How to Learn a Foreign Language

My tips for how to learn a foreign language.

I speak German, English, and Swedish. I also had to learn French for five years in school and currently dabble in learning Japanese. If you wish you were also able to speak a foreign language, read on to learn where to start and what has helped me on my journey.

For context: German is my native language. I learned English from an early age in school. French followed some years later as a required school subject. In contrast to English, I did not care for the French language and had no motivation to learn it. I had other things to do as a teenager, like playing video games. Only later, during university where I was forced to learn how to learn in order to pass my computer science classes, did I rekindle the desire to learn another foreign language. Swedish I learned entirely on my own. After completing the Swedish tree in Duolingo, I took a Swedish class (A2) in university, but it was only to tick off some credit points for my degree and taught me nothing I didn’t already know.

Classes vs Self-Study

I don’t think learning a language in a classroom setting is a particularly efficient way. More often than not, language classes are conducted in such a way that the pace of the course is determined by the slowest learner in the group … and not everybody in the class is equally motivated. What you will probably be required to do is to buy a text book so that you can go through that textbook together as a group. In many cases, there will be too many participants in the group. Consequently, the teacher won’t be able to listen to and correct your pronunciation for more than 5 minutes out of the 90 minutes.

Save the time/money for the class. Instead, find a friend who is willing to learn the same language as you, and go through the textbook with that friend or even alone. You will be so much faster and more efficient that way. To improve your pronunciation, there are very efficient techniques such as shadowing. Basically, you listen carefully, and at a very low speed, to some audio/video recording of a native speaker and you imitate the sounds they make … word for word, syllable for syllable, sound for sound. If you don’t get a sound right, rewind and replay the recording as often as needed. Of course, having a good teacher or a study partner who is a native speaker is invaluable. But even if you don’t have your personal native speaker, shadowing allows you to make great progress towards good pronunciation.

Language Learning Apps

There are a couple of apps out there: Duolingo, Memrise, Clozemaster, Babbel, Lingvist, etc. What you need to understand is that there is no “best app”. Learning a language isn’t about finding the one app to rule them all. All apps are a little bit different and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. It wouldn’t be very efficient to pick one single app and stick with that choice until the end of time.

Instead, you’ll want to combine different apps and use the various approaches together. At least if your goal is to really build a wide knowledge, i.e., to be able to actually have an actual conversation. It’s no good to solely build a large vocabulary. Naturally, you’ll also want to get to know the grammar and to be able to understand written texts as well as audio material of native speakers. But first and foremost, your objective should be to be able to produce words rather than merely recognise them.

I even encourage you to abandon an app entirely once you have outgrown it and it is no longer useful to you. Even if that means that you’ll lose your highscore/streak/whatever. Your goal is to acquire the language, not to be the first in some list.


For the mentioned reasons, I recommend to begin your language journey with Duolingo in order to get a hang of the language, to understand some basic grammar rules and to build a vocabulary large enough so that you can—as soon as possible—transition to Clozemaster.

Obviously, this recommendation is highly dependent on which language you want to learn. On the one hand, some languages simply are not available on Duolingo. But the more important reason is, apps like Duolingo etc. work only for languages that have grammar structures similar to English, mostly Romance and Germanic languages. These languages include the typical “mainstream languages” such as Spanish, French, Italian, Swedish, etc. But for other languages such as Japanese—which is the most difficult language to learn for a native English speaker—there are far more efficient approaches.

Why Start With Duolingo?

I don’t like Babbel and Lingvist. The languages you can learn with them are pretty limited. Duolingo and Memrise are way better. Both are pretty similar, but in my opinion Duolingo is the clear winner.

Duolingo and Memrise are great during the early steps of learning a language. They both implement a gamification system which keeps you motivated. You can level up and achieve first successes pretty quickly. Consistency is key when learning a language. Practising ten minutes every day is far more effective than practising three hours once a week. And motivation through rewards—even if they are just level-ups—helps in staying consistent. Obviously, practising an hour or more every day is better than practising ten minutes every day, that’s not the point. The point is that you need to be consistent, and while not everyone can carve out an hour every day, everybody, no matter how busy, has 10 minutes of spare time.

Duolingo starts with sentences like “The boy eats the apple.” Memrise starts with sentences that are actually useful in a conversation such as “How are you?” Nevertheless, I like Duolingo better. Memrise teaches you nothing about grammar and how to form sentences. You could learn a few sentences like “How are you?” by heart, but beyond that you’re lost. It’s solely memorization without actual understanding. Also, Duolingo has way better forums and a great community. After each exercise there are explanations why exactly you were wrong. They don’t just present you the solution but also explain why it has to be that way.

I strongly recommend using Duolingo’s website from a desktop computer rather than their mobile app. The exercises in the mobile app are far too easy and lack the explanations of the website.

If you want to follow me on Duolingo for a little bit of motivation/competition, you can find me here.

As I said, consistency is key if you really are serious about acquiring that language. You have to make it a daily routine. It helps a lot, especially in the beginning, to learn always at the same time of the day or to integrate 10 minutes of language learning into one of your existing routines. You could learn while sipping on your morning coffee or you could make it the last thing you do before you go to sleep (instead of watching Netflix). By integrating it into an existing routine I mean that you could, for example, wake up, make some coffee, take a shower but don’t allow yourself to brush your teeth until you have finished your daily lesson on Duolingo. You certainly don’t want to leave for work without having brushed your teeth, so this trick urges you to engage with the language before the day has even begun.

Why Clozemaster?

Of course, Duolingo has its downsides too. In order to really master a language, you need to train both types of memory: the recognition memory as well as the recall memory. It’s of little use if you train only one direction but not the other direction, that is, if you instantly know the English translation when you read, e.g., a Swedish word but can’t remember for the life of you how to say that English word in Swedish.

Duolingo is not very strong at training your recall memory. While you will become able to recognize words, I recommend transitioning to Clozemaster as soon as you’ve aquired a sufficiently large vocabulary. In Clozemaster, you are presented fill-in-the-blank texts (so-called clozes) and you need to fill in the missing words. This happens entirely in the foreign language without the English language as intermediary.

Even if you haven’t yet learned every tense there is or don’t have a particularly large vocabulary yet, don’t stick with Duolingo too long. After reviewing enough sentences in Clozemaster, you will assimilate sentence patterns and vocabulary automatically, thanks to context and the provided translation. By exposing yourself to comprehensible input for some time, you’ll naturally get the feel for what is correct. Just how a baby does not learn its mother’s language by way of sitting down with a dictionary … Just how no child asks their parent, “How do I form the passive?” … Just how children don’t search Google for what a supine is … Instead, they pick up the meaning of frequently heard words subliminally and automatically, and begin to use them themselves as they imitate what they observe and hear. That’s the power of comprehensible input.

You could, of course, begin using Clozemaster right away and skip using Duolingo altogether if you are not afraid of a much steeper learning curve. The progress might be a lot faster, but it will also be a lot harder. However, you should first know at least some words in order to be able to infer other words from context.

Another thing I don’t like about Duolingo are the changes they’ve recently made to their platform: they introduced a health system. With each mistake you make you lose health and without enough health you cannot continue learning until a few hours have passed (or you pay actual real-world money). I believe that making mistakes is a crucial part of learning something new, and this new system increases the fear of making mistakes, because making too many mistakes will lead to the end of your learning session for the day. I understand that they have to find some way to make money in order to keep the site going, but in my opinion this approach is more harmful than helpful.


Anki is the king of learning apps. It is a beast of its own, since you can use it to learn not only languages but to remember anything: from U.S. presidents to capital cities, from keyboard shortcuts and terminal commands to anatomy, from guitar chords to Sanskrit transliterations of yoga poses, etc. Anki is especially popular among medical students who have to store vast amounts of knowledge and terminology in their brains. I use it for computer science, math definitions, and for learning Japanese, among other things. Basically, for anything I find interesting and want to remember.

Since Anki is so incredibly powerful, it absolutely deserves a post of its own.

There definitely is an learning curve, but it is worth it. Learning how to use Anki—and thus learning how to learn—is an extremely beneficial meta skill to have. The smartest people I’ve encountered so far in my career all seem to use Anki or some other sort of flashcard system. That’s why they’re so knowledgeable in the first place.

How Long to Complete Duolingo’s Language Tree

I’ve seen a lot of posts like “I learned Spanish in 3 months” or “I finished Duolingo’s Swedish tree in 3 months”. Don’t listen to such people. You definitely should not feel bad because it took you much longer than them. It is possible to finish a tree that quickly, yes, and it isn’t even hard if you’re willing to spend the time, e.g., 2 hours every day instead of just those 10 minutes on the toilet. But finishing a language tree that quickly is the equivalent to cramming when studying the week before an exam. You can’t compress an entire semester into one week, and you can’t compress an entire language into 3 months, and at the same time expect to retain it all. For instance, at some point during your math classes you certainly learned about differential equations or the Poisson distribution. Do you still know what that is? Alternatively, think of something you learned in your first semester. Now imagine you had to explain it to me. Having trouble?

Boasting with how quickly one could complete a language tree is just a show-off thing. A vanity metric. I much prefer to space out my studying sessions. Sure, I could have dedicated an hour or two each day to learning about a certain topic, e.g., the passive. Within that daily hour of practise I could exhaust the chosen subject, i.e., I could do all five stages of the lesson covering the passive in a single day, and be done with it. The icon would shimmer golden, giving me a sense of accomplishment, and I could tell myself, “I now know the passive! On to the next subject!” What would happen, however, is that later on, I would stumble upon some unfamiliar sentence structure and would not know how to translate that sentence. I would look up the grammar to find out that it’s the passive which I just had forgotten, or rather, didn’t even recognize anymore because my knowledge was so shallow, i.e., not ingrained deep enough. I would think something along the lines of, “I was supposed to know that. I already learned the passive weeks ago! At least I thought so …” Unless you read sentences formulated in the passive voice every day and hammer the passive into your brain that way, you need to space out the sessions in which you study the passive. Good writing prefers the active voice to the passive voice, since it is easier for the reader to process, so you probably wouldn’t review the passive as often as it would be advisable. Also, you can’t review every possible topic every single day. Therefore, spaced repetition is necessary.

Instead of doing stage 1 through 5 of a lesson on the same day, I’d rather study just one stage per day and do the remaining four stages on four additional but different days. In the same fashion, I probably wouldn’t do the five stages within five consecutive days but spread them out even further. For instance, you could first complete the first stage of every lesson there is, and then return to do stage 2 of all the different lessons in a second pass, and so on. This way you won’t finish your language tree in 3 months, but I think your understanding of the language will be more solidified. At least it’s better than finishing all five stages of a lesson in a single day, and then letting weeks go by before you concern yourself with that subject, e.g., the passive, again.

Learning a language requires constant engagement, and if you think you can invest 3 months, then be done with it and cross it from your bucket list and move on to the next thing, you’re wrong. And since learning a language requires constant engagement with the language, it makes no matter how quickly you complete the language tree. There is no finishing line after which you can lean back and relax, so why care? Just because all five stages of the lesson covering the passive are done and the icon shines golden now doesn’t mean that you’ll never have to revisit the passive again. Show up every single day to your lessons, then you don’t have to worry whether you’re doing enough or whether you’re learning faster or slower than fellow language learners.

How to Best Learn Japanese

Learning Japanese is completely different to learning almost any other language. Japanese is a language that depends heavily on context. Don’t waste your time and/or money on apps or services like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone for learning Japanese. Apps like these try to teach you the language just by showing you pictures without any context. You won’t acquire anything this way. At least not actual language ability.

Instead, start with the Starter’s Guide on the subreddit /r/LearnJapanese. Then, read through the resources page. This will give you plenty of information.

Subtitles (In Your Native Language) Are Bad

You certainly know how people have taught themselves to speak English just by watching Netflix or YouTube. That’s what immersion is: exposing yourself to content in the language you want to learn. However, you’ll probably be surprised to hear that you’ll make better progress by turning the subtitles off entirely.1 If you must use subtitles, always use the foreign-language subtitles. Do not use subtitles in your native language. Your plot comprehension may be higher, but it will not improve your listening skills. According to the linked study, it even harms your vocabulary acquisition. Don’t lose sight of your primary goal here. The plot comprehension will improve automatically with time as your other skills improve.

Hacks and Shortcuts

If you know Tim Ferriss—he has a hack for everything. In his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, he claims that he won the gold medal at the national Chinese kickboxing championship. He (supposedly) achieved this by exploiting a loophole in the rules which allowed him to fight only against opponents who were physically inferior to him. While he may now call himself a national champion, in a real fight he would still get his ass whooped … so what’s the point of that title, except ego?2

For learning languages, he has some hacks too. While this may provide you with enough language ability to get by in a foreign country and to articulate your most basic needs, I doubt that this approach will actually lead to a true understanding of the language. If all you want is to be able to order food in a restaurant during your week-long vacation or to impress some locals you’ll never see again after your superficial 5-minute conversation, this video may prove helpful. But if you want to learn a language for the sake of learning the language, I wouldn’t expect much of it.

Final Words

I hope you enjoyed my take on this and could extract some useful tips. If so, I would love to hear from you. Write me a comment in the section down below or follow me on Twitter. Thanks, and take care.

  1. Source: Birulés-Muntané J, Soto-Faraco S (2016) Watching Subtitled Films Can Help Learning Foreign Languages. ↩︎

  2. It’s the same as with how fast you completed the language tree in Duolingo. What good is it to have completed the tree in a record-setting time when you can’t remember anything of it just 1 week or 1 month later? ↩︎

Last updated on Jan 12, 2019
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