What if I told you that everything you know about learning a language is wrong?
What if those things you think you need to do are the exact opposite of what you should actually be doing?
The name’s Stevie D., and in this post we’re going to talk about the counterintuitive, the hidden and the secret.
But before that… why even start to learn a new language? Your life is already awesome as it is, and you’re doing just fine. So, what’s in it for you?
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Learning a New Language Has Its Rewards
Why learn another language?
Well, why not, when learning one has never been so easy, so accessible and so cheap?
Learning a second or a third language is just awesome—there’s no simpler way to phrase it. And I’m not even going to talk about how it will boost your social life and self-esteem, not to mention open the romantic floodgates. I won’t talk about how it’s good for your brain, how it makes you a nimbler thinker and decision maker. You’re likely young and healthy, so you’re probably not interested in how it delays the onset of age-related diseases.
And I’m not going to waste your time persuading you that learning a new language would probably be good for your career. Employers will love you. Promotions and higher pay, anyone?
Well, you already know that.
You also already know how a new language necessarily opens up a new world. A whole new culture, a whole new way of looking at things. It’s like having a second soul. It’s not just for ordering food when you’re abroad, or asking for the nearest comfort room 20 minutes later.
Truth of the matter is, learning a new language is cool. Especially when you can brag to your best friend, “Ha, I know German and you don’t!”
Yeah, you already know all these things. So why don’t we move on to the five counterintuitive things you need to do in order to learn any language on earth.
5 Curious and Counterintuitive Tips on Learning a New Language
1. Don’t Speak
Really?! Learn to speak a language by not speaking? Isn’t that a glaring contradiction?
Remember when you were a kid and still learning your first language? Probably not.
But if you have a nephew, a niece or if you’re somebody with even a little observational capacity, you’ll notice that early on in first language acquisition, babies don’t speak at all. They simply observe and listen. They look at you with those cute little eyes as they drool on their bibs.
This is what’s called the “silent phase” or the “preproduction phase” of first language acquisition. The linguist Stephen Krashen asks, “If this is how we got to learn our first language, why not mimic it for learning another one?”
Too often there are tremendous pressures on adults to instantly or immediately get into word production, speaking practice and proper pronunciations. Job, business and romance often dictates that we skip the listening phase and move into the actively talking and practicing part.
And we wonder why it’s so much harder for us to pick up a second language.
In order to learn a new language effectively, you have to let go of that pressure to talk from day one. Talking happens much later in the process. In the early phases of second language learning, you have to do a lot of listening.
This isn’t passive listening where you play hours of audio and go to sleep. This is active listening. You are doing this thing for comprehension. The goal here is to understand words and phrases even though you can’t enunciate them yet—just like babies. Again, if you observe babies, you’ll realize that comprehension comes before production. They know that you said you want them to pick up the ball, they know that you want them to give it to you.
The listening and comprehension phase is very important in language learning. Without it, you’ll just be parroting a bunch of words that you don’t understand.
Don’t worry, the talking part will come in time. But the absolute first step isn’t talking. It’s understanding. Not the other way around.
2. Don’t Try Hard
Doesn’t this go against our human ethic? We’re supposed to work hard, right?
Of course. But we also have to work smart.
So let me ask you a question: Do babies stay up all night beefing up on their vocabulary because mommy will give them an oral exam in the morning?
I hope not!
Babies, they just take it all in. Like I said, they listen. They listen to mommy and daddy talking, they listen to what Barney says in the song. And through repetition, they’re eventually able to pick up the meaning of words.
Adults, we take it upon ourselves to learn the language. Maybe we just got assigned to an international account at work and we need to learn the language, pronto! We have unrealistic expectations that ramp up the pressure, which only results in us being further from our original goal. We kill motivation early in the process and shoot ourselves in the foot.
Well, there are people who thrive on pressure. Good for them. But if you’re one who gets frustrated because you’re not learning fast enough, or you keep forgetting what you’ve learned and you feel like you’re running in place, then maybe you’re trying too hard.
When you’re anxious, tired and hungry, nothing ever works.
You need to settle down and take it easy. For example, when everything seems like a game, when it’s no big deal, then your brain is open enough to receive and store input. That’s why a lot of language programs come in the form of games. They’re telling adults, “It’s okay… take it easy, man… have some fun… everything is just fine.”
TPR, a language learning approach developed by James Asher, places students in a stress-free and judgment-free environment where they can simply have fun and learn the language intuitively.
Relax, man! Watch a movie in your target language. Follow a telenovela or something. Put down the thick “Advanced Learners Edition” and read Cinderella in French.
Trying even harder will only make the task harder. You need to chill in order to kill (the language). That’s one of the paradoxes of learning that applies to a great number of people.
If language learning isn’t fun, then you’re not doing it right.
3. Keep Taking Breaks
If you think doing all-nighters is an effective language study technique, then you might not have taken into account “effective study” time. That’s the number of hours or minutes when the brain is happy to integrate new information. You could plan a 5-hour study marathon, but how many hours of that is actually “effective study” time?
Now be honest with yourself. How long can you keep your focus, really?
Ever had the experience when, after an hour’s worth of language study, your brain just doesn’t want to work anymore? You feel like it’s gone to jello and, no matter how hard you try, nothing seems to get past short-term memory. You might as well hug your German grammar textbook to sleep.
On the other hand, have you ever had that experience where you’re just starting a study session or coming off a break and your brain is fresh as pancakes and everything seems to flow a little easier?
Instead of doing marathons, try studying in manageable chunks of time. Go for short bursts of studying followed by necessary breaks. When you notice that studying the language isn’t effective anymore, you take a break—a well-deserved one at that. This way, you’re not only saving time, you’re also making the most out of it.
Studies have found that the magic number seems to be around 45 minutes. For every language study hour, you’ll spend 45 minutes of it on vocabulary drills, games and language learning, and the remaining 15 minutes you’ll spend on breaks, like taking a short walk, looking at beautiful scenery or playing with your pet.
Or, if 45 minutes seems like too long a time, you can use the Pomodoro Technique. Here, sessions are only 25 minutes long, followed by 5-minute breaks. So for every 30 minutes, you’ll spend 25 of them on learning the language, and 5 of them on breaks. After 4 “pomodoros,” you take a longer break of 30 minutes.
Try them out and see if your language learning productivity rises.
4. Make Mistakes
Mistakes are bad, right? They’re a no no.
But consider this: When toddlers are learning their native languages, we adults find it so cute when they make mistakes. They say “pesghetti” instead of “spaghetti,” they use plural forms incorrectly or go “meow” when they see a dog.
It’s all so cute and harmless.
We patiently correct them until they get it right.
Being adults, for us mistakes have become death sentences. Nobody wants to make them. Everybody wants to avoid the embarrassment of making mistakes. The result? Nobody even tries. For fear of falling, nobody takes the first step. It’s a case of perfectionism being your worst enemy during the learning process.
But the thing is, falling and getting mud on your face is a necessary part of the journey. Mistakes aren’t something to be feared, they’re well-springs of learning.
Benny Lewis, the man behind the Fluent in 3 Months blog—one of the biggest language learning blogs on the Web—talks about the fear of making mistakes as one of the biggest mental blocks that plague adults today. Lewis, who speaks seven different languages, recommends making as many mistakes as possible.
Mistakes = Lessons. If we make plenty of mistakes, it would mean we learn plenty of lessons. By that logic, we should make plenty of mistakes, and fast!
We need to have a healthier attitude towards mistakes. Just as we’ve learned to laugh at kids, language learners shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. Come to think of it, learning a new language is really like being a kid in that language. You’ll mess up the verb conjugations, you’ll forget the translations and you’ll butcher the pronunciations. But guess what? It’s all part of the journey.
The faster we make our peace with this, the faster we’ll learn the language.
5. Grammar Comes Later
Grammar is king!
Or is it?
Isn’t it interesting that the most beloved polyglots of the world don’t even recommend grammar books in the pursuit of languages?
Guys like Donovan Nagel of The Mezzofanti Guild fame considers grammar rules as what fluent speakers use to describe what they already know. As children, before we even sat for our first grammar lesson, we were already fluent with the language. We were already talking to mommy and daddy, asking for all sorts of toys, lying to mommy about how delicious her pie was.
Benny Lewis recommends skipping the grammar books to play language games instead.
Ron Gullekson’s site Language Surfer recommends more listening and less grammar drilling in language programs. Luca Lampariello of The Polyglot Dream has this interesting method of learning a language by performing translation exercises.
It’s quite telling that none of them recommend mastering grammar as the key to learning the language. In fact, many of the world’s polyglots didn’t learn language formally. They used all sorts of tricks, hacks and techniques that worked for them. (Meet some of the world’s polyglots in this post.)
Grammar comes much later in the language journey. Listening and comprehension must come first. This sequence is crucial. Many students drop out, check out or give up in a linguistic endeavor because they’ve been overwhelmed by too much grammar too early on.
So believe it or not, for beginners, put down those grammar books. Try immersing yourself in videos, music, games and apps. You’ll learn much better.
For videos, don’t forget to check out FluentU’s amazing collection.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The FluentU team performed magic on those videos and came up with interactive transcriptions for every clip.
What does this mean for the language learner? It means that not only do you get subtitles for the clips, every word—and I mean every word—in the transcription has its own pop-up entry containing practically everything you need to know about that word. Cool, huh?
So those are the five things you need to do. Fight every temptation to do their opposite and you’ll be on your way to learning that second, even third language.
This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you
can take anywhere.
Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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