17 Jun 2016
Ignore the fads: 12 principles to learning a new language

It has been said that in this fast-paced world the only constant is change. This is true not only in the material world: now it is possible to change partners with the same speed we dispose of, and buy new shoes.

Even our opinions are on a fast track. We feel we need to have an opinion for everything, even if it goes one cm. deep into whatever the theme is – and then easily trade it in for another.


In the same way language learning methods (Das Geheimnis wie ich eine neue Sprache erlernen kann – und zwar pronto!) come and go, and what is announced as new may be old, but newly packaged.

Regardless of the methods we use, my experience has taught me that there are basic principles that should take place in effective language learning. Here are 12 of them:

  1. Individualization – Mass training is passé. The uniqueness of each person must take preeminence. The bigger the group of students in a classroom, the bigger the chance that they will be at different levels and backgrounds. Their motivations to learn can also be different. Ideally, it is better to learn in very small groups or, if you can afford it, take the Ferrari version which is one-to-one training (i-diom).
  2. Relevancy to the world outside the classroom – The language being learned should be connected to the immediate world of the learner. What you found out in your English textbook that Sally and Bob did with their dog may be nice to know, but not relevant to you at all when you need to learn how to write financial reports in perfect English in the next five weeks.
  3. Self-motivation – Let us not kid ourselves: we really cannot buy a language, even though some people register for a course as if they could. Rather, we have to put our own blood, sweat and tears into learning it.
  4. Positive Feedback – Because language learning is a long-term love affair, we need to hear once in a while that we are doing fine. That will keep the affair alive and passionate.
  5. Make mistakes – We know that we can learn through our mistakes. If we apply cold, hard mathematical probability to it, one can also conclude that the more mistakes we make and the fastest we correct them, the quicker we’ll develop. Once I had a group of finance experts as students. They would produce a crisp new sentence every 15 minutes. Each sentence that came out of their lips was perfect but the learning process was extremely slow and boring. True to their profession, they simply could not tolerate making mistakes.
  6. Automation – We need to reach a point where we can speak without thinking about grammar and let our subconscious do its part. Grammar, our long ally during our earlier stages of learning, needs to take a back seat now.
  7. Milestones – Like in a long car rally, we have to keep track of our progress and make adjustments if necessary. We may need to change the kind of exercises we do, the materials, our bad habits, the tie of our trainer, or, if possible, forget about learning Russian, Chinese or Arabic and stick to a familiar and exciting language such as Spanish so that you can see progress happen much faster.
  8. Creativity – What about sticking post-it notes all over your apartment in order to learn new words? Or if you are desperately looking for a speaking partner, have you tried calling all the Smiths found in the telephone book and pretend you want to speak with someone else in English? You would get a lot of free conversation time and even increase your vocabulary with some new words yelled at you. Be creative in your language learning.
  9. Culture – language reflects the mentality of those that speak it. Therefore, a “living” language is studied in connection with the environment it comes from. After a while you should start thinking like your “new tribe,” walking like their inhabitants, dressing, eating and even smelling like them.
  10. Analysis – We associate what we don´t know, our target language, with what we know, our mother tongue. We usually go through this process until we reach the intermediate level (B2) which is the great moment when we still keep our mothers, but put our mother tongue aside as a point of reference and use freely our new acquired language.
  11. Be greedy for Feedback – Social media is constantly reminding us that no man is an island, so we should really care about what people say about our progress. Your hard won new friends in the classroom will tell you straight to your face what you are doing right and the many things you are doing wrong. Put your pride aside, and be sure to gobble it up, and be hungry for more.
  12. Practicality – We basically study a language for business or pleasure. Even if we don´t care particularly about the new target language, at least we can make new, real friends, not the virtual, ephemeral kind. Long live the utilitarian approach to language learning and to life!


So, the following truth can be applied to life and learning a new language: Choose the principles of language learning, not the changing methods or fads.

What other language learning principles do you think are important?

About the author: Carlos Aleson is the director of i-diom, an institute specialized in language and communications training in Austria.