How should I learn a language?

There are three components to learning a foreign language:

  1. Understanding the structure of the language, or “grammar”
  2. Memorizing the words of the language, or “vocabulary”
  3. Communicating in the language until it becomes automatic, or “practice”

If starting a new language, you should spend ¼ of your time on grammar, ¼ on vocabulary, and ½ on practice. During your practice time, practice all four skills: speaking, listening, reading, & writing. To be effective, you need to balance your time daily, or at least weekly. Don’t spend hours working with flashcards or watching Netflix in English, telling yourself it’s all time well spent. A daily balance of learning and practice will improve your language skills far faster than a binge.

If you’re not a beginner in your target language, you may choose to shift your focus to your weakest area or set aside an area of strength for some time. Just be careful not to create new areas of weakness by ignoring a skill for two long.

Most language learning methods teach students a little grammar and a little vocabulary and then give them time to practice. They’ll repeat that cycle over and over, building up more grammatical knowledge and more vocabulary over time. Taking a language course abroad is a good example of this balanced approach. Students have a few hours of language classes each day to learn new grammar and vocabulary and then they spend the rest of the day in an immersion environment practicing their language skills.

There are, however, other ways to learn a language. Traditionally, school systems have focused most of their energy on teaching grammar and vocabulary, with very little time for practice. This memorization approach leads to students with good technical mastery of a language (verb conjugations, syntax, definitions, etc.) but little practical mastery of the language. Students who’ve learned a language through memorization often won’t be comfortable having a conversation in the language even after several years of instruction.

At the opposite extreme, children learn languages by “picking them up”. They learn to use vocabulary and grammatical structures through imitation without any formal instruction at all. This method is the immersion approach. Unfortunately, most adults can only pick up very basic conversational skills through a pure immersion approach. Children’s brains are wired for language acquisition, and they still need many years to pick up their native languages. Pure immersion is an excellent way to learn a language if you’re under 12 and have plenty of time, but for teens and adults, it’s a slow and frustrating method.

In the end, the best way to learn a language is with an approach that you enjoy. Motivated students learn languages faster, and they’re much more likely to stick with their studies over the long haul. Learning a language takes months, if not years. There’s no one right way to learn a language, but if you find a way that works for you, by all means, stick with it!

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