The Only Real Language Learning 'Hack'

  • Olly Richards
    Written byOlly Richards
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The Only Real Language Learning 'Hack'

Today’s post is from Olly Richards, an accomplished polyglot from the UK who is currently living in Qatar.

Olly runs a blog called I Will Teach You A Language where he shares some really sound and helpful advice, as well as progress updates on his own language learning (Cantonese at the moment).

I’m delighted to have him share here what I consider to be a really vital point and one I couldn’t agree with more!

You’d think that after learning nine languages I’d have quite a few tricks up my sleeve. I do have a few, in fact. But most of the time I don’t use them.

These days I focus on one thing only, and on getting that right.

In this post I want to explore the idea of “hacks”, “shortcuts” and “methods”.

Language Learning Hacks

I’m going to give you my perspective on what really matters in the language learning process after many years of struggle and experiments in very different contexts and I’ll end with some practical suggestions for what you should do if you’re struggling.

Language Learning Hacks

The internet has brought with it great things. Now that information flows freely and instantly across continents, it’s only natural that we go hunting for the things that we need: Where to buy the cheapest travel insurance, How to get a book for half price online, Top-rated hostels in Buenos Aires

…but how to learn a language quickly?


Language learners have jumped on the bandwagon and are looking for shortcuts. “What’s the best method?” “How can I learn Spanish in a week?” “Which app will teach me Japanese the quickest?”

In the digital age everyone is looking for shortcuts.

I’m going to put forward the case that shortcut is the one thing you should be avoiding at all costs.

Why Do People Fail?

Learning a language is not easy, but it is simple.

I didn’t used to think that, but I’ve changed my mind.

When I look back on the languages I’ve learnt, it’s quite difficult for me sometimes to figure out exactly what it was that worked for me. When I first started out learning languages, in Paris at the age of 19, I tried a load of different things. Language exchanges, textbooks, even a correspondence course. When I then learnt Italian, I tried other things. Spanish was a completely different process again.

And so it went.

It’s only been since I started my blog that I’ve started to really understand why the things I did were working.

One thing that’s helped me to figure this out are all the emails I get from people telling me what their problems are.

It’s become clear to me that the reason most people fail to get anywhere in a foreign language is down to one thing. They are distracted into spending their time on all the sexy but peripheral things that come with a TV screen and an internet connection.

Movies, YouTube videos, iPhone apps, language blogs. Everything except actually doing the work.

With so many options for learning on the table, which do you choose? The longer the menu gets the harder it is to choose.

The Paradox of Choice

Barry Schwartz calls this the Paradox of Choice.

Having too much to choose from leads to inner paralysis and poorer decisions.

Imagine a restaurant where there’s only one main course on the menu: You go in, sit down and eat that one dish. If you like it, you’ll go back.

If you don’t, you won’t. But either way, by the time you leave the restaurant you’ll know whether it’s for you or not.

This is the approach to language learning that I’m advocating. With fewer options to choose from, you just get on with it, using whatever materials you’ve got available. You do it for a while, observe the results, and then either carry on or change course. By choosing one thing and getting on with it, whether it works out or not, you learn a valuable lesson about what works for you.

Barack Obama only wears blue and grey suits. The reason? In order to cut down on non-vital decisions. He may not win “best-dressed president”, but what he does wear looks good, he’s cool with it, and he just gets on with business.

When I was at high school, my French teacher used to give us a list of 10 words to take home and memorise at the end of every lesson.

Rote memorisation is all but dismissed by almost everyone in the language learning field, but you know what? I learnt a load of words.

By doing just one thing every week for months on end, I defy you not to learn something!

How many language learning decisions have you made recently, and how important do you think they really were?

Going All In

I’m going all in on this approach right now as I’m learning Cantonese.

I’m juggling more things in my life right now than I ever have before – a busy job, writing a dissertation, writing for my blog, writing this! In the past I might have used this as an excuse not to be learning a language as well.

But I’m trying to take a leaf out of Obama’s book. Whatever the colour of the suit, it’s more important that I just put it on and get to work.

If you decide to try out this approach to learning, what would I have you do?

Earlier I talked about how people jump fleetingly from one thing to the next without going into depth on anything? Your biggest priority then, way before you even think about finding that prefect method, should be to avoid this scatter-gun approach to language learning. So what I would have to do instead is to choose one thing that takes your fancy.

One thing that you think you might enjoy and do this, and only this, for 2 to 3 weeks.

I don’t think the length of time for doing this one thing is particularly important, but it needs to be long enough that you can go into depth with it, and for me personally, 2 to 3 weeks is the time at which I start to get restless and want to try something else.

Whatever you choose to focus on, doing that only one thing for a period of time gives you a very clear idea of whether it works for you or not. You can choose to do it again or forget about it for good.

But here’s the thing, you would never be able to reach that important conclusion about your own learning if you don’t focus on that thing intensively in the first place.

Some Lessons Learnt

Here are a couple of examples of what I learnt about my own learning recently, through this “One Thing Only” approach.

During a period of burn-out late last year, I took a break from my daily Cantonese routine and did nothing but watch Hong Kong TV dramas every night.

I did that for a few weeks and I learnt a couple of important lessons.

Firstly, as a beginner, you’re not going to learn a lot from watching movies in your target language (despite what people often say). Secondly, resting my brain for that period helped massively in consolidating all the language I’d learnt before taking the break.

As a result of this experiment, I no longer try to learn languages through movies and make sure to take time off studying.

There isn’t much to choose from when it comes to Cantonese study materials.

I signed up for a paid online resource, which I didn’t think was particularly good, and was even a little critical of on my blog.

However, I persisted because it was the only thing available at the time. 5 months later and I’m still using it everyday – listening to the audio lessons in the car every morning. I’ve learnt a lot from it, and I adapted my own approach to make the best use of it. As a result of this extended experiment, I’m no longer fussy about the study material – how I use it is much more important.

Read a book you like, listen to the audio tracks in your text book, write a new conversation opener every day and memorise it, watch one single episode of your favourite drama 2 or 3 times everyday on repeat, even read through the grammar dictionary you bought last year and haven’t opened yet. I really don’t care what it is, providing it’s something you feel like doing.

But do it every day.

That’s the hack.

The Only Real Language Learning Hack

The one true language hack, then, is the ability to focus your available study time on something, consistently, and over time.

The ability not to get distracted and start browsing YouTube.

The ability to have enough confidence in yourself to just keep going, apply yourself to that one task, to watch what happens and to learn how you learn.

I’ve written before that variety in language learning is an important and necessary thing, and I still believe that. But I’ve come to believe even more strongly that nothing really matters if we can’t shake off this 21st Century addiction to instant gratification and learn how to focus.

As with lots of things in life, one thing done well is worth infinitely more than five things done half-heartedly.

So here’s what I want you to do:

  • Choose one language learning activity (using the examples given above for inspiration)
  • Commit to doing only this for the next 2 weeks
  • Actually do it. 5 days in the week is a good target
  • At the end of the 2 weeks look back at what you’ve achieved, being sure to note both the positives and the negatives, and decide whether you will carry on or change course.
  • Leave a comment below to let me know what you’re going to try out, or alternatively, why you won’t be doing it! 🙂

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Bill Budd

Bill Budd

I have been studying German for four years and can carry on a simple conversation now in German. When I look back, I realize that by being careful to choose materials and courses that work for me, that kept my interest up and I didn’t quit. On the other hand what provided my success was sheer determination. Quiting was not an option.



This is another great post on one of our current issues related to language learning. My advice has always been to not focus on the time it takes, find what you love and do it. Language is about communication, people and enjoyment and it is best learned when the Learner is really interested

Charles Cornelius

Charles Cornelius

I agree that to be successful at language learning, we need to focus on one activity, and I’m as guilty as anyone of wasting time gathering resources and dipping into them - especially after finding a treasure chest of Russian phrasebooks, coursebooks, dictionaries, easy readers, etc, etc, on a torrent site: I was like a kid in a sweetshop.

But it’s only an effective use of our time if the resource moves us towards our language learning goals. To me, watching movies is a big waste of time - those 2 hours could be used much more effectively. Learning lots of words out of context with flashcards is far less useful than learning phrases that you are likely to use.

Learning (or reading about) grammar is another big time waster for early language learners. I’ll deal with the niceties of noun case endings once I’m able to have basic conversations. In any case, you can usually get your message across with lousy grammar; but you can’t if you have limited vocabulary, lousy pronunciation and poor listening skills.

I’m not a big fan of apps like Duolingo or Memrise for the same reason - they give you the comforting sensation of progress, but you’re making progress to THEIR goals (points or whatever) without you actually making progress towards YOUR goals (e.g. being able to have a conversation about hobbies).

In other words, sticking to an activity is important, but sticking with a really effective activity is far better.



To summarize; I’d say we all are a bit guilty of information overload. It’s important to focus on one program and see it through to the end to really learn something. Otherwise whatever you learn will just be somewhat out of osmosis. Great article, check out my 7 pieces of advice



It’s good that I came across this article, I myself am a victim of buying a lot of things and not using them to my advantage. I skim here and skim over there but I never fully use the things I buy.
I am a Japanese learner, and I have a lot of resources. Like I said I skim a lot and then a few days later I always ask myself, Why is this (excuse my french) damn language so freaking hard to learn....
The first thing I bought was Rosetta Stone, Hey now I know that a lot of language learners seem to bash it, I guess I’ll find out why. But yeah.. If I like it, I’ll stick with it no matter what anyone says...but if I don’t I’ll move on and try the other things I got.



Learning foreign language is tough and most people faces frustration after trying hard but not achieving good result. Language learning tips will be handy for people significantly and thanks for adding up some good thoughts.



It’s good to read such important piece of post. Learning a different language is very crucial and through studying handy tips of learning language anyone can gain good command over foreign language. Above provided helpful instructions can significantly help people to learn foreign language nicely!! Thanks.



Glad you found it useful Megan!



What can I say? This is the only real trick to learning languages. I introduce people to Anki, I give them advice on how to learn tones or characters or how to find language partners, but in the end the deciding factor is whether they will continue to use this language consistently. You have to keep pouring energy into the system.



I also think that writing articles is definitely a great way to improve your language ability. I think a lot of people think that they just want to be able to speak, so they don’t need to write. However I find that writing is a great way to improve your clarity of expression and grammar in a language.

Saying that it is also one of the things I do the least just because it takes the most effort. I’d much rather watch TV or a movie, read a novel or just have a casual chat in my language. They are all so easy to do. I think that once I heard someone say that learning a language can and should be enjoyable I started avoiding doing anything that wasn’t easy.

A little bit of hard work every now and then is necessary if you want to get to a high level.



Scott, I couldn’t agree more. Messages like “it should be fun” are important, but we also risk giving them too much weight because it’s exactly what we want to hear! “Confirmation bias” at work!

Something I found quite handy for getting writing practice in was For a while, I went on there everyday and wrote a short journal in Cantonese. When I went back the next day I’d have a load of corrections from people. Really good, interactive fun!



I think that this is really good advice. I have tried to keep myself under control by buying as few language products as possible while I have been teaching myself French. So far this has been pretty helpful. However, I have noticed that I have been mostly working on my reading comprehension lately, and my pronunciation and general speaking have suffered some. So I think that today I am going to try to commit to 2 weeks of shadowing a podcast that I like a lot called “news in slow french.” Thanks for the encouragement. I think sometimes two-thirds of the battle is believing that something is possible. It is nice to have your experience to back up what you have said.



Great idea. You’ve touched on another common problem which is falling into the trap of just doing things that you’re comfortable with (especially watching movies - is it really studying??). Mixing up the skills you focus on is a great thing to do. I’m a big fan of writing, for example, which I don’t think many people spend much time on.



This is some of the best advice I’ve read for learning languages because I’m guilty of material jumping. Collecting Thai and now Italian resources is a passion/hobby of mine. I tend to bounce around quickly, playing with this and that, not finishing anything.

Thank you Olly. I’m game to take your advice. And Donovan, thank you for introducing Olly to us (now off to check out his site).



Thanks Catherine, and good luck with it! I’m a bit of a resources-hoarder too... although I’m trying to cut down!

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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