The secret of learning a new language

11 minute read

A note of warning. The method I describe here might not be for everybody or every language. I decided to explain it here because it works with the kind of language that I study. But, it might not be ideal when the jump is too big, like learning an Asian language from a Latin based language.

I tried to be very smart titling this entry, but it is just a lie. There is no secret, but instead, a great misconception. I’ll explain here what I think is the right and only way to learn a language for real.

It is so simple that I do not understand why not everybody is doing it. Ok, let’s go to the basics. How did you learn your first language? Your tongue language. I’m sure you did not start learning and saying words and sentences or taking a bit of grammar here and there. Of course not. What you did was to listen for a lot of hours for at least two years before you started saying something meaningful. Then you understood almost everything you were told. At that moment, you started saying things badly but trying to emulate the adults and grown-up kids around you. That took you three more years, and only then did you begin to learn to read and write words. And now, how was your language at around 7? Pretty decent, right? And at ten years old, it is incredible how many words you know and how can you express yourself.

Can anybody in the room explain why we do not follow that pattern to learn the following languages? Is anything wrong with that? You may be thinking that our brain was not fully developed then and that there are better ways to learn. Then, why are there so many people learning English for years with such a poor result?

In my opinion, that primary method works very well, it is more enjoyable, and now we have tools to speed up learning. That is how I improved my English in early the 2000’s and what I’m using to learn French right now.

The method is based on three phases from which the second and the third should go in parallel:

  • Phase 1. Listening
  • Phase 2. Speaking
  • Phase 3. Writing

Phase 1. Listening

It would be best if you listened 2 to 3 hours a day to that new language you want to learn. You need to listen to content that is slightly above your level. Of course, this will be hard to find if you know nothing at all. In that case, the best way is to watch children’s television a bit every day for a while, which is time-consuming.

Listening two to three hours a day could sound like a lot, but listening is an action that can be done while doing other stuff. Nowadays, it is easy to find audio sources that interest you. Or some that you already have a basic vocabulary on the theme. That is the best scenario because you can easily make it a habit.

Obviously, you do not care about writing or reading in this phase, just understanding and enjoying it.

This phase is the initial one, but it will go for as long as you study that language. And I guarantee that you will keep doing it because you will find amazing audio sources. I’m still listening to some of my initial shows in English.

Phase 1. Listening in Practice

From your podcast application (I recommend, remove all the feeds that are not in your target language. I know that will be painful, but anything you listen should be in your new language. Podcast listening is not a leisure activity anymore. Now it is work and an essential one. Spend time searching for podcast feeds that fit the criteria:

  1. Just above my level
  2. Interesting to me

This search will always be active. Every time you can, search a bit more. The success of the whole process is based on you finding suitable sources for yourself. Notice that this is the only way to make it easy and a habit.

While you are not doing important things like being with the family or working, you should be listening. Only last year, I listened to more than 600 podcast episodes in French.

You can do the same with audiobooks if you subscribe to a service like “audible”, but, in my experience listening to an audiobook require much more concentration than listening to podcasts episodes. Listening constantly to podcasts will be the training to listen to 15 hours long audiobooks later.

For example, every day at lunchtime, I have the French news ready on So, I have been listening to the news in French every day for the last three years. Nowadays, it is 80% of my listening time in French and 20% in English.

And what about music?

That is a sad note. I love music, and I play guitar and piano. But since I’m learning French, I do not listen to music at all. I can not listen to music while working because I like it so much that I get distracted. The rest of the time, I listen to podcasts or books. As a result, no music. In my case, it is the price that I accept while ramping up this langue for at least six years.

I started a series of blog posts called Mixtape to address that. There I force myself to listen to new music at least once a week. I make room for an hour or two of music discovery during the weekend. Since last October, I have been doing that, and I’m enjoying it a lot.

End of phase 1

This phase will take a long time, depending on your abilities and dedication. For me, it took four years for English and the same for French.

At this point, you listen to the language on almost any occasion and with different pronunciations, and you understand, but communication is difficult. With time you will start feeling that you can regurgitate complete sentences without issues, and that is because you have listened to them countless times. It feels frustrating when you try because your pronunciation is terrible, and some words won’t come out as you expect.

As an anecdote, some days ago, I needed to call a restaurant in Paris to add two new persons to a reservation for my wife. I did rehearse, and it was easy. Sure enough, I understood everything the person was telling me, but it was painful to answer his questions. But I did manage!

So now you are ready to skill up.

At the moment you have two problems:

  • Your vocabulary is limited. Although you understand everything, you will soon notice that you understand it by the context. Let’s fix that in phase 3.
  • Your communication skills are terrible. As I explained before, you understand, but you can barely answer. You feel like a toddler. Let’s fix that in Phase two.

IMPORTANT: I recommend carrying on phases 2 and 3 in parallel for adults.

Phase 2. Speaking

Speaking is the most challenging part. It isn’t easy in itself and not all of us are in a place where we can practice speaking. I had no problem with English since my working environment has been in that language since the year 2000. But, with French, it is not the case. I worked for five years in a French company, but then I wasn’t in a position to practice the language. Also, when you are at work, you are focused on working, not on practising a speech.

Now I’m in that position, and 2022 will be the year in which I’ll start practising my French. Here I would like to share with you what I have done and the options that I think I have in front of me to make this happen.

Phase 2. Talking in practice

Talk your thoughts out loud

One of the basic approaches you can use to start practising the language is to express your actions and thoughts out loud. It might sound crazy, but as you go around your business, talk and explain what you are doing. We talk a lot to ourselves, which is an opportunity to practice. Let me give you an example: Imagine you are on your way to getting out of the house, and you might say something like this to yourself (it is winter here now):

— Ok, I need to get my keys. Put on my jacket, the mask, a scarf and the gloves. Where are they?

So I would say in French:

— Ok, j’ai besoin de mes clés. Enfilez ma veste, le masque, une écharpe et les gants. Où sont-ils?

It is probably not good, but I do not care; I simply want to articulate words and make my brain get used to finding them.

You will soon find how difficult it is and the many gaps you have in your vocabulary. You just found the first opportunity to start creating flashcards of words and expressions (more on this later).

Finding people to talk with

I tried apps like Hellotalk and LingQ, but I failed to make them work. Probably I’m too shy to start taking French to someone who wants to learn Spanish. It sounds like a conflict of interest to me!

I did search for meetups in my area, and I found some. That is definitely something I’ll include in my plan for 2022.

Taking language lessons is another alternative. But to be honest, I find grammar uninteresting, and I want to practice the language by talking, not studying.

I thought as well about doing 15 days stages on the target country. It is the most expensive option but probably the most effective. Doing that four or five years in a row could make us gain complete control of the language basics.

Phase 3. Reading

For me, reading is all about gaining vocabulary. It will be painful and slow, but with the proper process, the benefits are massive. To acquire vocabulary is not just reading the words once or twice but reading them in many different contexts many times. There are strategies to cope with the more complex and less used work, and I’ll cover that in a bit.

The approach will be the same as with listening. You have to find material above your comfort level and of interest to you, e.g., If you like soccer, find topics about players or teams. If you like music, read about the musical scene in that language, etc. We are trying to make it less demanding and more attractive.

I do follow blogs on agile and technology in French. There are plenty of blogs in all languages on all kinds of topics, and I also participate in musical forums in French. Forums are great because there are all kinds of conversation, from formal ramblings to informal disputes. They are fun to read.

Finally, this year, I read two novels and two graphic novels in French. I was hesitant to start that, but once I did, I was impressed by how easy end up being. This year I plan to read four novels and several graphic novels more.

Phase 3. Reading in practice

I read at least fifteen minutes a day in French. But sometimes, when the book is interesting, I do it for one hour or more. When I find a word that I do not understand, I search it quickly in the dictionary (on the phone) to understand what I’m reading, but the most important is that I underline it and mark it on the margins.

Yes, I write in my books as much as needed, and I love it.

Somedays, I mark three of four words per page and some none. Of course, it depends on the complexity of the reading. With novels, I noticed that the author uses the same words repeatedly, so I mark many words at the beginning and a few at the end.

I invest one hour in making flashcards for every marked word at the weekends. To do so, I use Studies for Mac. Every flashcard has three assets:

  1. As Question: The word in French with the audio pronunciation.
  2. As Question: The word in Spanish or Catalan with an image.
  3. As Answer: The word in both languages, the image and the pronunciation. I will also add some sentences and their translations.

For the pronunciation, I use Forvo. It is an exciting service where individuals can participate by recording words in their native language so that students can benefit from it. I did participate in that service by uploading pronunciation in Spanish and Catalan.

To create the flashcards faster, I have a set of tabs in safari that contains a dictionary (Reverso), Forvo and DuckDuckGo Images.

Flashcard sample

I do review the flashcards every night before reading. It takes five to ten minutes, and with time, you speed up vocabulary learning. I did try to use flashcards created by other people, but I found it far more effective creating my own, especially for the very complicated words. The extra effort pays in the long run.

Where am I in French?

  • Phase 1: 100%
  • Phase 2: 10%
  • Phase 3: 30%

I did start my French Journey at the end of 2015, and I can not be more proud of it. In 2019 I stopped for some months, but I missed it and had to go back. Now I feel confident listening to French every day, and last year, I started reading seriously in that language. I feel sure that I will be happy with my plan for the next four years with my rudimentary French skills, and I’ll be ready for a new adventure.

If you start now with the language of your choice, in 8 to 10 years, you will have a new language under your belt. I’m not talking about a course or a title on your wall, but I real language that you can use and enjoy every day. How cool is that!