What’s faster than a cheetah?
The peregrine falcon.
This bird can reach speeds over 200 miles per hour. Wowzer!
This happens when the falcon is diving to catch its prey.
And it’s able to get to those speeds thanks to its stiff feathers, pointed wings, large keel (a special bone) and incredible circulatory and respiratory systems.
We can take a lesson from this bird in order to reach our language learning goals at incredible speeds as well.
If you want to learn faster, you’ll have to design a system as efficient as the peregrine falcon’s body.
How you create this system will depend on you and your language learning goals, so the best way to learn a language will look a bit different for everyone—just as the cheetah and peregrine falcon have different features that allow them to travel so fast.
Once you have this strategy in place, every minute spent learning will be valuable. You’ll discard the tools that don’t suit you, increase your efficiency and be left with a method that gets you fast results.
There’s nothing like seeing how much progress you’re making! So are you ready to discover the best way for you to learn a language?
Here are seven smart hacks that’ll help you reach record speeds on your way to fluency.
The Best Way to Learn a Language: 7 Smart Hacks to Soar to Fluency
1. Decide What Your Goals Are
To learn a language the best way, you’ll first need to identify your personal language learning goals. Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help you pinpoint your aims:
- Why are you studying your target language? Consider your motivations for wanting to learn your target language. It may be for a new job, to travel, to understand your favorite K-pop songs or even to impress a foreign fella! Knowing your reasons for learning a language will help you narrow your focus.
- Which language skills do you need most? With your goals in mind, make a list of what you’ll need to do in your target language. For example, if you’ll be attending a conference, choose listening as a priority. If you have to network, make speaking your top skill. If you’re learning a language to read or research original texts, you’ll obviously want to prioritize reading.
- Is there an exam looming? If there is, that’s great because it gives you a concrete goal to work towards. In fact, even if you don’t need a test score for any reason, it might be a good idea to sign up for one several months or half a year from now, just to give you a solid goal and motivation. Whether you’re taking the DALF in French or the IELTS for English, there is no shortage of practice test materials.
- How much time do you have? Finally, consider your timeline for reaching your goals, as well as how much daily and weekly time you’ll be able to dedicate to your learning mission. Use this information to make your goals specific. For example: My goal is to be able to order food at restaurants, ask for directions and make small talk when I travel to France five months from now. I’ll spend 15 minutes a day, Monday through Saturday, learning French. Write down this commitment in whatever system you prefer—whether that’s a planner or a calendar app.
If you have your specific goals and timeline in front of you, you’ll be one step closer to locating the best way for you to learn your target language.
2. Select the Best Methods and Materials
Choosing a method and materials which suit you, the most important person in all this, is an important step in designing your falcon-fast system. The first factor to consider is your learning style.
Discover your learning style
Can you understand and remember words better through listening, or do your prefer a visual style? If it’s the latter, you’ll thrive on flashcards, lists and other visual content. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you learn by doing, acting things out and talking.
Four main learning styles are visual (seeing), auditory (listening), tactile (touching) and kinesthetic (moving/doing). There are no rigid boundaries here, as most learners avail of a mix of styles with one predominating—and some choose from an expanded list of seven main learning styles.
If you have no idea where you might stand, here’s a quick online quiz to help you find out your learning style.
Select materials and methods that fit your learning style
Once you know your learning style, you can then match it up to the best materials and methods. Here are some ideas to get you started with three big learning styles:
- Auditory: Listen to music, radio and audiobooks | watch television | meet with a conversation partner
Definitely mix up materials so that you face a challenge now and again; you shouldn’t stay solely in your strongest learning style. One incredibly effective method that’s suitable for most learners is using videos, and you can learn this way with FluentU.
FluentU is an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You can browse videos by difficulty (beginner to native), topic (arts and entertainment, health and lifestyle, etc.) and format (video blog, news, shows, etc.).
FluentU is much more than just watching videos—it’s about learning and actively practicing the language you hear in videos. Use the interactive subtitles, multimedia flashcards, downloadable transcripts and vocabulary lists to learn your target language better than ever!
Find a teacher
If you need a bit more direction or prefer to supplement your self-study with an experienced teacher, look for a private tutor or course. italki is a fantastic place to find language teachers for online lessons, whereas your local university job board or even Craigslist might be a better place to start looking for an in-person tutor.
For sit-in courses, availability varies greatly depending on your location and target language, so use Google to see what’s available near you. For more flexibility, you might prefer one of these online language courses.
3. Go for Vocabulary Instead of Grammar
To make the most progress in the least amount of time, don’t worry too much about mastering difficult grammatical concepts. Instead, focus on acquiring vocabulary—the heart of a language.
Learn common vocab
Make sure you’re aiming for the most commonly used words that fit in with your immediate goals. Again, a quick Google search here can get you vocab lists of the most common words in your target language.
This will be the foundation for any meaningful interaction, the foundation for all language acquisition as Dr. Stephen Krashen points out here:
“Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language—natural communication—in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.”
In other words, grammar isn’t so important—getting your message across is.
But you will need grammar, of course! There are shades of meaning that can only be expressed through grammatical knowledge. For example, making use of tenses to say when you did something. That’s pretty important when you’re telling a story!
Learn like children do
Kids are great at acquiring words for objects, and they can do it without any grammatical knowledge whatsoever! Reading is a fabulous way of acquiring new vocabulary, and if you can guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context, you’re on a winning streak.
4. Immerse Yourself in the Language
It doesn’t matter whether or not you live in the country where your target language is spoken, there are lots of ways you can surround yourself in it. It really is just a matter of getting as much exposure as you can. Here are some ideas:
- Listen to podcasts. Get your listening device loaded up. If you’re more advanced and want native podcasts, change your location in iTunes and browse local podcasts from your country of choice.
- Watch videos. Head back to FluentU or over to YouTube and watch clips in your target language. Experiment with subtitles and see how it goes. As you become more adventurous, you can try to understand videos without them.
- Read widely. I always tell my students that there should be no books on their bedside table which are in their native language. Find something you’d likely read in your native language, and which suits your level. Don’t forget about the wide variety of reading materials available: magazines, blogs, children’s books, romance novels, tabloids, graded readers, manuals, short stories, biographies, etc.
- Talk to native speakers. This tip is going to catapult you towards fluency, no matter how many mistakes you’re making (there will be lots!) or how nervous you might feel. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll become comfortable talking with natives. The Mixerr is a great resource where you can find a language partner and start talking to them via Skype.
- Write emails, stories and letters. Once you’ve switched your daily writing (to-do lists, shopping lists, calendar) into your target language, take it a step further. You can find international penpals or email language partners here, and native speakers will correct your writing here.
- Make recipes. Cooking is a great passion, and is a marvelous way to discover the gastronomic culture. Search for recipes in your target language and try them out. In the comfort of your home, host your very own cooking show in your target language!
5. Enjoy Yourself and Experiment
You’ll definitely reach your goals faster if you enjoy the time spent learning your target language. So lighten up, let loose, play around and have fun! Here are some things you can do:
- Watch cartoons. Do a Google search for “watch cartoons in [your target language].” As always, you’ll want cartoons that are fit for your level and your learning objectives.
- Do quizzes and competitions. The European Day of Languages site has some great ideas for this.
- Play computer games. Get your competitive edge going by playing some computer games in your target language. If you’re just starting out, play an online game in English for language learners, like Free Rice—which currently has German, French, Spanish, Italian and Latin in their foreign language category.
- Read kids’ books. Stock up with children’s books in the language of your choice. See what your local library has available, or buy kids’ stories for your Kindle or e-reader on Amazon. Relive fond childhood memories, and discover new favorites!
- Watch TED talks. These short instructive videos are really entertaining and inspirational, plus they come with subtitles and interactive transcripts. TED has over 100 languages available—just use the language pull-down to search by language.
6. Measure Your Progress and Increase Your Motivation
The peregrine falcon gets to eat dinner when it succeeds. Talk about instant feedback! You’ll also want a way to measure your progress, so you can evaluate whether or not it’s in line with your expectations and tweak your system accordingly. Being able to view the progress you’ve made can also do wonders for your motivation.
Here are some practical ways you can do this:
- Chains. Language learning is the result of good habits, rather than being very talented and having an ear for languages. Chains is a great site/app to help you keep track of your new language learning habits and goals. Don’t break the chain!
- Test yourself. There are lots of ways you could test yourself, and this is a great way to measure progress. If you’re aiming for vocab, for example, use FluentU to track how many words you have learned. If you want to improve your reading speed, time yourself and see how long it takes you to read one page of a novel. Repeat the same test weekly, biweekly or monthly and write down your results in the same place.
- Track your conversations on Skype. Look at how many conversations you’ve had with your language exchange partner and add up the total time. Do a weekly check to see if it’s increasing, and set a goal for next month.
- Check off specific things you can do. The Common European Framework established by the Council of Europe is full of “can do” statements which are the basis for measuring progress in languages. You can follow these or make your own list. There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to cross off things on your “can do” list. For example, you’ll be able to order a simple meal, ask for directions, introduce a speaker or write a report.
- Pace yourself. You do not want to risk burnout by doing mega sessions. Aim for short and intensive learning bouts for actively practicing the language.
- Keep positive. Having a positive mindset is crucial. Whenever you need a lift, read a blog post from Marc and Angel or these tips on Life Hack to stay optimistic and hopeful.
- Persistence pays off. Yes, there will be difficulties, frustration and setbacks, but never quit. Small, repeated, consistent efforts will get you farther than you ever imagined.
7. Reach out and Gain Confidence
The key here is to continually step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself. Choose growth over comfort, and you’ll see your confidence grow along with your language abilities. Here are some ideas:
- Pick up the telephone. Call a museum or major company in Madrid, Beijing or Tokyo, for example. Ask for basic or more detailed information, and then check if you have understood correctly by looking at their site online.
- Talk to tourists. If you live in a large city, you have a golden opportunity. Go out of your way to help tourists with directions and guiding whenever possible (in your target language).
- Set yourself new challenges. No sitting back on your laurels, think up new challenges to test yourself. For example, if you’re just starting out, you might challenge yourself to have a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker two or three months from now. If you’re more advanced, challenge yourself to give a speech in your target language (set it up and schedule it). For the best results, keep your challenges realistic and attainable, and then announce your challenge to others for added incentive to follow through.
- Don’t aim for perfection. Get used to making mistakes, and don’t view people correcting you as a criticism. It’s a learning opportunity!
Follow these seven smart hacks and you’ll create the most efficient language learning system for you. Spread your wings and soar!
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