How We Learn Languages — Lessons Learned From False Starts

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Everything we’ve learned from studying many languages — most recently, Farsi and Swahili.

Discover Discomfort - How we Learn Languages - Lessons Learned

“If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening the axe.”

– Unattributed, not actually George Washington so don’t tell me it is

We’ve learned a few languages, spent too much time on some and failed to learn others. We’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way, and want to share them here.

It’s one-third philosophy, one-third theory and one-third practise.

Get in the Right Mindset

Probably the most important part of learning is believing we CAN learn.

We’re only dedicating this small part to it because this is repeated in so many places. But we’ve realised we’ll get nowhere without a strong belief that we can and will progress. We need to be in the right mindset to learn.

Here’s a brief summary of what we do to get in the mindset

  1. Meditate often.
  2. Tell ourselves “I speak xxx language fluently.”
  3. Imagine what that’s like for 2 minutes.
  4. Immediately start learning in the morning. (after coffee)
  5. Record ourselves speaking in that language (even if just for ourselves). Take a picture of writing down some basic sentences. Store them in an archive.

We don’t make any progress unless we believe that we can and that we believe that we ARE making progress.

The frustrating thing is that it’s so easy to hit a roadblock. One awkward interaction can set our confidence back a LOT.

Probably the best thing we can do: encourage each other and others. It’s not where we get to that counts — it’s that we’re trying

Choose One Language or Dialect and Be Persistent

For example, if learning Arabic, choose a format, like Modern Standard Arabic or Egyptian Arabic, and stick with it.

Note this includes two commitments: pick one language, and stick with it.

Pick one language or dialect

We’re always tempted to chop and change language. We want to learn two (or more) languages at once. 

Part of the reason we try learning multiple languages at once is that our minds are being activated into language-learning mode. As our brain gets fitter we start to feel like we can do anything and want to take more on. The problem is that many studies (and our own experience) show that studying multiple languages at once nearly always results in learning both languages more slowly than learning them separately.

The second reason we want to to learn two languages at once is that our minds are looking for easy ways to solve the problem. “Can’t remember a word in Italian? Well it’s this in Spanish. Happy now?” The mind is trying to give you an answer to a problem… which will solve an immediate question (how to say a word) but not the question we actually have (how to say it in the language in question).

The final reason is that it’s easy to get excited. Some friend is learning Russian and we think that’s cool. We recall our mother tongues are Korean and Persian and want to work on those. But it is usually not in our best interests to do this. Languages are hard — there’s usually enough to focus on in just one.

Unfortunately, and we say this from experience, knowing 1/4 of four languages is equivalent to knowing zero of any languages.

Stick with it

Related to the above, it’s easy to give up whenever you get to one of those times when things get hard. Learning languages always means passing a few event horizons of difficulty. The first hundred words are fine. Then you get to

  • “Wah there are so many words!”
  • “Wah the grammar is so hard!”
  • “Wah I can’t pronounce this!”
  • “Wah I can’t understand anything!”

We have to know in advance we’re going to hit those challenges, and learn to persevere through them.

Set Realistic Targets (and Be Flexible)

It’s critical to set a realistic target. “Fluency” or “conversational fluency” is too vague. Using the European standards for language fluency is better, but they’re not for everyone.

Set a target that makes sense like

  • “I want to be able to understand a song, maybe not at first pass but after reading the lyrics and looking up a few words.”
  • “I want to be able to go to a study group with friends and not have to use English.”

Especially as we’re setting time limits on how much we learn, we have to set super-realistic goals for how fluent we can get in one to two months, and be happy with hitting that limit.

We’ve set our target as being “fluent enough to keep learning in that language”. This means, being able to ask what a word means in a language and understand the reply.

Note all the things that this target is NOT:

  • Listening in to strangers (limited benefits anyway; they’re never talking about me. I guess I’m not that interesting). They usually speak colloquially and quickly and that’s a whole other level
  • Reading the newspaper or listening to the news. In some languages this is largely the same and just needs extra vocabulary (‘earthquake’, ‘attack’ and ‘president’ get you pretty far), but in case it’s quite different like for a colloquial language, it’s not a priority.
  • Reading poetry. We don’t often read poetry in English, so this isn’t our goal.

Any of the above goals might be yours, so just know what you want to do.

You have to also be flexible with your targets. Want to get fluent in three months? That’s great, but it might end up taking a year. Don’t beat yourself up about it. In three months you’re still way ahead of where you were in the past.

Learn faster with a tutor

Get a tutor online for as little as $4/hour from the best out there — italki. (Use this link for $10 credit after your first purchase of credits.)

One thing we’ve learned over the years is that a great tutor or coach can be life-changing. We’re huge fans of italki for all the reasons in this article

In our earlier years, we thought we could teach ourselves anything. This is true to a degree, but in my twenties I had infinite time, whereas in my thirties I know my time is about to expire with the onslaught of children (and eventually, death!). It was when I learned Chinese with a few great teachers (and one in particular) in China that I learned the value of a teacher: three hours of study a day with one teacher would progress me as much as several days of independent study. Think about how much your time is worth, and invest in your own education.

Yes, tutors can get expensive. Even online, you can pay $20/hour for a professional teacher, or as little as $5 an hour for a basic conversation partner. To make the most of a basic conversation partner here are a bunch of tips we’ve learned.

And here’s what we think makes a great tutor

  1. A great tutor takes the time to get to know your goals, and maybe help you set them. They understand your interests (e.g. comedy, music, business) and find content that’s relevant, and specifically ignore content that’s irrelevant.
  2. A great tutor only talks to you. Basic tutors will just get you to read out of a book and correct your reading, or ask you to repeat phrases after them. But a tutor will engage you in conversation, take notes, and then set homework on what they observe the patterns of your mistakes to be.
  3. A great tutor creates custom material for your interests. At a basic level, textbooks are usually the best resource (there are so many!). But they won’t blindly go through them; they’ll select the right chapters, and won’t automatically go to the next level textbook when you’re done.

This is a huge topic and one we’ll explore in more detail. But tell us if you’ve had a great tutor. What made them great?

Get the Right Tools

It takes time and experimentation to understand the right tools. We’ve wasted a lot of time trying apps, notebooks, textbooks, CDs (what’s a CD? Well it’s a thing that replaced a cassette, which is actually where I started), lists, flashcards (physical and app-based), various dictionaries… and yes, experimentation is part of the process.

We have a very old-school approach to learning that works for us. We like to use

  • A textbook, the “Teach Yourself” kind. Electronic version preferably, with online audio resources
  • A vocabulary list spreadsheet. We refer to these like flashcards, going through lists until they’re memorized
  • A sentence bank (Glossika)
  • A way to set up teacher appointments. We use iTalki.
  • Flashcard decks if you like those. We use Anki.
  • Selective apps but only at the beginning stages for basic alphabet and vocabulary

Much more detail here on tools we like to use.

Things we’ve learned don’t work (for us):

  • Past the beginning stage, most apps including Duolingo, Memrise etc. It’s fun, but just creates a false illusion of progress. 
  • Chatting apps that don’t go to conversation. These never go anywhere and don’t help much.

Start with a conversation

We always start with an easy tool, but then when we have our first conversation… that’s when things REALLY start. It always goes like this:

“Hi! I’m Dana.” [Oh cripes how do I say all the many other things I need to say right now, like “Nice to meet you”]

At that point, we always realise how much you need to learn. Then we have a second conversation and learn even more. There’s no limit to how many of these we can stack up. So if we have a teacher, we can have the same conversation over and over until we nail it and all the variations. Why not?

The thing is, this conversation stops being scary. I believe we only get more and more used to the feeling of being scared but also conditioned to understand the benefits.

Learn the pronunciation and sounds

I really like the way French people express that they don’t know something. It can only be described as:

‘Eh, ben… [farting sound]’ (accompanied by a short shoulder shrug)

Seriously, like a small farting sound through pursed lips. It sounds so silly if you say it in ANY OTHER LANGUAGE. But say it in French and it’s super French. Try it!

Sounds are an easy thing to drill, but also enjoyable. Make the sounds! Most languages have unique sounds.

In the past, we’ve suffered from not just drilling difficult-to-pronounce sounds (and words in them).

Some common ones you’ll encounter:

  • The trilled R like in Spanish, particularly vexing after an L, like in alrededor
  • The ZH sound like in French (rouge)
  • The hard D, B, S and T in Arabic (same as standard but harder)
  • Tones in Chinese, plus the X sound that’s halfway between an English SH and S

The list goes on. There are some that I find it very hard to master (and it bugs me).

One hack we’ve learned is to just pretend we can make the sound… even mimicking the accent in English helps. I like to find a muse, someone who I enjoy listening to, and then copy them. In my head, I’ll be them, mimicking their accent and intonation. After a while, it becomes natural.

Learn the alphabet and how to read basic words

We’ve in the past learned to speak only (e.g. with Hebrew back in the late nineties), but almost immediately got to a point where we had to learn to read and write. And the benefits are TREMENDOUS. In every language other than Chinese or Japanese, it’s way easier to learn to read and write than you may think.

We did an exhaustive review of the most popular writing systems here. But in general here’s why we’ve learned you should learn to read and write:

  1. You’ll learn more quickly. Sometimes without even trying. E.g. I have unwittingly learned the Estonian words for shop (pood), cheese (juust), chicken (kana) and open (avatud) without even trying (or wanting to). 
  2. You need to read menus. You can eat food. It’s surprising how little you need to know – just meats, maybe a few vegetables and core food names. You’ll learn out of desperation, eventually – it doesn’t take going far off the beaten track to get to a place without an English menu, even in a well-developed country (as we learned in Helsinki over the weekend). If you’re on a special diet, this will be even more critical. Besides, it’s really fun to read menus.
  3. Street signs. You won’t get lost. This includes using Google Maps when you’re in the country and street and area names come up primarily in the local language.
  4. Apps. Some places have their own apps, much better than what Google can provide. China is a primary example of this, where there is no Google and you’ll be using Tencent Maps or Baidu Maps.
  5. Communicate. You can understand notes, text messages and blog comments written to you by your friends in another country.
  6. It’s really fun to write another language!

Can’t emphasise the last one enough. It’s so cool to see another script coming out of your hand.

Record ourselves giving speeches or reading sentences

As we learned Arabic, we recorded Arabic process videos (see them on our channel here, including our final 60-day video)

We enjoyed the process of learning sentences and phrases fluently. They let us use those sentences naturally in conversation, or to give speeches and use them without worrying about conjugation.

We decided, as a result, to start learning and recording ten sentences a day, in any language we’re learning. This makes us learn more vocabulary, but it also forces us to get more fluent.

We have to refine this process further. For example, how often do we go back and listen to old sentences? Should we record them with English too, to remind ourselves what they mean? Should we record them individually, like flashcards? All in progress!

Learn “bread and butter” basic phrases and structures

Despite learning a whole bunch of formal structures, we keep finding, again and again, that in day to day life, language is mostly things like

  • “Excuse me, is it OK if I…?”
  • “Excuse me (to get past someone)”
  • “Hey, I don’t think that’s a good idea”
  • “What the heck is that?”
  • “Hey where’s my…? It was just here”

My brother Riaz once put it elegantly, that the phrase “Argh! My pen just rolled off the table and now it’s fallen under my chair” is really complicated to say. How do you exclaim “Argh”, for one thing? But think how easily a native speaker can say phrases like that. That’s where you need to get to.

Memorise groups of vocabulary

Sometimes we just have to memorise stuff. And there’s no two ways about it… no real ‘fun’ way to do it. There’s just a practical way, and that’s the best way.

Here are eleven things we need to know in everyday life… I think this is all the things.

  1. Greetings (“Yo!”) 
  2. Core phrases – purchasing things, getting directions (“how much is it? which way is the train station?”)
  3. Places (bus stop, school, building, church)
  4. Numbers (at least to 1000, beyond that it usually gets easier anyway)
  5. Currency/coins (colloquially). (E.g. a dime, two bucks)
  6. Fruit, vegetables, meat (markets)
  7. Food and drink you’ll buy
  8. Professions (teacher, police officer)
  9. Vehicles (motorcycle, car, bicycle)
  10. Around 100 common verbs (run, walk, go, turn, stop, start, get on, get off… basically all the ones that come up in everyday life!)
  11. Around 30 common adjectives. They come in pairs! (big, small, long, short, far).

You can’t really rely on phrasebooks for these unless they’re very colloquial. Try hard to actually learn the words people use in everyday life. For example, a phrasebook will teach you that in Arabic countries you greet with “ahlan wa sahlan”. Technically correct, but you’re much more likely to hear a colloquial version depending on where you are.

Similarly, for common vehicles, foods you’d order, currency word (think how often you hear ‘dollars’ vs ‘bucks’ informally) you’ll have to dig a bit. These days, Youtube is your friend.

If you’re looking for a list of useful words, check out our 80-20 vocabulary list.

Core hack… you don’t need to learn complicated directions like every textbook teaches you. Most people just wave their hands and say ‘that way’ or ‘go straight’.

Build sentences and phrases with this everyday vocab until it becomes natural.

Learn what’s around you and what you do every day

My friend Ralph, who was German but learned English fluently while living in a tiny village in the south of Germany, once gave me a great tip on learning languages: Talk to yourself and describe things around you.

This starts with pointing at things and calling them names. Cup. Street. Tree. Sky. Then getting more granular… Blue sky. Nice day. Full cup.

Eventually, it becomes translating things. There are many trees next to the road. The cup is full of coffee and it’s too hot.

These are super simple phrases and don’t demand much vocabulary, but do demand that you have it on constant recall.

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