Introduction I would like to answer a question that I get asked often – how do I learn my languages? Well, I’ve used different methods for all my languages, making improvements along the way. What I’m going to describe here is what I would recommend based on all my language learning experience, and not necessarily the exact way I learned any specific language. I’m keeping this general and simple here, so that it flows smoothly. I will give further explanations, exceptions and personal experiences in future posts. I am a big believer in balanced language learning, or learning using all the basic language skills. I didn’t used to be. I’ve studied for long periods of time and learned the hard way that balance is more efficient for me. Why? Because working with all basic skills at the same time produces a combined learning effect which is greater than the sum of their individual effects. This is called synergy, so that’s what I’ve named this method. Note: This method is designed for adult learners who'd like to reach an advanced level (C1/C2) in their target language. For other learners, this information might be helpful, but it's not designed with them in mind. Pre-learning research. I’m not talking about researching if you really want to learn a given language, what language you want to learn, finding out if you are motivated enough to learn it, etc. For me, those things are solidly predetermined, but I may post about them in the future. My pre-learning research is to figure out what resources I’m going to use to follow the method below. Also, there are aspects some languages that will have to be handled outside of the framework below, so research can help me discover these and figure out a plan of action to learn them. I recommend reading about the language in forums like this one, and asking lots of questions about resources. Wikipedia is also a great source of information. When you finally have some specific resources in mind, I recommend reading descriptions and reviews on sites like Amazon before buying. Step 1 – Isolated pronunciation and orthography Goals: Be able to repeat isolated words correctly after hearing them. Be able to read isolated words out loud with correct pronunciation. Expansion: The first thing you need to be able to do is pronounce all the different sounds made in a language. When you do this it will be most efficient to link these sounds to something visual, so the most efficient thing to do is learn orthography, the language’s writing system, at the same time. Note - this is a pretty short step, along the order of 10-20 hours. The goal isn’t comprehension or comfortably reading texts; those things come later. How to do it: Find some material that teaches pronunciation, for example, the first chapter of a textbook or an online resource. There must be audio. You need to work with audio from the beginning – never read first and utter before listening; check the audio frequently. Practice listening to and repeating the sounds, then listening to the sounds and writing the text. After you get the hang of it, practice reading and pronouncing the text, and comparing your pronunciation to the audio.. Memorize the alphabet and the names of the letters. When you are reading and pronouncing words correctly, move on to the next step. Step 2 – Sentence level pronunciation, vocabulary and listening Goals: Be able to repeat simple sentences correctly after hearing them. Be able to read those sentences out loud with correct pronunciation. Memorize the vocabulary in those sentences. Be able to understand simple listening material. Expansion: The best time to learn good pronunciation is in the beginning. Step 1 was about word level pronunciation. I added in orthography because of synergy. Step 2 is about sentence level pronunciation. I’m adding reading, vocabulary and listening because of synergy. The listening I’m referring to in the title of this step is separate or in addition to the listening you will need to do before you repeat your simple sentences. Listening is perhaps the most difficult skill to develop, and needs to be started in the beginning. The synergy due to listening is very important. If you don’t have a good grounding in listening, you will have great difficulty when beginning to converse, for example. How to do it: You need to find some basic material that you can shadow, parrot or repeat. It’s best if it’s designed to be an audio program, but you’ll need to have a transcript for it too. I strongly recommend Pimsleur for this step, although you will need to find a transcript somewhere or create your own because Pimsleur doesn’t publish them. Another option for this is Assimil. After doing an audio lesson, memorize the sentences and new vocabulary words from L1 to L2 and L2 to L1, reading them out loud with correct pronunciation. I recommend using an SRS for this. When you are doing the audio lessons, be sure you pronounce every aspect of the sentence prosody, intonation, rhythm, stress, etc as the native speaker does. For listening, it’s nice to start with very simple podcasts in L2. In the very beginning you will know nothing and understand nothing, so podcasts that have some explanations in L1 might be necessary. Another option is to watch video with subtitles in L1, turning them off and on to test your understanding. Try to move onto simple 100% L2 podcasts and such as soon as you feel you are understanding them fairly well. Try to listen to materials at i+1. Continue to practice a little writing. For example, writing out known sentences. If you want to kill two birds with one stone, create a Pimsleur transcript by writing it out. Ten minutes a day is enough writing at this point. Step 3 –Grammar, reading, writing, and conversation Goals: Make conversation, reading and writing ongoing components of your language learning plan. Complete a grammar course. Continue listening and vocabulary study. Expansion: This step is complete when you have finished your grammar studies. You are firing on all pistons now, and that means there is a lot to do at the same time. Many will have time management issues. Practice as many skills as you can to maximize the benefits of synergy. How to do it: You can actually start conversation when you are about half way through your Pimsleur course (but you should definitely continue and complete the course), or when you feel your sentence pronunciation is ok, you can understand simple audio and you have a few hundred words memorized. Conversation is often the most prized goal of the learner, so start it early and practice it often. I recommend 30 minutes a day. Try to write down all the new words you hear, and all the words you couldn’t think of, and memorize them later. Skype is a great tool for beginning conversation. I like to have Google Translate up beside my skype window to look up the occasional word and keep the conversation flowing. Use tips in How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately. Try to use your new vocabulary and grammar often. Start reading after completing Pimsleur. Read out loud. Read material that’s i+1, which has audio, if possible. I recommend 15 minutes to start with. Look up unknown words with a mouse-over dictionary if possible. LingQ is a great tool for this stage of your reading. There are lots of articles of all levels, with recordings and a mouse over dictionary. Increase sessions to 30+ minutes, several times a week. Put unknown words into your SRS if you have time. Start writing after completing Pimsleur. I recommend 15 minutes to start with. A mixture of handwriting and typing is recommended. Here is my method for handwriting without any help from dictionaries, etc. Just let it flow. If you absolutely must use a word you don’t remember or don’t know, transliterate the L1 word into L2 for the time being to let you smoothly continue your task. When you are finished, read it out loud, and use a dictionary and red pen to correct spelling errors, etc. Get a native speaker to check it. Lang-8 is a great resource for getting natives to correct your writings. Read the final draft out loud. Increase sessions to 30+ minutes, several times a week. Put unknown words into your SRS. Try to use your new vocabulary and grammar often. Start grammar after completing Pimsleur. At this point, I recommend Michel Thomas if available. It’s a great grammar primer which teaches a lot of grammar in a short amount of time and will help you a great deal with your beginning conversation. A word of caution though – don’t copy the pronunciation of non-native speakers, and don’t take pronunciation tips from Michel Thomas either. I mention this because I fell into this trap and want to prevent others from doing the same. After Michel Thomas, find a good comprehensive text or grammar and work your way through it, doing all the exercises. Put unknown words into your SRS if you have time. Make an effort to use your new grammar as soon as you learn it in your writing and conversation. Continue listening. In addition to listening to the audio for the things you read every day, I recommend watching video. Use subtitles to make it more comprehensible if necessary, preferable in L2. You should be listening a total of 30+ min/day. Put unknown words into your SRS if you have time. Continue vocabulary study. At this stage, there will be too much vocabulary for you to memorize all of it in an SRS. You should limit your SRS sessions to a max of 1 hour per day, or 25% or your total study time, whichever is less. You will need to decide which words to put in. Highest priority will be words from your conversation. Next are words from your writing. Next are everything else. Leave out low usage words and words that seem hard to memorize. Delete old words from your SRS if your sessions are too long. Don’t memorize words in isolation if it you feel you are getting no benefit from it. Make an effort to use your new vocabulary in your writing and conversation. Step 4 – Take reading, writing, listening and conversation to C1/C2 Goals: Improve your reading, writing, listening and conversation until you reach your final goals in the language – the C1/C2 level. Expansion: You should have already finished your grammar studies. Now it’s time to discard the isolated vocabulary study and focus 100% of your time on the 4 basic skills. This is a long step, but should be pretty enjoyable because you are really using the language. How to do it: Study the 4 basic skills concurrently. Don’t drop a skill to give you more time for another. This is the fundamental theory behind synergy – the whole is more than the sum of the parts. For example, even if you don’t care about being able to write, having a writing component will allow you to reach your goals in conversation faster than not having one. Reading – continue reading until you are able to understand newspapers, novels, signs, menus, etc, well. Writing – continue writing until you can produce texts about anything you need to with correct grammar and at a good speed. Listening – continue listening until you can understand movies, radio, people talking to each other, TV, etc, well. Conversation – continue conversing until you can talk about anything you need to with correct grammar, quickly and fluidly. Note – it’s ok to use tools like dictionaries, lingQ, subtitles, etc. in your learning process, but the levels described above are without the help of such tools. You will need to wean yourself off such tools at some point before reaching your final goal.