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7 Lessons I learnt by interviewing over 40 successful language learners in less than a year.

During the last 46 weeks I have had the pleasure of formally interviewing more than 40 successful language learners for my podcast: Actual Fluency During all these interviews I’ve learnt many lessons about how to learn languages and I thought I’d share a few of them with you today.

It was very difficult to narrow the list down. I’m sure a book could be written of the realisations I have had during the many interviews. However, I’ve done my best to pick some that are useful to most stages of the learning process and are of highest impact. The list is not in any particular order.

Are you ready? Here we go.

1. Don’t focus on the method

One of the biggest mistakes I see learners make is that they focus way too much on trying to find the ultimate method. This leads to spending a lot of time researching about methods, when in reality it doesn’t really matter how you learn at the end of the day, as long as you actually do something.

The problem often arises due to fancy method syndrome, where the new learners hear or read about how famous polyglots learn languages. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with experimenting with various methods and try the same methods as the top learners, but learning a language is ultimately about putting in study time. You’re not studying if you are researching methods all the time, and switching between different methods every week.

My immediate suggestion for this is to schedule once or twice a week where you go into research mode in your language. This includes reading about new methods, new websites and new softwares and trying them out. This way you don’t interfere with your learning habits during the week.

A good tip in conjunction with this is to try and find methods you love, instead of the most efficient method. I’ve been quite obsessed with finding ways to optimise my learning to the point where it had become quite boring for me. This led me to not put in any hours, and then the learning simply stops. I realised that I would do much better in learning if I engaged in content or medias that really excited me to put in additional hours even if they were, on paper, less efficient than alternative methods.

2. Be consistent

One of the biggest surprises on the podcast this year was when I interviewed Alex Rawlings, who’s a contributor here on the Memrise blog. As a speaker of 12+ languages I thought he would be the type who could just study for hours on end and thus achieve amazing results in a short period of time. Turns out, he advocates doing 1 hour a day in 3×20 minute segments. But he stressed the importance of doing it EVERY day.

Of course, if you intend to take a foreign language to a fluent level good enough to speak it in just a few months, then you must dedicate more than an hour a day, but Alex demonstrates that it’s not the amount of hours per day, it’s the consistency of working daily on your target language.

Also, by splitting up the session into 3 20 minute pieces, you are more focused and more concentrated, meaning you retain more of what you learnt during that time.

3. Have confidence

Confidence is invaluable in language learning. Initially you need a lot of confidence to make your mind actually understand that learning a language is possible, no matter your current situation. Many of us grow up with frustrating experiences in school and that leaves many believing that it’s simply not possible to learn a foreign language independently, or at all!

This is one of the strengths of a language learning podcast, because your brain constantly gets bombarded with the idea that it’s possible. Eventually it will believe it, but sometimes it takes some time.

Later in your learning, you need confidence to be able to practice the language. Particularly the spoken part of it. You need confidence to stand in front of a native speaker, and knowing full well you will make lots of mistakes, you do your best anyway. It’s the only way to get comfortable speaking a foreign language – practice it a lot, and make lots of mistakes along the way.

4. Don’t rush it

One of the mistakes I personally made when I started learning foreign languages independently and set up goals, was that I was using a very accomplished learner as a marker for how far I should be in a certain time period.

This is a very bad way to do it. By all means I invite you to be inspired by accomplished learners, but be very careful with trying to assume that you can just jump in and match their efficiency and timings.

Learning a language is like driving a car. Every turn you take defines your language learning profile. Hopefully when you’ve driven enough, you will know what works for you and how fast. You can’t know upfront, though they must be experienced.

This is particularly important when it comes to time. When I started Russian last year, I set the goal of fluency in 3 months. Looking back that was completely unrealistic, even if I worked hours and hours every day.

I had simply based my goal on Benny Lewis, a famous language learner. He’d perfected the fluent in 3 months strategy and totally lived and breathed it. But as I was just getting started, Benny had a 10 year head start, so naturally I couldn’t expect to be anywhere in 3 months.

During a lot of the interviews I slowly came to realise that there’s no rush to learn a language, and nor is there any reason to set unnecessarily high expectations on yourself.

Learning a language is most efficient when you truly enjoy it and you don’t worry about meeting some arbitrary deadline. Just because Benny Lewis could learn a language to conversation-level fluency in 3 months, does not mean I should be able to repeat the feat as my first language.

Who knows how I will perform when I get to my tenth language? That’s one of the reasons I enjoy the yearlyglot concept, trying to learn a language every year. That seems like a good enough time period to develop fairly high level fluency, and use the language properly.

You might enjoy even slower. Just don’t rush it.

5. Seek out like-minded people

One of the biggest benefits language learners of 2015 have, is that they can utilise technology to aid their language learning efforts. Granted, a lot of the methods are distractions as well, but the technology I’d like to emphasise in this point is simply the availability of like minded people to network with.

There is no doubt in my mind that anything we try to achieve becomes easier when in the company of others. Even if that’s just virtual. You don’t have to necessarily fly across the world for the polyglot conferences (although they are pretty awesome!) but hiring a tutor online at very reasonable prices to help you stay on track and to perfect elements of the target language is almost a necessity.

Other activities you can join that help motivation and to stay on track are language exchanges and study groups. Where you either work together on a common new foreign language, or you trade your native language for somebody else’s.

It’s not that we can’t succeed on our own, at all. It’s just that the journey is so much more enjoyable and inspired when we are part of a community, and you can definitely find this feeling among the polyglots.

6. Focus, focus, focus

One of my favourite acronyms of all time is F.O.C.U.S. Follow One Course Until Successful. I really believe this is the way to go in language learning and this was confirmed to me many times on the podcast.

In a hypothetical situation of comparing somebody learning 3 languages one at a time to somebody learning 3 at once, assuming they take equally long, the guy who focused will have enjoyed the efforts much more.

Consider this graphical representation, where each box represents as quarter of a year. We’re assuming that the time it takes to have a really useful, high level of the language is 4 quarters or 1 full year.

[A] [A] [A] [A] [B] [B] [B] [B] [C] [C] [C] [C] [A] [B] [C] [A] [B] [C] [A] [B] [C] [A] [B] [C]

The first person, who focused on one language at a time, would have been able to really speak and enjoy language A for an additional two years, and language B for an additional year! That would be a hundred times more exciting than to know a little bit in 3 languages after a year.

I know some people like to drift between languages when they hit a wall in one, or when they feel they are not improving. But that’s all psychological. It’s the brain trying to feed you the good old grass is greener” spiel, where any language you are NOT currently studying seems like the coolest language in the world.

I truly believe that only by focusing, hard, on a language and persevering when you want to quit (trust me, it gets easier!) is the way to become really fluent. To the point where you can really start enjoying the language.

Of course every learner is different, your goals might differ from mine, but even if you don’t aim for high competence, I still think focusing on one at a time is better. It’s simpler for your brain too, that you only have to worry about scheduling time in one language.

Setting weekly goals, as well as networking with motivational people and listening to inspirational podcasts are all great ways to focus and stay on track. You can also use the Memrise leader boards to compare yourself to other users and your friends. It’s a great motivation booster.

7. Have fun

My last tip is by far the most important one. Whatever you do in language learning, always make sure you are doing it because you find it interesting and/or fun. Don’t mindlessly copy other learners if you don’t enjoy the methods they are recommending. Every method has alternatives, that might appeal more or less to you.

Don’t sacrifice enjoyment over efficiency or speed either. Take your time and do everything in your own pace. If you eagerly start learning a new language, and start out way too “fast” you will most likely burn out, causing you to abandon the learning all-together. Instead try and really spread out your time and follow the advice I shared earlier from Alex Rawlings. A little bit every day.

I hope you enjoyed the 7 lessons I learnt while producing the podcast over the last year.

The Actual Fluency Podcast is currently running a crowdfunding campaign for the upcoming series. I’d appreciate the support to continue providing inspiring interviews with amazing learners.


Chris Broholm is the founder of Actual Fluency, a language learning blog and podcast. On the blog he chronicles the struggles and wins of escaping depression and laziness on the path towards becoming a true hyperpolyglot.

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