How to Learn a Language in 2021. Linguajunkie’s Thoughts of the Year

The Main Lingua Junkie here.

You know what the end of the year does? It makes me, Main Lingua Junkie, reflect.

On language learning. On how to learn better. On how to achieve your goals.

So, here are some thoughts for 2020 that may help you learn a language in 2021.

And if you’re already wondering… “you mean, you’re giving advice that you yourself should take?” Well, you’re a clever one. Yes, of course. Like all advice peddling gurus, the reason I say this is because I’m not doing enough of it. Or, maybe I’m the one that needs to hear it most. …Except, I’m not a guru. I don’t even do yoga!

But, maybe you’ll find something useful here.

Take a look.

1. You gotta know what you want.


What do you want out of your language learning?

While you think about that… hear me out.

You see, most language learners wander into language learning passively.

You buy a book. You download an app. You subscribe to a YouTube channel. You buy a program. Then, you consume whatever the resource has to teach you and think that’s enough.

It’s kind of like a college class. You show up. Listen to the professor. Take notes. Then, you get up and leave when time’s up. You take the final exam and get somewhere between a B and a D. And then, you complain how that class was useless… that you don’t remember anything… and that maybe they should’ve taught you something more important… like financial literacy… even though you would pay just as much attention there as you did here.

And that’s a problem.

You’re relying too much on “having someone teach you,” without you putting in the work yourself. By the way, no, putting in hours of passive review isn’t a good way to put in work either — but that’s another topic for another time.

Why is that a problem?

The problem is, you don’t know what you want out of the language. You’re there passively. Like a wishy washy date that enjoys spending time but isn’t sure of “what we are just yet.”  You say you want to be fluent…but that’s like someone saying they want to be happy, confident, or successful. Very vague stuff. So, you continue wandering through your textbook, app, program, or YouTube channel… picking up things here and there… but you never really make substantial progress.

But… if you specifically knew what you wanted, like:

  • I want to learn the alphabet this week.
  • I want to be able to introduce myself.
  • I want to master the passive tense with verbs.
  • I want to learn 100 words this month.
  • I want to learn 20 adjectives this month.
  • I want to talk about weather.
  • I want to master that one dang grammar pattern that I struggle with.
  • I want to know all the ways to answer “how are you” from “I’m good” to “I’m okay” to “I’m sad.”

…Then, you’d get what you want. You know exactly what it is and how to attain it.

It’s okay to want fluency or to want to understand shows/movies in the target language, but you better want to accomplish the specific steps on how to get there too. And that requires YOU knowing what you want. And that requires YOU to stop being lazy, sit down, think about what you want, write it out, and act on it.

Yes, it’s much easier to sit down and let someone else do the teaching. That’s the lazy way. But, you’ll keep on passively consuming whatever YouTube or some app teaches you… without making any good progress.

You know, people hate on the JLPT (Japanese LanguageProficiency Test)) because passing a test doesn’t mean you can speak fluently. And it doesn’t. But, passing a test is a specific goal and you learn a lot on your way to reaching it.  And you get what you sought after in the end.

Living in the target country also helps because…. You need to accomplish specific tasks like: open a bank account, visit the dentist, go to the post office, tell the receptionist that you have an appointment and such. And if you’re smart, you’ll prepare ahead of time for these situations and look up the necessary words. Then, at the end, you know how to open a bank account, tell the receptionist that you have an appointment… and so on.

But, if you’re learning a foreign language from the comfort of your own home, it’s up to you to get specific.

So, it comes down to what you specifically want.

  • Takeaway: This is pretty much another way of saying, “set smart goals.” So, what do you want? Write it down. Be super specific. And do this often.

So, what do you want? If you don’t know, you’re in trouble.

2. Ask yourself questions.

Something magical happens when you start involving yourself in your own learning. As in, when you don’t just passively follow whatever an app teaches you. Like we talked about earlier.

See, when you start asking yourself questions like…

  • Alright, how do I conjugate this verb?


  • How do I say “bla bla bla” in Japanese or Korean?

You go on to find answers.

Those answers seem to stick better because you yourself have to develop an understanding.

It’s like another version of “knowing what you want” and going after it.

So, when’s the last time you asked yourself a language question and went on an answer-seeking spree? Probably haven’t done it any time recently, right? Because it’s hard. Because it requires you to stop, sit down, think about what you want, write it out, and act on it. It’s much easier to read some stuff in a textbook or app.


Asking questions works because it makes you an active learner instead of a passive recipient of information. When you interact with information by elaborating on it, thinking critically about its context, or relating some pieces of information to others you increase the likelihood that you will remember it.


  • Takeaway: Constantly ask yourself questions. You can mix this in with the first point of “being specific with what you want.” Is there some specific word you don’t know in your target language? Ask yourself that question and look it up.

3. I changed my mind on Spaced Repetition.

Long story short, I hated any and all spaced repetition apps.

Something about diddling through digital flashcards and marking whether I know a word or phrase… didn’t inspire me.

However, I was young, dumb and lazy,

Then, I came across the concept of active recall.

Active recall is when you force yourself to remember what you’ve learned. When you do that, your neurons get stronger. So, you remember better as a result. This is why you get quizzed and tested to hell and back in school. Although we mostly see quizzes and tests as things to pass, they’re effective in improving your knowledge. It’s just too bad that we need to treat them as something we need to get a 100% on and forget.

But spaced repetition helps with active recall.

Instead of asking myself to remember things… the software will test me.

But that’s not all.

Spaced repetition also spaces things over time. You see a specific word today. You’ll see it in 2 days. You’ll see it in 8 days. And so on. Why?

Learning something once isn’t enough and you never really learn it. Coming back to it again and again is what makes it stick. But that’s the hard part. Could you remember to remember to ask yourself “what is apple in Japanese” in 8 days? Not likely. So, that’s where spaced repetition comes in. It repeats things — or whatever you’re learning — over spaced periods of time. So, you don’t forget it.

The one thing I still can’t do is… review new lists of words or phrases. It has to be something that I’ve come across and want to cement in my head.

  • Takeaway: Spaced repetition is your friend. So is active recall.

4. You need real life interaction.

You see, the Main Lingua Junkie is more a lover than a fighter…

…the Main Lingua Junkie also hasn’t stepped into the ring…


…in the Main Lingua Junkie’s opinion, speaking the language is like fighting. Let’s say boxing.

You can learn all the words and phrases (or punches and kicks). You can spar for practice with a partner. You can go do pushups. But you’ll never know how good you are. It all comes down to how a real conversation (fight) plays out.

Real conversations and fights are unpredictable. You may realize that the other person speaks faster (or moves faster). That they pronounce a certain word (or bob and weave) in a different way than you had expected. They may sucker punch you with a question that you don’t have an answer for… in your target language…. and you get knocked out by that.

But that’s a good thing. That unpredictability tells you…

  • I need to learn that word.
  • I need to be able to answer that question.
  • I was totally mispronouncing that word.

…and it helps you learn and grow. You don’t know what you don’t know… until you’re placed in a situation where you realize… “hey, I don’t know this! Now, I know what I’m missing.” Then you go on to learn it. That’s how you grow.

The real life interaction is important.

Otherwise, if you’re just sparring/practicing with a practice dummy (or language partner), they won’t really put you to the test and keep it easy.

Sparring with a Friendly Language Partner:

Having a Real Conversation & You Suddenly Don’t Understand What they Said:


  • Takeaway: You don’t know what you don’t know. But, real life interaction reveals what you don’t know.

So, these are the Main Lingua Junkie’s thoughts for the year.

May they help you learn a language in 2021.

– The Main Junkie


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