot of success with it though, so I suppose if the above two methods didn’t work for you this may be a last resort option.

Have anything else you think should be added? Be sure to share it. In the end remember that what’s going to help the most is to get speaking as quickly as possible.

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • David Levon Rogers

    Hey Adam, I first want to thank you for all your posts! They are inspiring to say the very least! I am learning Korean and I read about you challenge and I must say congrats! This post is really helpful to me as it shows what I should focus on. I know this blog post is older, but I have a question. I’ve recently learned all the “necessary” grammar points to start speaking and I’ve been using Memrise and have about 210 words of the most common words in my “longterm memory”. However, when it comes to speaking I just keep drawing a blank, I know the words and can understand when I hear or read them. So my question is, was it like this for you? If so, how did you get over it?

    • Thanks! I had a lot of issues speaking when I first started, although it was back when I was learning Japanese (my first second language). I knew that I ‘knew’ the grammar, but anytime I wanted to talk to someone it was like my brain abandoned ship due to the pressure / performance anxiety or whatever and I just drew a blank.

      As a result I tended to speak ‘caveman style’ (Me go store yesterday, etc.) rather than in proper sentences. I stuck with it though, particularly since people still understood me most of the time, and eventually as I became more comfortable speaking with people the grammar came out more naturally.

      It sounds counter-intuitive, but in my experience the best way to have a good practice conversation is to stop trying so hard to have a good practice conversation. Letting the native speakers guide the conversation helped me a lot too, as well as having a handful of questions about their profession or family or other things to fall back on in a pinch when things needed a jump start.

      Hope that helps!