Study Methods

Congratulations, you have finally chosen the perfect language to study.  Maybe you are motivated by an upcoming trip or the prospects of a promotion.  You have bought a few books, lined up some podcasts, and bookmarked some key webpages to take you through your language learning journey.

But where to go from here?  How do you actually start studying your target language to maximize the progression you see from the time you put in.  The key is habit forming and making language learning part of your daily routine.  Start early and make it a priority in your day; you will undoubtedly see huge improvements especially early on.

Below are some study methods to consider to help you incorporate and maximize language learning into your daily routine while keeping it fun and engaging!

Harry Potter Method

IMG_8929So you want to learn a new language but don’t want to spend hours conjugating verbs and reading about boring grammatical tenses.  If you like to read and have a favourite book or series then The “Harry Potter Method” might be your ticket to conversational fluency!

This system is a great way to learn any new language for a number of reasons we will outline below.  The method is best used when combined with other programs but it will no doubt be a fun and interesting way to boost your language learning whether you are a fan of Harry Potter or not.

This is referred to as the Harry Potter method because of the availability and graduated nature of the series, however, if you aren’t a fan of the series or would prefer to read another genre or style the method and techniques can still be applied.  The Harry Potter series is a great place to start because they are widely available in nearly every major language (68 to be exact) and they are graduated in their complexity.  This means that the first few books are written for a younger audience and as such the grammar, vocabulary, and subject matter reflects that.  As the series progresses, so too does the complexity.  Thus, you will continually be challenged with different grammatical tenses and vocabulary as the age of the target audience increases across the series.  As mentioned above, if you aren’t a fan of the series there are a number of other children’s books that have been translated into many other languages and provide a good base for a beginning language learner including The Little Prince and many fairy tales or any book or series that you are familiar with in your native language.

What you will need to start: 

  • A book of interest to you (preferably short and at a beginners level)
  • A pen (erasable if you have reservations about writing in your book)
  • A notebook to transcribe new vocabulary and phrases
  • A dictionary / computer / tablet to look-up new words

Once you have selected your book of choice it’s time to start learning!

The process:

  1. Select an easy relatively short book that interests you and find quiet comfortable spot that you will be able to read and write at.
  2. Begin reading a paragraph at a time and try to infer the meaning as best you can.  For now skip over the words you don’t know.
  3. Once you have completed the paragraph, go back and identify all of the words and phrases you don’t understand.
  4. On a computer, tablet, or smart phone – translate the words and phrases you were unfamiliar with – you can write them in the book right above the original word or keep a separate notebook with new vocabulary (This is essential for other methods discussed later)
  5. Go back and read the whole paragraph again with a new understanding for the words you had to look up
  6. Continue on through the book and watch your progress grow! Try to stick to reading a few pages a day which will help maintain focus and prevent burnout.

Why this works:

Each language only uses a certain amount of base words regularly.  By reading a simple story in your target language you will get exposure to the most commonly used words and phrases.  The more you read the same grammatical tense or phrase the quicker you will become familiar with how sentences are constructed and how the language is used.  The best part is this will happen passively without learning and studying grammar rules.   Additionally, as you read through the book and identify unknown vocabulary you will be left with a huge list of words that are troublesome for you.  You can use this pool of vocabulary and apply it other study methods to ensure that you commit these words to your long-term memory.

Another advantage to choosing Harry Potter or a book you are already familiar with is that you will be able to infer the meaning of words and concepts simple because you are already aware of what is going on in the story.  This will help your brain make lasting connections and ensure that words and phrases are more quickly moved to your long-term memory as you will be able to make stronger associations while learning them for the first time.

Lastly, choosing the Harry Potter series means you will have access to dubbed movies and audio books that will allow you to follow along while reading and improve your listening comprehension as well as getting a better sense for the natural flow and feel of your target language.

Goldlist Method

The Goldlist method allows you to commit a large amount of vocabulary to your long-term memory through a relaxed and stress free process.  This concept is based on the theory that small blocks of study time (approximately 20 minutes) separated by short breaks (about 10 minutes) used in conjunction with spaced repetition will allow you to bypass your short term memory and learn large quantities of vocabulary with relatively little effort.

One of the best things about this process is that it doesn’t really feel like work.  In fact, to be effective this process requires the learner to take their time and enjoy the process of physically writing words down and reading allowed while avoiding trying to actively memorise.  Much the same as you wouldn’t “cram” for an exam, the goldlist method spaces out blocks of study time and uses “distillations” to commit words to your long-term memory in a more natural way.

What you will need:

  • A notebook with at least 34 lines and each page divided in half (you can do this yourself with a ruler if you can’t find one with an existing division)
  • 4 different coloured pens or markers – something you feel comfortable writing with
  • A source of words and phrases
  • A small amount of time you can set aside each day to study

The Process:

Step 1 

  1. Write the numbers 1 – 25 on the far left column of your Notebook
  2. Taking your time, write the word or phrase in your target language followed by the translation in your source language
  3. Once you have completed your list of 25 words read them over once out loud

This first list is called your head list and the process should take about 20 minutes to complete. Once your head list is completed you will leave it for a minimum of 2 weeks but no more than 2 months.  This is to ensure that the effects of short term memory have completely dissipated.


Step 2 

  1. Opposite to your head list write the numbers 1 – 17 using a new colour.
  2. Read aloud the words from your head list seeing which ones you have the most difficulty recalling.
  3. Re-write the words that you had trouble recalling.
  4. Once you have finished your list of 17 of the words you had the most difficulty recalling read the list out loud.

This becomes your first distillation.  The words that you were able to remember are already committed to your long-term memory.  Once again, take your time writing and enjoy the process.  After you have finished, take a break for at least 10 minutes and do something completely unrelated. You will come back to this list again in a minimum of 2 weeks but no more than 2 months.


Step 3  

  1. Below your first distillation and using a new colour, write the numbers 1 – 12
  2. Read aloud the words from your first distillation and once again, identify which you have the most difficulty recalling.
  3. Re-write the 12 words that you had the most trouble remembering
  4. Read your list out loud

This list is your second distillation and you should already have learned more than half of your original list of words.  Be sure to take your time reading and writing and set aside a small break afterwards. Again, you will revisit this list in at least 2 weeks but no more than 2 months.


Step 4 

  1. Using a fourth colour, write the numbers 1 – 8 below your original head list.
  2. Read aloud the words from your second distillation.
  3. Re-write the 8 words that you still had the most trouble remembering
  4. Read the list aloud

This is your final list – this should be the 8 most troublesome words for you to recall.  This list should have taken you approximately one month to arrive at and is fairly safe to say that you have learned about 70% of your initial 25 words.  From here you can take these 8 words and incorporate them into other study methods discussed below or carry them over into further Goldlist books.



Why this works:

The key to this method is to take your time and passively acquire vocabulary through spaced repetition and the process of physically writing it out.  By limiting your study blocks to about 20 minutes each followed by 10 minute breaks you are ensuring that you brain is focused and activated to learn new words.  Waiting a minimum of 2 weeks allows for any effect of short term memory to have worn off.  This means that the words that you easily recognize are already ingrained in your long-term memory.  If you cycle between new head lists and various distillations each day you will quickly amass a book filled with 3,750 words.  Find a quiet place where you can work undisturbed for short blocks of time and enjoy the process of writing.  Not only will your penmanship improve but you will watch your vocabulary increase exponentially with very little effort.

Intensive / Extensive Reading

Reading in your target language seems like a natural component to your language learning routine but in fact, many learners overlook this practice in place of more emphasis on speaking and writing.  While it is arguably better to focus your efforts and time on speaking and writing especially if your goal is basic communication; effective reading can help you progress quickly through your language learning goals.

With regards to language acquisition, two main types of reading exist intensive reading and extensive reading.

Intensive Reading

Intensive reading is a deliberate and focused activity.  Typically it involves reading for the purpose of deconstructing and understanding every part of the material.  With this in mind, materials should be fairly short and relevant to your interests.  Blog posts, Wikipedia and news articles in areas of interest to you are great places to look for intensive reading materials.  Physical copies of these materials work best so that you can highlight and make notes as you work through the text.exam

Reading intensively is just that… intensive.  This means you need to limit your reading times to blocks of 10-15 minutes at a time with small breaks in between.  This ensures that you will have the mental focus and energy to retain the information you are acquiring.  To keep your focus sharp, try to reduce distractions, find a comfortable quiet space.  If you enjoy to listen to music while you read or study, try to limit it to music without lyrics so you can direct all of your attention and mental energy to the words on the page.

While reading intensively, don’t be afraid to mark up your text and make notes.  If you are reading a novel and you don’t like writing directly on the pages it may be helpful to keep a notebook close by so that you can write down words, phrases, or grammar notes that are unfamiliar to you.  This is a great way to amass vocabulary for future study in other methods such as the “Harry Potter Method” or the Goldlist Method.

When done properly, intensive reading sessions can be a productive boost to your language learning routine.

Extensive Reading

If intensive reading is “work”, extensive reading can be thought of as “play”.  Here the goal is not 100% comprehension of the text but instead reading for the sake of reading.  Although this may seem counterintuitive and somewhat like a waste of time, spending time with the language helps your brain to make sense of all of the content you are actively learning.

booksReading material should be suitable to your comfort level in your target language.  If you are still at the basic level try reading children’s books, graduated readers, and dual-language stories.  Once you reach intermediate and advanced levels in your target language you can start to read a wider array of topics that interest you.  The point of extensive reading is to read as much as your can for longer periods of time.  You don’t need to stop and translate every word or phrase unless it is prohibiting you from understanding the overall message.

Prolonged and repeated exposure to a language will help your brain to passively organize grammar and vocabulary in a way that increases familiarity and helps pave the way for faster recall.

Why this works:

When used in conjunction, both intensive and extensive reading have applications that will surely boost your language learning routines.  Each offers benefits that supplement your studies and will help to solidify your learning.  There is no doubt that avid readers enjoy the benefits of a larger vocabulary and better communication and this directly translates to reading in your second language as well.

Try incorporating both reading styles in your daily routine by setting goals and scheduling time to read.  Making reading a habit is as easy as taking 5 minutes out of each day to read something of interest to you.  As this becomes easier to schedule into your day; try increasing the duration of your reading sessions.  Once you have made reading a habit try allotting time towards each reading style and setting reasonably attainable goals.  For example, you may want to make it a daily goal to intensively read one Wikipedia article each morning while checking your email and read extensively for 10 minutes each night before bed.  This will amount to, at most, 20 – 30 minutes a day of reading and will surely boost your progress in your target language.


Passive Listening / Active Listening

Word Frequency Lists






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