Thoughts for serious language learners
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How to start learning a language

Dan writes:

I’m trying to use your method to better learn Spanish. I speak some Spanish having lived abroad for a couple years, but I can’t watch a movie, read a book, or participate in a conversation without getting lost very quickly. I have tried to start “getting input” – reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a videogame in Spanish, however it’s very difficult and confusing and like I said – I  get lost pretty quick. And this is with enough skill with the language that I can “get by” (ask questions, order food, etc.) in Spanish already.

I’m sure you’ve counseled people in the past who’ve started out with a language at the very beginning or at least earlier than me. What am I missing? Is it just patience to pore through movies and books and make whatever sense of them I can for much more time? Or is there some other method I should be supplementing at the very beginning (e.g. Pimsleur) until I am able to get through a movie & use a Spanish-Spanish dictionary?

There are three routes you can take when you’re starting to learn a language:

  1. Regular content + patience + dictionaries. Diving headfirst into foreign-language content, even with a dictionary by your side, is a real challenge. As with any challenging activity, it can be very satisfying if you succeed, but also very frustrating if you get lost.
  2. Simplified content + dictionaries. Simplified books (AKA graded readers) can teach you basic vocabulary and grammar quickly in a fun way. Some may be available in audio form as well. You may also want to look into podcasts for beginners. (More advice on simplified books)
  3. SRS/flashcards. Learn 1,000 most common words and basic grammatical patterns using an SRS (Anki, SuperMemo, etc.) or regular paper flashcards. The goal of this is to get you reading regular books (or at least advanced graded readers) and listening to real Spanish as quickly as possible. This method can give you a head start, but learning vocabulary and grammar without any meaningful context can get a bit tedious and requires a fair bit of persistence. Obviously, you also need good resources to study from, which can be hard to find, depending on the language.

Personally, I would go with (2) in most situations.

(1) I find intellectually stimulating, but inefficient.

(3) is efficient, but I always prefer to learn vocabulary in context, in a more “organic” way. I’d choose this method if I was under time pressure (for example, if I had to acquire a working knowledge of Spanish in 3 months) and I had access to a good SRS collection or flashcard deck – or at least a list of most common words, a basic grammar book, and a good learner’s dictionary (then maybe I’d make an SRS collection myself out of the examples in the grammar book and the dictionary). Note: if I was making my own collection, I wouldn’t spend too much time on each item – as these would be basic items, I’d probably stop reviewing them in a few months anyway. In other words, I’d use the collection as a sort of scaffolding.

One more thing: it’s entirely okay to start with bilingual dictionaries. You can move on to monolingual dictionaries when you feel ready. If you then find you’re getting confused by a monolingual dictionary, you can go back to a bilingual one. It all depends on the dictionaries and your personality. Don’t work against your brain just to follow a method!


17 Comments so far ↓

  • Anna Cook

    I would agree but I would also use OPAL methodology (Organic Patterns in Acquiring Languages). You really are a chameleon with it, you step into their shoes and become a native!

    To be more technical about it – OPAL favours the acquisition of another language as a genuine second language and even a «second 1st language»

    The heart of the approach is based on the creation of a «second linguistic position» also called «linguistic character», which is opposed to the conventional paradigm of «learning» another language. OPAL takes into account every single aspect of language acquisition, both verbal and non verbal, including pronunciation and tonic intonation which, although critical, are often overlooked in conventional pedagogy.

    • delaram

      Dear Anna
      Hi, thank you for your advice.Would you please more explain about your way to improve your english language.
      best wishes

    • Diego

      Hi Anna,
      Searching for OPAL in Google I found that only the three first results are meaningful. First one is this page, the second is a FB page about a company dedicated to English training and the third one about NLP.
      Is there a Wikipedia page or a more comprehensive source of information about this?



  • J.P.

    Great advice. If you read texts, listen to audios, consult dictionaries, and review words and expressions a lot, you should consider using a (free) software like “Learning With Texts” (LWT). See – it makes the whole process easier!

  • Robert

    I’d say (and this applies to any language being learned) that you need to get a good grounding in verbs and the grammar, such as conjugation, pronouns etc. Basically, you may have more vocabulary than me, but I can speak the language a thousand times better because I can conjugate, and I can speak grammatically more like a native speaker. Basically, you do need to learn vocabulary and pronunciation but you really need to learn the grammar. Just my thoughts. Let me know what y’all thank!

  • Asad

    @Robert – fully agreed. Day to day conversations do not require a huge vocab. However, you need to talk a lot in order to gain fluency. To me pronunciation is like a steering wheel, you can not drive a car without it. You can not make yourself understood even if your grammar is perfectly fine. Good pronunciation and intonation is everything then comes other things like grammar and vocab.

  • Javi

    Since you are learning Spanish, this site might help you now or at a more advanced level:

    PS: Please note that I’m just starting, the content will increase gradually.

  • Namke von Federlein

    There are many free audiobooks with their word-for-word texts on the Internet. If you use those with free dictionaries on the web then you should make very rapid progress.

    The secret is to use the standard features in Windows Media Player or QuickTime to slow down the speaker – without distorting the voice or the accent.

    This allows you to hear the words and the accent very clearly. You will quickly pick up vocabulary and those critical listening and reading skills. It also allows you to measure your progress. At first, you may find 50% of normal speed is good for you. After a month or two, you will find that 60% or 70% is comfortable. It’s nice to be able to measure your progress so easily!

    For Spanish, you could look a the free language courses of the BBC. They are excellent for basic conversation. Audio, video, transcripts, vocabulary and basic grammar notes.

  • Alessandro

    I think it’s better to use a monolingual dictionary, because if you don’t know the meaning of a word on the definition, you just look at it. But, if you want, use a bilingual one. It’s better to learn fast then stay a lot of time looking on a monolingual dictionary.

  • Ian

    I think it’s very important to remember how we learnt our native language(s). Young kids are exposed to their maternal language(s) for up to 3 years before they utter a clear sentence in that/those language(s). Their brains are accumulating language information so that they can process it into useable phrases. It all comes from having repeated access to an ever-increasing language input (from Mum, Dad, big sister/brother, grandparents, neighbours etc etc)
    I picked up, with very little study, both Spanish and Catalan after the age of 30 by having regular exposure to the two languages. A child hears the word “nose” tens or even hundreds of times before they use it in a sentence.
    You must find good examples of the spoken language, break it up into small manageable sections and listen to the same section at least twice a day. If you record 1 or 2 minutes of classical music (without words) at the beginning it also help to open up both hemispheres of your brain :) My younger students listen to between 10 and 20 minutes twice a day, older students listen to longer sections. You might like this fun article to put things in context:…ts-childs-play/

  • youngtaffer

    I’m sorry. I don’t speak much English, because it’s damn hard to learn it very well. I’ve been actively reading books, learning grammar and using a dictionary for at least a couple of month now, though.
    I actually used to think that I could speak pretty well and I thought it could be a good idea to go to a site called and also to practice talking with native speakers. I met many people from English speaking countries there and most of them weren’t polite at all.
    Sometimes, I barely manage to say my ‘Hello’ and they already begin swearing at me or call me a retard right away. The bottom line for me is, many people really hate non-native speakers.
    It doesn’t really matter what method of learning you use, because it’s never really easy to fit in. I try to do my best, but dude am I really fucked up.

    My question is: how to practice speaking English with native speakers on a daily basis from home? I’ve tried language exchange sites, but no one is really interested in learning my native language.

  • Dusty

    Youngtaffer as a native English speaker I am embarrassed to hear your experiences. But at the same time I’m not surprised which is also sad lol. The funny thing is when I read how all you people write English (second language speakers) I feel like your grammar is wayyy better than mine!!!!! Well its not just a feeling your grammar is better than mine!!! Just remember all you English learners even if your English isn’t perfect you better believe your English is better than our skills at your language!!! Most English speakers speak only English!!!!!!! So good luck!

  • Steve W.

    Hi Tomasz,

    I don’t know if you may be aware of a piece of free, open source software called “Learning With Texts”, but if not I think you might well be interested in checking it out:

    For those who like to learn via lots of input, it is fantastic. It has the same kind of functionality as the site but is more versatile and is compatible with practically any language.

  • vishal

    That’s excellent advice – graded texts are the way to go.

    I’d like to elaborate more on this,
    Perhaps if you have always been a bookworm (as I am), then you would enjoy the process. And especially if you still adore reading children’s literature, that is a bonus.

    The real challenge (and barrier) is finding such books. For english, there is plenty online. But for other languages, one needs to be able to afford buying these books. Imagine buying 1000 simple story books and other similar ones – that would cost a bomb!
    (Russian is an exception because one can find as much as one wants, online. I wish I could say the same for French, Spanish, Greek, German, Persian, Italian, etc)

    I always felt that the publishing industry should keep avid language learners in mind (who are perhaps from countries where the euro or the dollar makes books too pricey due to currency exchange), and publish books that are cheaper (content matters, not decoration which is what tends to push up costs).

    Oh yes, and subscribing to children’s magazines that publish original content which has not been translated from other languages – is good to get too.


  • Niall

    Hey Tom I have come up with a basic idea:
    look at a list of the 2000 most common words in french

    Then find these words in context using:

    add these to anki

    Do you think this is a good idea or should I go down the graded reader route?


  • mascali

    Hi Tom,
    any news about Supermeno upgrade or android version?


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