Which class was easier for you in high school: trigonometry or gym?
How about chemistry or driver’s ed?
If you’re like most students, you probably struggled most with those math and science classes. And even if you loved the idea of learning a foreign language and traveling the world, your foreign language class might’ve felt like another boring hour at a desk now and then.
Ever wonder what makes some classes a slog and others a breeze?
One reason is that when you were a high school student, there wasn’t really much of a chance you’d use concepts from trigonometry and chemistry every day.
You weren’t learning about trigonometry so that you could then go out and calculate the cosine of an angle for fun.
Instead, you were most likely memorizing concepts just long enough to pass a test, and then promptly banishing them from your brain.
But not so with driver’s ed. Learning how to get behind the wheel without flipping the car isn’t only handy for survival, but for many of us it’s also crucial to getting to where we want to be in society. If you want to go to the movies, a party, a job interview or the beach, you’ll need a driver’s license.
Learning to drive a car isn’t necessarily any less boring than learning the periodic table, but it’s a clear means to an end: getting around and doing stuff you really want to do.
The secret to successful language learning lies in finding that same sense of motivation. You need to have a real stake in the outcome of your language education, just like you had in your driver’s ed classes—and just like you once had, without even realizing it, in learning your first language.
How We Get So Awesome at Our First Language
Drop any healthy baby into any community of human beings anywhere in the world, and that baby will learn the language that imbues daily life around it.
That’s because humans are social animals. Language helps us get what we need from others, understand other peoples’ needs and, ultimately, organize ourselves into complex, functional societies.
It’s likely due to our basic need to communicate our ideas with one another that our brains come with all the necessary hardware (our astounding muscular control over our throats, tongues and lips) and software (our innate ability to make sense of linguistic patterns) for language acquisition.
From a young age, we become deeply invested in using this hardware and software to keep ourselves alive and happy. Babies cry as a way of signaling their discontent, but as we grow older we get better at expressing what we need through language.
Our first language is a crucial lifeline in a world where we’re totally dependent on others; it’s in our best interest to learn to say “I’m hungry,” for example. So you can understand why it’s easier for a baby to pick up his or her first language than it is for you to memorize all the concepts in a trigonometry textbook.
But we’re not babies anymore. How can we harness the tools of early language acquisition to learn new languages as adults? How can we learn a new language the way we learned our first language? Below, let’s look at some key techniques.
Seeing Ourselves in Others
Did you know there’s evidence that babies can identify native speakers of their language before they even speak that language?
Just as we’re born social creatures, we seem to have an ability to distinguish between “us” and “them,” or the people from the group we belong to and everyone else. Back in the earliest days of civilization it may have been our best tool for quickly identifying our community from those folks two hills over who were always coming to plunder our crops and steal our livestock.
Today, this skill can form the basis of how we see our place in the world, and how we learn to relate to others through language.
For example, there’s evidence that we learn more effectively from the people we identify with.
As babies and toddlers, we learn just about everything by imitating our parents. We say “I love you” after they’ve said it to us hundreds of times, and pretty soon we’re stealing ties or high heels out of their closet or saying bad words we heard from the adults. We learn how to be ourselves by first copying the people in our own community, our own group.
So it should be no surprise that when we speak, we sound like other native speakers of our mother tongue, and many of us use local accents particular to the places we grew up. There’s evidence that we imitate everything from speech patterns to facial expressions to talking speed from the people around us.
As a foreign language learner, you may have already realized that surrounding yourself with native speakers (a form of immersion) can help you achieve correct pronunciation and grammar much more quickly than, say, just practicing with other students. And in fact, immersion has been shown to help adult language learners achieve native-like brain activity.
Of course, complete immersion isn’t possible for all language students. But it is possible to see yourself within a community or group that speaks your target language, even if only in your mind.
The Big Secret: Empathy
Recent research shows that empathy with native speakers can lead to more native-like language use and even a native-sounding accent. To truly learn from others, we need to be able to tap into their perspectives, and that requires empathy: seeing ourselves as fundamentally like, rather than different from, those who speak our target language.
And this is difficult.
When you’re learning a language in your 20s, 30s and beyond, you may already have fixed ideas about who you are and what the world is like. In a native English speaker’s head, for example, there’s just one way of addressing another person directly (you) and time is a linear concept, running from behind us to in front of us.
But to Aymara speakers, the past lies in front and the future behind. And in languages such as Dutch and Spanish, your relationship with and social distance from the person in front of you is built into different pronouns (tú and usted or jij and u), concepts that are applied in every social interaction.
So how do we rewire our brains in another language and adopt a childlike openness about languages and the world? How do we expand our minds to reinterpret such basic concepts as the movement of time or the pronoun “you” and let ourselves feel like we belong to other groups of people who view the world this way?
The Secret to Learning Languages and How Absolutely Anyone Can Do It
Many of the famous polyglots you hear and read about have unlocked this secret of using empathy to make a genuine personal investment in a foreign language, although they don’t all talk about it in the same way or with these same words.
The chef Julia Child famously learned to speak French a year after moving to France. According to Child, it was French cuisine that led her to fall in love with France and its language.
Susanna Zaraysky, one of the web’s most dynamic polyglots, has had similar experiences in what she calls learning to “resonate” with a language. According to her, the secret to mastering a language is tuning into how that language sounds and how it makes you feel, on a physiological as well as a psychological level.
There are as many ways to develop an intimate human relationship with a language as there are aspiring learners, and while it’s helpful to draw from the experiences of others, all learners should strive to find the approach that works best for them.
Here are a few examples of common approaches you can take to falling in love with, resonating with and truly tapping into a language through empathic connections to people and their cultures.
Total Immersion: Language for (Social) Survival
Plopping yourself down in rural Vietnam is one way to make sure you really need to learn Vietnamese like you once needed to learn your mother tongue. Cut off from speakers of your native language, you’ll form an immediate and genuine investment in Vietnamese as your tool for doing everything you need in your daily life.
The magic of total immersion is that you’ve got no choice but to reach out to those around you. There’s no room for anxiety about your accent or asking a bilingual friend to sort out a confusing situation for you.
The secret: The key to successful immersion is forming many social bonds in your target language and developing one or two key relationships, like a village best friend or the mom in your homestay. These kinds of relationships will enhance your ability to connect with and learn from others by (subconsciously or consciously) modeling your speech after them.
Immersion Environment: Filling Your Social Circle with a Foreign Language
If you can’t relocate to an area that’s totally isolated from your first language, the next best thing is creating an immersion environment at home.
Seek out a community of speakers of your target language and focus on them as your primary social circle. You can start with an international group at your school or the local university, your company’s Malaysia or Brazil branch, or a local refugee organization or expat group.
If you’re not in an area where you have access to a university or a multinational company, try online tools such as Couchsurfing, Meetup and other language- and travel-oriented social networks to help you discover speakers of your target language living nearby.
The secret: Achieving an immersion environment at home is hard, but it becomes much easier if you invest in a strong relationship with a romantic partner or best buddy with whom your entire relationship can take place in the target language.
This way, your language skills will grow naturally as an extension of that relationship, and your personal investment will pay off in the form of you subtly picking up your partner’s or friend’s native speech mannerisms and expressions.
Investing in Pop Culture: Embracing Your Inner TV Addict
TV, books and the internet all helped you develop your mother tongue vocabulary and absorb culture in your native language. They can also be powerful tools for unlocking another one.
The great thing about consuming pop culture as a language learner is that it teaches you to listen before speaking. In conversation, we too often get caught up putting together our next sentence rather than offering the person in front of us the kind of undivided attention necessary for really cracking the code of their language.
But when you switch on Netflix in your target language, you can focus all your mental energy on observing the speaker’s expressions and noting their choice of words without feeling pressured to say something in response to it.
The secret: You know how the best shows leave you desperate to know what’s going to happen to your favorite characters in next week’s episode? Find a TV series, a series of books or an ongoing vlog that’ll totally absorb you.
This kind of continuity allows you to build up a feeling of personal investment in the characters that mimics the kinds of bonds we form with speakers in real life and encourages us to learn empathetically from them.
Investing in Your Career: Working in a Foreign Language
Your career isn’t just one of the biggest reasons to learn a language, but also one of the best ways of practicing one. It doesn’t matter if you’re volunteering in a hostel abroad, transfering to your company’s Tokyo office, or looking into one of the many jobs for multilinguals; as long as your paycheck or your dinner depend on you learning your target language, you can rest assured the necessary personal investment is there.
Much like dating or socializing, working in your target language forces you to take the language as seriously as you do your native one. When work meetings, conference calls, negotiations and customer interactions all take place in your target language, you’ll be using it to accomplish real tasks that require human cooperation and clear communication.
And with a reward that comes once or twice a month in the form of the check that pays the bills, you can be sure your motivation won’t run out.
The secret: An ideal position for language learners will require you to use your language in many different contexts, including on the phone, with colleagues, with clients, writing reports and giving presentations. Think about all the different ways you use your first language and try to find a role that’ll require you to accomplish as many of those same feats as possible.
Falling in Love with a Country or Culture
This one is the easiest to do and the hardest to plan for.
Julia Child didn’t go to France hoping to fall in love with the country and its language, but through her passion—cooking—she did so anyway.
Travel to Italy, Azerbaijan or Ethiopia and fall in love with the people, the foods they eat, the way they dance or how they live their lives. Just like with your first language, you’ll suddenly find that learning the local language is your only hope for accessing this bright new world you’ve discovered.
We all have passions, and anything from music, to theater, to philosophy, to sports to manga can be the key that unlocks an entire foreign culture and language. And once we discover those passions, finding a community of native speakers with whom to share them, whether online or in person, gives us an outlet for bonding with others in the target language.
The secret: The more multimedia or multi-sensory your cultural hobby, the better. Literature is a fantastic portal into a language if you already love to read, but if that’s your passion then try to supplement it with audiobooks and film versions of your favorite novel to help strengthen all your skills in the language.
The Secret’s Out: Open Your Eyes, Ears, Heart and Mind to Reach New Linguistic Heights
For most of us, memorizing vocabulary and drilling grammar rules will just never be enough to attain fluency.
That’s because we’re all human. When the world is full of so many other exciting things to do and inspiring people to meet, who wants to spend the day on worksheets and verb tenses?
Instead, if you really want to learn a language naturally, tap into its human element. Level with the natives, and let your shameless, curious inner child come out to play with and learn from them.
When language learning practice means coffee with a friend, movies on the couch or a summer abroad, you’ll become fluent in a language and a culture before you know it.