Laws for Linguists

So by now some of you lovely faithful readers have got to be thinking:

“Okay, the inspirational, touchy feely stuff is great BUT how about something practical?  Something I can actually apply!”

Well, I do aim to give the people what they want. 

There are a lot of websites out there that will give a list of guidelines and practices to learn a language.  Every polyglot has their mantras and I’m no exception.  So today,  I’m sharing my list of language learning rules to help you get started.  Next week, as a follow up, I’ll share how I organize my language learning, especially when I first start.

EVERYONE is different.  Some of you may disagree with these rules or my organization methods and to you I say Kudos.  Way to figure out what works best for you.  That is not only awesome, but also I’d love to hear about it so I can share more helpful information with our fellow polyglots.  All I ask is that you share your opinions and tips in a tactful manner.  Thanks!



1.  10 minutes a day is better than an hour a week

If you take away nothing else, please take away this.  I know SO many people who buy a dozen language learning resources, sign up on countless websites, join 50 social media groups, and go on a language BINGE because by golly, they have DECIDED to learn this language NOW!  While an initial binge is understandable (and frankly unavoidable if my own past endeavors are any indication), it is not, and I repeat, NOT sustainable.  A four hour binge on Saturday becomes 2 on Sunday, then half an hour on Monday, and before you know it, it’s been a month and you have to blow the dust off your lovely books and re-set all your passwords.

Set a REASONABLE amount of time per day to work on your language.  I recommend no more than 30 minutes when you are starting, and be satisfied with yourself if you manage at least half of that with consistency.  Because my friends, THAT is the key- consistency.  Language is a daily practice, not a test to cram for, so make it part of yours.  I promise reading 1 tweet a day will gain you more in the long run than a once a month binge session with those Rosetta Stone CDs.

(A lot of people find they benefit from time-boxing or task-boxing various aspects of language learning.  For more information, check out this blog.)


2. Balance your input

If you REALLY want to be solid in your target language, you need to balance all four skills.  That means you need both listening and reading input, and you need practice in both speaking and writing (typing is acceptable in this modern era, though for unfamiliar scripts I do recommend some handwriting practice).  Fortunately, access to all of these is relatively easy to find nowadays.

 “Oh yeah, right.  I want to learn Gleepglop the language of Cave People of Biddledoo.  Where on earth am I going to find this stuff?”

Even for obscure languages, it is AMAZING what the internet has managed to put together.  To find resources, here is a short list of ideas:

  • a) Check out .  You can love or hate their language classroom setups, but bottom line, they CAN connect you with native speakers of a wide variety of languages.  Many are more than willing to help and some may want your assistance in learning your native tongue.  You get to gain a skill and build karma helping someone- talk about a win-win.  UPDATE: Livemocha closed last year, but a new website is in its place:  I have not checked it out much, but it does appear to be a good language exchange site.  I also recommend italki because you can hire professional teachers, community tutors, or find free advice from fellow language learners.
  • b)  Check out Wikipedia.  That front log in page?  It lists a TON of language options.  Do all of them have a bunch of articles?  No.  Is it a start?  You bet.
  •  c) Go to Google Translate and learn a few words.  It’s not perfect, I realize this.  But if you can learn the word for “news”, you’ll be on your way to both audio and reading input in short order.


3.  Find SOMEONE to practice/learn with

This goes along with the last one, but merits its own mention.  Languages are about interaction with one another.  It is VERY difficult, though not impossible, to do it all on your own.  If you can, make friends with a native speaker.  Again the above resources (as well as more I’ll share over time) can help you do that even over a great distance.

If not, see if you can find a friend who also wants to learn your language.  While native input is great, even someone at your own level can be a great help.  Generally, no two people have the same strengths and sometimes talking about points of a language that you find confusing with someone else can bring great clarity.

If no one in your immediate circle is interested, turn to social media.  Tumblr and Facebook are both great starting points for finding people interested in your language.  Share ideas, resources, frustrations, etc…  E-mail, instant message, Skype if you feel comfortable.  Part of this whole adventure is communicating with new people, and while it may be a bit scary at first, I promise you’ll be glad you did.


4. Make it fun

If all your language learning becomes is reviewing flashcards and staring at grammar charts, you will likely burn out quick.  (Unless you are an uber grammar nerd, in case carry on my brother/sister!)  While both of these may be necessary from time to time, try to inject pieces of fun into your language learning.  You enjoy Facebook and Twitter anyhow?  Put Facebook in your target language or follow some celebrities on Twitter in your new tongue.  Love Manga or fanfiction?  Search for Manga raws (those in the original language) and try to puzzle out a word or two.  Search on AO3 by your target language- you MIGHT even find a translated copy so that you can compare the version in your L1 to that in your L2.  Listen to silly vlogs, watch god-awful but heart-touching telenovelas, find a comedian or two.

Find the fun in language study and you’ll seldom have to search for motivation.


5. Don’t Buy it to Shelve it

I mentioned this in my first blog but I will probably continue to beat this particular horse.  PLEASE do NOT spend your hard earned cash just to fill your bookshelf with a bunch of resources you don’t use.  I’ve done it and my wallet likes to remind me often.  If you find a resource you think can help you, by all means GET IT.  But recognize quality  over quantity.  It is often better to spend $50 on a really good resource than $10 on a slapped together phrasebook.

 AND there are LOTS of really great free resources which can keep your costs low.  Hello Internet and Thank You!  🙂

If you need help picking out a good resource, try checking out reviews online or look for the fellow polyglot in the language section.  You can always recognize us- we are the ones RE-ORGANIZING the section because some moron put the Hebrew book in the Chinese section and the Arabic book in ASL section and … well, you see where I’m going with this.  Even if we haven’t studied your language, we probably can judge a book by its table of contents, illustrations/diagrams, and other features.  We love to help newbies, so feel free to ask!


6. Keep it Real, Yo

Let me state that as a Spanish Language teacher, I am actually a big fan of textbooks.  I think they can be invaluable in helping someone who is overwhelmed with the concept of learning a new language organize their studies and give them a general pathway.  That said…

Authentic material is an ABSOLUTE MUST if you want to learn your language right.  You need to be exposing yourself to native speech and text as soon as possible.  Fortunately, Mr. Internet is happy to serve.  I strongly recommend YouTube videos and Tweets to the new language learner- they’re short and manageable, easily fitting in the 10 minute every day time slots I mentioned earlier.  News articles and videos are also great sources, as well as television websites in your L2.  (These often feature short commercial trailer type clips of shows as well as synopses and reviews.)  Find something that intrigues you and check in regularly.  Authentic input helps you get beyond the formal language of the textbook into the everyday colloquial speech you will more likely encounter.


7. Check in with Your “Why”

A friend of mine was recently discussing his Japanese study with me.  He told me how he had started learning Japanese so he could better understand the various Anime shows he loved so much.  Yet as his study progressed, he found himself watching less and less Anime.  He also found himself often starved for motivation to continue with his study.

“I spent all this time learning this language FOR THIS PURPOSE.  Then I didn’t use it.  How dumb was that?”

Why did you pick this language in the first place?  For work, for fun, for a significant other?  Did you like an aspect of the culture or want to travel to this place?  Whatever your why is, make sure it is intricately tied into your language practice.  Post a travel brochure in your study area, whisper a sweet nothing to your partner once a week in their native tongue, read about that unique cultural attribute in your new tongue (or a mixture thereof).  Keeping your why an integral part of what you are doing will help you keep your eye on the prize and sustain motivation.  I’m glad to report my friend is watching more Anime again and finding study easy once more.


8. Remember, the Tortoise Won

We live in a world of instant gratification.  We want something, we go after it, we get it (or we don’t), we move on.

Language learning doesn’t work that way.

You are going to have days where it seems like every single vocabulary word you’ve bothered to learn just flew out of your head.  You are going to have times when the grammar doesn’t make sense, or you’re tired and stressed from your job and don’t want to put in the time, and you WILL have days (or even weeks) where you say “To hell with this” and ignore your lovely language in favor of socializing, TV, or other distracting pursuits.

 This is OKAY.

It’s important to remember that learning a language is a lifelong endeavor.  You’ll never be perfect, never know every single word, not even in your own native tongue.  And if you think about it, that really takes the pressure off.  You have the rest of your life to learn this and so, if today is bad, you CAN come back tomorrow and get it right.

This is NOT an excuse to skip a week of practice.  Rather, it’s a recognition that there is no finish line to race toward; only slow and steady progress toward a series of goals you set for yourself.  That’s how you learn a language.


A cool pic of fellow (and far more famous) Polyglot Benny Lewis.

I don’t claim to be an expert, just a fellow polyglot reporting from the trenches.  These worked for me; I hope they can give you some guidance.  I’d love to hear from any of you about your own “language learning” rules.  Please feel free to drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

Live Long and Polyglot On, Ya’ll.  🙂


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/25/14.

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