The Best Way to Learn a Language [Scientifically Proven, Polyglot Tested]
“What's the best way to learn a language?”
“What's the quickest way to learn new words?”
“How can I sound like a native speaker?”
“Do I really have to study grammar?”
Language hackers ask themselves these kinds of questions all the time.
We all want to use effective study methods so we can learn a language fast and speak it well.
But many language teachers and programs are giving conflicting advice. How can we know if we're spending our time on the right things?
Fortunately, language learners aren't the only ones who've been puzzling over these questions.
Linguists, the people who study the science of language, have spent decades observing how people learn languages. And while they don't have all the answers yet, they have discovered a lot about what works and what doesn't.
So let's take a look at some of the most common questions in language learning and what science has to say about them. We'll also look at the scientifically proven best way to learn a language so we can become better language learners.
Table of contents
- 1. Speak From Day One
- 2. Create a “Home Immersion” Situation
- 3. Use the Best Language Learning Apps to Learn a Language Fast
- 4. Try the Science of Flashcards
- 5. Use Context to Learn Words the Natural Way
- 6. Read a Lot
- 7. Take a New Approach to Grammar
- 8. Keep the Motivation Up (With These Techniques)
- Let’s Sum Up – Frequently Asked Language Learning Questions
- The Best Way to Learn a Language: Play Around With It!
We’ll be covering:
- The fastest way to learn new words in another language
- The best way to learn a language by yourself or online
- The best language learning apps and resources
- How to make the most out of flashcards
- How to learn words the natural way
- Do you really need to study grammar?
- The best way to stay motivated to learn a language
- How to find a friend to study with and set mini-goals
- FAQs about pronunciation, accents, and more
1. Speak From Day One
Related Learning: 5 Rituals to Help You Learn a Language Faster
What's the fastest way to learn new words in another language?
There are as many ways to learn vocabulary as there are successful language learners.
The most important debate – as far as science is concerned – is often about which approach is best. Should we memorise words using flashcards? Or should we pick them up naturally through reading and listening?
In reality, they're both a bit right. Both techniques are useful for different reasons and if you can balance the two, you'll be onto a winner.
Here at Fluent in 3 Months, the tried-and-true method is speaking from day one to help you use and remember what you learn.
Here’s a video about how to practice this approach:
2. Create a “Home Immersion” Situation
Related Learning: 16 Ways to Immerse Yourself at Home
What’s the best way to learn a language by yourself or online? We can’t all get up and go travel abroad until we become fluent.
Well, one way to do that is through home immersion.
It’s possible to create an immersive environment at home. It just takes a bit of effort and patience.
Switching your phone’s language or watching shows in your target language will help you achieve an immersive experience, too. And of course, you’ll want as much speaking and writing practice as possible.
Online tutors are one of the best ways to get great-quality speaking practice from home, and at Fluent in 3 Months we’ve found Preply to be a good platform to find all sorts of tutors. You can check out Fi3M’s Preply review to learn how to use it.
Here’s a short video with more details about home immersion:
3. Use the Best Language Learning Apps to Learn a Language Fast
Related Learning: Our Recommended Resources
If you’re learning a language by yourself at home, you’ll want to use the best language learning apps to get you going.
But there are so many of them… So how do you know which to use?
Well, it depends on the language you're learning, your goals, and your preferred learning style.
That’s why the Fluent in 3 Months team review tons of language apps and resources, like:
- Japanese Uncovered
- Staircase Method
- 90 Day Korean
- Learning with Virtual Reality
…And so many more.
When deciding on the best language learning apps to use, pick only 1 – 3 to begin with. If you use too many at once, it’ll become repetitive and distracting.
It’s a good idea to have a vocab app you like and at least one app that teaches you the language structure. After that, you could pick one that gives you practice in the way you learn best.
So for example, if you prefer listening, try Pod101 language podcasts. If you prefer reading, try LingQ.
You use something untraditional, too, like learning through Netflix or Nintendo. Here’s a video about how to do that:
4. Try the Science of Flashcards
Related Learning: How to Use a Memory Palace to Boost Your Vocabulary
Lots of learners use flashcard systems.
This technique is based on research by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. His research showed that people learn more when they space learning out rather than cramming it in.
This means that you'll remember a word much better if you look at it once a day for five days, rather than five times in the same day.
Ebbinghaus also noticed that people tend to remember things better when they can link them to personal experiences. You can take advantage of this by using a memory technique called mnemonics.
The mnemonics technique involves linking words in the language you're learning to words and images in your own language that sound similar.
For example, to remember the Mandarin Chinese word for book, shu, you could imagine a book with a shoe on it. That helps you link the image of a book to its Chinese translation.
Using these techniques can help you balance learning new things and reviewing, as talked about in this video:
Spaced repetition and mnemonics can boost your word power quickly and make your brain feel like an awesome vocabulary learning machine. But they're not the be-all and end-all of memory strategies.
In fact, overuse of these techniques can actually harm your vocabulary, and here's why.
5. Use Context to Learn Words the Natural Way
Related Learning: Contextese – The Most Useful Language You’re Already Fluent In
You may not know it, but your brain is already an awesome vocabulary learning machine. And there’s a scientifically proven best way to learn a language: it’s through context.
When you read or listen to something, your brain doesn't take each word at face value. Instead, it's taking statistics about which words appear together often so that it can anticipate what's coming next and process speech faster.
Neuroscientists have found a way to measure when your brain is doing this. Our brains emit electrical signals, which change depending on what task your brain is dealing with.
Scientists can read some of these, using a technique called electroencephalography, to study how your brain processes language (but don't worry, they can't read your mind… yet!).
One of these signals, called N400, changes depending on whether words make sense in context or not. The N400 is relatively small for expected word combinations, like coffee and cream. It increases in height for unexpected word combinations, like coffee and crap.
This means that scientists can read the N400 height to analyse the kind of expectations you have about which words usually occur together. If your N400 doesn't increase for coffee and crap, they might wonder how on earth you've been drinking your coffee.
In language learners, the N400 changes based on proficiency. The better people get at a language, the closer their N400 pattern is to a native speaker's.
So, an important part of fluency is taking statistics and building expectations about what words usually appear together, like native speakers do.
6. Read a Lot
Related Learning: Learn a Language by Reading: 5 Easy-to-Follow Steps
To get better at building expectations about word combinations, we need to flood our brains with bucket loads of natural content. So we can build a picture of which kinds of words usually appear together.
Reading is a great way to do this. And there's lots of research that shows that reading works wonders for your vocabulary skills.
Choose resources that are right for your level, though. If the percentage of unknown words is too high, it can be difficult to figure out what they mean from the context. And it's frustrating having to stop every two minutes to look up a word.
Graded readers, which adapt books to make them easier to understand at lower levels, are perfect for this.
7. Take a New Approach to Grammar
Related Learning: Learning Grammar… Do I Have To?
Do you really need to study grammar?
Grammarphobes often ask themselves whether it's necessary to learn all those grammar rules. Can't we pick it up with the natural method, that is, through reading, listening and talking?
Linguists struggle to answer this question because it's very difficult to control and measure.
Experiments usually compare one group who learn grammar rules with another who learns the natural way.
But how do we know each group has paid attention to the same grammar structure the same number of times? What if the ones who aren't taught the rules are secretly trying to figure out the rules in their heads, or running off home and learning it on their own?
How do you know if they've learned the grammar?
That's why, after decades of research, the grammar question is still a very murky one. To clear it up, linguists have started gathering all available research on learning grammar rules and seeing if there's a pattern.
The results emerging show that grammar rules do help people speak more accurately. But the results aren't nearly as drastic as you might think, especially given the attention to grammar in the majority of language classes and textbooks.
These results fit in with my experience as a language learner. Knowing the grammar does help, but spending the majority of my time memorising complicated grammar rules isn’t the most effective way to learn.
Here’s Fluent in 3 Months founder Benny Lewis’s thoughts on this:
8. Keep the Motivation Up (With These Techniques)
Related Learning: Why Language Learnings Quit — and How to Beat the “Motivational Killers”
What's the best way to stay motivated in language learning?
This is probably the most important question of all.
You can know all the best ways to learn pronunciation, words, and grammar. But if you can't maintain your motivation, it's never going to happen.
Luckily there's loads of cool research on motivation that'll help you get your language learning act together. Here are a couple of ways to get started:
Find a Friend or Language Partner to Study With
Studies show that people who feel like they're working as a team (even if they're not physically together) accomplish more. There are a few reasons for this:
- Social: We're social animals and sharing our experiences with others makes us feel more positive about them.
- Accountability: Once your goals are out there for all to see, you're more likely to work towards them.
- Support: You get access to a lovely support network who can give you advice and encouragement.
One of the best ways to do this is by finding a language exchange partner or community of like-minded learners who can support you.
The Fluent in 3 Months Challenge is one such community with amazing support groups, language exchanges, and challenges to push you to the next level.
Break Down Your Big Goals into Mini-Missions
Research shows that people who break down big tasks into little chunks get more done in the long run.
One study used maths problems to prove this point by creating two groups of people. One group was given six pages of maths problems per session over seven sessions. The participants in the other group got the 42 pages from the start.
The first group completed the pages faster and more accurately than the second one.
Breaking down the task is essential in something like language learning, where the outcome feels big and scary.
Instead of trying to “speak German”, aim for something smaller and more concrete, like having a 15-minute conversation in German. Come up with a plan to get there, like studying 30 minutes a day with your apps and resources you picked out (as we talked about earlier!).
By breaking it down this way, you're much more likely to do it. And if you keep it up day by day, you'll be speaking a language before you know it.
Let’s Sum Up – Frequently Asked Language Learning Questions
Phew! That was a lot to cover, but now you know what you need to find your own best way to learn a language.
But you may still have some questions about language learning. Like how to sound more like a native speaker and correcting pronunciation.
So here are a few more in-depth answers for your curious linguistic minds:
Perhaps the first question to address is why you want to sound more like a native speaker. Lots of language learners don't worry much about pronunciation. They think that as long as people can get what they're saying, that's all that matters. And there's some truth in this: you don't need a perfect accent to communicate well with native speakers. But the more you sound like a native speaker, the easier it is for them to understand you. And the easier it is for people to understand you, the more they enjoy talking to you. This comes in handy, given that you need to talk to people to learn their language.
Here are some articles to help you with this:
How to Improve Your Spanish Pronunciation
Benny’s French Pronunciation Guide
German Pronunciation Guide
Learn Better Pronunciation While Speaking Your Native Language
But why do we have accents in the first place? And what can we do about them?
There are two main reasons language learners have foreign accents.
First, it can be difficult to tell the difference between two sounds that don't exist in our native language.
Second, other languages can have sounds that make us use our mouth muscles in a new way. Essentially, we need to learn how to train our mouth muscles to form these new sounds. And train our ears to hear the sounds that don’t exist in our native language.
When I started learning Italian, I spent a few months desperately trying to avoid the word anno (“year”), for fear of accidentally saying the word ano (“ass”). I couldn't hear the difference at all.
On the flip side, I'm a native English speaker, so the difference between the “sheep” and “ship” vowels seems obvious. But lots of learners struggle with the difference, which explains why everyone's terrified of speaking English on holiday, with all those beaches and sheets and what not.
This happens because when we're born, we have super little polyglot brains. They can tell the difference between sounds in any language.
As we grow older, our brain focuses on sounds that are important for our native language and filters out sounds that are not. This is good, as it helps us understand our own language better. But it causes problems for language learners because they filter out sounds that might be in the language they're learning.
But it’s important to note that this does not mean that there’s such a thing as being “too old to learn a language”. It just means that we need to focus our attention on this area of our learning.
Linguists have been studying this phenomenon for years. And they've found a way to help learners hear and pronounce the difference between these tricky sounds.
This method, known as minimal pair training, involves listening to a word that has the sound difference you want to learn (like ship or sheep), deciding which one you think it is, and getting immediate feedback about whether you were right or wrong.
After a few sessions, you'll hear the difference more easily and be able to pronounce them better. You set up your own minimal pair training by using forvo
to download sound files of the words you want to learn to tell apart.
Then use Anki to put the sound file on the question side and the written word on the other. Listen to the word, try to guess which one it is, then flip the flashcard over to see if you were right.
Some sounds are difficult because they involve completely new mouth positions, like the rolled “R” in Spanish or the “U” in French. For these sounds, science has some good news. It turns out that with a little perseverance, it's absolutely possible to train your mouth muscles to pronounce sounds more like native speakers.
To do this, you need to learn a little about articulatory phonetics (which is a fancy-pants way of saying mouth positions). This helps us find out exactly where the tongue, teeth and lips should be in the sounds you want to learn. Then practice them until your mouth naturally moves to that position.
To learn more about this, try doing a quick search on YouTube. There are tons of pronunciation videos which explain the mouth positions in the language you're learning. A good example is Glossika Phonics.
The Best Way to Learn a Language: Play Around With It!
Okay, okay. That was a lot to take in. But here’s the main idea: the best way to learn a language on your own is going to depend on you. And to find your best way to learn, you’ll have to play around a bit.
So take the scientific reasoning and the tips here as evidence of what may be best for you, and run with it. Make it your own!
How do you best learn a language? Leave a comment and let us know.
Original article by Katie Harris, updated by the Fluent in 3 Months team.