Most courses or free online language lessons focus on splitting the learning process into these three categories: basic, intermediate and advanced. But how exactly do you know what category you're part of at a given moment?
Basic Language Learning
Basic language learning usually consists of getting a solid grip on the base 1000 words of a language. Statistically, most languages use 1,000 words to cover colloquial conversations. Yes, I know it sounds like a small sum of words, since that dictionary on the shelf covers hundreds of thousands of words. If you really don't believe this and have the time on your hands, compile a list of all the basic words in your native language. Stuff like fruit names, mammals, daily tools, furniture, so forth. No specialized words of course. You'll notice that it won't take more than 1,000-1,500 words to cover them, but then again you'll probably run out of inspiration halfways.
Fortunately, there are books out there that cover these basic 1,000 words for most languages. Just search some free language lessons websites on the Internet, or spend some money and buy these books because they'll be very helpful. Ok so now you have the list of basic words. But how do you get them from that piece of paper, in your head?
Many will recommend the "phonebook" approach, which would require you to take each word in the list, repeat it a few times in your mind, and then move on to the next. The only problem with this approach is that it sucks. Badly! By the time you've covered one quarter of the list of words, you will already forget the first ones you've learnt. A way to work around this problem is to take the words in smaller chunks (say 10-20) and put them in a context. Learn the word, say it out loud a few times, see what it means and try to find a context for it.
When you've reached 20 words, revise what you've learnt and then move on to a new batch. In my experience, this is one of the most efficient ways to improve vocabulary and when you're done with the basic 1,000 words and a few equally basic structures using them, you can move on to the Intermediate language learning level.
Intermediate Language Learning
Once you're done with the basics, the next step is understanding what others say. Reading and listening are your friends. Don't start with hard stuff, obviously; don't go about reading a newspaper or a magazine in French, when you just barely learnt the base words and some of the easy structures. Try some light stuff at first, some course book texts for beginners, some non-technical articles on the Internet or some translated text. They usually work well, until you can pass on to the harder stuff like newspapers, technical or specialized magazines and even books.
You can also listen to audio tapes or try to figure out what the actors in a foreign movie are saying. This will help you increase your vocabulary even further, familiarize you with the colloquial way of speaking that language and also provide a natural ingredient to the learning process, since so far what you've done has been slightly robotic.
Advanced Language Learning
If you've reached this stage, you're most definitely on your way to fluently speaking the language you've set out learning. If you can understand most of what's written in a newspaper, article or book and if you can understand what someone else is saying in that particular language (be it a conversation buddy, a foreigner or an actor on TV) then you can move on to using advanced techniques that will perfect your speech, writing and understanding.
Remember how you've learnt 1,000 words in the basic part of your studies? Well by the time you finish the Intermediate part and are able to understand the language properly, you will have most likely increased your word base to 3,000 which makes up for over 90% of normal speech used in almost any language.
So now it's time to put what you've learnt to the test and chisel the new language until you can say that you're truly fluent in it. Try a conversation with a native, or even better, visit the country of origin for your language. Being in that environment will put your so far theoretical skills to the test and it will be the perfect opportunity to correct all the small mistakes that you're bound to still stumble upon.
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