This is a repost of my article on Medium.
I’m currently studying Polish at an intermediate level and Mandarin Chinese at a beginner level. I’m also fluent in Russian.
I love the process of learning a language. But at the same time, I hate how they are taught. Especially if you are trying to teach yourself without any classes or tutoring.
This girl has three triangular cups.
A fish is not a dog.
The boys are singing songs.
These are all sentences I got when using apps to study. And while they are not that bad for learning how a language works, they drive you crazy when you are made to repeat them 10 or 20 times.
Personally, I think apps are only useful for absolute beginners, in the first 10 hours or so of language study. Depending on how much time you spend studying, this might take a couple of weeks or a couple of months. Much further than that and they become less effective.
On the other hand, we have traditional language learning textbooks — useful if you have to study for a test, although not so useful, in my opinion, for actually using a language.
The chart above only shows two words! Imagine studying this and memorizing all the forms of each word. Ridiculous.
My method of learning languages is a bit different. I am very focused on improving my reading and listening ability as soon as possible. Speaking and writing can wait. I want to understand first and foremost. Understanding what is being said and also understanding how the language works; getting a feel for it.
I moved to Poland at the end of 2019. For the first few months, I’m ashamed to admit I was not studying the language at all. The fact is that people here speak English well enough that you can get by without learning Polish. And with all the stress and paperwork of moving to another country, I barely had time to learn.
Some people have lived here for 10 years without learning anything more than basic phrases because they work in a company where English is the norm. But still, when you want to go to a Jiu-Jitsu class, for example, then you must be comfortable understanding and communicating in Polish in a fast-paced dynamic environment. Because the instructor is not going to cater to you personally when they have a class of 20 other people.
I still struggle with this but I’ve finally become somewhat comfortable in Poland with reading and listening, and understanding what is being said.
Here is how I got there.
Firstly, Use a Habit Tracker
Before I get into the meat of the article I need to emphasize how important habit is.
Print out this template or one like it and stick it on your wall.
Consistency is the single most important thing in learning a language. Many experts in various fields will tell you the importance of doing something regularly.
I set a goal for myself of studying for a minimum of 15 mins each day, which really isn’t much at all. I usually ended up studying more than that, but the point is to give yourself this minimum target that you absolutely must hit. Every. Damn. Day.
I used a timer on my phone to ensure that I got those 15 minutes and didn’t become distracted during that time. Just sit down, get out your learning material, start the timer, and study until it beeps. No distractions.
Which learning material did I use? Glad you asked.
You might think I’m suggesting comics because they’re for kids and use simple language. That’s not always the case. I’ve found that comics often use quite advanced slang and subtle humor that is challenging to understand. Also, there are comics that are not for children but aimed at teenagers or adults. Sometimes they are called graphic novels instead.
There are two major reasons why comics are my favorite language learning materials:
1. Pictures help understand how a language is used in context.
In real life, a language is not just spoken. The body and face are a huge part of communication. Have you ever noticed that speaking on the phone is more difficult than in person? It’s because people are great at understanding small cues based on facial expressions and body language. Comics help fix that because they show you the facial expression and body posture that goes along with the spoken phrase.
2. The text is mostly dialogue
You might get very good at reading and understanding various messaging, but still not very good at conversation. That’s because language skills are quite different. It’s important to find something with a lot of dialogue so you can learn how people talk to each other. You can also read plays for this, if that’s your thing.
My favorite comic series is Asterix because I read it in my childhood. It might even be what sparked my love for reading. I am now re-reading all the Asterix books in Polish.
Don’t touch that translate button!
If you’re browsing, say, a shopping website, do it in your target language. Even if you aren’t studying the language at that moment, I’m sure you can spare an extra 5 minutes to try and understand what is written. You might find that you actually could read it without any help!
If you don’t currently browse any websites in your target language I certainly suggest you do so. I’m guessing you have some interest in the culture, politics, or news of the country whose language you are studying. Use that interest.
I’m a member of r/Polska which is Reddit’s Polish language subreddit. They discuss all things Polish in a mix of English and Polish, which is really nice. I get exposed to a lot of Polish language humor and memes.
You can find subreddits for many countries and even cities. Some are even specifically for language learners like r/ChineseLanguage.
This is a great way to memorize certain phrases and start understanding the humor of a language. Where to find them really depends on the language you are learning. Sometimes you can just Google it (e.g., “Russian language memes”).
I follow Polish and Chinese Twitter accounts and some Polish Instagrammers. Only follow people you actually are interested in so that you will be curious about what they have written and put more effort into reading their posts.
It’s a common suggestion but I just don’t agree. News is extremely information-dense and often boring. I don’t recommend reading news until you are quite advanced.
Watching shows/films with subtitles in the target language, not your own.
I watch Polish films with Polish subtitles, not English ones.
The reason for this is that I can often read something and understand it, but I don’t understand it being spoken. This might be a situation unique to Polish since it isn’t as clear-sounding as German, for example.
If I can read along to hearing something spoken, it teaches my brain or my ear to recognize those phrases the next time I hear them.
Also, I sometimes watch English films with Polish subtitles, just to see how those things would be translated.
Easy Languages Youtube Channel
This is actually a network of Youtube channels. Each is for a specific language and features hundreds of videos of real street interviews on everyday casual topics.
Their videos feature topics like “What do you have for breakfast?” but also deeper things relating to national identity — e.g., “what do Germans think they are good at” — or politics, such as “what do Germans think about the French.”
For me, the biggest benefit of these channels is that each video is subtitled in BOTH the target language and English, making it extremely useful and easy to learn from.
I recommend watching these videos very slowly, pausing where needed and reading first the target language subtitles (trying to ignore the English ones) and then reading the English ones only if you must.
Like I said, I am focused on reading and listening and not so much on writing and speaking.
I believe that speaking will come quite naturally when you are immersed enough in the language and understand it fully. Of course, you will need a partner to practice with.
Likewise, for writing, I recommend finding a language exchange partner; otherwise, it’s very hard to get enough practice. But that’s a topic for another post.
Using the reading and listening study techniques I listed should take you from a beginner-intermediate level to an advanced level and near fluency.
If you like my ideas or disagree with any of them, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.
Best of luck with your language learning, and remember to enjoy the process!
About the author:
I’m a Belarus-born Australian currently living in Poland. I write about my experiences with language, culture, being an immigrant/expat and more.
Follow me on Medium and Twitter.