Five unusual, evidence-based ways to get better at a new language
This is an interesting article about how to help with learning a new language, and surprisingly -- some of these tips don't even involve opening a textbook or speaking with a native-speaker. Some tips include incorporating things that enhance your mood, and to simply listen without making too much of an effort to translate.
This makes me wonder: are we trying too hard? Are some of us ignoring the simple things that are part of learning a language?
Mood is key when learning another language. I have noticed if I am in a happier mood I will tend to enjoy my studies more and want to do more. When I am not in a great mood, I will not try to do as much but I will still force myself to study for 10 - 15 minutes.
For me, taking breaks doesn’t work. I have heard it works for others and I truly believe them, but I have taken about 3 breaks before in language learning and every time I did it, I seemed to forget stuff and 2 of those times I completely abandoned language learning for like 6 months. So for me I have to at least do a little every day. (To me the interesting part about discussing language learning with others is that we all have different methods, likes, and dislikes to the whole process but at the end of the day we all manage to learn more than we did know.)
I agree about breaks. On Duolingo, for a while I was cramming and did a lot of repetition. For my brain to process the information, it worked. I still remember the stuff I crammed three months ago that I haven't revisited in the lessons. Just recently I tried a few, and got through them no problem.
Sure enough when a system is set up to say you should learn this way or that way, I always seem to find the way that breaks the rules or suggestions and go about it in a way that I'm comfortable with that I know will work. No one can tell me to unlearn the way I learn.
I also find if I'm not in a good mind-set, I'll just forget everything anyway. If I'm already in a bad mood, I tend to react to my mistakes badly and it solves nothing.
I agree, on days when I am not in the best of mood, I will remember very little so on those days I normally have a review day that lasts for like 10 - 15 min.
Hmm.... I'm volunteering to test the alcohol principle, the rest of you can try the others and we can compare results in a year or so?
Alcohol definitely improves your French pronunciation. If you’re having trouble rolling your R’s, have a few glasses of wine.
That is why I do Duolingo in the morning (when I am at my best) and listen to Chinese Radio while I do crafts or other things. Sometimes it just helps to listen to develop the accent and correct pronunciation.
I agree, I do this same thing with music in my target language. I might not understand it, but don't really care yet. Music lyrics in contemporary rock and pop tend to include slang and colloquial language that I don't understand. But I know when I do hear something that I've understood, it usually clicks with me like, "Hey I just learned that word!" or "Now I understand what this song is about!"
An excellent article, I said, because I agree with it.
As an aside, Years ago I was in a poetry class (yeah, I love poetry, you got a problem with that?) anyhow all the adults in the room were complaining how difficult it was to read the Robert Burns poems ( I would never call him Bobby) anyhow I was a few years younger than the average student (I guess this class was comprised of senior students who had already exhausted the list of electives they were interested in.) Anyhow I was one of those kids who looked several years younger than I really was. (a curse then, a jewel now) anyhow I raised my hand, I was sitting in the back corner of the class room.
Mrs. Geiger called on me and I explained how to understand the poems. (everybody turned to look at me since I was in the corner) anyhow I told them: "it's easy, start with the book of poems in one hand and a bottle of Scotch in the other and when you're halfway through both, everything will be eminently clear to you. ( I think the surprised laughter was more about a kid saying that than the import of the message.)
Thanks! I was really intrigued by the part about not getting hung up on grammar. I think that is my problem right now, I'm trying so hard to get a handle on this whole verb conjugation thing in Spanish. Maybe I should just let it go and listen to the language more: not ''over analyze'' like it says in the article. Thanks so much for sharing the link!
As an English speaker, I am forgiving of grammatical mistakes from non-English speakers (especially when I know the person is brand new to English). It seems fair that I should know I'd be understood even if I botch something up. In time, the grammar improves. For now, as a very green-speaker, I should be working on the flow and sounds of the language, which is all part of learning it too. :)
I think choosing when to study and the importance of breaks are important.
I’ve found that long breaks actually helps me stay motivated longer in the languages I study. There’s something refreshing about trying out something some days or even weeks since you last studied it.
I think for me, I always did my best learning at night. It started from school, preferring to learn in the evening when I did homework as opposed to listening to some boring teacher droning on and on, which didn't help. I also went to college and had evening classes that involved practical studies. I looked forward to these times. So I think for me, personally, just out of habit because it's been this way long-term, I always associate nighttime to be the best time to learn. :)
Yes my night classes helped more than day school ever did.
One other thing, not in the article, for some reason low volume music in the background seems to be a help not a hindrance. I think it's an issue of association of activities.
I support the alcohol theory - which I have personally tested at Duolingo events in pubs.
The chemical secret that will improve your language abilities tenfold...
Language barriers are alcohol soluble.
Last year I experimented before my exams. First week, I spent the night before drinking beer at a rock festival, before the next exam I stayed at home and studied, before the third it was wine and jazz. I regret to say the study only night produced the best results (so that was the pattern I used on my final) - and the rock concert (despite being in my target language) produced the worst results.
I dunno if anyone realizes that a lot of the people on here are too young to drink alcohol. xD
I'm not sure I agree with (most of) that article. We learn our language as babies because we hear very little else, and, more importantly, we have little else to occupy our thoughts. My guess would be that we actually LEARN most of it when we're asleep - the brain turns over and twists our experiences, and what we've heard, as we dream, and as a baby there's not so much to dream about. As an adult, our dreams are so varied that I'd doubt whether language learning plays a significant part of it.
And grammar? Well, I think that depends on the individual. I firmly believe that I find language learning easier because of the many years of learning Latin at school - a very structured language that definitely gives you an insight into how languages work, even those languages that have never been influenced by Latin. As a result, I often find it a little frustrating at the lack of grammar tables and explanations on Duolingo - although, of course, most can be found elsewhere on the Internet, and Duolingo is undoubtedly the best, by far, for absorbing a language - or multiple languages.
And one more small point, not necessarily relevant to that article, has anyone else tried switching between two languages while trying to learn? I found that doing lessons/exercises alternately - literally doing one, then the other, then the first one again, all in the same session - actually helped me remember them much better than just going through one lesson after another of the same language. ... but in that respect maybe I'm just odd !!
As babies though, we are limited to experiences. It's important to hear the words "mom", "dad", "ball", etc. Then graduate to things that matter such as eating, playing, and recognizing feelings. "Noodles" was one of the first food words I knew as a baby. It's not that my mother said to me: "I'm cooking noodles al dente for you, and will serve them with cheese just the way you like it." The word noodles was all I needed to know.
Babies can be immersed in languages and tune out the meanings of words and phrases, to start learning who's who, and if the words spoken are pleasant. When a baby is about to be fed, sees the spoon coming toward its face, and hears the word "Open!" they learn it means to open their mouths. It's all pretty easy, and based on things that babies find that matters most to them.
Also, repetition for a baby when it comes to these things has them recognizing the words and soon mimicking the sounds to figure out how to verbally communicate. Then there are the non-words, which they realize is meant for feeling and being entertained. If a person makes a "raspberry" sound at a baby, they soon realize it's not a word, but something just fun to do. They are recognizing the differences between sounds - what words are compared to noise.
I don't mean to over-analyze, but I think that the article is sort of bringing us back to how babies hear a language and don't care to interpret words, they just feel content to hear people talk and will pick it up soon enough.
There's a rhythm, a cadence and an accent to a language, that one must learn as well as what the words mean.
Babies start learning in the womb. They can hear your voice, sounds are muffled, but they can hear the mother's voice well. Also music and low tones. They also can taste and tell the difference between day and night and sense moods.
Am I trying to hard or am I not trying hard enough! That is the real question.
Interesting article. I especially liked the part about passive listening, that's it's ok to just experience the language. I tend to get disappointed with myself when I can't recognize every word. But if that's ok and even conducive to learning, I think I'll put on Spanish TV and podcasts more often and not worry so much.
There is a guy who claims to teach Japanese through Anime. He says watch it once (either in English dub, or with sub), just to understand what's going on in the episode. Then turn OFF the dub or sub and just watch it over and over in Japanese. He insists you will start picking up more and more.
There is another language tool (Rosetta Stone) that teaches by immersion only. That is, no real teaching of vocabulary or this means that. Just pictures and talking/writing. Says "hey, that's how babies pick up a language." I'm sure it does work, and it arguably may be the best way to really LEARN the language (no "translate in your head" problems). But I don't really like it in that it ignores the fact that we are NOT babies, and are capable of figuring things out a lot faster if we are given additional information.
Do you think that's the adult in you trying to figure things out? Just like babies and toddlers who are among adults, they are usually content to just be around their family without bugging them with translating for them. They just absorb the language without really asking much. Then when they are little children they begin to ask "what does that mean" (along with other kid-questions) -- my guess is because their brain is developing to take in more information and they now want the information.
Perhaps it's hard for adults to go back to that stage. The "just listening" part. Don't try to hard, just listen and enjoy the language for the sound of it.
The first point is something I do often. I love listening music with lyrics in other languages and I usually avoid the dub version of foreign films and TV shows.
I find that I have become much sensitive to the subtle vowel sounds in French than I was when I started. In the beginning I simply could not hear them. Most ending consonants for example are said to be silent, but that is not exactly true. They are not voiced the way they would be in my native English, but they usually effect the sounds immediately preceding them. In the beginning I was deaf to this. Continued exposure has made it audible.
I have also found that when I started I struggled to understand every nuance of the grammar, making tables of person/number/gender etc. It was very frustrating. I am now using a much more casual approach, letting the language flow over me in a way. I find I do a much better job of understanding it, and I am learning faster because it is less frustrating and therefore more enjoyable.
Continued exposure has made it audible --
This reminds me of something I did just this morning. I did my daily lesson, only this time I had my headphones off and had them resting on the desk. Normally, I would have the headphones on to hear every little sound in order to translate properly. I was doing a few audible exercises and I could understand the voice coming through the headset sitting over a foot away from me. I got the gist of the sentence, and I figured out what the audio said. I typed it in, and sure enough I got it.
I feel like that was an accomplishment. I didn't need to sit and focus intently on the sound with loud headphones anymore. I just heard what I heard and typed it in, sort of like how English sounds if I hear it in the background. :)
A few years ago I traveled for a few months in the Philippines with a friend from there. I never planned to learn any language there, but when my friend started speaking her local language I found it so funny. So I started to copy her when she spoke just for fun, with simple things she said. It became a fun thing for us through our holiday, with lots of laughter. I accidentally learned quite a lot of Davao Bisaya on that trip, without breaking a sweat, never once thinking about grammar or that I sounded like an idiot. I was not learning a language anyway, I was having a good time on holiday with Ana. Now with Spanish it goes so slow. I do all the right things, but just playing with the language and enjoying the tongue twisters and laughing with Ana is not there with it. With Spanish now I am a grown up again, getting blank head when I am trying to speak it, embarrassed by my mistakes and low self esteem over how little I have learned over a long time, and feeling stupid that I cant get the Verbos Reflexivos even though my language partner is a Spanish teacher by trade.
So in my experience I think your right. We are maybe trying to hard.. Thank you for reminding me.. Its time to get my language partner to laugh more, and explain less grammar..
"t’s hard not to conclude that if you act like a child, maybe you’ll learn as effectively as a child, too…"
Thank you for sharing this, HeyMarlana. I"m happy to try some of these techniques out. It makes sense to me to just relax and have fun learning a language. :)
That's what I thought. It doesn't have to be as hard as we make it out to be. :)
This is why I listen to a lot of French music and enjoyed going to Italy so much. Listening to the language regularly and just enjoying the rhythms of native speakers really helped me feel more at ease without the pressure of translating.
Alcohol is not the only way to relax. And not the healthiest, obviously.
The health benefits of wine are greatly exaggerated and it doesn't apply to everyone. You can also get the same amount of antioxidants in some dark chocolate or some walnuts.
Women over 55 might have some benefits of drinking in moderation but alcohol also increases the chances of getting breast cancer for example.
Interesting post, thank you for sharing this. The article mentions about older learners have a more productive experience in this morning - I find this to be so true for myself. If I try to learn in the afternoon or evening, it is an immense effort to try and learn. :)
If one wants to drink their way through language learning, perhaps Europe is the place to be ...
Well, most of Europe's grape-growing countries are home to people who know more than one language. Perhaps there is something to be said for relaxing and having a drink. When I have a bit of wine I tend to relax a bit and not feel so keyed up thinking I have to pass my exams as if this was school. I can just mellow out and enjoy the language more. :)
I was in a little town outside of Rome one time, and I commented on how impressive it was that it seemed like everyone knew multiple languages. "Yeah," he replied, "Most everyone around here can speak at least five languages." But then he laughed, smiled, and added, "But we don't speak ANY of them very well."
It is good to hear some encouraging evidence for improving sound discernment in adulthood. I have been learning French for two years and hearing it is still very difficult, but seems to keep getting better. There is the fear that at some point it will just stop getting better, but hopefully this is unfounded.
Reminds me of the US Dept of Defense study that showed the best way to learn a language was in a bar.
I can support the "simply listen" tip - in Germany there was a woman called Birkenbhil who developed her own method of learning a new language. I don't know if her method is translated into english somewhere but here you can even buy courses following her method. A huge part of it is to just listen to your lessons without consciously listening. You hear the words and the melody of a conversation repeating itself and it helps you remembering not only the vocabulary and grammar but the sentence structure and melody of a language. Actually it's a really beautiful method but it requires some effort beforehand because a lot of courses aren't prepared for this method.
Ok, I found an article in english describing it for anybody who is interested: http://www.bsrt.org.uk/v.f.-birkenbihl-method.html
This is good information! I need to stop stressing that I'm not trying hard enough!
I think so. Just the fact that you're doing it and enjoying it is part of the success. If you hunker down with studying and treating it like a university course (unless it is), then you might be more discouraged and not retain. It seems it's just like having a hobby. Make is something that is part of your life long term, enjoying it just like you would a hobby. :)
Great Post! I totally agree with taking a long break, and finding the right time (s) . I like to spread out my lessons, doing a few, then stopping for a few hours, then doing a few more lessons, and repeat...
Mais la chose plus importante est une habitude. J'ai travaillé à mon français cent trente-deux jours de suite pour une raison, c'est une habitude !
It's a bit like learning while you're relaxed. I think that's the main message.
Yeah, well think, the world's best language learners, babies, are too young to overthink it. They are in a state of calm consciousness, they just observe what is going on around them. So if you want to be good at learning languages, observe while you are relaxed.
LOL regarding the "Having a drink..." advice: if I understand it right evidence was demonstated in the special case "German volunteers learning Dutch...". I dare to doubt the result - I assume Dutch people aren't amused.
Great article and it follows some things I already do. We always watch films in their native langue to hear the language and, (I'm learning French) with a well known film I'll put on French subtitles as I listen in english or even do both to see what I can understand as well as listen to context.
And speaking of drinking and speaking a language, there's a story of one of my older brothers a few years back visiting French-Canadian relatives. His amount of French is minimal, but, his wife insists that, after a day of drinking, he was having complete, full conversations IN FRENCH. I'm sure that relaxation of getting buzzed lowers the awkwardness and lets you just "flow" with the pronuciation. Makes perfect sense to me.
Take long breaks! When are you losing your streak? I have always found myself having learnt better coordination and having more proficiency after breaks in playing the musical instruments.
I don't care about my streak. I'm actually thinking of breaking it because if I get in too deep it's going to be the focus and that's not my intention. My focus should be on the language and learning it with other methods, not how often I come here to do one lesson a day.
I haven't had streak more than fourty days but I'm level seventeen in Hebrew. I'm a slow learner! :)
I took part in an experiment once. It was a game with very difficult rules, which had one desired outcome. One group of people were told to figure out the rules (they were actually to difficult to do that within the duration of the game). The others were told to just respond sort of randomly. The people who were told to find the rules weren't able to finish the game. The people who just randomly chose their response did. Even though at the end of the game, while having arrived at the correct endstate, they still didn't cognitively know what the rules were. That is a bit like being able to speak a language while not really knowing what the exact grammar rules are.
Watching soccer on Telemundo is a great way for me to absorb Spanish at a rapid pace, even though I understand very little.