Language learning

Here I am puttering with my German grammar homework, and I realized perhaps it’s time for a language learning pro-tip post. I can’t say I’m especially talented at language learning (your average 2 year old beats me), but I am especially interested, determined, and dedicated. I’ve at one time or another undertaken a study of  over 10 languages to various degrees, and speak or have spoken 5 fluently. And what have I learned about learning languages?

  • Social Engineering: learning a language fluently is surprisingly more about social engineering than anything else. Put yourself in a situation where you have to speak the language and you’ll rise to the task. This could be anything as dramatic as moving to a foreign country to getting a language partner in your hometown.
  • Daydream: imagine  you have three words: bus, paper, and time. Now imagine several situations (you are at the movies, you are asking a boy on a date, etc.). How would you accomplish what you wanted with just those three words? In this context, every new word you learn is a ticket to being able to do more things. Once you see words as the opportunity enablers they are, they become much easier to remember.
  • Multi-task: language learning is ripe for multitasking: think about what other goals you have (films to watch, novels to read, countries to vacation in) that you can piggy back on. Most of the languages I learned fluently fell out as a by-product of things I was already interested in doing, plus a dash of social engineering and about an hour a week of study.
  • Keep going: learning a language is a very long term goal and you don’t see dramatic results until you’ve almost achieved fluency. There is a knee in the fluency curve and after you reach it you learn exponentially. Before you reach the knee, don’t get depressed. It’s OK if takes awhile, the key is to continue to dedicate a bit of time every week to study.
  • Enjoy your success: even before you reach the fluency knee, and even if you never do, you’ve achieved a lot. Learning a language is a window into another culture and a frame for appreciating it. Putting your thoughts in a box (see the Imagine bullet point) and then escaping from the box successfully with only your three (or 100, or 1000) words is an amazing and humbling exercise. Use your new language to open new doors, in your career or your travels, or to tackle the next language with confidence of success.

0 thoughts on “Language learning”

  1. I’ve really got to find the time to do some languages. Here’s the pro tip I’d love from you: how do you get over the initial very steep part of the learning curve that involves memorizing a bunch of vocabulary? That’s what always gets me, because of the sheer amount of work and time involved.

  2. My advice: start out very small. There will be some grunt work, like any epic task, I can’t get rid of it all, but you shouldn’t have to put up with much. Then iterate on the social engineering, day dreaming, and multi-tasking bullets until you are ready to take a break. If you do it right: you’ll be reading a vocab list like a key to the secrets of the universe.

    A concrete example: I didn’t bother studying any German grammar while otherwise trying actively to learn German. My brain made a small model of what German grammar might be like, and it’s functional enough. Now, after a year, I’m reading a grammar book and following a course. What could have been the world’s driest subject is super exciting to me: I can finally make sense of many things!

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