How I Approach Language Learning

From the start of 2021 until July, my Khmer study was going smashingly well. I had a routine and I stuck to it every single day. I learned new words and practiced existing ones at a steady clip. But then a month ago, I got sick. No, it wasn’t COVID. Just a stomach illness. But it did put me out of action for the better part of two weeks. Since then, I’ve struggled to regain the traction on my learning again.

So today I’m gonna revisit some of the methods I’ve picked up while learning how to study Khmer. By sharing, I hope it’ll give me the push to jump-start my habits again. I first wrote these up as notes for myself, but now I hope it’ll be useful for someone else to read.

From these methods, I’ve made some great progress in the last 6 months – I’ve learned over 1000 words and can have very basic conversations. I’m still struggling to understand and be understood most of the time, but every day I get more used to the language and how it sounds.


1. Comprehensible Input

This method makes a theory about why children seem to pick up languages faster than adults and wants you to learn in the same way. We all seem to think that children learn languages more easily than adults and there’s nothing we can do about it. But this theory argues that children are in very different situations to adults when they’re learning a new language – they’re learning basic words first, which are much easier to understand. Conversely, adults usually try to jump into complex topics because they’re in a work setting and/or trying to converse with older natives.

This whole notion of “children just learn languages faster than adults” and “adult brains just can’t learn new languages” is something that I’ve rejected for a long time. But they’re parroted by so commonly that most people accept it as the truth. Worse still, many use it as an excuse to never try learning a new language in the first place. Thankfully, this method actually provides some solid reasoning to debunk those myths. It’s not that children have a different brain structure or more neuroplasticity, they just have a different method of learning than adults tend to use. And it tends to work a lot better.

I first heard of Comprehensible Input when I was researching about language learning in general. I watched this video, which does a great job at explaining how it works:

“We learn languages in only one way. And that is when we understand the message. When we understand what we hear and read.”

This method will teach you to think in your target language and enter it subconsciously into your long term memory.


How does it work?

These are the rules you should follow if you’re you’d like to learn through Comprehensible Input.

  1. Ensure the input you’re getting contains no english. Target language only. Usually you’re recommended to get a teacher or language partner and learn 1-on-1.
  2. Get things explained to you, just like a child does. Learn very basic things, just like a kid does when they go to kindergarten. Speak in easy, short sentences. Speak slowly and clearly.
  3. The i+1 Principle: i is your current vocabulary, and you try to add to it little by little. Learn by getting just a little bit extra vocab. E.g. when looking at a picture, don’t just point at the items and say one word descriptions. Make short sentences with a new word at its centre. This car looks expensive. I wish I had an expensive car. I bet there are expensive things in that car.
  4. Eventually you start picking up words & grammar from listening, and getting used to hearing the sounds of the language.

When I started researching into how to study Khmer effectively, I came across a website called LingQ, which contained a lot of kids stories in Khmer. Little did I know that their learning method revolved around this Comprehensible Input thing too. Specifically, using a method called Automatic Language Growth, explained in this video:

I went further down the rabbit hole and watched this man’s journey to learning Arabic in one year from scratch, purely using the principles of Comprehensible Input. He explains the method throughout the video as he learns the language.

Your best bet if you want to learn a language using this method (or any method in my opinion) is to get a tutor or language partner who you can learn from 1-on-1. From Jeff Brown’s video above, these are the steps he outlines to follow during these sessions:

Rules during language exchanges/lessons:

  1. NO English: If something can’t be explained, it can be drawn or gestured. Learn the phrase for “it’s not important” at the beginning of your lessons and if an explanation is going nowhere and you want to move on, use it.
  2. No grammar: Grammar will be acquired naturally. Don’t study it through drills, don’t learn the rules, don’t think about it.
  3. No corrections: tell your tutor “Please don’t correct me at any time”. Evidence shows that correcting people doesn’t help. Only causes you to slow down and think too much and losing your confidence instead of spending time actually speaking. It has a similar effect as learning grammar.

First things to learn before the first language exchange: (in target language)

  • Yes & No
  • What’s this?
  • It’s not important

In these 1-on-1 sessions, he recommends learning from:

  • Magazines (20% of the time)
  • Children’s books (80% of the time)

TPR: Total Physical Response. Just a fancy name for ‘verbs

  • Ask your language partner to give you a list of commands i.e. verbs: e.g. eat, sleep. jump, run, laugh, cry etc. Try and get up to 500 commands eventually
  • This allows you to acquire a language through movement

A couple of extra tips:

  • Always start by learning your target language with clothing and colours
  • Record your lessons and exchanges on your phone and listen to them later, like you would a podcast.



2. Language storytelling exercise:

I learnt this method from a person on Youtube who claims to have learned French in only 30 days. What’s the catch? He spent 8 hours a day studying it, using a very intense and effective learning method.

Part of that practice centred around the following storytelling exercise:

  1. Set a timer for 5mins and tell a story in French. If you don’t know a word or a sentence, just say it in English
  2. Go and watch back over it. Pick out the words/sentences you couldn’t say and translate them
  3. Say the story again. Trying to improve the completeness and flow of it
  4. Put the unknown words into Excel. Import them into Anki

This method appeals to me right now, because I spent 6 months learning using flashcards. Every single day. Learning about 10 new words a day. I’ve managed to pick up a lot of words this way, some common, some used only in news articles.

But, unfortunately it seems that I’m not much closer to being able to have a conversation with a Khmer speaker than I was a few months ago. For one, spoken Khmer is very different to the written Khmer that I’ve been learning, so words are often pronounced in incomprehensible ways that I can’t understand. And secondly, I’ve been learning words in isolation without much input in sentence form. So I find that I’m still struggling to put coherent sentences together.

By recording myself speak and watching it back it helps reveal my pronunciation, pacing an intonation and areas that I can improve. I plan to go through each story a few times, sharpening and refining it each time. It also helps me learn to talk about my life and learn words that are relevant to me.


3. Fluent in 3 months – Benny Lewis

Ah, Benny Lewis. The original travel influencer in my life. I discovered his blog while I was an electrical engineering student, wistfully wondering about what my life would be like after I left the education system that had shielded be from the “real world” since I was 5 years old. Wondering what I could do with my life and how I could live it, especially since I spent a lot more time thinking about travelling than being an engineer.

Enter Benny Lewis. An Irish-born, former electrical engineering student. He earned first class honours in his degree but has almost never used it. He now travels the world, writing his blog and meeting all sorts of wonderful people. What a dream. Could this kind of thing be possible for me? This planted the seed in my mind as to what could be possible through language learning. As you might be able to tell, I was drawn to his story.

His language learning method basically calls upon the learner to start speaking their target language from Day 1. That’s right, no English. Just stumbling, fumbling and a whooooole lot of hand gestures. The idea that is to force yourself to struggle and stop falling back on your native tongue, which ultimately impedes you from making progress.

I admit that I haven’t really been following this method like I’d always fancied. The truth is, it’s really hard and really uncomfortable. I have maybe one friend who has enough patience to only speak Khmer with me. I do have a Khmer teacher and we do end up speaking for about half an hour in Khmer. Maybe I should ask him go to entire lessons without a word of English.


4. Fluent Forever – Gabriel Wyner

Basically, “The Flashcard Method”.

I love the way this methodically breaks down language learning into a very logical and numerical process. The bulk of the learning is done during the vocabulary acquisition stage, in which you commit 625, then 1000 words to memory using Anki. The beauty of it is that it’s all lives on an app that you can carry with you anywhere, to be opened anytime. It doesn’t rely on anyone and you don’t have to interact with anyone awkwardly. While convenient, it seems like it kind of misses the point about language learning doesn’t it?

In English, the most common 1000 make up more than 85% of normal conversation. This is a bit of a misleading statement though, as one may assume that you’d be able to understand 85% of what someone’s saying just by learning these most common 1000 words. Not true. I’ve now learnt over 1000 words in Khmer using this method and I feel like I can understand maybe 10% of conversations. It turns out, the remaining 15% of normal conversation actually contains the key contextual words you need in order to understand what’s going on.

That’s not to say this method is ineffective – I’m super glad that I learned these most common words. Just don’t think that you’ll be “fluent forever” just by learning a bunch of words and not talking to anyone. You’ve still gotta get out there.



What all of these methods have in common is that:

  1. Minimise English use in order to think in your target language. Translate back to English as little as possible.
  2. Rank words in importance and frequency and learn the most commonly spoken words first.
  3. They train you to do something hard. It’s easy to sit there using apps like Duolingo that make you feel like you’re learning something. When really you’re just spending most of your time in English and translating between the two languages. You don’t pick up much of your target language that way.

They all have their benefits and shortcomings and I intend to use them all in one way or another.

At the end of the day, learning any language isn’t easy and it’s not meant to be. Even if you’re learning an “easy” language close to your native tongue, like Spanish or Italian (for English speakers), there’s still a monumental amount to learn. Be prepared to get things wrong. Be prepared to make a fool of yourself. It’s all part of the process.