People often ask me how I learned 20 languages. I will tell you what works for me; you’ll have to decide if this can work for you. Here are the first four secrets to language learning success:
1. Spend the time
The first secret to successful language learning is spending the time. When I study a language, I spend at least an hour a day trying to learn that language, and I know that it’s going to take me months and months of continuous studying.
But when I say study, I don’t mean sit in a classroom, I don’t mean answer questions or drills, review grammar rules or lists of words. What I mean is spend time with the language, listen to the language, read things that are written in the language or listen to songs that are sung in the language, even watch movies if you can. If you have friends who speak the language, spend time with them, even if most of the time you’re just listening because you don’t speak well enough to say very much.
The classroom can be very important as a place for you to meet with your friends, to find stimulus from a teacher, but in the classroom you’re listening to the teacher half the time or you’re listening to your classmates. What matters is how much time do you spend away from the classroom with the language. Spend that time with the language. Do it month after month after month and don’t let too many days go by where you don’t spend time with the language. Depending how difficult the language is – that means how different it is from your native language or from a language you already speak – the amount of time required might be years. If you can only spend an hour a day, it could be six months to a year to two years. If you can spend three hours a day, then it might be less than a year, but it does take time. There is no shortcut to fluency.
2. Do what you like to do
If you don’t enjoy studying the language, you won’t put in the time, so it’s important that you do the things that you like doing.
What I like doing – and something that has proved extremely effective for me – is listening and reading. When you are listening and reading you are relying entirely on your imagination to convert words into meaning. To me, that is a more intense learning environment than, say, watching videos, but there are other people who find success in watching videos and will watch videos over and over again.
When I start out with a language, I will quite often listen to a short piece of content until I understand 50-70%, , Sometimes even less. Basically I move on to the next lesson when I feel like it. I can always go back. I always want to read whatever I listen to and I want to listen to whatever I read, certainly in the beginning. I listen to things that I like, where I like the voice and where I’m interested in the topic.
I find the Mini-Stories at LingQ especially useful to get a start in a language. They have a lot of repetition and focus on the most frequent verbs and structures in any language. I end up listening to these simple stories 30, 40 or 50 times. The basic structures and most common verbs gradually start to stick in my brain. The Mini-Stories are available in 46 languages.
I think to be a successful language learner you have to enjoy the process, so you have to decide what it is you like doing. Do you like listening and reading? Do you like watching videos? Do you like just hanging out with people if that opportunity is available to you?
So it is important to do what you like to do, that’s going to be a major condition for success because if you like doing it then all of a sudden it’s the process of language learning that becomes its own reward. As a friend once said, “In language learning there is no finish line. If we do what we like to do, it’s the process itself that is the reward”.
3. Learn to notice
This is extremely important. The ability to notice is probably the most significant difference between people who are good at language learning and people who are not good at language learning. So how do you develop the ability to notice? There are a number of things you can do.
First of all, you need to make sure you get a lot of exposure to the language through listening, reading or, if you prefer, watching videos. You can’t notice something until you’ve actually consciously and subconsciously experienced it at some level. So you need to first absorb a lot of the language.
Next you have to hone your ability to notice. If I’m reading, I’ll often underline certain expressions or words. If I’m reading online I will save words and phrases to my personal database. Just the act of saving them helps me to notice. When I review these words as flashcards that again helps me notice. Some words I’ll remember, some I won’t, but it all slowly builds up this ability to notice.
For example, every time I listen to these Mini-Stories, I notice something new, a vocabulary item or a language pattern. It’s amazing how much knowledge or experience with the language you have to have in you before certain things are available for you to notice.
If I’m corrected, it this may help me notice, it may not, but it certainly won’t necessarily correct me. Maybe an explanation from a teacher or an explanation in a grammar book will help me notice. That’s why I often review grammar books very quickly, again, not with the intention or in the hope that I’ll remember a particular rule or a particular verb ending, but because it’s part of the process, that continuous cumulative process of getting me to notice certain things.
Once I notice something, let’s say it was a correction in my writing, and then I look for it when I’m reading or when I hear the language, all of a sudden I start to notice it everywhere. As we notice things in the language they become a part of us, and pretty soon, because we’ve noticed it here and there, we suddenly automatically start using these words, phrases and patterns of the language correctly.
Now, the same is true with pronunciation. You can’t pronounce what you can’t hear, so you have to pay attention to how the language is pronounced. It’s not just the individual sounds you need to pay attention to, it’s the intonation, too. It can also be very useful to listen and imitate because that helps you to notice.
So whether it be pronunciation, correct usage, or the accumulation of words and phrases, it’s very important to hone that ability to notice. It starts with a desire to notice, the conscious determination or will to say “I’m going to try to notice the language’’.
4. Words over grammar
Vocabulary is much more important than grammar. In fact, if you learn words, if you have lots of words and if you learn these words naturally through lots of listening and reading, the grammar will eventually fall into place. Nothing prevents you from occasionally reviewing grammar rules in a small grammar book. It’s probably a good thing to do. I do it, but my major emphasis is accumulating words. That’s why at LingQ our number one measurable is how many words you know.
Now, some people say that the emphasis should be on learning chunks of words in the form of phrases that we can easily reproduce. Certainly this is a good thing to do, but the phrases themselves consist of words, so you still have to know what words mean and you can’t learn them in isolation. You have to learn them from meaningful content and that’s why when I save a word to my personal database at LingQ, not only does LingQ capture all the phrases where that word occurs, but the next time that word appears in any new context at LingQ it will be highlighted in yellow. In this way I’m constantly increasing my known words total, and my sense of how words are used.
Grammar, which is nothing other than a description of correct usage, is something that we can only learn gradually. Even if you memorize the rules of grammar, which can be very difficult to do without a sufficient amount of input, without enough of a vocabulary to follow a conversation or express your ideas, you would not be able to say very much. On the other hand, if you have a large vocabulary you will be surprised at how much you can say, especially if you’ve seen these words in different contexts. You’ll notice how easily you start to speak, often as not with the words in the correct order and in the correct form.
So, once again, focus your efforts on words and there are a number of strategies that can help you. Some people like to use flashcards, but my preference is to do a lot of listening and reading. I will also focus on one author during a particular period or on one subject area, which might be politics, history or economics.
What this does is ensure that a certain range of words appear more frequently. Because I’m staying with one author, Tolstoy for example in Russian, then I become familiar with his vocabulary. If I am listening to current event interviews, then I become very familiar with that vocabulary. So, occasionally, I’ll change my emphasis, change the author, change the subject area, but always try to focus for a certain period of time on one particular area of interest to get enough repetition so that I can steadily increase my vocabulary.
Did you enjoy this post? Check out part 2 of Steve’s seven secrets to language learning success!