Gabriel Gelman is the founder of Sprachheld, a popular language learning website for Germans learning foreign languages (and―as an added bonus―non-Germans learning German as a foreign language). On the site, Gabriel shares useful language learning tips and tools, inspirational interviews with polyglots and linguists, and a dialogue-based Spanish course (with other languages slated for production in the future). I’ve followed his work for some time and was delighted to finally meet him in person at the 2019 Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava.

“Whenever you’re learning or whenever you’re spending time on learning that language, ask yourself, are you doing one of those four core activities: are you listening, speaking, writing, or reading? And if that’s not the core of everything that you do, then you’re doing it wrong. Or not right.” —Gabriel Gelman

In the interview, we discuss:

  • Gabriel’s foreign language “origin story.”
  • How―like many eventual polyglots―he didn’t do very well in foreign languages in school.
  • How the “nuclear option” of studying abroad finally helped him reach fluency in English and French.
  • How his view on language learning shifted somewhat when he began learning Spanish outside of Spain.
  • Why most people struggle to learn languages in school and why language should not be thought of as an academic subject like biology or mathematics.
  • The critical importance of real-life application when learning languages and having specific, short-term goals, and milestones.
  • Why Gabriel only learns languages when they are directly, immediately useful in his life (he doesn’t learn “just in case” or “just for fun”).
  • Gabriel’s current milestones for learning Polish.
  • Gabriel’s tips for minitoring your progress and making incremental improvement more visible but why he himself no longer tracks progress.
  • How your efficiency rate will increase with each new language you learn.
  • Why at least 80% of your learning time should be spent on language input (listening and reading) first and output practice (speaking and writing), with language “study” as “seasoning” on top.
  • Why you should focus on only listening first (for at least a month) to avoid accent issues and developing incorrect pronunciation habits.
  • But, on the other hand, why you probably need to start speaking way before you feel “ready.”
  • What a typical day of language learning looks like for Gabriel.
  • Gabriel’s favorite language learning resources and tools.
  • Why you should limit yourself to 3-5 language resources or activities at a time to maintain your focus and momentum.
  • The importance of continually re-asking yourself, “Am I actually practicing the four core language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing?”
  • Gabriel’s “old school” approach to learning vocabulary (“It doesn’t work for most people but it works really well for me”).
  • Why “paper is powerful” (and often faster than digital tools).
  • Balancing efficiency and motivation (i.e. the imperfect method you stick to is better than the perfect method or you quit).
  • How and why to create a weekly learning plan and how it helps with motivation and consistency.
  • Why conscious study of grammar and vocabulary can be a shortcut to fluency, but not a replacement for authentic input and output.

People, Places & Resources Mentioned

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