Language Learning – Going from 0 to 1

This is part of a longer post about language learning from the section about how to go from knowing nothing to becoming fluent.

To level up from a knows-nothing, absolute beginner start by doing anything you can for practice for a little while. You need to get reps as it’s going to take some time for your brain to begin recognizing new patterns. There needs to be some basic building blocks in place before you can get to the fun stuff. Strap in for the long haul and try to do a little every day. It might even be counterproductive to do too much until you get the basics down.

  • Types of practice: Duolingo, *really* basic stuff like reciting the alphabet, memorizing basic words and phrases in Anki flashcards
  • Goals: learn the fundamentals, learn a few of the most basic words, be able to complete the “hi, how are you, where are you from?” and do a basic introduction of yourself, where I am from, what do I do, etc. begin laying the foundation for effective communication
  • Timeframe: 1-2 months for an “easy” language, 2-4 months for a “hard” one

Absolute 0

Let’s start with the *really basic* stuff

  • the alphabet
  • writing system
  • basic articles
  • basic sounds in basic words
    • hello and goodbye
    • yes and no
    • thanks and you’re welcome

If you’re learning Spanish, you get most of that stuff for free and can skip ahead. If you’re learning Chinese you’re going to have to be patient and take some time get some familiarity in characters/pinyin, word order, and new concepts like tones. You simply can’t move forward until you have the basics for reading and listening.

Practical Communication Right Away

I try to speak to people as quickly as possible and optimize my learning around that. If I have the most basic stuff down, my next goal is to be able to have a simple (like really simple) conversation. Imagine you are traveling and you strike up a simple conversation with a stranger, then work to be able to recreate that in your target language. Some maybe obvious ones:

  • how to introduce yourself (My name is Jack. I am from X. I am a Y, etc)
  • how to ask “where is X”,
  • ask people basic questions about themselves (what do you do for work, what do you do for fun, etc – learn to ask people what you actually want to ask people)

You’re not really ready to talk to people yet until the next stage but you can start learning some other practical tools you’ll need to have a conversation. With some practice you start to learn which building blocks are important to effective communication. These are some that I have found can go a long way:

  • slang word for “dude”
  • slang word for “cool”
  • a swear word

These might seem weird. It’s fun to learn and use slang and native speakers think it’s funny. You can also communicate A LOT using body language, intonation, and just those simple words. With just the words for “cool” and “no” you can communicate likes/dislikes, desire to go somewhere/do something or not, whether you’re feeling good or bad, etc. The swear word sometimes help express “hell yes!” or “HELL NO!” which can be important.

Lastly, if I was doing this for travel, I would go a little further and start memorizing some vocabulary words, specifically:

  • numbers 1-10 or 1-100
  • basic transportation (airport/bus/taxi) words
  • basic city nouns like street, house, bank, cafe, museum, night club (whatever you think you’ll actually encounter)
  • how to say “the police” or better something like “let’s ask the police”
  • do you speak English?

The police once got a group of scammers to leave me alone who were trying to intimidate me into giving them money. You might need to flag someone down who speaks English to help you with something you aren’t advanced enough for yet. The rest are simply likely to come up.