This is what I consider to be the single most important concept you must apply when learning a language, or any complex subject. You have to be persistently consistent. What does that mean?
In order to learn something, you must be exposed to it repeatedly. After a single exposure to a word or phrase you’d like to remember in, say Spanish, you’ll be able to recall it for somewhere between a few minutes and a few hours, presuming no mnemonic techniques were employed, and you’ll be able to recognize it and recall it’s meaning for perhaps a few days, at best. This is something called the Forgetting Curve, first formalized in the scientific literature by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1888. This knowledge was later built upon by the development of spaced repetition systems and tools, such as Anki. The basic concept is simple: expose the student to each individual concept they want to learn (e.g. on a single flashcard, whether paper or digital) repeatedly over time with an increasing interval of time between exposures. You review it a lot in the beginning and then less and less over time because it’s no long necessary to review it as often. You might review a single flashcard (containing a single vocabulary word, for example) three times in the first week after you first learn it, then twice over the next month, then three times over the next six months after that. It is now quite permanently fixed in your long-term memory. You have “learned” it (for good).
You know what works even better than flashcards? Natural exposure that results in the same essential effect, that is repeated exposure to the same information (which you want to learn).
Pick something that is entertaining and/or interesting for you, preferrably something by and for native speakers so that the language contained therein is natural, the type they use every day amongst themselves, the type you want to learn. Popular media like movies, TV shows, podcasts, and books are great for this, it’s one of several reasons why I recommend them for language-learning. Consistently expose yourself to the language you want to learn via this media. This means every day (or at least six days a week – as consistently as you can practically manage, in other words). Consistency counts for far more than quantity of time, e.g. three hours spread evenly over the week is far better than five hours on Saturday. Why?
Because you repeatedly expose yourself to the language over a consistent period of time. This means you will see the most commonly used words and expressions over and over again, as well as the most common grammatical and syntactical structures (which you’ll learn intuitively, don’t worry about them). The most commonly used language is what you want to learn first, right?
People bother themselves with all kinds of unnecessary stuff over this. All they really need to do is just go, go, go, meaning watch twenty, thirty, sixty minutes, or whatever they can, of Spanish-language TV/movies/podcast/etc. every single day.
*Note: this input must be comprehensible, meaning that you have to understand it in order to learn it. All that means is that you look up what you don’t know so that you understand it. The best way to do this with video and audio material is to simply have subtitles (for video) and a transcript for audio. If you’re learning Spanish, please see my List of Sites Where You Can Watch Spanish Videos with Spanish Subtitles or Transcripts Online.
Let the Language Tell You What You Need to Learn
One of my most popular posts which, don’t get me wrong, I’m quite proud of as a good deal of work went into it and it’s been repeatedly cited by other sources over the years, is an article about how many words you need to know and which ones you should be learning – which ones in this case determined by frequency of use. People go hear, read the study, by frequency dictionaries, and base their study of a language on frequency lists of vocabulary and phrases. I think this is…unnecessary. What you really need to do is just consume popular media, in the language you want to learn, every single day, while looking up and learning as much of it as possible. If you would like a guide on how to do this, I…um…wrote a whole book about it.
This will take care of exposing you to the language you most need to learn, because which words/phrases/syntax/grammar are “reviewed” (via seeing/hearing them in the media you’re consuming) and how frequently is automatically determined by how commonly used they are, with the most commonly used such items being the most important and the ones you should learn first. Let the language tell you what you need to learn.
You’ll know that you need to learn the word “soy” (means “I am”) in Spanish because, as you watch Spanish-language TV shows and movies, listen to Spanish-language songs and podcasts, and read Spanish-language books and newspapers, you will see that word use a lot. You will very quickly learn what it means. Same goes for other such similarly frequent words as, “quedar” (to remain), “llegar” (to arrive), “estar” (to be in a certain state), “casa” (house), etc. “Casa” doesn’t need a flashcard. “Soy” doesn’t need a flashcard. “Llegar” doesn’t need a flashcard. If you’re exposing yourself to Spanish-language media on a consistent basis you’ll see them a dozen times each in your first week.
This is just, “don’t give up”. You have to persistently be consistent in exposing yourself to, and applying, the language (that is, apply what you just learned whenever possible). A language is a huge, complex, corpus (that’s Latin for “body”) of information, all interconnected (this word is related to that one, which is used in this phrase, and the use of which is governed by that grammar rule, etc.). It’s very intimidating at first in that you can’t understand anything and it seems like you never will, it seems so difficult, it seems like a lost cause.
If you do what I’m telling you here, at the end of your first week of consistently exposing yourself to the language for just thirty minutes a day, you won’t feel that way. You’ll see massive progress and think, “I can do this…it’s going to take a while, but I can do it”. Do it.
For more similar articles, please check out my General Foreign Language Learning category.