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how to learn a language


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So you want to learn another language, but you aren't sure what method to use. We'll look at how to make a language learning notebook so that you can structure your time and attack grammar, vocabulary, and transcription. This is my simplified version of a Russian guide someone on the How to Learn Any Language forums translated into English.

(When I started typing, I ended up talking about a bunch of stuff, it's important, but the actual instructions on how to make a language notebook are below. It's simple. I might post more random stuff here from things other people suggest.)

Even busy people can use this method. Do you have 30 minutes a day? If so, you can do this. And I guarantee everyone reading this has at least 90 minutes a day they can spare... If not, you should probably rethink your life a little bit. There are a lot of places where there is an opportunity to study we unfortunately do not take advantage of. Do you have a lunch break at work? Use some of that time. Waiting in line for 4 hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles? Use some of that time. Long bus ride? Dive into a grammar book.

I'm going to mention this first, because I think you should do this first before making a language learning notebook:

Learning another language is super controversial, but generally once you get to an intermediate level, most people stop arguing about what method to use and just advise that you hear and see the language a lot, and attempt to speak it and write it yourself. I think when you first start learning a language, you should gather a bunch of media, like movies/music/TV shows in your target language. Radio is still the best if you're learning a somewhat obscure language. If you're reading this, you have access to the internet, so you'll be able to find something (unless you want to learn sanskrit or whatever). Just google "swahili radio" or something (or even better, find out what "swahili radio" is in swahili, and you're more likely to find something). Listen to all that stuff, maybe have music in your target language playing softly in the background so you can get used to hearing it/cast away the "foreign feel".

While you're gathering media, you should casually read about the grammar so you can see how it differs from English, or any other languages you know if you were lucky enough to grow up in a multilingual household. Be prepared for anything and everything. If you're learning some exotic language that diverged from English's ancestor 10,000+ years ago, it's going to be completely and totally different, so you have to learn how to stop "thinking English". If you think to yourself, "This language makes no sense, it's all sht." Well, that's your English mind with all its biases and limitations kicking in. Also, English probably doesn't make any sense to everyone learning it. English has so many irregular verbs, there's not much of a pattern when looking at the structure of words in order to figure out what it's doing in the sentence. We do silly things like switch the subject and predicate when forming a question, and a lot of other things... Every language is going to have a boundary, if it's a language that was manifested in a culture vastly different from European culture, it will have vastly different boundaries. It will blow your mind, so don't assume anything.

This is why I hate the way school teaches languages, because it's generally "Lesson 1, Lesson 2, Lesson 3 ..." It's inexcusable that a student has to wait like 3 semesters just to see or get exposed to most of the grammar. This is bad because there is no coherence between everything they're learning. Also textbooks often ... lie, or they just intentionally hold back information so you don't get hit with a bunch of stuff at the same time. I have a tagalog book that committed heresy by actually referring to verbal tenses... Well tagalog doesn't have true verbal tenses, it has aspects and focuses. At a beginner level it's "okay" to say that, but no doubt later you will get confused when you have to unlearn that in order to learn how to express subtle things in the language.

Anyway, I recommend getting at least 2 different grammar reference guides. Do not get some school textbook. Please God no. It will fail, trust me. For example I have this grammar reference-esque book for Japanese called "Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication". It has around 140 different grammatical patterns you can read about. It structures the book like "Section 3, Expressing Giving and Receiving", then it has like 9 different grammatical patterns. It shows an example sentence where it's used, then briefly explains it, then it gives more examples and a few sentences you can try to translate on your own (with the "answer"). The index is good because it organizes it by basically key words/phrases that are the crux of the grammar. Like if I encounter the kara particle and I'm not sure how/why that's being used in this sentence, I go to the index and it has "kara" and all the pages where it's focused on.

kara 52, 83-84, 170, 190

from 52

because 83-84


(meaning that on pg 52, it explains how to express from with the particle kara). This is perfect, and you should look for a grammar reference that is similar to this. Make sure the index is good/thorough. You will be referring to it often.

When you have your grammar reference guide, just casually go through the entire thing and see how the language is structured. Michel Thomas who made his famous audio courses said, "If you master the verbs, you master the language." So true lol. Pay special attention to the differences and similarities between your language and your target language. Even if the book is telling you in your face USE THIS VERBAL CONSTRUCTION TO EXPRESS THE PRESENT-PROGRESSIVE. Is that really true? How far can we take that statement?


You just learned how to express the present-progressive in Japanese. You inflect the verb by changing the plain form to the imperative form, then add -iru to the end. You also learned that the present-progressive can be used to express that the subject of the sentence remains in a certain state rather than actually performing an action. e.g. the picture is hanging on the wall. As opposed to The boy is running. It's fairly similar to English. However, there are "exceptions" to this rule, and by that I mean a native Japanese speaker isn't always going to use the present-progressive to express that a subject remains in a certain state, or that a subject is performing an action, sometimes they'll use the plain form for this. When you learn a new rule, you will over-generalize and there's no way to combat this other than remembering that 98-99% of your assumptions and generalizations will be false.

A real example would be like ... Someone explains something to you, or they might ask you if you understood (notice the past tense). In Japanese you can say wakaru (to understand) instead of wakatta (understood). It would be really weird in English if a conversation went,

"Do you understand?"

"To understand."

"lol wut?"

Also you just learned that present-progressive rule, and you could be tempted to say wakatteiru (understanding), but this doesn't make any sense to a native speaker in this context. I don't even think I've ever heard that.

Just to take this a step further, I actually just demonstrated my English-centrism in the above. When you learn the plain form in Japanese, a textbook will typically tell you "The plain form or dictionary form in Japanese means to _____". This isn't actually true, because sometimes it acts like/looks like the imperative form in English in the proper context.

"Do you understand?"

"I understand."

The imperative form is Run. Go. Stop. Talk. Understand. The imperative form in English is a bit looser than the imperative form in Japanese.

"Wakaru no?" (Do you understand?, wakaru is plain)

"Wakaru." (I got it. Wakaru is plain.)

You would never say "Wakatte." (The imperative form of wakaru.)

^ So that's another interesting thing to think about it. A textbook probably won't tell you about this. Because it will be confusing, and it would take up too much space and classroom time. lol

Just remember that even though a grammar guide might be telling you X, don't assume that it told you everything, and don't even assume that it's "correct". And at the same time, when you learn the rule, you're more than likely going to be tempted to use it incorrectly even if you have example sentences right there.

Ok so, just casually read about your target language, maybe watch a few movies or something, get your grammar books/grammar guides ready, get a thick bilingual dictionary. If you can't find a bilingual dictionary on the internet, there will be one in print. If you can't find one in print, you're probably learning a dead language that 500 people speak in West Africa, in which case you don't need anyone's help since you're probably writing your thesis in college or something lmao.

It's important that you get at least 2 grammar guides, no single source will be comprehensive enough. Preferably you should have 3+ at hand. It doesn't mean you need to slowly read each one, you should choose a primary one, then have the others at hand in case you need clarification or further discussion on difficult topics. Just look at the grammar for maybe a week, idk just w/e, try to understand even the really advanced stuff, you'll thank yourself later when you encounter it and you think, "Oh! I remember reading about that..." And also, you'll actually be able to pick out grammar points in a sentence that won't be so obvious to someone who is learning in school. You're going to encounter stuff that straddles the border between vocabulary and grammar, so for someone who hasn't taken/doesn't take the time to continually look at the entire language even if they have just started, they will miss a lot of things. They will also start looking up "words" in the dictionary that may be grammatically complex/untranslatable, so the dictionary wouldn't be enlightening.


You're trying to read a Japanese paragraph and you see this, "kare ha daigaku wo deteiku" This means 'he will leave the university". The verb here is "deteiku". A beginner that didn't recognize the verb deteiku would be tempted to look up deteiku in the dictionary. When they look it up, it won't be there.

Let's see why, deteiku is actually the verb deru (to leave, exit) inflected to the imperative form (dete) with iku attached at the end. Iku usually means to go, but it can be used as something called an auxilliary verb. You attach iku to the end of the imperative form of a verb. When you do this, it means that the subject of the sentence is doing something that is moving away from the speaker either spatially or temporally.

So if I said "kare ha daigaku wo deru", I am saying he will leave the university. But if I use deteiku instead of deru, I am emphasizing that he isn't just leaving the university, the subject of the sentence (he) is moving away from me either spatially or temporally. It eliminates the possibility that maybe he is leaving the university to come to my house, or it eliminates the possibility that I could be going with him, or whatever.

There is no real equivalent in English, so I don't know if what I just said made much sense. I tried to explain this to someone who was actually learning Japanese, and I was unable to make him understand. But this only emphasizes my point that it's disadvantageous to learn one grammar point at a time and hammer it into your brain like they try to do in school. This doesn't work, because until you actually start using the language, you're going to forget everything several times. You're also going to develop tons of biases and over-generalize more than usual if you go too slowly.

OK FINALLY, let's actually look at how to make your language learning notebook, lawl.

language notebook

Materials needed:

- At least 2 grammar reference guides

- A spiral/notebook. You can do this with looseleaf paper, just make sure you don't lose them, and keep it in order.

- A bilingual dictionary (a language you are fluent in, and your target language)

- Reading material in your target language

What we're gonna do is take a paragraph in your target language, and break it down on a sheet of paper.


In the top left, you should have a somewhat challenging paragraph (to you). Don't make it too challenging. If you just started learning, start with children's books or folklore or something. Later you can move to academic stuff and news or challenging literature. Make sure there's at least 7 or so unknown words (or just elusive words you aren't sure how to use) in the paragraph you chose. In advanced stages, this is hard since you will know a lot of vocabulary, at that point you wanna focus on elusive grammar. In beginning stages, it's anything.

In the top right, you will put your attempted English translation (or whatever language you know extremely well) after analyzing the grammar and vocabulary in the paragraph.

In the bottom left, this is where you will put thoughts you had, and very brief grammar you encountered in the sentence that was either challenging or new to you.

In the bottom right, we will divide it the box into 2. We will fold along the red line. You'll need to cut or carefully tear the top part of the bottom right box so that you can fold along the red line. On the left side of the red line, you will put vocabulary you did not recognize. Write it vertically and number it. Now fold the box over, you should not be able to see the vocabulary words on the inside. On this outside part, you will put the translation. Remember to write down only 1 or 2 words. Never put like 7 possible translations (even though it's in the dictionary). Put the translation that is relevant to the context of the sentence, and perhaps 1 more possible word that doesn't seem to fit in the sentence just to remind yourself the word may be very fluid or have many meanings. Use this to try to memorize the vocabulary.

If you're unable to give a good translation, or you can't pin down some tough grammar in a sentence, that's okay. Don't spend anymore time on it, move on to the next paragraph. As you complete pages, you'll pick up a little grammar here, a little grammar there, and eventually you'll be able to go back and fully understand what you could not understand before. Plus you can fix/touch up translation to make them "more correct".

After completing a 100 page notebook, you will have mastered like 600-1000 words and quite a bit of grammar. At first it will go extremely slow when you're just learning your language. You might only get through with 1 page every 4 days or so if you have a busy life (probably even slower), but it speeds up as you learn more.

The learning curve is flat at first, then suddenly you learn a lot until you hit a brickwall at an intermediate level, then it speeds up again once you've mastered around 3,000 words, at which point you're capable of reading a decent amount of stuff w/o a dictionary.

You will learn your language efficiently if you use this method. Forget classes and textbooks. Many polyglots/linguists have used this "classic" method. It works.

I was going to post a page from my notebook, but unfortunately my scanner is being unfriendly, so maybe later. You'll know what to do when you try it yourself though. Get creative. Try whatever works for you.

If you find this method cumbersome (it will be if you've never tried to learn another language before), it might be a good idea to get a book with some exercises, and maybe work through that first so you know some of the language first.

I recommend pairing this method with Arguelles' script learning method. At least if your target language is using something other than the roman alphabet:

2) Scriptorium foreign languages (Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese)

This video demonstrates the proper form for transcribing languages by hand as I do in my "scriptorium" exercise. In order to do this properly, you should:

1. Read a sentence aloud.

2. Say each word aloud again as you write it.

3. Read the sentence aloud as you have written it.

The whole purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to slow down and pay attention to detail. This is the stage at which you should check all unknowns in grammars or dictionaries, although that would have been too tedious to show in the video.

Whenever I have taught this technique to groups of college students, they have inevitably found it difficult to develop proper form. They tend to rush through the exercise all too swiftly, and to write silently and carelessly. In truth, copying large numbers of pages mechanically is still a better language learning exercise than many other forms of studying, but it is only a fraction as effective as doing the scriptorium exercise properly. If you can develop the habit of doing the scriptorium exercise with correct form, I believe you will find it to be an excellent means of refining and polishing your knowledge at the intermediate and advanced levels. You can also use a variant of this exercise at the beginning level while doing translations by reading the English sentence aloud initially as well.

In the context of a college class meeting twice a week, it generally takes most students at least a month under my tutelage in order to develop good form in this exercise. However, I think that more motivated students learning it under more intense circumstances could certainly learn it more swiftly.

In the video, I chose to write a sentence each in three different exotic languages in an endeavor to hold the viewer's interest in watching someone write long enough to demonstrate the technique. In order to do this actual exercise meaningfully in terms of improving your overall functional command of a single given language, you should do the exercise for at least 15 minutes, in which time you will probably be able to transcribe an entire page.

Arguelles reviewed a bunch of language learning book series, so I recommend you watch them yourself (he says some interesting things) and he has quite the impressive collection.

Click here to see the videos.

Inspiration for a rainy day:

Edited by Michio

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Posted (edited)

Other considerations and comments:

  • Subtitles on videos are distracting. I recommend turning them off. When I started turning off subtitles, I was able to understand more ... if that makes any sense. I realize this might ruin some good shows since you won't be able to understand anything. I felt this way when I started turning off subtitles in anime, lol. I can understand enough now, but it's still tempting to turn them on. The problem with subtitles is that they cause you to think English, I'm not sure how to explain it. You really have to do whatever you can to stop thinking English, and the only way to do that is to stop using it entirely. There's always radio, which is great because all your attention is focused on the actual language. So just use radio for a year or so, then you can go watch cool Chinese movies or Korean dramas. :)

  • You'll never advance past an intermediate level (or you may never get to that level even) unless you actually compose in your target language. This should go without saying, but some people seem to believe they can just do grammar exercises and memorize vocabulary then go to a foreign country and speak it fluently. Doesn't work like that. There are things no book can teach you until you actually start using the language and interacting with people.

  • If you're learning Chinese or Japanese, you know there's 100s and 100s of characters to memorize. Because that seems so scary (even though it isn't), most people make up excuses to avoid learning to write the language or read it at all. Modern Chinese orthography is logical, and even though you might think it's impossible to memorize the stroke orders of every character, it's not. They're made up of basic radicals so you don't have to actually memorize a unique stroke order for every character. And Chinese characters are easier to memorize than you think. At first they look like chicken scratch, but after a while, they seem as natural as the ABCs. Also when you actually write in your target language (Chinese/Japanese included), it's a lot easier to memorize things. The actual process of writing and speaking will let you memorize vocabulary and grammar easier than cramming your brain with flashcards. I still like flashcards though and I think they're underused. You just need some writing/speaking practice to balance.

  • Aerobic exercise improves memory. Put on your shoes and go outside and run. I forgot the exact research conclusions, but I think aerobic exercise stimulates the hippocampus which handles long term memory. You can't neglect the body while improving the mind. The Arguelles guy in the videos I posted is very healthy. He's like 45 years old, but he looks 30. His secret is running regularly. :)

  • There's almost no reason I can think of to not learn a language. In the United States, as a resident of Texas, I often hear the silliest complaints from people. "Oh my God, today, I saw a billboard in Spanish. I thought I was living in the United States of America! This is madness!" What? ... That's great, because English sucks. If you don't like it, then go learn Spanish. Another radio station switched to Spanish? Awesome! Because the superiority complex of native English speakers is sickening. A lot of racial intolerance can be cured if people would learn another language. I'm not proud to be an American if that entails being an uneducated monolingual white nationalist. :roll: By the way, if English is so great, then it's in your best interest to learn another language, because learning another language is a great way to improve your English. :)

  • If you're an older person and you're worried about losing your wits to old age, then you should learn a second language (or a third and fourth one). Learning a language is the most epic brain work out you could possibly engage in. Also it's a good way to develop discipline in general I think. It's never too late to begin learning.

I refuse to believe that children (that are past the critical stages in their development) have any significant advantage over adults. I think this a myth created by people who are simply lazy and don't want to learn a new language. The 'advantage' children have, include their eagerness to learn, and generally their lack of biases. They're more willing to immerse themselves, and they have no fear.

"Oh, I'm not young, so it would be too hard to learn a language. I mean, look at children, they can learn a new language in less than a year." Such baloney. Also, you think you can't learn a language in less than a year? :) I've seen some amazing results from people in the span of a year. You might not be speaking 'fluently', but you may be surprised how much you can accomplish in that time period.

And adults have one advantage, which is their ability to assimilate complex meaning. A language contains a sign which is the way it sounds, and the writing system, then the actual 'meaning'.

I used to believe this false idea, "Well, it takes a baby like 4 years just to develop crude communication abilities. So it would takes years and years just to talk about politics or something in another language." This is just wrong on so many levels. There isn't much I can say to that. A child is limited in their speech due to their limited comprehension ability. The "sign" doesn't matter in this case. A child is limited by their general intelligence. Just think about what children generally accomplish between say, 7 to 10 years old. Adults have a huge advantage here.

The real advantage kids have is their ability to assimilate a language from the environment. Yes, adults can do this as well, just fly to another country 100s of miles from the nearest English speaker, and live there. You'll learn a language pretty quickly if your survival depends on it and you make an effort. This has also been the method before we had grammar books or a systematic way to study language, so it's the most classic method I guess. :p

Another thing I wanted to mention in the above post was the "feeling" that every language seems to give off. I don't know if this is due to cultural conditioning, or what. I'm not sure if it even makes sense to talk about language outside of a cultural context. Swahili is a really fun/happy/light-hearted language (I really want to learn this language just because it feels so happy lol), Russian feels serious and contemplative and assertive, French is pretentious and artistic, Tagalog is talkative, Japanese is very sexy and cute, Chinese is poetic, Arabic is meditative and always demands respect etc.

This is part of the intranslatability between languages I have mentioned before. You have to be sensitive to this cultural and psychological aspect that a language gives off. This is also why thinking too English will prevent you from learning a language.

I suppose there's 3 major aspects of a language then: (1) the denotation, the signified (2) the connotation, the feeling of the language and (3) the signs. English is very denotation oriented, while other languages will be more connotation oriented. This is an extra barrier that makes connotation-oriented languages harder to learn. English speakers are so used to denoting rather than connoting, expressing rather than impressing. So that's another thing you have to watch out for.

Also I should mention Omniglot - an introduction to many, many languages, including links to other resources. This website pretty much trumps anything else I can post. Just go to a language you're interested in, and there will be a brief introduction with links to other resources.

Although, if you want a good flashcard program that uses the Spaced Repetition System algorithm, check out Anki. It's open source and generally awesome. It has a lot of features that you can discover when you check it out. It's basically mnemosyne, but better. :D

I tried out Flash My Brain. That program sucked, and it costs money. The main feature was the Leitner algorithm (click for explanation) it used for memorization.

You can use the SRS algorithm and the Leitner algorithm by hand, but it might be annoying, which is why people use software.

I think the SRS and Leitner algorithm both exploit the way your brain handles new and old information. Research has shown that if you mix old information with new information, it's a lot easier to assimilate new information in the long run.

An interesting system might be a hybrid between SRS and Leitner. :D Someone needs to write a program for that.

My Language Exchange is a great site to meet someone that speaks your target language. You have to pay monthly but it's worth it, trust me, I've used it. High quality membership base here. You'll make long term e-friends.

Edited by Michio

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Thanks for the detailed advice, Michio - I for one really appreciate it. What are your thoughts on learning to speak another language when you don't have continuous (or any) access to native speakers?

(Posted via mobile device)

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I guess the only thing you can do is use audio books. Some languages are easy to pronounce, so often you can just read outloud to yourself to get comfortable speaking it, then check your pronunciation by hearing it.

But for example, the Chinese languages are extremely dependent on accurate pronunciation, so you definitely should get some kind of audio course.

I did the entire 90 lesson Japanese course with Pimsleur like, 1 1/2 year ago. I didn't particularly like it since I didn't feel like I learned a lot (it's not advanced enough). But some have said they like it. Pimsleur really focuses on accurate pronunciation and repetition.

Arguelles (and a lot of serious language learners) like the Assimil and Linguaphone series. If it's possible, you wanna get the editions made in like the 70s. Arguelles showed the changes from early editions to later ones, and there's been a disturbing trend in language learning; everything is getting too simplified.

I've never tried these because they're extremely expensive. But it's worth it.

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Oh ya, one more thing: Be humble. heh. There's always language snobs who like to tell everyone they know 5 languages when they can't even carry on a conversation.

I ran into a Japanophile at work. He saw my grammar book and he said, "Oh hey do you speak Japanese?" I said, "Well, not really, I've been studying for maybe a couple of years or so. And I can sort of enter into a conversation online and what-not." If you tell someone you know a certain language, they're going to assume you can speak it really, really well.

And try to keep it a secret from people in real life that you're learning a language, unless they're a fellow learner themself. At least, don't tell anyone until several months later. Because the first thing people do is ask you, "How do you say _____ in _____?" Then when you can't answer, you feel stupid, and maybe they think you're a charlatan.

I remember a famous polyglot that was embarrassed on live tv. He claimed to speak like 65 languages. Someone asked him something really simple in Russian, and he responded just ... wrong, indicating that he did not understand it.

By the way, don't feel bad if you can't figure out a really simple translation from English to your target language. I don't know how to explain it, but it's harder to translate from English to another language instead of actually using the language.

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Thanks for the advice Michio,

I've been studying Mandarin for several years and it never fully clicked. I have maintained a wide vocabulary (relative, mind you) but never fully grasped the grammar. But when you mentioned "thinking in the language" I realized the failings of my studies, I operated through an "English lens", if you will, and saw all my sentences as translations as direct when in Mandarin that isn't the case.

I'll use your techniques and get back to you over the next few months.

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Thanks for this great contribution Michio, it is going to be very helpful since next year I'm going on Erasmus to Czech Republic and I've just started learning the language, so, much appreciated :)

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Posted (edited)

In NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), learning a new language is a see-feel experience like jealousy or spelling. You see the word and its translation then have a feeling about it in the midline section of your body. Try spelling a particularly difficult word you know. If you pay close attention you may notice how its physical analogue appears in the mid section of the body. Meditate on that process and you can refine it until learning the new language becomes easier and easier as you store more and more analogues.

(Oh, had to add: I know 3 languages and about a dozen dialects.)

Edited by TheOctarineMage

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