How to learn languages effectively

I’ve been studying English since elementary schools. I attended English night classes when I was in middle school and high school.

I played a lot of video games. My childhood was filled with all kinds of video games. Most of them were in English. I loved them.

By the time I was in 12th grade, I could read and understand the majority of the text in video games (Ex: Final Fantasy series). But when it came to listening, I was a bit lost. I couldn’t catch up with what the characters were saying.

When I went to university, I started reading books in English and listening to English podcasts. I was obsessed with the Tony Robby personal development program at the time. I listened to that series every day. I also read English blogs and watched Youtube in English in my spare time.

After a few years in university, I noticed that my listening skill improved a lot. I could watch any Youtube videos without subtitles. I could listen to English podcasts and understand most of the content.

I felt extraordinary.

Now I have the key to learn anything in this world.

Then, I decided to learn Japanese. Because I love mangas and anime.

And things started to get tough.

I realised that my English studying approach was working because I have been through more than 15 years exposed to the language. Most of the English content I read or listen every day don’t have that many vocabs and thus they don’t affect my overall comprehension.

But when it comes to Japanese, I know nothing. When I read a manga in Japanese, I don’t understand anything. When I watch an anime, I have no idea what it’s about.

Then the question became: How to learn a new language if you know nothing about it?

I was fascinated by this interesting question. I thought maybe by learning a completely new language, I could discover a good way to learn any language in the future.

Then the journey begun.

I started looking all over the internet for Japanese learning tips. I read blogs, watched Youtube. I enrolled online classes. I spoke to native Japanese teachers via Skype. I experimented a lot of approaches.

After several months of trial and errors, I finally found an approach that worked for me. I still could not read mangas or anime, but at least I can understand my Japanese teacher and can respond back easily.

Here’s the approach:

No matter what I do, I have to complete these 4 activities every day:

  • Listen passively to a Japanese radio or podcast for 30-60 minutes. By “passively” I mean just let it play without paying any attention. I like to listen to Japanese music radios, they broadcast top billboard songs almost every hour.
  • Sit down and have an active study session for 30-60 mins:
    • Pick one Japanese song that I like. Look that the lyric. Write down the words that I don’t know. Look them up in a dictionary. Make sure I understand the lyrics.
    • Or pick one anime with Japanese subtitles. Play it. Pause on every dialogue. Look up new vocabs. Make sure I understand the line before moving on to the next.
    • Or enroll to an online class (Ex: They usually have dialogue breakdown already. I can just take note on new vocabs and sentence structures.
  • Put new vocabularies into a software called Anki. (I will have a separate blog post for this)
  • Use Anki to learn new vocabs as well as reviewing old ones.

At weekends, I schedule an one-hour online session with a Japanese teacher to practice listening and speaking.

How does that work?

  • Listen passively will get you exposed to the sound of the language. Even though you don’t understand for now, you need these sounds to go into your brain as much as possible before your brain starts to make sense of them.
  • Active study session helps to add more words and sentences into your vocabulary. So during the day you listen to something you don’t understand. At night, you study and try to understand it bit by bit. Gradually, you will start to understand even while you’re listening.
  • Once you get new vocabs, you need a way to memorise them forever. And Anki is the best solution for that purpose.
  • All of these studying won’t go anywhere if you don’t know whether you’re improving. It’s better to talk to a native teacher every week so that he/she can point out your mistakes and steer you into the right direction. Otherwise, you’re just studying something you will never use.

Even though I have stopped studying Japanese due to other higher priorities, I have experienced great improvement following this approach. I believe if I continue to follow it for 6-12 months, I might be able to read mangas and watch anime without subtitles at all.

This is not limited to just Japanese. We can apply it to any other language, including English.

It works for me but may not work for every one. Maybe you can try to see how it goes. I hope you will find the best approach to learn languages for yourself.

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