I Learned Six Languages as an Adult—Here Are the Top Tools and Tricks (No Duolingo and Other Time-Wasters)

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-09-13
PUBLISHED ON  2015-01-08
A screenshot from a recent class. My Anki decks for memorization are on the left, and on the right a Skype session with one of  my favorite Serbian teachers from Italki. I record some of the new words and phrases from each class into my Anki decks.
A Skype lesson with my self-teaching guide close at hand

I’ve found the best way to advance rapidly in language learning is to just jump in and start speaking. You must first and foremost be shameless. (This is precisely why studies have shown that alcohol can actually help language learning — at least of pronunciation.)

I’ll outline here a few other things in this article that I’ve discovered as I went from a young adult monoglot with a crappy memory to a polyglot fluent in 6-8 languages (depending on how you count).

If you’re looking for advice on how to take on a language, keep in mind that learning styles are highly personal and you should take my or any other internet guru’s advice with a large grain of salt. While academic research lately tends to recommend communicative learning styles, it has also shown that many different methods can work. (Patsy Lightbrown and Nina Spada’s academic textbook offers a great overview of research into language learning, and has been very useful to me in refining my approach: How Languages are Learned 1.) Above all, the most important thing you can do is find a way to learn that matches your own style. It’s so, so important to choose a way to learn that you personally find fun.

Sitting and listening to other people speak just as badly as yourself can be motivating and fun — or not, depending on your taste. But either way, it’s an expensive and far from the most efficient way to learn a language. Photo by Shane.

That said, in my experience … language schools and university classes are not such a good bet. You pay a lot of money to sit in a room where most people speak the target language just as badly as you do. You don’t get much time to speak yourself. And you have to spend more time and money getting to and from the class.

I prefer an approach that’s much cheaper (it can even be free) and more efficient. I mix online tutoring and/or language exchanges, with working from a communicative, self-teaching book. Here’s an outline of my strategy, as refined over the years.

1. Online Language Teachers and Exchanges

Of the many, many sites I’ve tried for finding both free language exchanges and paid tutors, Italki has been the best.2 The quality of “professional” teachers on the site still varies enormously, but they do offer quite cheap trials to help you find the ones that fit you, and there are excellent teachers to be found for any language.

Prices can run from about $5-20 per hour, making the lessons very competitive with (usually cheaper than) language schools and university classes. I recommend working with several different teachers simultaneously (both certified and “community”, or untrained teachers), as well as language exchanges, so that you get various perspectives on the language. The best teachers to work with are those who are willing and patient enough keep the conversation almost entirely in the target language. I schedule a one-hour class about every other weekday, and on off days study on my own.

2. Books

Look for learning materials that emphasize communicating in relevant contexts. Grammar is important to help you feel comfortable and to find some shortcuts, but generally should not be an end in and of itself. I have personally used a number of the Teach Yourself Guides (a.k.a. Complete Language), as they follow a communicative approach, have clear grammar explanations, and provide relevant dialogues and context for each culture. They do tend to lack grammar practice; for that, grammar workbooks can be useful as a supplement. Here are Amazon affiliate links to the best grammar books I’ve personally used for French, Spanish, Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, and Italian. And this is a fun, crucial look at spoken Brazilian Portuguese. Reader recommendations for these and other languages are welcome in the comments.

3. Memorization Software

Polyglot nuts and people memorizing just about anything have been raving for some time about Anki, a modern version of flashcards. I love it too, and use it daily.

I make flashcards for the vocabulary and grammar rules that I want to remember on my laptop (doing so is itself a great way to learn); I can record the correct audio with my teacher (this even works over skype) and save images from a google search instead of just translations. The software syncs, and then everything I need to study is in my phone and available for review in any free moment throughout the day. Ideally, you can get your settings just right so that each flashcard will appear just before you would have forgotten it. Of course, paper flashcards can work well too if you don’t mind carrying a pile of them around to study in spare moments.

A screenshot from Anki for Android, showing an English phrase and the answer already revealed in Serbian. Audio and images can be saved with vocabulary. The buttons at the bottom are used to indicate when you want the flashcard to return, based on how successful you were at remembering the material.

4. In-Person Language Exchanges

For meeting foreigners coming through your city, and locals when you’re traveling, you can attend meetups for travellers. Check Meetup.com for a disorganized website with a lot of options, InterNations for elitist “expat” meetups, Facebook groups for the language or culture in question, and especially MundoLingo and other language exchange meetups for your area. (Couchsurfing used to be useful but slided into irrelevance after screwing its membership on a massive scale while claiming to be a nonprofit, and then turning into a corporation.)

5. Be Funny with Minimal Vocabulary

Use the minimalist language method to have conversations in your target language, even before you’re the slightest bit conversant. You need to practice with native speakers, but people are unlikely to be patient enough to agree to that if you’re not entertaining to talk to. (Those who are rich and/or gorgeous can ignore this advice — and pretty much any of the world’s advice on anything.) Sure, you could badger and cajole people into speaking their own language with you (as opposed to English or whatever), but you’re better off just being funny. Hence my minimalist method, which is about maximizing how amusing/charming you can be with a bare minimum of vocabulary and cultural awareness. It’s a way to get your foot in the door for future, real language learning.

6. Tools for the Post-Dictionary World

Like most language learners and translators, I’m almost constantly logged on to WordReference and Google Translate. Of particular use are WordReference’s forums, where a lot of out-of-work translators seem to have nothing better to do than ponder your trickiest questions. Also great are Wiktionary and Wikipedia (use the language links at Wikipedia to find out how a technical term is translated into a target language). Linguee is a useful translation tool for phrases in some European languages, though the quality of its answers is erratic.

Any further recommendations for shameless language learning for the non-linguistically gifted are welcome in the comments.

  1. See in particular Kindle locations 1915-1918 ↩︎
  2. Other options for finding teachers/language exchanges are Livemocha and VerbalPlanet, but I personally haven’t had as much success with those. ↩︎

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