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🙉 Learning languages

Written Nov 9, 2021.

I speak fluently 🇫🇷 French (native), 🇺🇸 English, 🇪🇸 Spanish, 🇵🇹 Portuguese, have street-conversation level in 🇩🇪 German and 🇮🇩 Indonesian.

I'm currently retrying to learn 🇹🇼 Mandarin, which to me is a harder challenge than all the previous ones.

My language learning is optimised for speed and enjoyment.

I truly think it’s possible to reach basic conversational level in most languages with around 3 months and ~1h per day. (not saying mastery).

Learning Apps

Apps like Babbel & Duolingo are only good to get you started with the basics, getting you familiar with the structure of basic sentences.

They’re not going to teach you to speak or understand real-life talk.

I practice with Duolinguo for the first 2-3 weeks of learning a language. After that it’s only occasional.

⚠️ The danger with these apps is getting in the routine of only doing that as it makes you feel like you're progressing. You're not (ok you're veryyyyy slowly) progressing. I've seen that with a lot of people, especially with Duolinguo and their streak-shaming.

Also if you look up videos of natives reviewing Duolinguo curriculums, you'll see that the vocabulary it teaches often doesn't always feel right to them.

Once you feel like you have a basic hang on the language, it’s time to get serious.

There are 3 components I believe you can't go without: speaking, acquiring vocabulary and getting comprehensible input.

🎙 Speaking

To me that’s the most important and underrated component, without which it’s virtually impossible to get to conversation level.

It solidifies your vocabulary and creates the pathways in your brain so that each time you speak it gets a bit easier.

I spent 6+ months on Mandarin with very little to show for because I omitted this step. I went to China and Taiwan thinking I would be able to practice there directly with locals. Reality was brutal.

It’s easy to procrastinate around that, but really once you get the ball rolling with a teacher you like, it’s easy to stay in the routine.

Go on iTalki, you’ll find plenty of teachers from 4 to 10 bucks an hour.

1-1 online classes have nothing in common with the language classes you had in school.

You can do them from your bed and there is no grading aspect to it. The goal is just to get you speaking and hearing real-life talk.

I personally like to do 30 or 45min lessons every ~3 days or even more frequently if I have time. Whatever works for you.

A good teacher should:

  • ask you lots of questions to make you speak
  • correct your biggest mistakes, not interrupting too much the flow of the conversation (sending you the mistakes in the chat as you speak)
  • make you practice pronunciation
  • later, teach you slang/idioms

Take quick notes of the mistakes you make and new words you learn. You’ll feed that to the flash cards.

📖 Acquiring vocab

A good place I like to start is the 80/20 rule. You can get ahead of most people learning a language by focusing on words you’ll actually use in daily conversation.

Here is a guy talking about it on YouTube (he pushes it to the extreme by giving himself 24 hours only)..

Don't know where to start? Go on Google and search for “Top 100 words spoken portuguese (or whatever) and note these down.

These are the most common words and “fillers” that you’ll need to know.

Then search basic sentences and common words around the topics you’ll want to talk about most:

  • 🧍‍♂️ describing yourself
  • ☁️ weather-style small talk
  • 🌮 ordering food
  • 🧭 getting directions
  • 💰 asking for price
  • etc..

You really want to focus on the words that give practical use from Day 1.

To cement all that in your memory, make Anki flashcards.

Flashcards have 1 side with the word/sentence you want to learn and the translation on the back.

You can use public decks, but I don’t recommend that because the words won’t be fully relevant to you, and you might not know the context in which to use them.

Plus making the cards yourself actually makes you memorise them a little bit already.

💡 Anki tip: when you review your cars, enable the “double side review” mode so cards are presented to you half the time with the back first.

I personally use the original Anki app. It syncs between my laptop and phone but costs something like $30 on iOS. There are plenty of other Anki apps you can find if that’s too much.

💡 For words you have trouble memorizing, make the conscious effort of finding a mnemonic reference in your native language. For example I had trouble remembering “Sekitar” (about) in Indonesian. I associated the french mnemonic “C’est qui Tar ?” and now every time I see the “about” card, "C’est qui Tar" comes to mind. After a while the mnemonic fades in favor of the actual word.

You need to practice these flashcard every day. Setup a 10-15 min daily routine to practice those.

You will begin to see great progress after a month of doing it.

🎧 Exposure (comprehensible input)

That’s the easiest part as it doesn't require any active "learning". The goal is to learn to read and train your ears to the sound of the target language.


Finding easy content to read at the beginning isn't very easy.

The keyword for books with simple vocabulary is "graded readers". You can find plenty online.

A website I like, to find easy content is LingQ. It's a news reader optimized for language learning with built-in dictionary, flashcards, etc.


Find musics in your target language. There’re loads of public playlists on Spotify for any style and language. And you can pull up the lyrics to help undertanding.

Rap songs are good to learn slang.

On the web

  • Get curious: Install DeepL on your laptop, and every time you wonder what a word means, hit 2x “cmd+c” and you’ll get the translation instantly.

  • Install Toucan, it translates random words on webpages you visits in your target language.

Watch videos & movies

Install the Reactor chrome extension so you can watch Netflix movies/shows and YouTube videos with double subtitles.

It’s a super useful extension.

Gives you the translation directly by clicking on words and has a “auto-pause” mode.


At the beginning, podcasts are tough because you don’t understand shit. It’s really frustrating to listen to a conversation without understanding the context.

Still, your brain will slowly get used to the language and you’ll be able to discern words with time. You will also subconsciously absorb better pronunciation.

Bonus: As a light sleeper, I found listening to podcasts in another language is a great way to fall asleep quickly.

When you drive find an online radio with good mix of music + talking.

That’s it folks! Let me know what your language learning tips are 🙂