Learning to Learn Languages is a Journey
There’s no single way to learn a language, and as I continue to try and learn languages over the years, how I learn languages has dramatically changed. For several years, probably ever since I discovered AJATT back in undergrad, I’ve been convinced that learning language in context is the only real way to succeed. I still believe this, but it’s an amazingly broad approach to language learning that doesn’t cut out many methods. Despite this belief, I’m still willing to give alternative methods a try every once in a while.
Since having a kid 4 months ago, the amount of time I have to sit at a computer and study has dramatically decreased. I’ve found that I have plenty of time where I can listen to language courses or use phone apps one handed. This has shifted my main tools away from Anki, which I’ve discussed extensively in the past. The two strongest benefits to Anki are it’s spaced repetition system and it’s flexibility in content. My experience with Anki has been quite positive, but it’s only been truly useful to me when I’ve been creating my content. Without the time available to sit down and create my own courses, my usage of Anki has significantly shrunk, largely relegated to reviewing old content. In the place of Anki, more of my time has been spent utilizing other apps and courses.
Since I last posted, Glossika has migrated from their mp3 courses to a new web-based, AI driven, subscription based course. I’ve seen a lot of dissent on the web over this change, but so far I love the new version. Rather than spending ~$130 on a full course for a single language, I instead pay a subscription fee that gives me access to all of the languages. I’ve experimented with approximately 16 different languages they offer through the new format, and have regularly spent time studying Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, & Russian through daily lessons.
Glossika encourages you to do their courses by listening to the audio and repeating, and to not look at the given text as much as possible. It autoplays the sentences with appropriate, and also customizable length, pauses, which means that except for starting the course & rating it’s difficulty at the end, it’s completely hands free and almost completely eyes free. My morning routine has been to do all of my Glossika lessons right after waking up while bottle feeding my daughter and playing with her on the floor of my office: about 1.5-2 hours per day. I have to imagine that other audio based courses, like Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, would also give this hands free approach that allows you to multitask while studying as well, and it’s possible at some point in the future I’ll experiment with others besides Glossika.
Besides Glossika, I’ve also been trying out a number of various apps that allow me to study with a single hand. Something I can do while cradling a sleepy baby, or something not completely distracting I can do while watching TV with my wife in the evenings.
Skritter is an app that teaches you Chinese characters (simplified or traditional) and also has a Japanese kanji variant. You can create a custom list of vocabulary words and individual characters to study, or pick from one of thousands of premade lists, many of which correspond to well known Chinese/Japanese text books. This is definitely one of those apps where you can easily pick it up and study just a few characters from your SRS backlog and then easily let your attention drift back to something else. The mental switches don’t really have an effect on my studying, so it’s ideal while watching TV, waiting in line at the store, or while riding on the train. I wouldn’t recommend it as a primary way to learn Chinese, but it’s definitely worth checking out for learning Chinese characters. Similar to Glossika, it has a subscription based model for access.
WaniKani is an online course for learning to read, but not write, Japanese characters using mnemonics. Unlike the well known Remembering the Kanji book by James Heisig, WaniKani uses their own implementation of SRS to help you drill the mnemonics for radicals, kanji, and vocabulary words that use these kanji. Plus, similar to the freely available KanjiDamage, the mnemonics are often quite crude and humorous, which not only makes studying more enjoyable, but also more effective. WaniKani is available as a subscription (with an unlimited lifetime subscription available), but you might also consider checking out KanjiDamage’s official Anki deck if you don’t want to spend the money on WaniKani.
Lingvist and Clozemaster are both apps that help teach you vocabulary in the context of several example sentences. Lingvist only has type to fill in the blank, while Clozemaster has an easier multiple choice option as well. Lingvist is definitely the more polished of the two, but is currently only available for French, Spanish, German, & Russian. Clozemaster’s example sentences are primarily taken from Tatoeba’s community maintained example sentence translation pairs which give Clozemaster’s sentences varying levels of quality. However, it supports literally dozens of languages from English, so if Lingvist doesn’t yet support the language you’re trying to learn it’s worth giving it a try. Both of these apps are “freemium” software, which have a basic version available for absolutely free with the option to purchase subscriptions to some more advanced niceties.
Skritter, WaniKani, & Lingvist are all apps that I use on a near daily frequency in addition to Glossika. Clozemaster and I go through spurts of use, but are currently in a period of inactivity. Besides these apps, there are a host of other options available, which can generally be found with a simple search of “learn <language name>”.