It matters how we learn specific topics, or different languages. The method chosen depends on the subject, our personality, our learning style and even the time available (possibly our deadline). I studied for my language maturity exam in a very different way than I’m now studying for a “general” language exam, and I’m learning differently the language that I only discover out of curiosity. Of course, I could go to a classroom language course, where, based on a specific curriculum, I could walk through a process with a teacher, practice with group mates, and where they give me a complete system. However, since I don’t have the best memories of learning the language in class, I’m mostly going on my own way now. (Except my czech studies. I go to czech class weekly, and it really helped me!) Naturally, the methods described below are not only good for self-learning, but also good for the completion of classroom education. Make it easy on yourself and experiment with them! Originally, I write these for language learning, because I use them for this, but they are also applicable in other areas of studies.
Let’s see what techniques I use to have a variety in learning methods.
Pronunciation, listening and discovering the sound of the language
At the beginning of language learning, you might want to make your ear familiar with the sounds of the new language. At first, it will help you to pronunciate well, and to understand the rhythm of the language, and later on, to understand living, everyday speech. Look for podcasts, radio channels, audiobooks in your target language, and listen to them when washing dishes, travel, or even at work. When you’re alone, try mimicking the pronunciation of a word or sound you hear. As long as you’re a novice, don’t worry that you don’t understand a word of it, the important thing here is to get your hearing familiar with the new voices and rhythm. You can observe the emphasis, the sound of each word, or just how fast, bouncy or soft the language is spoken. If you are already advanced, it is very good to improve your hearing skills, especially if you are studying for a language exam or planning to go to a native language environment. Find a topic that interests you and go for it! A quarter to a half-hour of “passive” listening a day can do wonders.
My favorite podcasts include the CoffeeBreak podcast group, because in many languages they have material specifically for teaching purposes (e.g. French, Spanish, German). For example, I partly refresh my French with some of their materials. You might want to check if the language institute or national channel of that language offers curriculum, e.g. in Japan, NHK provides free workbook and podcast for (beginner) students in Japanese.
Listen, watch, write
If you want to level up your passive listening more, then you can do videos and notes! Watch fairy tales in your target language and write down the interesting words. After you look at the story, look up their meaning, make flashcards out of the words and phrases, and then watch the same episode again. This way you connect the meaning of the words directly to the images, they stick in your mind better, and you’ll understand the story easier. Stories like the Dora the Explorer, or Peppa Pig, are good for learning languages (I would not recommend it for English though…), because they repeat words and show you everything repeatedly, so you have a much better chance of understanding the terms even from the environment. You don’t have to understand everything perfectly, word for word, that’s not the point! You can get a lot out of 10 or 15 new words if you do it regularly. Hearing comprehension is also one of the key points here, but here we are also developing your vocabulary. You can use the same note-taking method for podcasts (CoffeeBreak is also a good choice here, they often have translation parts, where words and phrases are repeated and explained, so you have time to write them down).
If you don’t want to watch a fairy tale, youtube can still help you, many channels deal with teaching a language (e.g. japanesepod101, they also teach more languages, like Czech, Korean, etc.). And if learning by itself doesn’t cheer you up, but you already have some basic knowledge, look for videos in topics which you like and watch them in your target language (e.g. gaming in Italian, plan with me videos in German, etc.). You just have to search well and you can get the vocabulary of almost any subject. If you don’t know the keywords for that topic in your target language, just type the topic into the search box (in your native) and then the language you’d like to look at, and you’ll get results anyway. Or find some of the keywords of the topic that interests you in the online dictionaries.
If there’s a TV show or a movie you like, or if you already know it, watch it in a different language! One of my favorite methods is to watch my favorite series (Gilmore Girls) in a different language. Since I already know it by heart, I don’t need to focus on the meaning of each word, I can easily connect things in my head in the new language. I’ve seen it in Czech, German, French and of course English. If you’re still a beginner, you can use subtitles, but I suggest you use them in the target language, so writing down words will be easier and you will remember better.
Vocab, vocab, vocab
For building vocabulary, you can also use several digital devices, mobile apps, online pages. The duolingo-memrise-drops trifecta is practically the best choice for this, although I would not trust them learning a language entirety based on them (without learning anything else), but they are perfect for vocabulary development. My personal favorite lately is drops, the concept here is that you can only learn for 5 minutes at a time, by subject, with picture and pronunciation, thus creating short but very focused learning time. The drops have a very nice pronunciation paired with the images, and thanks to the varied tasks, it is not boring and bonus points that it is available on a Hungarian basis. I recommend it to beginners and restarters/false beginners (I’m trying to refresh my French here, it worked for me).
However, there is life beyond the digital world, and for vocab building writing by hand and drawing is a really good method. With a mind map, many topics can be processed visually and colorfully, which will help not only in systematic learning, but also in long-term memorization. You can also create a drawn bullet journal/study book, or posters, just writing the word in the target language beside the small doodles, so that the meaning is visually recorded. By writing it down by hand and spending time drawing it, it’ll just make the meaning and the memory even more permanent. It’s like writing a cheat sheet: by the time you write it, you’re halfway there with learning.
Learning with flashcards is also a solution, and it is very effective. There are advantages and disadvantages to the paper version, but there is a digital solution now, too. It’s up to you to decide which is better for you. Here too, you can make flashcards in word-meaning or picture-meaning pairs. If you’re tired of turning pages, you can play a memory game, or just stick them on the wall above your desk, if you see them often, they’ll stick to your mind better.
Speaking of wall… it’s an excellent method to put post-its on furniture/things with their target language names, so you can learn by doing your day-to-day work. You won’t even notice, and you know them. You can also write your shopping list or your daily tasks in the new language, which is good for learning new words as a beginner, or as an advanced student to maintain your language level. Some people swear to keeping a diary in foreign languages, and I just started to try it out, so I’ll tell you about my experience with this method another time.
Learning with playing
If you’re a bit of a nerd like me, I’m sure you’ll like this. Foreign language gaming is very useful, indeed! When I was in elementary school, I learned the English basics from The Sims, and I had no trouble talking about my day, because I learned all the keywords and phrases from the game. It came in handy, because we “used up” three English teachers in two years, and I was still able to make progress. Now that there are many RPG storyline games available in many languages, it is even easier to deal with learning a new target language. Assassin’s Creed in Greek, Pokémon in Japanese, Don’t starve in German, The Witcher in Polish… you just have to choose. Okay, okay, Fortnite may not be much help in that regard, but if you choose an RPG, you can’t make a mistake. Built-in dialogs and a lot of “labels” will give you a good vocabulary, but sometimes it’s a good idea to add a few words to your vocab search list if it comes up more than once and you don’t get it.
I told you about the diary method, but it’s not the only option. There are several mobile apps that help you to learn grammar (e.g. LingoDeer plus), 10-15 minutes a day is also effective for maintaining your knowledge level and fixing a new grammatical formula. However, if you want to remember the new material really well, write as many example sentences as you can. Do you have 10 new words and two grammatical structures you need to learn? Combine and create examples! The more absurd, the funnier, the better. By the time you get to the bottom of the page, you have already practiced the formula, and to learn the words, you just have to read it once or twice again. You can write a page in a few minutes, no excuses.
If you learned a new tense? Talk about your week, your day using that! Write a letter to your friend or brother, the longer the better.
Talk to yourself in the target language: if you cook, comment on what you do, if you commute, try to describe your environment (even in your head, you don’t have to put it on paper). With this, you can actively use the language and get new vocabulary if you are not too lazy to quickly search for the missing phrase in the online dictionary. If you are going to take a language exam, this can be especially useful: if you can’t think of a word, instead of searching describe it as much as you can, thus training your mind to “cut yourself out” in difficult situations.
Other recreational learning opportunities
You’re exhausted by the end of the day, but you still want to do something for your progress? A quick Duolingo story or a short article on the internet, and there’s not a day that goes by without maintaining your target language. If you have a good book that interests you, start it in your target language, one or two pages a day will help you a lot. (Here I recommend Youth Novels or short stories, old literature is usually difficult for beginners. I once tried to read Goethe in the original… I’ll wait a while longer with that). When you are reading, use a dictionary to look up words that often occur or stand in the way of understanding (you do not need to understand everything here, understand the story, don’t create a new dictionary), and add it to the words you are learning. For beginners, bilingual books and simplified readings can be of great help, as in most cases, the most important terms and words are explained in footnotes. If you buy a bilingual book, always read the sentence or section in the target language first and try to understand it by yourself. Only after it read the section in your native language and then read it again in the target language. If you encounter an interesting structure or word form, note it, and when you are more relaxed or have more time, look into the grammar.
Final tips to get the most out of these methods
These methods work very well in combination, but you do not change the world with any of them by itself. If you add them to one (or more) textbook, private lesson or classroom studies, then they are the most effective. Think of them as building blocks. A cube doesn’t become a house, but if you put them together in the right way, you can build even a castle.
But most importantly: use what you’ve learned as soon as possible! After all, when the learned things are combined with living experience, they become almost unforgettable.