What constitutes the essence of achieving a breakthrough in language learning? I think that the key lies in the word “linking”.
First of all learners must form emotional links with the language they are learning. They must be interested in the language, in the people and in some aspects of the culture. They don’t need to like all the people, nor all aspects of the culture, just some. Learners need emotional links to the language and, as much as possible, to the content being studied.
Second, the study must be constant and ongoing, linked from day to day. There should be no lengthy breaks in the chain, at leasts for periods of committed and intensive study of several months at a time. This is most easily achieved by daily listening to selected content of interest, content that is at the appropriate level of difficulty.
When I study a language on LingQ I try to get in at least one hour a day, every day. Most of this is listening to things that I find interesting. When I start in a language I do intensive listening, in other words repetitive listening to the same short bits of beginner content. As I progress I listen less often to the same material, but am driven by my interest, emotional and intellectual connection to what I am listening to and reading. I am hooked by the content, and that pulls me along.
I always read the transcripts for what I am listening to in order to “link” the written words to the sounds I am hearing. I do that by saving unknown words and key phrases to my personal database at LingQ, in other words I “LingQ” these words and phrases.
The words and phrases that I learn in this way are linked in my mind, and even subconsciously to the content where I came across them. In saving phrases I am linking words to other words in the same phrases, words that are meant to be used together. This creates a natural sense of how words are normally used.
I believe that this activity of reading, listening and LingQing, is helping to forge new neural links in my brain. These neural connections will become a new language network, my neural command centre for the new language, eventually enabling me to understand and speak the language naturally, without having to think about grammar rules.
Once I have enough vocabulary and listening practice to enable me to understand much of what native speakers are saying, I link up with an online tutor. My tutor at LingQ sends me a report with the words and phrases that gave me trouble. I study these as lessons. In this way I link the conversation to my listening, reading and vocabulary learning activities. The stimulus and feedback loop from a native speaking instructor is a powerful interactive link.
When I study at LingQ, the best measure of my activity level, and therefore of my progress in the language, is the number of LingQs I have created. The more LingQs I create from my active listening and reading, the more words and phrases I save, the more intensively I am building up the linkages that will bring me to fluency in the new language.
There are two stages in language learning: the initial intense study of a limited number of words, and the later more extensive approach to learning in order to acquire the up to 10,000 words needed to function at a professional level. These two stages make up the upside down hockey stick.
During the initial growth period – the blade of the hockey stick – progress is quick. Here you are learning the high frequency words and basic structures of the language. The most common 2,000 words account for between 75% to over 90% of all content. These words appear frequently and so they are easier to learn.
You should be listening and reading a lot, and repetitively to the same content, without worrying too much whether you understand all that well. Keep listening over and over, slowly moving on to new content. The more you hear and see words, in the same content and then in different contexts, the more likely you are to remember them. You need to do a lot of intensive reading and listening. You need to listen to the same content over and over again. You may start to use some of these words in limited situations.
If you do this you will experience a sense of elation, and early sense of achievement. From not being able to understand or say anything, you all of a sudden can actually understand something and be able to say a few phrases in the new language. Wow! But you still can’t carry on a conversation. You still can’t function at the train station, bank or post office even though you have studied dialogues based on these scenarios. In a way, you have an ornament and not a useful tool.
It is at this point that you move to the more extensive approach to learning. This is the long shaft of the hockey stick. It is the most difficult stage of the language learning process because it takes so long, and the sense of achievement is more elusive. It can at times seem like a journey without any progress. Nevertheless, you must continue. You need to expose yourself to a lot of content. You need to listen and read a lot, moving on to new content more frequently. You need extensive exposure, rather than the intensive exposure of the early period. At times it feels as if nothing sticks. But you are learning all the time.
If what you are reading and listening to is interesting, you keep going. It is your interest in the subjects of your reading and listening that keeps you going. Read widely. Read first in your area of personal or professional interest. Try also try to broaden your base by reading novels and other literature. Gradually you will start to notice words and phrases more and more clearly, and even remember them. Naturally and ever so slowly you will start to use these new words and phrases and they become a part of you.
The more you read, the better you get at reading. The faster you read the words you already know, the better you understand the meaning of content that you are reading, even if it contains unknown words. Your range of comprehension expands and your vocabulary starts to snowball. Yes, there are still words that you do not know, or have learned and forgotten. But your overall comprehension skills improve. You understand the surrounding context better. And soon you start to master those elusive lower frequency words that are so important to your understanding of more difficult content. Soon you even start to use more and more of your gradually accumulating vocabulary in speaking and writing.
Stay positive, keep listening and reading. Gradually start using the language more and more. All of a sudden, when you least expect it, you will feel that you have made a great deal of progress. The shaft of the hockey stick is longer and less steep than the blade. At times it almost seems flat. If you persevere you will find that the end result makes all of your effort it worthwhile.
Speaking like a native is the ultimate goal of language learning. It is a goal that is almost never achieved. However, that is no reason not to aspire to this lofty goal, even in the knowledge that we will not get there. It is like wanting to play golf like Tiger Woods or play the piano like Charles Richard-Hamelin.
To pursue this dream we need to immerse ourselves in the new language, listening, reading, speaking, writing, and savouring the language. We need to commit ourselves emotionally to the language. We need to like the language, and at least some parts of the culture, in order to want to imitate the behaviour of the native speaker. The native speaker is the model, the unattainable goal that we want to emulate. We want to imitate how they pronounce, their intonation, their use of words. This means we really want to be like them, even to be them.
If you have not already experienced this phenomenon of transforming yourself into a fluent speaker of another language, you probably doubt you can do it. But I know you can. Once you have done it for one language, the doors open up to doing it for other languages as well. I have done it more than a few times. It is a wonderful experience, and yet I don’t speak like a native in any of the foreign languages I speak.
Need more motivation to make learning a language your New Year’s resolution? Here are 5 benefits of being bilingual or multilingual.
Imagine the scene: you walk into a bar in rural Japan. The bar owner looks nervous. He’s no doubt wondering how he will go about expressing the menu in body language. Then, to his surprise and delight, you start chatting in fluent Japanese. Yay! Or as the Japanese say, yatta!
So, instead of making the usual “I will join a gym, eat salad every day and hate myself after approximately 48 hours” resolution, make it your goal to start a language learning journey in 2016. Your brain will thank you for it.
After writing about my experience with learning Russian and understanding the Russian culture, I wanted give some important tips for learning Russian.
First I’ll explain about the writing system, then some interesting things to remember about Russian verbs of motion, aspects of verbs and cases.
The Russian writing system is almost parallel to the Latin alphabet. This is no surprise because both the Russian and Latin alphabets come from the Greek alphabet. There are some letters that are unique to Russian, [IЖж] and then there are two characters that are both pronounced [Шш and Щщ]. I can’t tell the difference, and I’ve never worried about it.
There are some things that differentiate the Russian writing system from its Latin counterpart. Russian uses a little B flat sign [Ьь ], which softens sounds. There are some letters that look the same as Latin letters, but they are in fact pronounced differently. What looks like a P is actually an R, and since it’s very much hardwired in our minds that that’s a P, it takes a while to get over that. It takes a while, but it eventually happens.
So the only advice on the alphabet is to get started on it. You’re going to be able to start reading with difficulty within a few hours, and then the more you read, the better you get at it. However, as I found when I started learning Czech, it’s always easier to read in your own alphabet — always.
Word order is another aspect of to learning Russian, is that it takes some getting used to. Russian is very flexible and different in some ways. You can say “This is a book”, in English. The Russians don’t worry about articles, “This book.” [Это книга. You say “I read a book, the book, a book”, [я читаю книгу], but you could also say [я книгу читаю], so the word order can be kind of shifted around.
It isn’t word order you need to worry about when you want to ask a question in Russian, though. Then you have consider intonation. The words used are the same, but intonation often determines if it is a statement or a question.
These aspects of the language are minor in comparison to the three big bugbears in Russian: the cases, verbs of motion and the aspect of verbs. Everything else you can kind of get used to, but those three I’m still struggling with.
Some people don’t know what cases are. I had Latin at school and we had to decline latin noun bellum (war) as fast as possible. In Russian there are six cases. Latin has the vocative, which the Russians don’t have, although the Czechs do. With cases the concept is quite straightforward. If a noun is the subject of a sentence, “I go”, “The book is on the table”, then it’s in the nominative.
If you do something to the book, “I give the book to you”, “I give the book”, now the book is in the accusative because you’ve done something to it. If I give the book to you, I’m giving it to you, dative, donation, give, that’s the dative. Then they have a thing called the prepositional case, which is basically where something is “On the”, “At the”, “In the”, sort of like a location-type case. In that case, the noun will have a different ending. Then they have the genitive, which means to belong to something. So “Of the book” would be in the genitive. And they have a thing called the instrumental, “By the book”, “By my pen”, anything that implies what instrument or agent you used to do something. In that case, in the sentence “I went by car” the car would be in the instrumental. So those are the six cases.
With the cases, as a general overview, the concept is not difficult, but the specific explanations of why we use one case or another are extremely confusing. I’ll read from a Russian grammar book I have you will see what I mean. “The genitive case is used after words expressing measurement and quantity…”. That’s fine, “…but if it’s one of something it’s the nominative singular. If it’s two, three or four of something it’s the genitive singular. If it’s five or more it’s the genitive plural.”
Now, if that was the only rule you had to learn you could probably deal with it, but there’s a lot more. “The genitive case is used in a positive sense to express an indefinite incomplete quantity.” Okay, good for you. If you go on to the accusative, “The genitive case is normally used after negated verbs in the following instances: When the negation is intensified by another word; when a positive sentence is negated.” Of course, I don’t know what all that means. I have to look at the examples. “The dative is used to express the logical, blah, blah, blah.” I mean it just goes on and on.
The vast majority of prepositions don’t take the prepositional case, they take the genitive. Also, the same preposition will sometimes take the genitive and sometimes take the accusative. It’s extremely different. The endings, the tables, I’ve looked at those tables so many times. You can kind of half remember it for a day or two and then it’s gone, even if you understand the explanations after lots of examples.
I should say that I always use this grammar book as an example of how horrible grammar explanations can be. I have another book that I bought in Moscow which just has examples and with enough examples you can start to see it. However, what I’ve found is you just have to read and listen so often that certain phrases start to sound natural with their endings. It was much the same learning tones in Chinese. Trying to remember the individual tone for each character was very difficult, but with enough practice you eventually get better and better.
So, cases, that’s number one. You’re always, in my view, going to have trouble with the cases. Perhaps someone who attends a class and is studying it formally does better than I did. I was spending an hour a day listening, most of it in my car, or while exercising. It’s an interest thing, I’m not passing a test. However, I must say, given that I spent five years at an hour a day, a lot of people study it very seriously in class and don’t get as far along as I did and, besides which, I can understand so much.
This is another thing. When you don’t understand or you don’t know the cases it doesn’t prevent you from understanding, if you have the words. I learned all of the Russian vocabulary I know on LingQ. Some things remain a little bit fuzzy, but the important thing is that I can understand and enjoy the language. Learn about the country, the culture, even though you haven’t really nailed down the grammar.
What I tended to do was I listened to simple content to begin with and then I moved on to more difficult texts. Someone asked me on one of my YouTube videos, is it worthwhile listening to stuff you don’t understand? No, get stuff where you can access the text. If you can access the text, the transcript,import it onto LingQ as I did, save the words and phrases and you will eventually understand more and more of it.
Verbs of motion
The words “to go” in English appear like this “I go”, “I go tomorrow,” “I always go” etc. not in Russian. The verbs have tenses, change for tense and change for person, but that’s a minor problem.
The bigger problem is “you go”, which is multidirectional, “you go all the time”. If “you go and come back”, that’s one verb, but if you are “going there”, that’s another verb. If “you go on a means of transportation”, that’s another verb and that also has its multidirectional and unidirectional form and that’s just for “go”. Then there are “carry”, “come”, “fly” and “swim”, very difficult to get a handle on and to actually be able to reproduce. It doesn’t prevent you from understanding the language, but it is very difficult to nail it down when you’re speaking.
Aspect of verbs
I have read these definitions so many times. “If the action was completed, was supposed to be completed, might have been completed or was never going to be completed, then you use one form. But if, in fact, it was completed or might have been completed, except for the other exceptions, then you use this other form”. I don’t understand it. I’ve read them so many times. Here, again, it’s just exposure because you can’t be trying to go through all these logical explanations while you’re speaking. To my mind, you have to expose yourself to a lot of the language and then eventually start speaking a lot.
I could get into other issues that are different, but they’re minor. Like in Russian there isn’t only “where” but also “from where” and “to where”, and they are actually different words. Those are minor issues. The big problems in learning Russian are those three bugbears, cases, verbs of motion and aspects of verbs.
Now, the good news, Russian is fascinating. It’s a beautiful language. The country is fascinating. The culture and history are fascinating. The people who appear somewhat stoic are, in fact, very warm. They tend to speak their minds, say what they think and not worry too much about the details, but that’s what makes them so fun to be around. I would say, too, that in Russia there’s no compromise. I think that’s how they approach even artistic creation or sports. That’s why we see a lot of artistic creation in Russia, outstanding ballerinas, musicians and scientists. Certainly in hockey I find the Russians are just magicians. They’re artists and so they have a tendency to really commit themselves in one direction.
Want to improve your English fluency and be understood?
New research shows you should focus on English fluency over English pronunciation.
Speaking fluently means your listener is more able to keep track of what you’re saying, then they have more time to figure out the sounds you are trying to produce. In other words, your ability to put words together accurately, smoothly and fluently is much more important than trying to pronounce like a native.
I wrote in an earlier blog post how we can achieve fluency in a foreign language which you can read here. But here are a few easy tips to help improve your English fluency:
So next time you’re talking in English remember to slow down, correct yourself, use what you know and be comfortable with making mistakes sometimes.
How do you not forget languages? The simple answer here is I don’t forget languages. I have not forgotten a language and I think there are several reasons for this. First of all,my method of learning is massive input. If you look at my statistics on Czech, I’ve probably read the equivalent of five, six, 10 books worth of Czech in the last nine months or so that I’ve read, listened to and saved words. So I’m exposing my brain to this massive deluge of content and this is building a solid base in the language.
If I were simply trying to study word lists or trying to memorize declension tables orlearn grammar rules, I think those things you can forget. Those are the kinds of things you remember for a test, but very quickly forget. I’ve had the experience myself.I’ve studied say Russian or Czech and declension tables for nouns and I think I have them for a day or two and then they’re gone again. However, phrases that I’ve heard many times and words that I’ve seen many times, these combination of words with the noun in the right ending combined with a certain preposition, all of these things start tobecome part of strong patterns that are built in the brain and we don’t forget them.
So the first answer is if you don’t want to forget languages, learn them the hard way if you want. In other words, invest the time. Put the time into enough exposure to the language that you are building these sediments, this accumulated experience with the language in your brain.
The second thing is I am not bothered by the fact that when I start up in a language that I haven’t spoken for a while that I’m rusty. That doesn’t bother me at all. I think people who expect too much of themselves end up being frustrated, lose confidence, lose interest, whatever. If I haven’t spoken Swedish or Spanish or something for a while, I’m going to stumble when I start up again.
Sometimes people come at me on YouTube and oh, you don’t speak this language very well. You made this other mistake and stuff. Yeah, sure, whatever, it doesn’t bother me. I know that if I were then to be put in a situation for a day or two or three where I had to use that language regularly and I was once again listening to it all the time and everything that was in my brain was starting to revive that I would do fine. In fact, I’ve had the experience and I’ve mentioned this before.
If I leave a language and study some other language, when I come back to that first language that I left I’m actually better in the language because my overall language learning and language using capability has improved by learning other languages. The fact that I stumble out of the gate, so to speak, for the first day or two, so what, I have no particular expectations. I know that in any language, a second, third, fourth, fifth language that you speak, you’ll do better on some days than on other days. That’s what it is. Some days it’s tiring and some days it’s frustrating to try and look for words that you can’t find. You get annoyed and you would like to retreat back into your native language and other days you’re just walking on water and doing very well. So whichever happens to be the case that day is good enough for me. I don’t go in there with any particular expectations.
When I hear people say oh, yes, my father came over from the old country and he hasn’t spoken Polish or Italian in 50 years and now he can’t speak it, I kind of tend to take that with a grain of salt. I think if that particular father were set back into a Polish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, whatever environment, that that language would come back to him. If he had been exposed to it for 10, 20 or 30 years as a young person and then had been away from it for 30–40 years, when he or she goes back to that environment it will come right back very, very quickly.
So, to me, I don’t forget languages. How do I maintain them quickly if I need to get up to speed? Sometimes I’ll be asked to appear on a Mandarin Chinese television program here in Vancouver, I’ll get out some audio books or some CDs. I’ll listen to them and do a bit of reading. Give myself some exposure. One thing I certainly don’t look at is grammar books. If you want to get yourself back to speed you need more exposure. That’s not to say I don’t look at grammar books, I will occasionally look at grammar books, thumb through them, so to speak, but to get yourself back up to speed you need a lot of exposure. If you’ve been away from it for a while the first night out with native speakers you might stumble a bit, but you’re very quickly right back in the groove, at least that has been my experience.
I would like to talk about older language learners. When using Facebook, Twitter and now Google Plus I see posts from people I am following or that are following me. Recently I saw a post there from someone saying, I want to do some research on the problems of older language learners and see what I can do to help them. So I posted a comment and said, what do you consider to be an older language learner and he answered over 40. So I said, what makes you think that people over 40 have particular problems in language learning. What do you think these problems might be? The answer was well, you know, they might develop hearing loss or something of that nature.
I must say, I was completely taken aback by this comment. I don’t know that over 40 qualifies as old, but I assume that over 60 does. That’s me. I think I’m a better language learner now than I was when I was 16. All the evidence I’ve seen in the reading I’ve done is that our cognitive abilities don’t really start to decline until well past the mid 70s. If we work hard at maintaining these cognitive abilities by keeping our minds active, I’m sure that our cognitive abilities and our ability to create new neurons and neural networks remain quite strong.
Now, I can’t compare the ability of the average 60-year-old with the average 15-year-old, but everything I’ve seen suggests to me that obviously a child before the age of say 10 seems to have a major advantage in language learning and there are probably a number of reasons. I think as a very young child, of course, the brain is still flexible enough. The brain hasn’t sort of formed around one language so it’s much more open to new languages because, necessarily, the brain has to form patterns. It has to form rules for itself so it can deal with all the experiences and the phenomena that it’s confronted with.
The positive side of this is that as we grow older we have more patterns in place. We have more experience to draw on. We have more wisdom, in a sense. We’ve experienced more things, but we perhaps become less open to new things. I think that’s what happens in language learning, we’re open to any language. When we’re born, we could learn any language as a native language and as we develop therefore these sets of patterns to deal with our native language. We perhaps become less open to new languages. I think young people who study two or three languages have a big advantage, but once you pass the age of 10 or so I think the brain is more or less formed, from what I’ve read.
By the way, the majority of teens are not that interested in language learning and don’t do well, the majority that I’ve seen at least in Canada. On the other hand, for example at LingQ and on the recent hangouts that I’ve been conducting in Google Plus, we’ve had some young people show up who are extremely good. I think some of the more enthusiastic so-called polyglots (people learning different languages) probably are younger, but it’s their enthusiasm and their willingness to put in the time and the effort and the fact that they aren’t resisting the language that leads to their success.
These are the sort of attitudinal factors that enable them to be successful and there’s no reason why an older person can’t have the same attitude. I like to feel that when I study a language I am totally enthusiastic about the language. I put in the time necessary. I don’t resist the language. I don’t question why do they say it this way and wouldn’t it be better if they said it the way we say it in our language, none of these things. I think, to some extent, it may be true that some people do this, but I think young people do this, as well.
As for hearing loss, amongst my friends I don’t know many who suffer from this. Yeah, you do lose the sort of high-frequency range of hearing, but not to the point where it would affect your ability to hear the language. Now, there are people with hearing aides who have develop significant hearing loss. I have a very good friend who’s 83 and has a hearing aide. He doesn’t hear very well, but he’s very enthusiastic learning Spanish and having a great time.
Old people aren’t in any way disadvantaged. Older people, whether over 40 as this person had it or over 60, are not handicapped people. In terms of their cognitive abilities, they’re just as good as younger people if they have the same attitude. If they have the attitude of not resisting the language, being caught up in the excitement of learning a new language, not resisting the language, if they can visualize themselves speaking that other language, if they have these attitudes they can be just as good as anyone else.
Again, I was at a meetup the other evening here in Vancouver. It was styled as a meetup of language enthusiasts and linguists and someone made the statement, “We all know that our ability to learn a language declines with age. The older we get, the harder it is to learn. “
I said, “No, I’m sorry, that’s not been my experience.”
Their response was, “Well, I mean you can’t say that. Everybody knows the older you get, the harder it is to learn a language.”
There are a lot of people who glibly toss these ideas around and, unfortunately, I think it influences some people who are sort of past their 30s. They think they can’t learn a language anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s not just learning languages. If I look at my wife, for example, who’s so enthusiastic about her piano she plays two-three hours a day. She doesn’t have a teacher, but she’s improving by leaps and bounds. I mean we can learn anything we want at any age, as long as we have the attitude of a learner. The attitude of a learner is someone who is independent, who doesn’t expect someone else to teach them or to give it to them, who’s enthusiastic, who’s confident and who is determined to get there and, also, someone who isn’t too concerned about comparing themselves to other people.
Now, my wife plays the piano, she doesn’t care whether she’s better than someone else. I know very well that there are all kinds of polyglots on the Internet that are better than I am in a number of languages, if not all. That doesn’t diminish my enjoyment one little bit. Every one of us as we learn a language, whatever our age and whatever our opportunities to speak and so forth, can all enjoy the progress we’re making. That’s all we need to achieve that little bit of progress that gives us a sense of satisfaction. We don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else.
Unfortunately, I think there is a bit of a prejudice and one that works to the disadvantage of some people who give up on the possibility that they could learn one, two or more languages past their teens. I can assure you, I learned Czech from basically a standing start, except that I had learned Russian in the previous year. I would never have considered that possible when I was in my 20s; you know, putting in an hour or an hour and a half or so, eventually two hours a day. The reason is, again, as we’re older and as we’ve done these things, we get better at doing them. We know how to do them. Again, the brain develops these patterns, these routines so that it’s no longer a new phenomenon.
Someone who has never learned a second language or has only had school exposure to French or grew up in China and learned English for 10 years and can’t speak English, I mean they have no sense of what it’s like to transform themselves into a speaker of a second language. They have an attitude. They’re defeated before they start. But that’s the attitude, that’s not the age. If they accept the fact that they can learn, that it’s a gradual process and you have to do it with enthusiasm and determination, I don’t see any difference between a 16-year-old and a 66-year-old.
Can you get “brain freeze” when speaking a new language?
In other words, sometimes we know the word, we know what we want to say, but we just can’t remember the word. We can’t say it and the more we try to remember it, of course, the more we ensure that we won’t be able to remember it. It happens to all of us. It happens to me at my age. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m older now, but I think it happened to me when I was younger, as well. The more pressure we put on ourselves, if we’re at a party and someone comes in and we’re trying to remember that person’s name, the harder we try to remember the name, the harder it is to remember.
If I find that I can’t think of a word or I can’t express what I want to express, I’ll talk about something else. I’ll move into a direction where I have the words and gradually then come back to what I wanted to say. In any case, I don’t let it upset me because it’s normal. The more confident and comfortable we are, the less pressure we put on ourselves, the less likely it is to occur.
How would you go about learning Farsi?
Well, when I started learning Romanian there were no resources, so I went on the Internet, I wrote up 200 sentences in English and I asked someone to translate these into Romanian and record them for me. I paid them for that and the resulting lessons were imported into LingQ. So if there are no Farsi resources, you may have to create your own.
How do you use Assimil?
A lot of people like Assimil. Personally, to me it’s just another beginner book like Teach Yourself or Colloquial. What I get out of it is strictly the lessons, the content. I listen, I read. I used it for Russian. I started using the Korean one and I found it particularly uninteresting. The Russian Assimil has actually some interesting content and to that extent is better.
What I don’t like about Assimil is that they don’t give you the glossary, in other words, the translations of the new words. They give you a full translation, which I find very distracting. I find it distracting to read in the target language and then go reading through English to see the particular word I’m looking for. So I don’t use Assimil a lot, but I know that a lot of people do like Assimil.
It is tempting to believe that we can just acquire a small number of very useful words, and sort of get a jump start in a language. I have never found that to be the case. Even learning “where”, “when” “why” etc. does not help a lot, in my experience, because it simply takes a long time to get used to using these words, or even remembering them. We need to be exposed to them often in order to get used to them and to a new language.
It is not difficult to get a list of the most “useful” words in a language. You can look them up, or you can just type them out in your own language and submit them to google translate. I doubt if that will help much, at least it does not in my case. You need to see and hear them, over and over, in meaningful contexts.
LingQ enables me to do this. I can look up word and phrases that I don’t understand. I can save these words and phrases for occasional review. The most useful words, the highest frequency words, keep on appearing in the content I am reading and listening to. Almost like magic, in an order that I cannot control, they become part of me. First I understand them and then I start to remember them.
There are also less frequently used words in my reading and listening, words that need in order to understand what I am reading or listening to. I save them as well in LingQ but I ignore them. They are in my database and in my brain somewhere, but will probably not be activated for quite some time. Eventually some of them show up often enough that I learn them. Some of them stick in my brain for reasons that I can’t control.
I create lots of LingQs, in other words save lots of words and phrases to my database at LingQ. I do this not only for words I do not know, but also of common little words that work differently in the new language, like “meu” or “minha” in Portuguese versus “mi” in Spanish. Some of these common words I may tag for different categories to help me review them if I have the time.
My experience tells me that there is not a short cut. I just need to continue enjoying immersing myself in the language and learning about new things via the language. In time I will get the opportunity to speak, and the more I speak, the more I will activate the vocabulary that I have naturally acquire in this manner.
I know that in order to have meaningful conversations, I will need to understand lots of words, not just the most common hundred or so. If I don’t have a large enough vocabulary, I will be lost in my attempts to engage people in conversations. If I have a large passive vocabulary, I will find that all kinds of words that I have never used before just rush to my brain and come out of my mouth.
That is what I am now doing for Polish. After two months of input activity, I have started speaking, and am surprising both myself and my Polish natives speaker counterparts with what I am able to express. I have made no special attempts to learn the most common words of Polish.