How To Learn A Language Effectively

8 Principles & 3 Activities of Effective Learners


Whether you learn through classes or you teach yourself the language, and whatever programs you use, these 8 principles will be the cornerstone for your success.

1. Dream big

Welcome to the world of language learning!

As you can imagine, knowing a new language opens up a whole new world for us. It enriches our minds, our emotions, and our souls with the new words we hear, the new script we see, the new people we meet, and the new culture we encounter. It can provide us with many chances to work, to earn money, or to have more memorable travel experiences.

I’d like to tell you two stories:

  • Long to escape from poverty and bad health, the 19 year old German Heinrich Schliemann put all the free time and energy that he had into learning English. Despite the fact that he had a bad memory, he ended up speaking English fluently in 6 months. Later he became a pioneer archeologist and excavated Hissarlik, now presumed to be the site of the ancient Troy.
  • Experiencing the depth of frustration and hopelessness, the blind and deaf Helen Keller strove to become a testament of happiness and achievement despite her situation. It took her so long to learn to communicate with other people by practicing sign language and listening to other people speaking by touching their mouth and throat and training her tongue and her mouth to speak. She came through all that and became the first woman to graduate from Radcliffe College. By the end of her life, she had traveled to 40 countries giving inspiring speeches on social issues. She also wrote 12 books and numerous articles.

I hope these stories make you believe in the ability of humans in general and of you specifically to achieve great things, especially in learning languages.

Maybe you had bad experiences with language learning or you heard that people may never become fluent in a language if they begin to learn as an adult. The truth is that everybody can learn to speak fluently a second, or third, or even fourth or fifth language, and they can learn faster than a child. All you need is a good method and determination.

2. Listen more

A child needs around ten thousand hours of listening before he/she can speak some basic phrases. You don’t need that much time listening to speak your first phrases but you may need to listen more than you are doing now.

In the four basic skills of language learning – listening, speaking, writing, reading – listening skills prepare you for the development of the other skills.

Simply put, you cannot communicate if you don’t understand others. Moreover, listening helps you to become familiar with the sound of the language, which helps you to pronounce well when speaking and reading. When you listen, you absorb the grammar patterns of the new language which will help you in speaking and writing.

Listening is also easy and enjoyable, whether listening to dialogues when you are out for your daily jog or to songs or audio books while you are walking to the office, or even listen while lying in bed with a cold. In short, it’s easy to fit listening practice into your daily routine.

3. Focus on the core knowledge

For example, the 100 most common English words account for 50 percent of all written English documents.

Another example, Spanish has from 100,000 to 200,000 words; however, some words appear frequently, while others rarely appear. Understanding the 1000 most common words in Spanish will help you to understand 76.0% of all non-fiction writing, 79.6% of all fiction writing, and 87.8% of oral speeches.

Thus, for practical purposes, it is best to learn the most common words/ phrases first.

4. Recall new knowledge after graduated-intervals

This is one simple tip that will help you learn a language (or anything) better than ever.

Research shows that when you learn something new, it will take around 4 hours before it starts to fade. If you review it within these 4 hours, it will take an extra 24 hours before it starts to fade. Review it within these 24 hours, you have an extra 4 days. Review it within these 4 days, you have an extra 10 days. Review it within these 10 days, you have 1 month.

Having a second glance at the word in the next 4 hours is a lot easier than learning it as a new word 1 week later.

Thus, keep your knowledge fresh by reviewing it within 4 hours, 1 day, 4 days, 10 days and 1 month intervals.

(Read the Tips to find out about Anki – an app which schedules a plan for reviewing words and phrases)

5. Use a good learning method

If the axe is dull, and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength; but wisdom brings success. – The Bible -

First ask yourself “what is the most effective way for me to learn a language”. Find your answer in the way that most effective polyglots (people who can speak many languages) use.

I have asked myself that question. I went through books and online materials. I tested the methods, collected the best advice and wrote it down on this website.

6. Have fun

The best learners are people who think that language learning is interesting. They really have fun when learning it.

There will be times when you are tired, disappointed, and do not want to continue. It is the thought “I learn it for fun” which will help you penetrate through the obstacles and keep you on track to achieving your goal.

Having fun learning begins with your perspective. You can use some special techniques like Harry Lorayne’s Magic Memory Aid, a technique which helps you to learn vocabulary by linking it to funny pictures/ stories, to make learning funnier. You can also watch comedies, read jokes, etc.

(For more ways to enjoy learning a language, go to the Tips)

7. Write a plan

To start making a plan, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the goal of my learning?
  • What do I have to do to achieve that goal?
  • How many hours a day can I spend?
  • How much money can I spend?
  • What program(s) should I use?
  • What technique should I use?
  • How can I measure my progress?

To write a good plan

Imagine your level at the end of the learning period

For example:

- Speak comfortably with French people wherever you stop for a rest on your own Tour De France in six months’ time.

- Fluently present your company’s product with a group of Mandarin-speaking customers when you are on assignment at your company’s office at Beijing in eight months’ time.

- Reach to a particular level at Japanese test in a year’s time.

The more vivid the goal, the more chance you will get it.

Divide your big objectives into small and measurable goals

For example, “this week: finish 6 lessons, read 50 pages, listen for 6 hours”

Keep your plan simple

Don’t do too many activities at the same time (unless you are a professional). Moreover, make learning a daily routine and repeat the same set of activities every day.

For example, if you are a beginner of French, you have 2 hours to learn it every day, and your primary course is Pimsleur, you can do this:

  • 15 minutes to revise things you learned yesterday
  • 45 minutes to learn 1 Pimsleur lesson
  • 15 minutes to learn a small section from a grammar book
  • 45 minutes to listen to Le Petit Nicolas audio book

There are days when you can simply lie down and listen to hours of Le Petit Nicolas only.

8. Improve the way you learn – I suggest using ‘PDCA’

When you have chosen your program, it is important to be consistent and work hard to get the most out of it. However, to learn more effectively, you should improve the way you learn by trying something new. I’d like to call it an experiment.

To do your experiment more effectively, use ‘PDCA’.

PDCA is a wonderful tool for improvement. PDCA is most popular in the Japanese manufacturing industry. Japanese use it to improve their product’s quality and manufacturing efficiency while lowering the cost. That is one of the reasons why Japanese products, such as Toyota’s cars, are so reliable.

PDCA stands for:

  • Have an expectation/ goal for your experiment
  • Write down what you will do to achieve the goal
  • Do what you have planned
  • Take note of what you do. Are there any differences between planned actions and the actual actions?
  • When you have done, compare the real result and the objective
  • Figure out the reason for the differences (if they exist) between the result and the objective


If your result is lower than expectation, take corrective actions. Do them through another circle of Plan – Do – Check – Act.

If your result is equal to or better than the objective, keep up the pace which you’ve done well with. Do it the same way next time to make the most out of your new approach. That’s called standardization.

After a while you may want to do some more experiments, then do Plan – Do – Check – Act again.

For example, imagine you start learning Italian. The only material that you have is a school type textbook. You use it for an hour every day for a month. You follow the textbook’s instruction which is listening to the dialogues, listing new words, memorizing the grammar and doing exercises. Today you have a Skype conversation with an Italian guy. You didn’t speak well, you could not come up with the phrases that you’ve learned in the past month. When leaving the conversation, you decide to change the way you use the textbook by trying to memorize the whole dialogue in the textbook as you think that it will help you produce whole sentences when talking. Thus, you

  • Objective: 1 week later, when having another conversation with that same person, you can produce basic sentences
  • You intend to memorize 2 dialogues from the book a day
  • With a good determination you do what you planned
  • One week later, you have another conversation with the guy. You feel more comfortable this time
  • You realize that the method works. You can produce sentences that you’ve learned
  • You decide to keep this way of learning


For the next 2 weeks you learn well but you realize that it take a lot of energy and time to memorize the whole dialogues. Some phrases are very similar (just change the subjects/objects) which wastes your time to remember them, while others seem to be not practical in real life conversation.

You hear a friend talk about phrasebooks, which give you only common phrases to learn. You think you can benefit from it. So you start over with PDCA.

“Excellence is never an accident; it is the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution.” – Aristotle -



1. Talking with native speakers

Especially useful for listening, speaking (pronunciation, intonation, tones), real life vocabulary, body language.

For most language learners, listening and speaking are the most needed skills. The best way to learn these skills is to practice them with native speakers.

How to do it?

Find a language partner who wants to exchange his native language for your native language.

Hire a tutor. While finding a serious language partner can be hard, paid tutors are often available. Learning with them is usually more effective than with language partners.

Either way, talking face to face is the best; however, if you cannot find native speakers in your area, look online for them.

Websites for language partners:,,

One of the best websites to look for online tutors:

Don’t be afraid to speak. Every language learner makes mistakes. The more you speak, the better speaker you become. The better speaker you become, the more you enjoy it.

2. Shadowing

Especially useful for pronunciation, listening, and memorizing phrases.

How to do it?

The simplest form: repeat aloud a sentence you have just heard.

A more comprehensive form:

While you can gain a lot from the simplest form of shadowing, you may look for Prof. Alexander Arguelles’ shadowing technique for a more comprehensive form.

To be more effective, do it when you are walking or jogging.

3. Using flashcards

Especially useful for memorizing vocabulary, phrases and grammar.

The traditional way of learning vocabulary is writing them down in a 2 column list, one column for the words, the other for its definition/ translation. When you want to review, you cover one column and try to guess what is in the other. This technique is not so fun. It’s also hard to manage when you have vocabulary from different books/ notebooks.

How to do it?

A flash card looks like a playing card. On one face, you write the word/ phrase you want to learn; on the other face you write its definition/ translation. You can write more than one word/ phrase on a card if you want.

All the cards are placed in card holders. You can organize them by subjects, or by what source it comes from, or by the period of time when you first encountered it.

Reviewing those cards is fun. You just randomly pick a card, look at the word/ phrase and try to guess its meaning or vice versa. It’s more effective when you review the cards in graduated intervals.

You can also use the cards to learn grammar structures.

Electronic flashcards can be created by an app called Anki (free). With this app (available on PCs and mobile devices), you can insert sounds and pictures into your card. You can carry your vocabulary with you anywhere. You can also set up reminders for reviewing those cards.

These 3 activities are, in my opinion, the most effective activities for learning a language. To see more tools, tips, and techniques which may benefit you, visit this page.




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