Speak like a Diplomat

One of my absolute favorite perspectives on language learning comes from the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), in particular: Theory and Practice in Government Language Teaching. It’s written as an academic paper, but it’s by far the most useful thing I’ve ever read about language learning.

I’ve summarized each of the 12 sections below (along with some commentary).


1. Adults can learn a foreign language

Mature adults can learn a foreign language well enough through intensive language study to do professional work in the language (almost) as well as native speakers.

While this is obvious to any adult learner, the FSI is one of the best counter-examples to the claim that adults cannot learn languages as well as children. The average age of an FSI student is 40, and in all cases they learn their target language much faster than children.

Importantly, for the FSI, the goal of a language is to get things done, not to speak the same way as a monolingual native speaker.


2. Language learning aptitude can be taught

“Language Learning Aptitude” varies among individuals and affects their classroom learning success (but at least some aspects of aptitude can be learned).

Some people learn better and faster than others. In intensive learning environments (like the FSI) these differences will be magnified. The single best predictor of language learning success is previous learning success. The second best predictor is measured aptitude. Importantly, some of the skills behind “measured aptitude” can be learned.

In other words, the first non-primary language you learn will be the hardest (that is, highest chance of failure), and understanding how to learn a language will increase your chance of success.

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses (while you learn). Language learning is a humbling activity; no matter how smart you are, you will hit the limit of your aptitude.


3. There is no one right way, nor best way

There is no “one right way” to teach (or learn) languages, nor is there a single “right” syllabus.

This section provides crucial insights about individual needs changing over time. In other words, it’s not just that different techniques work for different people, what works for you personally one week may not work for you in another week. They recommend breaks in routine, changes in pace for individual (especially advanced) learners, and an early emphasis on grammar patterns.


4. Time on task is crucial for learning

Time on task and the intensity of the learning experience appear to be crucial for learning.

Some of this seems obvious, although there’s an interesting point that language learning takes time and “cannot be shortened appreciably”. They recommend collaboration, focused practice (such as drills), and intensive immersion starting at upper intermediate levels.

Time on task (reading, writing, listening, speaking) is described as the single most important factor in language learning. There’s also a related document that lists FSI programs by difficulty as measured in hours of course time.


5. Knowledge about language benefits learning.

A learner’s knowledge about language affects his/her learning. All else being equal, the more that learners already know that they can use in learning a language, the faster and better they will learn. The less they know that they can use, the harder the learning will be.

They describe the phenomena of transfer learning from one language to a cognate language (e.g., Malay to Indonesian), but that ability requires a high proficiency (level-3). For reference, level-3 is described as:

Able to speak accurately and with enough vocabulary to handle social representation and professional discussions within special fields of knowledge; able to read most materials found in daily newspapers.

In other words, this is the bare minimum level needed in order to gain the benefit of the transfer phenomena.


6. Prior language study makes a difference

If a learner already has learned another language to a high level, that is a great advantage, but if s/he doesn’t know how to learn a language IN A CLASSROOM, that is a disadvantage.

The benefit of the transfer phenomena does not appear to apply to naturally bi-lingual speakers. For example, a naturally bilingual English and Spanish speaker would not necessarily benefit from the transfer phenomena while learning Portuguese or Italian.

In other words, knowing a cognate language doesn’t necessarily help, it’s knowing how to learn a language that helps the learner.


7. Automaticity is critical

The importance of “automaticity” in building learner skill and confidence in speaking and reading a language has been undervalued.

I’ve listed automaticity as good advice, and in my experience this has been the single biggest revelation on language learning. Most learning resources focus entirely on the initial learning stage and ignore automaticity as a goal. I suspect this is why many language learners quit; even after having learned the difficult concepts of a foreign grammar and vocabulary. Repeating the “easy” stuff is fundamental and automaticity should be considered necessary rather than as merely beneficial.

They recommend “pattern practice” along with conversations with native speakers as ways to develop automaticity. This involves repeating a considerable amount of “easy” material, and pertains equally to reading as well as listening and speaking.


8. Focus on forms

Learners may not learn a linguistic form until they are “ready”, but our experience indicates that teachers and a well designed course can help learners become ready earlier.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive and contrary to conventional wisdom. Although the benefit of an early focus on forms seems particularly true in my experience.

For example, Chinese tones are typically taught at a very basic level and do not focus on much more difficult concepts like tone pairs and phrasal intonation. These more difficult concepts are supposedly “picked up” over time naturally through conversation and listening to native speakers.

FSI researchers found the exact opposite to be true. Early focus on forms produces better results, even if the student is not quite “ready” for the more difficult concept. There seems to be an advantage to raising awareness early on about a concept that the learner can later focus on.

They include the following quote which seems obvious but is worth contemplating, especially in light of language classes that make learning slower than a “natural surrounding”.

The whole point of language pedagogy is that it is a way of short-circuiting the slow process of natural discovery and can make arrangements for learning to happen more easily and more efficiently than it does in ‘natural surroundings.’
~ Henry Widdowson


9. Notice the gaps

In order to attain very high levels of proficiency, learners need to be helped to “notice the gap” between their current production and the speech of more proficient language users.

They recommend tasks such as translation and transcription, comparisons of texts, and direct feedback to the learner.

There’s also an interesting discussion about “fluent non-beginners” who are unable to advance after having attained verbal fluency (but without grammatical accuracy). In such cases, the “gaps” may not be obvious to such a learner.


10. Good teachers are important

A supportive, collaborative, responsive learning environment, with a rich variety of authentic and teacher-made resources, is very important in fostering effective learning.

They emphasize the importance of good teachers. FSI students routinely list their teachers as the single most important factor of their success.

Even gifted learners need supportive teachers or mentors. Few people, including adults, can undertake self-directed learning without encouragement and feedback.


11. Be specific about what you need to learn

The most effective language teaching responds appropriately to where the learner is and what he or she is trying to do. Donald Freeman and other leaders in the field of language teacher education have described language teaching as a series of complex decision-making processes based on the teacher’s awareness and understanding of what is going on with the learners and the interplay of the teacher’s own attitudes, knowledge, and repertoire of skills.

An interesting benefit of the FSI is that they are training people for specific assignments. The specific learning goals are thus well-defined and there’s a great deal of pressure on the learner, the teachers, and the FSI as a whole to get things right.

For self-directed study (where there’s no job assignment waiting for you), knowing before-hand what your specific goals are can be difficult. That said, I think there’s a useful pattern here: create specific and falsifiable goals as if you do have a job assignment waiting for you.

In my experience, nebulous goals lead to nebulous learning.


12. Active listening is critical

Conversation, which on the surface appears to be one of the most basic forms of communication, is actually one of the hardest to master. A seasoned Foreign Service officer, who had learned several languages to a high level, was overheard to remark that engaging in conversation–particularly in multiparty settings–was the ultimate test of someone’s language ability.

This is one of my favorite sections, and it goes against the conventional wisdom that conversational ability is the easiest skills to master in a foreign language. They emphasize that a conversation is far more about listening than it is about speaking.

Active listening is often absent (as is automaticity) in many language learning resources.

I suspect the reason why is that active listening is a rare skill even amongst native speakers. Even with automaticity (automatically recalling the meaning of words), people rarely pay attention to what other people are actually saying. For a professional diplomat, active listening and intelligible communication is a job requirement.

bad advice

I love trying new things. I’m quick to believe anything that seems helpful or promises to make language learning quicker or easier. I’m also anxious to test everything — to see how great it works. Most of the time I’m disappointed, but I’ve come to relish bad advice. Knowing what is bad advice can be more useful than good advice.


1. Fast Fluency

Professors hate this. Learn any language with this one weird trick! I’ve personally seen people learn Spanish in 30-days, Italian in a couple months, French in a week!

But they don’t know the real trick. With My-Magic-Memory-Methodtm you can learn Chinese in 7-minutes! Yes, you read that right, 7-Minutes!

Think about it. You walk into a book store, you see “Chinese in 30-days”, and then there’s “7-Minute Chinese” right beside it. Which one are you gonna pick, man?

7-Minute Chinese. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Chinese.

No! No, no, not 6. It’s 7-Minute Chinese. Nobody’s coming up with 6. Who learns a language in 6 minutes?

If you’re lost on the reference, it’s from Something about Mary:

Hitchhiker: You heard of this thing, the 8-Minute Abs?

Ted: Yeah, sure, 8-Minute Abs. Yeah, the exercise video.

Hitchhiker: Yeah, this is going to blow that right out of the water. Listen to this: 7. Minute. Abs.

Ted: That’s – that’s good. That’s good. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Abs. Then you’re in trouble, huh?

[Hitchhiker convulses]

Hitchhiker: No! No, no, not 6! I said 7. Nobody’s comin’ up with 6. Who works out in 6 minutes? You won’t even get your heart goin, not even a mouse on a wheel.

Keep the 6-Minute Abs in mind when you encounter dubious claims of fast-paced fluency. Even if you don’t believe that these are scams, they fundamentally miss the point of learning a language. A natural language is not a skill to unlock, it’s an entire world of culture, art, writing, thinking, and learning. We use language in order to learn even more in that language. You’ll never be done learning, and that’s the point.

As a general rule: if you learn something fast, you’ll forget it just as fast.

We spend our entire lives learning and continuously improving our native language. Why should we expect foreign languages to be any different?


2. Language hacking

Everyone’s got a gimmick.

Hacking is a fascinating word. It can be positive or negative, e.g.: the best “life hack” is to not be a hack writer.

I’m not going to list all the “hacks” I’ve tried, but after much hacking here’s what I learned: Language is not a computer network or a block of wood, it’s a means to communicate thought. When people talk about language hacks they’re probably trying to sell you something (or they’re whores to ad-networks).

All the best techniques, from immersion to a memory palace (method of Loci), have been around for as long as humans have been learning languages. Most “language hacks” are simply renamed versions of techniques we’ve known for thousands of years, wrapped up in click-bait bad advice. Honestly, a few hours on Wikipedia is more fruitful than all of the language “hacks” combined.


3. Just travel to a country that speaks the language

I love traveling — I think it’s life-changing — but if I’m to be honest with myself about language learning, traveling is not as useful as we like to think.

Let’s call this improper immersion because it’s similar to what is otherwise good advice. Immersion is wonderful. Traveling, by itself, isn’t always useful, and in some cases can actually be harmful rather than helpful.

If you’re traveling and you don’t know the language, you will find ways to survive. You’ll learn very useful skills. Now, don’t get me wrong, these skills can be a matter of life and death to a confused traveler. For this reason I quite enjoy traveling to places where no one speaks English. But as you progress in your target language, you’ll find your confused-traveler survival skills will actually be a detriment to language learning.

To put this another way: you need to condition yourself to actively listen to the target language, not passively filter it out and rely on body language and hand gestures (which is the unfortunate consequence of improper immersion).


4. Language blogs and online communities

Despite all the hack writers, I love a good language blog. How humans acquire secondary languages is a fascinating topic. Unfortunately, this isn’t helpful towards actually learning a given language.

For example, talking (in English) about learning Spanish won’t help you learn Spanish, but it will improve your ability to talk (in English) about learning Spanish.

Most language learning communities use English exclusively, and they don’t actually do much learning. They talk about it abstractly. Be careful wherever there are lots of beginners commenting on “techniques” and very few intermediate and advanced learners (that should be an obvious red flag).


5. Learn while you sleep (or work)

It would be great if this worked. I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve tried all kinds of hokey approaches like this. I mean, if automaticity is an unconscious process, then surely I can bypass all the hard-work of conscious learning and just train my unconscious mind while I sleep, right?

It turns out that’s not how sleep works, nor consciousness, but I digress. Language learning requires your undivided attention. Immersion, which is good advice, is only as effective as the attention you put in. If you try to learn a language passively, asleep or in any way in the background, the only thing you’re doing is training your mind to ignore the sound of that language. This is the exact opposite of what you want.

You want your ears to perk up when you hear the target language. You want to be able to parse the words automatically such that their meaning is accessible to your conscious mind. Passive learning is not only useless, it will make active learning more difficult (because you’re conditioning a lack of conscious attention to the sound of the language).

FSI difficulty ranking

The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) created a list estimating the length of time required to learn each of the languages taught by the FSI. The estimates are based on native English speakers with no prior knowledge of the language.

Here is an overview:


Category I: 24-30 weeks (600-750 hours)

(“World Languages”) Languages closely cognate with English

Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish


Category II: 36 weeks (900 hours)

Languages that take a little longer to master than Category I languages.

German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, and Swahili


Category III: 44 weeks (1100 hours)

Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English

Albanian, Bengali, Burmese, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Khmer, Lao, Macedonian, Mongolian, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovenian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese


Category IV: 88 weeks (2200 hours)

Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers

Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese and Madarin), Japanese, and Korean


What’s fascinating is that the document includes estimates for conversion courses like Spanish-Portuguese (14-18 weeks) and Malay-Indonesian (10-12 weeks).

Islands

Notes on “How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately,” by Boris Shekhtman.

This book was interesting, although it would have been better as a magazine article than as a book. Here’s a summary of the sections.

Show your Stuff
+

Build up your Islands (foreign language is like swimming…)
+ linking, segue to your island
+ baiting, get the audience to your island
+ each island should be small, practical, and interesting
+ I must create the island myself
+ apply memorization techniques for the island
+ the island must be muscle memory to be effective (create them in memrise)

Shifting Gears
+1. Sidestep and feign indifference
+2. Segue to new topic
+3. Introduce new topic
+4. Develop topic (island)
+5. Connect back to the speaker (ask question on the new topic)
+* alternatively, first get information by redirecting their question back at them

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
+ use the simplest words (the most automatic words)
+ use short simple sentences

Breaking Away (from English grammar)
+ use only the target language grammar
+ know the grammar automatically
+ know as many grammar structures as possible
+ Transmitting vs Translation, transmit meaning in proper grammar structure
+ Rehearse different topics with the same grammar statement (no lo quiero, no lo hablo)

Embellish It
+ purple prose: add parenthetical elements, rhetorical questions, adverbs and adjectives
+ use idiomatic expressions, add islands (seduce the audience)
+ practice! Embellish simple statements

Say What?
+ two levels of listening, skimming and in-depth
+ Practice questions as islands! ¿Como se dice … en español?
+ Clarifying questions, repeat portions, get synonyms, ask to speak slower, etc

Learning: Fast and Slow, Hard and Easy

There are great resources online, but language learning blogs offer lots of bad advice. Nowadays when I hear “language hack”, I immediately think “yes, you are a hack.” Don’t be a hack, find resources specific to your target language, and don’t be afraid to drop something if it’s not helpful or not fun.

Learn at your own pace, everyone is different — your mind literally has to grow and change as you learn. If you insist on measuring time, do so with hours, not days or weeks or months, but hours. You can map those hours onto a reasonable daily schedule, and base your estimate on that. For example, if you’ve got 10 hours a day to study, I mean really efficiently study, then yeah, you’ll be able to pick up a new language in a few months with that kind of immersion. But if you can barely get 30 minutes per day, well, then plan for several years of study in that language. Some languages may require only 600 hours of your time, others may require more than 2000. There is plenty of good research on this area, be smart and find a way to enjoy the learning, and love the language you are learning, don’t be a hack.

How do you spend that time? Well, despite what the hacks might tell you, language learning has aspects that are fast and slow. Fortunately, the slow parts are easy, but the fast parts are difficult.

The difficult parts:

I remember at first I would feel like I needed a nap after listening to one-hour of Michel Thomas Spanish, I pushed through it trying to get myself familiar with the language, and it was hard, as it should be, as it is with everything worth learning.

Take it easy at first, and increase your study time as you feel more comfortable with the language. New concepts will require a significant cognitive load and you may feel like your mind has no room for it — give it time, give it lots of time. Your mind will make room and eventually the concepts that seemed hard will become quite easy. After several months I could review to the entire Advanced Spanish course in a single sitting and sit through hours of Spanish movies for fun. But that touches on the slow easy part, we’ll get to that in a bit.

Every language is different and a tool that works best in one language may not work in another– again, ignore the hacks and embrace the language as you would a lover. Not every person wants to be touched the same way, be a good lover, appreciate the language for what it is and learn it for what it is.

Most importantly, study in a way that makes it fun, spend time today doing something that will make you want to study again tomorrow. If it’s not fun, you’ll eventually find a way to quit. If this means music, then listen to music. If this means gaming yourself with a system of rewards, then do it, make it fun.

The slow part:

Automaticity. No one really wants to talk about this, but this is a required aspect of learning a language. You can learn thousands of words with mnemonics and map out the entire grammar of a language in a mental map — awesome, you accomplished the difficult part of language learning, but now you have to make it automatic. Automaticity means the words come to you automatically.

If it’s taking you a second or two to recall a word or grammar structure, then speaking and listening in that language will seem impossible. Even writing will be a mentally exhausting process. How to get past this stage, you need to practice, practice, practice until you can recall automatically. This is the slow part of language learning.

Create a comfort zone

Language learning involves getting your mind out of its comfort zone. For me, this is an exhilarating experience resulting in my constantly pushing deeper into the unknown, getting lost in new words and new concepts. My biggest problem in language learning is spending too much time learning new words and concepts and not enough time building comfort zones in my target language.

Establishing automaticity starts with developing small and simple comfort zones, simple expressions and conversations — start with conversations that you can have with just about anyone. If you’re like me, these are mundane conversations that may feel incredibly boring, not the kind of interesting topics you’ll want to talk to someone about. To get yourself communicating, creating these comfort zones will be vitally important. This will serve as a foundation and will be helpful whenever you talk to someone, as it gives you something to say, and more importantly, it gives a person in your target language something to say to you. If you’re outside of your comfort zone, don’t expect other people to be comfortable talking with you, your comfort zone will put others at ease.

Fortunately, this part of language learning is easy, but it takes a long time and can be boring. You likely were feeling exhausted when you first encountered a completely foreign concept, but building automaticity can be practiced for hours every day — say with flashcards, memrise or anki reviews, or just watch movies and listen to the radio. Simply repeat the hard-learned concepts until you can recall them effortlessly, this establishes a comfort zone.

Putting it all together:

Language learning will always have a slow part and a fast yet difficult part, but this is true of all learning — even with your own native language.

I’ve been learning English my entire life, and once in awhile I encounter new words and expressions, especially if I’m learning about a topic I have not yet studied. Everything new will always be difficult — to really understand the new topic such that you can apply it in a functional way, this will require the slow boring repetition towards a comfort zone. Learning is always like this; if you neglect the slow part, you’ll miss out on using and experiencing those hard learned concepts.

Multilingual

All of our thought processes are conducted in language, so really our entire existence or essence or soul, however we phrase it, is inextricably bound to and with the languages we speak. Try to think without language for instance. However, we see that the language is in essence superficial, since many languages exist. To understand the true roots of our thought processes, the real nature of the human soul, a knowledge of several languages may be necessary.

Most people in the world are multilingual, and everybody could be; no one is rigorously excluded from another’s language community except through lack of time and effort. Different languages protect and nourish the growth of different cultures, where different pathways of human knowledge can be discovered. They certainly make life richer for those who know more than one of them.

~ Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word

Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.
The limits of my language are the limits of my universe.

~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’m hesitant to disagree with Wittgenstein, but the limits of my thoughts (or my universe) far exceed that of my language. But I still love this sentiment, and it’s definitely true that learning a language will expand your universe, opening up new worlds of literature and culture.

Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem.
The more languages you know, the more you are human.

~ Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

advice

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:


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.


2. 活到老學到老

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. Automaticity and Disruption

Automaticity is the ability to effortlessly recall the meaning of a word or phrase. Disruption is the 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.


4. 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.


5. 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.


6. 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.


7. 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.


For more advice, I’d recommend Speak like a Diplomat, or read about bad advice.