Wish You Were Good at Learning Languages? Here Are 3 Ways You Can Be
Here’s a surprise: everyone can be good at languages.
Those star students in language classes raking in As? And those famous polyglots who seem to collect languages as easy as Beanie Babies?
These folks aren’t successful because of some untouchable talent. Rather, they’ve learned how to learn.
Here are three tips you can implement right away to get good at learning languages.
- 3 Simple Ways to Get Seriously Good at Learning Languages
3 Simple Ways to Get Seriously Good at Learning Languages
1. Devise a strategy
Heading into any major project blindly is a recipe for disaster. And learning a new language certainly qualifies as a major project.
So, experienced language learners have learned how to map out their studies for maximum success. It’s up to the individual learner to decide whether they do so with a pen and paper, a digital calendar or simply by using their intuition to tell them when it’s time to study what material.
Since you’re looking to develop your ability to learn languages, you need a solid game plan. You’ll want to micromanage every step of your language learning journey from what you’re going to do today to what you want to have accomplished in six months. The easiest way to do so is to set goals.
Still, easier said than done, right? Not so fast—you can easily set your goals and accomplish them if we break this down a little further.
Set short-term goals for daily and weekly success
Short-term goals are key to managing your time and priorities so that you actually take the small steps you need to reach a humongous goal. Know what you’re going to be doing each and every day. Think about what you want to accomplish on a weekly basis. Think about what you might want to accomplish on a monthly basis.
Let’s say you’re a beginner. Setting short-term goals could look like:
- Making time to complete one textbook language lesson each day.
- Making time to watch one episode of a target language TV show every day.
Depending on your other commitments, these goals could be as small as spending five minutes total each day on your target language all the way to spending an hour or two (or more!). Do whatever works for your attention span and schedule. If you find yourself dreading or procrastinating your daily goal because of the amount of time you’ll spend, cut back a little.
If you have a time-based goal—let’s say, spending 15 minutes with a textbook each day—try using a timer app like Forest for iOS and Android. It blocks all other apps on your phone, so you don’t get distracted!
Set long-term goals to keep yourself on track
Long-term goals are those things you want to accomplish in three months, six months or even a year (they get unwieldy if they’re much longer than that!).
While short-term goals help you stay focused as you work through things in your daily life, long-term goals help you keep your eye on the prize, so to speak. When you’re going through the daily routine of lessons, immersion, SRS reps and all that jazz, it’s easy to forget what it’s all for.
Write down your long-term goals and put them where you can see them regularly. Long-term goals could be completing a certain course (like a textbook, class or online program), having a conversation with a native speaker or reading a whole novel with or without a dictionary. It doesn’t matter so much if your long-term goals are realistic or unrealistic—by striving for something, you learn more about yourself and how you learn. Remember, you can tweak your goals as you go—nothing is set in stone! The beauty of setting your own learning goals is that you are the one who’s in control.
2. Collect media like a fiend
Native learning materials separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to language learning. By native learning materials, I simply mean native media, authentic resources. TV shows, movies, books, you name it, made in your target language for native speakers of your target language.
When you immerse yourself in materials made for native speakers—and especially ones that you genuinely enjoy—you’ll be surprised how natural language learning feels. You’ll probably start thinking, “this must be what it feels like to be naturally good at learning languages!” The key for people who seem “naturally” good at learning languages is that every step of the learning process contains some joy or value for them. They love what they do! Now you’re going to ease your brain into loving the process too.
Yes, the language will be fast. Yes, there will be a lot of words you don’t know. However, jumping into the deep end right from the beginning will help you get used to native-level speed of conversation, native-like sense of humor and native-like word usage. This, of course, doesn’t mean you should forego your learning materials. It means you should avoid clinging to them. The world is full of language learners who completed a course only to find that native speakers of their target language spoke far faster and more casually than they were prepared for!
So, how do you find native materials? Everywhere! Let your own tastes guide you—look for comics, mystery novels, hip hop, whatever gets you going. In order to find the media itself, start with suggestions from online forums of fellow language learners. They can point you to music, movies and TV shows you might like. If you find music or movies on YouTube, the suggestions sidebar will guide you along to find more.
You can also use the language learning program FluentU to find native materials that are good to learn from. FluentU’s library of authentic videos spans many various genres, like music and news. Through interactive subtitles, you can access context-specific information about a given word to learn its appropriate usage. The app also offers personalized quizzes to reinforce your learning.
If you prefer traditional books, you’d be surprised what you can find at a used bookstore. I’ve had a lot of luck finding books through Amazon third-party sellers. Simply find a list of authors or titles in your target language and search for them that way!
Native media also helps learners stay interested in their long-term goals. Native-level speech reminds you of your end goal on a constant basis. And, let’s face it, watching anime or sitcoms is a lot more fun than constantly being glued to your textbook! But, for this to work, you need to be honest with yourself.
Humans learn best when they’re having fun, and the best language learners know to take advantage of this. Khatzumoto from All Japanese All The Time urges language learners to ditch any media that’s boring or tedious. You can only afford to watch, listen and read things that excite you! This keeps up motivation and ensures you stick with the language in the long term.
Whenever you complete a larger short-term goal (for example, you’ve finished the first five chapters in your textbook), reward yourself by renting a cool movie in the target language.
Along those same lines…
3. Cultivate passion
As hinted above, motivation cannot be underestimated. Along with fun and excitement attached to your target language, it’s of utmost importance that you create emotional ties to your language.
This is easy enough if you’re learning a language you were already interested in. In fact, simple interest can fuel your language learning project like nothing else. But what if you’re learning a language out of necessity? For work? You can still cultivate passion.
Connect to people and culture
Learn about the culture of your target language. Read the Wikipedia page on your target language country’s history (you could even read it in your target language!). Learn about the traditional art and music of your adopted culture. I love to listen to folk music in my target languages—old, traditional songs really communicate the values of the culture, and they’re usually simple enough to easily learn the lyrics. It’s as easy as searching “[target language] folk song/music” on YouTube!
If you’re more of a concrete, people person, it’ll help to make friends in the target language. Even if you don’t live in the country, you can meet people through language exchanges, through websites like italki. The italki platform lets you meet friends for free online exchanges, as well as lets you choose from thousands of professional tutors to hire for private instruction.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of connecting. Emotional ties, passion, all of this will get you far in your target language. When you start identifying more with your target language culture, the language will become a part of you and a part of your daily life. And when that happens, progress skyrockets!
There you have it—three ways you can get good at learning languages. It’s not so much about inborn talent—the best language learners know how to organize themselves and take advantage of what motivates them.
Now that you don’t have to worry about talent, there’s nothing to stop you from achieving the very best in your chosen language!