Language Learning Hacks

I was born in a family of English teachers and since an early age learning English has been a huge part of my life. Some time ago I started teaching Russian to foreigners, which motivated me to improve my knowledge of language learning process even further. Several months ago I started studying two new languages – Italian and Dutch – and now the question – how to optimize your language learning – again seems very relevant to me.

In this post, I will share some methods and sources to master a foreign language in a smarter way.


1. Sounds

  • Start with an alphabet

Learning letters and the right way to pronounce them is the basis for everything else. Ask a native speaker to go with you through the alphabet, write down the translations in the proper native writing system and in English phonetics and give one example word for each sound. Pay increased attention to unfamiliar sounds that might cause problems in the future.

Using International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) becomes extremely important when you face an alphabet that is completely different from one that you know. If you want to learn how to use IPA, check out these sources (1,2)  Also, you can find a detailed sound analysis (including IPA) for all the languages on Omniglot website.

If you have doubts about the way to pronounce a certain sound/word and you do not trust google translator, there are two other wonderful tools that allow you to request a sound pronunciation by a native speaker: Forvo (sounds & words mostly) and Rhinospike (word combinations, phrases, and even small texts).

  • Memorize the sounds

Invest some time in listening to the alphabet to get used to new sounds and memorize them.  The best way is to use digital flashcards for each letter of the alphabet including a word example.  You can create your own flashcards or just check existing Anki collection. If you want to find out how to use Anki to learn a language’s sound system, read this post written by a blogger and author of “Fluent Forever” Gabriel Wyner.


2. Vocabulary

  • Use language learning tools

Start to learn vocabulary with language learning tools. It is fun and it does not take much time since you can do it on the go.

  • Duolingo – everyone knows about Duolingo. However, I am sure that far not everyone is making the most use out of it. Do you know about word lists, flashcards, q&a sessions and text translations? If you want to discover the full extent of this wonderful app, check out the Duolingo internal Wiki-page (1) or a high-quality review of the app by language enthusiast, author of famous “Fluent in 3 months” book and famous blogger Benny Lewis (2)
  • Busuu  It is considered that it offers a bit more grammar & live interaction with native speakers rather than Duolingo
  • Babbel – According to users, this subscription-based app offers wider coverage of aspects than Duolingo and it does a better job preparing you for real-world conversations (not like in @shitduolingosays)


  • Focus on high-frequency vocabulary

I am sure that many of you are familiar with Pareto principle mostly known as “80/20 principle”: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

This rule is also applied to language learning. It has been found that first  10 most frequent words of English language (only 0.00004% of the existing 250,000 English words) account for 23.7% of all the literature available in English. If we consider 100 most frequent words (just 0.0004% of all English words), we can already cover 49% of all the literature. Broadening our vocabulary up to 2000 words (0,8% of all words) covers 80% of all the literature. Amazing, right? (learn more about the study by Dr. Paul Nation here).

Keep in mind this principle and focus on high-frequency words first (you can find word frequency data here) . Check out the Gabriel Wyners’ website for lists of most frequent 625 words in English (1, 2). Translations are also available on request on his website or you can try to find it in Anki.1Picture2.png

  • Keep a vocabulary notebook

The key to remembering new words is to keep track of them. The format does not matter unless you can always easily access your vocabulary to write down a new word you just heard. Pocket book, excel file, google doc, evernote folder or online tool. It is completely up to you.

Personally I could not find a better tool for keeping my new vocabulary than excel due to its interoperability. If you use Duolingo, you can find the list of all new words in each module available on the website and easily copy-paste it to your excel file.


Moreover, every time you use google translator, you can save the new word you have just translated and then again easily download an excel file with new words that you can add to your vocabulary.

In this way, almost with no effort, you have a well-structured list of new words, where you can add more information, such as topic, date learned or pronunciation.


  • Do quizzes

Sometimes it seems like the most conservative way to do things is the best one. Do you remember the way you learned new words back in high school? I do remember. I wrote a list of new words, then tried to translate it without looking in the book. When completed, I corrected it for mistakes, mixed the word order and did the same procedure until I get everything perfectly right.

No doubts that the same can be also done now, however, it is not very efficient. The solution I found is to do exactly the same exercise right in my vocabulary excel file.

Every time I reach 50 new words in my file, I hide a column with word translation and try to recover it using my own memory. I have one more column  that evaluates the results. Using a simple excel function [=IF(B2″English-Correct”=C2″English-Practice”;”Right”;”Wrong”)] and conditional cell formatting, it demonstrates you if you have made any mistakes or not. You can mix the word order as many times as you want using [=RAND()] function.


  • Use flashcards

Another wonderful old-school way to learn new words is to use flashcards (cards with a new foreign word on one side and translation on another side).

Must use application for this purpose is Quizlet.  You can import your vocabulary excel file there and in one minute your flashcards are ready. You can play with them to remember words or just listen  to them while running in the gym.

Moreover, you can always use a huge existing Quizlet flashcard collection that also includes word lists for different topics from Duolingo and other language learning apps.


  • Use Space Repetition System

If you are a Duolingo user, you know that you need to review older lessons from time to time to refresh the knowledge to maintain your high score. This approach to learning vocabulary is known as Spaced Repetition System (SRS) – a presentation method that gives you the information before you would forget it and makes sure that it stays constantly fresh in your mind.

Two other must-have apps that use SRS are Anki and Memrise. Both of them offer a huge database of vocabulary lists and cover a wide range of different topics. What I like the most about these apps is that they use associations (Anki only allows you to add your own association, while Memrise share associations of all the users with a certain word). If you are interested, check a detailed Anki tutorial by Benny Lewis here.


  • Use Google Images

When you have a free minute, play the game “Spot the differences” – search for different words in your target language in Google Images, look through results to understand how the words are used by locals and if you know all the word meanings.


3. Grammar

  • Deconstruct the language

I want to share with you one of the most interesting existing approaches to grammar offered by Tim Ferris – my favorite blogger and one of the modern productivity geniuses.

In summary, Tim suggests deconstructing a language to understand  how the grammar functions. He does it simply by translating several sentences that include all the most common grammatical structures (verb conjugation, placement of indirect/direct objects and pronouns, fundamental sentence structure).

The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to him.

If you also build negative sentences and questions to each sentence and then do the same for past and future tense, the language grammar basis would be almost cracked.

I agree that this approach might sound unrealistic, but it is definitely worth trying at least once. Moreover, very often all the job has already been done for you. For example, check the following links for Spanish, French, Greek or Chinese deconstruction. If you want to learn more about Tims’ system, check these videos (1, 2)


  • Follow an online course

If you want to study grammar in a structured way, but you are not eager to pay for courses or private classes, think about following an online language course. You can find many free online courses available on the open learning platforms, such as Coursera, EDX , Udemy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or Foreign Service Institute (FSI)If you still can not find what you are looking for, check out these extensive lists of free online language courses providers (1, 2, 3)

In case you are ready to invest in a paid online language course, you might like Teach yourself, Assimil and Pimsleur that are  the most highly rated paid courses according to the survey by Benny Lewis. Another interesting finding of this survey is that highly-advertised and well-known Rosetta Stone online language courses are almost the lowest in terms of client satisfaction.


4. Speaking

“The people who are best at learning a language are those who have no trouble sounding stupid” – Luis von Ahne, co-founder and CEO of Duolingo. Indeed,  it has been found that you can retain around 75% of what you learn when you practice while only 20-30% through audio-visual materials. Therefore, it is crucial to implement your knowledge  in practice as soon as you know the basis.

  • Practice offline 

Undoubtedly the most efficient and fastest way to overcome your language barrier is to spend some time in the language environment surrounded only by native speakers. If it is not an option, try to meet native speakers in your own city or at least look for conversation exchange partners.

  • Couchsurfing – organizes language exchanges, easy to meet native speakers who are willing to help you through language communities and groups
  • Meetup – perfect for meeting expats in the city, young professionals mostly
  • Internations – organizes language exchanges, more focused on more experienced professionals
  • Polyglot club – organizes language exchanges in major cities, covers a wide range of languages
  • Tandem – tinder-like app considering location, good for small daily chats
  • Local FB groups for expats/erasmus/international students/language exchange


  • Practice online

If you can not find anyone who is interested in practicing your target language around you, fortunately, nowadays it is extremely easy to find an online language partner.


  • Practice on your own

Do not forget that you do not necessarily need a partner to work on your speaking skills. We all have monologs running in our head all the time. It will be a great help if you challenge yourself to run this monolog in the new language. Try to describe what you see, how you feel and think about answering the most common questions about your life. Sooner or later when you speak with a real person, all these questions will come up and you’ll feel very comfortable answering them.


5. Immersion

  • Read

Start with facilitated reading – short stories (1,2,3) , newspapers (1), comics (1,2,3).  Use free online dictionaries to translate new words – Wordreference (highest quality for word meanings in French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese), (also covers 24 languages), Google Translate (sometimes it van mess up things but in general works pretty good and quick),  Mymemory  – f0r technical vocabulary).

If you are a Kindle User, you can easily adjust your tool for reading foreign literature (check here how).

Another possible way to read in a foreign language to look for bilingual books (1,2,3), acquire similar book at both languages / combine reading a book in one language with listening to audio-book in another one.

Also, you might find useful Learning With Texts  tool that allows to input text and then translate words, adding them to a growing personal database of words that can be exported to add in your excel vocabulary after and create flashcards.


  • Watch

Learning new language can be a lot of fun through watching different movies / tv series / videos / local youtube channels / tv shows.

If you struggle to find interesting video content in your target language, see what’s trending on Youtube in that country right now, buy trending TV series or films on a local Amazon or Ebay (like or, check local news channels (France24Deutsche WelleCNN Español) or just start using  FluentU (many local music videos, commercials, news and talk).. For beginners, it can be also interesting to check Extr@ series -a pseudo-comedy TV show for language learners, available in French, Spanish, German, and English.

The best way to learn through watching it is to set up your screen opening 3 browser windows simultaneously: actual video with English subtitles, transcript in a foreign language, and a Google Translate. You can find a lot of subtitles available on the following websites (1, 2).


  • Listen

Do not forget about language learning podcasts. You can easily improve your knowledge listening to it while commuting to work every day. Check out top 50 podcasts for learning a foreign language here.

If you feel like listening to local radio, check tunein to find one you prefer the most. If you are not a fan of  radio, but still want to listen to local songs, go to itunescharts and billboard for local song charts or just search on youtube. Open lyrics in a target language, English translation and just enjoy.


  • Learn subsconsciously

Every day we are spending hours using phones and laptops, surfing the internet and checking social media. What if all the information you saw there was in a language you are learning?

Try setting up your target language as a default one for all your time thefts (mobile phone, FB, whatsapp, instagram, windows, google, wikipedia). You will be surprised how useful your procrastination will become.

Also, check Google Dictionary, Language Immersion or Mind the Word browser extensions for Chrome that translate individual words on the web page you’re reading and encourage subconscious learning while you work/study.


As a final motivation booster, I recommend you to check the TED-talk by Benny Lewis who managed to become a polyglot and language hacker without any special talent for languages.

Thanks for reading and good luck with learning new languages 🙂

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12 thoughts on “Language Learning Hacks

  1. These are wonderful tips.
    Learning a language is a skill I never possessed. I tried and tried (several languages) but never could better at them then saying a word, or phrase.
    I truly respect those who can master a foreign tongue.


    1. Christine Nijdam May 13, 2016 — 8:01 pm

      Wow! this is a fantastic post. Quite a list of helpful tips for learning languages. I have found the flashcard system to be very useful. At the end of the day, however it is about practice, practice, practice.


  2. Nice tips. I do think that learning phrases and sentences is more important than just words.
    As soon as you learn a new word, you need to learn its context.


  3. Perfect timing! I recently decided to give Spanish another try. I grew up in California, took Spanish in school and we spent a lot of time south of the border so I was able to use it. Then I moved to the Islands and began learning Hawaiian for my community work and Japanese for business and the Spanish just faded away. But I would really like to relearn it so these are great tips and I’ve bookmarked this post to check out a few of the links you provided. Thanks!


  4. Great post! You actually sparked an interest I never knew I had, but learning another language seems like a productive hobby at this point in my life. Useful in the end as well.


  5. I’ve never been good at learning another language, but I feel it is a major step in understanding other cultures; the school systems should start instruction at an earlier age than they do.


  6. Great idea about a vocab notebook and to apply the 80/20 rule. That gives me hope.


  7. Joselyne Arekion October 4, 2016 — 4:57 pm

    I think it is not so difficult but practice make perfect


  8. Great tips!
    thank you


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