How I Like to Learn Languages, Steps 2 & 3 (finish)

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Learning Portuguese
Other Chinese - Mandarin, French, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Thai

(continued from here)

Step 2 – Study all Facets of the Language

Finishing Step 1 is a major accomplishment as it prepares me to do what Synergy is all about - working with all facets of the language at the same time to produce a combined learning effect which is greater than the sum of their individual effects. And the 7 facets I’m talking about are conversation, grammar, listening, pronunciation, reading, vocabulary and writing. Fortunately, by the end of Step 1 you have already started working with some of these. So here is a breakdown of what needs to be done in this step. 

(Note – I will go into further detail on all of these topics in future blog posts.)

In informal polls, good conversation is the most common number one goal of language learners. It’s also my biggest goal, and that’s why I’ve made it the center of Synergy. Another advantage of using Pimsleur for Step 1 is that it’s designed to be a conversation primer, and thus prepares me well for this step. Completing a different beginners audio course isn’t a bad way to go, but merely repeating random sentences for step 1 is going to leave a steeper learning curve for you. Nevertheless, you need to start conversing at this stage so just push ahead even if you used a less than optimum course for the first step. 

I recommend 30 minutes of conversation a day in person or online with a native speaker when you start, and as soon as you feel a level of comfort take it up to 1 hr. Teachers are preferable, but free language exchange partners can be a suitable alternative. During your conversation, try to write down all the new words/sentences you hear, and all the words/sentences you couldn’t think of, and memorize them later. Video chat applications like Skype are great tools 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 to facilitate your ability to converse. Try to use your new vocabulary and grammar often.

For grammar I recommend you first do Michel Thomas if it’s 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. 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. TV series are preferable to movies because seeing the same characters over an over makes them more comprehensible. Use subtitles to soften it up even more if necessary, preferably in L2. You should be listening at least 30 min/day.

Although you finished the bulk of your organized pronunciation studies in step 1, it’s recommended that you spot-check it now and then, maybe every month or two. A great way to do this is to record your own voice, or make a video and evaluate it. You can also have natives evaluate it. If you think you need sharpening up, go back to the things you did for pronunciation in step 1.

You did a little bit of reading with your flashcards and such in step 1, but now it’s time to level up. I recommend 15 minutes to start with. Read out loud and always maintain that good pronunciation. Read material that’s i+1, which has audio, if possible. Look up unknown words with a mouse-over dictionary if possible. Increase sessions to 30+ minutes, several times a week. 

Continue vocabulary study, with the aid of SRS, as you did in step 1. The problem is, if you put every new word and sentence into your SRS in this step, there will be too much vocabulary for you to stay on top of. 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, so if your main goal is conversation, I strongly suggest that you make that the main source of your new vocabulary. If you have time left over after that and want to top up your SRS, you can choose words from one or more of the other facets. Ime, reading and writing are probably the next best sources. Please don’t learn random vocabulary that you’ve never encountered in the wild. Leave out low usage words and words that seem hard to memorize. Delete old words from your SRS if your sessions are too long; deleting anything over a month old is acceptable. Make an effort to use your new vocabulary in your writing and conversation.

Fortunately you started writing a bit in step 1, when you wrote out new words and sentences in a list for memorization. You should continue this practice, but level up by doing one of the following. 1) If you’re not trying to become a skilled writer, and are just using writing to bolster your other skills, I suggest scriptorium. From a reading source, or your SRS, read a phrase, then write it out by hand, pronouncing each word as you write. Do 5-10 lines per day. 2) If you want to become a skilled writer, write an essay. It’s best to get corrections from native speakers and review any errors, so this process can get very time consuming. I suggest you limit your time to a fixed amount like 30 min/day, and we have an Essay Tool to help you.

In addition to writing by hand, I find it very useful to learn to type. There are programs to help you learn to type in your L2, but many people prefer to learn by practicing. A fun way to do this is by text chatting, which you can do in our Chat Tool if you’d like.  

That’s step 2, but you might be wondering how you can possibly do all of this at the same time. Ideally, you’d spend 30+ minutes on each skill, or 3.5+ hrs per day. And frankly I like to do more than that. For example, I like to do a 1hr conversation, and memorizing the new words/phrases can sometimes take an additional hour. How do I handle this? In my case, I have the time and I’m highly motivated, so it all works out. If you don’t have the time, I recommend trying to spend at least 30 min on each facet at least 3 times per week. If you spread it out evenly that averages out to studying a minimum of 3 facets per day, or 1.5 hrs, 7 days per week. I hope that’s reasonable.

The other thing you are probably wondering about is how long you should do this step. It’s hard to describe, but you should go until you feel you are a comfortable intermediate level. Although not perfect, you shouldn’t be struggling in any aspect. Your conversation should be quite fluid, and you should understand nearly everything your partner says, for example. This step will take hundreds of hours for relatively easy languages, and thousands of hours for difficult ones.

Step 3 – Use the Language

There’s not much to say about this step. You’re already a good intermediate level now so it’s time to maintain and gradually improve your level by practicing conversation, listening, reading and writing. No need to do specific grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary study at this point; you are free.


LT is a language learning site without a method, but I have provided my personal method for those who want a guide, and to easily provide answers to people who ask me questions. In a nutshell, my method is called Synergy, and it consists of 3 steps:

1) Learn pronunciation and the alphabet 

2) Study everything

3) Use the language

I'm reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen.