Acquiring a language is a huge task and the resources you use can make the difference between spending months or spending years to get to a level of basic competency.
Gabriel Wyner, an opera singer and author of the highly acclaimed Fluent Forever, has been making some fantastic ones that are based on both research and real-world use.
But as good as the materials are, they aren't available for all the languages people are learning. So I asked him to teach us a mini-course on how to build our own. All it takes is a conversation partner or tutor, a way to record them and some freely downloadable flashcard software.
1) Start with phonics
If you can't even hear the sounds in a language, you have no hope of producing them properly and you won't have an easy time picking up vocabulary either. The very most important thing at the beginning is to train your ears to hear each sound in the language you're learning. This is also an excellent time to learn the alphabet.
Ask your conversation partner to record each of the letters in the alphabet and give you an example word. E.g. A, apple, B, boat, C, car, etc. This won't get you all the sounds in a language, but it will get you most of them. If you and your partner are aware of other sounds you can record another word for that sound, so that you have both long and short vowels, for example.
2) Use minimal pair drills for the really hard sounds
Did you know that when adult Japanese speakers practice trying to differentiate between English L and R sounds, they can improve from 50% accuracy to over 80% over the course of a short study? 80% may not sound wonderful, but it's a huge improvement from the perspective of a learner and it likely paves the way for continued improvement with language use. Find the sounds that are difficult for you distinguish and then practice them.
3) Without feedback, ear training is futile
Unfortunately, there is also research demonstrating that even with repeated listening and drilling people don't improve unless they get feedback after each sound they try to identify. Fortunately, you can use a spaced repetition system like Anki to quiz yourself and get feedback. It's free and it can make audio flashcards as well as simple text.
4) Start learning the high frequency words
The next step is to learn the most common words in a language. If you can't find a list of those words for the language you're learning, that's okay. Just take the most common words in English and ask your language partner or tutor how to say them. Nouns are particularly easy to start with.
5) Record sentences
Study and review entire sentences. In the process of doing this, you'll be picking up a feel for the grammar of the language. After making sentences using the most common 1000 or so words, and things that you personally want to be able to express to people, you'll be well on your way.
The Anki deck models we mentioned are here, under ear training
If you found this lesson useful, then email Gabe and tell him you enjoyed it!