Top 1: The Essential Language Learning List

Today I will give you a list of essential tools for language learning. Its easy to list things that language learners do: Memorize vocabulary, practice pronunciation, listen to music in the target language, read articles, maybe even visit foreign countries. And all of these are good things. But today I want to talk about a different list: a core, essential list.

Today’s list is about doing all of these other things more intentionally, and with greater purpose.

So without further ado, I present…

The Top 1 List

That’s not a typo. There really is only one thing on this list. It’s that fundamental. It’s also that easy. And it’s also that… “listy”.

1. Keep a list

If you are learning a language, you keep a mental list of things you want to learn. When someone tells you “The French word for apple is pomme,” you either pay attention and learn the information, or you don’t, based on whether “learn the French word for apple” is on your mental list.

But starting today, I want you to move this mental list to paper. Or your computer or phone. And here’s why:

How your list will benefit you

Keeping a language list will give you two primary benefits:

  1. Memory.Naturally, we write down lists so we don’t forget things. And by using your language list properly, you will prevent yourself from forgetting important things you need or want to learn.
    When is the last time you had a question (about your language, or about anything), then when you had the opportunity to ask an expert, you couldn’t remember the question? Keep your list with you, and you’ll never have this problem again.
  2. Awareness. By forming a list-taking habit, you’ll be constantly more aware when you have questions. Your target language will begin to live more in your conscious mind, and this will lead to improved learning.

Where to keep your list

There is no right or wrong way to keep a list. The important thing is that you actually do it! But there are two methods which I think make the most sense:

  • 1. A notebook

    My French list, in a small pocket notebook.
    My French list, in a small pocket notebook.

    This is an easy, low-tech solution that simply works! It’s easy to pop out a notebook during a conversation and jot down a word or phrase that you want to look up later. There’s not much more to say about this simple method!
  • 2. A web or mobile app

    My French list on my Android using Google Keep
    My French list on my Android using Google Keep

    If you’re a bit more tech-savvy, you may want to keep your list electronically. My favorite app for this is [Google Keep](, which automatically synchronizes between my Android smart phone and the web version. But there are many other options, such as [Wunderlist]( and [Evernote]( The key is that it should work wherever you are, and it should sync. So if you use a PC and a smart phone, make sure you use a tool that will synchronize between both systems!
  • 3. Other Options

    I actually use both a notebook and a mobile app. Google Keep houses my “master” list. But occasionally I don’t have my mobile phone with me, or it would be inappropriate to pull it out, but jotting a quick note in a pocket notebook would be acceptable.

    There are other tools I use for managing my list as well, but eventually everything ends up in my Google Keep list:

    • Digital Camera This comes in very handy while traveling. If I see a sign, or a menu item which needs explanation, I can just snap a photo, then later copy the relevant words to my master list.
    • Browser Bookmarks I often find an article I want to read in my target language, but I may not have the time to digest it all at once, so I’ll bookmark the article, and go back later and move the troublesome words to my master list.
    • Kindle Paperwhite The Kindle Paperwhite (and perhaps some other models) have a built in vocabulary practice list. Any time I look up a word, it automatically ads it to this vocabulary list. I later move the words to my master list. I’ll blog more about using a Kindle for language learning in the future.
    • Highlighter If I’m reading a dead tree book in my target language, I’ll often sit with a highlighter pen, and mark every word or phrase that is new to me. This is less disruptive than typing words into my mobile phone while reading. Then after a reading session, I can quickly go back through the book and add the highlighted words to my master list.

What to put on your list

This is pretty simple, really. Any time you have a question about your target language, put it on your list.

You heard the word “battement” for the first time in French, and you don’t know what it means? Add it to your list.

You were having a conversation in Portuguese and a friend asked what you do for a living, and you don’t know the word for “industrial engineer”? Add “industrial engineer” to the list–yes, write it there in English.

You read a sign with the phrase “prêt à manger”, and you don’t know how to pronounce it? Add it to your list.

You’re walking down the street, naming everything you see in your target language, and you realize you don’t know the Hindi word for “trash can”? Add it to your list.

So you have a list — Now what?

Now that you have a list of a dozen new words or concepts, it’s time to put it to use!

Attacking the items on this list can be as varied as the ways you added to the list. But we’ll go over some of the options here, and I’ll go into greater detail on many of these in future posts.

  1. Use a dictionary
    Many of your questions can be answered by consulting a dictionary in your target language, or a translation dictionary between your target and native languages. This will likely be the resource that answers the majority of your questions, especially early on, when you’re simply trying to learn the word for “trash can” and what “battement” means.
  2. Use an online reference resource

    There are many online resources to learn about your target language, and one clear advantage they offer over a print dictionary is audio files. If you’re trying to learn pronunciation, [Forvo]( is a great resource. [Wiktionary]( also offers audio clips for some words in some languages.

  3. Ask your language mentor

    If you’re in a language class, you have an obvious place to ask your question. If you’re not taking a formal class, ask a friend who speaks your target language.

  4. Online Communities

    And finally, while it’s usually my last resort, it’s also one of my favorites. There are many online communities where you can ask questions about your target language. Use Google to find a place where you can ask your question.

  5. Flashcards
    Every item that ends up on your list ought to end up on at least one practice flashcard. This is the best way to ensure that you don’t forget the information you just learned! I’ll write more about effectively using flashcards in the future.

It’s a pretty straight-forward concept. And few people, in my experience, use it. But everyone should. Will you?

Leave a comment below with your experience using a Language List.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+, and share this post if you find it to be helpful!

No hablo español: How I failed to learn Spanish. Twice.

You’ve probably heard the joke:

A person who speaks two languages is bilingual.
A person who speaks more than two languages is a polyglot.
So what do you call a person who speaks just one language?

Answer: An American.

The joke is funny because it contains an element of embarrassing truth. And one big reason it’s true is that learning a second language can be very challenging. It was for me. I failed at it. Twice.

Freshman year

I did not want to learn Spanish. Or any other language. But my freshman guidance counselor encouraged me to take a foreign language course. In the state of Kansas, students who completed two years of foreign language study were eligible for a scholarship of $1,000 to a state university.



For university.

I was a freshman. I didn’t care about university scholarships. Plus, $1,000 wasn’t very much money. Especially when you consider the number of boring hours I’d spend in class and doing homework. I actually did the math, and I estimated my hourly earnings to be less than one dollar per hour. I was not sold.

Three days into my freshman year, I dropped the Spanish class and switched to an independent study in computer programming. I’m sure I made the right decision.

Ice cream

Fallen ice cream: The reason I wanted to learn Spanish.
Fallen ice cream: The reason I wanted to learn Spanish.
Two summers later, my church youth group took a one-week trip to Brownsville, Texas along the U.S./Mexican border, and we crossed over into Matamoros, Mexico a few times. This was my first “real” exposure to the Spanish language. And it was there that I decided I wanted to learn Spanish. I remember the specific moment.

I had ordered an ice cream cone and was fumbling with my wallet to pay for it when the ice cream fell off the cone and landed on my foot. The girl who had just sold it to me giggled. I felt foolish, but I also knew I wanted to be able to talk to her–if only to say something to try to save face.

I finally had motivation to learn Spanish.

My first attempt to learn Spanish

When the summer ended, I eagerly enrolled in an introductory Spanish course at the local community college for dual credit. I eagerly did my homework and passed the semester with a high B grade. Eager to continue my education, I enrolled the following spring in Spanish 102. This time my grade was a low C, and I felt it was unacceptable.

I decided to take my second semester of Spanish again, this time at a larger university, with the hope that I could master the material. Again, another C.

Now, of course, I could have continued on to the next level of Spanish, and the school would have been okay with this. But remember, I was taking Spanish classes because I wanted to learn Spanish. I wanted to communicate, not just get a passing grade. And I was failing on that count.

I was discouraged, and I gave up.

My second attempt to learn Spanish

Denny's was my language school.
Denny’s was my language school.
Several years later I was waiting tables when I noticed one of my regular customers was conducting individual Spanish classes right there in the restaurant. Could this be my chance to try again? I inquired, and she agreed to teach me the language as well.

For several months, I met with her, usually two hours every weekend, and I made great strides in my Spanish acquisition. We went over vocabulary and grammar, and I translated children’s books to and from Spanish. To this day she says I was one of her most determined students.

But then I got a job in another city and was no longer able to attend classes with her. Quickly I forgot practically everything I had learned.

Language immersion in Mexico

In 2010, my work changed again and gave me the flexibility to work remotely, so I took the opportunity to move to Mexico, where I would be able to focus even more on learning Spanish. I enrolled in a local Spanish school and settled in for the 9-month course.

I had to start at square one. Practically everything I had learned before was forgotten. Although the first month or so of the course was relatively easy for me, as old knowledge started to come back to me, it was discouraging how little I had retained from before.

When the course ended, I passed with good marks. But I was not fluent.

Teaching myself

I spent another year in Mexico after the language course ended, and it was during this time that I would say I truly learned Spanish. Going out with friends, conversing one-on-one, and chatting with online penpals are the things that most helped me learn Spanish.

So when I decided I wanted to learn Portuguese to visit a friend in Brazil, I started teaching myself, using the same techniques I had used to learn Spanish. When I then went to Brazil in 2014, after studying Portuguese on my own for about a year, I found that my spoken Portuguese was absolutely abysmal. I had only been teaching myself to read and write Portuguese. The month I had there helped immensely to remedy that situation, but mainly it taught me many of the flaws in my self-teaching techniques.

Later in 2014 I spent three months in Portugal, as well. This gave me more opportunity to hone in my Portuguese skills, and more importantly, my language-learning techniques.

Now I’m teaching myself French.

What I’ve learned

During this entire process, I have succeeded in learning to speak Spanish. It was definitely a challenge, but I succeeded. But what is more exciting to me is that I have learned how to learn a language. And while there will always be new techniques to language learning, I believe I have picked up enough of this essential knowledge that I can begin to share it with you.

That is why I have created this blog. And I hope you’ll follow along.