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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.

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 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 a dead language such as Sanskrit). Just google "Swahili radio", or even find out what “Swahili radio” is in Swahili. 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 and cast away that 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 shockingly different, so you have to learn how to stop thinking English. You will be inclined to call things you are learning silly or illogical. That's your English mind with all its biases and limitations kicking in. And of course, people learning English will be saying the same thing. That is their non-English mind impeding.

School is terrible at teaching languages, because it attempts to impose a chronological order to the language acquisition process, i.e. Lesson 1, Lesson 2 etc. This is bad because there is no coherence between everything they're learning. Textbooks often seem to lie, or intentionally hold back information so you don't get hit with a bunch of information at the same time. I have a tagalog book that committed heresy by referring to verbal tenses. Unfortunately, tagalog doesn't have true verbal tenses, it has aspects and focuses. At a beginner level it might be 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.

Do not get a generic school textbook. I recommend getting at least 2 different grammar reference guides. For example I have this grammar reference 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 in that section concerning expressing and giving. There are around 12 sections with corresponding grammatical patterns concerning that topic. 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, 190from 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 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.” 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.

Take this real world scenario: Someone explains something to you, or they might ask you if you understood (notice the past tense). In Japanese you have many choices: wakaru (infinitive form, to _____), wakatta (past tense), wakatteiru (present progressive). Some contexts even allow wakatteita (past progressive). This is very different from English, because it would be strange if a conversation went:

"Do you understand?"

"To understand."


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:

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