The most effective language learning strategies

Image of pawns on a board.

Language learning strategies can be a great help when learning a new language. A language learning strategy is an approach to learning that is meant to make learning easier and more successful. A strategy is kind of like a map — it provides direction and assistance to help guide you on your journey. In this post, we will talk about strategies that you can use to help you master a new language. We’ll also take a look at how to create language learning strategies that best fit your needs!

Are you ready? Let’s take a look at our first strategy: Having a definite goal in mind.

1. Have a definite goal in mind

It’s always important to have a definite goal in mind when learning a language. Setting goals helps clarify what you need to work on and where you need to begin your journey.

To figure out what your language learning goals are, you may first want to ask yourself what motivates you to study the language. Are you learning French to watch a new TV show you found online? Maybe you want to be able to sing along to that new Spanish song on the radio? Research has shown us that setting goals based on your motivation substantially impacts success. Not sure where to start with goal-setting? Mango’s got you covered! Hop over to our post on setting good language learning goals, or jump straight to our goal-setting worksheet.

A drawing of a bullseye to represent achieving your goals

2. Immerse yourself in the experience

Another language learning strategy is to put aside your study guides and immerse yourself in the experience of learning a language. Instead of poring over pages and pages of grammar rules, try to make your target language a normal part of your daily life. Watch TV shows, listen to podcasts, read recipes, write diary entries, or talk to yourself out loud. Even though you won’t be explicitly focusing on learning (maybe you’re trying to relax or cook dinner), you’ll still pick up on your language in the background. In fact, this can even lead to more fluent, automatic language skills! Pretty cool, right?

A drawing of a girl sitting on a chair in the living room listening to music

3. Listen on a regular basis

Listening to your new language on a regular basis is a good strategy for improving your overall proficiency. This is because when you listen to something in your target language, you receive input. But what does this mean? 

Input is the language (words, phrases, intonation, sounds, etc.) that we are exposed to when we read or listen to something. Languages are best learned when we are exposed to input that is mostly comprehensible, but that contains some language we don’t yet know (e.g., new words, grammar, etc.). 

A woman wearing headphones staring outside a window

When you understand most of what you’re hearing, you can concentrate on the parts you don’t yet understand. Practically, you should try to listen to media that is familiar and interesting, but that is a little bit above your level. Keep track of what parts of the input (words, pronunciations, etc.) are new for you and make a point of writing them down to study later. (For more listening-based strategies, check out this article). If you’re having trouble finding good materials, try the Mango app! Mango courses contain listening practice that is appropriately tailored to your proficiency level. Using Mango, you can practice your listening with conversations that combine new material with language you already know. This brings us to our next strategy: Using spaced repetition to study vocabulary. Let’s take a look.

4. Use spaced repetition to improve your vocabulary skills

Spaced repetition is one of the most effective strategies for improving your vocabulary skills. Spaced repetition refers to the process of distancing, or spacing out, review sessions instead of studying everything at the same time. Imagine that you have a big vocabulary test coming up. Which sounds like a better study method: Cramming for the test by reviewing all your notes for the semester the night before, or taking a couple of weeks to go over a few words each night? I can guarantee you (and so can the research!) that spacing out your study program will get you the better grade.

Language-Learning-Strategies

Spaced repetition can also help you remember words better in the long term. Here’s how it works. Start by learning a few new words each night (make flashcards and quiz yourself, for example) and stopping there. The next day, see how many words you remember! Once you can get them all correct after an overnight break, you can increase the amount of time between learning sessions with those particular words. Soon, you’ll find that your brain has learned even the trickiest words and can remember them even weeks (and months!) after learning them. Keep adding new words to your mental (or actual) flashcard deck, and repeat the process.

The Mango app’s vocabulary review system was built with a spaced repetition algorithm that automatically spaces out your practice according to your learning needs! Check out our article on improving your vocabulary for more strategies!

5. Think in the language you’re learning

As strange as it may initially seem, thinking in the language you’re learning is an effective way to build your fluency. A common pitfall for language learners is to think of what they want to say (or write) in their first language, and then translate it into their second language. But language learning involves a lot more than translation, and there are many concepts and phrases that can’t be translated. For example, imagine you’d like to use the idiom, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” in Spanish. The literal translation (está lloviendo gatos y perros) doesn’t make sense in Spanish. The equivalent Spanish phrase is llueve a cántaros, which translates literally to “it’s raining (or it rains) pitchers!”

A drawing of a woman drinking a cup of coffee

Part of learning a language is learning to think about the world in a new way. There is actually evidence that the structure of the languages you speak can influence the way you think. It may be hard at first, but instead of translating from English, start with what you know in the language you’re learning and build from there. You’ll sound much more natural, and you’ll develop a more intuitive grasp of your second language in the process!

6. Make lots of mistakes

One of the best ways to learn a new language (or learn anything, really) is to make a lot of mistakes. Don’t roll your eyes just yet! As frustrating as mistakes can be, they actually provide us with great opportunities to learn – once they are corrected, of course. Corrective feedback is a form of input your brain can use to help you avoid making the mistake a second time. But even if you do make the same mistake again, don’t worry! Making mistakes can be evidence of learning. You heard that right! In the process of learning a language, there is a stage (even when children learn their first languages) where we make systematic, patterned errors.

These errors often come about because we over apply a rule we have internalized. For example, an English learner may know that you add “s” to a noun to make it plural, which means they might say “mouses” instead of “mice.” While this is technically a mistake, it’s also evidence that the learner has learned the general pluralization rule — now they just need to learn that the word “mouse” is an exception. See? Making mistakes gives us space for new input (learning the word “mice”) and also reinforces what we already know (the plural “s”). So, next time you make a mistake, take a deep breath and remember that this is a natural (and crucial) part of the learning process!

7. Read as much as you can in your foreign language

Another key strategy for your language learning journey is to read as much as you can in your target language. Like listening, reading provides us with input which our brains use to learn. Input is essential for picking up on new vocabulary and grammatical structures. So the more you read in the language you’re trying to learn, the more you’ll learn!

Reading in your target language might seem really daunting at first. But I promise it’s not as scary as it seems! Start small: try reading road signs, menus, lyrics, or even simple social media posts. You can even change the settings on your phone or computer to a different language. This is great for reading practice! (Just make sure you know how to change it back!)

A drawing of a person reading a book and looking confused

As you work up your skills and confidence, you can start reading news articles or even full books. Sometimes, it helps to read things that you’ve already read before in your first language. This way, you are familiar with the plot and can pay attention to the language used to tell the story, instead of the plot. Harry Potter is a popular choice for this strategy. If you’d like some more ideas, check out our article on improving your reading skills.

Now, let’s take a look at our last learning strategy.

8. Write as much as you can in your foreign language

Like reading and listening, you should also write as much as you can in your target language. Writing hones your productive capabilities, meaning you get to practice producing the language yourself. You need to strengthen your productive skills in order to fully master the language you’re learning.

For a lot of learners, writing in their target language is really scary. Students often associate writing with long research papers and harsh feedback on spelling and grammar. 

A drawing of a hand holding a pen

While it’s certainly important to practice your grammar and spelling, writing in your new language doesn’t have to be so formal. Again, start small: write a grocery list in a new language, or keep a language-learning journal where you track your learning progress. Whatever method you choose, just keep in mind that the more you write, the easier and more natural it will become. Check out our article on improving your writing skills for more ideas!

Now that you have some language learning strategies in your back pocket, you may be wondering, “How can I create a language learning approach that works for me?” Read on and you’ll find out!

How to create an effective strategy for learning a new language

As we’ve discussed in this post, creating an effective strategy for learning a new language is an important step in the learning process. Creating your own strategy involves thinking about all the individual strategies we’ve discussed so far. Still lost? Here’s a quick 5-step plan you can try:

Are there apps and platforms to create a language learning strategy?

Language learning apps can be especially helpful if you’re having trouble creating your own learning strategy. A language learning app is an online resource meant to facilitate language learning by offering study tools and language learning content (like vocabulary, culture notes, and grammar points). The Mango app is a great choice. Mango’s courses were built using insights from second language learning research, and reflect all the language learning strategies we’ve discussed in this article. For example, Mango uses tools like spaced repetition for vocabulary review, provides plentiful input for learners, creates opportunities to learn implicitly and explicitly, and guides learners through their language study.

And that’s it! Now that you’ve got the fundamentals of language learning strategies down, it’s time to get started! Set your goals, develop your learning strategy (or strategies!), and give it a go!

References

Meet The Author:
Camille Kurtz
Camille Kurtz
Linguist at Mango Languages
Camille is a Mango linguist with a BA in Linguistics from Georgetown University. She has a love for all things language-related, with a particular penchant for language acquisition and sociolinguistics. She’s learned Spanish, French, and Brazilian Portuguese, but when she’s not brushing up on her language skills, she’s likely embracing the excitement of New York City or spoiling her cat, Jezzy.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

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