This scene probably looks familiar to efficient language learners. Anki decks for memorization on the left, Skype window in the middle of an Italki class on the right.

A screenshot from a recent class. My Anki decks for memorization are on the left, and on the right a Skype session with one of  my favorite Serbian teachers from Italki (Marija, ID 1487937). I record some of the new words and phrases from each class into my Anki decks.

A Skype lesson, organized through Italki, with my copy of Teach Yourself Serbian close at hand.

A Skype lesson, organized through Italki, with my copy of Teach Yourself Serbian close at hand.

I’ve lived in nine countries, and when I first arrived in most of them, I didn’t speak much of the language. Being linguistically and culturally lost has become a habit.

I’ve found the best way to advance rapidly in these situations (as well as if I’m attempting to learn before arrival) is to just jump in and start speaking. You must first and foremost be shameless.1This is precisely why studies have shown that alcohol can actually help language learning — at least of pronunciation. I’ll outline here a few other things I’ve discovered as I went from a monoglot with a bad memory to fluency in 6-8 languages (depending on how you count), but really it all boils down to being shameless enough to speak badly as you’re learning.

If you’re looking for advice on how to take on a language, keep in mind that learning styles are highly personal and you should take my or any other internet guru’s advice with a large grain of salt. While academic research lately tends to recommend communicative learning styles, it has also shown that many different methods can work2This book is a great overview and has been very useful to me in refining my approach to learning: Lightbown, Patsy M.; Spada, Nina (2013-01-24). How Languages are Learned 4th edition (Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers) (See in particular Kindle locations 1915-1918). Oxford University Press Elt. Kindle Edition., and the absolute best you can do is find a way to learn that matches your own style. And it’s so, so important to choose a way to learn that you personally find fun.

Sitting and listening to other people speak just as badly as yourself can be motivating (or not, depending on your taste), but it's an expensive and not a very efficient way to learn a language.

Sitting and listening to other people speak just as badly as yourself can be motivating and fun — or not, depending on your taste. But either way, it’s an expensive and far from the most efficient way to learn a language. Photo by Shane.

That said, in my experience … language schools and university classes are not such a good bet. You pay a lot of money to sit in a room where most people speak the target language just as badly as you do. You don’t get much time to speak yourself. And you have to spend more time and money getting to and from the class.

I prefer an approach that’s much cheaper (it can even be free) and more efficient. I mix online tutoring and/or language exchanges, with working from a communicative, self-teaching book. Here’s an outline of my strategy, as refined over the years.

1. Online Language Teachers and Exchanges

Of the many, many sites I’ve tried for finding both free language exchanges and paid tutors, Italki has been the best.3Other options for finding teachers/language exchanges are Livemocha and VerbalPlanet, but I personally haven’t had as much success with those. The quality of “professional” teachers on the site still varies enormously, but they do offer quite cheap trials to help you find the ones that fit you, and there are excellent teachers to be found for any language. Prices can run from about $5-20 per hour, making the lessons very competitive with (usually cheaper than) language schools and university classes. I recommend working with several different teachers simultaneously (both certified and “community”, or untrained teachers), as well as language exchanges, so that you get various perspectives on the language. The best teachers to work with are those who are willing and patient enough keep the conversation almost entirely in the target language. I schedule a one-hour class about every other weekday, and on off days study on my own.

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2. Books

Look for learning materials that emphasize communicating in relevant contexts. Grammar is important to help you feel comfortable and to find some shortcuts, but generally should not be an end in and of itself. I have personally used a number of the Teach Yourself Guides (a.k.a. Complete Language), as they follow a communicative approach, have clear grammar explanations, and provide relevant dialogues and context for each culture. They do tend to lack grammar practice; for that, grammar workbooks can be useful as a supplement. Here are Amazon links4Using these affiliate links to make your purchase supports TP. Thanks dears! to the best grammar books I’ve personally used for French, Spanish, Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, and Italian. And this is a fun, crucial look at spoken Brazilian Portuguese. Reader recommendations for these and other languages are welcome in the comments.

3. Memorization Software

Polyglot nuts and people memorizing just about anything have been raving for some time about Anki, a modern version of flashcards. I love it too, and use it daily. I make cards for the vocabulary and grammar rules that I want to remember on my laptop (doing so is itself a great way to learn); I can record the correct audio with my teacher (this even works over skype) and save images from a google search instead of just translations. The software syncs, and then everything I need to study is in my phone and available for review in any free moment throughout the day. Ideally, you can get your settings just right so that each flashcard will appear just before you would have forgotten it. Of course, paper flashcards can work well too if you don’t mind carrying a pile of them around to study in spare moments.

A screenshot from Anki for Android, showing an English phrase and the answer already revealed in Serbian. Audio and images can be saved with vocabulary. The buttons at the bottom are used to indicate when you want the flashcard to return, based on how successful you were at remembering the material.

A screenshot from Anki for Android, showing an English phrase and the answer already revealed in Serbian. Audio and images can be saved with vocabulary. The buttons at the bottom are used to indicate when you want the flashcard to return, based on how successful you were at remembering the material.

4. In-Person Language Exchanges

For meeting foreigners coming through your city, and locals when you’re traveling, the Couchsurfing site can be useful (to use it, you certainly never have to host/crash with strangers, but that’s an option). Whatever you do, just don’t give this website any money, as the evil, once-nonprofit-and-suddenly-turned-corporate entity has defrauded its members on a massive scale, and has exceptionally abusive policies claiming to “own” all of its users’ photos and messages (even Facebook doesn’t go that far). A nicer but currently less-populated alternative website has been set up at bewelcome.org. Also of use: scrabbin.com seems to be particularly good for German language exchanges, polyglotclub.com for French (though the site is annoying and hard to use), and ВКонтакте is the Facebook of Russia. Tandem offers popular online language exchange apps for Apple and Android devices.

5. Be Funny with Minimal Vocabulary

Use the TP method to have conversations in your target language, even before you’re the slightest bit conversant. You need to practice with native speakers, but people are unlikely to be patient enough to agree to that if you’re not entertaining to talk to. (Those who are rich and/or gorgeous can ignore this advice — and pretty much any of the world’s advice on anything.) Sure, you could badger and cajole people into speaking their own language with you (as opposed to English or whatever), but you’re better off just being funny. Hence my fluent-in-20-minutes method, which is about maximizing how amusing/charming you can be with a bare minimum of vocabulary and cultural awareness.

6. Tools for the Post-Dictionary World

Like most language learners and translators, I’m almost constantly logged on to WordReference and Google Translate. Of particular use are WordReference’s forums, where a lot of out-of-work translators seem to have nothing better to do than ponder your trickiest questions. Wiktionary and Wikipedia (use the links at left to see a technical term in a target language) are great. Linguee is a useful translation tool for phrases in some European languages, though the quality of its answers is erratic.

7. Global Video Calling and Document Editing

Google Hangouts and Skype are good for free, panglobal audio and video calling. The former also allows free screen- and google-doc-sharing, so that you can collectively correct texts during classes or language exchanges with someone across the world.

Any further recommendations for shameless language learning for the non-linguistically gifted are welcome in the comments.

Notes   [ + ]

1. This is precisely why studies have shown that alcohol can actually help language learning — at least of pronunciation.
2. This book is a great overview and has been very useful to me in refining my approach to learning: Lightbown, Patsy M.; Spada, Nina (2013-01-24). How Languages are Learned 4th edition (Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers) (See in particular Kindle locations 1915-1918). Oxford University Press Elt. Kindle Edition.
3. Other options for finding teachers/language exchanges are Livemocha and VerbalPlanet, but I personally haven’t had as much success with those.
4. Using these affiliate links to make your purchase supports TP. Thanks dears!