In Defense of Learning a Foreign Language

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One thing I would recommend everyone do is go through an independent language learning phase.

By independent, I mean outside of your traditional foreign language class in school.

About two years ago I set out to become fluent in Spanish so that I could more easily communicate with my ex-girlfriend’s parents. A year after using a combination of different apps and an online tutor, I discovered Gabe Wyner’s Fluent Forever method which emphasized the use of Anki, a flashcard app which was based on spaced repetition memorization. It worked. I learned nearly 1,000 of the most common words in Spanish, memorized entire songs, and was able to hold longer, richer conversations with native Spanish speakers.

Dressing like Juan Valdez will NOT help you learn Spanish faster.

I would have continued all the way to 1,000 had I not decided to prioritize a sales course and a part-time job teaching English online (while also working a full-time job). When both of those ended, however, I never got back into it. COVID-19 ruined my travel plans to backpack South America, and personal hardships made me lose motivation to continue.

I must have spent over 300 hours in total learning Spanish the past two years. Most people would probably see this as a huge waste of time, but I learned a lot outside of my target language. I discovered spaced repetition and the best strategies for learning, which then led me to learning experts like Barbara Oakley and Jim Kwik. I went much deeper into Latin and Spanish culture, discovering great TV shows like La Casa de Papel, and many more great artists like Bad Bunny and J Balvin (nearly a quarter of my liked music on Spotify is in Spanish). I also discovered Esta Vida by Jorge Celedon, which is the greatest feel-good song ever.

Play this the next time you’re with a bunch of Colombians, and see what happens.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned the do’s and don’ts of learning a foreign language. So if I ever want to get back into it, I know where to start again.

Here are the do’s to learning a foreign language:

  • Use a spaced repetition system to learn your target language’s sounds, vocabulary, and grammar (and do it in that order).
  • Immerse yourself in media. Watch TV shows, read books, listen to podcasts and songs, all in your target language.
  • Have a concrete goal. It could be learning the first 500 most common words, reading your favorite book in your target language, or scoring at a certain level on a proficiency exam. Concrete goals will provide greater direction than intangible goals like “being able to talk to my in-laws” (which was basically my first goal, and why I switched to 1,000 words later on).

Here are the don’ts to learning a foreign language:

  • Don’t use Duolingo. I know a lot of people love Duolingo because it’s fun and you feel like you’re learning, but it’s not good for retention. Use apps like Anki for vocabulary, and Glossika (which uses AI for their SRS) for phrases and listening comprehension. Duolingo does have a great podcast, however.
  • Don’t settle for conversational practice with a cheap tutor. This is similar to the Duolingo trap. And I’ve fallen for both. At a certain point you hit a plateau, and the difference between a tutor and a speaking buddy is the tutor will make your lessons progressively harder to keep leveling you up. Demand improvisational speaking, corrections, and words or phrases you wouldn’t typically find in a textbook. The people that do this for you are tutors. The rest are just speaking buddies.

I hope you found this useful if you’re considering learning a foreign language. Some people will think learning a foreign language is a waste of time, but it teaches you how to set concrete goals, how to learn from various mediums, and how to get comfortable being uncomfortable. And while much of the developed world speaks English, there’s a level of appreciation that comes across when you speak in someone’s native tongue. Google Translate just doesn’t have the same effect.