Let's start with a disclaimer: I'm not a teacher, and I have no experience in teaching languages. I've been trying to learn quite a few though. Everything stated here is in my own, anecdotal case study opinion.

If the goal is some level or proficiency, I feel like the standard courses don't accomplish that. Almost everyone I've talked to has started learning a language in either primary or secondary education, but very few have retained enough to continue to be proficient.

This post marks the start of my journey toward a reproducible curriculum that will produce language proficient individuals. I define one as proficient in a language when:

  • one can listen (if applicable) to a conversation in a target language at the speed natives speak, and understand the majority of the content.
  • one can read and write in the target language.
  • one makes grammatical mistakes 1% of the time.
  • one can speak in the target language, with a pronunciation that's understandable by a native speaker.

Seeing as the US Department of State has their own definition, I would put my goal at a 3: minimal professional proficiency.

Here's some of the things I think are worth being a primary focus:

Making Language Practice A Habit

Beyond all else, languages require a very large time investment, over a long period of time. Memorization is a huge part of learning languages: two thousand words is probably around the bare minimum to hold a free-form conversation in a language. Memorization comes with practice and repetition. In order for someone to keep their language proficiency, languages must practiced routinely: in other words, language practice must be a habit.

Useful from Day One

Learning a language comes with the steep learning curve: There is a lot of knowledge to absorb, and the usefulness of that knowledge increases exponentially near the end, but is very slow in the beginning.

The goal here would be to teach the material in a way where value is maximized near the beginning. A high initial reward helps build a habit that will take a student to language proficiency.

Next Steps

I'm bilingual in Japanese and English, so I will be using Japanese as my test language for a lot of my teaching experiments. If you're interested, please follow my blog by subscribing to the RSS feeds. Thanks!


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About Yusuke Tsutsumi
Software Engineer at Zillow. I focus on tools and services for developer productivity, including build and testing.

My other interests include programming language design, game development, and learning languages (the non-programming ones).