How to Learn Any Language Effortlessly
I always try to do the things that are the least amount of work when learning a language; I like to engage in effortless language learning when I learn any language, not completely effortless of course, but as effortless as possible.
I borrow the word ‘effortless’ from two sources. One is AJ Hoge, who is a great teacher of English. His channel and website are both called Effortless English. My other source is Taoist philosophy.
Effortlessness and the Parable of the Crooked Tree
When I wrote my book The Linguist: A Personal Guide to Language Learning, I began with what I called ‘The Parable of the Crooked Tree’.
The author of the parable was Zhuangzi, an early exponent of Taoism, a school of Chinese philosophy from over 2,000 years ago. I referred to Taoism on a number of occasions in my book. Zhuangzi’s basic principle in life was to follow what was natural, what was effortless and not try to force things.
Typically, the Taoist philosophy was in opposition to Confucianism, which prescribed rules of what you should and shouldn’t do in order to be a great person. Confucianism is full of admonishments on how you should behave. As is often the case with prescriptive philosophies or religions, these “commandments” attempt to set the boundaries of correct behaviour. Zhuangzi was different. He advised people to follow their own natures, and to not resist the world around them. This effortless non-resistance would help them learn better and be happier.
In Zhuangzi’s Parable of the Crooked Tree, his friend Huizi tells him that a tree they are both observing is crooked because the lumber is not good for anything, like Zhuangzi’s philosophy.
“Neither your philosophy nor the tree is good for anything”, says Huizi.
Zhuangzi replies “You say that because you don’t know how to use them. You have to use things for the purpose intended and understand their true nature. You can sit underneath a crooked tree and enjoy its shade, for example. If you understand the true nature of things, you will be able to use them to achieve your goals.”
I’m in the lumber business, and sometimes those gnarly old trees produce very expensive and decorative wood. Compared to trees in a planted forest their wood is less uniform and less suitable for industrial end uses. We just have to accept these more individualistic trees as they are and appreciate what they bring. Zhuangzi defends his philosophy saying it is useful if we accept its nature and know how to use.
Zhuangi’s philosophy was based on effortlessness, called wu wei (无为) in Chinese. In other words, if you want to learn better, stop resisting, and stop fighting it; go with the flow.That has always been my approach. Language learning does require some effort, of course, but we learn best when effort is minimized and pleasure is maximized.
If I’m reading in a language that I read well, where there are few unknown words, then I don’t bother looking up these unknown words. It’s too much trouble. On the other hand, if I can’t read well enough to enjoy reading away from the computer, or my iPad, then I usually don’t bother. It’s too much trouble looking words up in a dictionary, since the minute I close it I forget the meaning. So I just I read on LingQ, usually on my iPad. LingQ is where I have learned seven languages in the last 10 years.
Once I’ve looked the word up on LingQ it’s highlighted. The word appears highlighted in any subsequent material, so I’m reminded that I’ve looked it up before. I can see the meaning right away, and eventually it becomes part of me, without any effort on my part. I’m not just looking words up in a dictionary and then forgetting them. I am creating a personal database of words and phrases for easy review as I continue reading.
When I read grammar – and I believe we should occasionally read grammar rules as it helps give us a sense of the language – I don’t try to remember anything.
I don’t try to learn or understand anything. I just treat it as a spark, an exposure of something that might help me eventually get a sense of the language. I don’t worry about grammar. I know it will gradually become clearer for me.
I don’t do questions. When I was learning Czech I found an old Teach Yourself Czech that I had bought many years ago. I found it kind of useful. It had questions and grammar drills, but I never did them. It was, however, useful to go to the back of the book and find the answers.
This way, rather than having to try to answer the question and wracking my brain, I just read all the answers. This gives me a concentration of examples of whatever the book is trying to test me on, case endings, pronouns or whatever else. I don’t like doing the questions because it’s too much work.
By the same token, when I read something I don’t like answering comprehension questions. I would rather have misunderstood the text and have my own interpretation of it than have to answer a list of questions. I have mentioned the great Brazilian educator Rubem Alves before. He once said that nothing destroys the pleasure of reading as much as being asked questions about what you have read.
I use flashcards as a break from my reading and listening activity. Doing them provides diversion and variety. Recently at LingQ we have created more variety and randomness in the nature of these flash cards. In this way, it becomes almost a game to go through them.
I don’t worry about what I remember, or what I am able to recall when going through these activities. Whether it is going from my target language into English, or from English into the target language, or multiple choice, or fill in the blanks, or writing out what I hear in the dictation card, I just mechanically go through them.
I am never sure how effective this activity is, but I find it enjoyable because it is somewhat mechanical. I don’t need to think. I don’t worry about what I get or don’t get. I do these for a while and then return to my reading and listening. Somehow, the combination of these activities moves me along in the language, effortlessly.
Sometimes the purists will tell you that you must only use a monolingual dictionary. I never use a monolingual dictionary. It’s much easier to use a bilingual dictionary. If I’m starting out in a language and I know few words, a monolingual dictionary is useless.
Even when I’m quite advanced I just find that a bilingual dictionary is more useful. I get a hint of what that word might mean and return to what I am reading, wanting to continue the discovery of what the content is all about. My interest in the text drives my learning. I don’t want to be distracted by a dictionary definition which may contain even more words that I don’t know.
I know that only through a lot of exposure will I eventually get the hang of that word, but I don’t want to spend my time trying to figure it out from a monolingual dictionary. To me it is more effortless to use a bilingual dictionary, and whatever is effortless to me is good.
Strange Language Features
I don’t worry about things that I don’t understand or elements of the new language that I am not used to. One example is the custom, in some languages, to have a large number of very specific terms for relatives, much more than we have in English.
These names are often introduced early in a language, since they are perceived as interesting aspects of the new culture. I can’t be bothered with them. Those are concepts we don’t have in English, and so they’re very difficult for me to relate to or remember. Eventually, after enough exposure, these things will become easier to learn, as is the case with much that is new and strange in a language.
Similarly, if you’re a speaker of a language which doesn’t have articles, like Russian or Japanese, you’re going to find articles difficult in English. I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s going to take a long time before those things sink in.
As for me, I find it difficult to understand the explanations about certain grammatical concepts, like the aspects of verbs in Russian. I naturally get it right some of the time, and some of the time I don’t. I am aware that such a thing exists. I’ve read the explanations and kind of get it but not really. I don’t worry about it. Similarly, in Japanese don’t worry about polite language at first because it takes a lot of exposure in order to have a sense for that. So I stick with a neutral form of the language, and try to avoid being too polite or too casual. There is less strain that way.
So in summary my advice is as follows:
⇒ Do what’s easy.
⇒ Do what comes naturally and is satisfying.
⇒ Don’t answer questions if you don’t want to.
⇒ Don’t force yourself to learn things.
⇒ Don’t cram things into your brain.
Just expose yourself to the language, follow your curiosity, trust your brain and you will learn any language effortlessly…or almost.
16 comments on “How to Learn Any Language Effortlessly”
About using monolingual dictionary, I think you’re right when you begin studying a new language, but when you start having a good grasp at a language you can start using it. It trains you in the language, and gives you an insight on relations between words and between meanings
Definitely true. I remember when they recommended monolingual dictionary to us when were taught English. Problem was, it was in a phase, we barely could talk or write. There was no point for that.
After few months abroad I realized, that using it is very helpful because my English is good enough for that. Also, I stopped to be worried about mistakes. When someone approach to me with “I goed there and choosed there something…” I still understand. There is the point. Understand and be understood, despite it is sometimes hard.
There are points that go in the complete opposite direction as the common thinking for example “do what’s easy”. People use to think that to learn you need to go out of your comfort zone.
By the way great article!
Oh my gosh. I loved what you wrote under flashcards and I hate how it took me so long to ditch that format (for some reason a lot of people just do what they’re told in school without thinking about its effectiveness). It’s so useless if anyone thinks about it logically. Currently I use the MCD format which is like what you do except one part is blanked out. I find anki cards in those format to be easy and effective.
Regarding monolingual dictionaries… there’s a great firefox add-on for japanese called rika-chan which can be boosted with rikai-sama which allows you to see the definition when you hover over it. If you press the letter “O” the dictionary switches from monolingual to sanseido or the other way around depending on how you set it up. So I get the option of getting both definitions sand may generate an anki card using the definition that works better for me.
I agree. I find I learn the best and make the most progress when learning remains fun. When it starts to feel like work, it’s time to change direction – move to something easier and more enjoyable – while still moving forward.
I loved what you wrote.
I will apply to learn more.
Mr. Kaufman, I believe that encouragement is important, even critical, when dealing with students aspiring to learn a foreign language. But to call it “effortless” is truly misleading. It reminds me of the faddish, recurring slogan that “learning is fun.” Indeed it is, or should be, especially in the lower grades where rudiments are being introduced. In the language acquisition arena, learning is effortless if one is a child and the brain is still developing (i.e., new neural pathways are still being laid down) meaning the installation of one or more primary languages is organic. But after the neurological sculpting is done, say at around 12 or 13 years of age, language acquisition means *superimposing* other tongues upon one’s primary language(s). This takes tremendous time and effort, as evidenced by the years you yourself have spent acquiring foreign languages (I think you said something like 7 hours a day for Chinese). I also recall your referring once to “the relentless pursuit of words.” Good point. Without a critical mass of words, comprehension is unlikely. But once again, it’s hard. Another problem for the adult learner is that he/she may be someone who has a very difficult time pronouncing many foreign vocabularies. I have worked with students who cannot reproduce the basic sounds of the target language well enough to make themselves understood. Their tongues and mouth-related muscles simply won’t budge from familiar English patterns. Could speech therapy help them? Probably. But, once again, such an intervention would not be effortless. Anything worth doing well is worth sweating for. If it comes easy, there are only two reasons: (1) you are gifted, or (2) you can read a foreign language menu and are satisfied with your accomplishment, thereby earning the right to proclaim that you “speak” a foreign language (a little). In conclusion, unless one is gifted, it’s hard to learn math, it’s hard to learn music, it’s hard to learn to write well. Why should foreign language be an exception to the “it’s hard” mantra? In my experience, those who have succeeded in acquiring a comfortable fluency in a foreign language are those who have persisted, putting in the hours and the muscle, and repeating, repeating, repeating words and phrases until they are internalized and available on the tips of their tongues when they need them.
I agree with you to some extent. Language learning does indeed require a lot of effort. However, exerting that effort does not necessarily need to be a painful experience – there are strategies that can indeed make language learning a lot of fun. For example, reading books that appeal to the learners, listening to interesting news, music or even following celebrities etc.
Of course, the initial phases of language learning can be really challenging (for example, due to pronunciation problems you have mentioned) and normally require an investment a lot of ‘hard work’.
However, once the foundations are laid (basic pronunciation, alphabet/writing system, a small but useful vocabulary set, basic sentence patterns), one can begin to truly enjoy the process by exposing oneself to more and more ‘native’ resources and being able to make sense of them. At that point the main sources of enjoyment are the resources themselves (e.g. the pleasure of reading a book) and the progress one has made.
One point I would like to make is that language learning becomes easier for those who have already mastered one or more foreign languages.
Those who learn a foreign language for the first time might have a huge psychological barrier, lack language learning habits and are more susceptible to succumbing to more mechanical, inefficient and unpleasant language learning methods.
When one language is learnt, it is easier to focus on the ‘important aspects’ (e.g. recognising that learning a complicated Chinese family tree is not critical at the beginner stage) and to use a method that works for a given individual.
I do believe that it can be fun – it is all about finding a method that works for you!
I find that on a certain level of a language ability it’s much easier to get to the core meaning of the word rather than to try to associate it with a word on one’s own language. Also, some bilingual dictionaries are confusing as hell, especially when the words don’t quite match.
Great insight to “do what is easy”. I learned this after getting really bored with the canned dialogues that accompanied the foreign-language-learning books that I was reading. Instead, I started reading the news in German, and there was plenty of up-to-date, relevant news to be found on the German Yahoo! site. It was so much more interesting to do that. I often think that many people don’t learn a foreign language because the teaching pedagogy, while well-intentioned, often makes the task boring. One size doesn’t fit all.
Very good tips. thank you
I liked the part => “I don’t worry about things that I don’t understand or elements of the new language that I am not used to” <=
Great insights! Thank you for sharing Steve. It can be a lot of fun to learn a new language.
The BEST trick to learn a language faster is to “speak” it inside of your head. At least if you want to become fluent. It is important to do that frequently, for example when you wake up in the morning, say “good morning” to yourself in the target language, when you eat say “I am eating food”, etc.
Then you can improve your skills by listening to music or watching movies in the target language, which will help you learn more words and new grammatical forms. You should also practice your writing skills (especially if it’s a non Latin language).