Most modern language learning advice (including this guide) centres around something called the input hypothesis, first introduced in a book by linguist Stephen Krashen.1 According to Wikipedia, the hypothesis states that “learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level.”
The best way for you to learn a language is by engaging with it meaningfully, achieving comprehension of real information. To do this, you need comprehensible input: input that is understandable but just slightly above your level. The following sub-sections will help you choose and use comprehensible input properly. If you would like to see a live demonstration of the input hypothesis, you can watch a great video demonstration here.
Use the language as much as possible
Krashen’s insight gives rise to the single most important principle in language learning:
Principle: Use the language in order to learn it
Seek out large amounts of input that are both understandable and interesting to you. That can mean reading texts, listening to podcasts, watching videos, writing stories, finding native speakers to practise with, or anything else that takes your fancy. Languages are learned when you encounter grammar and vocabulary and are prompted to recall their meaning or produce it in context.
Learning will not happen after completing textbook exercises, memorising a word or rule, or repeating after a teacher. These are more akin to learning about the language rather than how to use it. Instead, language is a skill you must practise and refine, more like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument than learning facts or rules. Without seeing how it all goes together you will not learn to use the language, nor will anything you learn through exercises stick. Later, speaking and writing in a low-pressure environment will further solidify your knowledge and let you practice the skills essential to use your language.
It takes a lot of exposure to get comfortable using the language, so try to use as much content as you can in your study. Focus on trying to understand the meaning as best you can, without giving too much concern to the details.
Use content you find interesting
One way to ensure interest is to use content similar to what you already find interesting in your native language. That is, do the things you already enjoy doing, but using your target language instead. This can be watching YouTube or TV shows, reading comic books, or even gaming. As a beginner, finding good content can be hard, especially for those learning rare languages. You may have to compromise and choose something less interesting because it is closer to your level.
Actively focus on your input
There are two broad ways of using input: Focusing on a piece of content in order to learn something new (active learning), and simply using content for enjoyment without focused study (passive learning). You will do both during your study. Content used for passive learning tends to be easier.
I recommend you actively focus on your input as much as possible. That is, when you use it, you should be actively concentrating on what you are taking in, noticing new words and thinking about the meaning of sentences. The more you do this, the better your retention will be.
That said, any practice is better than no practice. If you’re feeling unmotivated or tired, don’t feel bad for just using content passively. A large part of language learning is letting the language come to you, and that requires massive amounts of input, which the passive aspect can help with immensely.
Principle: Engage your memory
One key to effective learning is by actively using your memory during the learning process. This means, as much as possible, try to actively recall the meaning of words and forms you encounter. Don’t just passively read or instantly turn to a dictionary or textbook for answers. Flashcards are built on this principle by forcing you to attempt to recall a word’s definition before you can see the answer.
Repeat your content
Repetition is important to learning. By re-using the same piece of content, the words and forms you encounter there will be much more likely to stick in your mind. Some learners re-use content up to ten times. How much you might like to repeat depends on your own disposition. If you’re feeling bored with the content you are using, feel free not to repeat it. If you’re not yet bored and you feel that there are still aspects you didn’t fully understand, I would highly encourage you to repeat it.
Use content that is slightly difficult
The best comprehensible input is that which meets the criterion of your level +1. This will be our next principle.
Principle: Your level +1
Learning occurs when the brain struggles a bit before making a successful connection. The best way to ensure this is to choose content that is your level +1. +1 means that the content is just a little bit challenging. It is difficult, but still comprehensible.
In general, this means that you should already understand around 90–98% of your content. While you can comprehend the whole meaning, some individual parts wouldn’t be perfectly clear to you if seen in isolation. How this turns out depends on what you are studying. If you are reading a large book for extended periods of time, 98% or even 99% known vocabulary will be +1. If you’re reading something smaller and actively focusing, you might find something 90% understandable more useful. An audio recording with 100% known vocabulary can count as +1 if you struggle with aural comprehension.
Learning to read (and write)
This next section focuses on what you need to know to begin reading. Writing is a closely connected skill which I will also touch on.
Orthography is the way the letters correspond to the sounds of your language. Languages exist on a continuum, from those with a very high correspondence of letters to sound to those whose pronunciation can be difficult to guess based on spelling. Orthography should be covered by your beginner course. I advise you pay attention to it.
Learning a new script
If you are learning a language with a different writing system, I recommend you start learning it early on. A good language course will start by teaching you the new system. It is best to prioritise this. Learning a new writing system is not as hard as it seems. At first the new symbols or characters can be confusing, but with practice they will gradually become easier until it’s just like reading your native language’s script.
The best way to learn a new script is by using it. Start trying to understand the basics and move quickly into applying your knowledge by reading simple sentences and words.
For those learning a language with characters such as Chinese hanzi or Japanese kanji, learning to read and write is a much longer processes, but my advice is the same: start early and focus on it. The best way to learn characters is already well-covered elsewhere. I recommend you search online to find a good guide.
Listening well mostly comprises the ability to hear sounds and distinguish and understand words quickly.
It is helpful to practise listening throughout your learning using beginner podcasts or other audio resources. This aspect is often underemphasised in beginner courses. Here are some ways you can improve your listening:
Listen to resources that have a written transcription; read and listen first, then try to listen without the transcript
Find listening resources that are deliberately slowed down
Use listening resources that are easier than something you would typically read; this allows you to focus solely on listening without being distracted by unknown words or grammar
Spend time learning how letters correspond to sounds (orthography)
Extensive reading is a type of exercise in which you read widely and a lot. Remember the principle Your level +1. Content you use will need to already be mostly understandable to you. Use the Resources chapter to find some good tools and content to read.
Reading is probably the best way to continue to improve your understanding of vocabulary and grammar. It is a great exercise, even if your objective is to speak.2 Vocabulary size is strongly correlated with time spent reading,3 so it’s a great way to boost your vocabulary.
There is nothing objectively wrong with listening instead, however written content has everything easily accessible to be referenced, returned to, and looked up. It is also better in terms of sheer quantity of content available to learners, meaning there are more things that interest you available in the written form. Reading and listening are simply different ways of accessing the core components (vocabulary and grammar), which remain largely unchanged between the two content types. Feel free to listen to audiobooks or podcasts if you prefer.
Here are some of the things learners typically read:
- Comic books
- Graded readers
- Short stories
The most common way learners tend to get lots of language exposure is by finding a book they enjoy reading. Graded readers, which are tailored to your level, are ideal. Learners often find books for teens or even pre-teens that they enjoy enough to read. If the book is a translation of one you have already read in your native language, that will help you read a more difficult book without losing track of what is happening. Here are some books that are commonly re-read by learners:
The Harry Potter series
The Goosebumps books
The Little Prince
In addition, there are books written specifically for learners at various levels. You can find them on Amazon.
Using dictionaries and translators effectively
Dictionaries and translators are an aide that are best used to get the meaning of key unknown words.
More important than what you do is what you avoid doing. Here are four key don’ts:
Don’t simply look up new words as you encounter them. First, attempt to understand the sentence, then finish the section or text. You are unlikely to remember the meaning of a word if you immediately continue reading after looking it up.
Don’t look up uncommon words when there are plenty of common ones to learn. A large portion of the new words you encounter will only appear once, meaning there will not be the repeated exposure you need to help you learn them.
Don’t blindly trust single-word translations. Translations are imperfect. Languages use words differently. For example, the English word “exercise” has two completely different meanings, one to do with fitness and the other with study. A dictionary won’t know which one you need.
Don’t use dictionaries to learn words on their own. This can cause you to learn less common words without being aware of their proper usage.
Drill using content
Here I’m going to give you a study technique commonly used by intermediate learners to build their understanding of the language quickly. This is optional for beginners. The purpose of drilling with content is use content to focus on a key aspect of your language and develop it with the help of the broader context.
To do this, get a piece of content that you already understand 90–98% of. This will ideally have a written component, such as a text, video with subtitles, or podcast with a transcript. You will then read or listen to your content multiple times. Each time you will read more carefully and try to gain new insight.
The reason you read the content multiple times is that understanding the entirety of text, audio, or video content at once is usually too difficult. It’s impossible to remember the meaning of all new words and forms as well as comprehend the meaning of entire sentences and how they flow together to make a broader point on your first read through. The best approach is to chunk it up into manageable activities so that nothing is too difficult.
Here are the key phases:
- Skim read for broader context—lets you derive meaning from context more easily
- Brief read—read quickly without looking anything up, try to guess the meaning of key words
- Deeper read—read again, focusing on those parts that are still unclear to you
- Lookup—search for the meaning of key words and forms that are preventing you from understanding fully
- Repeat reading—as many times as necessary to understand the text
Alternate between lookup and repeat reading as much as you need. Some learners repeat the same content up to ten times.
At some point you may narrow down to a component of the language you would like to focus on improving. You can also follow-up by using the resource for a range of activities. Here are some ideas:
- Practise listening to an audio recording
- Drill some key vocabulary with flashcards
- Produce a written summary of the resource
- Read the text aloud
- Send the written summary to a native to be corrected
- Discuss it with a tutor
If by the end you can comfortably understand the content, congratulations! You are now measurably better at your target language.