How to learn another language
How to learn another language


Why now

I've lived in the Netherlands for 5 years now. I've bought a house, changed jobs, and my son was born here. Through all these experiences I haven't needed to learn Dutch. But as my children get older it will become increasingly useful to speak Dutch socially, and my children will likely consider themselves more Dutch than British. I live and work in the Netherlands, but I am not part of the culture.

I want this to change, and I've decided that I will learn to speak Dutch fluently. Learning needs to become a fun hobby, something that I enjoy and look forward to.

My name is "two loaves of bread"

To me, language learning has always been either intimidating or boring. It started off badly when sometime around the age of ten I walked into a bakery in France and announced that my name was "two loaves of bread". Everyone laughed. Later on at secondary school I was so shy that the thought of trying to speak French or German to another person was terrifying.

Despite not loving language learning, I spent a couple of months in Mexico when I was ~20 and I somehow went from not being able to order food, to discussing politics (badly) with a local. I'm still not sure how. I've never taken a Spanish class, but did try some conversational "teach-yourself" courses, and watched some movies.

The traditional approach hasn't worked

When I lived in Vienna I took German classes and spent quite a lot of effort trying to memorize vocabulary and grammar. Despite reaching level B1 in a classroom, I couldn't understand what people were saying in daily conversations, and if I asked a question I had to hope that they would answer it the exact way I was expecting them to. All it really did was make me feel self-conscious and inadequate.

These experiences have taught me how to not learn a language - it's very clear that it's not like learning math or engineering. Rules could be broken, things didn't need to be completely right to be useful. If an apparently random word or phrase appears in my head in a certain context, it's probably correct and should be used without thinking about it too much.

Learning how to learn

I've recently taken up running and enjoy it a lot, even though many people consider it "hard work", or something they could never do. I've tried to think about why my experience of running is so different to most other people's, and apply those learnings to language learning (and also photography, but that's for another post).

As with most things, YouTube is a fantastic way to teach yourself, and before I jump into learning Dutch, I watched a few videos about how to learn a language. This post summarizes what I've learned, and what I need to remember to keep doing or keep avoiding. Part of me likes flashcard and vocab drills, even though it doesn't seem to help fluency at all.

How to learn

The YouTube videos I used to make these notes are below. It was also through the interviews with Steve Kaufmann that I found out about his LingQ which for now will be my main source of listening and reading material.


  • Be the owner of your own journey and come up with your own strategy
  • Prioritize the phrases you use and hear the most
  • Prioritize how to express yourself, and your normal situations. Don't use someone else's structure
  • Don't try to learn "the basics" first or stick to a rigid order of progression, there is an order that will feel right. Go with the feeling.
  • It doesn't matter if you make some mistakes on something for a while, you'll figure it out just like a child does.
  • Language discovery is a personal process. People will disagree about what the best methods are, the experts don't agree.
  • If you are good at listening, you will eventually be good at speaking.


  • Accept uncertainty and that you don't and won't understand everything.
  • Don't try to understand too much in one go, it's like mowing a lawn.
  • Even though you are always the same person, language learning is about imitating culture and therefore you superficially change a bit.
  • It's normal that different parts of your personality come through differently in different languages.

Pre-storytelling Methods

  • Listen a lot - you cannot pronounce what you cannot hear, and after a while your brain will get used to the new sounds of a new language.
  • Phrases imply the intonation
  • Massive amounts of repetitive reading and listening


  • Listen and speak a lot
  • 1 hour/day
  • Write down useful vocab when you come across it
  • Review your notes
  • Type don't write


  • Find good quality listening material
    • natural
    • conversational
    • not news, not audiobooks
  • Go for a walk everyday and listen and quietly repeat what you hear
  • Translate common phrases that stand out to you.


  • Talk to real people
  • Don't use English at all
  • It's normal that this would be uncomfortable and exhausting

Storytelling and speaking with tutors

  • Accents are OK, don't worry about it.

  • Start using a tutor when you want to start using a tutor. You should be comfortable and want to do it, not apprehensive or embarrassed.

  • Use a tutor after learning 3000 - 5000 words, the exact amount varies depending on the language.

  • Find the right instructor (for you).

  • Get many partners, tutors or language parents.

  • Input+1 (I+1): Input is what you know, the +1 is something a bit extra, beyond your level. Ask for some i+1.

  • Apps are better than nothing, but they're not as good as storytelling with a human

  • Record your lessons and listen back to them. Repetition is great.

  • Storytelling is a great language acquisition method.

    • Avoid reading and writing, just tell stories and describe pictures
    • Use magazines and children's books with pictures of things that are relevant to you
    • Ask the expert to lovingly describe the pictures and ask you simple yes or no questions about the picture.
    • Then ask the expert simple questions like "what is this?" "what is he doing?" "why..?"
    • Why questions are really good.
    • Act it out, (whilst sitting if you want, with hand motions etc) - Total Physical Response (TPR) is effective at making language more memorable.
    • If you get stuck, you can draw.
    • If you get really stuck, just say "Het is niet belangrijk" and then move on.
    • Ask your tutor to never speak about grammar, it doesn't help.
    • Don't bother with corrections, they don't work.
    • No English

Useful Videos