5 Ways Not to Suck at Learning Languages
You imagine yourself speaking another language fluently, laughing with the natives as you order another beer. You make a throwaway comment about how the beer is better than in your country. “Oh. I didn’t know you weren’t from here”, says the barman, “You speak the language so well”. “Thanks, it’s not perfect but I try”, you reply as you secretly make plans to sell all your grammar books on the internet that evening and use the funds to buy a t-shirt with the simple slogan “bilingual” on it.
You’ve had a dream like that, right? And then you tried to learn a language and remembered that learning a language is a bit like running a couple of marathons backwards, back to back, in fluffy panda slippers.
Unless you’re just enjoying the shape of the various straight and squiggly lines on your screen, in which case I’d suggest you should be looking at articles in an Asian language, it’s safe to assume that we’ve all learnt at least one language. Most of us are born and then learn a language, seemingly effortlessly. But when we try to repeat that we discover that it’s not as easy as it seemed it once was.
It’s the theory pushed by several language “gurus”: You learnt as a baby, so you can learn again. But it ignores the fact that nearly all of us have spent more than a decade unlearning the learning techniques we used as a baby. Or to put it another way, we’ve all spent more than a decade learning how to suck at learning languages. Learning as a baby was also extraordinarily inefficient. To learn again, we have to learn how not to suck and how to learn much more efficiently than we have before.
At this point. most of us give up. You can wave your hands around the right way and still get a beer, right? Why bother? But some people persist. The cool people, with their bilingual t-shirts. But how do they learn smarter?
1. Have Fun
There’s loads of psychology research in this area, but it’s not worth mentioning as you know it intuitively that we learn better when we’re having fun. It’s probably a pretty safe bet that you did better at school in the lessons that you enjoyed than the ones you didn’t. Smart language learners enjoy what they’re doing, and they learn better. We can learn from them by looking for ways of learning that we find the most enjoyable. That’s more time efficient. Sticking post-it notes around the house for the foreign words of objects is my personal definition of monotony. But trying to stick a post-it note to the dog, or cat, or hamster sounds way more entertaining.
If you’re fresh out of post-it notes or your dog doesn’t appreciate you chasing around after it anymore, then you’re in luck. There’s countless apps and websites nowadays that try to make language learning fun. Feel free to explore and try a lot of them to find the one or ones that you like the best. Whilst that seems like procrastination, it’s time exceedingly well spent. But also, don’t be scared of being creative yourself. You’ll be more effective because of it. At the beginning stages of learning a language, it is particularly important to keep an eye on whether you could be having more fun.
As you get better at a language, your opportunities for fun open up more. You can watch a movie or read an interesting book or article. You’ll find yourself naturally gravitating to what you enjoy.
Sometimes you do, of course, need to push yourself in a particular direction to make progress. But you’ll know when that is. Just as research shows fun makes learning more efficient, it shows that stress makes it less efficient. You should push yourself when you feel that doing so is likely to have a positive outcome for you.
The language learning industry is full of snappy catch phrases that sound good but should be rewritten back to their less catchy but more scientifically sound alternatives.
2. Learn Words Smartly
In 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus did some experiments on himself, then stated the obvious and everyone declared it ground-breaking. In short, he discovered that people forget things over time and that cramming doesn’t work. If, like most of us, you’ve ever crammed for an exam and now remember practically none of it, then you know this. If you’d written it up in 1884 then you’d be famous.
This gave rise to “Spaced Repetition”, the idea that we learn better by repeating things at spaced intervals of time. There are now lots of apps that help you learn words by spaced repetition ( for example, Memrise ). Smart learners use these to avoid wasting time by learning words efficiently.
Beyond this technique, we also know that people remember things easier if they can connect them to something else or if they are unusual. The first explains why you can remember words easily that are similar to words you already know. The latter explains why you’re still thinking about sticking a post-it note on your dog. Smart language learners use this by using mnemonics and visualization techniques to help them remember words.
It’s best if you make those yourself. Suppose I want to remember the Dutch word for “letter”. It’s “brief”. I imagine myself writing lots of letters. Lots and lots and lots of letters. As time goes on my hand gets more and more tired. Because of this, each letter gets shorter and shorter. There’s such a huge pile of letters on my desk that they barely fit, but I’ve got to the final letter. My hand hurts so much now I can only write one sentence. It’s a really brief letter.
3. Grammar is Actually a Super Friendly, Cuddly, Language Shortcut
In the language learning family, Grammar is often considered the black sheep. Practically nobody talks nicely about it and it doesn’t have many friends. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read a “guru” state that babies learn without grammar, so we should too. Sure, you can learn through massive amounts of input. But they miss the point: that babies are stupid, take years to learn, and it takes countless hours of parental correction and years of schooling to correct their mistakes later on.
If you’re happy speaking like a 3 year old, having spent 3 years entirely immersed in a language, then that’s the way to go. If not, then grammar is your secret best friend.
Say I know 100 verbs in the present tense. I could spend hours learning all 100 words in the past tense, or I could learn a few rules and know the majority of them in 15 minutes or so. Smart learners learn grammar in small chunks as a shortcut to their goals.
Learning a language is a huge goal. Huge goals need to be broken into bite size chunks to avoid being overwhelming. Smart learners study consistently and at a sustainable pace. By being consistent, they also form a habit and are less likely to be distracted. Studying a small amount every day is better than studying a lot once per week.
But beware of apps that claim you can learn in 10 minutes a day. To get to a reasonable level in a “simple” language takes approximately 350 hours of learning. That’s 21000 minutes. At 10 minutes a day, you’ll be there in 5.75 years. At a more realistic goal of 30 minutes a day, you’ll be there in just under 2 years.
5. Celebrate your Achievements
Language learning is a long journey. The best language learners stay focused on their plans by acknowledging and celebrating their successes. Young children like to tell their parents when they can count to 10, or 100. Whilst your parents might not be quite as impressed, you should learn to look at your achievements through the eyes of a child. You don’t wake up and speak a language one day, you follow a path of lots of small successes and achievements.
Learnt the past tense? Celebrate. Said your first words and been understood? Celebrate. Ordered a beer and actually got a beer? Celebrate with a handily available beer!As you progress it gets harder to see the achievements. A lot of people talk about a language learning plateau, where they don’t feel they are learning and struggle to make progress. In reality, this is a failure to see their progress. Learning to analyse and understand your achievements is an essential part of language learning and being able to progress.