Lessons from 500 days of language learning

The only thing more annoying than your friend banging their pints on the table is your friend drunkenly suggesting you all do Duolingo together.

I wasn’t sure what was more shocking, the fact that the pub had run out of Vodka or that my friend was suggesting, at 1 am, that we should all download Duolingo and learn some Spanish together.

500 days later, and I’m still at it. They are not.

Today, I’ve been learning languages for 500 days and not just using Duolingo. I’m going to talk about what worked for me and what didn’t work.

App Plaza

I’ve used many apps over my time:

  • Duolingo
  • Wanikani
  • Busuu
  • LingoDeer
  • Memrise
  • HelloTalk
  • Babbel
  • HelloChinese
  • Anki

And likely many more.

The problem is that we procrastinate what study method to use.

Deciding on the best study method is another form of procrastination.

While some apps are better than others (Duolingo isn’t that good), the differences aren’t so large that they make a significant change in your study.

I’d Google “best language app for {LANGUAGE} Reddit” and just choose the first ones.

My favourites were:

  • Busuu (for German). It required you to study 10 minutes/day instead of X lessons/day. This helped me learn a lot more than the usual.
  • Duolingo (German, Hawaiian, Hindi, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Gaelic, Latin, Arabic). Duolingo is a bad app in the sense that it doesn’t teach you the specific rules of a language so much. But for developing a habit and easily checking out many languages it’s a great app.
  • Wanikani (Japanese). Superb app to learn Kanji && Hiragana. The best! Highly suggest.
  • Anki (Japanese / German). Good for learning vocab, not good for using that vocab.
  • HelloChinese - Probably the only good Chinese learning app.

Specificity vs Generalisation

Some people pick one language and learn it well, other people many languages and get a little good at them. Some even pick many languages and lie that their experts in it after only 4 days of study.

I prefer picking 1 or 2 languages to study but experimenting in a lot of different languages.

I find studying the same language every day gets boring after a while, so I tend to experiment.

My core languages are:

  • German (A1 level)
  • Mandarin (About halfway to A1)
  • British Sign Language (Level 1, but I don’t actively learn this – my friends are deaf)

When I get bored of studying the intricacies of German grammar, I pick up a new language to explore.

These have been:

  • Hawaiian (I love this one, a beautiful language. Duolingo teaches it quite well.)
  • Hindi.
  • Japanese (This was fun because I could finally understand some of the words in jPop.)
  • Korean (for Kpop)
  • Spanish (I was forced to learn it back in school, I was A2 but not anymore.)
  • Gaelic.
  • Latin
  • French
  • Arabic

I would suggest if you feel burnt out, explore something else.

It’s important to keep the habit going, but at the same time, you don’t want to burn out.

Habits build Habits

One of the most surprising benefits of learning a language from Green Bird was that habits built habits.

It started small. I’d do my Duolingo lesson and drink a litre of water.

And then, I’d eat some fruit while doing it.

Eventually culminating into running 5km, doing Duolingo in the sun, running back, shower – but while the water is warming up, read!

This small habit of learning everyday built more habits. Habits build habits.

The 2 keys to learning any language

There are 2 things you can do to learn any language:

  • Input
  • Output

You learn from a book or an app (Input), and you use it (output).

I started by only doing input, but my language skills weren’t advancing fast enough.

And then I started to write in my target language, speak in it and I found I was learning very fast.

It’s like reading a programming book. It’s one thing to understand how a for loop works, it’s another thing to implement it.

Understanding is implementation. You can’t know a language and not use it.


500 days down, 500 days to go! And then another 1000 days.

Maybe in another 500 days, I’ll be able to speak Mandarin or German rather well 😉