Have you ever considered building a stack of tools to learn languages?
Maybe you've collected resources to master another language; books, courses, and language exchange buddies. But what if you could follow a few simple principles and master a language by just having fun with a few technical tools? Say goodbye to your textbooks!
One aim of this blog is to map out a tool stack for learning. No matter if we use a piece of hardware or software, we can use technology to learn more in a shorter time frame.
This year, my number one personal goal is to become proficient in Italian. In this case, proficient means B2 or conversationally fluent. To reach that goal I'll spend about 700 hours reading and listening to Italian content. No classes, no textbooks, no studying at all. I aim to acquire Italian by having fun.
In this article, I want to show you the tools and approach I'll use to tackle this ambitious goal. I've done something similar in my "meta" series about how to take smart notes, where I showed my note-taking process. I have no illusions that my approach is the definitive one to acquiring languages. But, I've succeeded with this method before and know many who also did.
First, we'll look at my reasons for learning Italian. No matter what I set out to learn, I always make sure that I have a clear picture of my why. Without knowing my intrinsic motivation, it's hard to keep going when the going gets tough.
Next, we'll look at my tools; my method and the software I'll use. Having a method or set of daily activities is a crucial tool in my arsenal. My workflow is ultimately what will make me fluent in Italian, not the apps that I use.
Finally, we'll dive into what my day-to-day will look like. No matter how shiny tools are, I won't succeed if I don't use them. Through trial and error, I've found what works best for me and is sustainable day after day.
Hopefully, you pick up a thing or two for your own language acquisition practice.
Why I want to master Italian
The cliché is true: the best way to learn a language is to fall in love. In my case, I fell in love with an incredible Italian woman. She happens to be a polyglot who speaks perfect English and is learning my native tongue (Dutch), but I want to understand her on a deeper level. I believe that culture and language are portals to knowing someone more deeply.
Between 2007 and 2011 and spent over 50 hours per week mastering Spanish. I was enrolled in a university program to get my dual degree in Spanish philology and applied linguistics. That meant I had to master Spanish, as our entire curriculum was in Spanish. And I loved it, no matter how tough it got. Now I want to see if I can repeat this experience in a less extreme way.
What mastering Spanish also left me with was a love for Romance languages in general. I vowed to master every major one of them—Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. But life took over and I had to slow down my efforts. Until now, as I have the perfect excuse to dive headfirst into Italian.
Another reason to tackle Italian is to test my approach to language acquisition. Through the method I describe below I mastered two languages: English and Spanish (Dutch is my native tongue). I want to make sure my successes are not a fluke by testing my principles even more.
My language acquisition principles
I don't believe in studying a language, only in acquiring it. You can't take a skill-building approach to a language; it needs to become a part of you. And the only way to make a language a part of you is by spending a lot of time with it. That's why I say acquiring languages and not learning languages.
The principles you'll see explained below are controversial in the language learning community. Many members prefer to follow classes, use textbooks, and study grammar. I say: don't do any of those things and take a more natural approach instead.
Most of my principles are informed by the linguist Stephen Krashen. It's true that I've simplified his findings a lot and don't worry too much about nuances. What I do know is that I acquired two languages to fluency this way and know dozens of others who also did. By contrast, I know less than a handful of people who achieved high levels in their chosen language by studying it.
Here are my five principles to master a language while having fun all the way.
The "secret" to mastering a language is to show up every day for a very long time. That's basically it, there's not much of a secret to it.
But what you do from moment to moment defines whether you'll keep showing up. If you don't have fun doing something, it's not likely you'll keep putting an effort in. So, my main principle for language acquisition is: fun first.
As you'll see in the principles that follow, fun first is the principle that informs them all. I can't be bothered following boring classes or textbooks. All I want is to learn a language by exposing myself to it, while aiming to have as much fun as possible.
Input before output
This principle is a major point of discussion in the language learning community. Some say you should try to speak from day one. Others say you should get hundreds of hours of input before uttering a single word in your target language. I'm somewhere in the middle, but I do favor input over output in the beginning.
In the first hundreds of hours I spend with a language, I try to first read and listen as much as possible. I want to get a sense of what the language looks and sounds like before I try to express myself. That way, my subconscious will be conditioned to the point that I utter most words and phrases without giving them a second thought.
Once I've heard countless times how I should sound, it becomes easier to correct myself or to receive correction. But it takes time to train my ear, and even longer to train my mind to produce new grammar. But language is rarely logical, so I can't rely on rules; I need to train my intuition instead.
These first principles inform my third principle...
By natives, for natives
To have as much fun as possible while getting loads of input means consuming tons of content. While there are all kinds of graded materials for learners, I tend to dive headfirst into media by natives for natives.
TV shows are often how I break into a language. When the language that I'm learning dubs popular series and movies, I've hit the jackpot. I get my hands on the dubbed versions of my favorite shows and movies... and then I watch them to exhaustion. As I already know much of the plot and dialogue, I can focus on deciphering the language.
By binge-watching shows dubbed in Spanish for thousands of hours, I figured out how to speak in different dialects. Watching those shows prepared my mind to sound like a native when speaking. I did the same for German; watching hundreds of hours of dubbed television primed my mind to understand almost 100% of everyday conversations.
While using dubbed versions of shows and movies is great, I do want to start consuming original content as soon as possible. One way to boost my comprehension and make watching originals more fun is by using flashcards.
Boost comprehension with flashcards
Until this point, most input-first adherents will agree with me on my principles. But flashcards? That's too much for some.
Personally, I love to use flashcards to drill common words, expressions, and grammar. It helps to kickstart my comprehension and makes consuming media in my target language much more enjoyable.
But make no mistake, I still don't study the language. The way I do flashcards is very simple. On the front of the card is a sentence in my target language; on the back is the translation in English including optional notes on words and expressions within the sentence. And to help my listening comprehension, the front of the card also contains audio of the sentence read out loud by a native speaker.
To some, this still feels like studying. That's why it's a controversial principle and people have found a way around it. For example, my girlfriend learned half a dozen languages by swapping out flashcards for just reading extensively using electronic dictionaries (most notably LingQ).
Review grammar, don't study it
Grammar study is always a contentious subject in the language learners community. Some swear by grammar study, others say you should avoid learning rules at all costs and absorb them through input instead. I fall somewhere in the middle.
In the past, I would memorize verb tables, learn rules about articles, dissect complex sentences, and do other ineffective things. But my goal was to communicate using my target language, not to translate texts. Soon I discovered that no memorized grammar rule would ever make me fluent, so I ditched the approach and opted for massive input instead.
Input worked wonders to kickstart my listening comprehension and conversational ability. But little mistakes would slip in that I wouldn't catch. After a while, I noticed that just reading through a simple grammar book would help me catch common errors and correct them effortlessly. I wasn't studying, but I became aware of my mistakes and made it easier for me to spot them. The key is in finding a balance.
My tools for the journey
My approach may be tool-agnostic, but that doesn't mean I don't have a stack of tools. I'm actually quite opinionated about the tools I use—and with good reason.
For this learning project, I will lean on some tools I've trusted for more than a decade (like Anki), and some new tools that come highly recommended (like LingQ). We'll have a look at each, see why I choose them, and how I believe/know it's going to help me.
Services for streaming
The bulk of my input will come from TV shows and movies. So what's easier than to get a bunch of streaming services to guarantee having engaging content?
Below are the services I'm going to use. Apart from YouTube they're all paid services, but I just remind myself that otherwise I'd be spending hundreds of euros on ineffective classes. Media is pivotal to my success, so I happily pay for services that help me succeed.
The cheapest and easiest way to get started getting lots of input in another language is by using YouTube. More specifically: to use a dedicated YouTube account.
I picked up this little trick from my friend Matt who created the Refold language acquisition roadmap. He recommends creating a new YouTube account and watching a few videos in your target language. Before you know it, all recommendations will be in that language.
This is easily one of the best hacks I've found to find free content that's interesting in any language. Combined with subtitles and the Language Reactor plugin (see the Dictionaries section), YouTube is one of my primary sources of input.
I'm a sucker for dubbed TV shows, especially for the ones I've already watched once or several times in English. Because I already know the plot, I can make it a game to decipher the language.
Not all languages dub foreign shows. If that's the case for your target language, search for original shows in that language. What's great about original shows is that they often come with exact or closed caption subtitles; dubbed shows often have mismatching subtitles as the translations are done by different teams.
If a show is dubbed but doesn't have matching subtitles, I'll just watch it without them. That's another reason I rewatch shows and movies I know by heart, as it makes the input much more comprehensible in my experience.
Other streaming services
Italy seems to be the country of streaming services, as I've already encountered about a handful of them. Apart from the cable networks, there are also dedicated streaming services that import lots of shows from the US. And because Italians dub everything, that means loads of comprehensible input.
If you don't know anyone in a country where your target language is spoken, getting access to streaming services can be tricky. Not only is there this nasty thing called geo-blocking, but just getting a subscription can be challenging. Unless you have an address or bank account in that country, some streaming services will be out of reach.
In my case, my girlfriend has been so gracious as to subscribe to a bunch of services that have my favorite shows. Some do geo-blocking, while others don't care much about it. Funnily enough, Netflix gives me the Italian catalog when logged into my girlfriend's account, even when I'm back in the Netherlands and not connected via VPN.
Speaking of VPNs, that is another useful (but not crucial) service to have in your toolkit. While some streaming services have become really good at geo-blocking and detecting VPNs, there are still plenty of providers (both streaming and VPN) that work.
My favorite is NordVPN, which seems to work with almost all streaming services. I have yet to find a service that doesn't work with NordVPN. Even if it doesn't, trying a different server will usually unlock the streaming service for me.
Thus far these are my tools to get input from multimedia. How about getting input through reading?
LingQ for reading
My main challenge when acquiring a new language is reading in it. I love to read, but reading a text I barely understand is very intimidating. By watching TV I at least have some visual clues, whereas by reading I need to rely on the text itself. It's not like I can easily look up any words I don't understand.
Or can I? Because that's exactly the use case for LingQ. The concept is simple: you import or choose a text, you start reading, and for any word you don't understand you just tap the word to see its translation. The reading flow is impacted minimally as in a split second I'll know the meaning.
This sounds great on paper, but my past experiences with LingQ didn't stick past a few days. Turns out, I was complicating things too much with LingQ's flashcards. If used as a quick dictionary, it seems like the perfect (albeit expensive) tool for extensive reading in another language.
That I don't use LingQ's flashcard system doesn't mean I don't use any Spaced Repetition System.
Anki for repetition
I could spend thousands of words on the wonder that's named Anki. Being a free and open-source flashcard tool, it looks simple on the surface. But once you understand Anki's power, you'll get hooked.
While most learners agree that spaced repetition is the way to make anything stick, not everyone is a fan of flashcards. Many learners just rewatch shows or reread books, and that's fine. Personally, I've been a flashcard addict since 2007. Not only has Anki helped me ace countless exams, I also attribute most of my Spanish fluency to the thousands of sentences I've reviewed with the app.
My approach with Anki is very simple. Each flashcard has a front and back side. On the front of the card, I put a sentence in my target language (preferably with audio), while on the back I put the translation of that sentence. As I become better at understanding the language, the back side of the flashcards will increasingly see dictionary definitions in my target language.
The key to using flashcards successfully is to use full sentences only. No single word or grammar items are allowed. By reviewing complete sentences only, I not only learn new vocabulary but also grow my intuition for grammar. Through tens of thousands of reviews, I burn into my mind what correct language looks and sounds like. So, I have no need to study the grammar rules.
Obviously, this approach only works when you can stand doing flashcard reviews and if you have access to grammatically correct sentences. Some people simply don't like flashcards as they feel it's boring. If that's the case for you, just get more listening input and consume your materials several times.
If you do choose to use flashcards, make sure you collect sentences from a reliable source. For example, have one or several native speakers do random checks on your materials to ensure the sentences make sense.
I learned this the hard way when I was collecting sentences from the Glossika Italian program. After I showed some of the sentences to my girlfriend, she either burst out laughing or scratched her head; too many sentences were either strange or incorrect. Turns out, the product isn't produced by native speakers.
Then I found Think In Italian, which is a resource created by an Italian. Not only does it contain correct and authentic Italian, it also progresses better in complexity and speaking speed. As soon as I discovered it, I threw away the few hundred sentences that I had already collected and started again. Lesson learned: always check the learning materials.
I cannot be bothered by fancy dictionaries. In the past, I've tried several for the languages I was trying the master, only to return to WordReference.
WordReference is like an aggregation service for dictionaries. It has many languages and combines different dictionaries in one view. And best of all: it offers loads of example sentences. It's my go-to resource to quickly look up words I hear or read in passing, or when I want to collect sentences for my Spaced Repetition System.
In fact, many of my Anki decks have their foundation in WordReference example sentences. The only downside is that these sentences don't have audio. Luckily, my friends Peter and Thomas created the RhinoSpike community years ago, where you can post sentences and ask native speakers to record audio for you.
Language Reactor for YouTube and Netflix
Formerly known as Language Learning with Netflix, Language Reactor is the ideal tool to learn from Netflix and YouTube content. Like LingQ does for books and articles, so does Language Reactor provide a dictionary for subtitles.
I can simply hover over a word in a subtitle, and Language Reactor will pause the video and show me the translation of the word. This ensures that whatever video I watch, I stay engaged as I'm unlikely to lose the gist of the story.
But, I make sure to not look up every word. Not only does that get me out of the flow, it also makes the process feel like studying real fast. I only rewind and hover over a word when I've lost the clue of the story, otherwise I just keep listening. Even if I don't understand every word, the main objective is still to have fun. As long as I understand the gist, I tend to have fun.
When I was learning Spanish, I was heavily into World of Warcraft. I'd play the game in Spanish, on Spanish servers. I only started playing the game in Spanish after I had gained quite a high level of mastery, so I wonder how I could enjoy games much earlier.
I got the idea of playing video games to learn languages from Tom Szynalski of Antimoon. He mastered English by playing loads of video games and getting other input—without ever leaving his home country of Poland. Especially the dialogue-heavy game Monkey Island was one of Tom's favorites.
Then my girlfriend sent me this article on what Nintendo Switch games to pick to learn languages. Next, I discovered there are even Japanese language courses that use Animal Crossing! So I guess I'll be using my Switch to learn Italian.
While Animal Crossing tends to have simple dialogues, I've already run into some baffling sentences. But instead of looking up words in a dictionary, I just point Google Lens at my Switch screen to get the translation in seconds. As the same dialogues get repeated a lot, it still boosts comprehension.
My day-to-day plan
If acquiring a language means showing up every day, what will my daily activities look like?
To ensure success I want to turn my learning activities into habits. And to ensure I stick to my habits, I measure my activities. After all, what gets measures gets done.
In my Logseq journal I track the following metadata:
I log how many minutes of multimedia input I've gotten so far that day. I subtract 1/3 of the total minutes of an episode or movie to account for "dead time" where I'm not getting input. These moments include intros, music, and credits.
Next, I track how many Anki repetitions I did and how long that took me. This is to get a sense of how concentrated I am. If the average time per repetition goes down, that means I need to become more mindful when doing reviews.
Finally, I log how many new words I encounter through LingQ every day. This almost feels like a trivial number to track (as LingQ does it for me), but I've noticed I'm more likely to fire up the app and do some reading when tracking this number.
The nice thing about this data is that I'll see it every time I open my journal page (which is several times a day). But tracking my habits also means I can visualize the data using some of Logseq's plugins and see how I'm doing over time.
Here's a breakdown of how I've been spending my days acquiring Italian.
Like millions of tech-minded people, I have the nasty habit of grabbing my phone first thing in the morning. As I turn off my alarm, it's easy to switch to Twitter or Slack.
But instead of filling my mind with messages in the morning, I've lately been filling it with Italian. I either open Anki to review some sentences or fire up LingQ to get a headstart on reading for that day. Depending on how productive I need to be that day, I sometimes throw in an episode of a show or a YouTube video.
In the afternoon I tend to be focused on work. During downtime I may listen to some Italian music (which I don't really regard as input), finish watching an episode, or add new flashcards to my Anki deck.
When I learned Spanish I would always have Spanish music playing in the background. However, I've discovered that I learn very little from songs while singing distracts me. If I play music doing work, it has to be instrumental. I often end up playing some Brain.FM sounds to concentrate better.
As the afternoon comes to an end and I have dinner or a snack, I tend to sneak in a short episode of whatever comedy show that I can watch casually. I know, I know, watching TV while eating dinner is the antithesis of mindfulness. But if I don't have much time to get input that day, it's these little moments that can rake up serious input time.
In the evening I want to kick back and relax as much as possible. Being in a relationship and running side-projects does take up a lot of time, so it's not always possible to get a lot of input. Luckily my girlfriend is Italian, so we tend to watch media in Italian. Other times when we relax separately, I always default to consuming media in Italian.
By far the easiest way to get a lot of input in your target language is by replacing all of your entertainment. That's exactly what I do while learning Italian: any media entertainment has to be in Italian. That includes video games.
Books and podcasts are an exception. My Italian is not at a level yet that I can comfortably learn anything from books except for new Italian words and phrases. The same counts for podcasts, which I often listen to do research for my job or to improve a life area. As I use these types of media not for entertainment but to learn, I'll keep consuming them in English and Dutch until my Italian improves.
Are you still here? Amazing! I hope you've picked up a few tools and techniques for your own language acquisition journey. I have a lot more to share, but I'll stop before I overwhelm you with information.
I'll keep posting updates about this learning project about once per month. My aim isn't necessarily to hold myself accountable as it is to use writing as a reflection tool. I also want to give you a peek into my thinking process, hoping you'll find it useful and can apply some of it yourself.