Ideas/Guideline for Learning a Language to Fluency

Path of Growth through Immersion

First things first, yes you can learn a new language! Never doubt that!
Tldr; If you want to learn a language well use the language in context.

I just wanted post something helpful/motivational with regards to learning a language from zero to fluency. I used this method to learn German to near-native level fluency. If you want proof I can provide it upon request. The method is language agnostic but I have tailored it somewhat to Japanese. This is because I’m currently learning Japanese. Also if it’s in the wrong spot please direct me and I’ll move it. If it’s a dup, not useful or just a plain bad fit let me know and I’ll delete it. It’s all very anecdotal at best and your mileage may vary. Hopefully, it can benefit someone.

Most people around the world learn at least one language well enough to be able to use it for the day-to-day task of communication. Even the majority of children fit nicely into this segment of society. Well, how did they learn it? I don’t believe there are a high number of toddlers running around with grammar books and dictionaries. In short, I feel that the majority of language instruction is taught in an anti-intuitive and unnatural way at best. I think Michel Thomas is a better example of a more natural approach to language learning that concentrates on the application of what you currently know in the target language. I mention him because his method is more in line with mine and is an indicator of where I’d like to go with this How-to. A big difference between his method and my own is that he’s done a lot of the leg work for you and gathered some interesting exercises all into one package. It also caps off at some point in difficulty but it’s a good start at least. My way of doing it is a lot less expensive but require gathering up all of the exercises/material on your own. The upside of that is that you are in complete control of what you use to learn with so you can keep it as fun and interesting as you like. I’m an easily distractible person so I needed a way to make the process as captivating as possible from the very beginning. The key for me was engaging with the language from the get-go and building a strong intuitive base from which utilizing the language would be aided with contextual knowledge. I’m a big picture kind of person and use context to aid both my understanding and ability to memorize. The whole method can be summed up with:

  • Know where you want to go,
  • Know where you currently are,
  • Know what you need to do to get there and
  • Know why you want/need to get there. (This helps with longevity when things get rough)

The following details of the preceding points are the expounding of the method itself.

I like to envision language learning from the eyes and ears of a baby. At this stage its brain is on fire with the continual slurping down and processing of its environment. A large part of that is language. The parents constantly speaking to him/her. The radio/TV is on in the back ground and there is whatever text they see but don’t yet recognize. It’s all being processed. I feel it’s worthwhile to start the same way.

Phase 1

The first part of this journey is to have a,

high frequency of exposure to natural speed Japanese in a variety of contexts.
Those can be any of your choosing but I opted for News, Documentaries, Animes, Movies and TV shows. Just let them run and give your brain a chance to get used to hearing it. In my own experience this eventually lead to mental exhaustion but I chose to stick with it. After a while it felt more natural to hear the language being spoken. You get a feel for the rhythm and flow of the language. In addition to listening, I also go to Japanese websites, like the news for example, and just soak in how it looks. At this stage, you can’t write or speak. Furthermore, understanding isn’t important. A contextual base of knowledge is being built for natural intuition of the language. A baby gets lots of this until at some point their parents start teaching them to read little by little. I do not have the time a baby has, to spend years with no understanding of what’s going on. So, how long you stay at this stage is up to you but it’s important to have exposure to the language with no help, no subtitles. Just let yourself be confused and soak it in. Besides everyone is confused when starting to learn something new, especially a language and phrasebooks only provides an illusion of understanding because languages do not translate 1:1. So, just let the language speak for itself and enjoy the ride.
Over time if you stick with it you’ll start to want to know more of what’s going on as you listen and “read”.

Phase 2

This will lead into part two:

  • Start building up basic vocabulary
  • Begin to explore grammar some

In this part, imagine you are two or three. This is a time when people start saying short sentences and conveying simple ideas. A great place to start is with children’s media. Get ahold of children’s books, watch children’s programming, visit children’s website and listen to children’s songs. Not only will the Japanese be simpler at this stage but you also will be exposed to valuable cultural input. It’s at this stage that society attempts to imprint upon the next generation the values and ideas that they find acceptable and honorable. I feel it’s a wonderful way to gain insight into the culture. An added bonus is having something unexpected to talk to people about. It could definitely be a good ice breaker on down the road.
In order to make the most of this stage learn at least the Hiragana. There is a great app on android called Kana Town that is a simple quiz style program, it displays a character and you type in what it is. There is no multiple choice which forces you to know it or accept that you don’t. It has both Hiragana and Katakana they are both a must for further progress. Learn them early and learn them well. As you go through the children’s books, look up words. A dictionary is indispensable, I’d recommend both a physical copy and For what it’s worth, I have the Random House dictionary that costed about $7.
Beyond reading the children’s books I suggest labeling just about everything in your living area, or wherever you can get away with it, with the Japanese for that object. It’s up to you whether you just label it in Kana or use Kanji. Keep in mind though that Kanji is the eventual goal. However, the main thing is to learn the word for that object and to be surrounded with easy access to that information. The children’s media, dictionary look-ups and labels will be just enough for this stage.

Phase 3

In the next phase imagine you are old enough for elementary because now it’s time to go to school. I feel like at this point you’ll be ready for a book like Genki to supplement your other learning efforts. The highlights of this phase are:

  • Increasing comprehension,
  • Expanding vocabulary,
  • Digging deeper into grammar and
  • Supplementing your free-form learning with Structured learning such as the Genki texts or similar.

In this phase it’s no longer desirable to leave things unknown. If you come across something you don’t understand take the time to make it understood. Take the environment that you are learning with and start digging into it deeper. Don’t just know that a grammatical structure was used but find out why it was used. This also leads into my next point. Beyond the preceding you also need to start attempting the use of the language yourself.
I’d like to take one moment to emphasis that during all of these stages it’s good to continue with the listening reading of media that is still way beyond your current level. This is in addition to the material that you are consuming that is at the appropriate learning stage. So with regards to the previous paragraph I stated, “In this phase it’s no longer desirable to leave things unknown.”. By this, I’m referring to level appropriate material. For example, if you’re reading children’s books at this stage don’t leave any facet unknown. Find out every word and every grammar construct used and then start trying to apply those yourself. You could for example, write your own children’s book. In this way you’ll gain a great amount of ability at this early stage. In all of this the emphasis is on natural context and on active participation/use of the language.
So continuing with this phase, it’s now a good point to start using WaniKani or similar, “Remember the Kanji” looked good but I haven’t used it yet myself. As you continue plugging on with these activities gradually you will be able to pick out words and phrases from the Native level stuff you are practicing with. I still remember the first time being able to read something when I needed to, like the first time I was at the Berlin airport or hearing a punchline to a joke and getting it. Those were/are very motivating moments for me. The small victories really can help to encourage you on to your larger goals.

Phase 4

The rest of this method just entails increasing the difficulty of the material you are working with. So, in actuality ther can be as many phases as you deem necessary. Keep in mind that the native stuff you began with is the goal and that gradually we have been increasing the difficulty of the material that we have been working towards fully understanding. So that at some point in the future, it will be the native level stuff that you are working with and then later also fully understanding. The keys to remaining phases are the tools that you use:

  • Be able to read Kana
  • Have a sufficiently large vocabulary under your belt
    • This includes all forms of writing, i.e. Kana/Kanji
  • Have a deep understanding of the cultural framework
  • Have sufficient knowledge of and be able to use grammatical constructs
  • Apply them to successively difficult material while simultaneously immersing yourself in native level material

The last point is crucial. It’s very important to continually challenge yourself to goals that are just beyond your reach or your growth will stagnate. There will come a point where you are able to delve into full-on literary works and classical texts. This is where the meat is because mastery of a language only comes with a full understanding of the subtle nuances that that language can wield. At some point you’ll realize that true mastery of the language can only be attained by deeply understanding the culture that uses it. However this is hinting at some of the deeper meanings of communication itself and goes beyond just using a language. So maybe I mean mastering communicating with the Japanese people. If you want to know where they’re coming from you’ll need to deeply understand their culture in both present day and historical contexts. That is what I’m trying to get at. However, it is my opinion that when a person has reached this level of ability in communication that only then have they mastered using the language and by extension the language itself. It is from this active participation with the language and its context, i.e. the culture of the people of that language, that will lead to a goal of fluency far beyond that which could be hoped for from any one book or course.


So, the following is just helpful advice for taking the path of growth through immersion:

  • Never be afraid to fail
  • Take every opportunity to advance your understanding of the language
  • Always be coming up with new questions
    • Always answer those questions exhaustively
    • Use those answers in real life contexts i.e. write/say something using what you learned
  • Treasure every mistake as the beautiful learning opportunity that it is
    • Resolve those mistakes thoroughly and apply what you learned from them
  • Develop a sense of urgency about your learning goals. In my case I treated it like my life depended upon it. For me, I wanted it more than anything I had ever wanted in my life.
  • In the words of Churchill; Never, Never, Never give up!
    • The name of the game is Continual, consistent, sustained, persistent effort. You’re looking for incremental progress, so plan goals that are just are out reach.
    • You may want to do some form of tracking to know that you’ve made progress. For me that’s function was served by the native level material. When I could understand it I knew I had achieved what I set out to do.
      With all that being said…¬
  • Know when to take a break!
    • You’re working hard so break hard as well.

Here are some further ideas:

  • As much as possible gamify
    • Keep it fun and interesting
  • Don’t plug away at boring stuff, find a way to make all things that you’re learning fresh and entertaining.
    • Ask how can I gamify this?
    • Or “I solved this. What’s the next challenge or how can I make this more challenging?”
    • Also don’t feel the need to complete a book or course from end to end. If it’s starting to feel stale move on. It’s more important to keep things fresh than to have “finished” a bunch of books/courses. Think about it, even if you had finished that book you still won’t be fluent after one book. So, if finishing that book is pushing you closer to the edge of burning out then it’s better to leave it be and move on to something else.

A good question to always keep in mind is “Where do I go from here?” A potential answer to that is, What can you not do that you’d like to be able to do? And What do I need to do to get there?
Using these techniques will help you to have a better idea of how to process when things get boring. At that point just stop, assess and plan a new way out of the boredom or sometimes straight through it.

If there are any gaps or erroneous information or if you just want to flame me feel free to leave a comment. Thank you for reading. May it bring you insight and success on your language learning journey.

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Sorry for not reading it all, I’m on my cell phone, so if you addressed this my apologies.

Adults simply do not have the time to learn like children, nor do I think most want to. Babies spend over a year absorbing language for like 16 hours a day before they even try saying a word. Toddlers make lots of mistakes when speaking, but they haven’t developed an ego yet, so it doesn’t bother them to be corrected.

I can appreciate taking a step back from some of the strict classroom methods, but I get wary of the “learn like a child” claims.


I just want to point out that learning a language as an adult is very different from being exposed to it in the first few years of life because the brain is more malleable then. Quite simply, a child could learn several languages with near fluency if exposed to it consistently during his first years, whereas the adult brain simply isn’t as malleable so we need other methods of making the connections and making them stick.

It isn’t quite correct to make a parallel in how a child learns and how an adult learns. I find the best method for an adult is to get the alphabet/syllabary down properly first (if it’s foreign to the one already learned for current languages) and then do the exposure/immersion while learning. I watch a lot of subbed Japanese shows. I listen to Japanese songs. As soon as I figure out the whole kanji thing I’ll be adding more reading material. I joined conversation groups. But I do all this while actively learning grammar and vocabulary in class.

As soon you can manage simple phrases, enough to be fairly functional in a Japanese society, then immersion becomes very interesting to correct pronunciation, learn new phrases, expressions.

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The post was rather long. I don’t have anyone to proofread/edit so sorry. So, in a nutshell I’m just saying use increasingly difficult material to learn from. By learn I mean attempt to use what you currently know of the language with reading, writing, listening and speaking. I liked beginning with the children’s media. Maybe I just like cartoons a lot or something. One of the points of this is to save time but I guess a bigger point for me was about being thorough. Also, I do not advocate trying to learn the language solely from listening to native level material. I wanted to convey that it’s an aid. It’s a peek or glimpse at things to come. I personally like having that context available. It lets me know what I’m aiming for. This reply could easily grow out of hand so I’ll stop here but I’ll mention just one more thing. I enjoy an active approach to learning and being able to choose where my next objective or exercise comes from. Also I acknowledge that everyone has their own way of learning. I’m not saying this is some sort of superior method. It may very well be to total garbage but I enjoy it.

I thought this was a very nice article and actually I can agree from my own experience. Growing up tri-lingual (German, Indonesian, English) and having failed at Spanish, French, Japanese (before) and succeeded in French and Dutch (both very basic but I’m not afraid and have coordinated myself speaking with natives in that countries) I can just agree. I’m beginning with a Japanese native Tandem (we do GER-JAP) and after an awkward start we catapulted to Phase 2 with the tool of an エロ雑誌. Emotions and real connections is everything to learning a language. Ours is laughter.

I don’t know your own background but I have lots of memories as a German-first/Indo-second of people laughing at me because I was mixing up receivers of my language or was using hybrid vocabulary. Indo-family laughed a lot at me. In retrospect I have also semi-embarrassing memories of me babbling my first English sentences to my parents american-/scottish-flatmates, they must have thought I was mad. Children are just fearless because they have no other option. It’s not their brains, they are quite stupid in comparison to adults (It’s a priori, don’t have a paper for that but my observations are pretty tight).

Wow, this is like @plantron levels of necro. Well played.