How to Learn a Language/Printable version

How to Learn a Language

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Once you have set your mind on it, learning a language can actually be surprisingly simple. The first step is to approach it as a fun challenge. Get excited and be confident about learning something new and it will make the whole process a lot easier.

Technology can also make learning a language a lot easier. Audio players are a great aid for those spending time in transit or trying to learn a language while doing something like cleaning, and provide good models for speaking practice.

Even working 8 hours a day, getting 8 hours of sleep and allowing for one to two hours driving to and from work leaves you with about 40 hours a week. Your schedule may vary for better or worse, but you will almost certainly have some moments of down time during your day. During those free minutes, put in the cassette tape or CD, or review some vocabulary briefly using flash cards. It will make a world of a difference. Buy some books, a learning guide, and some cassette tapes or CDs. Then make sure to make time for practicing your new skills. Write letters to yourself, or carry on conversations in your head.

As a learner you are putting together a mosaic of brightly coloured pieces that will fit together into meaningful shapes. Small and clunky at first, but bigger and more natural as you make progress. When they start moving and interacting with you, take on life, you are well on your way to mastering the language. And remember that every shape you make, however primitive it might seem to you, can be used in real life - nothing is wasted.

There are several basic methods of learning a language. Along with the information on the bottom, keep in mind which method/approach you are using. Methods are rarely encountered in "pure" form.

Natural methodEdit

The natural method does not focus on grammar and pronunciation. Instead, the user of this method learns a whole lot of vocabulary and phrases which they use whenever the time is appropriate. Pronunciation and grammar will come when the person speaks more with others and starts to understand the language. A relatively undemanding way to develop a working knowledge, provided you are constantly surrounded by fluent users and have a retentive memory for words.

Old-style classroom methodEdit

In this method, people learn grammar (with some vocabulary) and build on that until the whole language is learned. This method is usually performed with a teacher who knows the language. This method is the most time-consuming of all the methods, and emphasizes the formal written language.

Pattern methodEdit

This method is where people learn languages from a mathematical standpoint. They combine words and phrases as if combining numbers. This requires specially developed materials and well-trained teachers.

Insight methodEdit

This modern approach tries to combine the best of the other methods. Using interesting materials (texts, spoken word, video scenes) the learner is encouraged to talk about, write about, and act out the situations presented, using words, phrases and grammatical forms that occur naturally in the context. Difficulties are discussed with the teacher where appropriate, if necessary in the learner's own language, even though the use of the language being learned is encouraged whenever possible in the learning situation.

Discredited methodsEdit

Nowadays, discredited methods are those based entirely on one approach, such as parrot-like repetition, detailed grammatical analysis, translation to or from a language instead of free composition or discussion. Repetition, grammar, and translation are all useful tools but only work in moderation and in combination with focus on understanding and communication. Though these are discredited there is still widespread use of these methods across the world.

...Next: Vocabulary >>


The best initial vocabulary will probably involve the target language’s semantic primitives: meanings that are represented in every language. They are the most basic communication structures for adult language learners. Note that semantic primitives are meaning-based not word-based, and your target language may express many of the meanings in a very different way and using different words and phrases from your own language.

There are many ways of learning vocabulary. Try them all and use what is most effective for you.

  • Think in whole phrases with emotions. Memorize not only words but a whole sample phrase with the emotion felt. E.g. (Spanish) To remember the word 'bread' -- 'pan,' memorize the sentence, 'I eat bread with butter.' -- 'Como pan con mantequilla.' (Imagine you are eating the bread.) Some call this Total Physical Response.
  • Imagine visually the word or action. Can you see the bread? Include other senses too. Smell the bread, feel the bread crumbs, taste the butter, etc. Make those sensations extreme. Try making the butter rotten, smell the bread burnt, have the toast painfully hot.
  • Repeat the whole phrase. Do so until you can say it without hesitation, like a reflex—just like a karate move. Language is a reflex. Repeating the same sentence is less use than making subtle changes to the patterns you are learning. So change the pronoun, the noun or some other aspect of the sentence. It is also best to make each sentence reflect your reality rather than some abstract one. That way you are more involved in the language you are producing.
  • Mix languages. Substitute from your new language into the language you speak normally, and vice-versa. This will, of course, cause fewer problems if you confine this to conversations with people you have notified of your strategy. You can also try to think in your new language. Use as many words as you can in the new language. If you don't know how to say something, you can look it up later. The key is usage. An example, with French is: To make a cheese sandwich, put fromage between deux pieces of pain. This is referred to as code switching, especially when done unintentionally by bilingual speakers.
  • Skim the dictionary. Make it a habit to skim the dictionary and write down a few words that are obviously part of common everyday speech.
  • Practice writing—a lot. If your language uses an alternative script, writing (along with reading) will help you adapt. Repetitive writing also helps with memorization.
  • Create flashcards. The target language will be on one side, and the known language will be on the other. Carry a reasonable number in your pocket, purse, PDA, etc. and study them when you have unexpected free time. You can also create flashcards on a computer with a program like Mnemosyne or Anki.
  • Use mnemonics. For example, with German prepositions taking the accusative case DOG WUF (durch, ohne, gegen, wider, um, für), or for Latin irregular imperatives (dic! fac! fer! duc!) - a mnemonic must be memorable for you, so the better it sticks in your mind, the better it works. In other words, when developing a mnemonic, use the fact that humorous, vivid or shocking phrases will help you remember.
    • Make a story. It should be animated, fun, and based on the word. The word for bread in a number of languages is pan, which is spelled the same and sounds similar to the English word for cooking pan. Imagine batting a loaf of bread with a pan or hitting a bread monster with an oversized pan. Including all sensations to their extremes helps.
    • See these Indonesian examples and Thai examples for more ideas.
  • Use Thesaurus. Learning the synonyms and antonyms of the word might make it easier for you to memorize it. Thesaurus will help you get a deeper understanding of the word and, ultimately, expand your vocabulary.

...Next:Speaking and understanding >>

Speaking and understanding

  • While riding the train or car, walking down the street, waiting in line, etc. simulate conversations and dialogs in your head. Carry a pocket dictionary/grammar book with you for this purpose. Talking to yourself out loud while showering will force you to voice sentences without making you feel ridiculous.
  • Repeat and memorize whole sample phrases and sentences which embody grammatical rules. Grammar requires calculation before speaking, so speak from a memorized sentence pattern instead. Make a quota of phrases or sentences to memorize per day, depending on your schedule. For most people, memorizing 1 or 2 model pattern sentences everyday is not too difficult. Learn poems that appeal to you, and "ham" them aloud.
  • Most new languages contain unfamiliar sounds. Practice them ad nauseam! Make yourself drill sentences full of new sounds and repeat them all the time. For instance, in French, "Il fait de la voile" can be used to practice French "f"s, "v"s and "d"s, or "un bon vin blanc" for French nasals.
  • Listen to audiobooks in your target language. Free audiobooks from the public domain, like those provided by LibriVox, are a particularly interesting (and affordable) option since not only can you listen to literary classics for free but by also downloading the free ebook (from, say, Project Gutenberg) you can read along as well.
  • Watch movies in the language and pretend or imagine that you already understand. Children assimilate languages unconsciously. TV shows and radio broadcasts are also good ways to practice a language.[citation needed]
  • Get the melody of the language by listening to songs you like and singing them. By doing this, you can reduce your accent and almost unconsciously memorize a lot of phrases. Get the lyrics though, it may be very difficult to understand the song without them. When at the very beginning learning the language, learning children's songs may be very helpful (and can be very amusing for the learner, making them easy to remember).
  • Listen to radio broadcasts in the language through the Internet. It is not important that you understand every word, or even that you actively pay attention to the broadcast. Rather, a good idea is to have the radio on in the background as you are doing other things. This will allow you to get used to the sounds and intonations of the language, and thus be able to isolate individual words from a general stream of spoken language. The Deutsche Welle's slowly spoken news reports (in German, of course) or the Polish Radio in Esperanto are both good examples of what you can find out there. The International French Radio [1], just like the BBC [2] also offer broadcasts in 19 languages, including one in "easy french".
  • Watch English movies subtitled in the language and vice-versa.
  • Use your computer to help you learn a language by installing programs or games using your target language. For example, if you use the Firefox web browser, you can install a version in your target language, or if you use the Opera web browser, you can easily change the interface language in Preferences. If you use a Mac, open System Preferences, select International, then Language, and put your new language at the top of the list. (Then everything that can will appear in your new language.) . When installing an operating system, there is usually an option to pick a language or languages to install: Most Linux distributions are straightforward in this respect. Please note however, that even though Microsoft Windows allows certain language support options via Regional Preferences in the Control Panel, this does not change the language of the interface nor of the included documentation.
  • Speak with a native speaker. Often there are local gatherings of native speakers for the sole intent of speaking. Listening or participating can be useful.
  • Tandems (regular meetings with a partner who speaks another language) are often useful. This is also known as language exchange. E.g. if you know English and are learning Polish, you can meet weekly with a Pole who wants to practice their English. Talk in Polish for the first half of the meeting, then in English for the second half. But be aware that trying to do this with a friend who already shares a common language with you can be less effective, since you may both be tempted to just converse more easily in the common language. Finding a stranger (through local universities, advertisements, or language communities) can therefore be more effective. If you cannot find native speakers of your target language in your community, you may be able to meet people online. See resources below for more information. Depending on the chemistry between you and your partner, you might find it awkward with little in common to talk about, or you might become great friends and have some interesting conversation practice. You can improve your chances by agreeing on a topic beforehand and coming prepared with questions. This is especially true if either or both of you are beginners in the foreign language.

...Next: Pronunciation >>


Improving your pronunciation will obviously help you to communicate, as people will understand what you are saying. Less obvious is that improving your pronunciation can help you to understand when someone else speaks the language (as you better understand what the sounds represent). You don't have to be perfect, but if you improve your pronunciation a bit, you might improve your communication a lot. Fluency is more important than the precise enunciation of each separate sound. Practice the rhythms and intonations of whole phrases and sentences rather than individual words. Do as much work as you can in the form of questions and answers, and chain these together. (For example, in English: "Do you speak Spanish?" "Yes, I do" "Does your friend speak Spanish?" "Yes, she does", or: "Do you speak Hungarian?" "No, I don't" "Does your boyfriend speak Hungarian?" "No, he doesn't". The important thing is to sound natural and unforced - then people will feel at ease talking to you and won't get tired or irritated trying to make out what you're trying to say. A good example of natural speech in a foreign language (despite an accent) would be Marlon Brando speaking French in Last Tango in Paris.

  • Try not to simply pronounce the words as if they were written in your native language. Listen to how the locals pronounce it.
  • Especially if you like doing things systematically, learn the pronunciation rules of the language.
  • Work out what is different about the way native speakers speak, compared to your own native language and accent. The "neutral state" of the mouth is different in different languages, and if you learn what it is and imitate it, your pronunciation will automatically improve.
    • Do they keep their tongues further forward in the mouth? (e.g. Indonesian).
    • Do they often curl their tongues back (like the English "r")? (e.g. Mandarin)
    • Do they speak from the back of the throat?
  • Sit down with a native speaker and go through the alphabet. Ask them to help you pronounce the letters like a native speaker. Sometimes it helps to ask where they put their tongue when pronouncing a certain letter.

... Next: Reading and Writing >>

Reading and writing

  • Do not underestimate reading. Read in the language as much as you can. Try children's stories first, moving on to newspapers and magazines as your vocabulary builds. Reading will dramatically improve your vocabulary, your spelling, your grammar and your knowledge of the language culture. It is almost a prerequisite for good writing.
  • Get yourself bilingual books. Or get a book in the new language and the same book in one you already know. Read them together, matching words in the two languages. It helps if the languages are quite close. For instance, learning Spanish is easier starting from French than from English, because it's easier to see the more general structures.
  • Relating to the above, one could watch a favorite film with audio in one language and subtitles of another. Anime fans will be pretty familiar with this method.
  • A very good "first read" is the book "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Originally in French, it is easily available in a lot of different languages. In many languages, it is even online (legally), and can be read for free. The book is short, interesting (even philosophical) and contains simple grammar and vocabulary. Another good book, for similar reasons, is "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum.
  • Speed reading doesn't help when beginning to learn a language. Lip read so that you can hear yourself speaking. Speed reading discourages vocalization which is important when starting to learn a language. Speed reading of course has its place, but while beginning a language, a lot of 'hard' reading is required. Fundamental words and sentences need to be mastered. When one feels confident enough or is at an intermediate level, speed reading may help or could even be recommended.
  • Get a digital dictionary. The much speedier word look-up will greatly ease your first readings. Plus, the clear separation of word meanings (which most paper dictionaries can't afford) will make it easier to grasp new words. Freedict offers a collection of freely available (and modifiable) dictionaries.
  • Once you get a sufficient level of writing you can try to write on Wikimedia projects. You could try to add (or start) a Wikibook for learning a language, or translate a Wikipedia article of your interest, knowing that others, more advanced or native speakers, will correct you!

... Next: Polishing >>


When you have reached the point where you feel more or less confident reading, try reading a grammar book in and about the language you are learning. It is not as painful as it sounds and will help you with difficult points. It will be both a review of the basic rules and an introduction to the more subtle aspects of every language. The hindsight will make the basic rules sound more clear and natural and you will be presented with a plethora of model sentences to further reinforce them. You will learn (or just review) the most basic and useful linguistic stuff, e.g.: what is a direct object, an adverb, a nasal consonant, an infinitive, a case, etc. Overall, you will end up with a much clearer and organized picture of the language as a whole.

... Next: Notes for teachers >>

Notes for teachers

Notes for teachersEdit

See also: How to Teach a Language.

Tips for teaching vocabulary:

  • Use motion, not just memorizing.
  • Sometimes it helps to know the etymology of a vocabulary word. This is particularly useful for learning languages in the same family as your native language. For example, an Anglophone learning German might find it useful to associate the word "fahren" (to drive) with the English cognate "fare." Likewise, "sauber" (clean) has the English cognate "sober." Wiktionary is typically a good tool for looking up etymology.


Discuss a controversial topic to get people talking. Take appropriate caution when dealing with sensitive topics, of course,[1] though don't be afraid to ask if they want to talk about a topic.


  • My country: right or wrong?
  • Is colonialism still going on today?

Writing and translatingEdit

Exercise for intermediate to advanced students:

Contribute to Wikipedia (or other Wikimedia project) in the target language. You can use the Wikipedia article of your own language as a source for information.

  • Write a stub article on a topic you know about.
  • Expand an article (perhaps by just a sentence or paragraph, depending.)
  • Find appropriate links in the target language, as alternatives to them, links in the source language.
  • Many lesson plans can be found here: Lesson Plans - Teaching in China

Alternatively, the student may wish to write about the language, by adding to the Wikibook on that language.


  1. For example, discussing Tibet and Taiwan when teaching English in China. Some English teachers report that they discuss such issues with no problems. - see also the discussions TOP 10 TABOO CLASSROOM DISCUSSION TOPICS FOR NEWCOMERS at Dave's ESL Cafe) and What is the correct role of an EFL teacher in China ......... Of course, use your own discretion. It will partly depend on the sensitivity you show and your willingness to hear their opinions, as well as the particular setting and particular students.

... Next: See also >>

See also

Wikipedia articlesEdit

External linksEdit


WordChamp Reading Aid, provides mouse-over dictionary definitions in target language

Quick TransLation (QTL) In-browser pop-up translator for firefox. Can, among other functions, Google translate any text you highlight. Often able to produce the intended meaning from literal wording that's not transparent to you from your native language.



  • Skill Silo 1-on-1 language exchange site for students and teachers.
  • The Mixxer Language exchange site for teachers and learners. Primarily for speaking practice, though provides wiki for written feedback as well.
  • italki Language exchange site for students and teachers. Students can find free language partners and paid tutors.



Babbel Flash cards with audio based on themes.