This was a post on my old blog from 2008, and i thought i’d repost it here because it’s more relevant here.
I had a question the other day from someone who wants to start learning mandarin chinese, and wants to continue studying french. It really got me thinking, because all of my learning strategies lately have been focused on moving myself from “advanced beginner” to “intermediate” stages, but it’s been a long time since i’ve thought about what to do from the absolute total beginner level. I learned a lot last year about classroom learning by doing the chinese immersion program both here in canada and in china, and this year i’ve learned a lot about self-directed learning, so in this post i’m gonna try to put those together and come up with something useful. This should help me too, since i hope to restart on spanish in january or so, alongside my chinese study.
I think the most general principle i can suggest is that you just need to keep yourself consistently moving forward bit by bit. 语言学习好比走路，是一步一步前进的 (“studying languages is like walking; you improve one step at a time”). The big challenge in language-learning is not the particulars of whatever concept you happen to be learning in any given moment, it’s the problem of keeping yourself on-track toward your future goals which may be many months away.
Language study is a motivation game. I think just about everybody will experience a moment when they think “fuck, this takes a long time, i’m never going to get fluent”, or “dammit, why can’t i just READ this book! i want to read a page in like 5 seconds like i do in english instead of 10 minutes in this language”. These moments are all opportunities to fail by giving up. You have to be prepared for them so you can bust through to the other side on your way to awesome. Remember that you CAN become fluent in other languages. If you’re dedicated and you keep having fun with it, you could be fluent in 10 languages some day. So if that’s what’s possible, then why let this one little language get you down? Don’t worry, you’ll get there.
If you write a todo list, just having “Learn Chinese” on the list is not helpful. That’s not really a task that you can just sit and do in an afternoon or something. What you need is a mental conception of what “becoming fluent” looks like on a day-to-day basis. You need to figure out what you’re going to do each and every day that is related to your language of interest. You may only spend 20 minutes on it if you’re really busy, and other days you may get all keen and spend several hours before you look up at the clock and see how late it is. But what you need to know is that “becoming fluent” looks like “i think i’m gonna sit down and read a bit of this book” or “i think i’ll flip through this dictionary and pick out some crazy new words that i don’t know” or “i’m gonna go have coffee with some people who speak chinese”. Those little short-term things are the stuff of magic. Added all together, they are what will make you fluent. That’s it. If every day you add something to your knowledge, you will get there.
To keep yourself on track, you need to find stuff that’s fun. As Khatsumoto says, There is no such thing as something being “boring but effective”. If it’s not fun, don’t do it because you’ll just kill your desire. Usually i try to find at least 4 or 5 different ways to work on the language. Then, when i have some time set aside to do something, i can lay out a bunch of books on the table, load up a few websites, and then just jump into whichever one strikes my fancy. Maybe i’ll switch after 20 minutes if i get bored, or maybe i’ll do it for hooouurrrs without noticing. It differs daily, but i can tell you with certainty that if you only have 1 book that you’re using, you’ll get bored of it at some point and then you won’t have anything to fall back on.
In a practical sense, there are a few things that i always want when studying a new language. number 1 is beginner audio lessons. Check out Pimsleur or Michel Thomas. Some people like them, some people think they have too much english instruction in them and not enough native speaking, but you should at least give them a try because they exist for many languages and they usually have some good content, especially for beginners or those who haven’t spent a lot of time learning any other languages before.
Another thing i like to have is a simple book. Maybe a kid’s book, maybe some sort of graded reader for beginners, anything you can find that’s on the easy side of things. If you’re an absolute beginner, even “easy” stuff will be hard to comprehend, but just about anything will do. What you want is a nice source of content in that language. It’ll also serve as a goal, since you know that at some point in your studies you’ll be able to read the whole thing easily, which will be quite satisfying.
Without expecting to understand everything, take a browse through it. Try to understand a few sentences, using dictionaries or websites or whatever. If you come upon something interesting, write it down. If you have one of those “aha” moments when you figure out something, write it down. I like just picking away at something and trying to pull out anything that i can. Pretend that you’re an archaeologist studying agent egyptian in a dusty pyramid somewhere and you’re decoding a language that no one else knows. It’s a puzzle, and it’s way more addictive than Sudoku. Piece by piece you’re going to pull tidbits out of it that you start to understand.
Next is getting an SRS – Spaced Repetition System (my favourite is Anki). This is a vital learning tool that has been mostly neglected by educators everywhere. I’ve already ranted about SRSes elsewhere, so i’ll spare you most of it this time. Simply put, an SRS is a piece of computer software that is made to program your brain to remember things. It makes you familiar with something over time by repeating it to you at the right time. In science fiction, people of the future program computers in their brains to remember stuff for them, but right now we already know the truth is the other way around: computers can program US to remember anything, and the way to do this is with an SRS.
It goes like this. I pick up a book, like the chinese translation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (which i got from the local library 2 weeks ago), and i struggle through a few sentences in it. I’m curious about how one of those sentences is phrased, so i write it down on my notepad. I pick some portion of that sentence and look it up online, maybe on dict.cn or nciku.com and find a bunch more example sentences that have similar words in them. If any of these are interesting, i write them down.
At the end of my little exploration session, i put down my book and flip open my laptop, loading up Anki. I create flashcards from the stuff that i wrote down. This is the crucial step, because if all i ever did was write shit down, i’d forget it all by the next day, or even 2 hours from then. This is what i mistakenly did when i was in China…i’d sit down for like 2 or 3 hours every afternoon and crawl through all sorts of interesting books and dictionaries, write a bunch of neat stuff down, and then forget like 90% of it by that evening. I was spinning my wheels because i wasn’t actually retaining much of what i was figuring out. If you’re not reviewing the old material, it’s like you’re that famous archaeologist in the dusty pyramid and every day you take your notes and chuck them in the trash. NO, you want to retain all that stuff (hopefully with the least amount of effort possible), so you need your SRS.
So, with an SRS like Anki i can spend a few minutes every morning and evening reviewing older stuff and keeping it fresh in my mind. By getting reminded after a few hours, then after a day, then after 3 days, after a week, etc, i can turn that short term stuff into long term familiarity. This is true advancement in a language. You can be confident that whatever interesting tidbits you write down on your notepad will not be thrown down the memory hole…you can just assume that you’ll be able to remember those, because Anki is going to program them into your long term memory for you. You’re going to be intimately familiar with them. In a few weeks, you’ll look at all the really complicated stuff you were writing down a month previous, and it’ll appear stupidly simple to you. It won’t even seem worth keeping because it’ll be so obvious. This is familiarity. When you’re fluent in a language, you’re just really really familiar with it.
Ok, i notice that this post is starting to ramble on forever, which i tend to do when i’m excited about something, so let me try to sum things up. Like any long-term project, learning a language involves doing something every day consistently for a long period of time. If you keep it up, you’ll be surprised at your progress. I believe that by working enthusiastically on it and having some good people to consult, you can make much more progress much faster than if you took a course and just passively did what the teacher said.
Don’t worry about leaving some other stuff behind if you have to move in a different direction to find the fun stuff. You can always come back to the other things you were working on. It’ll still be there later, just keep pursuing the fun things. Keep searching for ways to get comprehensible input. You want lots and lots of interesting input. Saturate your brain with input, and things will fall into place. This is what brains are good at.