What if I told you the ordinary ways of learning a language aren’t actually that helpful?
What if I also told you those same methods are not only ineffective, but a huge waste of time?
Yes, it’s true. But your time doesn’t have to be thrown away whenever you decide to pick up a new language.
Thankfully, there are much more efficient ways to speed up the process of learning a new language. These strategies will help you chop off some precious learning time while still increasing your language acquisition.
Without further ado, here are the five biggest time-wasters when learning a new language and how we can correct them:
How to Learn a Language Fast: 5 Ways to Set Yourself Up for Success
1. Immerse yourself in the country and the learning.
The ordinary way: Immersing yourself solely in the country
When you live abroad, it’s easy to think that by putting yourself in the culture, you’ll naturally begin to start picking up the language. News flash: Immersion is a waste if you don’t know what’s being said most of the time. While immersion may have worked when we were babies, our brains make it a lot harder to formulate language through immersion as adults.
When I was living in China, I met several expats who had been living in the country for three, five and even nine years but still had not picked up the language. To put that into perspective, nine years means over 3,000 days without learning Mandarin. Yikes!
At first, I couldn’t believe how someone could live in a country so long without learning the language. But over time, I began to see the loopholes that come from language immersion. For instance, most natives will at least try to speak English when you approach them, even if you are living in their country. While in China, I was shocked to find that natives were eager to practice their English skills with me. While I was glad to do this, it prevented me from practicing my Mandarin at times.
What to do instead:
Immerse yourself in the learning, not just the environment. If you do move to the country that speaks the language you are studying, great! That simply means there are more chances for you to seize learning opportunities. Resist the urge to use English. Even when you are surrounded by others speaking the language, the responsibility still lies on you to study, learn and practice.
If you’re not living in the country that speaks the language you would like to learn, design your home environment into a place where growth is unavoidable. Create visual cues that encourage you to study at times you normally wouldn’t. This can mean changing your cell phone’s language or even that of your Facebook account. Give it a shot!
2. Focus on the most commonly used words and expressions.
The ordinary way: Focusing on vocabulary
This is what we call “textbook learning.” In other words, you are mostly focused on rote memorization. While this may build your arsenal of new words, if won’t get you very far when actually implementing the language. Speaking a new language is not a formulaic process. It requires quick and flexible thinking. Unless you plan on sounding like a robot, you may want to devote your attention to areas outside vocabulary.
What to do instead:
Strategize and prioritize your learning by focusing on what matters. Mandarin is a language of over 3,000 characters. But did you know that by learning the 500 most commonly used words you acquire approximately 75% of language understanding? This is not just isolated to Mandarin. In just about all languages, about 20% of the vocabulary accounts for 80% of understanding. So why waste time trying to learn more words?
While vocabulary is important, it must be considered holistically when learning a new language. Identify what words, phrases and expressions will get you the most bang for your buck, and work from there.
3. Be mindful during the learning process.
The ordinary way: Rushing the learning process and cramming
It may be tempting to cram loads of information into your head and expect it to stay there. The truth is, acquiring any new skill takes time. Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice before one can truly master a skill. He came to this conclusion by studying the lives of some of the world’s most successful people and observing how long it took them to become masters at their skills. No matter what language learning hack you consider, be aware of how you are spending your time.
For those of you wanting to learn a new language fast, the idea of slowing down may seem counterintuitive or abstract. It may be tempting to quickly fill our brains with as much information as we can in the shortest amount of time. Unfortunately, cramming usually doesn’t end up help us achieve long-term learning.
What to do instead:
Be mindful while learning a new language. It’s easy to start a new language with our heads caught up in the fact that we aren’t yet perfect. We become so focused on the end goal of becoming fluent that we lose track of our progress along the journey.
Not only will presentness help you absorb new information in the moment, it will also aid your long-term memory. Try more effective and efficient methods, such as a Spaced Repetition Software (SRS), and you will be pleasantly surprised with the amount of information your brain holds on to. To really crank up and optimize your vocab memorization, check out Olly Richards’ guide to using electronic flashcards and SRS for language learning, “Make Words Stick.”
You can also try taking short breaks from your studying to reflect and practice what you’ve learned. These breaks can be as short as three minutes and consist of you simply summarizing what you’ve learned. Play around with new words and phrases. This simple exercise can help prevent you from going on autopilot while studying by honing in on every step of the learning process.
4. Be an active learner.
The ordinary way: Learn passively.
All learning is not created equal. In fact, most of the time we learn in a passive style that lacks any kind of critical thought. Think of that professor you had in the past who conducted lessons by parroting words from the textbook. There is no classroom engagement, dialogue or discussion. Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to learn in this one-way fashion where information is passively given to us without any response or analysis.
What to do instead:
Become an active learner. The brain works on a use-it-or-lose-it style, meaning you must apply whatever you learn. After memorizing a new phrase, say it aloud 30 times. After learning how to write a new Mandarin character, rewrite it 20 times. And then use the new phrase or character in a real situation: with a language partner or writing online to a native speaker, for example. The key is to implement what you learn until it sticks.
To make words and phrases stick quickly, a great tool for some in context active learning is FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized and engaging language learning lessons. Learning the words and phrases through authentic videos makes them stick easily, making you learn faster.
5. Become passionate about learning your new language.
The ordinary way: Treating your new language like a hobby
Hobbies are activities we enjoy doing at our own leisure. They are simply for the purpose of fun, but there’s no pressure to keep at them every day. This mentality may seem trivial, but it can mean the difference between you spending five months and five years when learning a new language. If you are nonchalant about learning, you’ll achieve nonchalant results.
What to do instead:
Make language learning a passion. Merge the fun of language learning with the commitment to follow through. Knowing that you want to learn a new language is not enough to get us to actually take action. Give yourself clarity on what exactly compels you to learn a new language. Figure out the why behind your desire to learn. What’s the goal behind the goal? What’s the bigger picture here? How will learning a new language open opportunities in your future? Simply answering these questions for yourself will motivate you on much higher level to take action when necessary.
While learning any language takes time, implementing these strategies will skyrocket your efficiency while minimizing your learning time. As always, have patience with the process and enjoy every achievement (and failure) along the way.
Frank Macri works with those looking to create off the beaten path lifestyles. For tips on saving (and making) money abroad, unique options to travel for a living, and wisdom picked up around the world, visit www.TheFrankLife.com.
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