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Ask HN: What is the best process to learn a new language?
68 points by patrickbolle 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments
I'm looking to learn Spanish. I live in Costa Rica right now so that helps a lot, but there are so many different language learning apps + websites + guides + books etc. I am learning a decent amount but I am struggling to keep up with the speed of locals talking.

I watch a decent amount of Netflix shows in Spanish, but most speak super quickly as well.

I'm in between using Memrise (free) or Lingvist (paid... quite pricey for an app too) right now.

After trying a few different approaches I've found an optimal method that works really well for myself.

1) Memrise (paid). This gives you a solid vocabulary and a decent intuition on grammer/sentence structure.

2) Pimsleur (torrented, one 30min lesson every day). This is crucial to actually put all your knowledge from Memrise to use and make it instinctual. This also helps develop a very natural accent.

I did this for 45 days (~2 hours a day) before going to visit family in Italy with zero prior knowledge. My italian wasn't pretty but I could hold a wide range of conversations

I've been doing this for about 4 months for Spanish with just as much success. YMMV.

I am learning Sanskrit which is much harder to learn than Spanish because getting exposure to Sanskrit in every day life is significantly more difficult. Here's what I do on a daily basis.

1. Watch Sanskrit news and shows on Youtube. 2. Read Sanskrit magazine and newspaper. 3. Write a blog in Sanskrit. 4 Always have a Sanskrit contemporary fiction book that I am reading. 5. Speak to other Sanskrit speakers whatever broken Sanskrit I can speak (I have joined a group). 6. Teach Sanskrit to others using Google Hangouts / conference call etc. 7. Practice writing Sanskrit on a whiteboard that I bought. 8. Refer to grammar books whenever I am in doubt about the correct grammar usage. 9. Constantly look up new words that I don't know the Sanskrit counterparts to (both online and in a physical dictionary). 10. Actively recall verb / noun forms whenever I have free time or I am waiting on something. 11. Take a Sanskrit book with me to work and go to break room and spend 15 minutes reading during lunch / break time. 12. I have three different Sanskrit apps on my phone that I occasionally refer to when in doubt about some concept.

Doing all the above things daily has significantly improved my Sanskrit language skills. My recommendation is you follow similar technique. The key thing is to do it every single day and not feel bad about making mistakes.

This comment is specific to Sanskrit learning.

If you are in Bay Area, Sanskrit Bharati (http://www.samskritabharatiusa.org/) is very active. Their teaching is focused on conversational style. They are world wide organization.

They have a 3 day intro workshop followed by weekly meeting to keep you going on the learning path.

Twice a year, they have a weekend retreats to fully embrace the language.

I just did intro workshop their style is very very effective. I could start conversing basic sentences after 3 sessions. I didn't pursue further (laziness), so above details could be slightly incorrect.

I have no affiliation.

What motivated you to learn Sanskrit?

1. I think it is very cool to know a 2000 year language, read ancient texts in the original and interpret them on your own rather than relying on other people's interpretation which often have religious and cultural biases.

2. It is beautiful because it has very precise rules. You can construct new words for things that didn't exist before (like computer) without violating the rules of the language.

3. You can say things very concisely in Sanskrit.

What did you come up with for "computer" ?

I did not come up with it, others did. सङ्गणक (saṅgaṇaka - IAST transliteration). It is composed of three parts - a prefix, root verb and a suffix -

सम् + गण् + ण्वुल् = सङ्गणक

sam + gaṇ + ṇvul = saṅgaṇaka

The prefix imparts the meaning of doing well. The verb means to calculate. The suffix converts the verb into a noun that performs that action. It literally means an entity that is adept at calculating.

In my experience, the more exposure you get and the more variety you have - the easier it becomes to learn.

1) Use apps (Duolingo is my preference)

2) Read grammar books to learn and understand the underlying structures.

3) Read children's books when you have a big enough vocabulary from (1) and then advance to older books as you expand your experience.

4) Listen to media (Netflix, audio books, tv, radio etc). there should be a lot around you in Costa Rica.

5) Practice - use it as must as you can in every day interactions with actual speakers. If speaking with people in person is scary at first there are a number of services online you can find to match you up with a tutor/practice partner.

Related to reading children's books - It can be pretty rewarding and educational to actually speak to children.

I moved to Finland two years ago, and I've found my level of language is good enough to communicate with 3-4 year olds. After that they know more words than I do, but still we usually make ourselves understood.

The best thing I've found for my learning is time though, I'm definitely better at hearing the difference between "o" and "ö" now I've lived here for a long time, and heard them spoken. Listening to Finnish (metal!) radio has also helped me out even though most of the vocabulary is unknown to me, just having people speak at "full speed" and hearing it is useful.

Immersion, I guess, is the key.

I posted this a few months back, I had a lot of success learning Italian using the fluent forever method (with ANKI) and am now learning french to use the same method.


Watching children's TV shows in that language helped me :) They're usually educational (though you don't always notice it as a child). Just a suggestion on top of what other commenters have said; it's a nice way to supplement what you know or at least get started.

I've been researching this a lot lately as I have a strong interest in learning Spanish, and came across this method: http://www.jonkenpo.net/method-listening-reading/

Basically you read a book in the language you want to learn, that also has your native language next to it (parallel texts) while _also_ listening to the audiobook in the target language.

The original thread it was documented in from an old forum looks to be written by a fairly...eclectic person but overall it seems like a powerful way to learn through mass exposure.

There's a site I found called diveintoespanol.com that enables this method, going to give it a shot this weekend.

really neat concept. cheers!

If you use subtitles, make sure they are also in Spanish. Also as petecox points out, Spanish varies wildly from country to country, so TV may not be the best, but I wouldn't avoid it entirely -- it's also a good source of cultural knowledge.

I'm personally very distrustful of language learning apps. Some may be better than others, but reading / translation based systems should come after you have a pretty solid conversational fluency.

What you really want is immersion. You need to form relationships in the target language. I'd look for immersion classes or just general meetups in hobbies of your choice. For example, Friday night magic :)

When in doubt listen to as much Spanish as possible.

For the duration of your stay I'd actually recommend throwing away your netflix subscription! Each country's culture, accent and slang will vary so if you're in Costa Rica watching content from perhaps Spain, Mexico or Argentina each night it might be a tad confusing. e.g. From my experience, a Mexican gangster movie where they call each other "Pendejo" is little help on the streets of Bilbao or Jujuy!

I'd recommend conversational classes. Depending on how much free time you have, a small group of learners, 8 weeks, 90 mins, 3 times a week. I don't know what your financial situation is like but it may be the best several hundred dollars you ever spent - think of it as an investment. It's a commitment to seriously learn a language (because you're paying for it!) in a supporting environment that reinforces what you'll hear in real life.

Develop a daily routine in your local community. Visit the same coffee shop for breakfast and read half a chapter each day of your 'fluency in 25 lessons'. After a few tongue-tied attempts at conversation they'll naturally revert to practicing their English. Explain to a sympathetic ear that you're really keen to speak the language - perhaps only 1 of 4 employees in a café may persevere but that's okay - you then have 3 English speaking friends and one person you only talk in Spanish with. And it's a cliché but be kind to the monolingual elderly lady in your building - she may have a granddaughter she'll fix you up with!

As nerds we may think technology will solve everything but learning apps will only supplement human interaction, so get out there! :) You're in a Spanish speaking country, which is a great start.

For training your ear, I'd recommend finding Colombian shows, which tend to speak slower and are usually easier for new learners to engage with. The boundaries between words are not as clear as we perceive them to be in our native language, and speech segmentation is actually a fascinating process. Training your ear comes down to practice and having a large enough vocabulary for your brain to start the segmentation process. Someone recommended Michel Thomas's courses, and I'd highly recommend you check those courses out as well.

Formalized lessons through something like iTalki might be a good investment too if you can't find a good language partner.

Apps can be a good tool and people tend to be fairly happy with Duolingo and Memrise. If you feel like you're getting to the point where you can get through reading the news and some basic books, I'd recommend giving an app I just released a look, which is called Langliter. In my biased opinion it's one of the best way to build your vocabulary and break past the intermediate plateau a lot of people get stuck at.

I am learning a decent amount but I am struggling to keep up with the speed of locals talking.

You need to develop an ear for it. I have heard that listening to tapes while you sleep can help.

You are also probably being slowed down by translating to English as you listen. You need to learn to understand it without translating it.

One way to work towards that is to transliterate. This is a word for word translation that does not reorder words to create correct (English) grammar.

When I took Greek, we studied the Bible and everyone had an interlinear Bible that had one line of Greek and the English translation of each word below it.

Transliteration can help you get more comfortable with the grammar of the new language and can speed up your mental translation until you are more fluent and can understand the words as meaningful in their own right without translation.

There is no one best way.

I needed the structure of class. I live in Norway, and folks are quick to speak English with me until I got firmly into an intermediate level... and it still happens. Oh well :)

But even without classes, I suggest getting a few language learning books designed for adults learning Spanish as a second language. Work through the workbooks. Many come with web support as well. The ones I used covered basic everyday situations, helped with sounds, and covered grammer slowly.

Around here, there are language cafes that help folks get speaking practice.

Childrens shows helped me, as the speech is simple and clear. The TV station has transcripts as well - I found this very helpful. Watch once, view transcript and translate, and watch again. Listen to television/radio as much as possible. Play this stuff as background sound when you are working on things. The exposure trains your ear.

Speak when you can, even if you are repeating after the children's shows you are watching. Try to speak every time you go to the store, for example.

Read. Children's books at first, perhaps. Harry Potter is also a good: You are probably familiar with the story and it repeats words quite often. Move to novels once you tire of children's books but before you feel you are "ready" for them. They'll be hard at first, but at least you can pick things up you are interested in. Newspapers are handy as they introduce information that you might not be interested in. You might be able to find news for children online or something like that as well. Or one that is easy to read (I found that in Norwegian). Write down words you don't know - and their translations - even if you never look at the list again.

Write, especially if you have a local that can read it and correct things for you. Rewrite with corrections. Copy newspaper articles. I suggest writing by hand instead of typing at first, but eventually you'll want to type as well. When typing, make sure you have a spell check on your computer that can spell check spanish.

Apps are helpful for building vocabulary.

After you get a good vocabulary base, make sure you start studying idioms. These color the language.

Google translate isn't always spot-on, but still very helpful. You might have to type more than one word to get a proper translation - it is like this in Norwegian because some words might mean one thing yet when combined mean something completely different.

So, I would preface any advice with being clear on what your goals are and what you mean exactly by "learn Spanish." Do you mean get by conversationally? Are you looking for fluency certification? Do you want to attend a Spanish-speaking university or work in a Spanish-speaking office? Do you need to read and write Spanish, or just speak it? All of these things will have different needs, different vocabulary, and different methods.

My advice here is mainly for learning conversational Spanish.

Work one-on-one with a language tutor. For vocabulary practice, use a spaced-repetition system like Fluent Forever (I think Memrise has the same system).

But the biggest thing you can do to learn - speak the language. That's the most important part.

Everyone here has some great suggestions but as far as I can see no one has mentioned the Michel Thomas courses. I have found his way of teaching quite smart especially if you speak English. I mostly listened to his course and practiced a bit with Duolingo(didn't find it that helpful but it was ok) before going to Spain, and I have to say Michel helped me a lot in recognising structures and phrases. If you combine it with learning some vocabulary it'd be really good.

But as most seem to say and I have to agree, the best thing to do is find people and speak the language as much as possible (native speakers, tutors, other learners).

I second the Michel Thomas recommendation. What it gives you is a good ear for more complicated grammatical structures. There's no getting around putting in the work to build your vocabulary, but it really helps bridge the gap between the grammar rules you read in a book and recognizing and using them in conversation.

What I did when I lived in Spain was watch a lot of movies in Spanish with English subtitles. This helped me immensely with my listening comprehension. Without subtitles, it was much more difficult to decipher words.

Also, if you're there for some sort of exchange, try to live with locals if possible and make it a point to speak in Spanish with your fellow exchange students/people, even if it seems awkward at first and would seem easier to just speak in English.

Other than that, there's no substitute for practice and exposure. Talk and actively listen as much as you can.

Anki, Memrise or Duolingo, Pimsleur audiobooks, and Rosetta Stone along with having someone to interact with (which you have). I've been slacking but for Spanish I speak with my girlfriend (Argentinian, but speaks English fluently so sometimes I have to force her to use Spanish as she finds my Spanish frustrating) and coworkers. Trying to incorporate new words or linguistic concepts (tenses, idioms) into the conversation each week.

I picked up a frequency dictionary for Spanish and entered in the words from that into my Anki deck. I also got a college level Spanish 101/102 textbook to work through to reinforce the grammar. I find the grammar rules themselves stick well with the way my mind works (probably why I took to math and CS in the first place), though vocabulary requires the deliberate practice. So the textbook gives me the framework (grammar) to fit the vocab onto and I can focus on the vocabulary by itself having already (more or less) learned the grammar and syntax.

Others are saying avoid Rosetta Stone. I don't know, it was a gift to me from my parents. I have found it useful because it's so much already created verbal content so my listening (though not speaking) improved greatly by using it.

Memrise and Duolingo: I find these easy to use for a few minutes a day. I couldn't get anywhere near fluency doing just that, but it is good practice. Really nice for use on the go. I'll use it for however long I have between when I get to the gym (between 5:30 and 6) and my class starts (6). And a few other times throughout the day. I don't feel like I'm interrupting a lesson when I stop with it, it's just taking a break until I'm free again.

Anki is something I run through entirely in one go. I couldn't stick with it when I used it multiple times a day for fractions of the deck. I usually use it first thing in the morning.

Pimsleur also improved my listening and my speaking skills. I don't pirate it, I already subscribed to Audible and each month I get a credit which covers the cost of a week of lessons. Audible seems to have frequent 2-for-1 deals (use 1 credit for 2 books) so I've only paid for maybe half of them, if I count the subscription as part of my cost.

My experience: there's a quandary if you avoid face-to-face conversation because your listening comprehension skills aren't very good, because you need conversation and interaction to improve them. In conversation you can read body language and ask for clarity/to slow down/explain things differently. The pressure, heat of the moment etc forces you to really pay attention. It's easy to fall in to a passive listening trap watching movies, listening to songs, etc.

Anki flash cards used as described in this article https://qz.com/1211561/how-to-learn-a-language-use-spaced-re...

Im learning Macedonian in Macedonia s-l-o-w-l-y and have just arrived at this approach.

For motivation, keep in mind how much more you’ll get out of the conversations you hear and overhear!

Find a family that natively speaks the language and live with them for a year. Especially a great idea if you're young.

I combined Pimsleurs, a one year coursebook, spaced reptition and 12 hours of training a day for 3 weeks to learn Mandarin. My listening skills were weak but reading and writing were strong. Got up to about 800 characters and 1300 words. This was enough to get around comfortably in China and add to my vocabulary.

Big fan of the app clozemaster. Duolingo was great to begin with, but now seems so slow and has ads after every lesson. Clozemaster has a lot more variety in terms of vocab.

And it offers lots of different languages:


For romance languages that don't have declension:

0) Figure out how to read/pronounce words in that language

1) Learn important irregular verb conjugations in present tense (to have, to be, etc.)

2) Learn how to conjugate the different forms of present tense verbs

3) Look up list of most commonly used verbs + nouns. Memorize those.

4) Layer in conjugations for new tenses

5) Practice with native speakers

My steps for learning French and Spanish were: 1) 1/2 months nonstop on Duolingo 2) Cartoons/books for kids 3) Spending free time with French/Spanish speakers (gotta mention that I was lucky because my native language is romance and I lived in both France and Equador)

My wife is mexican and I am telugu. We can speak a bit of both now by forcing each other to converse it in it couple of days a week. Spanish Sunday, Telugu Tuesday :D.

I would find some local and pay them a little money to hang around and talk to you and correct you.

I found Duolingo OK for revising vocabulary but not much use for anything else.

If possible, play back audio at a reduced percentage. I find 90% makes everything a lot more comprehensible.

And, of course, constant practice & revision.

Get exposure to content not made for learners or beginners (native content) ASAP.

There is no one best way. Just get out there and start absorbing information. There is no one magical book, website, or resource that will make you fluent. I would avoid Rosetta Stone though(personal bias).

If you have a movie or TV series which you watched so many times that you remember most of it, then try watching it dubbed in Spanish.

Along with other suggestions I recommend the free Language Transfer podcast. It’s a quite good starting point for new languages.

Years ago, I had a French class that used "French in Action". Video lessons were a pretty new thing, then, and it had 52 half hour videos that included a running story that kept the viewer engaged. I found that worked very well for me. I was supposed to learn one college year's worth, over about 7 weeks. Instead, they had to place me into third year French when I was done with that course. (Which, to her discredit, rather pissed off the department head -- I'd taken the French in Action class elsewhere.)

"Destinos" is a similar program that came out for Spanish, a couple of years later. Actually, due to some recent events, I'm using it right now -- this time without a class/instructors -- and I'm finding it likewise useful and effective. Its story also spans the globe from Spain to Argentina to Puerto Rico and finally Mexico, so the viewer gets some exposure to a variety of accents/dialects.


The videos are free to stream, at least in the U.S. If you have any trouble, shoot me an email with "HN" included in the subject line, and I can provide you a bit more direction including possible alternatives.

Through used sales on Amazon, I picked up the textbook and workbooks in quite good condition for about $10 - $15 each. Note that there is one "edition" of the videos but two editions of the text and workbooks. There is also an "alternative" version of the text and/or workbooks. "Alternative" means its content is varied and directed more towards group activities suitable for a classroom or other group learning experience. (So I gather from my own research into what to buy.)

P.S. Also, keep watching the shows and such. A lot of language learning happens before the words; the sound of the language. That includes different languages emphasizing different frequencies of sound; your brain needs to learn to pay more attention to those frequencies and not disregard them as part of its filtering and processing.

Also, find some Spanish language/lyric music you enjoy listening to. I did that with German and French.

In addition to getting your ear used to the language's sounds and rhythm and all, it's fun when you suddenly grasp a new part of the lyrics. And it starts to plug you into the culture surrounding the language.

I don't have much of a playlist for Spanish, yet, but I hooked onto Bomba Estereo a few years ago when a world music show in my area played one of their songs that captivated me.

You can find their stuff on YouTube. I heard "Pure Love", and thereby found their album "Elegancia Tropical". Etc. Might not be your speed. But you'll find things you like.

Good luck, and enjoy!

P.P.S. Both these classes were made in significant part with grant money by foundations and had significant aspects of "public good" in their generation.

They are part of what convinces me to continue to advocate for "public education", including at the post-secondary level.

Wonderful! Appreciate the resources and will for sure check out the music :) thanks!

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