17+ Incredibly Effective Language Hacks for the Self-Taught Polyglot (or ANY Language Learner)
Want to learn a foreign language on your own? No problem! Just follow these tips…
You’re sitting in a restaurant when you overhear the group of guys sitting across from you chatting in Portuguese about the latest soccer (football) game.
You say “hi,” and then comment on their conversation in their native tongue, causing them to fall over in delighted surprise.
Or perhaps you’re waiting in an elevator when you overhear some girls giggle about you in Mandarin: “那個男生好可愛喔! (he’s cute)!”
You turn with a smile and say in fluent Mandarin, “謝謝美女們，彼此彼此(thank you so much, ladies, same to you)!” and walk out, leaving them dumbstruck.
Learning to speak more than one language is like having a superpower.
It brings you closer to people, lets you think and see the world in different ways, and keeps your brain healthy and strong.
But let’s face it, learning a new language is hard, especially in the beginning. And expensive, too, if you want to take classes, travel, and buy learning material.
Now, however, with the growth of technology and globalization, not only is foreign language learning more important than ever, it is also more possible than ever.
In fact, if you don’t have the resources to hire a teacher or take foreign language classes, or travel to a foreign country, you can STILL learn any language you want — on your own.
The following are tips and hacks you can use no matter what language you’re attempting to learn. All you need is a ready brain and a notebook or two.
Ready to get started?
1. Find content that fascinates you
Perhaps you already have this down.
Many people want to learn foreign languages because they’re already in love with some aspect of the culture that the language comes from.
Anime/manga fans want to learn Japanese, telenovela fans want to learn Spanish, kpop fans want to learn Korean, opera fans want to learn Italian…all in order to better understand their favorite arts.
But if you’re NOT learning a language for one of these reasons, find one.
Whatever your target language, find a body of content in that language that fascinates you and will keep you motivated when you hit those inevitable difficulties in the learning process.
Personally, I recommend something story-related. Humans are hard-wired to pay attention to and be ‘sucked in’ by stories, which is why movies, novels, dramas and songs work so well.
Songs have an added benefit: Music activates multiple parts of the brain, and can be particularly helpful for learning languages. So do your best to find a genre of music you enjoy listening to in your target language.
2. Shadow native speakers
No, I don’t mean follow them around the city streets like a creeper.
(If you were to find a native speaker of your target language, just go up to them boldly and start a conversation— that would be a better use of your time)
Rather, find video or audio recordings of native speakers talking about something interesting (as opposed to those boring textbook “hello, how are you?” “I am fine, how are you?” “My, the weather is lovely today” fake conversations). Then do your best to repeat aloud what you hear.
Don’t worry about what it MEANS, at first. Just do your best to mimic the sounds exactly.
Over time, it will all start making more sense, and even better — you will NOT be saddled with an ugly accent because you have been paying attention to pronunciation from the beginning.
I recommend using Youtube, because you can find native vloggers in almost every language speaking about various interesting topics…there’s bound to be one that will appeal to you.
3. Flood your brain
Even when you are not actively working on your target language, soak your brain in the language as much as possible.
For instance, sometimes when I am working on less important tasks, I might play a video or podcast in my target language in the background. And I will combine this strategy with #2 by repeating aloud what I hear.
Even if I don’t understand everything that is said, and even though I’m not paying focused attention to the content, my brain is still subconsciously absorbing the cadence and rhythm and sounds of the language.
How do I know this?
Because I often find that after soaking my brain for a day in a language, I find myself dreaming in that language — I still don’t understand many words, but I can hear voices speaking while I sleep.
And when I wake up, it’s easier to grasp new words and concepts in that language.
That’s a result of my subconscious working together with my conscious mind to understand and integrate and solidify new information.
Give it a try, you might be surprised.
4. Master the new writing system ASAP
Although it’s generally better to learn languages through interest and not blind drilling, there IS one thing you had better drill yourself on until you know it deep in your bones:
The writing system.
When you are learning a new language, you often have to learn a whole new alphabet, different from English.
Particularly when it comes to languages like Chinese, Japanese, Korean. With languages like these, DO NOT rely on English approximations of the words (eg, pinyin or Romaji).
Don’t lean on English letters as a crutch. Instead, learn the kanji, hiragana, katakana, hangul, etc., themselves.
The last thing you want to do is to use the English alphabet to learn a foreign language. That’s because trying to use one existing construct to learn something totally different will result in confusion and a bad accent.
Use any method that helps you get the new alphabet DOWN — flashcards, word lists, charts, pictures, etc.
And don’t just learn to recognize the characters and match them with their requisite sounds, challenge yourself to WRITE them. Start taking notes in the language, using its own characters and phonetics, not in English.
For example: Instead of learning that “water” is “mizu” in Japanese, learn to recognize it as “水,” pronounced “みず.”
Erase from your mind the phonetics and language rules you absorbed about English as a baby and start as fresh as you can, by getting your target language alphabet DOWN, and use that to build the foundation for your new language abilities.
Then, when you hear a new word in your target language, don’t spell it out in English. Use the new writing system you’ve learned to associate the word you heard with its accurate written form.
5. Find (and learn) the most common words first
There’s no getting around it. Whether you have a “good” or “bad” memory: When you learn a new language, you have to start by memorizing vocabulary. A lot of vocabulary.
But don’t just do this blindly. There’s a strategy to learning vocabulary that can save time and increase your learning effectiveness.
Here’s how it works:
Do a quick search on Google and find out how many words you need to understand to be native, fluent, or understandable.
Simply type: “how many words do native X speakers know?” or some variation of that, and you’ll get something like this:
- English: Average native speakers know 20K words, while highly educated speakers know 2x that.
- Chinese (Mandarin): A standard dictionary contains 50–100+K words. Knowing 2K words is considered “legally fluent.” The highest level of the HSK test requires a knowledge of about 5K words.
- Spanish: Learning the top 1000 words will help you get by in 90% of daily situations. Native speakers with higher education use about 10K words, and know 20K words passively.
Obviously, these statistics aren’t totally accurate (the reality is far more complex than that, from language to language), but it’s nice to have a kind of scoreboard to keep yourself motivated.
Now, look up “the most common words in X language” and look for a list that contains a few hundred to a few thousand words.
(The wikipedia language frequency lists are a great place to start)
Take some time to go through the list and scratch out the words you already know. Now you know what words you have left to learn.
When you feel like drilling vocabulary, get your vocab from this list.
As you study these words in conjunction with watching/reading/listening to your favorite content in your target language, you will start drawing connections between vocabulary and context, which will improve your recall.
Or else you can just learn vocabulary organically and every once in awhile check your list of “unknown words” and strike off more words that you have learned.
This will give you a sense of accomplishment and keep you motivated to keep learning.
6. Transcribe novels
If you really want to challenge yourself, hand copy a book in your target language.
And I’m not talking about picture books or comic books, either. Those things can be helpful, but if you REALLY want to learn well, and fast, get a novel.
Then, go sentence by sentence through the book, looking up every single word you don’t know until you understand the entire sentence. Do not move on until you understand the sentence.
And every day, review the sentences you learned the day before.
As you slowly move through the book, you will naturally pick up not only new vocabulary, but grammar constructions, thought processes, and idioms/commonly used phrases that will rapidly increase your comprehension of your target language.
7. Hand copy song lyrics
I learned this technique from a coworker of mine who was interested in learning Mandarin.
She liked Chinese pop music, but instead of merely listening to her favorite songs, she would take out a journal and hand copy every single lyric, looking up the words she didn’t know. Then she would translate it all into English.
The interesting thing was: when she went traveling in Asia, although she still couldn’t speak the language very well (Chinese is a tonal language, which you can’t catch when you’re listening to people sing in it), she was able to read almost everything, and communicate with locals by writing out what she wanted to say.
What can I say? It works.
8. Learn grammar rules AFTER you’ve used the above methods
When I started learning piano, my teacher waited seven years before she tossed a music theory book at me and told me to teach myself (and ask her if I had any questions).
By then, I had already mastered the basics of music — I understood, instinctively, how harmonies and time signatures worked and what certain musical terms (in Italian) meant, because I had learned those things IN CONTEXT…while I was building up my musical repertoire.
So when I discovered that these things had NAMES and FORMULAS, it was like putting labels to something I already knew and just didn’t have the words for.
Learning the circle of fifths and the different types of cadences was interesting, but not unfamiliar. I picked it up quickly and didn’t have to ask my teacher many questions.
It’s the same with foreign grammar.
One of the barriers to learning foreign languages is having to learn dry, boring grammar rules. But remember that grammar rules are there to support communication and understanding, not the other way around.
So in the beginning, learn some grammar, fine. But don’t spend most of your time memorizing or drilling grammar. Get the basics down— enough to enjoy yourself as you explore other content — and don’t worry about the rest until you’re more advanced.
In nthe meantime, immerse yourself in the sound and the culture of your target language, and enjoy the heck out of it!
9. Learn new vocab in sets
One way to speed up your vocabulary retention is to learn vocab in sets.
Michael Lewis’ lexical approach involves thinking of vocabulary as chunks, rather than memorizing words in isolation.
Lexical chunks are groups of words that are often found close together, like plural/singular forms of the same words, word genders, prepositions + main word, etc.
You can also learn collocations of words, phrases that contain frequently co-occuring words. (Examples in English: “brush your teeth,” “go to sleep,” “commit a crime”).
Learning chunks instead of individual words gives you context and helps you remember better.
10. Ouput in your target language, regularly
At some point during your language learning journey, you will have a good enough grasp of your language to communicate in it.
Push yourself to do so.
Start a youtube channel where you talk in your target language. Challenge yourself to write a daily blog in your target language. Write a song or a story in your target language once a week.
Do it publicly, and invite people to critique you. If you’re lucky, you might even find someone with similar interests who wants to learn your language — then you can edit each others’ work and improve together.
The important thing, though, is to do this consistently. For example, I recently challenged myself to write a foreign language 300-word blog post 3x/week.
I’ve been doing this for several months now, (exchanging editing skills with an English-learner) and can see a decided improvement in my writing and reading skills.
Language is meant to be used…so use it, regularly!
11. Use your 2nd language to learn your 3rd…and so on and so forth
If you already know more than one language, use your weakest language to learn your next one. That way you are working on two languages for the price of one.
So let’s say you already know some Chinese. You can use that knowledge to learn Japanese, since the two share a similar culture and writing system (to some degree).
Or if you know Spanish, use that (instead of your native English) to learn Italian, since the two are similar, coming from the same linguistic root.
Even if the languages are not very similar, you can still use this trick to learn a language. For instance:
- Don’t buy a Arabic textbook that explains things using English. Rather, order an Arabic textbook that’s written in Russian.
- Or watch a German Youtuber explain the intricacies of French.
- Or read a bilingual Bible (or any other book) in Korean and Hebrew.
Whatever you do, just don’t learn your newest language in your mother tongue. Instead, use one of your already-established foreign languages to learn.
It will stretch your brain and help you reinforce one language while absorbing the next.
12. Transcribe a movie scene/video
When your foreign language abilities have reached a certain level (or even if they haven’t) find a movie or short video without subtitles (in any language).
Then do your best to pick out and write down what you hear the actors/speakers saying, and look it up on Google Translate to see if you’re right.
Alternately, if you already DO understand the majority of what the actors are saying, keep an ear out for the words you do NOT know, and write those down in your notebook or add it to your to-learn vocab list.
Again, learning words from movies and videos is more effective than dry-memorizing random lists of vocabulary, because there’s more context.
13. Learn the culture and philosophy
The more you can understand the culture, worldview, and philosophy of the native speakers of your target language, the better you will be able to learn their language.
That’s because you will start to THINK like them, and start to realize why certain words and phrases are the way they are.
Example: if you understood the central importance of family, honor, the history of patriarchy, and relational heirarchies in Chinese culture, you’d better understand why there are so many words for, say, “aunt,” and also more easily remember what those words are.
Of course, this goes both ways — as you learn your target language you will naturally pick up the way people think in that language. And obviously not everyone in a particular language group thinks the same way.
But language does contribute to culture and vice versa, so one critical way to learn a language is to learn its related culture.
How can you learn about the culture and philosophy of your target language?
You can read books, watch documentaries, talk to natives, take a dance/cooking/martial arts class, visit the country where the language is spoken…the methods are endless!
Just pick one that appeals to you. The most important thing is that you enjoy it 😃
14. Raise the stakes
Your brain is a genius. Seriously.
It is designed to make your life as efficient as possible — to conserve energy and only focus on what is REALLY important.
(Just think about how many things you DON’T pay attention to every day so that you can pay attention to the things that really matter.
If your brain did not filter out irrelevent stimuli, you’d have a sensory processing disorder, and suffer from distractions like many children with ADHD or autism do)
So if you want to learn a foreign language, you have to convince your brain that this is REALLY important.
How do you do that?
By raising the stakes.
There are many methods for doing this: If you were taking a foreign language class, your teacher and classmates’ presence and the regular tests would keep you on track. Without them, you can still design your own tests.
For instance, I once spent a few weeks memorizing 100 new vocab words per day for 5 days, then testing myself on the 6th day (and taking a break on the 7th — your brain needs rest, too!).
Another way is to go to a place that speaks your target language, and try to get around without bringing a translator, whether in the form of a person or a device.
You may not even have to leave the country to do this. If you live in America, there are plenty of Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, Chinatowns, and other ethnic/cultural enclaves, particularly in large cities, that you can visit.
Finally, if you’re particularly daring, set your computer and cell phone and social media accounts to your target language and force yourself to navigate apps and websites using that language (be careful not to accidentally delete important things or lock yourself out, though!)
15. Learn Rap
This tip is one that I was reminded of after reading Keri Savoca’s article on learning 4 languages as an adult learner.
Keri speaks of learning a new song per day when she was studying a new language, focusing on rap music, and based on my own experience, I have to say this strategy works.
Memorizing rap helps you to really nail new vocabulary. Something about the intense rhythms and speed challenges the brain to latch onto words and never let go. Besides, rap goes so quickly, generally speaking, that you can learn a massive amount of vocabulary from a few minutes’ worth of songs.
For example: The first time I learned a foreign language song in rap, I spent about a week writing out and translating the entire song.
Half a year later, I could still recite the entire thing, from memory, faster than the original song, at the drop of a hat without practice.
That is the power of rhythm + words!
16. Use Free Technology (Duh! ;D)
If you want to take full advantage of the gifts of technology while learning your language, here are some ideas to get you started:
- Youtube is the gold standard for me. I particularly like to watch traveling vloggers to get a feel for the culture and native speakers. And also people who are teaching English, using my target language. It’s rather fascinating.
I also recommend looking up the “_Pod101/Learn_Free” youtube channels (They have lessons in Italian, Japanese, German, Arabic, even Indonesian and Hebrew…and more)
- Duolingo: a great source of online foreign language short words and phrases organized by theme and difficulty level. They have fun points and badges you can win, and will also email you reminders to practice regularly.
- HiNative: a phone/ipad app where native speakers of various languages can ask and answer questions of each other.
- Your local library: how can you pass up ebooks and books you don’t have to buy! If you are particularly interested, you can hand-copy/write out the most important content
- Other apps I’ve heard of but haven’t personally used: iTalki, Memrise, HelloTalk, Babbel, AnkiApp, LinguaLift, Mindsnacks…
17. Mix Methods
Mix methods daily, and over time as well.
For instance, when I started learning Japanese, a language I have nearly zero previous knowledge, I started by spending a week learning its two alphabet systems, and thereafter spend a few minutes every day reviewing.
I bought a novel in Japanese, and regularly spend time going sentence by sentence through the novel.
I also learn new words off a most-frequent vocab list (thanks Wikipedia!), and I listen to Japanese movies passively when I’m working on other things.
Bonus Tip: The Do’s and Dont’s of Learning a Foreign Language
The most important thing to remember when you are learning a foreign language is that it is a COMMUNICATION TOOL.
It’s not how many words you memorize or how many tests you pass that determine how fluent you are in a language — it’s how well you can get your ideas across to another person in that language.
Which means a few things:
- It’s more important to maintain interest in the language than force yourself to do something you don’t want to do.
- So don’t blindly drill vocabulary. That’s the best recipe for loss of interest and failure. Unless you’re one of those oddballs who actually enjoy blindly drilling vocabulary. (No judgment. Sometimes I find it fun too…sometimes…)
- Focus on language content that’s valuable to you. If you hate sports, then don’t waste time learning the words for “basketball, goalie, hurdles, etc.” If you like cooking, then go ahead and study the words for “julienne, potato peeler, and blanching.” Learn what is relevant to YOU.
- Set specific goals: have long term and short term goals so that you stay motivated and remind yourself frequently of WHY you are learning this language.
You Can Learn ANY Language, Anytime
Learning a new language takes time and effort, but it’s not impossible.
Remember to make it fun. If it’s not fun, you won’t do it.
And practice daily. It’s better to do 30 minutes of language learning 6 days a week than 3 hours one day a week.
Using the above tips and your favorite learning material — cookbooks, sci-finovels, romantic dramas, pop music, historical documents, or all of the above — you’ll be conversant in your new language in no time.
With regular practice and a sense of adventure, you will soon be able to communicate with anyone you want: friends, family, strangers, and more.
You will open your eyes to previously undiscovered worlds, discover parts of your personality you never knew existed, and feel a sense of achievement at successfully challenging yourself to do something difficult.
And who knows? You might just be able to surprise some people in the elevator with your new-found language skills as well!
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