Creating a Language-Learning Strategy

03.03.2017 |

Episode #3 of the course How to learn a foreign language by WordBrewery


Welcome back! Today we are going to discuss how to put the materials you’ve collected to work in a language-learning strategy. Polyglots like Benny Lewis and Luca Lampariello have achieved their goals through designing a personalized curriculum, and you can do the same.


The four essential language-learning skills

Learning a language entails developing four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. All four skills require knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. Make sure you have materials for your target language that cover each area. For example, you could use a book to practice reading and writing, audio recordings to practice listening, and a conversation group or partner to practice speaking.

Think about which skill you want to focus on most. Reading is crucial for vocabulary acquisition, but if you are starting a language with an unfamiliar script, you should probably start with speaking to avoid feeling overwhelmed. If your primary goal is to be able to have conversations with native speakers, you can emphasize speaking and listening.

Think of and visualize concrete actions that you would like to be able to perform in your language. Examples include asking for directions, visiting a doctor, ordering at a restaurant, or reading a novel. No matter which skills you want to focus on, you’ll need a solid foundation of vocabulary and basic grammar. This makes reading important, as reading improves your vocabulary and grammar skills. Linguist Stephen Krashen argues that maximizing “comprehensible input” through extensive reading and listening is the best way to learn a language.


Structuring your language curriculum

You can use a textbook to structure your curriculum, as each chapter will build upon previous ones. But this isn’t the only way. You can also work from skill checklists. There are several checklists to choose from, or you can merge them and use tasks from each one:

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) – List categorized by level and skill (reading, writing, speaking, listening, presenting). Many tasks related to social interactions.

Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE) – Gives concrete examples for the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Includes survival/social tasks, work tasks, and study-based tasks.

Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) – Divided into sections based on language skill with tasks listed on a spectrum of easy to difficult.


Create a study schedule and take advantage of “hidden moments”

Make a mock schedule for your typical day and block out all the times you are busy. This will give you an idea of when you can schedule “review” sessions and “intensive” study periods.

We also love Barry Farber’s idea of studying in “hidden moments”: When you are waiting in lines or commuting on public transportation, for example, you may be spending small amounts of time doing nothing productive. Such moments add up quickly, and it is possible to learn a lot in these moments. We designed WordBrewery as a way to make meaningful progress in a language in short study sessions like this.

Flash cards, whether physical or digital, have always been a popular way to review vocabulary quickly. You can make your own physical flash cards by folding index cards in four and cutting them. We recommend filling each card with no more than two words and flipping them from the top rather than the side (so that the corresponding English words are “upside down” on the other side of the card). Note that studying vocabulary without context is helpful only for review, and it is much more effective to learn vocabulary in context; accordingly, consider using larger cards and writing authentic example sentences on them that contain your vocabulary words.

Word lists can also be helpful for quick review. You can keep a list of twenty or thirty vocabulary words in your pocket, write the English word on the left half of the page and its target-language equivalent on the right, and cover up the answers with an index card. Make sure you are practicing both recognition (looking at the foreign word first) and recall (looking at the English word first); recall is harder but very effective for boosting long-term memory.

It is crucial above all that you actively listen to and speak along with your audio programs as often as possible.


General tips for personalized learning

• Take advantage of hidden moments to discover and practice learn new vocabulary with WordBrewery, Anki, Memrise, and other tools.

• Use visualization and can-do statements describing particular skills to create learning prompts and evaluate your progress.

• Practice writing, then check your writing by working with a native-speaking tutor in your local community or on websites like italki and Lang-8.


Recommended resources

Want to learn another language? Take it one sentence at a time | The WordBrewery Blog

8 ways to create better flashcards  | Gabriel Wyner

Spaced repetition: Never forget vocabulary ever again  | Benny Lewis

5 tips for creating realistic language learning goals | ILSC Voice

How to set SMART goals for language learning | Agnieszka Murdoch


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