Learning vocabulary is the most important and time-consuming part of language learning. If you suck at it, you might be wasting dozens of hours each month due to the ineffective learning strategy.
Better make sure that your vocabulary learning strategy is not based on … (drum roll)
Passive Rehearsal Through Repetition
The typical vocabulary learning routine goes more or less like this – you encounter a word you don’t know, you translate it and place it in a notebook, or even better – in one of SR programmes like ANKI.
The deep processing is the level of activity devoted to processing new information. The more effort you put into processing new information, the better the chance to remember it. Each new association is a new “mental hook” which you can attach to a piece of information. Such associations create a rich web of connections which makes later retrieval much easier.
The associations are even more important as the length of the words increases. It’s pure logic, isn’t it? It’s easier to remember “schnell” in German than “die Urheberrechtsverletzung” (copyright violation).
This phenomenon is known as the wordlength effect. Longer words take longer to rehearse (duh).
The studies of phonological memory span conducted by Baddeley and colleagues estimated that the average person’s phonological loop can retain approximately 2 seconds’ worth of speech (Baddeley, Thomson, & Buchanan, 1975).
DIY – How To Deep-Process Your Vocabulary
With some practice and a little bit of imagination, it’s not that difficult to do. Let’s start with some basic facts – you have 5 basic representational systems.
Basic representational systems:
As you can see, you have a wide array of, let’s call them, “sensory” tools to deep-process the vocabulary you learn. Compared to that, passive rehearsal of words seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?
Treat these systems as your point of reference. Now, onward to the example!
Let’s assume that you want to memorize the Spanish word for “to joke”.
We have already established that saying the translation of this word in your mind is a waste of time.
Here is what you can do instead:
Say this word out loud!
It’s ridiculously easy but also quite effective. Uttering words out loud combines both auditory andkinesthetic stimuli.
Of course, you don’t have to stop here. Why not sing the word with the voice of Michael Jackson or Louis Armstrong?! Sure, maybe they will lock you up in an asylum. But at least you’ll be the only patient with such an impressive vocabulary!
Create a picture of the word
You can imagine it. Although it is much better to find some pictures on the Internet. Let’s say, that you google “to joke” and find the following picture which you really like:
Break down the word into smaller, familiar parts
Rarely will you find a word which doesn’t contain any familiar words or elements? You just have to concentrate a little bit to notice them! Let’s write down familiar parts of this word:
– BROmear (bro, you jokin’ or what?)
– broMEar – give me another joke!
– EAR – bro, you are always spitting into my ear when you tell jokes!
– bROMEar – they don’t like joking in Rome
These are just some of the possible suggestions! You can also associate it with:
If you want, you can always additionally associate a given word with a smell or taste. I rarely do it, since such associations are usually much weaker than the ones previously mentioned.
The Final Effect
This is how a card in ANKI looks like for this word. With the right associations, it’s incredibly hard to forget the vocabulary learned this way. Just remember not to overdo it! Try not to spend more than 5 minutes per word.
It seems like a lot of time, but considering the potential benefit of memorizing every word after the first try, I would say that it is well worth the time investment!
Question for you – have you ever deep-processed the vocabulary you learn?
How often have you wondered how the brain processes sound? After all, that is what contributes to effective listening skills. Not that often. I guess. Why would you?
I know I didn’t.
At least, until I have stumbled across the research of Dr. Emili Balaguer-Ballester and her colleague Andrew Rupp of Heidelberg from Bournemouth University’s (BU). Their goal was to answer the following question…
What Affects How We Hear?
Do we hear sounds as they are, or do our expectations about what we are going to hear instantaneously shape the way sound is processed?
Through the use of computational neuroscience models, Dr. Balaguer-Ballester and his team intend to map the way that the brain processes sound. Here is the most interesting conclusion they have come to:
“Almost 80% of connections between central and pre-cortical areas during sound processing seem to be top-down i.e. from the brain to the auditory peripheral system and not bottom-up, which is perhaps unexpected,” he explains. “As sound comes from an external stimulus, it would be fair to assume that most of our processing occurs from what we hear, but that is apparently not the case. What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself.” – Dr Balaguer-Ballester
This is backed up by the fact that it takes hundreds of milliseconds for sound to be processed along the neurons from the ear to the brain, which does not explain how we can immediately recognize the sex of a speaker or identifying a melody after just a few milliseconds
More information: “Understanding Pitch Perception as a Hierarchical Process with Top-Down Modulation.” PLoS Comput Biol 5(3): e1000301 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000301
Actually, it’s quite likely that you have already fallen victim to this phenomenon! It has happened to me dozens of time. Especially after a longer session of speaking some foreign language. I’m sure you KNOW the feeling!
Your brain switches into the “X language” mode. Suddenly, you hear some voices outside the window. Why the hell are they speaking Swedish?!!! Especially in Poland?! And why can’t I understand what they are talking about? What kind of dialect is it?!
Oh, wait. It’s not Swedish. It’s Polish. Damn you brain! Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me 60 times, I’m an idiot!
Possible Explanation Of This Phenomenon
It seems that the most plausible explanation is as follows – the brain is all about expectations and context. Have you ever noticed that when you learn something in one context, like the school, it becomes difficult to recall when that context shifts?
This is because learning depends heavily on how and where you do it: it depends on who is there, what is around you and how you learn.
It turns out that in the long-term people learn information best when they are exposed to it in different ways or different contexts. When learning is highly context-dependent, it doesn’t transfer well or stick as well over the years.
Just browse. You don’t have to learn any words nor do you have to memorize them.
If you know in the advance what the programme/audition/episode is about, pay special attention to the vocabulary which might appear there. That is pure logic – it’s unlikely that you’ll need to know the names of herbs if you intend to watch an action movie.
Of course, the best possible dictionary which you might use for this purpose is a pocket dictionary. It’s very handy and it contains the most frequently used words and sentences.
So far this technique has been working really great for me! If you test it, make sure to let me know about the results!
2) Read the transcription before listening
It’s not always possible to do so. But there are some listening materials which facilitate this approach. For example podcasts or language programmes for beginners.
You can also read lyrics of the song before listening to it. This method is much more effective than just trying to figure out what your favorite artist is singing about. It’s also so much better than the awkward muttering “mmmnaaaahh” when you forget the lyrics.
That’s also a guarantee that you won’t butcher the song with the stuff you THINK you hear (read more abouteffective listening here)
3) Read the general outline of the thing you’re going to listen to
Watching TV series in original? Read an episode description beforehand! This way, you will know (more or less) what to expect. And as you have learned so far – it’s all about what your brain expects to hear!
Just a word of warning! I’m sure you have heard many times the following piece of advice – watch movies / TV series with subtitles. This is the utter BS.
The ROTI (return on time investment) from this method is incredibly low. You’ll better off just listening to a random radio audition.
Whether you like it or not, our brains are NOT able to simultaneously follow the images, subtitles, sounds and a plot.
What’s more, following this piece of advice gives you the illusory feeling of understanding.
You usually concentrate on reading subtitles and start feeling that you understand most of the things happening on the screen. The bitter disappointment comes later when you try to re-watch the same thing without subtitles.
You have no damn idea what these funny figures on the screen babble about!
Why do I sound so sure? Because I’ve been there! Luckily, I came to my senses pretty quickly and realized that this method is, let’s not be afraid to use this word, absolutely useless.
One thing you should remember after reading this article is this:
What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself
If you want to acquire listening skills and get the most out of every minute of listening, you should always try to get familiar with the material you are going to listen to.
Do you have any other ideas how this fact might help others to improve their listening skills? Let us all know!
It would be beautiful if you could always just sit and learn, wouldn’t it be? Unfortunately, as you know, it doesn’t work this way. It seems as if the time is never right. And even when you sit down, you often don’t know where to start. Or what to start with.
If you find yourself in this description, why not give yourself a rule or two to make your life easier? And the process of learning more automatic! Having rules will get you learning and keep you learning. You won’t be doomed anymore to ask yourself the ultimate question, “What do I do now?”.
What Is A Rule?
Just to be sure that we get the foundations right, I would like to quote definitions of both “a goal” and “a rule”. I know it sounds silly but I have had my fair share of situations when someone tried to convince me that they are “basically the same”
Once again, the philosophy is simple and actionable. It can also be measured easily by comparing the number of projects which were successfully concluded when you used this rule.
Of course, you have to compare the number of successes within a given period of time with a number of successes within a comparable period of time when you didn’t use this rule.
It can be a strategy which helps you to deal with your finances
IFI want to spend some money thenI’ll make sure that it costs less than 15% of all my financial resources
This is a personal example. Whenever I make a financial decision, I double-check if I don’t spend more than 15% of the money I have. If the answer is positive, it simply means that I can’t afford it.
The rule is so deeply ingrained in my decision-making process, that very often I don’t even think about it! And I’m more than sure that these rules have saved me from dozens of stupid financial decisions.
Otherwise, I would be buying myself a vibrating rubber finger that massages your gums. Yep, this is a real thing.
What Rules Are The Best?
The best rules tend to meet the following three criteria. They are:
The acronym SAMcan help you to memorize these qualities.
Why this “trinity”?
Firstly, you have to be sure that the rules you have chosen can be easily implemented into your learning process. Complicate them too much and after a couple of attempts you’ll become bitterly discouraged and will drop them.
Secondly, if you don’t measure in some way how these rules affect your learning, how will you know if they are worth anything?
How To Use Rules In Your Learning?
Picture by: Allan Ajifo
To use the rules effectively, you have to know what problems you have.
Once you find it, you can come up with a specific rule to aid your learning.
2) Choose a rule
Let’s choose a quite common language learning problem, i.e. “I don’t know which resources to use”.
What kind of rules could you use to solve it?
My take on this would be to separate language learning competences. Then I would attribute a specific rule to each of the competences I care about.
a) IF I practise listening then I’ll use X radio station
b) IF I want to improve my vocabulary then I’ll write down the words from a dictionary and read something
c) IF I want to read something then I’ll read X newspaper
3) Track your results
As I have mentioned before, you have totrack your (potential) progressto know whether the rule is good enough to keep it. After checking data, there is just one more step to take.
4) Decide whether to stick to the rule or replace it
Not much more to add here. This is self-explanatory 🙂
Personal Example – How I Juggle 8 Languages Using Rules
Believe me, if I didn’t have rules to guide my studying process, learning languages would be a living hell. I would throw myself from one language into another. Without any clue what I’m actually doing. Luckily, I have experimented a little bit and discovered what works for me.
As a disclaimer, I must add that I use this rule for 4 languages. The other ones I either use regularly or teach.
a) One week – learn Russian and French
b) Every second week – learn Czech and Spanish
Of course, this is a simplified version but it helps me to go through the weeks hassle-free.
How Will Rules Change Your Life?
As you can see, using rules in your learning and life can be surprisingly easy! And extremely beneficial. However, beware of one weird misconception – some say that having rules makes your life miserable and strips it of spontaneity.
Of course, that’s a lie. Using rules doesn’t mean that you will become a soulless robot eating nothing but bolts and screws for breakfast. Treat them like walking with a compass and map. You wouldn’t say that these are stupid, right?
Now…think about the rules which you might use in your (language) learning or life. How can they improve your life?
If you had asked me a few months ago how I feel about Facebook, I would have said that it’s probably the biggest time-eater in the world. However, within the last few weeks, I changed my mind quite drastically.
Believe it or not, but know I think it’s one of the best language learning tools in the world. Make yourself comfortable my friend – you’re in for the story.
Facebook, or There and Back Again
There So About 4 years ago I was a full-blown Facebook junkie. I had to get my fix at least a few times a day. My hands would shake if I couldn’t. “I need more cat picture! I need more updates from friends! I need more of everything. Gimme! Arghhh!” So yeah, it was bad.
After some pondering and a lot of hesitation, I finally deleted it. The last straw for me was seeing a picture of my friend’s dinner with the following comment – “Yum, yum”.
I was a broken man. Rehab was excruciatingly hard for first 3 weeks. But soon thereafter my world became more peaceful. I felt less anxious and overwhelmed. The sun was shining brighter. And so on.
Being a relative optimist, I decided to look at the bright side of my Facebook presence. I started participating in the language groups. I also refreshed contacts with some of the old friends.
Again In The Comfort Zone
At about the same time I was bothered by the fact that I don’t read enough. In other languages that is. I tallied up that per average I read between 300-1000 pages per week.
Sadly, over 95% of all the things I read is in English. What a wasted opportunity! I could be learning so many other languages if only I started reading in them. I knew that it had to change.
So I started with the question.
Why am I reading so much in English?
The answer came right away – because it’s convenient. Because it’s so damn convenient. I’ve subscribed to newsletters of over 15 websites. All in English. They come straight to my e-mail box. No effort whatsoever is required from my side.
What’s more, I read English books because
a) there are more of them than in any other language I know
b) because I got stuck in my comfort zone
Does it ring a bell? Do you find yourself consuming most of the media in just one language? Then read on!
I knew that the first thing I had to do was to minimize the required amount of energy to take action.
Minimizing The Energy Required To Take Action
Let’s say that you want to take up running.
You promise yourself that you’ll do it 3-4 times per week for at least 20 minutes (a great example of a SMART goal!
Noble thought, my friend! However, it seems that no matter what you do, you can’t seem to get a grip on yourself. Every morning you have to look at yourself in the mirror with disappointment in your eyes.
You really do want to do it. It’s no lie. But you’re tired. Or it’s too cold. Or can’t find your shoes. Or don’t know where you’d like to run. There are too many decisions you have to make before you go out for a run. That’s why it’s so hard to get off your butt.
Now imagine a different situation. This time, you’ve planned all the details beforehand.
936 million daily active users on average (for March 2015)
It means that most of us use it almost every day. That, in its turn, means that you have already developed a habit of using it. For many of us, it’s almost like an addiction.
over 30 million companies with active pages
Posts and news in hundreds of languages are at your fingertips!
Timeline provides you with a stream of never-ending pictures and posts. The only thing you have to do is scroll down.
All these things make FB a perfect tool for language learning!
Now, the question is – how to do it?
Unfollow Most Of Your Contacts On FB
“Give me a break, do I really have to?!”
Of course, you don’t have to. I haven’t unfollowed ALL my friends. But I was merciless in weeding out people who appear on my Timeline. I didn’t do it randomly. It was a process aided by the following questions:
Am I interested in a life of this person?
Do I believe this person has something interesting to say?
I unfollowed every person who didn’t fit the criteria. In fact, I unfollowed about 98% of people who are among my friends.
It was hard – believe me. There is always this treacherous voice at the back of my head. “Come on! Don’t you wanna know what’s going on in X’s life?!” Yes, the voice of the ever convincing Fear Of Missing Out.
“Maybe it’s right. Maybe I’ll miss something important? What if the Ebola Zombies invade Europe and I won’t know it!”
What if …x?! What if …Y?
That’s a risk you and I have to take. The truth is that you are behind the life’s wheel and you’re choosing the direction. Do you really want to let all that fluff and bullcrap into your life? How many cat pictures can you watch?
Do you really care how somebody’s baby looks like if you haven’t even called this person in a few years?
Be brutally honest with yourself and get down to work.
What If I Can’t Do It?
Ok, maybe you’re not ready yet. I don’t blame you. I know it was damn hard for me.
Luckily, there is the option no 2.
Register a new FaceBook account and use it exclusively for language learning. Although, it’s better to use your main FB account. You might be asking yourself now – why all the effort?
What’s the next step”?
Start Liking And Following Pages!
By now your Timeline should look, more or less, like a wasteland. From now on, all the pages you like will start appearing on your main FB page!
Here are some ideas of the pages you might want to follow if nothing comes to your mind at the moment.
All the biggest newspapers have their FB pages. Choose the ones you’re interested in and follow them! They update their pages many times per day.
They will provide your Timeline with an ongoing flood of news.
Most popular FB pages in …
I like this method since usually, the biggest pages are also the ones which care deeply about the quality of posts they share. Google “most popular FB pages in x (e.g. Russia, Turkey)” to find them.
Random pages of interest
Use the FB search field and try to type in words like “jokes”, “productivity”. Of course in your target language!
This way your Timeline will be full of posts of all kinds.
This way, you’ll make sure that the language you take in is diversified enough to guarantee you continuous growth!
Here is a small snippet of my 2nd FB account which I use for reading French and Russian news.
The Final Touch
You have come the long way, congratulations! There is just one more thing you can do to get the most out of using FB.
Change the default language settings to any language you’re learning. It’ll only be weird for a couple of days. After that, all the writings and words become normal, or even boring.
What’s more, you’ll see them many times per week. Thanks to this, you’ll learn them in no time!
Now, I have a question for you – have you ever tried to change the default language settings of programmes and/or devices you use to learn a new language?
I know, I know. The mere word “cursing” causes knee-jerking of all of those pure at heart. And that’s why I have to warn you before you move further into the text.
The article contains quite a bit of profanities/obscenities/vulgarisms/expletives. So to say it briefly – it’s not for the faint-hearted.
But to be clear – I have no intention of shocking anyone. But I do believe that cursing might be a VERY useful tool for memory improvement if used the right way. So approach everything you’re about to read with the open mind.
Ok, you have been warned.
Let’s start with the fun fact. Do you know that “fuck” and “shit” are among the 75 most often spoken words in American English? That’s right. Obscene language seems to be an inseparable and indispensable part of every language (Foote & Woodward, 1973).
Not shockingly, according to the Association for Psychological Science, an average person in United Stated utters about 80-90 swear words per day. It amounts to even 3,4 % of all the words used daily. That’s why it’s hard to achieve full fluency without knowing at least a couple of swear words.
What’s amazing, in almost every country, there are individuals who have taken it to the extreme. They seem to communicate only with help of swear words and grunting! But let’s treat them as a separate case.
Memorize More Words – Original Approach To Swearing
As an anecdote, I can tell you about my good friend from Russia (and an amazing polyglot). He has a very interesting approach to vulgarities of all kinds. Every time when he wants to start learning some language or get the taste of it, he starts with swear words.
If I’m not mistaken, currently he can swear in over 20 languages. He might not be able to quote Shakespeare in Greek but he surely can tell you to “go f**k yourself” in this language.
Once, he taught me to swear in Russian to such a degree that my conversational partner at the time was blushing like a nun at a dildo exhibition! What a great guy!
Anyway, that goes without saying that obscene language is avoided and treated as a taboo. It’s nowhere to be found as a part of any language learning curriculum. Even though it is an important element of everyday speech.
Although, it’s hard to blame anyone for this state of affairs. Probably not that many people would be willing to attend the school where they would have to repeat after teacher “f*ck you!”.
So it seems that dirty language is doomed to stay in the shadows of every language learning curriculum. But that’s good news. The forbidden fruit always grabs your attention.
Because such a language is characterized by EXTREMELY intense emotions. And exactly these emotions can help you to memorize new vocabulary much faster than before.
Why You Should Learn How To Swear In Your Target Language
1) So you don’t make silly (and inappropriate) mistakes.
The line between saying the word you intend to say and the one you really utter might be very thin.
My colleague at my previous, corporate work had to present some data in front of our English supervisors. She tried to be very professional and business-like. But she couldn’t understand why the managers were chuckling all the time.
Of course, not ALL the time. It only happened when she was saying the word “account”. Or at least she thought that she was saying it. In fact, what managers could hear was “a c*nt”.
Believe me, they were very composed considering the fact that every 2 min my colleague was saying something along the lines – “a c*nt of one of the customers had to be closed/opened/verified”.
2) It facilitates communication (Black et al., 1985; Hall, Nagy, & Linn,1984).
Think about it. It would be weird if every time you bumped your toe against the cupboard, you said “oh, it hurts, and I’m so angry right now!” instead of hearty “that motherf*cker!”.
Intense feelings can be expressed and emphasized much more effectively with help of swearing.
What’s important for us, the amygdala is also connected to the memory function part of the brain.
The bad news is that the repetition decreases its activity. The more you swear, the less active this part is. That’s why some people never seem to be bothered by such a language!
How To Use Swearing In Language Learning
Below, you can find three techniques which I use quite frequently.
Learn swear words and dirty expressions from your target language
I know – duh. But I rush to explain why. Many cuss words and dirty expressions contain every-day words. Once you realize this, you’ll be able to fish them out and memorize them almost instantaneously.
I’ll give you just one example so you get a general idea since I feel weird enough writing this article!
Imagine that you just started learning English and you come across the following phrase – “go f*ck yourself”. Once somebody explains its meaning to you, it’ll be hard to forget it. And besides the omnipresent “f*ck” you learn another useful word “go”.
If you are wondering, where you can learn some frequently used curse words in your target language, read on.
Translate swear words / dirty expressions from your native tongue into your target language
You already know them. You are also aware of the emotions which are associated with them. Of course, most of the time such translations won’t make much sense. However, that’s beside the point. This technique is only meant to help you learn new words with bigger ease.
“I will tear you a new a**hole” translated into any language will almost certainly sound absurd. But you will learn how to say “tear” in your target language!
Get creative and abuse your virtual opponent
This technique allows you to vent and learn at the same time! Imagine the person you dislike/hate/ despise sitting right in front of you. How would you abuse him/her in a creative way? You don’t even need to use a very vulgar language!
Monty Python serves as a great example.
“I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster!”. You get the idea.
Basically, you can take any two words from your target language and try to turn them into a creative insult.
Write the short story in your target language
Think about some unpleasant situation and try to write a short story about. Throw in an obscene word and spicy comparisons every now and then.
“The night was dark as a truckload of a**holes when I …”.
The best website of this kind which you will find. It contains swear words from dozens upon dozens of languages. What’s more, it also has a voting system to make sure that the listed swear words are in use.
They even have “a word of the day” if you needed more reasons to visit this website!
Not as good as the previous website but you still might find it useful. It contains swear words from over 40 languages. The number of obscene expressions is usually quite small but their translations are very reliable.
Be Careful With Swearing
Finally, as a word of caution – don’t try to use swear words in your target language without consulting them with native speakers.
As language learners, we usually lack a significant part of the emotional programming necessary to feel the emotion behind the words, how they affect others, and the proper context to use them.
We weren’t conditioned from a very young age to feel their emotional effect. And that’s why better tread lightly my friend. And good luck!
There are just a few things in this world which make me angry and sad at the same time. But the one that takes the cake is reading almost every month for the past few years that soon, oh so very soon, learning languages will become obsolete.
Sure, it is pointless. Why bother? The technology will solve the problem of interlingual communication. So better not waste your time. You’ll be better-off watching re-runs of The Kardashians.
How many people have given up even before they started? Without even realizing that many, oh so many, years will pass before any translation software or magical devices will be able to do a half-decent job.
But is it really only about communication? Have you ever wondered what other benefits language learning has to offer?
The following list includes 80 benefits of language learning. Some obvious, some surprising. I’ve been hand-picking them for many months from different scientific sources.
The list is a work in progress. I’ll keep on updating it every couple of months. Feel free to write to me if you spot somewhere some benefit which is not on the list.
It’s also worth noting that there is a large body of research to confirm each of these benefits. Although, I usually quote results of just one or two studies to keep this list more concise.
Purpose Of The List
The main purpose of this list is to make you realize how beneficial language learning is. I hope that such knowledge will help to pull you through all language-learning plateaus.
What’s more, I also hope that it will help you to inspire others to pursue language learning. Your children, spouse, parents. It’s never too late.
Treat is a language-learning manifesto. Print it, hang it on the wall. And every time you feel like giving up, hug your dictionary and stare at this list for a couple of minutes.
Amazing Benefits of Language Learning
If you learn a foreign language…
1. Your Brain Will Grow
Johan Martensson’s research shows that after three months of studying a foreign language, learners’ brains grew in four places: the hippocampus, middle frontal gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus (gyri are ridges on the cerebral cortex).
What happens when you learn languages for more than 3 months and you’re serious about it?
The right hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus were structurally more malleable in interpreters acquiring higher proficiency in the foreign language. Interpreters struggling relatively more to master the language displayed larger gray matter increases in the middle frontal gyrus
According to research conducted by Julia Morales of Spain’s Granada University, children who learn a second language are able to recall memories better than monolinguals, or speakers of just one language.
When asked to complete memory-based tasks, Morales and her team found that those who had knowledge of multiple languages worked both faster and more accurately.
The young participants who spoke a second language had a clear advantage in working memory. Their brains worked faster, pulling information and identifying problems in a more logical fashion.
When your brain is put through its paces and forced to recall specific words in multiple languages, it develops strength in the areas responsible for storing and retrieving information (read more about improving your short-term memory)
Do you remember how hard listening was at the beginning of the language journey? Pure nightmare! And since the brain has to work really hard to distinguish between different types of sounds in different languages, being bilingual leads to improved listening skills (Krizman et al., 2012).
Further references: Lapkin, et al 1990, Ratte 1968.
4. You Will Have Higher Verbal and Non-verbal Intelligence
In 1962, Peal and Lambert published a study where they found that people who are at least conversationally fluent in more than one language consistently beat monolinguals on tests of verbal and nonverbal intelligence.
Bilinguals showed significant advantage especially in non-verbal tests that required more mental flexibility.
References: Peal E., Lambert M. (1962). “The relation of bilingualism to intelligence”.Psychological Monographs75(546): 1–23.
5. Your Attention Span Will Improve
Photo by Lex Mckee
A study from 2010 shows that bilinguals have stronger control over their attention and are more capable of limiting distractions.
When asked to concentrate on a task, the study’s bilingual participants showed an increased ability to tune out distractions and concentrate on the given task.
They were also better equipped to interpret the work before them, eliminating unnecessary information and working on only what was essential.
Great news everyone! The recent evidence suggests a positive impact of bilingualism on cognition.
So what exactly does it mean?
The research found that individuals who speak two or more languages, regardless of their education level, gender or occupation, experience the onset of Alzheimer’s, on average, 4 1/2 years later than monolingual subjects did.
What’s more, even people who acquired the second language in adulthood can enjoy this benefit!
I’m not a fan of multitasking since it’s harmful to your productivity.
However, according to research conducted by Brian Gold, learning a language increases brain flexibility, making it easy to switch tasks in just seconds. Study participants were better at adapting and were able to handle unexpected situations much better than monolinguals.
That’s great. But the real question is – why were they better?
The plausible explanation is that when we learn a new language, we frequently jump between our familiar first language and the new one, making connections to help us retain what we’re learning.
This linguistic workout activates different areas of our brain. The more we switch between languages, the more those brain zones become accustomed to working. Once they’ve become accustomed to this type of “workout,” those same areas start helping to switch between tasks beyond language.
Learning a foreign language improves not only your ability to solve problems and to think more logically. It can also increase your creativity, according to Kathryn Bamford and Donald Mizokawa’s research.
Early language study forces you to reach for alternate words when you can’t quite remember the original one you wanted to use and makes you experiment with new words and phrases.
It improves your skills in divergent thinking, which is the ability to identify multiple solutions to a single problem.
Language learners also show greater cognitive flexibility (Hakuta 1986) and are better at figural creativity (Landry 1973).
It sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But before we move on, let’s clarify what executive functions are:
Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) – is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution. – Wikipedia
The body of research has shown that bilingual individuals are better at such processes; suggesting an interaction between being bilingual and executive functions.
As Anne-Catherine Nicolay and Martine Poncelet, a pair of scientists from Belgium, discovered in their research, learning a language improves individuals’ alertness, auditory attention, divided attention, and mental flexibility. The more you immerse yourself in the new language, the more you hone your executive functions.
In another study, Bialystok gave study subjects a non-linguistic card-sorting task that required flexibility in problem-solving, filtering irrelevant information, as well as recognizing the constancy of some variables in the face of changes in the rules.
Bilingual children significantly outperformed their monolingual peers in this task, suggesting the early development of inhibitory function that aids solving problems that require the ability to selectively focus attention.
10. You Will Be Better At Problem Solving (Even At Maths!)
In one study, bilingual children were presented with the problems of both mathematical (arranging two sets of bottle caps to be equal according to instruction) and non-mathematical nature (a common household problem represented in pictures) and were asked to provide solutions.
They were rated on scales of creativity, flexibility, and originality. The results confirmed that the bilingual children were more creative in their problem solving than their monolingual peers.
One explanation for this could be bilinguals’ increased metalinguistic awareness, which creates a form of thinking that is more open and objective, resulting in increased awareness and flexibility.
If you want to create a crazy brainiac, teaching your child another language is a way to go!
According to new research, babies exposed to two languages display better learning andmemory skills compared to their monolingual peers.
The study was conducted in Singapore and was the result of the collaboration between scientists and hospitals. Altogether, the study included 114 6 month-old infants – about half of whom had been exposed to two languages from birth.
The study found that when repeatedly shown the same image, bilingual babies recognized familiar images quicker and paid more attention to novel images – demonstrating tendencies which have strong links to higher IQ later in life.
Amazingly, children seem to absorb (even) multiple languages effortlessly.
“The power to learn a language is so great in the young child that it doesn’t seem to matter how many languages you seem to throw their way…They can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. Children just have this capacity. Their brain is ripe to do this…there doesn’t seem to be any detriment to….develop[ing] several languages at the same time” according to Dr. Susan Curtiss, UCLA Linguistics professor.
Past studies have shown that babies who rapidly get bored with a familiar image demonstrated higher cognition and language ability later on as children (Bialystok & Hakuta 1994; Fuchsen 1989).
A preference for novelty is also linked with higher IQs and better scores in vocabulary tests during pre-school and school-going years.
How many monolingual speakers know what adjectives or gerunds are? Not many. It’s natural. They simply don’t need such knowledge. However, learning a second language draws your attention to the abstract rules and structure of language, thus makes you better at your first language.
Research suggests that foreign language study “enhances children’s understanding of how language itself works and their ability to manipulate language in the service of thinking and problem-solving.” (Cummins 1981).
It sounds like a cliche but let’s say it out loud – your chances of employment in today’s economy are much greater for you than for those who speak only one language.
Multilingual employees are able to communicate and interact within multiple communities. With the rise of technology which enables the global communication, such an ability becomes more and more valuable.
What’s more, knowledge of a foreign language conveys, among others, that you’re an intelligent, disciplined and motivated person.
Even if being bilingual is not completely necessary in your field, being fluent in another language gives you a competitive edge over your monolingual competitors.
Of course, feeling intuitively that the above is true is one thing, but what about cold hard facts?
In a survey of 581 alumni of The American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona, most graduated stated that they had gained a competitive advantage from their knowledge of foreign languages and other cultures.
They said that not only was language study often a decisive factor in hiring decisions and in enhancing their career paths, but it also provided personal fulfillment, mental discipline, and cultural enlightenment. (Grosse 2004)
15. You Will Enhance Your Confidence and Sense of Achievement
Confidence always increases when a new skill is mastered. Learning a foreign language is no different. It boosts your self-confidence and makes you feel this nice, warm feeling inside.
Knowing a language also makes you more interesting and let’s face it – who doesn’t want to be more interesting?
Evidence from several studies shows language students to have a significantly higher self-concept than do non-language students. (Masciantonio 1977, Saunders 1998, Andrade, et al. 1989).
16. You Will Score Higher On Standardized Tests
Photo by Dennis Skley
Bilingual students consistently score higher on standardized tests in comparison with their monolingual peers, especially in the areas of math, reading and vocabulary.
How much better are their results?
Results from the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test ) show that students who completed at least four years of foreign-language study scored more than 100 points higher on each section of the SAT than monolingual students. (College Board 2004)
Even third-graders who had received 15 minutes of conversational French lessons daily for a year had statistically higher SAT scores than their peers who had not received French classes. (Lopata 1963)
17. You Will Think Faster
In a small study, bilingual people were about a half second faster than monolinguals (3.5 versus 4 seconds) at executing novel instructions such as “add 1 to x, divide y by 2, and sum the results.”
Andrea Stocco and Chantel S. Prat of the University of Washington who conducted the research say the findings are in line with previous studies showing that bilingual children show superior performance on non-linguistic tasks.
References: Stocco, A., Yamasaki, B. L., Natalenko, R., & Prat, C. S. “Bilingual brain training: A neurobiological framework of how bilingual experience improves executive function.” International Journal of Bilingualism.
18. You Will Have Better Job Security
Mastering a language is a skill which requires a lot of time, discipline and persistence. Many people start learning and give up half-way.
That’s why employees who have knowledge of foreign language(s) are much harder to replace. Of course, the rarer and /or more difficult the language, the stronger your leverage.
19. You Will Earn More
It comes as no surprise that the knowledge of languages can add a little something to your salary. However, the amount you can get varies significantly from country to country.
So how does it look like for the citizens of the United States?
Albert Saiz, the MIT economist who calculated the 2% premium, found quite different premiums for different languages: just 1.5% for Spanish, 2.3% for French and 3.8% for German. This translates into big differences in the language account: your Spanish is worth $51,000, but French, $77,000, and German, $128,000. Humans are famously bad at weighting the future against the present, but if you dangled even a post-dated $128,000 cheque in front of the average 14-year-old, Goethe and Schiller would be hotter than Facebook. – (www.economist.com)
In the UK, employees who know a foreign language earn an extra £3,000 a year – a total of £145,000 over their lifetime
Companies are prepared to pay workers earning the national average of £25,818 as much as 12% more if they speak or learn a foreign language. For higher earners, the figures are even more startling.
Those earning £45,000 could see a potential cash boost of 20%, amounting to an extra £9,000 a year or £423,000 over a lifetime. – (www.kwintessential.co.uk)
As you can see, knowing a foreign language can be certainly profitable. But please bear in mind that people who know 2 foreign languages earn much more and the reports typically don’t take rare languages into consideration.
20. You Will Enjoy Increased Mobility
There are many reasons why people leave their homeland and move to other places. Some look for better life, other try to find political freedom, love or religious tolerance.
Whatever the reasons might be, knowing foreign languages significantly increases your mobility by removing language barriers and increasing the chances of employment.
What’s more, a stay abroad can positively influence your employability even if you come back to your motherland.
The risk of long-term unemployment after graduation was 50% lower for mobile students than for non-mobile students. Even five years after graduation, the unemployment rate of mobile students was still 23% lower. Also 50% fewer mobile students (2%) than non-mobile students (4%) needed more than 12 months to find their first job. – The Erasmus Impact Study
The Principle of Priority states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. – Steven Pressfield
Learning a foreign language is one of the most complicated skills out there which one can master. It’s not your typical “to-do list” which usually consists of just a few, simple tasks. To arrive at your final destination (i.e. mastering a language) you need to learn how to prioritize effectively.
Every language learner faces dozens of decisions each day – what should I learn? When to do it? Should it be reading? If yes, what should I read? And so on.
The constant flood of problems you face every day, helps you to become an efficient learner who knows what is important and what is not.
22. You Will Make New Friends For Life
Photo by Sanja Gjenero
Arguably, this is one of the most phenomenal benefits of learning a new language. Your language skills tear down all communication barriers in the world. In the era of the internet, you can find friends in every corner of the world. Africa, Asia, New Zealand are just a few clicks away.
23. Your Memory Retrieval Will Improve
Research at the intersection of cognitive science and education has shown that retrieval improves learning in significant ways. Each act of retrieval changes your knowledge, improving the ability to retrieve knowledge again in the future.
References: Nunes, L. D., & Karpicke, J. D. (in press). “Retrieval-based learning: Research at the interface between cognitive science and education”.
24. You Will Become a Better Decision-maker
According to a new study, multilingual speakers are more resistant to conditioning and framing techniques, making them less likely to be swayed by such language in advertisements or political campaign speeches.
It seems that foreign language speakers are more sensitive and observant when it comes to the words they hear and read.
According to new research, the ability to learn a second language may depend less on linguistic skills and more on the ability to recognize patterns.
In the said study, Frost and colleagues measured how well American students in an overseas program picked up on the structure of words and sounds in Hebrew. The students were tested once in the first semester and again in the second semester.
The results showed a high positive correlation between recognizing patterns in the shapes and learning another language.
“These new results suggest that learning a second language is determined to a large extent by an individual ability that is not at all linguistic,” says Ram Frost of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who conducted the study.
“It’s surprising that a short 15-minute test involving the perception of visual shapes could predict to such a large extent which of the students who came to study Hebrew would finish the year with a better grasp of the language,” says Frost.
The findings could have broader implications beyond language learning.
“This finding points to the possibility that a unified and universal principle of statistical learning can quantitatively explain a wide range of cognitive processes across domains, whether they are linguistic or non-linguistic,” concluded the researchers.
Researchers from Spain and Germany found that the process of learning a language and acquiring a wider vocabulary has the effect of stimulating the same part of the brain as having sex or eating chocolate.
Language learning triggers a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum, a pleasure center that is activated when people are involved in activities such as sex, drugs, gambling or eating sugary foods.
References: Pablo Ripollés, Josep Marco-Pallarés, Ulrike Hielscher, Anna Mestres-Missé, Claus Tempelmann, Hans-Jochen Heinze, Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells, Toemme Noesselt. “The Role of Reward in Word Learning and Its Implications for Language Acquisition”.
27. You Will Increase Your General Vocabulary
The results of the recent study showed that bilingualism is highly correlated with the breadth of vocabulary knowledge and reading skill.
In other words, bilingual participants have a larger size of vocabulary knowledge and they enjoy better word reading skill.
References: Zohreh Kassaian, Saeedeh Esmae’li (2011). “The Effect of Bilingualism on L3 Breadth of Vocabulary Knowledge and Word Reading Skill”.
28. You’ll Enjoy Other Cultures Much Better
Photo by Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs.
That’s right. By learning a new language you will be able to gain insights into a different culture, access and enjoy the different entertainment, arts, and customs that have developed in different regions over the centuries.
You won’t have to be forced anymore to listen to movies with mediocre dubbing. No more awkward mumbling while singing songs of your favorite Japanese band!
29. You Will Be A More Aware Spender
I must admit that I didn’t expect that language learning can have such a side-effect. But hey! Would science lie?
Anyway, speakers of multiple languages have also been shown to be more self-aware spenders, perceiving “hypothetical” and “real” money (the perceived difference between money on a credit card and money in cold, hard cash) more similarly than monolinguals.
One of the implications of the study, according to its authors is that “people who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions, as a result of reduced myopic loss aversion.”
References: Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An (2012). “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases”.
30. You Will Increase Information Exchange and Flow Of Ideas
If you think English is enough to get all the information from your area of expertise, you just went full retard. Never go full retard.
Knowledge of languages improves international information exchange thus contributing to various improvements and developments at national, regional and local level.
Speaking other foreign languages enables you to tap into the vast ocean of information which was not previously available and to pass it on to others.
31. You Will Increase Your Global (political) Awareness & Understanding
While studying another language, you not only learn how to communicate in that language, you also get to know a lot about the country, the culture, and the people. As you progress, you begin to better understand and sympathize with the people who speak the language.
Discovering their history, you experience their pain, share their victories. You begin to see the world through their eyes. And then the magic happens – you create a connection between your own culture and language to theirs and you develop a deeper understanding of your own language and culture.
That often makes you more aware and appreciative of the unique qualities within your own language, people, and culture.
32. You Will Learn Other Languages Faster
I know. Learning your first foreign language is always hard. You have no plan. You have no idea what you’re doing and where you’re going.
However, mastering one language teaches you the mechanics and structure behind any language (ok, maybe except Basque). That makes learning another language much easier!
33. It Will Be Easier To Find A Spouse
Loneliness sucks. But thanks to your awesome language skills you might be able to drastically increase your options pool.
You will gain an instant access to millions of new people who might be your potential partner. Even ordinary holidays might turn into a love story!
34. You Will Learn Consistency and Persistence
Achieving conversational skills in a language takes anywhere from 4-12 months. If you aim at native-like fluency it might take much longer.
Language learning journey is fraught with obstacles. Overcoming these adversities is what boosts your confidence and builds character. Every victory, no matter how small, makes you better equipped to handle future challenges and build consistency and persistence.
35. You Will Improve Chances of College Acceptance, Achievement and Attainment
Photo by Sigurd Decroos
The study conducted in 2011 found that students who were in rigorous programs in high school—that included three years of foreign language study—were more likely to get better grades in college and less likely to drop out. (Horn &Kojaku 2001)
Another study showed that high school seniors with two or more years of foreign language study showed significantly improved performance on achievement tests in English when compared with non-foreign language students. (Bastian 1980)
“One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody’s listening” Franklin P. Jones
You must be thinking now – is there a BAD way to talk to yourself? Of course. Believe me, It’s definitely an art. Just like basket weaving.
But seriously – we definitely take our ability to talk to ourselves for granted. I actually tried to google “talking to yourself” in some languages. The result? Usually, people are trying to make sure that they don’t suffer from schizophrenia.
Why so many bad associations?
Every time, every bloody time, when I mention to somebody that I love talking to myself out loud, they give me this weird look. They probably think that I put on my trenchcoat, get on the bus, sit near some nice, old lady and rub myself while blurting out some incomprehensible words.
That’s a grave misunderstanding. If used the right way, “self-talk” as psychologists refer to it, can be a very effective tool in your mental arsenal. It can, I kid you not, improve almost every area of your life.
So no more shameful hiding in the shadows. Embrace your inner voices and let me walk you through the advantages of self-talk!
Cognitive Benefits Of Talking To Yourself
So what does the research say about talking to yourself?
Research from the University of Michigan found that those who worked through their stress about giving a speech about their qualifications using “you” rather than “I” performed better and were less tormented by anxiety and self-doubt.
When people think of themselves as another person, “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback“, says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan
In another study, psychologists Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Daniel Swingley (University of Pennsylvania) conducted a series of experiments to discover whether talking to yourself can help you to locate lost objects.
Long story short – they established that speaking facilitated search, particularly when there was a strong association between the name and the visual target.
You see? Not only children can augment their thinking while doing some task!
Are there any other benefits other than being more likely to stay on task, staying focused better and showing improved perception capabilities?
Sure! Better memory. Think about it – when you talk out loud, you stimulate more sensory channels than when you subvocalize. You hear the sounds. What’s more, even though you may not realize it, your body feels the sound as it is conducted through your bones.
Fun fact: Bone conduction is one reason why a person’s voice sounds different to him/her when it is recorded and played back.
Last but not least, every time when you say something out loud, you engage your emotions. One of the most powerful ingredients to boost your memory.
Research is great. But experiencing something the first hand is even better.
Choose some word you’d like to memorize and shout it out angrily or with joy and afterward start laughing like a madman. I’ll be amazed if you can’t recall it a few days later.
Here’s a good example. I’m sure you remember this scene if you have seen the movie.
I hope that by this moment, you’re at least muttering to yourself!
Speaking to boost yourself and prepare for important meetings
Everybody has his favorite tricks to deal with anxiety. But the one which I find the most effective is simply preparing yourself for what’s about to come.
Have a presentation?
Stand in front of the mirror and go through your presentation as many times as it’s necessary to turn it into a brilliant performance. Who knows? Maybe you will enjoy it that much that you will join Toastmasters.
Have an interview?
Collect the list of 20-30 most frequently asked questions and rehearse the crap out of them!
Want to confront your boss about the long overdue raise?
List all the possible questions that may come up during such a conversation and prepare your answers. Doing so will put you in a much better position when push comes to shove.
And so on. You get the idea.
Proper preparation kills stress and anxiety.
Talk To Yourself To Practise Languages
What if I told you that you can actually learn a language without uttering a word to anyone else but yourself? You would probably think I’m crazy. And I certainly am. After all, I’m writing an article about talking to yourself.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I learned Swedish (B2 level) in order to get the job in less than 4 months without talking to anyone in Swedish (but myself). And while working 50+ hours per week.
Talking to yourself enables you to concentrate on your weaknesses. Such deliberate practice can significantly improve your language level.
What should I talk about with myself?
About anything you want! That’s the beauty of such practice!
All conversations are based on the “action-reaction” principle. Somebody asks you some question. You answer. And it goes on and on. That’s why, if you want to prepare yourself for conversations with, say, friends from abroad, you should list potential questions that might come up, together with answers to them. Don’t forget about taking into consideration the interests of potential conversation partners!
Of course, you don’t have to come up with all the question by yourself.
I’d like to recommend you two fantastic websites which I have been using for many years:
It’s only weird if you make it weird. You don’t have to rush to your friends to brag about this or even write an article about this (sic!). It’s just a tool to make you a better person.
It’s really perfectly normal. Do you know that computer scientists do it as well (not that it means anything!)?
Rubber duck debugging is an informal term used in software engineering for a method of debugging code. The name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck. Many other terms exist for this technique, often involving different inanimate objects.
So don’t be a weirdo and don’t feel ashamed to talk to yourself!
Other uses for self-talk
That’s right. You might use the self-talk for various things, such as:
Energizing and motivating yourself – you can definitely psych yourself up with: “Come on!” “Let’s go!” “You can do this!”. Martial artists have been using screams for hundreds of years to give them some extra energy. I’m pretty sure there is a good reason for that.
Playing devil’s advocate – find the weaknesses in your argumentation. Try to debunk your own theories. Saying your options out loud and elaborating on the pros and cons can help bring the right choice to light, and you might be surprised at the unexpected direction your thoughts take when they’re audible.
So you want to go abroad for almost completely free?
I know, I know. It sounds way too good to be true. Usually, with this kind of offers, you wake up without your kidney in the bathtub full of ice. But don’t worry. It’s really (almost completely) free of charge. And the only thing you need is a pair of hands.
The site, founded in 2003, helps unite aspiring travelers with hosts abroad. What do they offer? Travelers are put up for free in exchange for work
All the pictures you can see in this article are the actual locations where people go to work and learn languages.
What Is WorkAway?
Workaway is a database of families, NGOs, charities and other projects who’ve joined the project over the year. They are located around the world and are looking for volunteers to help them with a variety of tasks. Exemplary types of volunteering include gardening, animal-care, cleaning, cooking, and farming.
Currently, more than 14000 hosts from 130 countries are present on the website.
How Does It Work?
First, you need to sign up (duh) and create a profile specifying your background and skills. Then you can start browsing the list of hosts for opportunities in any of the countries registered and contact them for more information. If there is some specific location you would like to visit, you can also search by country.
You can email hosts that interest you and chat with them to figure out if you’re a good match for each other.
Hosts are expected to provide information about themselves, the type of volunteering they require to be performed, the accommodation they offer and the sort of person they are expecting.
How much do I have to pay?
Almost nothing. A two-year membership is 23 Euros for a single person and 30 Euros for couples and friends.
How much do I have to work?
The typical Workaway agreement is to work 4-5 hours per day, 5 days a week in exchange for food and a room.
How long can I stay?
In theory, there is no limit on how long you must stay in a given location. However, usually, you are expected to stay with your host for at least three weeks (although you often can stay for almost as many months as you wish).
Can I earn something?
It differs with each host. But you definitely shouldn’t expect it. Remember – the deal is to work in exchange for food and accommodation. However, some hosts guarantee some pocket money or a commission.
What Can You Expect As A Member of Workaway?
According to WorkAway, you can expect the following benefits:
Contact 1000s of hosts in over 135 countries.
Create a unique profile telling hosts all about your skills and enthusiasm for helping.
Upload photos in your profile showing yourself and your skills.
Upload your own short video to show on your profile page.
Join your account with a friend’s to visit hosts and apply together. Whenever wherever
Create your own personalized host list of all your favorite hosts.
Find hosts on a map in your area or the area you are planning on traveling to.
Use your smartphone and log in to the mobile site to make changes or apply on the move.
Add yourself to our last minute Workawayer list so hosts can contact you for immediate volunteering opportunities.
Get and give feedbacks to and from hosts to build up your Workaway profile.
Contact other members to ask about their stay with hosts.
Link your travel blog to ours to share your interesting Workaway journey with our readers
Get to know like-minded travelers on the road with our “Meet up” function.
Enter our monthly photo competition and win money to extend your travels.
Help the Workaway Foundation Project and watch them grow (For more info see www.workawayfoundation.org)
Be a member of our unique traveling community and exchange amazing stories and ideas!
The website enjoys the highest reputation for quality and reliability. However, the safety is always a priority while traveling and you should treat it seriously.
Workaway has a page dedicated to safety information and encourages all its users, both volunteers, and hosts, to spend time getting to know each other before making any decisions. Any sort of contract or agreement should be decided between you and your host. The website is only responsible for connecting people.
That’s it. If you go somewhere nice, don’t forget to send me some pictures!
I would like to start this article with a hymn of praise for languages. Oh, how beautiful they are. Their sweet melody. Their hypnotizing rhythm. The ear-caressing flow of perfectly arranged words.
Ok. Joking aside. I’d like to pause again for a moment, just to think why learning a language resembles residing in one of the hell’s circles. You see, Dante was wrong. His vision did include only 9 circles. There is actually the tenth one. It’s designed for beginners in language learning.
To successfully have a chat in a foreign language, you have to achieve so-called communicative competence. Sounds sexy, I know. But even without reading about it, you know that communicating in a language is damn demanding.
The simplified list of requirements looks like this. You need to quickly recall needed words (between 1k and 2k minimum). You need to know how to pronounce them (Phonology). You need to know where to put them in a sentence (Syntax). You need to know how they change (Morphology).
You need to when to use them depending on circumstances (Pragmatics). At the same time, you need quite a high level of comprehension to understand your interlocutor.
What’s more, if you happen to talk to somebody attractive of the opposite sex, you must remember to:
keep it cool
block excessive sweating
be at least remotely funny
And then there is a phase after each conversation when you have to swallow sadness, pick up the pieces of your self-confidence and convince yourself that language-learning journey IS exciting.
That sucks. We’ve all been there at one point or another. And the progress. Don’t get me started on this one. It’s excruciatingly slow in most cases.
Let’s take a look at the typical (unorganized) language journey.
Typical Effects Of Learning After A Few Years
Just a short notice – I didn’t make this up. These are actual words of one of my students.
“I can talk quite ok when it comes to vocabulary, listening, and pronunciation. I understand many things which I hear on the radio and TV. However, I make tons of mistakes in conversation and can only use a few tenses.”
That’s a bit shortened version. But it should give you some foretaste of the frustration. And all due to the typical classroom teaching language philosophy.
I, The Teacher, Will Correct The Cr*p Out Of Everything You Say
The common language-teaching philosophy is to correct or try to correct almost every mistake. That’s the way one-way ticket to becoming a mayor of the Looney Town.
Just try to imagine that you learn English (unless you really do!) and you say something along these lines – “Tim want to become doctor.”
Your tutor looks at you. His face slowly changes. And then the shitstorm ensues.
“First of all, you don’t say want, but wantS. Also, you always should remember that In English, an indefinite article is needed in front of professions. What’s more, you need to work on your pronunciation! You don’t pronounce x and y the right way…. “. And so on.
The chance is that after one lesson of this kind, you don’t remember most of these remarks. How could you? You can’t concentrate equally on talking and processing all the mistakes. Also, you probably haven’t uttered more than 30-40 sentences during one hour. The constant interruptions are not very helpful. At this pace, you’ll become fully conversant in about, well, 3-4 years?
I believe there is a better way to learn and to teach. The body-building champions can give us a great point of reference.
How Body Builders Train
“It all starts with body-part splits. The researchers were surprised to discover that every single one of these bodybuilders used body-part split-routines either five or six days a week. Every. Single. One. Not most of them or almost all of them, but every single one.”
(You can find the original article here)
A small explanation for those of us (including me) who keep their distance from gyms. Body-parts split mean that body-builders train a certain part of the body on a certain day.
You can imitate this process by conducting grammar and vocabulary drills.
It means ignoring (as much as possible) all the other mistakes you make. If you decide to work on some future tense – so be it. Ignore the rest.
You can use this technique to activate and practise your vocabulary at the same time. Simply prepare the list of, say, 20 words which you would like to practise and include it in your grammar drills.
Where Should You Start?
That’s always a very good question. But the answer is relatively simple. You should always choose the part of grammar which is essential for communication and the one that you are the worst at.
Personally, I recommend doing such drills 6 times per week. No, you can’t unwind on the seventh day. On the seventh day, you should put all the pieces together and actually have a conversation with someone. Unless, of course, you have a conversational partner handy. In this case, talk as much as possible.
If you have done it before, I don’t have to convince you. For all the non-believers:
Secondly, to be a tad more mature, the said method allows you to significantly decrease the cognition burden on your working memory. You simply can’t process, analyze and correct all the mistakes you make. This method allows you to eliminate mistakes one by one.
It helps you join together and strengthen the elements that you already know, and build toward a higher level. It is like the big jigsaw puzzle when you can start plugging the missing pieces into the picture more and more quickly.
Language teachers can also use it. Instead of correcting all kinds of mistakes of your students, concentrate on one or two of them. Such approach will accelerate your students’ progress rate.
I’ve experienced it for the first time with my German. I was doing drill after drill. And I felt like my progress wasn’t that great. And suddenly one day BOOM! Magic happened. Language fairy sprinkled some magic dust all over me and I started speaking with such confidence that I felt as if somebody else was speaking.
And I wish you the same! Let the language fairy be with you!
Do you know what all the people who fail in language learning have in common? They don’t think. They are dull and unoriginal. Actually, being “creatively challenged” is probably the main reason of failure in about anything you do.
Take a hard, good look at yourself. Are you one of them?
I know I was. For way too many years. I used to buy almost every memory book I could find. I was looking for the ultimate method to remember everything. To my disappointment, almost every book was the same. It took me a lot of time to come to realize that all the solutions are in my head. I just haven’t discovered them yet!
Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – How To Do It Step By Step
Usually, there are three steps most people go through.
1) The First Stage – The Sleeping Giant
How can you tell if that’s you? It’s extremely easy to diagnose yourself. I’ve prepared a checklist for you. Or rather The Loser’s Credo. If you tick more than one field, I have bad news for you…
you don’t like to ask questions
you don’t like to think about problems
you think that the old way is the only way
you are happy where you are currently at
you can’t take criticism
people who are better than you in any way are either lying or born special
you don’t see anything funny in this joke: “Dad what’s ignorance?”, “I don’t know and I don’t care”
you think that calling somebody “weird” is offensive
you try once, fail and never get back up
Frankly, I don’t believe that any of you fall into this category. At least, not when it comes to learning. But we’re all there when it comes to other areas of life – relationships, the way we work, etc.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
But what if you know anyone who falls into this category? How can you help him? Well, you can suggest it as subtly as you can. After all, understanding the problem is half of the solution. What’s the next step? There is none. I’m sorry.
“We generally change ourselves for one of two reasons: inspiration or desperation” – Jim Rohn
I changed my approach to learning due to desperation.
Many moons ago I was attending a German course at one of the local language schools. I felt very proud. It was my second language and after three years, the school classified my level as B1.
It was an amazing feeling. WAS.
After the first conversation with a native speaker The Evil Bubble of Hubris burst. I didn’t understand much. I started stuttering madly. Much like a retarded version of Mr. Snuffalufagus.
So yeah. I was desperate. This soul-crushing experience helped me advance to the second category.
2) The Second Stage – The Awakened Mind
You read. Maybe a lot. Maybe a little. But definitely enough to know that there are many strategies to achieve your goal(s). So you read and read. And then read some more. But the moment comes when you get stuck. And you’re desperately looking for people who might give you the answer.
But why would most people give you their best ideas. They spent years trying to come up with them! Haven’t you heard of the rule?
I hit this stage about 17 months ago. I can’t recall any specific situation which led to it. I simply knew that I had to change the way I approach learning. And then I found myself in the third stage.
3) Third stage – The Creative Behemoth
There are three characteristic qualities of all the people in this category:
you question most of the things until proved otherwise
you start coming up with dozens of potential solutions to your problems
you never feel fully satisfied with your ideas
It’s like the mental hunger you can’t satisfy. You can only alleviate it with new ideas and concepts. Once I started coming up with new hypotheses on how to memorize faster, it took me less than half a year to achieve such results. And I’m not done yet.
The beauty of this stage is that you can question almost anything.
For example – why do we shave with foam or gel? Hell, I started to do it with a mix of shampoo and soap. And believe me – it’s much more effective way to shave (try it and thank me later).
Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – How To Do It
There are two steps in this strategy.
1) Create the hypothesis.
The planning process looks more less like this:
Define what the problem is
This is the question you have to start with. Let your brain know that there is some obstacle to overcome. From that moment on, you’ll start cracking it both consciously and subconsciously.
Learn the essentials of the subject you’re trying to master
It’s very important step. If you skip it, you might find yourself reinventing a wheel. No need to waste your time like this.
Start with mastering the rules. Find out how others approach solving your problem.
Train your ability to observe
Start paying close attention to things which might contribute to the solution of the problem.
Create a hypothesis based on your observations
It doesn’t always have to be very logical. Go with your gut feeling.
For example. It’s generally proven that intensive emotions help us to remember better.
Start shouting out loud 4 random words everyday with your best furious voice. Or go to the graveyard and check if the general sadness of this place contributes to better learning.
2) Perform an experiment to test those predictions
Do you know what is the biggest BS statement on the Internet concerning language learning? “You should learn languages like a child”. Ok, maybe not the worst, but certainly right up there in the top ten. I hate it. I always feel like shooting kittens whenever I hear it.
You see, there are two kinds of stupid advice – harmful and harmless. Harmless advice is, well, harmless. If somebody suggests you to wash your car with milk to make it look glossy and shining, nothing bad will really happen.
Ok, you might find your car covered with ants and cockroaches in the morning. But nothing really THAT bad. However, the harmful advice will make you lose (besides health!) the most important and non-renewable resource you possess – time. You can always make more money. But you can’t recover the lost time.
“Learn like a child” advice does exactly that. It makes you lose the unthinkable amount of time.
“But Bartosz, why do you think that it’s actually a bad piece of advice?”. Good question, voice no 3 in my head. I rush to explain.
Behind every phrase, saying and a piece of advice there is some assumption. Or even a few of them. At the first glance, they might seem logical. You have to dig deeper to uncover the truth.
Let’s deconstruct all the assumptions behind this terrible piece of advice.
1) You have as much time as children
Average child needs at least a few years of his life to start producing any complex (?) sentences. And last time I checked kids don’t have to pay any bills. Nor do they have to go to school when they are two. Hey, they don’t even have to wipe themselves! They just sit and listen. That’s their only entertainment.
So is your life situation comparable in any way to this ideal?
2) You can fully immerse yourself in a foreign language
Bad news. It’s not going to happen. Unless you’re willing to move abroad, of course.
3) Your brain is similar to the one of a child
I could quote dozens of scientific papers here. But there is no need. You already know that your brain is nothing like the one of a child. The latter is a clean slate. Yours is like a graffiti-covered wall. The first one absorbs hyper-actively anything on its path. Our adult brains are pickier not as willing to take in the new information.
Here is some foretaste of the processes taking place in a child’s brain (original article can be found here).
Between conception and age three, a child’s brain undergoes an impressive amount of change. At birth, it already has about all of the neurons it will ever have. It doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it has reached 80 percent of its adult volume.
Even more importantly, synapses are formed at a faster rate during these years than at any other time. In fact, the brain creates many more of them than it needs: at age two or three, the brain has up to twice as many synapses as it will have in adulthood.
And most importantly
(Their) genes allow the brain to fine-tune itself according to the input it receives from the environment. The earliest messages that the brain receives have an enormous impact.
4) First and second language acquisition is basically the same thing
Adults are further advanced when it comes to cognitive development. What’s more, they have already acquired their first language. It gives them the advantage of having the pre-existing knowledge!
All these factors influence the cognitive structures in the brain and make the process of second language acquisition fundamentally different from the ones occurring when you learn a mother tongue.
Learn The Most Important Grammar Rules
Here is a fascinating excerpt taken from David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean. (as found on Farnam Street).
In your mind particulars turn into generalities gradually, imperceptibly—like snow at the bottom of a drift turning into ice. If you don’t know any general rules, if you’ve merely experienced something once, then that once will have to do. You may remember one example, or a collection of particular examples, or a general rule. These states blend together: When you’ve mastered the rule, you can still recall some individual experiences if you need to.
Particularities turn into generalities gradually. Gradually means slow. Slow, of course, isn’t a negative term.
But I don’t see any reason why I should wait one year before speaking some language at the communicative level. That’s why it is always better to start with generalities, i.e. with the most important grammar rules.
I actually don’t claim that you have to learn grammar at all. You might choose to wait until the language “sinks in”. But I can promise you this. It will take you a long, long time. Even longer if this is your first foreign language. In fact, it might take so long that you will give up.
I believe that the pace of our progress is one of our biggest sources of motivation. Think about it. How many times have you continued to do something despite the lack of progress? Few of us are persistent enough to pursue activities which don’t bring any effects.
Why Adults Learn Better
As I’ve written before, adults have pre-existing language knowledge. Children have to learn the mechanics of their mother tongue, while as adults have a more developed grasp of how language works. After all, almost all of us know what conjugations or adjectives are. What’s more, adults are outstanding pattern finding machines – it’s much easier for us to deduce and apply language rules!
To sum up – as adults, we can learn really fast. But as I’ve said many times, it all depends on how hard you’re willing to work. If you believe that watching TV series, reading comic books or just passive listening will make you fluent then… keep on dreaming. I know it sounds harsh. But it’s always better to be mentally prepared to tackle challenges than to hope that “it all will be good”.
Finally, after some delay (due to my laziness in writing!) I’m proud to present the results and final thoughts concerning my language mission. If you haven’t been following my struggles, you can find all the details below.
The purpose of the mission
My mission had a dual purpose.
First of all, I wanted to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to learn REALLY FAST. assuming of course that you
use some mnemonics
disregard almost all the advice you’ve ever heard in your life regarding (language) learning, but more about that later
Secondly, I wanted to ENCOURAGE YOU to think more seriously about your learning; to be BETTER. To question what you know. My learning philosophy is simple – experiment to see what does and what doesn’t work.
To put it brutally – if a horse is sick, you don’t pretend that everything is fine, try to ride or show it to your friends and say “it needs a little bit more time to get better, that’s all”. No. It won’t get better. You take a shotgun, lead a horse behind a barn and put it out of its misery. It’s that simple.
It’s simple. But it’s not easy. If you’ve been using the same ol’ methods for years, it’s hard to kiss them goodbye. I know.
Generally, the overall performance is calculated by averaging the scores you achieve in Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking and Grammar.
I had a chance to test all of them (except writing skills). However, some language competences had to be assessed by myself, not by a qualified teacher. It leaves definitely a lot of room for personal bias but it was impossible to avoid considering the nature of such an undertaking.
On a side note, I’ve been working as a language assessor for some time now, so I can only hope that my judgment is precise enough.
Did I Succeed?
Yep, I feel that I accomplished all the main goals of my mission:
Number of words
Altogether I’ve memorized about 3100 words. About 2860 of them are the words from my ANKI list, the rest of them are noted separately on a few pieces of paper.
Including my knowledge of the rules of word formation, my total vocabulary size should amount to about 4,5 – 6,5k words.
Considering the results of official and unofficial language assessment, I would assess my level as B1.2. In other words – somewhere between B1 and B2 level.
Articles Related To The Mission
If you haven’t had a chance to do it already, here are some articles (more to come!) describing my approach to learning Czech (or should I say – learning in general).
The beginning of language learning journey is full of questions. You can’t be sure of almost anything you say. How could you? You know almost nothing.
So how can you check if the sentences you produce with such effort are correct? Especially if you don’t have any contact with native speakers. Ultimately, the purpose of practicing any language is to get to (at least) communicative level in a foreign language of your choice. You definitely don’t want to utter some incoherent and half-baked sentences.
As you know, I’m a very zealous supporter of talking to yourself. It’s one of the best (and free!) ways to improve your fluency. Some people actually suggest that one of these days it will lead me to sitting half-naked on the park bench and mumbling to myself while feeding pigeons. But I’ll take my chances!
So how do you tackle this problem? How do you make sure that what you want to say sounds natural and would make every native speaker smile and nod with approval?
If your first and final answer is “Google Translate!!!”, I have bad news for you.It’s still a very imperfect tool, incapable of distinguishing between various differences of the words.
I mean, just take a look:
The solution I would suggest is combining the powers of Google Search Engine and Google Translate. Google Search Engine gives you instant access to millions upon millions of sentences which you can compare your efforts with.
Let’s take a look at how you can make it happen. Closing the entire feedback loop shouldn’t take longer than 1 minute.
Translate A Phrase With Google Translate
Some time ago I wanted to use the phrase “padół łez i rozpaczy” (literally “vale of tears and despair”) in one of my articles. I admit this phrase is very rarely used, even in Polish. It’s quite a depressing idiom used to describe our world. And I love it.
It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to say it. The first thing I did was checking the translation in Google Translate.
Does it look ok? No idea. Like I said, I have never used it myself. I also have never seen it being used anywhere.
Google The Phrase In Quotations Marks
That’s why our next step is to check how often it is used by native speakers. First of all, we need to learn how to make our search more precise. Our weapon of choice is “quotation marks”.
Using quotation marks Putting terms in a quote indicates a sentence and will be searched for exactly in this composition. And this is what we get:
1 result?! Seriously?! What’s more, .pl means that somebody from Poland tried to use it before and even put it in the book! It is kind of disappointing. I really wanted to use it. But hey! Let’s check if the phrase “vale of tears” is more popular.
It turns up 351k results. Much better. If I had chosen so, I could have used it. Now just to prove a point, let’s check how many results it turns up without quotation marks.
As you can see, with over 1 million results it turns up 4 times more results than the same phrase with quotation marks. If I didn’t know better, I would say that it’s quite a common phrase.
Don’t Let It Limit Your Creativity
All the languages are constantly evolving. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to coin a new great word? That’s why you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you say something silly.
Not longer than one year ago I told my supervisor that “we can’t jaywalk through the planning process”. He said that it sounds weird. But hey! I still like this phrase!
So that’s what I do at the beginning of my language journeys (and even much later) to make sure that I don’t mutilate a given language too much. You see, now you have no excuses not to write to somebody in a language you’re currently learning!
You slowly open your eyes. You’re in your bed. It’s nice and warm. You know you should get up and start the day but somehow you cannot force yourself to do this. The blissful numbness is radiating from every pore of your body. You try to lift your head but to no avail. Getting up seems impossible.
Maybe you’ll just lie here for a few more minutes and… BAM! You’re asleep. As a consequence, you’re late for your work and get fired. Your spouse realizes what a loser you are and she decides to leave you. You end up getting homeless and fighting with sewer rats over the leftovers from Thai restaurant.
Alright, so maybe I’ve exaggerated a tiny bit. But that’s exactly what the comfort zone feels like. It’s blissful and cozy. And that’s the problem.
Well, the simplified explanation goes like this: we use automated sets of behavior in every area of our lives. It makes perfects sense. If they are automated, it means that the energy expenditure is considerably limited while executing them.
Take a close look at your speech patterns in your mother tongue. It might turn out that you use a relatively limited number of words and phrases in everyday life. And bear in mind that it’s your mother tongue! The problem is even more conspicuous in foreign language learning.
Our vocabulary defines the borders of our perception and thinking. It’s good to constantly keep on pushing them.
The following piece of advice is equally valid for beginners and advanced learners.
Identify words/phrases which you repeat frequently
You can do it on your own with a little bit of mindfulness or with a help of your teacher. Just take a piece of paper (or use the ready-to-use template at the end of the article!) and note down all the words and phrases which you tend to repeat way too often.
They usually tend to fall into one of the 4 categories:
That’s a great place to start. Have you ever noticed how often your repeat “I think that…” in a foreign language you learn? Sure, it’s a very basic phrase. And necessary one as well! But it’s also damn boring. There is a variety of counterparts in every language which can make your way of speaking more colorful.
“I believe that … ” “I’m convinced that…” “I trust that … ” “I reckon that … ”
And the list goes on and on …
Adjectives are used to describe nouns. That’s why you can go wild with your creativity! Sure, you can say that some guy is big. But why not:
He is a great hulk of a man / huge / of considerable size / enormous / gigantic etc.
A place to start: I have a very strict rule for my language students. Excluding absolute beginners, you can’t use “good”, “bad” and “interesting” during my classes. I kid you not. If I hear any of these words, my eyes turn red and start twitching. I haven’t hit anyone yet but I sense that this day is approaching inevitably!
Of course, you can find other words which you tend to overuse. We all have our wicked ways. I’m definitely guilty of using “creepy” and “awkward” almost every time when I speak English.
In most languages, they don’t give you as much creative freedom as adjectives. However, it’s still worth substituting some of them.
A place to start: I like to start with synonyms of “explain”, “use” and “convince”. General usefulness of these words makes them easy to apply in almost any context.
Probably the hardest category to substitute. Only one piece of advice here. Try not to use the word “thing”. Every “thing” has its name. Use it!
Once you’ve identified the words which you use way too often, it’s time to substitute them.
But how do you find good synonyms?
The best way is to ask your teacher or a befriended native speaker. But if you don’t have this luxury, feel free to use a dictionary of synonyms, i.e. Thesaurus.
Here is a short list for some of the popular languages.
It’s important that you understand (more less) the difference between meanings of different synonyms!
When is the good time to substitute a word?
There is only one reliable indicator of the time when you should start substituting some word. Once your active recall of this word is effortless and immediate.
Only then. It means that the word is entrenched deeply in your long-term memory and you no longer have to use it frequently in order to remember it. And that’s actually the GREAT reason not to use it any longer or drastically limit its use. At least during your language practice.
I would actually go as far as to say that every time you repeat words and phrases you know actively, you waste your time. Every sentence is a new opportunity to grow as a person (and as a learner!). Don’t waste it!
Now go on and put this method to good use and increase your vocabulary size!
I’m definitely a weirdo. I enjoy learning grammar! Declensions, conjugations, possessive pronouns. I love them all! And there is a good reason for that! They are simply one of the easiest things to learn in most languages!
Of course, let’s be perfectly honest – learning them is easy. However, using them without any hesitation is another story. Here are a few methods you might use tolearn grammar effectively:
The Classical Method
Repeat everything till your eyes and brain start bleeding. Not interested? Read on!
Look For Patterns
Let’s play Sherlock Holmes for one moment. The first thing I do when I learn grammar of some language is establishing some patterns.
For example, take a look at the weak declension of adjectives in German (it is used when there is a preceding definite article (“der-word”).
Can you see it? Rock n roll horns created of “-en”
And the rest of this table is just “e”! Quite simple to remember, isn’t it?
The Four German Cases
Can’t remember the order of German cases? Maybe if I NAG(ge)D you would! 🙂
2. Create Some Stories
This is my absolutely favorite method since you can use it with combination with mnemonics.
It definitely requires some concentration and creativity. It might be difficult at the beginning.
You have to shake up your rusty imagination!
Example 1 – German possessive pronouns.
Here you have a list of German possessive pronouns. It looks pretty random, right? Nope, there is actually some cool story hidden there!
I gave her MINE TIN(y) SIGN – and her EER(ie) UNSER (answer) was really EER(ie). Who knows, maybe it’s too abstract for you. Let’s try something different then. Let’s assume that I(h)R stands for Irina Shayk. Or some sexy pIRate if you’re a woman.
Now our little story can go like this:
MEIN DIME SIGN(s) IR(ina) – my UNSER (answer) is O(h) YEAH! IR(ina) !
As you can see, this method doesn’t always cover the pronunciation in 100%. But that’s alright. In most cases, your brain is aware of that and can correct these mistakes.
Example 2 – Swedish objective pronouns
What about some (singular) objective pronouns? When I was learning Swedish I memorized them, more or less, like this:
There are so many ways to memorize these conjugations! But of course, they depend on many things – your native tongue, other languages you speak and your entire “database” of different names, notions, etc.
Being Polish, I would choose to memorize the first three endings with a word “OAZA” (eng. oasis). I think that this approximation is good enough. AMOS can be easily (for me!) associated with my beloved artist Tori AMOS who puts AIS on AN(t).
Something To Remember
Treat this method as crutches. It helps you to unburden your memory by memorizing grammar in an effortless way but it’s not a substitute for practice. You need to use the language to automate the use of grammar,
Q: Can you always find some associations? A: Yep. Just use your imagination!
Q: But what if it doesn’t work? A: Then try harder! Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Good luck and let me know what you think about this method!