How to Be Good at Languages - The Hard Way

Table of contents :
Why to read this book
Nota bene
How to have a good learning experience
Why are you learning a language?
Preparing to learn
Recap | How to have a good learning experience
How to practice a language
Fast and slow
Comprehensible Input
Deliberate Practice
Language skills
The L-R method
Recap | How to practice a language
How to study a language
Learning to learn
The building blocks of language
Deep encoding
IPA (not that one, the other one)
Advanced techniques
Recap | How to study a language
How to make it stick
Spaced Repetition
Between Scylla and Charybdis
Higher-order thinking
Preserving what you learn
A quick experiment
Recap | How to make it stick
What we talk about when we talk about learning like kids
How to be good at languages
The tyranny of choice
Private teachers
To buy or not to buy
Learning in the age of AI
Languages around the world
Selected bibliography
Other resources

Citation preview

How to Be Good at Languages



Effective and meaningful techniques for language learners and enthusiasts


To my wife

Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.

Version 3.1

Contents Preamble


Why to read this book


How to have a good learning experience


Why are you learning a language?


Preparing to learn








Recap | How to have a good learning experience


How to practice a language


Fast and slow


Comprehensible Input


Deliberate Practice


Language skills










The L-R method


Recap | How to practice a language




56 59




Advanced techniques


IPA (not that one, the other one)

Deep encoding


Learning to learn

How to study a language



Recap | How to study a language


How to make it stick


Spaced Repetition


Between Scylla and Charybdis


Higher-order thinking


Preserving what you learn


A quick experiment


Recap | How to make it stick




What we talk about when we talk about learning like kids


How to be good at languages



99 100

The tyranny of choice


To buy or not to buy


Learning in the age of AI





Selected bibliography


Languages around the world


Preamble I still remember my first serious English exam, many years ago now. I had to pick one of two small essays and analyze it. One was easy, and the other was hard for extra points. My level was so bad that I could not figure out which was what, and I unknowingly chose the hard one. You can imagine the result. Probably my worst score ever, on any subject. I justified it to myself saying that I was just not good at languages. I didn’t have the ear, I wasn’t cut for it. It was a good excuse. Simple, universal in a way. I lost count of how many times I started learning English, and that excuse always accompanied me, like a loyal dog eager to put in a good fight for me. And it worked for a long time, until one day it didn’t work anymore. One day I had no choice but to learn, and there was no excuse on earth that would prevent me from learning —and believe me, I tried. But I had moved to Ireland, after all —an English-speaking country. I had a job that required me “good English communication skills” and I had gotten the job because I had lied on my resumé. I had lied because I didn’t have money and I needed the job so badly. So then, when there was nowhere to hide, or nowhere to run, I learned. The following months were among the most stressful of my life, and the months after those the most relieving...


I believe that not being good at languages still must be the most popular excuse for not learning one. Conventional wisdom has it that there is no such thing as being bad at languages, that you are thinking too low of yourself. But conventional wisdom doesn’t know you. Maybe it’s true, and you really are bad at languages. Who am I to judge? At least I know that in my case it was true. I was genuinely bad at it. But I also know that my excuses had nothing to do with being good or being bad. And I know that being good only marks the starting line, not the finish line. I could learn a language regardless of talent, so can you if that’s how you feel. So good or not good, it doesn’t matter much... except for one little detail: The anxiety. The panic of speaking in public, of being asked questions. The avoidance of social situations. The feeling of looking stupid. The frustration of not being able to express yourself, the embarrassment of knowing that others struggle to understand you... It is tempting to say that all that is a problem of the mind. And it’s partly true, the mindset is important. But confidence and control need to be backed by a certain linguistic competence. Confidence comes from knowing that you can adapt to each situation, that you will always figure it out one way or another. You can not fabricate it out of thin air. So this is important: being good is not about knowing 7 languages or nailing the native accent or having a linguistics degree. It is primarily about being confident, resourceful, and self-sufficient. And yes, it’s a bit about efficiency too. If you can slice off a few hundred hours of your learning time, well, that’s something. But ironically a good learner will learn faster without caring about learning faster.


Now, being good at languages is a multifaceted affair. In the epilogue of this book you’ll find a simple recipe for how to be good at languages, but let me tell you upfront that it’s both useful and an over-simplification. The devil, as always, is in the details:

How to sustain motivation over a long period?

How to learn accent?

How to memorize difficult words?

How to get out of a learning plateau?

How to stop translating in your head?

How to approach grammar?

How to make repetition drills less boring?

How to overcome the fear of making mistakes in public?

These are prime questions. You can learn a language in one billion different ways, but to be a better learner you need convincing answers to questions like these. That’s what this book is for. It will answer those pesky questions not only to help you learn languages but also to excel at learning them, so you can get that job without having to lie on your resumé.


A bad learner obsesses over the outcome, a good one enjoys the ride.

Why to read this book This handbook is the result of 2 years of research into the state of the art in second language acquisition. It describes a set of tools, grounded on decades of science, that you can employ to learn any language confidently and efficiently. Some of these tools are underused, some are counterintuitive, others are popular but often poorly applied (looking at you, Spaced Repetition). All are broadly recognized by experts and have lots of empirical evidence backing their effectiveness. The goals of this book are: ✓ To be easy to read and understand. ✓ To be up to date. ✓ To be actionable, centered on practical advice. ✓ To be concise yet cover all the major topics. ✓ To be as objective as possible (even if I favor some techniques over others). And while anyone can benefit from it, I believe this guide will serve best those who: ✓ Are trying to figure out where to start. ✓ Have a busy life with limited time for language learning. ✓ Are already learning but feel stuck or want to improve their proficiency. ✓ Want to spice up their process a little and restock their technique repertoire. Also important: ✗ This is not an academic text. ✗ This is not “my method”.


✗ This is not a get-rich-quick learn-in-3-months magic kind of thing. I believe that all an honest resource can do is to give you options. You have to dig in. Choose your own adventure.

Nota bene For the most part, I won’t be excessively concerned with fine semantic accuracy. I use indifferently the terms study and practice, and language learning and language acquisition. When subtlety is consequential, I will be explicit about it. Mother tongue is sometimes abbreviated as L1 and target language (the foreign language that one is learning) as L2. These acronyms are commonplace elsewhere. The term second language doesn’t necessarily refer to the second language one learns but to any language other than their mother tongue. For the sake of word economy, I’ll be more assertive than I probably should and say things like “do this” or “don’t do that”. Don’t take everything at face value, though. Language learning resources are not instruction manuals.

By the way, this book is completely AI-free: not a single comma has been generated by a generative language model, directly or indirectly.


The language learning journey, from the perspective of a good learner

Some people find themselves naturally comfortable with languages. They don’t need big reasons or strong discipline. They don’t need much to capitalize on their study time. They are happy taking things slowly, perhaps learning bits of many languages at the same time. Some other people struggle. They can’t keep a routine going on. They get demoralized easily. They stress out. The biggest challenges in learning a language often have nothing to do with the language itself ↩ . One of the toughest is to keep motivation up. Therefore, it is a good idea to plan for it. It will be a long journey.


How to have a good learning experience

Don’t expect always to be super motivated. Psychologists have suggested that willpower is a resource that, like any other, can be depleted ↩ . Others argue that willpower is never depleted, it rather jumps from one topic to the next without much consideration for your personal needs. Either way, you need to manage and take care of your motivation. You don’t want your willpower to give up on languages in favor of the last social media trend (the Roman Empire at the time of writing). Along the way, you will need to be able to do both of those things:

Show up, even if you don’t feel like it.

Re-motivate yourself.

The first trick can only work on small doses. Sooner or later, you will need to motivate yourself back up. That motivation needs to come from yourself.


Why are you learning a language? We are often told to find our motivation and follow our passion, but a growing body of evidence shows that the mind doesn't work like that ↩ . Rather, passion prefers to flow in the opposite direction: 1. You first work hard. 2. The hard work makes you learn things. 3. The learning motivates you to work harder. The more you know about something, the easier is to enjoy it, which again propels you to learn more. This way enjoying and knowing reinforce each other. Granted, simply doing things mindlessly is not going to automatically make you very passionate about them. According to author Daniel Pink, people are motivated by 3 things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose:

Autonomy is what you get from studying what interests you, on your own terms.

Mastery (or some degree of it) is what you are after.

Purpose is why you are doing it.

If your motivation breaks, chances are that you are either lacking autonomy, not making progress, or losing your purpose. Every time you feel demotivated, think about which of those things can be the culprit. To have autonomy, you must craft your own learning program ↩ . You can attend a classroom, use apps, and any tools at your disposal. But don’t let anyone force your


way. It is up to you what to learn, when, and how. You must become both the teacher and the student1. It is always tempting to leave the responsibility to others. It’s like those organized trips where they even tell you where you need to shoot your photos from. It’s so convenient, not having to think. But you know that canned experiences are not experiences. Learning is all about experiencing. You are the one to face the consequences of your learning program, not your app or school. So take the driving seat. It takes courage, because then only you can be held responsible for the result (no one else to blame!), and that is what makes it exciting too. To do that you must be crystal clear about why are you doing it. What is your purpose?

Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly. ―Kató Lomb

Purpose is easy to overlook because asking yourself why you are learning a language always has an apparent trivial answer. Some common ones include:

Because I am moving to the country where they speak it.

Because I want to improve my job opportunities.

Because I need to pass an exam.

Because it is the mother tongue of my boyfriend.

Because I love its culture.


And your actual teacher then takes the role of a facilitator, more than a instructor.


They are not bad answers, but they will probably give up on you when you need them the most. So it is always a good idea to spend a bit more time on that question. You don’t need many mediocre reasons; you need a single strong one. Some pointers: ✓ Imagine that you already know the language. Visualize how it will change your life and those of others around you; what you will do with it. ✓ Be specific. If that visualization is not very appealing now, it won’t be either when you are grinding the language. ✓ Think of the people around you. Everywhere in the world, people appreciate it when you try to speak their language. It shows you are willing to do hard things for them. ✓ Who are you willing to do hard things for? Your friends? Your neighbors? Your coworkers? Everybody? What impact can you have on others by speaking their language? ✓ Don’t lie to yourself. If you convince yourself that learning the language is more important than what it actually is, the more quickly you will lose motivation somewhere along the way. This is part of the story I told myself years ago: “I am learning Italian because it is the mother tongue of my partner. If I learn her language, I will feel less anxious about visiting her family in Italy. In turn, I will want to visit them more often. I’ll get along with her family, and befriend her friends; instead of just sitting there, nodding, without understanding a word...” The specific reason for learning a language impacts how you should approach it. It is not the same thing to do it because you need it (e.g., for a job) or because you simply like how it sounds. Either way, don’t think in terms of what you want but in terms of your “minimum requirements”: what is the least that you settle for. You might want to sound like a na-


tive, but if you are ok with dabbling, once you reach that level, you won’t have enough energy to keep pushing it further. This is one of the major causes of the ”intermediate plateau”. If you want to reach an 8/10 but are happy enough with a 5/10, you’ll plateau exactly when you reach 5/10. The plateau happens often halfway through the learning journey because it is at that point that learners can start using the language, more or less effectively, in simple daily situations. Since the same amount of effort will yield diminishing returns, there is an incentive to reduce the effort and, thus, stop making progress. So, in a way, what you want doesn’t matter. It is what you accept that draws the line. Draw a line such you would not accept to fall below. If your ultimate goal seems too ambitious when you look at it this way, it probably is. You will have bad days, even bad weeks. When that happens, you need to be able to look back at your purpose and feel inspired again. Once you have found your purpose, waste no time. Make a plan and get to work.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Chinese proverb


Preparing to learn Now that you found your reasons, you need to fill in the gaps and answer the other relevant questions: Where? When? How? First, think about what level you want to achieve. Many learners want to reach fluency, and define fluency as a B2 CEFR level:

Can understand the main ideas of complex text, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.

Can interact with a degree of spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers possible without strain for either party.

Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue.

Some people raise the bar to include some C1 requirements:

Can express ideas spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic, and professional purposes.

For comparison, this is Webster’s 1913 definition of fluent: “Ready in the use of words; voluble; copious; having words at command; and uttering them with facility and smoothness; as a fluent speaker; hence, flowing; voluble; smooth; — said of language; as, fluent speech.” Come up with your own definition and try to stick to it. It doesn’t matter that you have the same definition as everyone else, it matters that it works for you.


depending on objectives, discipline, resources, and language difficulty (relative to languages you know), but in many cases, you will be looking at a range of 500–1.500 hours 2 ↩ . Don’t obsess over making a perfectly accurate estimate. Do a bit of research upfront to see what will be the most difficult part, break down your goals into small milestones, and try to gauge how long can take you to reach the first one. Use your intuition. Then you can go about it in two ways:

Have a deadline, and calculate how much time you need per week to get there.

Start with how much time you can commit each week, and calculate a deadline from there.

Making a deadline for yourself can be a good idea even if you don’t strictly need it. If so, approach it like a game to challenge yourself, not like the typical job deadline with a boss breathing down your neck. A reasonable deadline will make it easier to track your progress, keep your motivation up, and be more accountable. An unreasonable deadline will only stress you out. Now you have the basis to make a learning plan. It could look something like this: “I need French for work. I am moving to France in 6 months and will have to start looking for a job 3 months later, which will give me around 9 months to learn enough to cover my professional needs. After that, I can take it more slowly. I am a teacher of small kids, so I don’t need lots of advanced vocabulary. But I need to be good at communicating with kids, who can’t express themselves as well as adults and make many grammar mistakes. I will need to understand simple sentences perfectly, probably with kids screaming and crying all over. The US Foreign Language Institute guidelines are often shared on social media, but they are not the best indicator. Their estimates come from full-time intensive courses given to diplomats, which probably doesn’t represent your situation. 2


Next, think of a reasonable time frame to reach your goals. There is a large variability

vocabulary. But pronunciation is a different story. French has many sounds new to me, and the rules for spelling are not as clear as the ones for pronouncing. All things considered, I expect to need about 500 hours. I still have my regular job, but once I move to France, I will have more time to study. So I can dedicate about 1 hour a day now and crank it up to 4 hours a day after I move. I’ll try to gain a good vocabulary foundation now so that when I move to France, I can start having some serious conversational practice...” Now that you have your story you can start detailing your goals with a bit more precision.

Goals Typically goals need to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. SMART goals work better when you have deadlines and must deliver results (e.g., to pass an exam). However, they can also be a bit too rigid for long-term intellectual projects:

They leave little room for exploring and simply having fun with a language.

Sometimes, you don’t know what is achievable until you try it (e.g., can you achieve native-like pronunciation?).

Language knowledge is not easily measurable or quantifiable (the number of words you know doesn’t determine how accomplished you are at using them).


I learned some Spanish back in school, which should help with

A SMART goal for example can be “pass the A2 exam in six months” or “be able to use only foreign language at restaurants and grocery stores before the end of the year”. SMART is the most popular framework for goal setting, but not the only one. An alternative is PACT: ✓ Purposeful: aligned with long-term vision. ✓ Actionable: can be broken down into actions you can perform. ✓ Continuous: repeatable, instead of a one-time shot. ✓ Trackable: about whether or not you got closer to your end goal, instead of about putting a number to your knowledge. A PACT goal can be as simple as “Learn 10 new words each day” or “Study 1 hour every night”, for instance. PACT shifts the focus from outcome-based to habit-based and, to some extent, from variables you can’t control to variables you can. Which acronym you follow is not that important, though. You can mix them, adapt them, bend them, and follow your intuition. If you use outcome-based goals, let them be an instrument to encourage you, not to disappoint you if you fall short. Keep in mind: ✓ Don’t pursue perfection. Perfectionism is an excuse that you tell yourself to hide your insecurities from others. Don’t be afraid of looking insecure, be authentic. ✓ Adapt your goals to your needs and circumstances. If you have external pressure, counter-act by emphasizing habits and steady progress. If you have not, counteract by challenging yourself to evade apathy. ✓ Strike a balance between width and depth. Allow yourself to play. Sometimes is about gaining vocabulary fast, and sometimes is about getting lost in the intricacies of a language. ✓ Refine your goals over time, and replace them if they stop making sense. Goal setting is also a skill.


Remember that achieving your goals is not the most important thing about them. Goals are an exercise in self-awareness in their own right. They will enable you to correct course when you drift and cheer yourself up when you are not having your best day. You become good at setting goals not when you succeed consistently, but when you no longer need to set goals.

A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at. —Bruce Lee

Don’t be afraid of sharing your goals and your progress. You don’t need to tell the whole internet, but the people that care about you. Surround yourself with like-minded people. Let them inspire you. Whatever is important for you, will be important for them too. Once your goals start taking shape, you can start thinking about how to create habits to support them.

Habits If purpose represents the destination and goals make the itinerary, then habits are your means of transportation. Habit formation involves 3 components: a cue, a behavioral routine, and a reward ↩ . The job of the cue is to trigger the routine, the job of the routine is to give you the reward, and the job of the reward is to satisfy your inner self. For the whole thing to work, you need your cues, routines, and rewards to create and reinforce a positive habit loop.


The most obvious cue is an alarm that tells you that it’s time to study. If that’s not enough to get you out of the couch, you must find other ways to sabotage your appetite for slacking off. For example, put yourself (voluntarily) in situations that make you say “I wish I knew how to say this”. Feel free to be as unorthodox as you need. On the other side of the habit loop, it awaits the reward. Your reward needs to be connected with your purpose. While there is nothing wrong with allowing yourself a cookie after an arduous study session, the most powerful rewards are of a very different nature. As a matter of fact, effort is rewarding in itself ↩ . If you find yourself in need of disconnected incentives as an excuse for setting up a routine (like a cookie), it might be a sign that something is not right. And as for the routine, it needs to be as satisfying as possible. You need to create a routine that you makes you want to study, and not require insurmountable levels of discipline. It can take somewhere between 2 and 8 months to form a new healthy habit ↩ , so be patient. Some quick-fire tips: ✓ Study every day. ✓ Set aside a block of time you can regularly use for language learning without interruptions. ✓ Choose the time of the day in which you are the most energized. ✓ If you live with someone else, tell them you will not be available during that time. ✓ Put a recurring alarm 5 minutes before the start and 5 minutes before finishing each session. Don’t check what time is during the session, but if your sessions are long, use the Pomodoro technique to take periodic short breaks. ✓ Find a quiet place to study, create a welcoming environment distraction-free, and avoid studying in cafés or on the couch. ✓ Study always in the same place, and ideally at the same time ↩ . ✓ Have everything you need at hand (a dictionary, a grammar book, a notepad, etc.).


✓ Mute your phone and put it away. ✓ If you use a computer, close all the apps you don’t need. If you use a web-based resource, use a different browser only for language learning without signing into any social accounts. ✓ Don’t make your study time conditioned on how busy you are. If you have a complicated ever-changing calendar, take 15 minutes at the start of the week to see if you need to move a study session Most experts agree that you need daily practice to maintain a sustainable routine. However, studying twice as much in a given period doesn’t always mean you’ll learn exactly twice as much. It may be more at the lower end of the spectrum or less at the higher end. You need to find your sweet spot. If it is too little, you won’t generate enough momentum to make significant progress. Yet too much will yield diminishing returns and increase the risk of burnout. For many people, 7–12 hours per week works well. If studying every day looks overwhelming, start with small steps: short sessions, comfortable materials, regular and planned short breaks (e.g., weekends off). Make it easy for yourself to start. Break down your habits and make incremental changes, one thing at a time.

Amateurs sit around and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work. ―Stephen King

If you lack motivation, search for it at any other time during the day, just not before a study session. When it is time to show up, do show up. Don’t think much about it, don’t wait for a better time. If you are considering taking a break, go back to your purpose, plan, and journal. Reflect on what might be hurting you. Perhaps it is a tedious routine you follow. Perhaps you feel you need to progress faster. Or maybe something else is going on in your life.


Instead of giving up, try changing something first. Find new materials, new techniques, new people to learn with. Be radical. If you take a break due to an external factor (e.g., because you become sick or go on vacation), resume your learning as soon as possible. Avoid long breaks. Eat healthily. Rest between demanding tasks. Exercise. Have a good sleep. It might sound like cheap advice, but you can’t isolate the part of you that’s learning a language from the part of you that’s living the rest of your life. Remember that your brain is connected to your body through a series of little pipes, and they talk to each other all the time. If your body is lazy, your brain will eventually figure it out and follow suit (that’s why chess grandmasters have physical training as part of their routine). Likewise, sleep is actually very influential for physical, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing ↩ . Is during sleep when the brain processes new information and consolidates memories.

Watch your thoughts; they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny. ―Lao Tzu

Languages are complicated; learning them requires the right state of mind ↩ . If you think you are far from that state, you must solve that problem first. Once you have a solid routine going on, vary your practice to keep it fresh. Shift from passive to active learning back and forth. Try new tools and materials, and push yourself in different ways.


Mindset Language learning literally makes you healthier ↩ , a better decision maker ↩ and has countless ↩ other benefits ↩ , but those are not the reasons why you should do it. Motivation for doing something shouldn’t come from an external uncontrollable reward but from the actual doing itself ↩ . In other words: if you don’t love what you are doing, pause and learn to appreciate it. This is called intrinsic motivation, and it appears to be a great predictor of success ↩ . Your attitude can impact your learning more than any technique in the world. Find a personal connection to the language and its culture. Read its history and literature. Seek authentic materials. Focus on the positive. It can be hard when you are learning out of need and have time pressure, but you can do it. Despite all the frustrations and roadblocks, cherish the good things in your learning journey. Value everything you learn. Have fun. Having fun is something we tend to do unconsciously, with fun being a trait of the object, not of the subject. We say that something is either fun or not. But fun can be nurtured: ✓ Take notice of sweet or funny expressions, all languages have them. ✓ Find your favorite words and false friends. ✓ Make jokes and wordplays with whatever your limited knowledge is. ✓ Exaggerate! ✓ Make up your own words to sound like your new language. ✓ Let kids laugh at your accent and ask them to teach you.


Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible. ―Richard Feynmann

Be ok with tedium too. This is important. Reward comes from effort, not from fun. Don’t depend too much on something having to be fun to enjoy it because not everything can be new and addictive and gratifying and exciting all the time. We need our ups and downs. Instead of only doing the things you enjoy, try to enjoy all the things you do. Appreciate the phase where you are. The beginnings are good because you can learn a lot very quickly. The intermediate phase is good because you are starting to understand natives and can communicate with them. Proficiency is good because you can learn autonomously and let the foreign culture be a new part of your identity. Everything has a bright side.

Sunshine all the time makes a desert. Arabic proverb

Cultivate a growth mindset ↩ : the belief that you can develop your skills through practice and hard work alone. Talent marks the starting line, not the finish line. See what you don’t know yet, not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. Keep a journal. Every day, summarize the things that got your attention, what you learned, how you felt. Whenever you think you are not making progress, go back to read your journal. Maybe you are onto something, and you need a change. Or you might have just one bad week, and that’s all. Accept and embrace failure. Failure only means we are not done learning yet. It’s a precarious state of mind, an unfinished story. There is no mastery without mistakes because without mistakes you can’t recognize mastery.


Recap | How to have a good learning experience How much you need to have good goals and habits depends on what you struggle with. Often, the effectiveness of motivation techniques hinges on repetition. Visualizing your success once might excite you for a few minutes, but doing it daily can have a lasting impact. The key observation is that you call the shots. Our default operational mode (and popular gurú advice) is to follow our passion, but that is backwards: you must flip it, tell your passion to follow you.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better. ―Samuel Beckett

Similarly, consistency is a double-edged sword. While you do need consistency to achieve fluency, it is also an excuse to tell yourself that the effort is not worth it because you won’t be able to stay consistent. Start with what you can now instead of pursuing an unrealistic perfect situation. And remember: 1. Be positive and enthusiastic. 2. Ignore what you want; think what is the least you will settle for. 3. Make a study plan that works for you. 4. Create an inviting, distraction-free environment for study. 5. Practice every day. 6. Start small, and tweak your habits as you go. 7. Seek fun, but don’t expect everything to be fun.


8. Focus on communication and sustaining motivation. 9. Maintain a healthy lifestyle. 10. Be accountable. 11. Find support in others. You might only have a mild curiosity for some languages and just want to know some phrases and how they sound. That’s fine. Approach the language without expectations and see where it takes you. Don’t drift for a long time, though. It will make you feel that you have invested a lot and learned very little, even if you never agreed with yourself that you would try to learn a lot.

Take control of your motivation, habits, and mindset to enrich your experience. It will help you succeed, yet it will also make you more resilient if you don’t.


How to practice a language There is a subtle distinction between to learn and to study3. To learn means to gain knowledge of something. It is a cognitive process. To study means to learn intentionally. It is an activity. Paradoxically, it is possible to learn without study and study without learning. For instance, you can learn what outlet plug type they use in the Comoros Islands by visiting the country and bringing the wrong adapter. No study required, and you won’t forget it ever again. On the other hand, you will not learn how to drive a car no matter how much you “study” how to use your hands and feet when you are inside one. That requires skill. You learn facts with study, but you learn skills with practice. Learning a language requires knowledge of quite a few facts (like what words mean), but learning to use a language demands skill. Lots of skill. This could be the end of the book only if there weren’t so many ways to practice, and as usual, the devil is in the details. But before digging into how to practice, allow me a word of caution about what most people understand by practicing: real-life conversations.

Academics actually differentiate between learning (conscious) and acquisition (unconscious) but we will ignore that distinction here. 3


Speaking in an uncontrolled environment is not, on its own, the best way to learn a foreign language4. That is because communication and language are different things. Language is a requisite for communication. You might know well a language but still be terrible at communicating. On the other hand, in order to communicate well you need to know language well. Yes, you can improve your language just with lots of conversational practice5, the same way you can move a bike by dragging it around. It’s just not a great experience for most people. This might seem counterintuitive for you, perhaps because the advice to “just get out and speak” is so pervasive. But when you are absorbed in a conversation, your full attention is hijacked by the need to manage the situation. You want to understand what others are saying over a noisy background, with different accents, at a pace you can’t control. You must react fast, finding quick circumlocutions for things you don’t know how to say while still conveying a good enough approximation. You want to avoid misunderstandings, figure out if others do really understand you or just pretend to, all while translating from and to your mother tongue on the go. You have to decide whether or not to give up on a pesky word after asking your interlocutor to repeat it three times and still not understanding it, how to communicate politely that you give up, how long to keep trying to recall a word that you absolutely know but still it doesn’t come to mind, at the expense, of course, of losing the whole thread of the conversation, and pick up the conversation again as fast as possible (crap, did they just changed the topic again?), and definitely —definitely— don’t say anything too stupid. Only to come home hours later and have the best idea of what you should have said instead of what you actually said!

Note that teacher-student conversations, which form the basis of the communicative approach, are a different topic. Here I am specifically referring to real-world situations. 4

It is also worth mentioning that conversational practice is not required to learn a language. You might struggle to find conversation partners in Latin, but you still can learn Latin. 5


The ambition of your interlocutors is not to create an optimal, cozy space for your learning. Even if they are aware of your struggles, they won’t know how to make the conversation easier to follow: ✗ They’ll talk louder, not clearer. ✗ They’ll use a more informal tone instead of a more formal one. ✗ They’ll switch language, instead of repeating slowly. ✗ They won’t even know what is so difficult about their language. When you realize that you don’t know how to say something you want to say, you don’t get the opportunity to learn how to express your original thought. You can’t rewind the conversation back to each point in which you were confused. You can’t listen to the same sentence 4 times nor can you take notes or look up words in a dictionary. Of course, this doesn’t mean that conversational practice is not important. It absolutely is: ✓ Lets you create a personal connection with the language. ✓ Validates your comprehension. ✓ Strengthens your confidence and motivation. ✓ Allows you to make mistakes. ✓ It is the reason why are you learning a language in the first place (probably). However when you speak you can’t expand much your knowledge, you can only reinforce it. You can only use what you already know. Reinforcement is very important, so don’t wait until you have a good command of a language, and try to speak before you are ready in order to apply what you have learned. Nevertheless, conversational practice still needs to come right after solitary practice and study. There are 2 main strategies for this, and you need both of them.


Fast and slow Imagine there is this road you need to walk every day to go to work, but it’s such a pain because it’s full of puddles and potholes, the roadside vegetation is not taken care of and loose branches always scratch your face as you pass by. The road is too long for you to fix in one go, so you decide to patch and clean up a small stretch each day. Every day it takes you a bit longer to get to work because of your ongoing maintenance efforts, but every day you also benefit from all the work you have previously done. At some point, the accumulated benefits outweigh the daily upkeep cost. Extensive practice is like walking the road without cleaning it up. It’s how you make progress, how you learn. You do it by exposing yourself to a lot of language. Intensive practice is all the patching and cleaning. It’s how you slow down to speed up and set yourself up for better learning. Like an investment for your future self. You do it by paying attention to details and actively noticing things. There is always a time for each: Like with all (good) investments, you should do intensive practice as early as possible in your learning journey. The earlier you start, the earlier you’ll see compound benefits. If you are an absolute beginner, you need to spend most if not all of your time with intensive practice. As you work your way up, you can gradually switch to extensive practice. If your goal is fluency, at an advanced level you can safely use extensive practice alone6.

Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world. —Albert Einstein If you are for instance a journalist and need a very good command of language, you’ll benefit from intensive practice even at advanced levels. 6


The right approach also depends on your mood and energy. When you feel energized and have enough time to get in the flow, do what you find harder. When you are tired, do something simple, like re-reading old materials with extensive practice. When you are losing motivation, do what you enjoy the most. Note that intensive practice is not necessarily harder than extensive. For example, listening to long audio segments without stopping can be quite taxing. What matters is to balance and vary your practice. Don’t mix intensive and extensive practice in the same session, though. Most of the time, you should use one or another approach, but not halfway each.

Comprehensible Input Language learning requires the practice of 4 core skills: reading, listening, writing, and speaking. Reading and listening are more important than writing and speaking. This is the conclusion of one of the most influential works on second language acquisition: the Input Hypothesis. The Input Hypothesis, proposed by linguist Stephen Krashen in the 70s, suggests that we learn a language by receiving and processing large amounts of input with a complexity slightly beyond our current level of competence ↩ . This kind of input is called Comprehensible Input (or CI). The Input Hypothesis contrasts with the Skill-Building Hypothesis, which is the one you know already: you first get explained the rules of the language, and then you use them in exercises and drills. Comprehensible Input, instead, moves the focus from the language to the message in a more accessible way. It enables you to use context to grasp the structure of the language and fill holes in your understanding.


With it, you develop an intuition of how the language is used, even if you don’t know its rules. To use Comprehensible Input well, you need to: ✓ Be comfortable with not understanding everything. ✓ Find high-quality, compelling content. ✓ Use both text and audio materials. ✓ Have moderately long reading and listening sessions. Listening and reading are equally important. Listening provides exposure to the flow and rhythm of the language and forces you to think in real-time. Reading offers a more controlled exposure: you can read something as slowly or fast as you want and easily repeat or jump over passages. The most important factor of CI (besides being adequate for your level) is that the content interests you. A good resource should be engaging and meaningful. Fiction is better to start with. Search for authentic materials with a lot of conversation scenes that reflect the culture and how people speak. Language production (speaking and writing) is considered by many to be less important, but how useful it is also depends on what you are able to gain from it7. For instance, the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis states that sometimes we learn when we fail to communicate and have to try again ↩ .

Deliberate Practice One of the biggest mistakes learners make is that once they reach a good enough level, they put the auto-pilot on only to never switch it off again. They let their practice become automatic and repetitive. Intensive practice is the cure for that. Stephen Krashen famously argued that learning only happens through input. However this stance has been often criticized by other linguists (Gregg 1984, White 1987, Butzkamm & Caldwell 2009, Lightbown & Spada 2021, among others). 7


Intensive practice is, first of all, purposeful and systematic. But psychologist Anders Ericsson would argue that even that is not enough. Deliberate Practice is a theory developed by Ericsson in the 90s. Originally, it pursued understanding the relationship between training and attained performance in musicians, but its principles can be applied to other disciplines ↩ . To understand it, notice how professionals in a range of areas improve their skills:

Basketball players train ambidexterity, perform layups and dribbling drills, analyze and perfect their shooting technique, rehearse moves, etc.

Pianists execute hand independence exercises, dissect the pieces they are about to learn, slow down rapid passages, rectify mistakes right away, etc.

Chess professionals work to expand their opening repertoire, solve endgame puzzles, analyze their peer's games, refine their positional play, and so on.

That is much more than simply “playing” basketball, piano, or chess. They break down their craft into their atomic constituents, treating them like subjects with their own challenges, quirks, and nuance. They approach them strategically, combine them, and build their skill with meaningfulness. When you see them doing something that looks easy, it is because they have been practicing alone and intentionally for many hours8. Public performance is just the tip of the iceberg; all the hard work lies beneath the surface. Similarly, Deliberate Practice can also underpin a framework for language learning. The language learning process takes the shape of a cycle with 3 steps: 1. Input: receive new content from reading and listening activities.

This is contrary to the popular belief (originated from the book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell) that states that one just needs 10.000 hours to get good at something. This is false. One could spend 10.000 hours drinking wine and would still not be able to differentiate a 10.000€ bottle from a 10€ bottle... one would just get very drunk. 8


2. Process: develop an understanding of the new input. 3. Output: apply the learned input through writing and speaking. Deliberate Practice imposes two conditions to optimize this cycle. The first one is a high-intensity focus. This seeks targeted improvement in specific skills rather than simply performing the same tasks repeatedly. It works because it highlights your weakest points and compels you to attack them. It boosts continuous progress and refinement, expanding your comfort zone with each and every session. The second one is to incorporate direct, quality feedback from a competent teacher. It works because it shortens the learning cycle. The more frequent feedback you get, the faster you absorb new knowledge and update your mental model of the language. This leads to exponential gains. For instance, immediate feedback is vital for pronunciation. If you learn the wrong pronunciation, it becomes very hard to unlearn and learn it again correctly. It must be said that individual tutoring might incur a substantial expense, but a good teacher is one the best uses of your money. Even with the surge of generative AI models in 2022, no digital tool can make for a remotely acceptable substitute. Classrooms are not good substitutes either ↩ . If you are on a budget, wait until you have an intermediate level to get a teacher. That is when you will reap the most value.

To make your tutoring more affordable, get the most out of them so that you need fewer classes. The best way to do this is to be proactive. Many teachers will have ready-made materials for you, fill-in-the-blank exercises, etc., but make sure to be you the one driving the lessons. Bring topics that interest you, make clear what you want to focus on, ask questions, and ask to get corrected. You can even ask permission to record lessons for your personal use.


Supportive, non-judgemental corrective feedback is crucial ↩ . Humans learn from mistakes, but to do so we need to recognize those mistakes first, and to recognize them we need to make them. If this were not the case we would just jump straight ahead to the correct-on-the-firstattempt square. Unfortunately, that is not how learning works.

Leverage your mistakes: learning from them doesn’t happen unconsciously; you must seek quality feedback on original language production. With more input, you gain more language, but with more feedback, you gain better language.


Language skills Reading, listening, writing, speaking. All skills can be practiced intensively or extensively, individually or in connection with each other. It is ok to tip the scales toward the activity you like the most as long as you keep Comprehensible Input as the backbone of your routine. You should also move between them frequently, ideally each day or every few days. This is called interleaved practice and it will improve your performance greatly ↩ . Let’s get the ball rolling!

Reading Reading lends itself well to either extensive (passive) or intensive (active) practice. The goal of extensive reading is to read as much text as possible for a prolonged period of time without interrupting the flow ↩ . You should look up words only when you get lost and prefer translations over monolingual definitions to make the interruptions shorter. The focus is on content rather than language. It is expected and acceptable to not understand everything. Your main resource is a graded reader. Graded readers are books with increasing grammatical and vocabulary complexity specially designed for this kind of practice. You can find many graded readers online for many languages. As your vocabulary count increases, you will be able to gradually replace simplified texts with originals. With 3.000–5.000 word families you can have a good experience with many original materials ↩ .


If possible, read digital books on an app or device that offers translations or definitions offline. Alternatively, you might try interlinear books (physical or digital). These are bilingual books where the original text is followed by a translation below each line, usually with a smaller and different font. This allows you to have long reading sessions without losing context. They have the disadvantage that picky grammars sometimes don’t line up too well and that there are not many interlinear books for most languages. Either way: ✓ Concentrate on the message. ✓ Minimize disruptions. ✓ Have long sessions. With intensive reading, you cover less surface but better. The focus is on content, language, and everything in between ↩ . Look up words you don’t understand, actively notice patterns, subvocalize, read aloud, take notes. Pick interesting sentences and write them yourself without looking (read, close the book, write, check, and correct mistakes). It’s better to type by hand than with a digital device. If something is unclear, take note of it and ask your teacher in your next session. Try hard to understand before looking up words ↩ . For instance, take the root of a word to see if you can relate it to anything you know, search for a cognate in your mother tongue, find out if that word could be composed by other words, etc. You can start intensive reading practice very early in your learning. It is important that you don’t set outcome-based goals for this kind of practice (e.g., don’t aim for a number of pages), PACT goals are a much better fit.


With intensive reading, you can raise the difficulty level. You can read blogs, news, social network feeds, etc. Twitter (or a Twitter-like clone) might be attractive due to the imposed character limit. Follow enjoyable accounts in your target language and interact with them. Another good source is technical literature on your area of expertise. While it might sound intimidating, technical language is often easier than colloquial language, and you might gain both language and field knowledge all at once. Prefer physical books, so you can easily take notes on the margins, and consider monolingual dictionaries if you are up for the extra challenge. So with intensive reading, you should: ✓ Explore the language. ✓ Decrease the pace. ✓ Be critical.

Listening Some experts see listening comprehension as one of the most (if not the most) important skills ↩ . Once you understand the sounds spoken to you, the other pieces start falling into place. As with reading, the goal of extensive listening is to understand the message, even if you don’t understand all the words ↩ . Extensive listening is not listening without attention, though (that is hearing). Having the TV in the background while you solve jigsaw puzzles won’t magically improve your comprehension ↩ . The key to extensive listening is to refrain from translating everything you hear because you will lose track of whatever comes next.


Instead, receive and acknowledge information without stopping to think, like if you were checking items off of a list as they come in a conveyor belt: “This sound I understood, this I didn’t, this I recognize but don’t remember what it means, this I can guess, this is not even familiar...” Extensive listening is an excellent way to fill gaps during the day in which you can’t study actively, but still have free mental space (e.g., commuting, jogging, doing the dishes, etc.). However, if you are at a beginner level it is better that you spend time listening to the foreign language without doing anything else ↩ . Intensive listening again requires total focus. Replay audio segments as needed, concentrate on intonation, repeat what you hear, transcribe, take notes to ask your teacher. It is a good idea to do several “passes” of the same material and keep notes in a listening journal ↩ : 1. First pass without transcript. 2. Second pass with transcript in your mother tongue. 3. Third pass with transcript in the target language. 4. Fourth pass again without transcript a few days after. You don't need to listen to content about language, but any topic of your interest, like a TED talk, for instance. Platforms like YouTube allow you to search only videos that have closed captions (CC), and in the video settings you can choose the language. Teaching materials from language courses are also a good resource. They tend to have audio files with very clear and slow pronunciation. If they are too easy, play them at a slightly higher speed with some capable software (e.g. VLC, or IINA for Mac), with a lower volume, or with some music in the background. The same goes for TV shows. Depending on your level: ✓ You can do it actively (stop the video frequently to take notes) or passively. ✓ Use subtitles in your mother tongue or in your target language.


✓ Watch the same content twice in a few days: first with subs in your mother tongue, then in your target language. Prefer series over movies because series carry forward a coherent narrative for a longer time. Key vocabulary is more likely to be repeated in future episodes and the tone and theme remain the same for the entire show. An advantage of video over audio is that you get more context from visual information, which helps to understand the big picture. Some tools even allow you to use bilingual subtitles simultaneously and download them to your device. Because of this, you can choose higher-level content than you would typically do. A trick from polyglot Luca Lampariello, if you have a Netflix account: turn on audio descriptions for the shows that have them. Audio descriptions are an accessibility feature that adds extra subtitles describing what is happening in the scene.

Writing Writing is by large the most overlooked skill. Because input is more important for learning, and speaking is more practical in everyday situations, writing ends up ignored. Arguably, extensive writing requires a high level of competence. Extensive writing is when you write your thoughts as they come out, as with the stream of consciousness narrative style. This can be a fun exercise when you have a solid vocabulary. Intensive writing, on the other hand, is a fantastic way to explore a language after you know a few hundred words. It makes you acutely aware of word order, grammatical gender, inflections, spelling, and punctuation; yet it allows you to go as slow as you need. A good way to practice is to iterate the same idea multiple times to elaborate it a bit beyond your level of comfort. For instance, you might start with this: I have breakfast every day.


An A1 sentence that you can probably translate to your target language easily. Now expand and add detail: I have eggs for breakfast every single day. I make scrambled eggs for breakfast every single morning. I make scrambled eggs for breakfast every morning, while still in my pajamas. Every morning, still in my pajamas, I cook a couple of eggs and enjoy breakfast alone. Every morning, still in my pajamas, I cook a couple of eggs and enjoy breakfast alone while the city silently wakes up.

You can practice writing with any kind of journaling ↩ (self-reflective, gratitude, travel, pregnancy, work, etc.), or you can describe how everyday things work, invent short stories, detail a plan for your upcoming trip, etc. The sky is the limit. Another good exercise is to translate a text in your mother tongue for which you have the translation in L2 but have not read it already. First, write your own translation, then check the reference translation, then compare. It’s fine if they are not the same, but you will learn how things can be expressed differently or more concisely. If you don't think you have a good enough level, get help from a machine translation tool ↩ . Even a short writing activity can generate lots of questions you can take to your teacher in your next class and have a proactive discussion. ✓ Write a couple of paragraphs incorporating words and grammatical structures you have learned recently. ✓ Add some grammar above your level: play with passive voice, subjunctive mood, subordinate clauses, set phrases, etc. ✓ Use this practice to gain vocabulary naturally. Instead of memorizing words from a frequency list, search for them when you need to make a sentence of your own. ✓ Notice gaps in your knowledge: grammar rules that you don’t understand, words that you don’t know how to pronounce, etc. ✓ Ask for feedback ↩ .


Writing is easy to adapt to your skill level and it is very cheap. All you need is a notebook (physical or digital) and a dictionary, which you can find online for free for many languages. Finally, writing is great not only for learning new concepts and get your teacher to correct your grammar. Writing is a useful tool for thinking and organizing information in your head and making sense of everything you are learning. That is its biggest benefit.

Notes aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. —Richard Feynman

Speaking For the reasons explained at the beginning of the chapter, speaking practice is best done with a teacher or a language exchange partner. A safe non-judgemental environment is crucial for confident development ↩ . Speaking has been at the forefront of learning methodologies for decades. For example, oral communication is the basis of the natural method, whose main characteristic is the total prohibition of using the mother tongue of the learners: all teaching must happen in the target language. With this technique, vocabulary is often taught with visual representations and body language, and grammar is left to the inductive reasoning capabilities of the students. The natural method has some benefits, as long as it is complemented by the regular practice of the other skills, and you find yourself just comfortable enough with it. Like the previous skills, speaking can also be done passively (stress on comprehension and communication) or actively (stress on pronunciation and the correct use of the language).


The natural method tends to focus more on communication, but perhaps speaking is the skill that is most suited to a mixed approach. Too active, and interruptions become irritating. Too passive, and you won’t improve your pronunciation (and worse, you will learn the wrong pronunciation). Your teacher needs some expertise to know when to interrupt and correct you and when to let mistakes go ↩ . However, don’t hesitate to give feedback if you want more or fewer corrections (most teachers can correct your errors, but they can’t read your mind). It’s generally better to lean on the active side, particularly if your classes are short. Probably you don’t have access to your teacher 24 hours a day, so try to get the most out of your time with her. One popular technique used by teachers to reduce interruptions is recasting: that is when they repeat something wrong you just said, but in a correct form, without explicitly pointing out the mistakes. As a student, you must pay attention to “get” this kind of feedback. Another option is to record the sessions and go over the recordings on your own to make notes of the mistakes.

One last comment: if you live with someone (or have a partner, close friend, etc.) who speaks your target language, don’t abuse their confidence. Get a feeling for whether they are genuinely in the mood to help you with the language or if it is better to leave it for another time.

The L-R method All the core skills can be combined with each other: reading + listening, reading + writing, listening + speaking, and listening + writing are all good complementary pairs. Here is a fantastic sequence ↩ . You need the audio (L2), transcript (L2), and translation (L1) of a long piece (+100 pages).


1. Read the translation to get the central idea of the story. 2. Listen and read the transcript. 3. Listen and read the translation. 4. Repeat steps 2-3 three or four times. The biggest drawback of this technique is finding compelling materials long enough with all the 3 elements (audio, transcript, translation). You can also go over the same material multiple times using a different combination each time, alternating various resources. Let’s say you have a couple of audiobooks with their transcripts. You can approach them like this: 1. Passively listen to book A. 2. Listen and read along to book B. 3. Slowly read aloud book A. 4. Read book B and write a summary of each chapter in your own words. 5. Listen and write along book A. 6. ... It doesn’t matter in what order you do things; it matters that you challenge yourself and you interleave your practice. If you find something too easy, look for ways to make it harder. If you find something too hard, slow down a bit. How much is too easy, too hard, or just about right depends on how you feel and how long your study sessions are. Rule of thumb: you got it right if, at the end of a time-boxed study session, you are so tired that you could not have continued much longer anyway.


Recap | How to practice a language The problem with traditional teaching methods is that they foster learning via intensive study with drills and exercises, and at best give you some supplementary reading materials as homework. That is backwards, you should do it exactly the other way around.

Extensive practice is a learning requirement, but one that is affordable, approachable, and fun. Intensive practice accelerates learning. Alternate them strategically in support of your mood, goals, and schedule. Hopefully, you gained valuable insights in this chapter. The vast majority of language learners don’t know anything about Deliberate Practice and Comprehensible Input, you now can consider yourself part of a secret society! Here is a quick summary: 1. Use lots of Comprehensible Input. 2. Seek engaging content. 3. Target specific skills deliberately. 4. Interleave your practice. 5. Seek frequent feedback from a teacher. 6. Don't neglect any of the core skills. 7. Actively notice gaps in your knowledge. 8. Revisit pieces of content (particularly audio) from time to time.


Slow and steady, we are moving from things you absolutely need to learn toward things you need less but will make you learn faster. Time to buckle up!

At first, we should read with a blitheness practically bordering on superficiality; later on, with a conscientiousness close to distrust. ―Kató Lomb


How to study a language Although study and practice are different things, you won’t notice or care much about the distinction when you do them right. They will blend into each other when you learn new vocabulary as you read, soak grammar as you listen, and sharpen your pronunciation as you repeat after your teacher. But perhaps the most recognizable difference between study and practice is how they are perceived collectively: Practice is fun, study is tedious. Practice is exciting, study is repetitive. Practice is interactive, study is passive. Practice is approachable, study is difficult.

The reason why nearly all educational tools avoid the word “study” (and/or relegate study in favor of gamified reward systems) is that they know you likely have a negative perception of it, and the reason you have a negative perception of it is that you probably have spent many hours in your life studying ineffectively (I certainly had). So, to start with the obvious, the goal of study is to learn. But why to study at all? Can't you just learn with immersion and regular practice alone? ↩ As with all the complicated questions, the answer is it depends. If you are talented, are learning a language relatively close to any you know already, have access to good resources and immersion opportunities, you can probably do it.


But even in that case, it will take a long(er) time. Studying is your means to control the learning process. Take this simple example in Spanish:

El agua. (“The water”. El is the masculine singular definite article)

Las aguas. (“The waters”. Las is the feminine plural definite article)

Both are correct. But why one is masculine and the other feminine? Is water actually masculine or feminine? If I asked you to infer what is the rule here, you’d perhaps tell me that the word water happens to be masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. It checks, right? But that is not correct. So we could play a game where I give you hundreds of sentences showing gender agreement between article and noun until you’ll eventually figure out the rule, or, more likely, until you just memorize el agua and las aguas without knowing why it works like that, so failing to generalize to other words and still making mistakes with that word (el dulce agua or la dulce agua?) Wouldn't be convenient if I just told you the rules for gender agreement instead of having to figure it out all by yourself with countless examples from books and conversations? I wouldn’t even need to give you all the rules about grammatical gender, just the one at play in this example. In this case, I would tell you that when a feminine noun starts with a, that a carries the phonemic tone and is immediately preceded by the definite article la, Spanish turns to the masculine article even if the noun is feminine, just because natives don't like how "la agua" sounds. This example presents a very specific syntax rule, but the same happens with any other feature of language (morphology, phonology, etc.). So clearly, studying rules is very useful for learning a language. A different consideration, and a common mistake associated with traditional school programs, is when a rule like the one above should be introduced. Because often rules like that one don’t hinder communication and are very


specific, when introducing them too early it will cause more unnecessary overhead than value. Beginners rightfully won’t care about it. This quickly leads to frustration and boringness. So here comes the “golden rule” of language study: study has to arise from a personal need. It could be because you need to make a presentation of yourself but don’t know the words, or because you are listening to a podcast that don’t understand, or because you are getting lost in a classroom, or you are reading a story to your kid but don’t know how to pronounce a sentence. Any excuse is good for as long as it is relatable. So first you practice (ideally on your own or with a teacher, as described in the previous chapter), then you break down that practice, and then you study whatever you are “missing”. You can study more than what you feel is needed in an exploratory mood, purely driven by your curiosity. But don’t grab a textbook and start reading lists of words, tables, and rules as if it were the instruction manual of your new coffee machine. If you do this, soon you will realize that with study you not only learn faster but also further. You don’t get to be an expert in your modern tongue just by using it. The same thing happens with a second language, only that the bar is lower. Without study, you will hit a limit faster: Did ever happen to you in school that you skipped a maths lesson and because of that you couldn’t quite make sense of anything that followed after that class? Languages are not so nicely structural as maths, but a similar thing happens. If you skip study, you will always be dragging the same mistakes. They will hinder your ability to express yourself, once and over again. You’ll plateau hopelessly. I’ll talk more about this in the following sections (and I will also talk about lists of words in case you really like them). Otherwise, the goal of this chapter is very simple. It is all devoted to convincing you about 3 simple things: ✓ There are fantastic study techniques for language learning. ✓ Studying is fun (even if you are not a nerd). ✓ Yes, really.


Learning to learn To understand what study can truly do for us we need to start with the underdog of the learning process: memory. The brain is a very sophisticated machine mostly designed to forget ↩ . Forgetting is how the brain cuts through the noise, how it deals with vast amounts of information while minimizing energy consumption. Yet we often blame it for doing its job all too well, claiming that we can’t learn a language because we have “bad memory”. How rude! Let’s see exactly how wrong is that. Information processing in the memory undergoes 3 stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval ↩ . It might not sound like much, but a lot is happening between the lines. Neural connections are created, reinforced, and destroyed all the time, giving the brain its deserved reputation for kick-ass plasticity. A key component of learning is the transfer of information from short-term (STM) to long-term memory (LTM) ↩ . This process is called consolidation and it happens mainly while we rest and sleep ↩ . The faster we can consolidate memories, the faster we learn.

The multi-store memory model.


The problem is that we don’t have a switch below the armpit to flush information down the LTM at our command. No, the brain will stubbornly filter out everything that deems irrelevant against your very will. So how does it decide what to preserve and what to throw away? Simple: with a recommendation algorithm refined through 300.000 years of human history (take that, tech companies). Luckily, insights into the inner workings of memory give us a couple of avenues to aid the consolidation process, and so to improve memory, and so to accelerate learning. The most well-known one is through retrieval practice. The more we use a piece of knowledge, the better and faster we will be able to recall it in the future. However, there is a wide misconception (partly spread by popular language learning apps) about how retrieval practice works and why. Repetition is such a powerful tool (when used right) that it has a chapter on its own. The less well-known one is elaborative encoding. Encoding is the neglected sibling of the famous retrieval step, yet as important ↩ . Encoding refers to the process of creating a mental representation of what you are about to learn. Elaborative refers to the use of certain mechanisms to assist in the creation of effective mental representations. While encoding is unconscious, elaborative encoding is conscious. Encoding is important because the better we are at it, the less we need to retrieve information in order to not forget it. So, how do we do it? The first step is to engage emotionally with the language. It is a known fact that emotions create strong(er) memories ↩ . You don’t remember how many hours you slept the night of December 17th,

Elaborative Encoding in action

2017; unless your son was born that day, in which case you remember perfectly: it was zero.

While it can’t be compared to childbirth, language learning can also be an emotional endeavor if you are willing to experience it. That is, test your competence in real-life


situations, get out of your comfort zone, try new things often, use entertaining materials, relate with the content you study and the experience of other students ↩ . There is not much of an instruction manual for experiencing languages as there isn’t one for living. You just have to give it a go. The next step is to always understand before memorizing. Whys and why nots in language learning are a slippery slope because some things don’t come with a why at hand9: they are just the way they are. However we must not surrender before putting a fight: rules are everywhere, even in the least expected corners of language10. A terrific way to make sure you deeply understand a particular element is to use the Feynman technique: 1. Teach: for instance, if you are learning English imagine yourself teaching a classroom how conditionals work. You would probably talk about 3 different forms and the verb tenses to use in each case. 2. Find and fill gaps: now you would dissect your explanation searching for unanswered questions from your imaginary classroom. In the example above you might have found that you didn’t explain when to use each form, so you would start talking about different hypothetical situations. 3. Simplify: go through your pieced-out explanation and condense it in the shortest form possible with the simplest terms. Example: ‣ Use only the present tense when you are totally certain of a consequence, and the trigger might actually happen: If I drink coffee, I don’t sleep very well. ‣ Use the present tense and the future when you are almost certain of a consequence, and the trigger might still happen: If I drink coffee now, I won’t sleep very well. ‣ Use the past tense with would when you are almost certain of a consequence, but the trigger won’t probably happen anyway: If I drank coffee now, I would have a heart attack.

See “grammatical gender” for a recurring nightmare of many Indo-european and Bantu language learners. 9

Like in the fact that the word “naked” has 2 syllabes because it is an adjective and “baked” has 1 syllabe because it is a verb in the past tense. 10


Now that you understand, you can use a few more tricks to level up your encoding-fu an extra notch: ✓ Association: link new pieces of information to other things you already know. For instance, enough has the same pronunciation pattern as tough, dough as though, and through as threw. When you come across the word rough, mentally link it to the ones that are pronounced in the same way. ✓ Chunking: group together pieces of information that often go together. In languages this is the idea behind the lexical approach: I would like to, I have been, It is going to, What are you..? are all frequent lexical chunks in English, so it makes sense to learn them as atomic units of language instead of learning each word separately. ✓ Memory palace: the Loci method is a technique typically used to remember lists of unrelated items (usually words in our case). It works by bringing to mind a place that you know very well (like your home, office, etc.), and then walking mentally that place “dropping” words from the list in different locations. ✓ Linking: another method to remember lists, this one is about making a story connecting each item of the list to the next one. The more extravagant the story, the better. Here is one example with the 10 most common nouns in English: 1. A thing is on my way 2. The thing spits out a man 3. The man breaks his hand 4. The hand holds a world 5. The world burns for a day 6. A day that lasts one year 7. A year in which no person is born 8. And no person has any life 9. But life always finds a way


The best way to apply all these ideas is to narrow down the scope of a study session and take on different aspects of language separately. Languages are made of two kinds of building blocks (words and phonemes) and some glue (grammar). For beginners, it’s best to focus on both building blocks and take it easier with the grammar. Vocabulary is essential because, without it, you can’t develop any of the core skills. Pronunciation is important because in many languages, it isn’t possible to derive pronunciation from spelling, so our mother tongue interferes to make assumptions for us11. Grammar is not so urgent because it can be learned to a fair extent by inferring rules from examples you encounter through language exposure. During your learning journey, you will need to adjust your priorities based on what is difficult about the language and where are you falling behind. Often it will be vocabulary, so learning new words each day should be a core focus for a good part of it, at least until you know around 3.000 words. Either way, all 3 must be learned progressively. Don’t wait too long until you have a certain level of competence in one aspect before starting with the others. So from a beginner’s perspective, the priorities are generally like this: 1. Vocabulary 2. Pronunciation 3. Grammar Which, conveniently, is also the order of the next sections.

Such assumptions are fine if you want everybody to know where you are from only from your accent, but not so good if you want to be understood. 11


The building blocks of language

Vocabulary Words are the building blocks of a language, but that doesn’t mean that they are anything like bricks on a wall. Actually, the word word is surprisingly difficult to define (linguists prefer terms like morpheme, lexeme, and formative). You have a grasp of what a word is, so we'll just roll with that. Suffice it to say that words might or might not carry any meaning on their own and that the meaning can be different depending on other words around it, or the whole situation. Because of this, you should always learn words in context. Often, languages use different words to express the same thing, so there is little value in knowing how to translate a word if you don’t know how to use it in the foreign language. Mother tongue mirroring might help to grasp patterns in a language, however:

Latin: quid temporem est? —What time is it?

French: quelle heure est-il? —What hour is it?

German: wie spät ist es? —How late is it?

Swedish: vad är klockan? —What is the clock?

So if you have trouble remembering how to say what time is it? in Swedish, remember first that you have to say what is the clock? and then translate those words. Context is essential even when the definition of a word seems very obvious12. Imagine that you are learning English, and they tell you that the word you is a pronoun that refers to the person the speaker is talking to. Simple enough, right? Now consider these phrases:

Note that the idea of learning words in context is different from the lexical approach.



1. ..., mind you. 2. You bet. 3. You get used to it. 4. ..., you know? Mind you emphasizes whatever has been said right before, you bet restates certainty, you get used to it is impersonal (sometimes), and you know? is a filler expression (most of the time). There is a way to say these things in other languages, but it might not imply a word-byword translation, it might not contain the word you, and even if it does, their youwords won’t “work” in the same way. For instance, in German, you will have to deal with du / sie / ihr, and in Japanese, the many variants of you might as well be all the wrong ways to refer to your interlocutor13. Even in the relatively uncomplicated case of the English language, the phrases above are still quite ambiguous. Consider some examples with the idiom up to you: 1. I don’t know, up to you. 2. Up to you, you always know better. 3. I’m fine either way, up to you. 4. Up to you, I don’t mind. 5. Up to you, I don’t care. Up to you means the same in all cases: an invitation to the other person to make a decision.


See pronoun avoidance.


But in the first example, the speaker transmits the inability to make an informed decision, the second one conveys resentment, the third one agreement, the fourth one acceptance, and the last one indifference. It is not apparent for a learner to know in which situations she can say up to you idiomatically or if that expression is going to supply some additional meaning that she doesn’t intend to. Knowing the translations of the words up, to, and you wouldn’t help much here. This sometimes makes people afraid of using a foreign language in public: what if one unintentionally says something wrong without even realizing it? The best way to minimize the chances of this happening is not to stay silent, just in case. It’s to learn vocabulary in context. Phrases better than words, sentences better than phrases, paragraphs better than sentences, stories better than paragraphs. Context lets you capture the nuance that is constantly lost in translations and makes it easier to associate a new word with other concepts you already know. You don’t need to actively memorize every new word you encounter; that would be just a tad less hopeless than reading a dictionary from front to cover. Let exposure (through Comprehensible Input) inform you how important a word is. You can also pull words from a frequency list. Theoretically, with the most 1.000 frequent words you can understand 75% of a language14, with 3.000 the 90%, and with 8.000-10.000 you buy a good degree of fluency. Still, it is possible to memorize 5.000 words from a frequency list and not be able to speak in ordinary situations. If you want to use a frequency list, follow these rules: ✓ Don’t rush. ✓ Take 400–500 words at most. With that, you have more than enough to move to graded readers.


Give or take, as it varies from language to language.


✓ Take only substantives, verbs, and adjectives. These categories change less from language to language (for example it is more probable that the word cat is used in the same way in your L1 and L2 than the word on). ✓ Consider skipping abstract words, even if they are very frequent. Their meaning is often more nuanced. ✓ Find 2–3 sentences incorporating each of the words, and learn their meaning by translating the sentences with a machine translation tool. ✓ Make your own sentences with the words you learn, even if they are very simple. ✓ Make sub-lists of 8-12 words and use the Loci or the linking technique to internalize them faster. Lists are a bit dull and less significant than what you expect. “Stupid headphones battery’s dead again” might be something you say every day in your mother tongue, but the only word in the coveted top 1.000 in that sentence is again. Remember that meaningful content is always better than frequency lists. It doesn’t really matter if one word is the number 257 and the other is the 1598th on a list, you’ll need them both soon enough.

Deep encoding You don’t have to use deep encoding techniques for every single word that you learn. The best time is when you learn new words through any kind of intensive practice. In addition to the ones described earlier, you can use these tricks: ✓ Write it down by hand ↩ . ✓ Think and write several examples with it, and check with your teacher if they are correct. For bonus points, make a rhyme. ✓ Read it aloud. If it is a phrase or sentence, sing it. ✓ Search for cognates (words in your own language with the same etymological ancestor). For instance, to remember the Spanish word mar (sea), recall the word marine.


✓ Visualize a relevant evocative scene. For instance, to memorize the Spanish word mareado (dizzy), imagine a rocky journey on a small boat. Or, to memorize montaña rusa (roller coaster, literally “Russian mountain”), imagine a roller coaster with Matryoshka dolls as passengers falling off the track down a mountain slope. ✓ Find a similar-sounding word in your language and link the foreign word to it. For instance, to memorize the Russian word корова (cow, approximately pronounced “karova”), visualize something like I run a car over a cow. ✓ Use the “sandwich technique”: read the original L2 sentence, then the L1 translation, then the L2 sentence again. ✓ For grammatical genders, associate a mental image of that word with a color matching the gender. For instance, blood is feminine in Spanish (la sangre) but masculine in French (le sang). Without making a case in support of gender stereotypes, a Western learner could imagine a human body with blue veins for the French word or with pink veins for the Spanish word. ✓ Search the internet for existing memory devices for that language. For example, with some creativity, the sentence “Vin Diesel Has Ten Weapons” can be pronounced as “Ven Di Sal Haz Ten Ve Pon Sé”, which are all the irregular imperative verbs in the second person singular in Spanish. There are a few don’ts too: ✗ Don’t memorize words by categories. The fact that you just learned how to say carrot (perhaps because you were eating carrot soup and asked what that was called) doesn’t mean that you need to learn about Jerusalem artichokes too. You will have an opportunity for that some other time (in case you care about Jerusalem artichokes, that is). ✗ Don’t abuse dictionaries. Dictionaries are an excellent resource but use them as a reference, not as a primary source for learning. ✗ Don’t obsess much about it. Some words are harder than others but you’ll get there. Language learning is much more than memorizing words.


Some people like to learn vocabulary (with Spaced Repetition15 or some other way) using images only in place of translations, the argument being that you capture meaning better because you don’t have to translate in your head. This appeals especially to individuals who identify as visual learners ↩ . Recent research suggests that there is no such thing as a visual learner, though. The fact that you prefer to consume visual, or some other type of information doesn’t mean that you learn better in that way ↩ . While it can be annoying to have to translate things in your head all the time, your mother tongue can also help to learn vocabulary faster. That’s why the more languages you know, the quicker you learn new languages. Use images if you enjoy them (images are fun, and can be evocative), but instead of pretending that you don’t have a mother tongue, be conscious about it. Language transfer can also be positive, so try to find “this works just like in my language” moments, and be aware of the misconceptions you will inevitably bring with your L1 ↩ . The best way to stop having to translate in your head is through efficient encoding and repetition. This can't be hacked because it involves a physicochemical process that takes its time. If you feel like you are translating too much, combine extensive reading, active vocabulary study, and the natural method described in the previous chapter.


Spaced Repetition will be covered in depth later. Don’t worry if you don’t know what it is.


Pronunciation Just like vocabulary, sounds are better learned in context. The cadence and musicality of a language describe it better than its phonemes. That’s why sometimes you can recognize what language are others speaking even if you don’t understand it. To understand what makes up an accent, try imitating it: ✓ Start pronouncing one word at a time, then a whole sentence slowly, then the same sentence at normal speed. Do that for each sentence in a paragraph, then the entire paragraph. Record yourself and then play your recording along with the original. Exaggerate the melody. How does it sound? What is different? ✓ Practice sentences that you are likely to say in real life and get feedback. Pronunciation assessment is probably the most important type of feedback you can get, and any native can do it. As you start getting a grip on the accent, work your way down to the phoneme level. A phoneme is the smallest sound that lets you tell 2 words apart. For instance, the words cut and cat are identical except for the fact that the vowel sound in cut is pronounced with the tongue slightly closer to the roof of the mouth and further back. Now you will notice that cut and gut are also 1 phoneme away, as are cut and cup. So, the word cut has 3 phonemes that differentiate it from words like cat, cup, and gut (the fact it also has 3 letters is a happy coincidence). Not all languages use the same phonemes. For instance, Greek differentiates between 5 unique vowel sounds, American English around 14–16, and Danish 26–30. Sound–Letter mapping is the first pronunciation challenge you will encounter in many languages. A common practice to solve it when listening to a teacher or audiobook is to make respelling notes for ambiguous or confusing words. For instance, the word Wednesday can be phonetically respelled as wenz-dei to make it more clear that the first d is silent.


However, you need more than respelling when you want to represent sounds that are not in the language’s alphabet. For instance, you can’t indicate that the a in cat is not the same as the one in bath. And you will confuse the hell out of yourself if you respell cut as cat. This circumstance will, unfortunately, occur often.

IPA (not that one, the other one) A solution to this problem is to learn and use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a standard written representation of speech sounds. In IPA (not to be confused with the famous beer style), each symbol unequivocally identifies one sound. Some experts argue that IPA is not needed to learn a language (which is true), but learning it has several benefits: ✓ It allows you to know how to pronounce a word when you don’t have audio available (some dictionaries include IPA transcriptions). ✓ It allows you to take accurate notes of how words are pronounced when following a teacher or audio content. ✓ It helps you to develop phonemic awareness, e.g., to understand what differences are between seemingly identical sounds. ✓ It helps you to capture patterns that you would have missed otherwise. Sometimes forms that are irregular when written, are perfectly regular in IPA-land. Phonemes will give you 2 additional kinds of problems: sounds you can’t differentiate and sounds you can’t articulate. It is very frustrating not being able to distinguish between 2 phonemes that are like day and night for natives. For instance, Italian learners might not realize that the double-z in the words pizza and mezzo are pronounced slightly differently. The zz sounds like ts in pizza and like ds in mezzo. The good thing with IPA is that you don’t need to ͡ ͡ second-guess: /ˈpit.tsa/, /ˈmɛd.dzo/.


Other times, just one imperceptible difference is all that differentiates two words. This happens more frequently (from an English native speaker perspective) in tonal and pitch-accent languages, but there are examples to be found in many more languages. For example, the Danish words hun (/hun/, she) and hund (/hun̰/, dog) are identical except for the ◌ in hund. The ◌ symbol denotes an abrupt interruption of airflow in the glottis. This feature (called stød in Danish) is ubiquitous in the entire language.

As an exercise, go through the sounds that exist in your mother tongue and observe how they are produced. Notice how the interplay between tongue, teeth, and lips can lead to radically different sounds. See what happens when you involve the nose, or when you push air from the back of your throat. Equipped with this awareness you can now seek to understand better how to pronounce difficult sounds in your target language. You can find videos on Youtube or elsewhere explaining how to go about many of them, like the infamous rolling r.

Other sounds look hard until someone tells you a trick: for example, the Danish “soft d” is pronounced like an l with the tongue down, and the Icelandic double-l is a bit like a t and an l at the same time (usually). It is important that you tackle difficult sounds as soon as possible. If you let them go unchecked, you will learn the wrong sound instead, and it will be harder to re-learn the correct one. IPA can be daunting at first. It includes more than 100 symbols for consonants and vowels, diacritics (like ◌ ), and suprasegmental signs (features that can extend over several syllables or

croissant /kʁwa.sɑ̃/

words). But you don’t have to learn it all. Most languages use less than half of them.

Take elements you need as you encounter them, in function of how much they appear in the language. For example, an English learner could start with the sound /ə/ (called schwa), which is the a sound in the word about. While very common in English, many languages don’t


have it, so it is difficult for native speakers of those languages to use it correctly. That is not necessarily because it is a complicated sound but because it won’t come naturally. That said, IPA is not equally beneficial for all languages. Languages like Finnish, Czech, and Turkish have a more straightforward relationship be-

IPA vowel chart

tween written and spoken forms. And for languages with non-alphabetic scripts, it might be better to use other transcription systems (e.g., pinyin for Mandarin), even if it incurs some information loss. But even when learning a language with a complicated phonology like Danish, just knowing a handful of symbols can be very beneficial. Off the chance I can spur your appetite for semi-formal systems, here are some generally useful symbols:

◌ː Long vowel or consonant

ˈ◌ / ˌ◌ Primary / secondary stress

⟨.⟩ Syllable break

See? You know some IPA already. Don’t worry much about technical outbursts like voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant fricative, you don’t have to learn the terminology. In addition to IPA, you can employ a few additional techniques to go above and beyond. I am calling these “advanced” only because they are relatively unknown.

Advanced techniques The first one is called shadowing. Shadowing is about pronouncing a sentence or paragraph as you hear it, with as little delay as possible.


Shadowing is more challenging than the usual listen-then-repeat exercise. It removes comprehension from the equation, as your attention is wholly focused on accurately replicating the sounds you hear. You practice it by listening to audio fragments up to 30 seconds long just once and then replay and “shadow” (first with and then without the transcript) a few times. Record yourself and compare. Another exercise is to find pairs of words that only differ in one sound but have different meanings and repeat them back to back. These are called minimal pairs, like cat and cut. If a friend is willing to help you, you can ask her to play randomly one of the two sounds and make you guess which one it is. The last technique is called backchaining. This one is about taking a short sentence, phrase, or word and pronouncing it backward syllable by syllable. It works well when your mother tongue gets too much in the way, and you instinctively make the wrong assumptions about how something should be pronounced. For example, the word Wednesday comes spontaneously as wed-nes-dei to many nonEnglish speakers, and by pronouncing it backward (like dei-wenz), you break the unhelpful association between spelling and pronunciation. When used with phrases, you don’t necessarily need to break them into syllables, just in manageable chunks. The overarching principle behind these techniques is always the same: think sounds, not words.


Grammar study is a recurring subject of controversy. Some say to ignore it completely; others say to go all in. A personal observation is that, coincidentally, people who like grammar tend to think of grammar study as very important, and people who don’t like grammar tend to believe that it doesn’t matter. So, a piece of prudent advice to start with would be this: don’t approach grammar in a way that merely supports your liking or disliking of it. If you love grammar, don’t be the grammar police. Make sure to still prioritize vocabulary and pronunciation during the early stages. If you are grammar-averse, acknowledge the benefits of grammar study without getting too hung up on it. Make grammar an ally instead of an enemy. As a minimum, you need to understand some general grammatical concepts. Know the parts of speech. Learn what cases exist in your L2 and what they mean. Same for verb tenses, grammatical functions, article types, pronoun forms, etc. This kind of upfront work will make it easier to learn grammar when it comes to it. You will be able to focus on the language instead of having to understand the difference between direct object and indirect object, how to use each in your L2, and how that is different from your L1, all at the same time. Beyond these basics, a happy middle ground is to study just enough grammar to not hold you back. This varies from language to language. For instance, if you use the wrong word order, natives might: ✗ Struggle to understand you. ✗ Understand the wrong thing. ✓ Think you speak funny and don’t care much.



For example, English uses an SVO structure (subject + verb + object), Japanese uses SOV, Arabic VSO, and Greek permits a relatively free order. In English, it is not the same “the lions are chasing the gazelles” as “the gazelles are chasing the lions”. However, the Spanish “los leones persiguen a las gacelas” is indeed the same as “a las gacelas persiguen los leones” (even if the second variant reads a bit like cheap poetry). Sometimes grammar commands a remarkably rigorous arrangement, even if it’s not apparent. For example, not many people know that adjectives in English always follow a certain order (roughly: opinion, size, shape, age, color, origin, material, purpose). Still, foreign speakers get it right most of the time anyway because they get familiarized with it by virtue of continuous exposure. “A lovely small green wooden figurine” sounds better than “a green lovely wooden small figurine” to anyone who has been exposed to enough English. This is an example of a descriptive grammar rule, which simply describes how language is used without concerning itself much with what is right or wrong. Descriptive grammar is opposed to prescriptive grammar, which is the kind of grammar we all studied in school: use the article an before words that start with a vowel sound. Use who to refer to the subject, but whom to refer to the object. That kind of thing. One of the reasons you don‘t need to study much grammar at the beginning is that with Comprehensible Input you absorb lots of descriptive grammar already. On the other hand, with active study, descriptive grammar can be very hard to grok (just try to memorize the order of adjectives in English and apply conscientiously that rule when you speak). It appears that we are better at recognizing patterns than analyzing things16, and we are very good at capturing the relative utility of a grammatical construct. We prefer to know where the verb goes in a sentence as where the adverb goes because verbs carry more semantical weight than adverbs. We get more out of using I and me correctly than using who and whom correctly, even if the rule is the same.


And not only in languages. See Groot, 1965 for a famous study in chess.


Unconsciously, we chase utility more than simplicity. It doesn’t matter a whole lot if a rule is hard or easy, logical or non-sensical. It matters more how much value we get out of it17. This encourages a wide-ranging studying style: get exposed to the whole gamut of grammatical structures and think about where you are losing meaning. With time you’ll notice oddities that didn’t matter much until now because they didn’t fall within the sphere of discomfort in which your Comprehensible Input was operating. Suddenly, a grammatical element you were eager to dismiss now becomes relevant. This element will catch your eye like a shiny new toy, not unlike when a baby suddenly discovers she has feet. Things that don’t exist or are very different in your mother tongue will grab your attention earlier: the present continuous is common in English and Spanish but it doesn’t exist as such in French and German. Polish recognizes 5 grammatical genders, but Finnish only 1. Articles abound in Italian (it has 18), but they are nowhere to be seen in Polish. The verb to go in German can be used to go by foot, but not to go by train. The verb to be in some Romance languages is derived from two distinct Latin roots, esse, and stāre, and each has its rules, which also vary from language to language (“to be glad” is “essere contento” in Italian, but “estar contento” in Spanish). In an attempt to produce language, some questions will naturally arise: how does one go by train in German? What do they use in Polish instead of articles? How does the bicephalic verb to be work in Spanish? You will promptly need the rules for ser and estar in Spanish because they come up a lot, and you will have to pick one or the other. You’ll disregard the Italian partitive articles for a long time because the difference between “ci sono belle notizie” and “ci sono delle belle notizie” is only marginal (roughly: “there is good news” and “there is quite some good news”), and you can get away with the former.

It has been suggested that grammatical features are always learned in the same predictable order. For some time it was believed that this was the case for both first (native) and second languages, but several studies point out that grammar acquisition order in second language is at least partly L1-dependent ↩ . 17


The key is to make questions and not hold them back. Avoid seeing some grammatical elements as “basic” and others as “advanced”. For instance, without the present subjunctive tense, you couldn’t say something as simple as “I hope it

Mastering the Spanish subjunctive

rains” in Spanish. Conversely, you don’t need to learn everything about the Spanish present subjunctive to understand “ojalá llueva”. So that is the rule about grammar rules, the rule to rule them all: ignore them until you can’t ignore them anymore. Don’t let them drag you. One more thing: avoid the fill-in-the-blank exercises that are often found in textbooks and apps in connection with grammar rules. It is not the same thing to understand as to prove (to someone else) that you understand. Proving that you understand requires an extra (simultaneous) effort that has to do with validation, not with language. It detracts from language. Fill-in-the-blanks are designed to prove your competence in a way that a teacher or app can verify very fast, but they are problematic for you: ✗ Hardly interesting. ✗ Transform language into a puzzle. ✗ Incentivize you to hack the puzzle, not to learn the language. ✗ Slow you down. ✗ Intended to help teachers, not you. ✗ Often ambiguous or poorly designed. The same goes for many classical textbook exercises: rearrange the words in a sentence, map words in a column with their meaning in other columns, etc. The exercise that gives you more bang for your buck (and by a large margin) is free writing. The only downside is for your teacher: it takes a longer time to evaluate it.


Recap | How to study a language Perhaps you can see a pattern here: learn words in sentences, not in isolation. Start with accent, not phonemes. Learn grammar from language, not from drill tables. It’s the patterns, not the atoms that are most important. If we start studying from the atoms, we will miss out on the patterns. But if we start from the patterns, we won’t miss the atoms.

Study with a top-down approach, not bottom-up. Learn words, grammar, and sounds in context to capture the underlying patterns governing the language. The key to enjoying study (even if enjoying study sounds like an oxymoron to you) is to do it autonomously, exploratively, and deliberately; instead of executing drills for days on end in a mind-wandering state. The subject of your study should arise from personal needs, experiences, and stories of your choosing. And remember: 1. Start with vocabulary and pronunciation. 2. Study enough grammar to not hold you back. 3. Don’t study words or grammatical features grouping them in “categories”. 4. Use elaborate encoding techniques. 5. Learn the basics of the International Phonetic Alphabet. 6. Develop your phonetic awareness.


7. When studying pronunciation think sounds, not words (or meaning). 8. Put special attention to features that occur often and either don’t exist in your mother tongue or that are very similar but not identical. 9. Be self-aware of your mother tongue to avoid interferences, but let it help you when possible. 10. Skip fill-in-the-blanks and similar drills. Now that you are learning a language through practice and study, you need to retain what you learn. Absolutely by coincidence, the very topic of the next chapter.


How to make it stick So far you have: 1. Created good habits with a positive mindset. 2. Consumed lots of content with a difficulty just right above your level. 3. Practiced all the core skills both in isolation and in combination with each other. 4. Studied words, sounds, and grammar actively, using deep encoding techniques and phonemic awareness. You are almost there. All you need now is to recombine and apply all that knowledge on your own. But before going all out on a limb to submit a TED talk in your target language, you must hone and test your skills with yourself first. You do that with retrieval practice, which basically means “repetition” in fancy English. Repetition is how you strengthen neural pathways, meaning that you will be able to recall information faster and with less effort in the future. As it turns out, the best way is to distribute these repetitions over a long period of time. Instead of staring at a piece of paper for 5 minutes hoping that you will have memorized what is written on it, it’s better to space those 5 minutes over several weeks or even months. This phenomenon has been widely ↩ studied ↩ in the last 4 decades ↩ , and the popular technique to exploit it is called Spaced Repetition.


Spaced Re p e t i t i o n Spaced Repetition is one of the most time-effective tools in your repertoire. In spite of that, most people are using it wrong in a way that is not only ineffective but also very boring. The central idea is to have a deck of cards (also called flashcards), each with a prompt or question on one side and an answer on the other, and then use a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) to schedule those cards for study at specific times. When optimal, the system will show you a card right when you are on the verge of forgetting it so that, on average, you recall it correctly around 85% of the time. So (at least in theory) all you have to do is this: 1. Show up every day. 2. Read each question carefully. 3. Think the answer. 4. Check the back of the card for the real solution. 5. Tell the system if you got it right or not.

Space Repetition algorithms rely on the so-called forgetting curve to know when to schedule flashcards for review. The forgetting curve describes the decline of memory retention over time and resembles an exponential decay function: the longer the time since the last exposure to an item, the easier it is to forget it. As we accumulate expositions to an item through reviews, we make it more durable in our long-term memory. This way, the forgetting curve becomes smoother over time. While it sounds flawless on paper, in practice Spaced Repetition Systems present a number of problems.


Between Scylla and Charybdis Language learners are usually stuck between 2 bad choices: either a generic SRS tool which is too clunky and inadequate for languages, or a language learning app implementing some flavour of SRS which is almost always too rigid. One way or another, they tend to promote bad learning habits: ✗ Hard to engage with. ✗ Little or no context. ✗ Unrelatable to personal experiences. ✗ Foster memorization without understanding. ✗ Reliant on the quality of the scheduling algorithm. ✗ Don’t allow pauses in the schedule. ✗ Abuse clozes (fill-in-the-blanks). Language apps typically err on the side of too much repetition and too little information density. For instance, they show you a piece of information, perhaps a picture of a bird with the word “bird” written below in your target language. Then, a few seconds later, the app shows you again the same word and a bunch of animal pictures, and you have to drag the word “bird” to the appropriate picture. You might have to prove again your knowledge up to 5-6 times in the span of a few minutes. General-purpose SRS are better in this regard as they allow finer control, starting with a very simple but powerful mechanism: they give you several interval options after each repetition. The main disadvantage of general-purpose SRS is that, by definition, they are not designed for language learning. Languages contrast with other topics in that, on the whole, they require skill, not knowledge. It’s not just about retrieving information but recalling it in real time, as fast


as we listen to something. To do that language needs to become second nature, a task much harder than the mere memorization of facts. Moreover, the optimal spacing interval is impossible to calculate because it does not only depend on some measure of the intrinsic difficulty of a card, but on you: how you encode the information, how you are feeling that day, whether or not you encountered that item elsewhere since the last review, if you discovered some rule that just “clicked”, etc. Language presents other quirks too. You almost always want to relate 3 pieces of information: sound, spelling, and meaning; but traditional prompt/answer flashcards encourage 2 pieces only.

By the way, it’s also possible to use an analog system, but digital versions are richer, more robust, and convenient. The best advantage of analog systems is that they encourage you to write by hand. The biggest drawback is that you can’t use sound. If you want to try it, check out the Leitner box system.

You have the extra challenge given by heterographs (same pronunciation, different meaning and spelling; like two, too, and to), heteronyms (same spelling, different meaning and pronunciation; like content as a noun and content as an adjective), homonyms (same spelling and pronunciation, different meaning; like lie as in not true, and lie as in lie down), synonyms (same meaning, different spelling and pronunciation; the word drunk seems to relish a remarkable array of synonyms in many languages, go figure why that might be), and a complicated combination of several of the above (bow and bough).

Example of language-aware flashcard


While general-purpose SRS can’t deal with that kind of linguistic shenanigans, they present a massive advantage over most language learning apps thanks to one of its core capabilities: you can create your own cards. Let’s take a small detour to see why that is so important...


Higher-order thinking Higher-order thinking is an idea developed by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom that essentially categorizes learning outcomes in correlated levels of complexity and value: 1. Remember: at the lowest level there is the ability to remember facts. According to Bloom, this is the easiest to achieve but the least valuable. This is low-order thinking. 2. Understand: the next level is the ability to capture meaning and explain ideas. For instance, grammar and pronunciation rules. 3. Apply: next is the ability to use information in new situations (e.g. use new words). 4. Analyze: next is the ability to organize, relate, compare, and dissect ideas, like discovering communication patterns and idioms in a language. 5. Evaluate: next is the skill to make informed decisions. For instance, choosing the right tone and words when sending an email to apply for a job, and not simply the only words you know. 6. Create: finally there is the skill to produce new original work. This is the highest level: the hardest to achieve, and the most valuable. Most people who use Space Repetition shoot to the lowest level: remembering isolated words or very short sentences. But that is missing the forest for the trees, there is very little value in it. Perhaps you can relate to the experience of crafting a super-condensed cheat sheet for a school exam and then, during the exam, realize that you don’t need it. It turns out


that in the process of making the cheat sheet, you have also learned the thing. This makes sense because making a cheat sheet is hard. You have to squeeze as much information as possible into a tiny piece of paper, creating cues for yourself so that when you read them in the exam, a lot more stuff will resurface automatically. This requires a deep understanding of the subject and an ability to find non-trivial relations between disparate concepts. When you create your own flashcards, you go through a similar process. You are thinking about how to pack the most valuable information in each flashcard without making it too wordy. You are deciding what is important and what is not important. You are synthesizing information, engaging with the content. You are not only coming up with answers but with questions. And you do it hundreds of times. That is extremely useful work. When you go through that routine repeatedly, something clicks in your brain: the idea that you own the content. And for your brain, owning something is well worth a few neural synapses. When you create something on your own, like thinking and writing a sentence in a foreign language, you signal to your brain that that sentence is important. It is your sentence. That is high-order thinking. When you create your own cards, you have more context at your fingertips beyond the little bit you type in the flashcard. The book where it comes from. The story it is about. The experience of writing your own interpretation of a passage, getting corrected by a teacher, and then creating the flashcard. All that is context. You don’t need to write it down or save it anywhere. It will just be there for you when the flashcard pops up in the system.


Abstract graphical representation of high-order thinking

This is much more effective (and fun) than using someone else deck and drilling their cards. Science shows that retention suffers drastically if a solution has been obtained just by remembering it rather than by solving a problem ↩ : ✗ Remember a solution: “Hey, look. Here is a bird”. ✓ Solve a problem: “This morning I was late to a meeting but I didn’t even know how to apologize for being late and how to explain it... What should I have said?... Let me make a note and figure it out, then I’ll create a couple of flashcards so if it happens again at least I know what to say”. The benefits don’t end there. When you create your cards you will naturally use content that interests you. You decide how hard or easy to make them. How fast they should ramp up in difficulty. How many you should have. How to organize the content... You can update them, expand them, skip them, repurpose them, delete them. You control themes, tone, focus, difficulty, pace. Everything. No language course will be as tailored for you as the one you craft yourself. Your cards are a reflection of where you are on your learning journey. Reviewing them will offer you the chance to correct your previous interpretation of something, add nuance, exceptions, variants, synonyms. You have full control. There are only two downsides to creating your cards. One is that they can be a bit of a chore to make (particularly if you want to add audio content, which you should), however, with some tools there are efficient ways to do it.


The other one is more fundamental: creating cards is hard. It can be argued that being hard is why it is effective, but the fact is that creating wrong or useless cards will not help you much. There are not many rigid rules, but with practice, you’ll learn to navigate the subtle art of flashcard creation. Here are some pointers: ✓ Create cards during any kind of intensive practice, paying attention to the content you are going through. ✓ Follow the Goldilocks principle: make cards not too hard, nor too easy. Just about right. ✓ Use as much varied content as possible in all possible ways. Different sources, topics, formality registers, narrative styles, etc. ✓ Create cards out of everything that your teacher corrects you about. ✓ Exploit the generative principle: your capacity to make infinite sentences out of a finite linguistic competence (and finite language rules). ✓ Every card should contain new information, but new information is not only new words. It can be new tenses, idioms, syntax, etc. Think language, not words. ✓ Avoid creating cards with words alone. Short sentences (up to 10-12 words) are almost always better. ✓ Make new words stand out in a sentence by finding high-contrast relations with other words. For instance use the word snow together with the word jungle, not mountain (this has a name: Von Restorff effect). ✓ Don’t pack too much content on each card. It’s fine to have one card with sentence + translation and a different one with the same sentence + recording. This way, you can focus on one thing at a time and pace them differently. ✓ Find sentences with peculiar terms and features that don’t exist in your L1. ✓ Prefer sentences involving people, animals, and/or some kind of action. ✓ Visceral high-contrast sentences evoking vivid images are more memorable. Like “the smiling dog with purple eyes exploded in the snowy jungle”.


✓ When you make your own sentences, search them verbatim on the internet (with enclosing double quotes on any major search engine except Google) to see if they are idiomatic. ✓ Alternatively, translate them to L1 and back to L2 with a tool like DeepL and compare with your original sentence. AI tools are not perfect but can uncover simple mistakes. ✓ Aim for 1-2 new words per sentence, but don’t use too many abstract words simultaneously. ✓ Add each new word to several cards, perhaps with a different inflection or meaning. ✓ Avoid L2-only cards with cloze deletions (I’ll explain). ✓ If needed, rephrase sentences so the entire sentence is interesting. For example, replace a boring noun with a new word and see if you can add one extra adjective without sounding too artificial. ✓ If you create cards with single words, use only nouns, verbs, or adjectives as unambiguous as possible. ✓ Annotate in the front what kind of information is there in the back (a synonym, a translation, a definition, an audio file, etc). ✓ For sentences, use L1 on the front and L2 on the back (the opposite is too easy). ✓ For individual words, you can do both (by creating a duplicated card reversing the front and back content). Both ways can be equally valuable and challenging. ✓ Use at least 30% of audio materials. ✓ Audio files should go on the front if you want to practice comprehension and on the back if you want to test your pronunciation. Both are useful, but normally comprehension practice is more so. ✓ Be creative. Throw in some expressions, synonyms, L2 definitions, IPA transcriptions, examples, rules of thumb, etc. Quick example:




✗ Ballena


✗ Las ballenas son grandes

Whales are big

✗ Las _______ son grandes (ballenas / hormigas)


✓ The flying whale finally took off

La ballena voladora por fin despegó

That was a lot of information, so my advice is to go slowly at the beginning and take 1 step at a time. One last thing: It’s better to create cards in waves (say, every second week) than at a constant rate of X per day. Most people find it hard to review cards at a consistently high pace; by creating cards in waves you’ll alternate between periods of high workload and low workload, which is more manageable. This way you can take breaks without accruing lots of cards.


Preserving what you learn

Fluency: 758,5 km

Now that you have your flashcards, there are two ways to drill them: with intensive or extensive review. You know already what that means: With extensive review, the objective is to run through lots of cards, even at the cost of glancing over some details. With intensive review, once again, you trade abundance for depth. Type your answer before checking the solution on the back of the card. Pronounce and record yourself. Do shadowing exercises. Be picky about the little details. Spelling, punctuation, rules at play. Since creating cards is already intensive work, most (or even all) of your Spaced Repetition time should be devoted to extensive review. Extensive review is the ultimate Comprehensible Input experience. Every single card is cleverly devised by the mind that knows you best, rigorously engineered to pin you against the ropes. It is challenge after challenge, each fine-tuned to tackle all your weak points. If you are using graded readers many sentences will naturally be easy to understand, with no novel elements for you to chew on. Others will be harder and require several “passes” to assimilate them. Instead of passively reading a story 4–5 times to squeeze all the juice from it, you can do this: 1. Read extensively once. No dictionary look-ups, focus on the message, etc. 2. Read once again, this time intensively. Zoom in and copy the most interesting sentences to your SRS.


3. In your SRS, expand on whatever you are curious about. Add pronunciation notes, find other examples with new words, tenses, etc. 4. Review daily and move to the next story. Instead of trusting the semi-random nature of a story to repeat key vocabulary and grammar when you need it, with an SRS you gain control of that. The engagement comes from a different place. With traditional extensive practice, it comes from the content, the story. With an SRS, it comes from the sustained challenge. However: remember that Spaced Repetition is no substitute for reading and listening practice. It is a complement. With input you learn, with Space Repetition you reinforce and preserve what you learn. How much to weight it in your routine is up to you. Some experts say that Spaced Repetition should be a very small part of it, maybe accounting for up to 5–10% of your time. From their perspective that is reasonable since they probably spend several hours a day studying languages, and they got very good at grasping languages quickly after many years of practice. But if you feel lucky when you can study 1 hour a day all at once, you might need a different approach to get a stronger grip on the language. Also, if you are not multilingual already, it will be harder for you to transfer language positively. And if memory is not your forte things will slip out of your mind as fast as they come in. No size fits all. Many practitioners report that with 20-30 minutes per day they get good results. It is a good reference, but you need to find your sweet spot. ✓ Start slowly to gain a sense of pace, people are often surprised about how fast cards can accumulate. ✓ You don’t need to create cards consistently, but you need to review them consistently. Start your language learning routine with that: first, secure what you have learned, then learn new things.


Very important: ignore the labels on the interval selection buttons. They normally have names like “failed”, “hard”, “easy”, “partly recalled”, etc. Instead, select the next interval based on relevance. This means that if something is important, go with a lower interval, even if you nailed it. If it is not, choose a higher interval, even if you didn’t. Sure thing, your performance will inform relevance, but you have to account for more variables that will dominate over it: sometimes you will realize that a card is not as important as you thought it was, but it’s still functional. Or it is not well made. Or you just get tired of it. Or a word is starting to come up often in your books. Or you discover some nuance you were not aware of. Repeating cards too often will make the experience more boring but not more valuable. You get to internalization by progressive familiarization, not rote memorization. You need to find and chase all those “ah, right, I remember this” moments. It doesn’t actually matter much if you recall something correctly or not, all it matters is that you make a conscious effort to recall ↩ . That is what strengthens your long-term memory. Saying “yay!” or “boo!” or “doh” or “meh” after you check the answer makes nothing to your memory. Not only that: it has been shown that simply with free recall practice you improve subsequent learning ↩ . Arnold & McDermott, 2013: “Not only does retrieval directly benefit future recall, but it also prepares the learner for future learning. In short, subsequent memory is enhanced by retrieval practice and by repeated study, and the combination of the two is an especially potent memory enhancer.”


✓ Don’t allow yourself to be bored by your deck. If a card becomes too easy, or too hard, or it turns out it is not as relevant as you thought, or you don’t like it much for whatever reason, either update it, archive it, or delete it. Always prioritize not losing motivation.

This has big implications for a language learner and it’s the argument for not using clozes. Clozes make recalling easier, diminishing the effects of the testing effect ↩ . Because of that: ✓ If for a given card you are unsure between 2 options, choose the higher interval. ✓ Don’t get lost in an endless cycle of low intervals because you are just unable to recall something as well as the app thinks you should. Failing to recall is not failing to learn. ✓ If an SRS tool punishes you for selecting the “failed” option (meaning that the interval choices decrease drastically, sometimes forever18), don’t ever pick that option. Instead, create additional cards with more examples of what makes you trip over. ✓ If you still find yourself in need of creating a cloze, it might be a sign that the card is too hard. One way to make it easier is to create a more memorable sentence (see previous section).

Use Spaced Repetition meaningfully by making your own cards. Create a personal connection with the content you study without getting caught up on actual performance.

A quick experiment If you are in the mood, here is an experiment you can try: create 2 decks, one for extensive review and another for intensive review. The one for extensive review should have lots of cards, all with complete sentences, either in text or audio form. If text, put L2 on the front and L1 on the back. If audio put the audio on the front and the transcript or the translation on the back.


Anki, a popular Space Repetition app, is famous for being notoriously punishing. There is

even a term for it: “ease hell”


The deck for intensive review should have fewer cards and be centered around whatever bits of the language give you more headaches. For instance, things you are invariably confused about or that come up very often in the media you follow. These can be individual words, irregular conjugations, finicky grammar rules, complicated sounds (IPA or text on the front, audio on the back), minimal pairs, homonyms, and such. As you review your decks, you might find that a given card might be better off repurposed and moved to the other deck. That is fine. Active and passive decks are compatible with other organizational principles. Some people like to have different decks for different lessons in their grammar books or difficulty levels, topics, etc. That is fine too. You could set as an objective to study 10 or 20 new cards daily. However, due to the different nature of extensive and intensive approaches (and regardless of whether or not you use separate decks for each), it’s better to frame your study in terms of time investment. If you want to raise difficulty a notch, set a countdown timer and try to go through as many cards as possible, while still making a memory retrieval effort. Remember that extensive doesn’t mean lightly. It means “with an awareness directed much more toward progress than excellence”.


Recap | How to make it stick The most important idea I want you to take away is that creating cards is a way to study by itself. That is, don’t sit and start copying entries from a dictionary (or whatever resource) so you can review them later. It is not about the reviews, and for one simple reason: if all that mattered were the reviews, the effort to create cards would not be worth it. The spacing effect is no doubt the star of the show, but there are other “effects” just as important: ✓ Testing effect: we remember better when we test ourselves (even if we fail). ✓ Generation effect: we remember better the content we create. ✓ Self-reference effect: we remember better if we can relate to it. Remember to start with understanding and work your way up the higher-order thinking ladder. Make a bigger effort upfront with deep encoding techniques so that when you review you can go faster and focus more on exposure and less on memorization.




What we talk about when we talk about learning like kids One would expect that learning a language is harder than reading an analog clock or differentiating left from right. Yet kids learn to speak way before those things. What is going on? One possible answer is Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory, which proposes that there is a biological function within the brain that knows enough grammar to make speaking possible. Universal Grammar (UG) is one of the most controversial debates in the linguistics community, however with a paradigm shift in the latest decades taking a stand against Chomsky’s ideas. It is generally accepted that around 70.000 years ago humans evolved in a way that made spoken language possible (thanks to both neurological and anatomic changes) ↩,

however alternative theories to UG claim that grammar is a by-product of history

and psychology, and that kids learn language as a result of social interaction ↩ . This means that neonates don’t come to the world with a language machine already pre-installed on the brain, rather they pick language on the go and create the appropriate neural structures. Nevertheless, the speed at which they do it is tremendous. It has been shown that different cognitive skills peak and decline at different ages ↩ . Neonates can identify every single phone (about 800 in total) until they are 6–12 months old, point at which they start to specialize in the sounds they hear more frequently19.

On a related note, it is believed that humans can develop perfect pitch until they are about 3 years old and it is completely impossible afterward. Perfect pitch is more common among speakers of tonal languages. 19


During that time they still can’t understand words, but statistical patterns in the speech start shaping their brain for language ability ↩ . A child can still learn a second language as well as a native until they are around 7–8 years old ↩ . So in a sense, it is true that kids are innately good at languages, but that doesn’t mean that they have it easy. They have skills that we lost long ago, but such widespread perception has more to do with a lack of empathy toward kids’ feelings than with actual facts. Kids learn out of pure basic necessity against the clock and can develop emotional disorders due to speech delay problems (usually picking cues from their parents) ↩.

You can’t exactly learn like them because your brain is very different 20↩ , but nor would you want to anyway. “Learning like a kid” has become a synonym for a playful and almost careless way of learning, yet it is brutally hard. If you must insist, then borrow these effective strategies from them: ✓ Have indestructible patience. ✓ Imitate and repeat every word you hear. ✓ Find learning opportunities everywhere. ✓ Use non-verbal communication. ✓ Live in the present. ✓ Laugh often and make lots of funny mistakes. Total immersion is the finest trick in a kid’s toolbox. Unlike you, they can’t fall back to a known language when they don’t understand something. They can’t take a break from language learning. They can’t check on Google Translate. They practice listening comprehension for hours on end, day in, day out, and for years. They go from zero to fluency without ever relying on a language of reference.

For example languages learned after the critical period are localized in a different part of the brain than the ones learned during childhood ↩ . 20


about 3.000 words (unless you are learning a language very close to one you already know). To make matters worse (for you), kids count on other favorable circumstances to nourish their learning that are not available to adults: no responsibilities, plenty of free time, several people in their lives whose only job is protecting and educating them, etc. Luckily, immersion doesn’t need to be all-or-nothing. Immersion is perhaps as much a state of mind as it is a technique. The way to develop it is with huge quantities of input of all kinds and an extreme focus on communication, almost forgetting that language exists21. It is hard not only because of the sustained cognitive effort but because of the social pressure. To immerse yourself in a language you have to let go of all worries about how others might perceive you. That is a complex topic out of the scope of this book22, but you’ll find the same parallelisms again and again: get out of your comfort zone a little bit each day.

Immersion karma

Complex story-driven videogames are a particularly good immersive resource because try-anderror is already part of the game loop experience, so you get the chance to explore the same in-game language in slightly different situations repeatedly. 21

If you want to dig into this topic, “The courage to be disliked” by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi is wholeheartedly recommended. 22


Feel free to try it, but be prepared for a world of pain until you reach a vocabulary of

It is best to start with immersive educational settings (classrooms, teachers) and with an active vocabulary of at least 1.000 words. Then try to “replicate” the conversations with your teacher in the real world. One step at a time, immersion is worth it. It feeds your curiosity at the same time that it expands it. It’s your window to the foreign culture, your key to a second home. There are few feelings in the world as wonderful as the deep sentiment of belonging to a place that was not yours.

Do something that scares you every day. — Eleanor Roosevelt

And until you reach that point, you can always use immersion as a lever to correct course on your journey: If you are getting bored and struggle to find resources at your level (a common issue for advanced learners), take note of all the situations in which you use your mother tongue and find ways to replace it with the target language. If you are having a hard time with it, find shelter in a small selection of books and media resources and forget about the rest. Not everything has to be hard and exhausting. If you prefer a certain way to learn, follow it understanding the choices, not because it’s the only way you know. Kids learn by immersion because they can’t in any other way. But you do. You can study and practice intentionally. You are capable of critical thinking, you are autonomous, and have a wide array of resources at your fingertips. These are valuable tools, use them. Motherese is not even needed. And as for your adult language cognitive skills, worry not: grammar acquisition ability starts declining approx. at 17–18 years old, but vocabulary acquisition ability doesn’t peak until the 70s. And many polyglots have shown that it is possible to keep learning languages even past that age.


How to be good at languages I hope that you are convinced that being good is not about how much you know, but about how you approach what you don’t know. It is the ability to pick up new things effortlessly, to overcome challenges as they come. So it doesn’t matter whether you speak 20 languages or one, it only matters how you learn the next. Furthermore, talent is not required. It is just but one of the ingredients to become good and the only one you can do without. There are at least three others, all more important, all you can control. The first one is to suck at it. That is how you tell the difference between various degrees of competence in the first place: the more you know about something, the more you will appreciate your own and others’ displays of expertise. This is true for any complicated skill, including the skill of learning. Consider for instance these traditional ways of learning: ✗ Drill words by categories (you know, fruits, clothes, things you can find in a phone booth, etc.). ✗ Start with grammar; defer or totally ignore pronunciation. ✗ Passively re-read and highlight notes. ✗ Talk only to other beginner students in your classroom. If it sounds familiar, congratulations! You are already in a position to recognize the difference between good and bad learning. You are ready to appreciate better methods and understand how they work and why they work: what makes a technique effective or useless. Still, no path is perfect. There are so many variables governing your performance that it is impossible to optimize them all. Even harder is to optimize something for an extended period.


In fact, that is one of the hardest things about hard things: if a trick works very well, it often does so for a short period. Eventually, the value you get out will be less than the energy you put in23. This is (partly) why people plateau: they keep insisting on something that no longer works without realizing it until they reach a saturation point. This, in turn, makes them believe they are just “bad”. The trap of plateaus is that it is hard to notice them early and easy to dismiss them afterward. Once found a routine that gives good enough results, the temptation to follow the path of least cognitive resistance becomes too hard to resist. That is, keep doing the same thing. Sidestepping the problem instead of solving the problem. The fallacy is that solving a problem equips you to better solve the next bigger problem, but sidestepping it does not.

The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem. —Jack Sparrow

To become good at languages you need to be able to detect when things are not working and react. You have to understand your thoughts and feelings and reflect on where are they taking you. Progress is not a straight line, but if you are attentive, it is an upward line.

E.g., going from 1.000 words to 3.000 has a much higher impact than going from 11.000 to 13.000 with a comparable effort demand. 23


Be open and curious. Experiment. Walking your own path is more important than someone else’s, even if theirs seems better paved. But more importantly, it is way more fun. Remember that you are not learning a language because it is easy; you are learning it because it is important. Show it. Be accountable. You might hack a language all that you want but don’t hack effort. Effort fuels motivation and offers one of the best rewards one can hope for: a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. If you put in the work, you will learn any language, no matter how “bad” you think you are. So here is the whole recipe: Ingredients ✓ Talent (optional) ✓ Time on task ✓ Intensity ✓ Self-awareness Preparation 1. Make a learning plan adapted to your style and circumstances. 2. Grab plenty of high-quality and varied resources. 3. Put all your attention and energy into what you do. 4. Reflect on how you are feeling, and what is not working. 5. Adjust as needed, and iterate.


Always be careful when you follow the masses. Sometimes the m is silent. —Unknown




Resources Language learning involves a recurring trade-off, one that you might not be aware of: depth versus convenience. This book puts the former at the forefront, however, I acknowledge that sometimes the choice is not between depth and convenience, but rather between convenience and inaction. Your pick of resources should also acknowledge that and incorporate options at several points in the depth-convenience spectrum. This way, you will always have something that “fits”. Resources on the depth side should be your priority, and the ones on the convenience should be just the fallback. It is a good idea to investigate what kind of resources you have available before starting to learn a language. Make a list, quickly glance through them, group them by type, and try them out one or two at a time. Give everything a chance to show what it has to offer, but don’t be afraid of dropping something that is not proving valuable for you, even if you already have paid for it. You should use enough variety of resources so you are not too dependent on the quality of a single resource24. At the same time, avoid using too many because you will have a harder time keeping track of them and you’ll get pulled into too many different directions all at once. The best middle ground is to use resources of different kinds, but only one of each.

The quality of a language resource can be hard to assess when you don’t know the language and you don’t have anything else to compare with, so it is best to not rely much on it. 24


The tyranny of choice Language learners are starting to suffer from choice overload: too many options too difficult to differentiate. Tools come and go all the time and trends shift from one pole to the opposite as fast as the latest drama catches fire on social media. To keep this section valuable I will delineate some recommendations for how to choose resources, but I won’t dig much into specific products and services. You can find reviews online for pretty much anything.

Disclaimer: I’ll exceptionally mention some specific resources because I think you should know them (some are famous, some are not), not because I necessarily endorse them. I am not affiliated or associated in any way with any brand mentioned here.

Schools Good schools are hard to come by and are generally difficult to recommend, private teachers are almost always better25. They work best for people that need to be surrounded by others and they want to connect with other fellow learners. It can also be a good idea if you need to pass an exam and the school program has a strong focus on such an exam. But keep in mind that progress will be quite slow and heavily dependent on factors you can’t control (the teacher, other students, materials, topics, teaching style, etc.), and conversation with other students won’t help your accent very much. Marketing materials, reputation, testimonials, and ratios of “successful” students are not good proxies to determine if a school is solid. Your best shot is to find independent reviews online or directly ask former students. You can also ask for some guarantees before starting: 25

See Bloom's 2 sigma problem.


✓ Request an introductory class with your assigned teacher. ✓ Request an overview of the materials. ✓ Ask how many students there will be per class (the less the better, never more than 10). ✓ Ask if the course includes audio resources, how many, and if you can download them for your own personal use (outside a private education platform). ✓ Ask how much homework you will have, and what kind of exercises. Writing, listening and reading tasks are better than fill-in-the-blanks, crosswords and such. ✓ Ask if you will have any conversation opportunities with the teacher or other natives. ✓ Ask if they offer additional materials for rent (e.g. books or movies).

Private teachers Good private teachers have all benefits and one disadvantage: cost. Nevertheless, if you can afford one, it is an excellent idea, especially for medium and advanced students. If you live in the country where they speak the language you are learning, you probably can find teachers in local bulletins, Facebook groups, etc. Otherwise, there are several platforms online that work like a marketplace for teachers and students. There you can search teachers for your language and see their ratings, reviews, teaching style, curricula, etc. One famous platform with teachers for many languages is Italki, but there are others. Advice on how to work with private teachers has been set forth in the chapter “How to practice a language”, but it is also worth mentioning that you should: ✓ Ask for a trial class. ✓ Try several teachers, even simultaneously (e.g. instead of 2 classes per week with 1 teacher, do 1 class per week with 1 different teacher each).


✓ Tell them what you expect from them, and what kind of feedback you want from them (pronunciation, grammar, etc.). ✓ Try to communicate with them exclusively in your target language.

Books Books are the bread and butter of the language learner. They are the most affordable and versatile option. A very popular series for several languages is the Teach Yourself Foreign Languages Series, but you should look up publishers for your target language (for example Oxford University Press for English). If possible find books with both text and audio formats. You might have to make separate purchases (one for text, one for audiobook). Platforms like Audible and offer a wide selection of audiobooks with a subscription option26. Other options range from travel phrasebooks like the Lonely Planet’s Fast Talk series to small online libraries like interlinearbooks.

Apps While the opportunities for mobile and computer-assisted language learning are huge, most of the current implementations leave much to be desired ↩ . Language learning apps are, if anything, more cognizant of the audience they cater to. A book might target “German beginner learners”, but an app might target “German beginner learners with a low motivation that will just take 5 minutes at a time while on the move and don’t care much for grammar”. So when choosing an app the most important criterion is to make sure you are the intended audience.

Dirty trick: Audible offers a free audiobook when you sign up, but you can get one free audiobook for each of the .com and domains. 26


There are some perils ahead, but fortunately, stakes are generally low: if you don’t like something it is easy enough to uninstall it and try something else. The recommendations below are applicable if you want to make the best use of your time (but not so much if you just want to chill and play): ✓ Prefer desktop and web tools over phone apps (phones are extremely distracting). ✓ Focus on the core value they offer instead of all the bells and whistles (social features, rankings, rewards, etc.). ✓ If an app wants you to do intensive work, it should be demanding. Otherwise, use them to gain as much exposure as possible. ✓ Prefer apps with lots of audio content. Better still if you can download it. ✓ Prefer apps with long-form content. ✓ Prefer apps that allow you to browse content at your pace, choose topics of interest, skip lessons, etc. ✓ Avoid puzzles (reordering sentences, dragging words around the screen, etc.). ✓ Be skeptical of subscriptions: they have a strong incentive to keep you around for longer (that is, to be addictive but not very effective27). ✓ Be skeptical of chatbots and TTS (machine speech), after the first “wow” effect they can be more misleading than helpful. The most popular language learning app, Duolingo, is hard to recommend based on the points above, and as a matter of fact, the academic community is quite cold on its effectiveness ↩ . Nevertheless, it is free, reasonably well made, convenient, and has a lot of languages (with varying qualities). If you appreciate these tradeoffs there is no reason to not try it28.

This puts you on a tough spot: subscription services are less risky but unaligned with your goals, pay-once schemes don’t have such skewed incentives but they are more risky. I know, and I don’t have any solution for this. 27

Duolingo used to run an ad suggesting that it is more useful to use Duolingo for 15 minutes a day than scrolling through social media for those 15 minutes. A low bar if ever has been one, but true nevertheless. 28


✓ Must allow you to create cards as fast as possible (ideally with keyboard shortcuts). ✓ Must allow you to use audio files. ✓ Must show several reasonable interval choices. ✓ Ideally, it should let you edit flashcards while you review them (this is very convenient when you create your own cards). ✓ Ideally, it should let you input your answer so it can be compared with the original (e.g., compare spelling, for intensive reviewing). One note about Anki: Anki is by large the most popular Spaced Repetition app. It is one of the most feature-complete, but also one of the most complicated and hard to learn. It has lots of settings, hundreds of plugins, and a fairly dated interface.

Anki is best for those who want a very customized experience and are willing to learn how to make the most of it. Many users (especially users new to Spaced Repetition and less tech-savvy users) won’t need all that extra complexity and can use simpler alternatives (there are many).

Other Tutors, books, and apps should be enough to cover most of your needs, but there are other types of resources that you can use regularly:

Podcasts, TV shows, newspapers, blogs, educational games, and other media.

Language exchange meetups in your city.29

Self-taught courses, from reputed brands like Pimsleur and Assimil, to free indie alternatives like languagetransfer.

There are also language exchange platforms online, but be careful with them: many women have reported an annoying tendency from male users to use these platforms as dating apps. 29


As for Space Repetition apps specifically, look out for these features:

Dictionaries and thesauri of various kinds, like forvo for native pronunciation and linguee for contextual translations.

Online forums and learning communities like Reddit, hinative, or HTAL.

Tip: if you use YouTube, have a different account (or browse without logging in) for language learning material, so that the algorithm doesn’t mix language learning videos with other topics you regularly see. This way you won’t be so easily distracted by its recommendations.

To buy or not to buy The most fragile decision point is always going to be the price. Depending on the language you are learning you might be able to find lots of free resources, some surprisingly good. But if you are serious about learning it is really hard to rely solely on free resources. I am not in a position to tell you what is worth paying for and how much. How we spend money and how we can better spend money is a topic well worth its own book30. But I can suggest a few general ideas: ✓ Try to make rational, and not emotional decisions. Put the value of what you get against its cost, and against the value and cost of other things in your life. ✓ Make and manage a budget for language learning. Then, instead of checking the cost of a resource against your overall personal economy, you just check it against your budget. ✓ Buy things when you need them, not when you are more excited about them. For example, buy and read books one at a time instead of buying 5 or 6 upfront. ✓ Reduce risk by avoiding lock-ins and big commitments (e.g. yearly fees). ✓ Ask about cancelation and refund policies.

There are indeed many books on that topic. A good one is “Predictably Irrational”, by Dan Ariely. 30


✓ See what they have around in public libraries and second-hand markets in your city. ✓ For ongoing costs (like teachers and subscriptions) re-evaluate every few months if they are still worth it. Subscriptions are particularly dangerous because they are easy to “forget” you have them. ✓ Don’t rely on brand alone: some brands have built over the years a strong reputation, but that doesn’t me they have a good offering for you. Don’t bandwagon. ✓ Run away from cheap unrealistic claims. You can’t learn in 3 months, and even if you could it wouldn’t be thanks to whatever promotion is on offer. If someone tells you that they found the secret magic method, don’t believe a single word. ✓ Run away from spammers and shady marketing tactics. If something looks fishy, it is fishy. If the price is not transparent, it’s because they think it’s not worth it. If you can’t try it for free, it’s because they know they can’t impress you. And one last tip not for you, but for others: recommend products that you genuinely like. We all know how hard is to make good purchasing choices, so go to your favorite community or social network and give credit where you think it is deserved.

Learning in the age of AI Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a prime example of the old adage “overnight success takes many years to build”. While as a discipline it was born in the 50s, AI took the headlines by storm in 2022 with the launch of Chat-GPT, a Large Language Model chatbot able to create texts about any topic on any writing style with a human-level competence (ish). Other models quickly followed. At the time of writing (Summer 2023), AI hasn’t demonstrated yet enough sophistication to turn upside down the language learning ed-tech space, particularly for minority languages.


While the technology is impressive and managed to capture all the excitement in the media (and billions in VC funding), the revolution is still work in progress and Douglas Hofstadter’s piece “The Shallowness of Google Translate” stays current in a good part. However, things can take a U-turn any day now with more powerful versions being released on a regular basis, each breakthrough burying in oblivion the breakthrough from 3 weeks earlier. How can a language learner leverage this technology for the good? AI has the semi-magical property of improving the good learner and worseing the bad learner. So the right question is not “what can it do?” but “how can it give you a leg up?” The worst you can do is to have an AI do things for you, or do things you can’t know if they are correct. The best is to use it as a way to fill the gaps, to “augment” your skills so to speak. For instance, if you are listening to a podcast and don’t understand a key segment, transcribe it with AI and check if it makes sense based on what you understood already. That is more useful than, say, transcribing the whole content without trying to understand it first, or asking it to explain a grammatical concept. An ongoing danger of chatbots is that the mistakes they make are very different from the mistakes humans make. They are unpredictable in frequency and severity, often concealed behind a confident tone. Learners are not equipped to spot them. Those mistakes lead to language so unidiomatic that isn’t easy for natives to deal with. So instead of using it as a conversational partner that “corrects” your language (like most AI apps try to approach it), see if it can help with the things you are doing already. For example, if you run out of ideas for writing, ask a chatbot to give you a question about a given topic that you must answer using 3 words chosen by the chatbot.


AI is not going away and it can be a legitimate resource. But the fact that it allows you to do this or that, doesn’t mean that you should do it. Technology companies are great at creating needs where previously there were none. When you are in the middle of a study session it’s easy to forget why are you doing it, as you just have made a habit of doing it. Your brain will constantly find ways to hack you, to give you that dopamine hit without actually progressing much towards your goal: a quick Duolingo lesson. A clever word game. A conversation with a chatbot. A smattering of pre-made flashcards to review. All fun and engaging activities, with no friction whatsoever, one swipe away in your pocket. Can any of that help you learn a language? If you are intentional and self-aware, yes, everything can help, even if sometimes that means using tools not exactly as intended. But if you do it like a zombie just for the sake of an external reward, if it is merely a grind, nothing will help no matter how many hours you burn on it. It will be useful to look at the bigger picture, too. AI is affordable, fast, and convenient, but it also poses far bigger problems than inaccuracy: ✗ Contributes to technology dependence, gate-keeped by very few but very powerful actors and with price points only accessible to customers from rich countries. ✗ Contributes to language inequality by virtue of providing far better results and accuracy for “bigger” languages than minoritarian languages. ✗ Plagued by ethical and privacy issues31. ✗ Reduces human interaction. ✗ Increases screen time. ✗ Threatens existing professions.

In less than 1 year since Chat-GPT was released by OpenAI, OpenAI faced no less than half a dozen lawsuits for copyright infringement, privacy violation, and other causes. 31


When you choose one kind of tool over another one, you not only choose one way to learn: you choose what kind of educational ecosystem want to support around you. Generative AI tools might be a tempting option now, at the risk of being the only option 20 years from now32. AI not only reduces human interaction, but it also reduces humanity. You can drive 40 kilometers, but that won’t make you feel what’s like to complete a marathon. You can put an all-powerful real-time translating device between you and your foreign interlocutors, but that won’t make you feel them. AI sees language as a utility to transfer bits of information, but people see it as a means to express themselves. In our minds, language is the dress of thought. On a computer, it’s just ones and zeros. So when you use AI, be very mindful of this difference.

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers. —Pablo Picasso


See predatory pricing.


Languages around the world There are around 7.200 languages spoken in the world today, with about 40% of them endangered (many with less than 1.000 speakers). It is estimated that 1.500 languages, around 20% of the total, will disappear by 2100 ↩ . The countries with the highest percentage of endangered languages are New Zealand, the United States, Australia, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Honduras, and Japan. 80–98% percent of the languages spoken in those regions are at risk of extinction. The Southwestern Pacific is the most linguistically diverse area. Only in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, more than 1.500 languages are spoken, even if roughly half of them are endangered. On the other side of the inequality balance, just 23 languages (0.03% of the total) serve more than half of the global population.

Language diversity, data from Ethnologue (2023)


guage families, but 2 of them account for almost 40% of the languages, and 4 more account for another 25%. Two of these families (Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan) serve almost 60% of the global population.

Most spoken languages excluding macrolanguages, data from Ethnologue (2023)

A similar picture is obtained when looking at language families. There are 142 lan-


It is admittedly hard to imagine language learning programs as part of the solution to this problem, as institutional languages such as English and French capture the biggest share of second-language learners. Native speakers of languages with less prestige learn them to gain socioeconomic advantages and avoid discrimination, eventually forgoing their own mother tongue. The breach is even larger in the digital world, where language support is virtually nonexistent for thousands of languages ↩ : the native tongues of more than 20% of the world’s population are not covered by machine translation tools. There is, however, room for hope: from ongoing technological efforts to expand the reach of machine translation tools ↩ , to UN policy recommendations and private initiatives providing free resources to revitalize indigenous languages, there is still time to preserve and protect our richest cultural heritage: language.


Selected bibliography •

Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. National Geographic Books.

Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. Random House.

Clear, J. (2019). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. National Geographic Books.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Farber, B. (1991). How to Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably, and on Your Own. Citadel Press.

Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Penguin.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Krashen, S. D. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures. Heinemann. ↩

Lomb, K. (2008). Polyglot: How I Learn Languages.

Nation, P. (2014). What do you need to know to learn a foreign language? ↩

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing.

Meyer, E. (2016). The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. Public Affairs.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. National Geographic Books.


Roberts, R., & Kreuz, R. (2017). Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language. MIT Press.

Shekhtman, B. (2013). How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately: Foreign Language Communication Tools. Villa Magna, LLC.

Wyner, G. (2014). Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It. Harmony.

Other resources A small selection of educational, online, non-language specific, and free resources on various topics and formats.

Actual Fluency (interviews, podcast)

All Language Resources (language learning, reviews)

Easy Languages (culture & languages, YouTube)

Language Learning Reddit (language learning, forum)

Languages around the world (culture & languages, blog)

Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning (learning, research)

The ling space (linguistics, YouTube)


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