A Review of 13 Language Learning Tactics (Tested From Learning 9 Languages)

Sep 10 2020

In my journey learning 9 languages over the years, I tried all sorts of different methods to make my learning more effective. Here are some of the notable approaches, along with why they work (or don't work). It will be a long learning journey , I hope this article will make yours more fun and effective.

Let's jump right in.

Moving to the Target Country

In my experience learning a language, immersion is powerful. Being in a country where your target language is spoken is ideal. Your learning becomes always on, even if you don't realize it.

I moved to Tokyo and worked at an all-Japanese company a few years ago. At the beginning I knew very little Japanese. But with this sink-or-swim approach and the daily immersion, I became comfortable with basic conversations within three months.

Now, it is not always possible to just pack up and move to a different place. Read on for other tips I tested from my own experience.

Language Exchange Meetups

You can only get so good at speaking a language without talking to native speakers. Language exchange groups are a great way to get that conversational practice. In a typical event, you would get paired up/grouped with native speakers of your target language, who are themselves looking to level up on your native tongue.

For half of the time, the group would converse in one language, and then switch to the other language half-way. If you live in a major city, there are usually quite a few of these groups for the common languages. Meetup is a great place to look for these events. This is an effective way to practice in your home city, or when you are already in your target country.

Online Language Exchange

If you are unable to attend in-person meetups, online language exchange can be effective as well. Though in-person conversations would always feel more organic, you still get the instant feedback and practice with online language exchange calls.

I have made a few friends along the way, while practicing my German, French, and Japanese. I previously had a pleasant experience using iTalki , where I could easily find language partners and schedule 1-1 Skype calls with them. It was entirely free. But at the time of writing, it appears they may have removed the free partner option.

Learning Entire Phrases

I found it effective to memorize entire sentences, and pull them out when I need to. There are several benefits to this. When you are communicating in realtime, having phrases already memorized can reduce your stumbling. It can make you appear fluent and keep the conversation flowing. This also makes you feel more comfortable, knowing what to say or how to respond in a given situation.

These familiar phrases serve as important anchors as well, for learning about the structure of the language, and for easily swapping out components to adapt to new situations. For example, after memorizing the phrase "After a few months of travelling, I am happy to finally be able to work with everyone", you can substitute some of the words and use it in a new scenario.

Phrase books can be somewhat useful for this purpose, though it can sound scripted and unnatural. What feels more natural is writing down and remembering the response of native speaker in a real-life situation or in a movie.

Movies/Shows in Your Target Language

Movies and TV shows are a great source of natural-sounding phrases (though overly dramatic sometimes) to add to your knowledge bank. This is great for a number of reasons:

  • You can usually figure out what the movie is about (especially if you first watch it in your native language).
  • It is enjoyable, which means you will stick with it
  • You get to learn about the culture behind your target language as well.
  • And if you are watching it on TV, I find that even the commercials in your target language are interesting. Not only is it good practice, you get a better sense of what kinds of products local people buy and the messaging that appeals to them. With the growing selection of international shows/movies on Netflix, along with audio and/or subtitles, this is a fun and easy way to make progress.


    Interviews with Subtitles and Translations

    In addition to movies/shows, interviews are the perfect content for getting exposure to natural conversations, where people use casual everyday language. Easy Languages on YouTube is hands down one of my favourite language resources. They interview people on the streets on a different topic each episode, and provide subtitles in the original language + English. Over the years, they have built up an amazing collection of content in many (!) languages.

    Here's a taste of their content for German learners:



    Passive Background Looping

    This is one of the most effective hacks I developed to maximize my time spent learning a language. As I work, I would put on a familiar track of native speakers talking (much of the time it would be Easy Languages) in the ground. This way, I can get a lot of listening practice without spending much time. By picking content that you are already familiar with, you already know what is being talked about. And the looping gets you more "reps" for each phrase. It also helps you memorize entire phrases that you can use with ease later.



    This one can be tricky. I have tried quite a few podcasts and many podcast formats aren't that conducive to learning a foreign language. Either I don't understand what's going on, or there is too much repeating over the often dry content. But for Japanese learners, I highly recommend Bilingual News hosted by Michael and Mami. It features the hosts talking about interesting topics in the news, with Michael speaking only English and Mami speaking only Japanese. The conversation always moves forward and remains engaging, and you can usually easily fill in the words you missed from the context.


    Ask a Native Speaker "How do I say X?" Wherever Possible

    If you have friends (or better yet, roommates) from other countries, you can definitely get some practice in as you hang out. When you are trying to say something, why not learn to say it in your target language too? Anytime is learning time! You'll remember it much better than other methods because the learning takes place in real-life expeirences. I used to worry this may come off as annoying, but in my experience most people are happy to help, and appreciate the ernest effort you make to understand their language/culture.


    Changing Your Phone's Language

    One easy way to squeeze out an extra bit of language immersion is to simply change your mobile phone to your target language. Doing so should automatically update the language in all your apps as well. Since you likely already know how to navigate through most apps anyway, in most cases you can guess the meaning of new words that you don't yet know. With this, even Facebook notifications become good practice.


    Taking classes

    I have never been a fan of learning a language in a classroom, having taken Russian, French and Mandarin classs. This one is a bit of a hit or miss. The classroom environment has always felt a bit too artificial for this purpose. Typically, there is also limited practice, limited individual attention (and hence feedback ). And the separation between the classroom learning context and the real-life situations makes it hard to apply the knowledge.

    That said, there are some amazing teachers out there who excel at teaching and building curriculum. And for some people, the structure of learning in a group guided by a competent instructor is just what they need. For Chinese learners, Excel Mandarin is an example of educators who have created an effective learning system for their students. Though not from my personal experience, I have heard nothing but positive reviews about these folks.



    There was a time when I would have a long-running practice streak on the popular free app Duolingo . I would use the app daily, and almost completed the curriculum for Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and German. I felt great. I felt engaged. I felt like I was making progress. But that's the dangerous part about apps like these that try to "gamify" the language learning process. it makes you feel productive, even if it may not reflect reality.

    It is all too easy to slip into auto-pilot mode, where you just rush to the finish line of each exercise. This is similar to how one would "speed read" a book in an hour and retain nothing from it. The app also trains you to get used to the machine-generated bad pronunciation, which is counter-productive for your listening skills. On the bright side, Duolingo can be helpful for exposure to new words, and adding some structure to your learning, especially if you are not following a curriculum or textbook.


    Reading Textbooks

    Reading a textbook for the purpose of language learning is perhaps the best way to learn the formal structure of a language. But it is not effective for conversational purposes. Grammar rules are clean, but conversational languages are messy. Similar to the discussion above about taking classes, textbooks tend to give a similar passive understanding of rules, as opposed to the ability to apply that knowledge in real-time.


    The best approach is the one you actually take and follow through with. One that fits your learning objectives and learning style. The more you can align your learning with your intrinsic motivation, the more likely it is that it will stick.

    You may also enjoy my other articles on how long it takes to learn a language , and the value of learning languages even as machine translation becomes good enough for basic communication.

    Hope you enjoyed this post. Let's stay in touch.