The Secret to Making Your Brain Learn a New Language Fast

You’ve always wanted to learn a new language. In fact, it’s top three in your bucket list. You were originally encouraged because everybody selling “language products” said it was easy.

Then reality hit. Boom!

You were getting nowhere. You tried everything but nothing works! You were bored to tears and ready to give up.

But thank heavens you found this post at FluentU, because guess what? There’s hope.

There is a better way. What if I told you that there’s one thing you can do that will skyrocket your learning?

And what if I tell you that it has been proven to work over and over, and you don’t even have to dial a 1-800 number for it?

Sounds good? Great!

We need a proper set-up to best understand this effective secret, so let’s start with a short background on the language learning process.

The Secret to Making Your Brain Learn a New Language Fast: The 6 Stages of Language Learning

Unless you’re a linguistic genius, learning a new language will require you to go through these phases: Introduction, Recognition, Familiarization, Proficiency, Deeper Proficiency and Mastery.


This first stage refers to the initial few times you come across a language. This may come in the form of overhearing native Korean speakers in the subway or pressing the wrong key on the remote and ending up watching a French flick. You get your first tastes of the language and find the utterances weird or funny. It’s like Jim Carrey sounding off his gibberish antics.


You’ll enter this next stage when, because of repeated presentations, you are now able to pick out the language from other languages. You may recognize the tones, rhythms and guttural utterances, or you may also recognize patterns—such as the most commonly repeated letters. This means that you may not understand anything on a newscast in Japan, for example, but you know it’s Japanese.


“Familiarization” is an advanced form of recognition in which you know the most fundamental elements of the language. For example, you know how to say “thank you,” “please” or “good morning” in Spanish. Perhaps you can also count in the language. You wield the most basic vocabulary and know the equivalence of words like “house,” “girl,” “boy” or “beautiful.”


When you are able to converse naturally with a native speaker, you are said to be proficient. Your grammar may not be perfect, but you know the rules well enough and hold sufficient vocabulary to make yourself understandable to a native speaker.

Deeper Proficiency

“Deeper Proficiency” comes next, and is an advanced stage where you speak the language as well as a native speaker. You are well informed in the nuances of the tongue and hold equal, if not more, vocabulary than the natives.


“Mastery” happens when you not only converse just as well as a native speaker, but you are able to talk formally or academically in the adapted language as well. This higher form of discourse, which is the result of years of training and immersion, is something that even native speakers don’t aspire to.

Most people stay in the “Familiarization” phase all their lives. They may not have enough time or drive to get to the next level, or their study strategies are so ineffective that they bore themselves to tears.

Many people also find themselves there because advancing to the next stage, “Proficiency,” requires a great deal of work. For example, you are considered proficient in the Chinese language only when you are able to understand 2,000 characters.

Well who has the time to have 2,000 characters down pat?!

With all that’s going on in our daily lives, learning a new language, unless our very livelihood depends on it, usually goes to the back burner. Most people never even see the numerous ways you can make more time for language learning and just give up.

But just like I said, there’s a much better way.

Repetition vs. Effective Repetition

Okay, I let the cat out of the bag with the title.

What I’m referring to here is repetition.

No, not really. What I’m really talking about is effective repetition.

There’s a huge difference between the two. Mere repetition will not cut it. We need to be very careful because the much exalted concept of “repetition” just might be the fastest way to make a subject bland and boring.

Try memorizing a 100-word vocabulary list from a piece of paper.

Not so easy, is it? Notice that you can’t easily store the words in your long-term memory no matter how hard you try. That’s what pushing a rock uphill feels like.

In fact, repetition used in this manner will only make your goals harder to reach because the brain will only pay attention to things that are novel, surprising and shocking, and there’s nothing duller than a laundry list of vocabulary words given by a teacher to be memorized.

Is it really a surprise then that people give up and imagine the task to be impossible?

Okay, so let’s take a look at the better alternative: effective repetition.

What is Effective Repetition?

Effective repetition interests the brain into paying attention.

And when the brain is paying attention, that’s when long-term memories are created. For example, do you still remember what you had for breakfast two Tuesdays ago? Highly unlikely. That’s because you were not paying attention.

But how about this, do you still remember the face of your first love from years or decades ago?

Many will not only recall your first love’s name and face, but you might even remember the person’s eye color, the smell of her hair or the way he smiles. You could even still hear their voice, the way he or she speaks and how it makes your heart skip a beat. You might even remember every conversation you’ve had!

You were really paying attention, weren’t you?

Effective repetition uses the same mechanism in the brain to make you learn the language faster. It’s effective because it taps into how our brains work. Just as you remember your first love’s mannerisms, you’ll find it easier to recall the nuances of a language.

Like I said, effective repetition interests the brain into paying attention. So, how do we do that, exactly?

Well, we don’t have any room for rote memorization here. That method doesn’t really work for the long term.

We need to make the repetition memorable, and we do that by engaging the five senses.

How to Make Effective Repetitions with the 5 Senses

Let’s suppose again that you’re tasked with memorizing a list of the 100 most common words in Spanish. By using our sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and incorporating them into the learning process, we can make that list very memorable.

Let’s deal with each sense briefly:


In order to increase retention in your language learning endeavors, you need to see pictures, not words. That’s because our brain works pictorially, hence the term “photographic memory.” This explains why a photograph works better than a word, and why videos are more effective learning tools than words on the blackboard.

So anytime you wish to memorize vocabulary, always associate the word with a picture. The more vivid, the more colorful, the better. This way, you get into the arena of effective repetitions.

An awesome way to learn words effectively with photos is using FluentU.

Each hand-picked video is transcribed and translated, plus every word comes with an image, in-context definition and multiple example sentences—so you can engage both your sight and hearing!

Another tip to improve retention using sight is to use interesting fonts and different colors when making a vocabulary list. You could use red font for feminine cases or gender-specific words, for example, or increase the font size for easy viewing.


For effective repetition, try making a song out of the words you need to memorize. Put on a catchy tune and watch your memory speed soar. Creative preschool teachers have used this technique with great success. (Imagine memorizing the alphabet without the ABC song—just try stringing those 26 letters together without a tune… yikes!)

A catchy tune you could use to memorize vocabulary is the song “Do Re Mi” from “The Sound of Music” which goes: “Doe, a deer, a female deer…”

Another way to increase vocabulary retention is to study a foreign song by translating the lyrics into English. Since you now have words used in a certain context and have sung them to a specific tune, you’ll find it easier to mine the song for vocabulary words. Feliz Navidad, anyone?


When you pair a food-related word with its actual taste, you make the memory connection so much stronger. That is, the fastest way to learn the words for “orange” in any language is to eat one while memorizing. It will burn the translation into your head. This goes true for any food word.

Effective repetition is very vivid when it comes to taste. Try closing your eyes for the full effect.

If the word you are trying to memorize is not accessible through the sense of taste, see if it can be approached through the sense of smell, which we’ll discuss next.


Have you ever been brought back to a certain place or time just because you got a whiff of something? You were happily walking on a busy street and suddenly you smelled the perfume used by a long-lost lover. Then suddenly, it all came back to you like it was yesterday, all the beautiful memories with that special person.

The sense of smell is one of the most potent memory enhancers, and yet how many language learners incorporate it in their study? If you think looking at pictures is effective, just wait until you enlist the help of your nose.

Although not many of your vocabulary words will necessarily be accessible through smell  (just like with taste), you could also use a scented candle—try rosemary or lavender—to enhance your memory. And for those words that do have a scent, you’ll discover that the memory connection is simply on another level.


Some people learn best when they move: the kinesthetic learners. They learn a word best when they associate it with a certain gesture or action. And this gesture might be suggestive of the word or be completely random.

For example, when memorizing the Spanish word redondo (which means round or circular), you might draw a circle repeatedly with your fingers to learn kinesthetically. Or when memorizing saltar (which means jump), you could actually jump.

Doing actions like these are effective repetitions that help anchor the memory. It may look like just goofing around, but it’s actually a very efficient memory technique.

So when you need to memorize something, straight up repetition just won’t cut it.

Go for effective repetitions by engaging your five senses! It will make a world of difference.

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