My language learning method

Hey! Just getting started I thought I’d share an outline of how I think about language learning to hopefully inspire some of you guys and encourage you to share your own methods.

Generally speaking, I break language learning down into a handful of phases.

Phase 1: Orientation

During the first phase I read about the language, I listen to the language, I learn some basic phrases and concepts. This is one of the most important steps to language learning because this is where you decide if the language is something you want to learn at all.

You’ve passed this phase once you’ve decided that the language is a good fit for you and it’s something that you want to learn.

Phase 2: The Fundamentals

In phase 2, we follow up on phase 1 and more rigorously set ourselves up for future study. This is laying the groundwork from which we will be able to learn.

For example: learning pinyin in Chinese or learning kana in Japanese. The idea here is to get a general grasp of the phonetics, writing systems, and general structure of a language. You should be able to read and write a basic sentence and be comfortable with the building blocks of the language at the end of this phase.

There’s actually a lot to talk about here, so if anyone is interested I can get into how I learned Chinese characters and things like that in another post.

Phase 3: Vocab

At this point we don’t know much, but we know enough to start learning. The most important thing at this point in the language learning journey is to build a base vocabulary. The return on investment of early vocab study is so high that it’s really not worth doing anything else except explicit study at this phase.

A good place to start is a frequency list or something similar like the lowest level word list (like JLPT N5 or HSK 1). Additionally, reading some grammar books/articles is a good way to learn some basic words and some grammar words.

The end of this phase are a bit less clear, but you should probably be comfortable with at least around 2000 words. It’s reasonable to extend this phase up to 4000 core words and start getting into specialized vocab as well. Specialized vocab is words in a field you’re interested in. That could be newspaper words, video game words, chemistry words – anything you’re likely to spend time with later.

Explicitly studying specialized words is not required but it may allow you to jump into more interesting content at an earlier level than you otherwise could. Regardless, extra vocab building can be done concurrently with the next phase.

Phase 4: Usage

By this time you should have a solid chunk of knowledge about the language you’re studying and your primary focus should be on using the language. Your primary vocab knowledge should come from reading at this point though you may continue explicit vocab study from lists in the background if it’s something you enjoy or find valuable.

Depending on the language and yourself, you may find grammar books helpful at this phase too but I would strongly recommend not waiting to be comfortable with the grammar before exposing yourself to the language regularly. Tolerance and enjoyment of ambiguity is a critical skill for success in your language learning journey, so embrace not knowing and check yourself.

This is a huge topic that I can get into more later but the tl;dr is listening and reading can be hard, but if you find content you enjoy then just keep at it and your brain will do the rest.

Depending on the language and how similar it is to languages you already know, you can now start speaking successfully too. Nothing was stopping you from practicing output earlier, but typically before you start reading your output is likely not very good and you likely can’t make use of the suggestions and help of native speakers very much. But at this point, you can start developing conversational language skills as well as developing your fluency.


That’s about it! It’s possible to break it down more but I find this mental model is the most helpful for me. Summarized, I try to get to the point where I can use the language as quickly as possible. I focus on setting myself up for enjoyable exposure but then rely on using the language as the primary mechanism to learn the language.

I’d be happy to get into any of these topics in a lot more detail if someone is interested, just let me know! And perhaps I’ll make separate posts about topics ahead of time too, like fluency development and learning how to listen to a new language.

I’d love to hear what you all do too, feel free to either respond or make your own thread about it!