Four Random Tips for Language Learning

I’m now in the swing of things with learning Tagalog. The nice thing about starting a new language project is that I discover (and rediscover) stuff that really helps me learn.

The bad thing is that I feel a little time-crunched.

Claudette Restaurant - Montreal, Canada By Jeangagnon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Claudette Restaurant – Montreal, Canada
By Jeangagnon [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

I’ve been really busy lately. I started a new job, which is great but has longer hours. My air conditioning went out, a minor emergency in Florida when it happens in July. I started volunteering with a local literacy organization. And I’ve been attacking Tagalog pretty consistently. (Oh, and if you missed it, I was on the  Creative Language Learning Podcast with Kerstin Cable.)

Something had to give. In this case, it’s been blogging and maintaining the site’s social media pages. The posts have been a little infrequent, and I’m going to take steps to get back on track with that.

But in the meantime, here are four random tips–a grab bag of stuff that you might find useful.

1. Keep a Food Log in Your New Language

In addition to all that stuff I said, I’m also trying to watch what I eat, so I started keeping a food log. But I thought, why don’t I do this in Tagalog?

Wow! This has been really simple to do, but surprisingly effective. It’s helped me learn the names of foods and introduced me to Tagalog writing.

I tend to eat the same things every day for breakfast and lunch. So I write the same words over and over, which gives an “organic spaced repetition” effect (something Kerstin and I discussed on the podcast). Now I know the names of some foods I eat commonly by heart: itlog (egg), tinapay (bread), hamon (ham), tusino (bacon–don’t judge), and bigas/kanin (rice).

You can choose whether or not you record your calories, but the important thing is just to write your foods down. At least try it for a week.

2. Cycle through your learning materials

My goal is reaching advanced beginner (A2) level in 15 weeks, which is somehow both aggressive and modest. It’s somewhere between a sprint and a jog.

But with that time frame, I have enough time to focus on a topic for a few days or even a week. For instance, I spent several days on mastering the greetings. I spent close to a week on introductions and talking about where people are from.

So instead of working straight through a single text book, I’ve been cycling through a self-study course, a text book, an online program from the US military, and Pimsleur. This means I get a lot of the same material four times.

Each source has its own focus and its own spin on things. Getting so many voices in my studying feels like I’m getting a full, rich experience.

3. Start listening right away

I’m like a broken record with this listening stuff, but you can’t go wrong listening right away, even when you’re just starting with a language.

I can’t understand a lot when I listen to authentic materials, but every day I’m able to pick out a few more words than the day before.

And I had a mini Tagalog conversation with my mom on the phone today. I was able to understand literally everything she said. She was using very simple language, but she was talking at a natural pace and asking me real questions.

4. Take advantage of what you already know

You rarely enter a new language as a completely blank slate. If you’re a native English speaker and you’re learning French, for example, there are tons of words you already know or that are at least familiar to you. Same with Spanish, Italian, German, and several others.

And if you’re learning a language that doesn’t share a lot of similarities with your native language, you’ve still likely been exposed to it at one point through movies and music, so you already have a sense of its intonations and rhythms.

The same’s been true for me and Tagalog. Having a Filipina mom, I had already learned a lot of the most common words while I was growing up–maybe 50 words total, which isn’t a lot but still helpful. Also, the Spanish and English influence is pretty strong. For instance, telling time is pretty much exactly the same as in Spanish, with some slight pronunciation and spelling differences.

Use your familiarity with the language to your advantage. When you find a word, a grammatical pattern, or even a sound that’s familiar to you, pay attention to it and to the very fact that it’s familiar. You’ll have an easier time remembering something that you already have a frame of reference for.

Wrapping Up

Four quick tips. What do you guys like to do when you’re starting out in a new language?



  • Roman Shinkarenko

    Listening is important, because if you understand audiobooks but get lost with news and movies, you miss a lot of material.
    itlog, tinapay… Are you sure you’re not learning Pig Latin?

    • Ron G.

      …hmm…Pig Latin? With all the tusino and hamon I’ve been eating, I guess so. hahaha

  • Stephanie

    I love the food log idea! Is there a good Filipino restaurant near you? My favourite way to practice Tagalog is to head to the restaurant with my husband during their quiet afternoon time, order a halo-halo and just chat! (Halo-halo. OMG.)

    What do you think of Pimsleur? I only did the first 15 lessons, which I enjoyed, but people kept telling me that no one talks that way. I still think it’s a good base to start from. I also used Tuttle’s Elementary Tagalog at first, which I really enjoy, but which I haven’t really touched in over 9 months. After a very long break from Tagalog, I’m just getting back into it. Looking forward to following along with your progress!

    • Ron G.

      Looks like there’s some in the metro area, but not a ton near me. There’s a food truck that comes by close to my work, and I get pork adobo and lumpia and pancit, but the dude is about like me and I think he’s from Hawaii. He might speak Tagalog, but he has a Keanu Reeves real chill vibe, so I dunno.

      I haven’t had halo-halo in YEARS. Now I want one.

      Pimsleur is interesting. I just finished lesson 12 myself. I appreciate what it’s doing, but I think when it puts everything in the tumbler and mixes everything up, it doesn’t quite realize how much cognitive load it’s imposing. I’m glad you’re getting back into it! I like having a Tagalog buddy!

    • Cat Ramos キャット ラモス

      Hi Stephanie! Glad that you are picking up Tagalog again. Good luck! :)

      Hi Ron! Cool that you still eat all those Filipino food! I just had tusino (tocino) for breakfast. Syempre, may kasamang kanin at itlog! Bigas is uncooked rice, kanin is cooked/steamed/boiled.

  • Benjamin Houy

    What I like to do is learn from dialogues and then play the dialogue with a native speaker. This way I immediately identify possible mistakes I make, get feedback and use the language in a realistic situation.

    I also like to write a journal in the language or just write about random topics and then post it on Lang8 to get feedback. That’s actually similar to your food log idea.

    • Ron G.

      Hi Benjamin, thanks for the comment! Great ideas. I had never thought of using a dialogue like that. Definitely going to try that out.

      I haven’t used Lang8 a lot, but I want to. I’ve used iTalki in the past for posting writing and getting corrections. If you’re looking for ideas for topics to write about, here’s a good site with topics from beginner to advanced. (Even though it’s for Spanish learners, you’ll get the general idea.)

      • Benjamin Houy

        I think you forgot to include the link :)

  • Jorge Sivit

    Thank you for sharing these tips, Ron!

    What I like doing at the beginning is something similar to your first tip: I build lists of nouns that are present in my life. If I want to learn food names, I write the ones I actually eat. If I want to learn furniture names, I write the ones I see everyday…

    I really like Kerstin’s podcast. I’ve got to listen to that episode.

    • Kerstin

      Thanks!! 😀

  • Natalie

    Obviously all of these are important, but listening right away is the most important, in my opinion. I didn’t start listening until a year in. If I’d started right away, that probably would have helped a lot. So new learners take heed: listen, listen, listen!

  • Kerstin

    I think being a guest on the podcast was a very productive thing to do indeed.

  • Ángel G. Chamate

    For example, I’m a native Spanish speaker, and I’m currently learning Japanese, so I try to hear songs or conversations and type what I can understand, then later I try to say it