In this article, I'm going to reveal three must-know principles for learning a language. No matter what language you're studying, and no matter what level speaker you are, if you don't know these language learning principles, you are at a an extreme disadvantage.


1. Language teaches itself


In Spanish, to say ‘green tea’, you literally say ‘tea green’, And because you say ‘tea green’, you should assume that you would also say ‘sky blue’, or ‘car red’, or ‘coffee black’. You don't need an explicit analysis, such as “nouns precede adjectives”. And eventually, you shouldn't even need a teacher to point a recurring pattern such as this out to you. I didn't teach you ‘sky blue’; ‘tea green’ taught you ‘sky blue’. Or maybe ‘sky blue’ taught you ‘tea green’. In any case, one example teaches all other examples.


In Hindi, Farsi, and Japanese, to say ‘I drink coffee’, you literally say ‘I coffee drink’. So because it's ‘I coffee drink’, you automatically know—without even knowing the words—that it's ‘I car drive’, ‘I computer use’, and ‘I Hindi speak’.


What about exceptions? Yes, there are exceptions to these patterns. For example, in English it's ‘I jump, I jumped’, ‘I dance, I danced’, ‘I play, I played’, and ‘I look, I looked’. But it's not ‘I think, I thinked’, ‘I go, I goed’, ‘I drink, I drinked’, or ‘I put, I putted’. However, by assuming that the pattern will work, you will be right the majority of the time. And in the off-chance that you aren't right, you will still be understood (you would understand me if I said ‘I thinked something’).


Plus, by making that mistake, you give your speaking partner the chance to correct you, thereby fixing the mistake. If you had never ventured a guess, you would only be saving the mistake to make later. You have a certain amount of mistakes waiting for you when learning a language, why not get them out of the way as soon as possible, and do so by guessing in the smartest way possible?


‘Tea green’ teaches ‘sky blue’. ‘I coffee drink’ teaches ‘I Hindi speak’. And ‘I thinked something’—through practice—teaches ‘I thought something’. Language teaches itself.


2. Conversation teaches Structure, Structure creates Conversation


Introducing yourself is likely the first thing you'll do when speaking a foreign language. Therefore it's always the very first thing I learn to do when teaching myself a language. It's the first component of my conversation sequence, and building on the principle of ‘Language teaches itself’, I use the conversation itself to illuminate the patterns or structure of the language.

In Arabic, to say ‘my name is Tony’, you say. ‘Ismi Tony’. So I'm going to learn to say ‘hello’ (marhaban), ‘ismi Tony’. And at the very least, I'm going to memorize this expression by rote, like a parrot—at the very least. However by taking a structural lesson from the conversation, I come to find there is a whole lot more I can potentially say.


The word ‘ismi’—’my name’—is made up of two parts: ‘ism’—which means name—and the suffix ‘i’ (pronounced ‘ee’)—which means ‘my’ when attached to any noun, such as ‘ism’. So if I have the word for ‘house’—which is ‘bayt’—then I should be able to say ‘my house’—which is ‘bayti’. Father is ‘ab’, so my father is ‘abi’. ‘Mother’ is ‘om’, so ‘my mother’ is ‘omi’. And so on and so forth to infinity.


When teaching myself a new language, I always learn to say ‘Hi, my name is Tony, I speak a little Arabic’—or whatever language it is. I find these opening remarks to be useful expressions for conversation. But all the while, I'm using conversation to teach myself structure. ‘I speak Arabic’ is ‘Etekellem arabe.’ ‘I study Arabic’ is ‘Edrous arabe’, and ‘I understand Arabic’ is ‘Efhem arabe’. ‘Etekellem, edrous, efhem’. What letter do you think the word ‘I read’ begins with? What about ‘I write’, or ‘I go’, or ‘I learn’? Learn to say the things you want and need to say, and let those things teach you the patterns you need to guess everything else.


Conversation and structure are like yin and yang. By learning to converse—and doing so in real contexts—you learn the structure. And by knowing the structure, you're further able to converse.


In Spanish, to say ‘I speak Spanish’ you say ‘Hablo español’. ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ is ‘Hablas español?’ Here the structural pattern can be isolated as ‘-o’ for ‘I’, and ‘-as’ for ‘Do you?’ Therefore I can create a conversation saying, ‘I speak Spanish’—‘Hablo español’—‘Do you speak Spanish’?—‘Hablas español?’. ‘I study Spanish’—‘Estudio español’, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’—‘Estudias español?’. ‘Do you drink coffee?’—‘Tomas café?’. And so on and so forth to infinity. Potentially infinite conversation growing from a simple structure.


Conversation teaches structure. Structure creates conversation.


3. Verbs are containers of vocabulary


Imagine a jar, and on the front of that jar is the phrase ‘I am’. Now imagine that on little pieces of paper you write all of the words and phrases that could go into that jar. ‘I am… Tony’. ‘I am… from Chicago’. ‘I am… a teacher’. And so on. Now imagine that on the front of the jar, under ‘I am’, there is the phrase ‘Are you?’. And imagine that on little pieces of paper you write all the words and phrases you might want to ask someone using the verb ‘Are you?’. ‘Are you a Spanish student?’ ‘Are you from Chicago originally?’ ‘Are you at home right now?


By creating a jar of vocabulary (labeled by a verb in first and second person) you can have an instant conversation in a new language, while also building your structure. Just be sure to put the words and phrases in the jar that you need. Lawyers, learn the word for lawyer. Doctors, learn the word for doctor. Only learn what you're planning to use. Prepare your routine. Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to say, and to whom?’


Verbs contain vocabulary. Verbs contain conversation.


Conversely, vocabulary without a jar is like milk without a glass. All the vocabulary in the entire dictionary means nothing without its being contained in time and context using a verb. For example, if I just said ‘tomorrow, at noon, in the park’. You'd say: ‘What?’


Core verbs--be, have, go, do, like, want, need, be able to, and try to--each as a jar, labeled in first and second person, past present and future, each filled with its respective vocabulary, results in the vast majority of anything you'd ever need to say in a language. This process--applied in real conversation, and continued over time--results in mastery of a language.




  1. Language teaches itself.
  2. Conversation teaches structure. Structure creates conversation.
  3. Verbs are containers of vocabulary.


These are the core language learning principles--for learning any language!


Learning a language is an intuitive, often unconscious process, as it was when you learned your native language as a child. My goal is to simply re-awaken these unconscious language learning principles and teach them to you, so that you may teach yourself any language.


Image Sources


Hero image by Dawn Ellner (CC BY 2.0)