Polyglot Lindsay Williams Shares Her Top Tips & Reveals Her Daily Language Learning Routine
Lindsay Williams has been hooked on languages ever since childhood when she got a taste of French—and the free croissants that accompanied the class! Since then, she’s gone on to learn Spanish, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese, Esperanto, Indonesian, Korean, Guarani, and more.
Along the way, she developed a passion for teaching languages, too, and has taught learners in Costa Rica, refugees in the U.K., countless learners online, and even employees at a garlic bread factory!
She now dedicates time to inspiring independent language learners and online teachers, sharing a wealth of useful tips and tools on her popular site Lindsay Does Languages.
Lindsay is also the co-host of The Fluent Show (alongside Kerstin Cable), and the creator of Language Stories, a documentary series that highlights various languages around the globe and the people who speak them.
In the interview, we discuss:
- Lindsay’s language “origin story.”
- Her most memorable language learning experiences.
- The most common learner mistakes and myths.
- Her daily language learning routines and “minimum viable daily habits.”
- How to create “onion goals.”
- The importance of being kind to oneself.
- Seeing mistakes as evidence of growth, not proof of failure.
- What to do when motivation and willpower wane.
- Why one size never fits all in language learning.
- Lindsay’s first foreign language was French, which she started learning in elementary school and stuck with thanks in no small part to the free croissants and orange juice provided at the end of class!
- She started learning Spanish as part of her GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) studies from aged 14 to 16. Not only was Lindsay excited to begin learning the language of Shakira, but she was also thrilled to now attend a school centered specialized in languages, as opposed to her previous engineering-centered school. She then studied both Spanish and French in her A-Level studies (and Drama, too!) prior to university.
- She proceeded to Italian and Mandarin Chinese in university as part of her degree, while also learning German on the side through Open University.
- After starting her business Lindsay Does Languages, she decided to start learning Dutch so she could report on the ins and outs of self-guided language learning from square one.
- She then did an 8-week challenge in Portuguese when asked to join italki’s World Cup Language Challenge, which opened the floodgates and showed her just how fun and effective self-guided learning could be. She went on to start many additional language adventures, including Japanese, Esperanto, Indonesian, Korean, and Guarani (an indigenous language of South America and one of the national languages of Paraguay).
Lindsay’s Language Learning Tips & Insights
- Create “onion goals.” Most people set out with unspecific ambitions, but we can only make progress with hyper-specific goals and habits. “Get fluent in Spanish” is not a goal, but rather a vague ambition. Get hyper-specific. What is it you actually want to be able to do in the language? Maybe it’s ordering food in Spain without resorting to English or pointing. That’s your goal, which you can think of as the center of a metaphorical “onion.” You then move out to the next layer of the onion: How are you going to actually accomplish this? Maybe for your, this means practicing restaurant Spanish with a tutor. Ask yourself How? again. Where will you find a tutor? When will you meet? Perhaps your next step then is going on italki and to find a few Spanish tutors to try out and scheduling times to meet. By questioning every step, you create a clear path to your goal and transform the nebulous into the specific.
- Be kind to yourself. Learning even a tiny bit of a language is still a major accomplishment. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t reach your ambitions. Many of us set targets that are too lofty, too unrealistic, and too far away, and it’s not fair to judge yourself a failure if you don’t reach the unreachable.
- See mistakes as evidence of growth, not proof of failure. When you make spoken or written mistakes in your target language, don’t use them as evidence for why you can’t communicate with native speakers. Instead, see them priceless lessons of what not to do again.
- Create a backup for willpower and motivation. It’s easy to be fired up about your target language when you are just starting out, but willpower and motivation will inevitably wax and wane. You need to have a “backup” in place for days when you just don’t feel like learning. One key is making language learning an automatic habit tied to other tasks you already do, so you have to constantly decide whether to learn or when to learn. Perhaps you commit to sending two messages on HelloTalk every evening before bed. Another key is authentic interest: identify something that you genuinely love something about the language or culture. When Lindsay was learning Spanish, it was Shakira music. For you, maybe it’s people, food, travel, history, or dance.
- Find what works for you. Everyone is different and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. You have to try things out and figure out what is most effective and enjoyable for you. There is no one magic pill, method, or formula that will unlock fluency for all language learners.
“Successful language learning is the combination of lots of different activities. Lots of different methods and experimentation. And trial and error.”
Lindsay’s Language Teaching Tips & Insights
- Lindsay had a transformative volunteer experience in Costa Rica which sparked her interest in teaching English and taught her the importance of learning how to learn.
- If you are just starting out, try free language exchanges first to build confidence and experience. You can also volunteer in your community.
- italki is the most popular tutoring site, but there are many others to consider. In general, individual, one-on-one students tend to be more motivated than group classes.
- There can also be big differences in motivation between those learning a language for immediate practical needs (e.g. professionals, immigrants, and refugees) and those learning just for fun, travel, etc.
Lindsay’s “20-20-20” Language Learning Routine
- Lindsay carves out 7:00 to 8:00 am every day for language learning almost every day. As a morning person, she finds that learning first thing means she’s much more likely to put in the time than if she waits until later in the day. (Note from John: I highly recommend checking out The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype by Dr. Michael Breus. He is a sleep doctor who lays out the best time of day for various activities—including study—for different “chronotypes”).
- To ensure that she’s making progress in her new target languages as well as maintaining those she’s studied in the past, she divides up the hour into three 20-minute chunks (as of writing: 20 minutes for Guarani, 20 minutes for Korean, and 20 minutes for “Other”).
- She varies which language she focuses on in each 20-minute “Other” session (cycling through each of the languages she’s studied), and has been surprised how effective even a tiny amount of re-exposure can make. For example, just two such sessions provided her just enough memory-enhancing confidence to strike up a conversation in Indonesian with a fellow runner she saw wearing an “Indonesian Runners” shirt.
- In each session, she tries to get a mix of all four languages skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
- She focuses on one core resource per language at a time, extracting as much benefit as she can from each (“really wringing out the sponge”). In fact, she’s found that having fewer resources can sometimes be an advantage (such as with Guarani). (Note from John: This is really important! Given the plethora of language learning tools, resources, apps, sites, etc. available today, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, spread one’s time too thin, and not make progress. Focusing on just ONE thing at a time is a great way to combat chaos and stay on track.)
- Lindsay also complements this core hour with little bits of language learning throughout the day (e.g. watching a Japanese show during work breaks on Netflix, doing some reps on Memrise or Clozemaster as she walks about, etc.).