A method is the combination of resources and exercises you use to learn a language. As a beginner, your goal is to build the skills you need to reach an intermediate level as outlined in What you will learn as fast as possible.
In this chapter I will provide an overview of how to build a method of your own.
The five keys of an effective method
Unfortunately, there is no specific method that stands out as the best for me to outline for you, though some are more effective than others. Instead, individual preference and interest seem to be better predictors of success.1 All of this means I can’t simply outline a good method for you to follow. You have a lot of flexibility, and how you personally respond to different exercises and resources should dictate how you adjust your method. To help get you started, this section discusses the five key elements common to all good methods. These are:
- Drill key skills
- Practise your language
I will first explain what these are and then in the following sections explain what that might look like in a “typical” method.
Having a goal and properly striving towards it is one of the most important facets of an effective method, because it will help you find the motivation to spend the hours you need to learn your language, and ensure that what you do when learning is aligned to what you want out of it.
This first component of goal-focus is to have a goal or set of goals. If you don’t, head back to the start of this guide and ensure you do.
The second component is to carefully consider what skills and vocabulary you need to achieve your goal. Work towards your goals by actively studying those skills and vocabulary you need. For example, if you want to converse face-to-face, you need to spend a large amount of time practising speaking and listening. More advice on learning the four skills will be given later here.
The final component is direct practice2. This means you spend time directly practising the thing you want to become good at. While drilling skills can be immensely beneficial, these individual skills will not automatically translate into ability with whatever situations your goal involves (such as speaking with people). This means you need to spend time directly practising the thing you want to become good at. You can then assess how your practice went and focus on the weaknesses most holding you back.
This aspect is so important, I have summarised it as a principle below:
Principle: Work towards your goals
One of the best things you can do for your progress is to focus on your goals and the skills you need to get there. Spend time considering your goals, practising key skills, attempting direct practice, then assessing what you need most to get closer to achieving them.
Balance means your learning has an appropriate balance of vocabulary, grammar, and the four skills. Spread your time out among the different aspects of your language. Learning a bit of vocabulary will aid your learning of grammar and vice versa. While you should focus on those skills most important to your goal, don’t neglect the others altogether.
This section brings us to the next principle:
Principle: Build a base and work up
Begin with the simplest and most beginner-friendly components of your language, then gradually build towards more advanced ones as you progress. Focus on the components that help you improve the most. Without a base level of understanding, it will be harder to understand and learn more advanced concepts or comprehend content that uses them.
Unless something really interests you, I recommend you avoid jumping too far ahead and learning nuanced grammar points or advanced vocabulary when there are plenty of more applicable aspects of your language to learn. You will get far more mileage from the basic stuff.
Courses are highly recommended in-part because they provide all the structure you need to build a comprehensive foundation in the language. If any aspect of your learning required for you to achieve your goals is not well-covered by your beginner course, you should seek to learn it separately.
Drill key skills
A drill is an exercise that isolates a single aspect of your language so that you can develop it separately from the others. Your method should incorporate extra drills where you have weaknesses, often caused by your course neglecting certain aspects of your language.
The key drill I recommend is using flashcards. We will discuss flashcards later here. Later, as you improve, I recommend you move to drilling with content. This is covered in the guide here. We will look at a larger list of drills later here.
Practise your language
Practising your language integrates everything you have learned together. Examples include speaking with people, writing texts, or reading stories. It is mostly absent from the beginner stages, but will gradually take a larger role as you progress. Without practice, all of the knowledge and skills you build through your study will not translate into real-world language ability.
Ensure you spend plenty of time using content—it is crucial to progressing in your language. Many intermediate learners spend up to 75% of their time practising with input. Apart from at the very beginning, avoid reducing your time below one third. Progress through input can be hard to notice in the short-term, but is invaluable long-term.
Turning everything into a method
To summarise the guide so far, we have three kinds of resources: courses, flashcards, and input, and we need to turn it into a method that is goal-focused, balanced, structured, builds key skills, and involves language practice. If you’ve followed the basic resource examples or found something similar, the method and resources should naturally map on to each other quite well. If you’ve decided to use something a bit different, don’t worry! The same basic principles apply.
From here, we will look at the factors that impact where you spend your time.
Where you spend your time
How much time you spend with each resource will change over time depending on your level, the particular resources you find, and your goals.
Your level: At the beginning, your level is generally too low to gain much benefit from content. You first need to create a base for yourself. Learners generally progress from a point of mostly just using their course with some supplementary drilling, later transitioning to spending almost all of their time with content.3
Your resources: Different courses often emphasise different skills, which will create relative weaknesses in other areas. For example, if your course uses little content and focuses on exercises, you have a greater need to supplement your learning with content.
Your goals: Different goals naturally lend themselves to different skillsets and vocabulary. If you need to communicate in the near-term, you should be drilling key skills (speaking and listening) much more and earlier. If you are learning for business, you could seek out and drill business vocabulary, or otherwise find business-related content.
To help illustrate all this more clearly, the next section shows you a typical progression, but keep in mind how you will differ.
A typical progression
Here is how you might spend your time at the start:
Spend most of your time progressing through your beginner course to learn vocabulary and grammar
Spend a bit of time on the side drilling vocabulary using flashcards
Learn the skills you need for your goal through your beginner course or a supplementary resource if necessary; focus heavily on learning the writing system if it is different
Then, as you become more comfortable with the language, you begin reading and/or listening with some beginner-centred input.
By this point you should have hit a few key milestones. You’ll probably know around 800 words, know the basic grammar, and the basics of the four skills.
From here, what you do is determined by your goals, so we need to keep it general, but here are some ideas:
Continue to build your grammar ability through your course, hunt for articles to find explanations for things you don’t understand
Do activities to build your ability with the skills you need to meet your goals; use supplemental resources if necessary
Read, watch, or listen to intermediate-level content, whatever you personally enjoy
Build your vocabulary every day; if you find them helpful, keep using flashcards to
Practise your language with a personal tutor, get feedback on your weaknesses
Begin speaking with native speakers
Do the activities in the Key Activities chapter
Begin using content intended for native speakers
Other options for activities
There are lots other ways to structure your method while following the three key requirements. For example:
You could forego courses in favour of reading lots, looking up concepts as necessary
You could drill by using a vocabulary list or writing sentences instead of flashcards4
Your source of input could be mostly practising speaking with a friend or tutor rather than books or videos
You could focus heavily on learning mostly through traditional classes
These are all valid choices for the right learner.
What does success look like?
Success in your method is entirely determined by what your goal is, so it’s hard for me to tell you what milestones you should be looking to hit. All I can do you is give you an indication of the kind of ability a good intermediate learner has.
You will know over 2,000 Words, but aim to know about 3,000 and don’t stop there
You will be fairly good at the skills most important for achieving your goals
You will be able to make it through a conversation with a native speaker, as long as they are accommodating (unless you are not interested in speaking)
You will be able to understand learner-centred content, though native-level content will still be confusing
You will have a good grasp of the language’s grammar, though you will be far from comfortable with all of it
Using other learners’ methods
I recommend you find some ideas for your method while you search for resources. There are plenty of places on the internet where people have detailed their own method. You can often find these with a simple Google search along the lines of “How to learn Japanese”. Take the useful bits of other people’s methods you find. Remember: the specifics of any method aren’t the key, so don’t stress about following someone’s method exactly.
Using others’ methods is useful for two reasons. First, they will often give good resource recommendations and advice on integrating them into your method, which I can’t give you here. Second, you will often find good advice on your specific language, such as common beginner pitfalls or useful areas to focus your attention.
Principle: Push yourself
During your study, you will inevitably find certain resources or content eventually become easy for you. The key to a good method is that you move on as soon as you begin to feel too comfortable with a resource. There will always be something more challenging for you to try. By continually challenging yourself, you will be constantly pushed to improve.
If you’re wondering how some people become conversational in a large number of languages, read the discussion in Why do some people seem to know lots of languages? ↩
It is completely possible to use content extensively from the very beginning. The trouble is you’d simply have to spend most of your time with a dictionary and grammar resource, constantly looking things up, which is neither efficient nor fun. ↩
While there are learners that do this, I don’t recommend you go without using flashcards, other drills, or courses until you are a more experienced learner and better understand what works for you. ↩