The best way to learn a language

The best way to learn a language

Published: Apr 29, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver

If you want to learn a language in the best way possible according to science and experts, this post is for you.

You could say that today we live in the age of “hacks”. A hack being some trick or lesser-known technique that will allow you to get certain results without putting in the effort or work that is typically involved in getting those results.

Many people have been seduced by headlines like “Learn to speak Japanese in 15 minutes with this simple trick!”

I don’t think I need to tell you that these “get rich quick” style hacks never work. However, I think if you’re here reading this post, you at least somewhat buy into the idea of “working smarter, not harder”.

You’re probably the type of person who looks for the optimum “best” ways to do things so you can avoid wasting time and energy using techniques that have proven to be less effective.

In my view, there’s nothing wrong with this, I’m exactly the same way. 

This approach is what led to me writing this post where I’ve broken down all the individual components of learning a language and how to master each.

For each component, I’ll cover:

  • Why you need that component

  • What its “first principles” are

  • The science behind that specific skill

  • Specific learning or study techniques that you can use to master it

  • The common mistakes language learners make when learning that component

  • An expert recommendation for how you can best tackle that area

If you’re short on time, feel free to use the table of contents below to jump to any of the components that you feel you’re struggling with the most and need help with. 

However, if you want to fully understand the science behind the best way to learn languages and how to better understand language systems as a whole, please continue reading.

Table of contents:

The Post-Hack Age

The Age of Science

Scientific approach to language learning

Language as a communication system

First Principles

First Principles of language learning

Breaking a language system into components

Vocabulary

Grammar

Pronunciation

Listening

Reading

Writing

Speaking

How to apply this knowledge

the age of hacks in language learning

The “Post-hack” Age

While there are still plenty of hacks and get-rich-quick scams out there for the gullible to indulge in, I actually think we’re living in the early stage of what I call the “Post-hack” age.

Brilliant minds like Dr. Andrew Huberman, Dr. Andy Galpin, Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. David Sinclair, Dr. Matt Walker, and many others, have dedicated their careers to using Science to improve people’s lives in practical ways.

The common thread of all these great people is realizing the appetite people have for genuine self-improvement. 

People want to look better and be in better physical condition. People want to live longer. And people want to have a better quality of life while they’re still alive.

And while most of us know that magic crystals from Nepal or previously undiscovered alien technology won’t get us these results, we’re still hopeful there are solutions that are better than the ones we’ve tried in the past that didn’t work.

the age of science in language learning

The Age of Science

What separates these individuals I listed above from the new-age quacks before them is their commitment to science and scientific rigor.

These scientists are doing the hard-nosed work with their teams in labs. They’re coming up with and testing hypotheses, testing what works and doesn't work. Then they’re publishing their work to the scientific community and allowing them to challenge and replicate their findings.

This is the difference between science and pseudo-science.

Pseudoscience is when one person claims some amazing breakthrough technique can allow you to learn 15 languages in just 6 months. What’s the proof? This one person in the YouTube video who supposedly did it.

But that’s not science. Something based on science is something that’s been proven to work on hundreds or thousands of people. Something that’s been tested and proven and repeated.

An example of Hack vs. Science

Let me illustrate this with an example from the Huberman Lab podcast. 

For years people have been struggling with two things: the ability to fall asleep at night, and the mid-day caffeine crash around 2 pm.

What hacks have people tried in the past?

People commonly load up on Melatonin or sleeping pills to help them fall asleep. And most people around 2 pm go for another double shot of espresso to pick themselves back up when they’re feeling low. 

When I was in college people used to go for a product called “5-hour energy” which was thought to be the perfect cure for that late afternoon lull and would power you through the rest of the workday.

It was essentially just an insane amount of caffeine in a tiny bottle that would jolt you into hyperactivity for the next 5 hours.

What has Dr. Andrew Huberman popularized as a result of his podcast? Two things:

  1. Viewing early morning sunlight soon after waking for around 15 minutes properly sets your circadian rhythm to make you sleepy at night and feel awake in the morning.

  2. Delaying your morning caffeine intake until two hours after waking waits until your Cortisol levels have gone down to their natural levels before the caffeine takes effect, which results in no mid-day caffeine crash later.

In his podcast episodes here you can see how he details the biological mechanisms that cause both of these phenomena, as well as links to numerous studies that have replicated these results.

No hacks. No gimmicks. Just proven science. That’s why people love him, and that’s why he has over 3 million subscribers on YouTube.

The moral of this story is people want results, but they want proven, effective results that will last.

Taking a scientific approach to learning languages

In order to give you the “best” way to learn a language, we have to first discuss our understanding of what a language is and how we view it.

We commonly throw around terms like “speak a language” or “know a language”, but what does it mean when I say “I speak English”, or “I know some Vietnamese”?

One of the things I used to find funny when I was living in the Netherlands was listening to children speak Dutch. I was finding Dutch difficult to learn at the time, and when I heard small children on the street speaking Dutch I would think “How can they do it and I can’t?!”

It was just so amusing to me that toddlers were effortlessly doing something I couldn’t.

Essentially though, when you think about speaking a language, it’s not actually as complex as you might think. 

It comes down to: 

  1. Knowing which words to say

  2. Knowing how to move your mouth to say the words correctly

  3. Knowing which order to put the words in so that people understand your meaning

Therefore, it’s helpful when learning a language to think of it as a communication system. Once we think of it as a system, we can break the system down to its individual parts, and learn each part in the most appropriate way. 

Looking at language as a communication system

So going forward, let’s analyze a language as a system of communication consisting of sounds, words, and grammar rules. 

Sounds are the building blocks of every spoken language, while words are the units of meaning that we combine to form sentences. Grammar rules then provide the structure that controls how we combine these words in a sentence to communicate our message or meaning.

first principles of learning a language

The “First Principles” concept from Physics

"First principles" is a term used in science and engineering, especially in Physics, that refers to the fundamental building blocks or basic principles that everything else in the natural world is built upon.

For example, in physics, the first principles might be things like mass, energy, and the laws of motion and thermodynamics. By understanding these fundamental concepts, scientists can build more complex models and theories to explain how the rest of the physical world works.

Elon Musk made first principles famous with his application to building rockets with SpaceX. 

The story goes that when Elon first created SpaceX, he actually wanted to buy existing rockets from either Russia or NASA before building his own. But the cost was far too expensive. 

Using the first principles approach, he looked at all of the individual components that went into building a rocket and realized that building them himself would be far cheaper. Fast forward to 2023, and SpaceX is now the most dominant company in the world of space rocketry and travel.

Sticking with our scientific approach to language learning, we’re going to use the first principles concept to break down a language into its individual components that we can then use to reach language fluency by mastering each component individually.

The First Principles of learning a language

Just like in science, there are fundamental building blocks, or first principles, in language learning that we need to understand and master before we can become fluent in a new language. 

These first principles include:

Sounds - Learning how to pronounce individual sounds in a language, such as "a" or "e" in English or "rr" or "ñ" in Spanish.

Vocabulary - Building up a foundation of words in the new language, so that we can understand and use these words in sentences.

Grammar - Understanding the rules of how words are combined to form sentences, such as word order or verb conjugation.

By mastering these first principles, as language learners we can then build on this foundation and start to communicate more effectively in our new language. 

Just like in science, where scientists build on the first principles to create more complex models, we can use these building blocks to learn more complex aspects of the language, such as idioms or more advanced grammar rules.

The first principles of physical speaking

When it comes to physically speaking a language, many people think they can never sound like a native speaker. But again, breaking physical speaking down to its first principles, we see that it actually comes down to just a few components.

Articulation - This refers to how we shape our lips, tongue, and other speech organs to produce different sounds.

Pronunciation - This involves understanding how to produce the sounds of the language accurately, where to put the stress on a word, and how to put those sounds together in words and sentences.

Intonation - This refers to the rise and fall of the voice when speaking, which can convey meaning or emotion in a language. In language learning, it's important to learn the correct intonation patterns in the new language in order to sound natural and be understood.

All it takes to speak like a native speaker is to move your lips like a native speaker, make the same shapes with your tongue as a native speaker, and copy their word stress and intonation.

I’m not saying it’s easy, but when we start to break it down scientifically, we start to see that it’s certainly doable. It’s not just “a foreign language” anymore, rather just making sounds and saying words in the right order.

Breaking a language system down into individual components

Before we dive into each of the components of language and how to master them, let me first give an overview of each before we get into the specifics. If you’re having more trouble with one of the components than another, feel free to skip through the rest of this post to the section that you need help with. 

The individual components of speaking a language fluently are:

  • Vocabulary: knowing a sufficient number of words to express your thoughts and understand the language when spoken or written.

  • Grammar: understanding the structure of sentences, verb conjugations, tenses, and other rules that organize the language.

  • Pronunciation: being able to produce sounds and intonation patterns that are typical for the language so that you can be understood by native speakers.

  • Listening comprehension: understanding spoken language at a normal conversational speed, including colloquialisms and nuances.

  • Reading comprehension: being able to read and understand written language, including complex texts, without assistance.

  • Writing: being able to write coherent and grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs that express your thoughts accurately in the language.

  • Speaking: being able to express yourself fluently and coherently in the language, in a range of situations, with appropriate vocabulary and grammar, without much stopping to search for words or how to say things.

In the rest of this post, I’ll go through each of the components one by one. I’ll explain or provide:

  • Why you need that component

  • What its first principles are

  • The science behind that specific skill

  • Specific learning or study techniques that you can use to master it

  • The common mistakes language learners make when learning that component

  • An expert recommendation for how you can best tackle that area

best way to learn vocabulary

Vocabulary

Vocabulary is the most fundamental component of language learning and involves building a foundation of words in the new language.

First principles

Memory

Learning new vocabulary requires memorizing the meaning of each vocabulary word and how it is used in context. This involves forming new connections in the brain and strengthening existing neural pathways.

Contextualization

Vocabulary is best learned in context, which means understanding how the word is used in sentences and conversations. This helps you remember the word more easily and use it correctly when speaking.

Practice

Consistent practice is key to building vocabulary. This involves not only memorizing words but also using them actively in speech and writing.

Scientific explanation

Vocabulary is the backbone of any language, and it takes significant investments of time and effort to acquire it. In this section, we’ll explore the complex cognitive and neural processes involved in learning new vocabulary when learning a foreign language.

Cognition and Vocabulary Learning

Cognition is the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. When it comes to learning new vocabulary, several cognitive processes are involved. One of the most crucial cognitive processes is attention. To learn new vocabulary, you must be attentive and actively focus on the new words you are trying to acquire. This process requires selective attention, which involves filtering out distractions and focusing on the task at hand.

Another essential cognitive process involved in vocabulary learning is memory. Learning new vocabulary requires the encoding of new information into memory. This process involves taking in new information, storing it, and then retrieving it when needed. Long-term memory is particularly important for vocabulary learning as it allows you to store and retrieve words you have learned over an extended period.

Additionally, the process of language acquisition is aided by cognitive processes such as inference, prediction, and generalization. These processes help you make connections between new vocabulary and what you already know. For example, you might infer the meaning of a new word by looking at the context it is used in.

Neural Processes in Vocabulary Learning

Vocabulary learning also involves a range of neural processes. One of the most critical neural processes is neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. When learning new vocabulary, the brain forms new neural connections between a word and its meaning.

Another essential neural process involved in vocabulary learning is working memory. Working memory is a cognitive process that involves holding information in your mind for a short time. When learning new vocabulary, working memory is used to keep the new words in mind while trying to build connections between the words and their meanings.

Overall, language learning is supported by several neural networks, including the frontal lobe, the temporal lobe, and the parietal lobe. These neural networks work together to process and produce language, including new vocabulary acquisition.

The best way to learn new vocabulary

Learn words in context

Rather than simply memorizing lists of words with translations in your native language, learn new vocabulary in context by reading or listening to authentic materials in the new language. 

This could include books, articles, podcasts, or videos. At the minimum, you should at least have the definition of the word in your target language, including an example of the word in a sentence, rather than just the word and a translation in your native language.

Use flashcards

Flashcards are the most useful tool for memorizing new vocabulary. Try creating flashcards with the new word on one side and its definition and an example sentence on the other. Apps like Quizlet are a great free resource for this.

Practice using new words in conversation

One of the best ways to solidify new vocabulary is to use it actively in conversation. Try finding a language exchange partner or tutor to practice speaking with, and make a conscious effort to use new words in your conversations.

If the new words you learn aren’t actually relevant to you, it will be hard to memorize them long-term. When you practice speaking the words in real life, this makes the words relevant to you. 

When you try to speak a word but can’t remember it, this triggers metaphorical “alarm bells” in your brain that this word is important and it needs to spend the resources to memorize it.

Combining the three crucial elements of introducing yourself to new vocabulary words, spending time studying them with flashcards, and then practicing speaking them out loud is a killer combination that will allow you to learn a large number of new words in a short amount of time.

(I should add that this is exactly the approach that we take in our online language courses, by providing you with new words and examples in context, pre-made flashcards, and at least one hour of speaking practice with dedicated discussion questions for those words each week. So I practice what I preach)

By approaching vocabulary learning from a first principles perspective, you can understand the underlying processes involved in memorizing and using new words.

Common mistakes

One common mistake that learners make when it comes to vocabulary is focusing too much on memorization and not enough on usage. 

Simply memorizing a list of words does not necessarily help you to use those words in context. As I detail in this blog post, it’s totally separate parts of the brain that controls each. To avoid this mistake, make sure you find a way to practice speaking your vocabulary words.

Another mistake is not reviewing or practicing vocabulary enough, which can result in forgetting previously learned words over time. Make sure to make time to review words you’ve already learned, not just new words. Setting a scheduled review time for the flashcards you’re studying is a great way to stay on track with reviews.

Expert recommendation

Dr. Paul Nation, a renowned expert on vocabulary acquisition, recommends focusing on high-frequency words and phrases. He also suggests using tools like flashcards, spaced repetition software, and context-based learning to help memorize and retain new vocabulary.

the best way to learn grammar

Grammar

Grammar is another fundamental component of language learning and involves understanding the rules and structures that govern how words are used in a language.

First principles

Patterns

Grammar involves patterns of usage and structure, which can be broken down into smaller components and rules.

Meaning

Understanding grammar requires an understanding of the meaning and function of different words and phrases in the language in communicating what you mean.

Practice

Consistent practice is necessary to internalize and apply grammar rules effectively in speech and writing.

Scientific explanation

It may not be your favorite part of language learning, but grammar is an essential component of mastering a foreign language. 

Grammar refers to the rules and conventions that govern the structure and usage of language. It involves the study of the different parts of speech, sentence structure, verb tense, and syntax, among others. However, learning grammar is a complex process that involves both cognitive and neural mechanisms.

Cognitively, learning grammar requires a range of skills such as memory, attention, and problem-solving. Memory is important because grammar involves memorizing rules and patterns, while attention is necessary to identify and apply those rules in different contexts. Problem-solving skills are also needed to recognize and resolve any inconsistencies or conflicts in grammar rules.

Neurally, learning grammar engages various regions of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, the temporal lobe, and the basal ganglia. 

The prefrontal cortex, located in the frontal lobe, plays a critical role in working memory, attention, and decision-making, which are essential for grammar learning. The temporal lobe, on the other hand, is responsible for language processing, including understanding and producing grammar. The basal ganglia, a group of structures located in the center of the brain, are involved in the acquisition and consolidation of new skills, including grammar learning.

Moreover, learning grammar in a foreign language requires exposure to rich and varied linguistic input. This exposure helps the brain to create new neural connections and strengthen existing ones, allowing you to recognize patterns and generalize rules. 

Further, you must also engage in deliberate practice to consolidate and commit your grammar skills to muscle memory, which involves practicing the rules in different contexts, receiving feedback, and correcting errors.

The best way to learn grammar

Study grammar rules systematically

Start with basic grammar rules and structures, and gradually build upon them as you gain comfort and mastery. There are many online resources and textbooks available to help guide you through the grammar learning process.

Start at the most basic level where you feel comfortable with what you’re learning and can make progress. The key at this level is making progress, so the worst thing you can do is start at too advanced of a level where you stay stuck.

Start small and realistic and then work your way up gradually. You can start with a basic grammar ebook from Amazon, or maybe a basic online course that helps you build some momentum with the fundamentals. 

Again, the key here is to start introducing yourself to this specific grammar system, so you can continue to diver deeper the more you learn.  It’s like learning to crawl before you can walk.

Practice using grammar in context

As with vocabulary, it's important to practice using grammar rules in context. Try reading and listening to authentic materials in the new language, and practice using the new grammar rules in your own speech and writing.

The same applies to vocabulary, if you don’t actually use the new grammar systems you learn, they won’t be relevant to you, and therefore your brain won’t invest the calories and energy into learning them.

Writing is one of the best ways to learn grammar. Writing forces you to think about grammar and how you can use it to communicate meaning. The advantage it has over speaking is that you naturally have time to think about the grammar structures, and you can visualize words and sentences in relation to other words and sentences in your text.

Investing some time into writing even basic texts can help you to learn grammar faster and more effectively. See the writing section below for more in-depth instructions.

Seek feedback and correction

Get feedback from native speakers or language teachers on your use of grammar, and take note of any corrections or suggestions for improvement. (Please, literally take note. Write down feedback and corrections so you can improve these later.) 

This will help you identify areas where you need to focus your practice and improve your overall understanding of the language.

By approaching grammar learning from a first principles perspective, you can understand the underlying processes involved in recognizing and applying grammar rules. By utilizing practical learning and study techniques, you can build a strong foundation of grammar knowledge to support your overall language learning progress for the long term.

Common mistakes

One common mistake that learners make when it comes to grammar is focusing too much on rules and not enough on usage. Simply memorizing grammar rules does not necessarily help learners to use those rules correctly in context. 

Another mistake is not practicing grammar enough, which can result in making the same mistakes repeatedly, and may result in you struggling with understanding the nuances and exceptions of certain grammar rules. 

To avoid these common mistakes, you should focus on using grammar in context and practice regularly, preferably with an experienced teacher who can keep you aware of the exceptions and nuances of the rules you are learning.

(Once again, we practice what we preach here. In each of our lessons, we provide you with a Guided and Free practice exercise that explains and reinforces the grammar rules and topics for that lesson. We then have specially designed discussion questions meant to encourage you to use those grammar rules in real-world, relevant situations.)

Expert recommendation

​​Betty Azar, a respected authority on English grammar, recommends starting with the basics and working your way up to more advanced concepts. She also emphasizes the importance of practice and repetition.

best way to learn pronunciation

Pronunciation

Pronunciation is a crucial component of language learning, as it enables effective communication with others in the target language by ensuring that people can actually understand the words you’re speaking.

First principles

Sounds

Pronunciation involves recognizing and reproducing the sounds used in your target language, including vowels, consonants, word stress, and intonation patterns.

Mouth movements

Producing accurate sounds requires control over the movements of the mouth, tongue, lips, and the way the air moves in your throat.

Listening

Developing good pronunciation also requires careful listening to native speakers and attention to the subtle nuances of their speech.

Scientific explanation

Pronunciation is a complex cognitive process that involves a combination of physical and cognitive abilities. The physical component of pronunciation involves the careful coordination of mouth movements to produce accurate sounds. This requires a high degree of muscle control and coordination, as well as an understanding of the different parts of the mouth that are used to produce different sounds.

In addition to the physical aspect of pronunciation, there is also a cognitive component. This involves the ability to recognize and distinguish between different sounds and intonation patterns in your target language. This requires a deep understanding of the phonetic system of the language, as well as the ability to perceive subtle differences in sound.

One of the key challenges of pronunciation is the fact that different languages have different phonetic systems, meaning that sounds that are common in one language may not exist in another. This can make it difficult for you to produce accurate sounds, as you may not have the muscle memory or cognitive understanding of the sounds in your target language.

Another challenge is the fact that the same sound can be produced in different ways depending on its position within a word or sentence. For example, the English "r" sound can be pronounced differently depending on whether it appears at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. This means that when learning English, you would need to not only understand the individual sounds of the language but also how they interact with each other.

Despite the challenges, improving pronunciation is an important aspect of language learning. Accurate pronunciation can help you to communicate more effectively with native speakers, and can also improve your overall language proficiency. To improve pronunciation, learners need to focus on both the physical and cognitive aspects of the process. This may involve practicing mouth movements and sounds, as well as developing a deep understanding of the phonetic system of the language.

The best way to improve your pronunciation

Listen and mimic

Listen closely to native speakers of your target language and mimic their pronunciation as closely as possible. Pay attention to the way they move their mouth and the nuances of their intonation and stress patterns. Sometimes you can use tricks like putting YouTube videos on half-speed to be able to see a speaker’s mouth movement in more detail.

Use speech recognition tools

There are many apps and tools available that can help you practice and improve your pronunciation. These tools use speech recognition technology to provide feedback on the accuracy of your pronunciation.

Record and compare

Record yourself speaking your target language and compare your pronunciation to that of native speakers. This can help you identify areas where you need to improve and focus your practice on errors that you wouldn’t normally notice.

Language exchange or tutors

One of the best ways to improve pronunciation quickly is to get a tutor or coach. Nothing compares to having someone who’s experienced in listening for and catching errors that they can immediately correct. 

This correction is one of the most important factors in engaging the neuroplasticity that’s needed for adult language learning. If you can’t get a language tutor, doing a language exchange with a native speaker can be helpful, but make sure you ask them to correct your mistakes when they hear them.

Common mistakes

One common mistake that learners make when it comes to pronunciation is not paying enough attention to the sounds of the language they are learning. Another mistake is not practicing pronunciation enough, which can result in developing bad pronunciation habits that are difficult to correct later on. 

Additionally, learners may struggle with producing sounds that do not exist in their native language. To avoid these common mistakes, you should focus on listening to and imitating native speakers, practice pronunciation regularly, and seek out feedback from native speakers or language instructors.

(This is why we insist on not only having certified teachers with experience but also that they are native speakers of the language they are teaching. So much of language learning is subconscious and comes from just listening and noticing patterns and subtleties from your instructor. This is something that you just can’t get with non-native speakers of a language.)

Expert recommendation

Adrian Underhill, an expert in English pronunciation, recommends using the phonemic chart to learn the individual sounds of a language. He also suggests practicing intonation and stress patterns to improve overall pronunciation.

best way to improve listening in a foreign language

Listening

Listening is a crucial component of language learning, as it enables you to understand and communicate with native speakers in your target language.

First principles

Sounds

Effective listening requires the ability to recognize and distinguish between different sounds used in the target language, including vowels, consonants, and intonation patterns. Intonation might be more of a subtlety in Western languages, but in Asian languages, it’s an absolute necessity that is core to the meaning of words.

Context 

Understanding the context in which language is used is essential for effective listening. This includes recognizing cultural nuances, social cues, and other factors that may impact the meaning of spoken language.

Practice

Listening skills can be improved through regular practice and exposure to a variety of listening materials, such as podcasts, movies, and music in the target language.

Scientific explanation

Listening is a complex neurological process that involves the recognition and interpretation of sounds, as well as the ability to understand the meaning of spoken language in context. It is an essential skill that allows us to communicate effectively, learn new information, and navigate the world around us.

The process of listening involves several different neurological processes that work together seamlessly to allow us to understand spoken language. The first step in this process is the recognition of sound waves by the ear. These sound waves are then converted into electrical impulses and transmitted to the brain through the auditory nerve.

Once the electrical impulses reach the brain, they are processed by several different regions, including the primary auditory cortex, the temporal lobes, and the prefrontal cortex. The primary auditory cortex is responsible for processing basic sound features, such as pitch and volume. The temporal lobes are responsible for processing more complex sound features, such as speech sounds and music. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-level cognitive processes, such as attention, memory, and language processing.

One of the key challenges in listening is the ability to understand the meaning of spoken language in context. This requires a deep understanding of the semantic and syntactic relationships between words, as well as the ability to use prior knowledge and experience to make sense of new information. For example, when listening to a complex lecture, the listener may need to infer the meaning of unfamiliar terms based on the context in which they are used.

The best way to learn to listen in a foreign language

Learning to listen in a foreign language can be a challenging task, but there are several effective ways to develop this skill. Based on the science of listening detailed above, the following strategies have been found to be most effective:

Develop familiarity with the sounds of the language

One of the key challenges in listening to a foreign language is the unfamiliarity with the sounds and accents of the language. It is essential to develop familiarity with the sounds of the language through listening to audio recordings (i.e. podcasts or audiobooks), watching movies, or engaging in conversations with native speakers.

Focus on phonetics

Just like with reading, phonetics is an essential aspect of listening. Focusing on the phonetic features of the language, such as intonation, stress, and rhythm, can help you to recognize and understand spoken language more easily and effectively.

Practice active listening

Active listening involves engaging in the listening process actively by focusing on the speaker's message and paying close attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues. By actively listening to spoken language, you can improve their comprehension and retention of the language.

Use context clues

Context clues, such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, can provide valuable information about the speaker's intended meaning. By paying close attention to these clues, you can better understand the context in which the language is being used and improve your overall comprehension.

Practical learning/study techniques

Listen actively - Active listening involves paying close attention to what is being said and actively engaging with the language. This includes asking questions, taking notes, and summarizing what has been said.

This doesn’t only have to be in language courses. You can also practice this when watching movies or listening to podcasts, by actively taking notes and summarizing what you hear.

Practice with a partner - Practicing listening skills with a language partner can provide opportunities for feedback and discussion, as well as exposure to different accents and speaking styles. If not engaging in live language courses, having a language buddy can help with this tremendously.

Expose yourself to a variety of materials - Regularly listening to a variety of materials, such as audiobooks, podcasts, movies, and music in the target language, can improve listening skills and deepen understanding of the language and culture.

By understanding the first principles of listening, you can approach the learning process in a systematic and effective way. By utilizing practical learning and study techniques, you can improve your listening skills and enhance your ability to understand and communicate effectively in your target language.

Common mistakes

One common mistake that learners make when it comes to listening is not practicing enough. Another mistake is not actively listening, meaning that learners may passively listen to audio but not fully engage with the content. 

Additionally, learners may struggle with understanding different accents or speaking styles. To avoid these common mistakes, learners should practice listening regularly, actively engage with the audio they are listening to, and seek out exposure to different accents and speaking styles.

(To be totally honest, this is something I could work on improving at the Weaver School. There’s very little now in the way of dedicated listening practice, and as you just read it is certainly important. Writing this post gives me food for thought on how I can work on improving this in the context of our courses.)

Expert recommendation

Dr. John Field, a leading expert in second-language listening, recommends using authentic materials like podcasts, videos, and news broadcasts to improve listening skills. He also stresses the importance of active listening, which involves paying close attention and engaging with the material.

best way to learn reading

Reading

Reading is a critical component of language learning, as it allows learners to access written materials in the target language and deepen their understanding of the language and culture. Also, consistent reading is one of the most important factors in improving speaking ability.

First principles

Vocabulary

A strong vocabulary is essential for effective reading in a foreign language, as it enables you to recognize and understand words and phrases in context.

Grammar

Understanding the grammar rules of the target language is essential for effective reading, as it provides you with the tools needed to understand the structure and meaning of written language.

Context

Understanding the context in which written language is used is important for effective reading, as it allows you to recognize cultural nuances and other factors that may impact the meaning of written language.

Scientific explanation

Reading is a complex cognitive process that involves the recognition and interpretation of written language. It is a fundamental skill that allows us to access information, learn new things, and communicate with others. The process of reading involves several different cognitive processes that work together seamlessly to allow us to understand the meaning of words and phrases in context.

The first step in reading is the recognition of written language. This involves the ability to recognize individual letters and their combinations, also known as graphemes, and to link them with specific sounds or phonemes. This process is called decoding, and it is the foundation of reading fluency.

Once a word has been decoded, the reader must then interpret its meaning in context. This involves a complex interplay of cognitive processes, including semantic processing, syntactic processing, and pragmatic processing. Semantic processing involves understanding the meaning of individual words, while syntactic processing involves understanding the grammar and structure of sentences. Pragmatic processing involves understanding the social and cultural context in which language is used.

One of the key challenges in reading is the ability to understand the meaning of words and phrases in context. This requires a deep understanding of the semantic and syntactic relationships between words, as well as the ability to use prior knowledge and experience to make sense of new information. For example, when reading a complex text, the reader may need to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words based on the context in which they are used.

Another important aspect of reading is the ability to engage in metacognitive processes, such as monitoring comprehension and adjusting reading strategies as needed. Skilled readers are able to use a range of strategies, such as summarizing, questioning, and predicting, to enhance their understanding of a text and to identify areas where they may need additional support.

The best way to learn to read in foreign languages

Learning to read in a foreign language can be a challenging task, but there are several effective ways to develop this skill. Based on the science of reading detailed above, the following strategies have been found to be most effective:

Focus on phonics 

Phonics instruction involves teaching the relationship between letters and sounds. This is an essential step in learning to read in any language, as it helps you to decode unfamiliar words. By focusing on phonics, you can develop your ability to recognize individual letters and their combinations, and to link them with specific sounds or phonemes.

Use context clues

Context clues are words or phrases surrounding an unknown word that provide hints about its meaning. In foreign language reading, context clues can be especially helpful for interpreting unfamiliar vocabulary. By paying close attention to the surrounding text, you can use your knowledge of the language and your own background knowledge to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Read extensively

The more you read in a foreign language, the more your reading proficiency will improve. Extensive reading involves reading large amounts of text for enjoyment, rather than focusing on comprehension. By engaging in extensive reading, you can improve their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills naturally without specifically trying.

It’s also important to make sure you challenge yourself when reading. Make sure you’re consistently increasing the difficulty level of the texts you’re reading. This will ensure that you’re learning new vocabulary and grammatical structures.

Practical learning/study techniques

Build vocabulary

To improve reading skills, it is important to build a strong vocabulary in your target language. This can be done through regular reading and the use of vocabulary-building tools such as flashcards, note-taking, and word lists.

Focus on grammar

Understanding the grammar rules of the target language is essential for effective reading. You can improve your grammar skills through targeted study and practice exercises to go along with your reading as you identify your weaknesses.

Read regularly

Regular exposure to a variety of reading materials, such as news articles, books, and blogs in your target language, can improve reading skills and deepen your understanding of the language and culture.

By understanding the first principles of reading, you can approach the learning process in a systematic and effective way. By utilizing practical learning and study techniques, you can improve your reading skills and enhance your ability to understand and communicate effectively in the target language.

Common mistakes

One common mistake that learners make when it comes to reading is not practicing enough. Another mistake is not actively reading, meaning that learners may passively read text but don't fully engage with the content. 

Additionally, learners may struggle with understanding unfamiliar vocabulary or sentence structures. To avoid these common mistakes, you should practice reading regularly, actively engage with the text you are reading, and use context clues to help understand unfamiliar vocabulary or sentence structures.

Using effective note-taking techniques such as the Cornell method or another you’re more comfortable with can be a solution to keep you active in the reading process.

Expert recommendation

Dr. Stephen Krashen, a renowned expert on second language acquisition, recommends extensive reading as a way to improve reading skills. He suggests reading materials that are slightly above your current reading level to challenge yourself and improve overall comprehension.

best way to learn writing in a foreign language

Writing

Writing is a crucial component of language learning, as it allows you to express yourself in written form and develop your ability to communicate effectively in your target language.

First principles

Vocabulary

A strong vocabulary is essential for effective writing in a foreign language, as it allows you to choose the right words to communicate your intended message.

Grammar

Understanding the grammar rules of the target language is essential for effective writing, as it provides you with the tools needed to create clear and coherent written communication.

Structure

Understanding the structure and organization of written language is important for effective writing, as it enables you to create cohesive and effective written communication.

Scientific explanation

Writing requires a complex cognitive process that involves the ability to generate ideas, organize them, and select the most appropriate ones to communicate your meaning. This requires a combination of executive brain functions, such as working memory, attention, and decision-making, which are primarily associated with the prefrontal cortex and its connections with other brain regions, such as the parietal and temporal lobes.

Once the ideas are selected, a writer needs to translate them into written language, which requires the activation of language processing and production areas, such as Broca's and Wernicke's areas, which are located in the left hemisphere of the brain. These regions are responsible for generating and processing language, respectively, and are connected through a network of white matter tracts, such as the arcuate fasciculus.

Choosing appropriate vocabulary and grammar involves accessing semantic and syntactic knowledge, which are stored in different brain regions. Semantic knowledge, which refers to the meaning of words and concepts, is mainly represented in the temporal lobes, while syntactic knowledge, which refers to the rules governing the structure of language, is primarily represented in the left inferior frontal gyrus.

Finally, creating cohesive and effective written communication involves integrating all these processes into a coherent and meaningful text. This requires the activation of several brain regions, such as the anterior cingulate cortex and the default mode network, which are involved in monitoring and regulating attention and cognitive control during writing tasks.

Overall, the neural pathways involved in writing are highly interconnected and involve multiple brain regions, which work in a coordinated manner to generate, process, and produce written language.

As you practice writing in your target language, your brain will develop these neural pathways needed to process written language and create effective written communication independently, and even creatively.

how to improve writing in a new language

The best way to learn how to write in a foreign language

Start with vocabulary

Writing requires a good working vocabulary in the language you want to write in. You can start small with basic vocabulary that you learn in the early stages, but the rewards won’t be quite as fulfilling. I would advise waiting until you have enough vocabulary to be able to express things you actually want to say or think.

Focus on grammar

Master the basics like verb tenses, subject-verb agreement, word order, and sentence structure. By learning these building blocks, the rest will fall into place and come much more easily.

Follow frameworks

When I learned how to write in English class, we were given countless frameworks and guides for how to write effectively. The same is necessary when writing in a foreign language. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when many smart people have come before you and developed countless frameworks and strategies for effective written communication.

Three writing frameworks to start with

The Five-Paragraph Essay Framework

The Five-Paragraph Essay Framework is a simple and widely-used structure for writing essays that can be helpful for language learners who are just beginning to write in a foreign language. This framework consists of an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each body paragraph should focus on a separate point that supports the thesis statement.

Using this framework can be beneficial for language learners for several reasons. To start with, it provides a clear and structured approach to writing an essay, making it easier to organize your ideas and arguments. This can be especially helpful for language learners who may struggle with organizing their thoughts and ideas in a foreign language.

Secondly, the Five-Paragraph Essay Framework can be used as a template that can be adapted and customized to suit different writing tasks. Once you understand the basic structure, you can modify it to fit the requirements of different writing assignments, such as persuasive essays or research papers.

Lastly, this framework can also help you improve your grammar and vocabulary. By focusing on a few key points in each body paragraph, you can practice using specific vocabulary and grammar structures related to those points. This can help you develop a deeper understanding of the language and improve your overall writing skills.

The Story Arc Framework

The Story Arc Framework is a structure that can be used for writing fiction or creative non-fiction. It consists of three main parts: the beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, the characters and setting are introduced. In the middle, the conflict and rising action are presented, and in the end, the conflict is resolved and a conclusion is provided.

Using The Story Arc Framework can be particularly helpful for language learners who are interested in developing their creative writing skills in a foreign language. This framework provides a clear structure for organizing your ideas and developing a cohesive narrative.

One of the benefits of using The Story Arc Framework is that it helps you practice using language in context. By focusing on the characters and setting in the beginning, you can practice describing people and places and using adjectives and adverbs to add detail and create a vivid image in the reader's mind.

In the middle of the story, you can practice using language to create tension and suspense by describing the conflict and rising action. This can involve using descriptive language to create mood and tone and using verbs and adjectives to create action and drama.

Finally, at the end of the story, you can practice using language to provide a resolution to the conflict and create a satisfying conclusion. This can involve using language to wrap up loose ends and tie the story together, as well as using descriptive language to evoke emotion and leave a lasting impression on the reader.

The Argumentative Essay Framework

The Argumentative Essay Framework is a structure used for writing essays that presents an argument or persuades the reader to take a certain position. It consists of an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion. 

The introduction should provide background information on the topic and present a clear thesis statement. The body paragraphs should present evidence to support the argument, and the conclusion should summarize the main points and restate the thesis statement.

Using The Argumentative Essay Framework can be helpful for language learners who want to improve their persuasive writing skills in a foreign language. This framework provides a clear and structured approach to presenting arguments and evidence, making it easier for you to organize their thoughts and ideas.

One of the benefits of using The Argumentative Essay Framework is that it helps you practice using language to persuade and convince. By presenting evidence and arguments in a logical and convincing manner, you can practice using language to support their opinions and convince others to take their position.

In addition, using this framework can help learners develop their critical thinking skills. By presenting evidence and arguments in a logical and convincing manner, you are forced to analyze and evaluate different perspectives and arguments, which can help them develop a deeper understanding of the topic.

Finally, using The Argumentative Essay Framework can also help you to improve your vocabulary and grammar skills. By presenting evidence and arguments in a clear and concise manner, learners can practice using complex sentence structures, advanced vocabulary, and persuasive language.

Practical learning/study techniques

Practice regularly

Regular practice is key to improving writing skills in a foreign language. Writing daily in a journal or notebook can be a great way to build writing skills and develop fluency.

Get feedback

Getting feedback from a native speaker or language tutor can be invaluable for improving your writing skills. Feedback and correction will help you identify areas for improvement and develop strategies for taking your writing to higher levels.

Use resources

There are plenty of resources available you can use to help you improve your writing skills, such as grammar books, writing guides, and online writing courses.

By understanding the first principles of writing, you can approach the learning process in a systematic and effective way. By utilizing practical learning and study techniques, you can improve your writing skills and enhance your ability to communicate effectively in your target language.

Common mistakes

Not focusing on grammar and syntax: While it's tempting to focus solely on vocabulary and writing what you know, it's important to remember that good grammar is crucial for clear and effective communication. Take the time to study and practice these elements of the language.

Not proofreading

It's important to proofread your writing, even if you're a native speaker of the language. This is especially true if you're learning a new language, as mistakes in grammar, spelling, and punctuation can make your writing difficult to understand.

Not using a variety of sentence structures: When you first start learning to write in a new language, you will most likely learn the most basic forms of sentence structures. However, using the same sentence structure repeatedly can make your writing sound monotonous and boring.

It’s easy to get comfortable with a certain way of writing and to fall into habits early on when learning any language. Spend the time though to make an effort to vary your sentence structures by using different types of clauses and sentence patterns.

Not practicing regularly

Writing is a skill that requires practice, just like any other skill. Make an effort to write regularly in the language you're learning, even if it's just a few paragraphs a day.

Not seeking feedback

It can be difficult to identify your own mistakes in writing. Seek feedback from a tutor, teacher, or native speaker to help you identify areas where you can improve. It’s hard enough to improve your own writing in your native language, but it’s even harder to do it in a foreign one.

Expert recommendation

Dr. John Hedgcock, an expert in second-language writing, recommends focusing on the writing process rather than just the final product. He also suggests using peer feedback and revision as ways to improve writing skills.

how to learn speaking in a foreign language

Speaking

Speaking is one of the most important components of language learning, as it enables you to communicate effectively with other people in your target language. It opens opportunities for travel, meeting new people, and engaging in parts of society that you never thought possible.

First principles

Pronunciation

Developing proper pronunciation is essential for effective communication in the target language, as it ensures that others can understand what you are saying.

Vocabulary

A strong vocabulary is important for effective speaking, as it allows you to choose the right words to express yourself in the way you intend.

Grammar

Understanding the grammar rules of the target language is essential for effective speaking, as it provides you with the tools needed to create clear and coherent spoken communication.

Listening

Good listening skills are crucial for effective speaking, as they enable learners to understand others and respond appropriately.

Scientific explanation

Speaking a language involves a complex cognitive process that requires the ability to process and produce language in real-time, known as language comprehension and production. This process involves the integration of various cognitive functions, including attention, memory, perception, and executive function.

When processing spoken language, the brain must first perceive and segment the sounds into discrete units, such as phonemes and words. This requires the activation of neural pathways involved in auditory processing, such as the primary auditory cortex, the superior temporal gyrus, and the Wernicke's area.

Once the sounds have been segmented, the brain must then identify the meaning of the words and assemble them into meaningful phrases and sentences. This process involves the activation of neural pathways involved in language comprehension, such as the Broca's area and the angular gyrus.

Finally, when producing language (meaning speaking words out loud), the brain must activate the appropriate motor programs to produce the sounds and words. This process involves the activation of neural pathways involved in speech production, such as the primary motor cortex and the Broca's area.

The best ways to improve speaking

Immersion

One of the most effective ways to improve your speaking in a foreign language is to immerse yourself in an environment where the language is spoken regularly. This can involve traveling to a foreign country, participating in a language exchange program, or finding language partners who are fluent in the language. Immersion provides the brain with ample exposure to the language input needed to develop and refine the neural pathways involved in language processing.

Not only this, but if you’re totally immersed in a language, it becomes 100% relevant to you, and the more relevant something is to you, the more effectively you will learn it.

Students frequently ask me, “Is immersion the only way to really become fluent in a foreign language?” The answer to that question is absolutely not. It’s not the only way, but it is no doubt the best way.

Repetition

Repetition is a powerful tool for language learners. By practicing words, phrases, and sentences over and over again, you can strengthen the neural pathways in your brain that are involved in speaking a foreign language. This helps you to become more efficient and natural in your use of the language. Repetition also helps to develop a type of memory called procedural memory, which allows you to perform tasks automatically, without needing to consciously think about each step. So, if you're looking to improve your language skills, don't underestimate the power of repetition.

No matter which learning method you choose, whether it’s listen-and-repeat exercises with Pimsleur, or live lessons with a tutor, making sure you get adequate repetitions is crucial.

Contextualization

Contextualization is a key element of effective language speaking. To become fluent in a foreign language, you need to practice using the language in a variety of different contexts. This means engaging in tasks that require different types of language use, such as ordering food, making small talk, or discussing current events. 

By practicing a language in different contexts, you develop the neural pathways involved in both language comprehension and production. This helps you become more proficient and natural in your use of the language, as you learn to process and produce language more efficiently and accurately across a range of settings and situations.

So, how can you engage in contextualization? One of the most proven effective techniques is role-playing.

With role-play, you can practice using the language in different contexts by role-playing various scenarios. For example, you might practice ordering food in a restaurant or discussing a news article with a friend. This helps you to develop the ability to use the language in a real-world context, helping you learn to apply your language skills to specific situations.

Practical learning/study techniques

Practice regularly - Regular practice is key to improving speaking skills in a foreign language. Finding language exchange partners or practicing with a tutor can be a great way to build speaking skills and develop fluency.

Use shadowing - Shadowing involves listening to a native speaker and repeating what they say in real-time. This can be a great way to improve pronunciation, listening, and speaking skills. You can do this by watching YouTube videos or series or movies on Netflix.

Record yourself - Recording yourself speaking can be a great way to identify areas for improvement and track progress over time. It can also be a useful tool for getting feedback from a language tutor or native speaker if you don’t have the chance to speak with one in real-time.

By understanding the first principles of speaking, you can approach the learning process in a systematic and effective way. By utilizing practical learning and study techniques, you can improve your speaking skills and enhance your ability to communicate effectively in your target language.

Common mistakes

Not practicing pronunciation

Pronunciation is a key part of speaking a new language, but many learners don't put enough focus on it. Take the time to practice the sounds of the language and work on your accent early in your language learning journey, making sure not to develop bad habits early that will be harder to fix later.

Not focusing on fluency

While it's important to focus on accuracy in your speech, it's also important to work on fluency. Practice speaking without hesitating or pausing too much, and try to maintain a natural rhythm and pace. In my Korean lessons, one of the most helpful things I found was when my instructor forced me to speak faster, rather than at the slower speed I was comfortable with. It really pushed me and helped me speak more fluently in the long run.

Not taking risks

Many learners are afraid of making mistakes or sounding silly when speaking a new language, but taking risks and speaking as much as possible is the best way for you to improve. Don't be afraid to make mistakes or ask for help, as this is the only way you will ever improve.

Not seeking out opportunities to speak

Many learners don't have access to native speakers to practice with on an everyday basis, but there are still many opportunities to speak if you’re motivated enough to find them. Language exchange programs, conversation groups, and international meetups can all be fun and effective ways to practice speaking a foreign language. 

Of course, nothing is as good for improving as practicing with a tutor or teacher. But overall, whichever method you choose, the more you speak, the more you'll improve.

Expert recommendation

Dr. Merrill Swain, a leading expert in second language speaking, recommends using task-based language teaching to improve speaking skills. This involves engaging in real-world tasks that require communication, like ordering food at a restaurant or giving a presentation. She also stresses the importance of feedback and self-correction.

how to learn a language

How to apply this knowledge

You now understand everything you need to know about the science behind learning every major component of language. You also have multiple learning techniques to choose from when trying to master each of those components.

Will you now be able to put together an effective language learning plan for yourself? Unfortunately, most likely not.

It’s one thing to be able to understand everything that’s in this post, it’s an entirely different thing to be able to design a language course for yourself based on all this knowledge. 

Consider this your introductory course to how to teach a language. We really only scratched the surface, and there’s so much more information out there you could read. But luckily for you, you don’t have to.

I used all of my knowledge of language learning from 7 years of teaching English, managing students, and learning languages myself, to design all of our online language courses from scratch following all of the science and best practices listed in this post.

These courses, such as our online English courses, including Advanced General English and Advanced Business English, take a holistic view to language learning to make sure that you become fluent in every one of the components listed above.

We don’t just provide language courses, we provide you with a path to fluency.

If something with our courses doesn’t fit with your preferences, or we don’t offer the language you want, please use this post to find a language course that will provide you with an all-encompassing program that will help you reach fluency. 

Don’t just settle for hacks and snake-oil salesmen. Find a provider who cares about your goals and will help you achieve them. As always, if you need any help, you can always contact me at lucas@weaverschool.com and I’m happy to help you in any way I can.

Best of luck in your language-learning adventures.

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Lucas Weaver from the Weaver School

Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.

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