How to start learning a new language

January 13, 2014

I’ve been learning Mandarin quite intensely for the past year or so and I’d like to share with you a quick guide to learning a new language so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.

**Forget you know English. **

The sounds you learn, even if they look like English are not English and you need you learn that alphabet from scratch. In French, most letters look the same but when they’re said in French they sound different and you need to give up everything you remember about pronouncing things in English. There are also sounds in a foreign language that you don’t make in your native language. This is where it is especially important to concentrate on learning how to make that new sound and not use your language’s closest relative.

**Get your foundations down quick and solid. **

If you are going to do an intensive learning throughout your learning journey, the start is almost definitely the best. If you get the momentum going quickly, you will get right into the thick of the language and you’ll end up using the language very soon as you will be learning an incredible amount in a short space of time. The start is always a grind so they faster you get it down, the quicker you can start communicating.

In my first month of learning Chinese I learnt the 600 most frequent characters. That means I could read and write them as well as speak and understand them. I also concentrated heavily on pronunciation and tones. If you get those right, you can sound native and people can actually understand you. It’s also a lot better for confidence if every word you say can be understood rather than knowing 1000 words, but no one can understand you apart from yourself.

**Start speaking straight away. **

Most people learn a language to communicate. Although most of your learning, especially at the beginning will be done on your own speaking to natives right away and using what you learn will give you a motivational boost to learn more. In my second month of learning Chinese I spoke to natives everyday on Skype. It was religious, it was a routine and it cemented my pronunciation of the 400 or so possible sounds. This meant I had solid foundations and I didn’t have much problem being understood as long as I had the right tones - in other languages you’ll have smaller alphabet and you probably won’t have tones.

Certain resources are better than others.

Most popular languages have a ridiculous amount of resources that you can choose from. Some are good, some are bad, some certainly cannot be used on their own and are supplementary only. The easiest way to figure out what resources to use is to go to one of the many language learning forums that exist online such as:

And this forum is great if you’re learning Chinese:

Frequency lists are your friend

Especially when starting out learning the most frequent 1000 words will help to accelerate your progress. If you’re learning Japanese and all you learn are obscure words used in Anime like the word for super Gundam cannon blaster, this kind of vocabulary won’t cross over multiple topics and is pretty useless to you in the early days of your language journey.

Immersion is about attitude, not location.

Full immersion (i.e. in a country with that native language) can only be taken advantage of fully when you hit a B1/B2 level. If you immerse yourself in whatever country you are in and push through the A1/A2 stage you will be in a good position to use your B1/B2 level in the country. I spent a good 3 months in China when I was at a beginner levell in Mandarin a few years ago and it’s the kind of immersion when you jump feet first into a swimming pool, but you can’t swim; there’s only one outcome - you drown.

By surrounding yourself with a language learning routine it is possible to learn a language just as well in the country you’re in. We live in the age of the internet, where we can talk to people all over the world with the click of a button.

Lastly don’t use Rosetta Stone. It sucks.

You might learn a thing or two from it, but it’s a poor use of your time and for the amount of money you spend you can get a truckload of better resources. It’s the market leader for language learning, because they have a lot of money and great marketing.

“The decent method you follow is better than the perfect method you don’t” - Tim Ferris

All the advice above is from my experience alone learning a language and advice I’ve taken for other language learners. If it doesn’t work for you, it’s better to use a method that you actually stick to, _even if it is Rosetta Stone. _I won’t judge you, yet. It’s always better to keep going so if you feel like giving up it’s time to switch your method.

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Distilling the complicated into the simple. And sometimes general wonderings. Follow me on twitter