David Talbot

How I learn languages

Thu 29 December 2011

My current language learning system can be broken down into the following steps:

  1. Adding information to LWT
  2. Creating useful sample sentences
  3. Reviewing with memorising software
  4. Finding as much time as possible to talk in my target language
  5. Reading "easy" books

LWT (Learning With Texts)

The Learning With Texts project allows you to add your own text and audio with the intention of gradually building up a store of vocabulary and phrases which are then learned over time.  I posted a brief comment about the LWT project when I first started this blog. I'm still adding Deutsche Welle news items to the system, mainly because I find the combination of audio of transcripts so useful.  Furthermore, the news readers have very good voices - it's enjoyable listening to them talk!  In addition to the news items, I'm starting to add transcripts of books that I'm reading - see more about this in the reading section below.

Creating sentences

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of using a language "in the wild", just knowing "news German" isn't going to cut it.  You're going to need "day-to-day" language to catch a bus, buy a beer, ask someone out.  There are mainly two types of sentences that I create:

  1. Difficult words from LWT - it often happens that words or phrases which I trying to learn from my LWT just don't sink in to my memory.  In this case, I try and find a simple sentence (or two) containing this language element and add this to my
  2. Useful sentences - these kinds of sentences are by far the most important.  Depending on your level of understanding of your target language these kind of sentences could be anything from "could you tell me the time, please?" to "If I were you, I wouldn't have said that" etc.  Paradoxically, at least in my experience, I find these are also the hardest to gather, since they tend to pop up in the middle of conversation with someone i.e. I find myself trying to express myself  and find that the word aren't there.  I've tried carrying a dictaphone around to try and talk into when the moment occurs but, to he honest, I feel like a bit of an idiot talking into the thing.  It also tends to kill the flow of an otherwise conversation! (anyone with any tips on how to capture these moments
    • please let me know your thoughts!)

Remembering things with an SRS

Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) make it easier to remember things. I happen to have found Anki to work really well for me, so this is the application which I use for adding new sentences, aphorisms and cloze tests extracted from LWT.  The thing about using an SRS is this - you have to use it.  I happen to have gotten into a daily habit of sitting down with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning for half an hour and running through my reviews  - this has made a massive difference to my ability to recall words and use them in conversation.  I'd say it's made the single biggest difference to my learning.  This, in turn, inspires me to sit down every morning and keep on doing my reviews: a virtuous circle, so to say.

I synchronise the Anki desktop app with a live server which means that I'm always able to access the information no matter where I am.  As soon as I have a page about my specific set-up I'll post a link to it from here.


I happen to be lucky enough to have a German wife, which is a massive help when it comes to learning German: there's never any excuse for me not to practise with her.  More than this, though, I find it vital to be within a group of native speakers.  The reason behind this is that I'm more likely to be exposed to complete language than when I'm with my wife - perhaps because Tina unconsciously tones down her language to ensure that I'm able to follow along.  Granted, I may not always be directing the flow of conversation as I may be in English but it's a massive confidence boost to be in groups of native speakers of your target language and being able to understand more and more of what is being talked about.  This is something which really inspires me - being able to understand just a little bit more every time I meet up with native speakers.

Outside of my wife's circle of family and friends, Meetup has worked best for me in terms of finding groups of people to speak with.


Reading, as opposed to putting texts with my LWT system, is something I enjoy best when there is a certain flow to thing.  I'm able to generate this flow with German now by reading books at the language level just a bit above my current understanding level - that is to say, If I don't know a word, I can often glean the meaning from the context but I don't stop to look up the word in a dictionary.  I find it uncomfortable having a mental hand-brake slowing things down.  In addition, and if possible, I read books which have PDF versions and  put the text of the PDF into my LWT system.  This ensure that I can mop up any words or phrases which I may have missed along the way.