I’ve read more than I care to admit on the subject of language learning. I’ve experimented with every tip and trick I can find. Most of what I’ve tried has admittedly been bad advice, but there are bits of wisdom.
Here is the best advice I’ve found. This is all general advice, there’s also advice for introverts if you want something more specific and in-depth.
1. Study in a way that makes you want to study tomorrow
Here is a quote from the former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, back in his Pumping Iron days:
It’s as satisfying to me as, uh, coming is, you know? As, ah, having sex with a woman and coming. And so can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am like, uh, getting the feeling of coming in a gym, I’m getting the feeling of coming at home, I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up, when I pose in front of 5,000 people, I get the same feeling, so I am coming day and night. I mean, it’s terrific. Right? So you know, I am in heaven.
~ Arnold Schwarzenegger
Yes, that is the same person that went on to be the Governor of California. If language learning felt like this, I think I’d speak dozens of languages.
In my experience we will fail to learn and inevitably quit if we aren’t somehow enjoying the process of learning. If that happens, don’t quit the language, find a way to make it fun.
Like Arnold working out, we will be motivated to learn proportionally to the degree that we are enjoying the activity of learning. If this means music, then listen to music. If this means gaming ourselves with a system of rewards, then do it. Make it fun.
Learning a language is like climbing an endless mountain. And I don’t mean the inspirational kind of cliche “mountain”. I mean you’ll never reach the top. You may see what you think is the top, you can reach for it, and you may pull yourself up, but you’ll find there’s another summit above the current one. It goes on like that forever.
Think of the difficulty of the mountain as the learning curve. When you begin a new language, it’s like starting at the base of the mountain, and you’re not acclimated to the altitude. You’ll huff and puff at first, trudging along at the base. You won’t feel like you’re making any progress, but eventually, you’ll reach the first summit.
From that first summit you’ll be able to look back at where you were, and you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come. You’ll gain more confidence as you go further, knowing that the only way up this mountain is one bloody step at a time.
The climb doesn’t necessarily get easier, it’s just that you get better at climbing.
The only reason to climb this kind of mountain, is the mountain itself. Learning a language is an eternal climb into a new way of thinking, into a new culture that will seem less foreign the further you ascend.
3. Recognition and Recall
As you learn a new language, you’ll need to retrieve foreign words, phrases, and idioms from memory. Conventionally, there are two types of memory retrieval; recognition and recall. Recognition is a more shallow form of memory retrieval; you may recognize a foreign word, but you have no idea how to use it in a sentence. Recall is a deeper form of memory retrieval, where you both recognize a foreign word, and know how to use it in a sentence. Despite the conventional wisdom, there are deeper forms of memory retrieval, but recall is necessary as a first step.
To gain the ability to recall the meaning of a foreign word, you simply must practice recalling. This is known as the testing effect, and it’s why flashcards are effective.
Furthermore, if you space out your practice over periods of time, you’ll increase your ability to recall. This is known as the spacing effect, and it’s why spaced-repetition software has become so popular.
In practice, spaced-repetition software is great for preparing for a written test in a language class; but it will not help you communicate with a native speaker in your target language. Many teachers will unhelpfully say, “you just have to practice speaking and listening”, which completely undermines the point of spaced-repetition software and language learning in general. The entire point of language learning is to make things easier than the slow natural process of language acquisition. Spaced-repetition will help you gain the ability to recall, but you must go deeper.
The deepest level of memory retrieval is known as automaticity, and will be discussed next.
4. Automaticity and Disruption
Automaticity is the ability to effortlessly recall the meaning of a word or phrase. Disruption is the conscious interruption of that process.
Don’t think of a smelly fish.
Did you just think of a smelly fish? How much time did it take you to recall what the words “smelly” and “fish” mean? If you’re a native English speaker, then the recall was instant. It’s as if an unconscious process did the work for you (which is exactly what automaticity means).
Disruption requires that unconscious process to become conscious, which is non-trivial, hence you’ll probably think of a smelly fish even if you try not to.
To learn a language towards any reasonable definition of fluency, automaticity is required. In fact, your ability to converse depends on automaticity. Let’s consider words like “poisson”, “pescado”, “fisch” or 魚 (yú, it’s pronounced like the German ü, but with an upward intonation, like a quick question). You may have a passing familiarity with one or more of those words (like the cognate, “fisch”), but if it takes you a second or two to remember that they mean “fish”, then you haven’t achieved automaticity even if you’ve learned their meaning.
Did you know just reading the word yawn can cause people to yawn?
If you’re unsure of whether you’ve gained automaticity with a specific word in a target language, check to see if it produces unconscious reactions that are difficult to disrupt; like a “yawn” or a “smelly fish”.
Learning a language is all about gaining automaticity in the target language with a sufficient amount of words and phrases to understand others. It’s not sufficient to simply memorize the meaning of a word and the grammar rules. Even if you’ve learned thousands of words and every grammar rule, don’t be surprised if you only catch one or two words out of a spoken conversation.
Fortunately, automaticity is easy, no complicated studying required. Pavlov’s dogs figured it out. Unfortunately, automaticity in language requires repetition and sleep. It’s not just metaphorically like exercise, it is literally like exercise. Work out your brain, sleep well, and repeat. If this sounds like rote learning, that’s because it is. Sorry, but language learning requires rote learning.
This means that focusing on memorization methods (like mind maps or the method of Loci) can sometimes be bad advice. The goal isn’t a mind palace filled with the target language, it’s automaticity in the target language. You can effectively use techniques like spaced repetition, but you’ll need to do more than just memorize. Keep practicing (rote learning) over and over until the meaning can be recalled automatically.
In other words, you’ll understand people only to the degree that you’ve gained automaticity with the words they’re speaking.
5. Comfort Zones and Competence
Let me share one of the most common “secrets” of language learning bloggers and self-proclaimed “experts”. First, practice a specific conversation in your target language, and get really good at that specific conversation. Next, guide (or redirect) real conversations into the one you’ve rehearsed. I’ve seen this described as zen gardens, islands, pattern practice, and various other metaphors. There should be no “secret” here, it’s just a psychological comfort zone.
We can learn the “hello/thanks”, «hola/gracias», 「你好/謝謝」 of a language in a few minutes; that’s the first comfort zone. Build that into a conversation, and repeat that conversation — a lot. This is a great way to gain automaticity, and it can be fun. After every interaction in your target language try to identify the limits of your comfort zone. The limit of a comfort zone is known as the psychological danger zone, and you’ll know it because you’ll likely freeze or panic. The psychological danger zone usually kills a conversation and everyone will be uncomfortable.
To put this another way: if you’re far outside of your comfort zone, don’t expect other people to be comfortable talking with you. Your comfort zone will put others at ease.
This kind of approach is extremely useful, but it can border on bad advice. A comfort zone can provide a false sense of fluency, and we can get stuck. We’ve all seen people stuck in their comfort zones. The goal of language learning is not a comfort zone. The goal is to read, write, and speak competently in the target language.
The best approach I can find is to carefully develop comfort zones that demonstrate competence and the ability to learn more (like asking questions). This includes rehearsed conversations that will allow you to navigate the psychological danger zone without becoming an uncomfortable frozen statue or switching to your native language.
6. Immersion: undivided attention while learning
Language learning can be exhausting, especially at first. Learning a foreign concept requires a high cognitive load. Once you learn the foreign concepts, the cognitive load disappears and you’ll be faced with the boredom of rote learning (whether flashcards, drills, or repeating the same conversations again and again).
In every case, this requires undivided attention. Don’t do anything else. Put the entirety of your being into the language while you learn. This is known as immersion. Even rote learning requires immersion. Seriously, don’t do anything else while you study.
If you try to do two things at once, you won’t go twice as slow. Divided attention is worth maybe 1/60 of undivided attention for the same time period. In other words, one-hour of “multi-tasking” is worth 1-minute of immersion. Multi-tasking may actually be damaging because you’re ignoring the sound of the target language (conditioning yourself to “tune out” the language). As a rule of thumb, people who claim they can multi-task are generally too incompetent to take seriously.
Fortunately, immersion is easy and fun. For example, watch a movie in the target language and try to catch as many words as you can. Actively listen, don’t passively listen.
7. Immersion: essential complexity vs. accidental complexity
Imagine you’re reading a book in Spanish, and you encounter an unfamiliar word. The word appears again on the same page and there’s no context to let you know what it means. You flip through a pocket dictionary, but no luck. You open a full-sized dictionary and finally you find the entry. Maybe the definition is vague so you look somewhere else. Now imagine you’re reading on a Kindle and you just touched the word. Instantly, a Spanish definition appears, along with an English translation.
I love physical books, but an e-reader with custom dictionaries greatly simplifies learning. This is also an example of two different types of complexity: essential complexity and accidental complexity.
Essential complexity is the complexity of the language you’re trying to learn. For example, conjugating verbs in Spanish, or pronouncing tones in Chinese, or writing traditional Chinese characters. In the example above (reading a book in Spanish), the essential complexity is learning the definition of the unknown word. This is where proper immersive learning happens.
Accidental complexity is the complexity of the tools and techniques you’re using in order to learn the language. This includes fumbling through dictionaries, and even browsing through Netflix for a movie (in your target language) that you actually want to watch. It’s all the other stuff, and it can make our lives unnecessarily difficult. Accidental complexity might feel useful, and is often times necessary, but it doesn’t count towards immersive learning.
This is a concept from the world of software engineering, but I find it applies universally, and is particularly useful for language learning. Basically, minimize the accidental complexity and maximize the essential complexity. Immersion requires undivided attention into the essential complexity, and not into the accidental complexity.
In other words, if you’re futzing with Anki settings, you’re not immersed in your target language.
8. It takes time (in hours)
I find this is a sensitive topic amongst language bloggers. Part of the reason is because there’s lots of bad advice and click-bait that promises fast and easy language learning. In my experience language learning can be easy, but fast?
Let’s break down the following claim:
“I studied Spanish for 4-years in high school, but I still can’t speak Spanish.”
How many hours of immersion did this person put in? Removing the accidental complexity, how much undivided attention was given to the essential complexity of Spanish? Did they immerse themself for an hour a day, every single day? Or did they sit in class and get 10-minutes of immersion on average? Maybe they got an hours worth of proper immersion per school week. And with only 36 weeks in a school year, maybe they only got 200 hours worth of immersive learning in those 4-years. This is pretty common. The better question becomes: is 200 hours of immersion sufficient to speak Spanish well?
The time it takes to learn a language is a well-researched topic. The best research I’ve found is from the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI). They even ranked their language programs by time. These are proven estimates on how long it takes an FSI student to learn a given language to the proficiency of a diplomat. One thing I like about the FSI is that they measure time in hours. They measure course hours, but I find it useful to think of this as hours of immersion.
For example, let’s think of Spanish as needing 600 hours of immersion in order to speak and read well, and Chinese requiring 2200 hours. If you spend 10-hours per-day properly immersed in learning Spanish, you’ll be as fluent as a diplomat in two months. If you spend ten-minutes per day, then it will take you 10 years.
Likewise, for a non-cognate language like Chinese, 10-hours per day would result in diplomat-level fluency in 8 months. If you spend ten-minutes per day learning Chinese, then it will take you 36 years. 10-hours of immersion per day may be impossible for most people, but 10-minutes is trivial to anyone.
While individuals may learn at different rates, the biggest factor (and the one you can do something about) is the amount of time you spend on proper immersion (that is, undivided attention into the essential complexity of the language). Remember, it’s still an endless mountain, but if you’re eyeing the “diplomat” summit, it might take months or it might take years, it’s up to you.
For language learning, like most things in life, you get what you put in.