How To Learn Any Language in a Few Months — Language Learning Tips I Gathered Over the Last Few Years from Studying Almost a Dozen Languages
I wrote this piece originally as a comment/reply to someone’s question in a previous post, but thought it might benefit a bigger audience as well.
When I was younger, I used to be terrible at languages. Years of French class in middle and high school did little to improve my ability to form coherent sentences. After graduating from college, I had a bit more time on my hands and decided to tackle language learning, which was one of my weaknesses, as a challenge. I was surprised to discover that you can go from an absolute beginner’s level to a fairly decent level for most languages within months. I started out with Koine Greek, then ancient Hebrew, and then Aramaic. After finishing the three languages in seven months, as an attempt to learn more about religion by going through ancient manuscripts, I practiced by reading through the entire Bible in its ancient manuscripts. After finishing it in nine months (I’m planning on reading through the Quran in Arabic at some point), I went on to tackle almost a dozen other languages, including French over the last few years.
Here are some language learning techniques I have compiled over the last few years that have worked well for me.
- Inductive vs. Deductive Learning
In my opinion, the biggest reason why language learning in schools fail in adults is due to the deductive learning methods it presents. Children aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They don’t spend hundreds of hours memorizing grammar rules. Their brains naturally pick up patterns and form rules unconsciously. In comparison, adults spend so long memorizing vocabulary words and grammar rules that their brains forget that languages should come naturally. Hence, my approach to language learning is to be exposed to the language as much as possible for my brain to naturally form grammatical rules and spelling patterns, instead of spending hours pouring over textbooks and constantly worrying about what’s right or wrong according to the book.
- Exposure Techniques
a. Read literatures and listen to music or watch movies in the language you are learning. Even passive exposure to the language is effective to some extent (e.g. turning on the radio in the background in that language). Use inductive learning methods to strengthen your language skills.
b. Once you reach a decent enough level (say B-1), force yourself to start thinking in that language. I find that mental switch to be difficult but effective.
c. Ask your friends who speak the language to use only that language with you. Ask them to be honest and patient in correcting your mistakes. Or, if you are daring enough, practice with strangers! Travel and plug yourself into the native environment. Don’t be afraid of making a fool out of yourself. If you want to improve, you have to overcome the fear of taking risk and making mistakes.
- Memorization Techniques:
a. Repetition and spacing: when you space out your learning, you have a better chance of remembering things. For example, if you wish to memorize a certain word, learn it once, then immediately repeat it. Repeat it again in 5 minutes, then 1 hour, then 1 day, then 1 month. (Many language apps have this spacing repetition built in). Once you’ve spaced out your memorization this many times, it is difficult to forget these words. Do this when your brain isn’t tired. Don’t force the learning. Take a nap or go and do something else if the word isn’t sticking in your brain. Early mornings when your brain is refreshed is usually a better time to learn than late at night.
b. Memory palaces: This is a technique that many memory champions use. They imagine a place with many doors. Behind each door is an entirely different room. Hide your word behind one of these doors and associate an imagery with it. This takes a bit of practice but has been proven to be effective for many people.
c. Location-based learning: Many polyglots, as well as myself, find it helpful to learn things while walking or riding/driving in a vehicle. Later, when we need to recall that word or phrase, we visualize ourselves back at that same place where we learned the information from. This information-location association seems to be one of the most effective methods of learning new vocabulary words
d. Exaggerations: Our brains tend to remember unusual pieces of information. Associate something ridiculous or funny with the word or phrase you are learning and you are more likely to remember it. Many memory champions use a combination of this technique along with b and c mentioned above.
e. Finding associations: Our brains work quite differently from computers. On the one hand, store and retrival was one of the easiest problems for a computer to solve. One does not usually need to worry about a computer forgetting information that it has stored. On the other hand, a computer has limited storage space while our brains don’t. We learn by association. In fact, the more you learn, the more associations you make and the easier it becomes to learn new things. This method worked really well for me for languages like Hebrew and Arabic, where the script was at first entirely unfamiliar to me and I had to rely back on auditory cues often. Find words that sound similar to the word in another language. Then associate that word with it. This worked especially well when I associated people’s names with words. For example, I have a friend named Amar (short for Amaryllis). Amar means “to speak/to say” in Hebrew, and amarillo means yellow in Spanish. Now, whenever I try to recall one of these words to mind, her face comes to mind as well. I also find that the more languages I learn, the more associations I can make. It forges a strange network of words in different languages in my mind that would not otherwise have associations with each other. You will also find that some languages naturally associate/link words together that other languages would not normally link together.
f. Emphasized repetition: I took this one from a memory technique taught by John Piper for memorizing scriptures — emphasize each word one at a time. In this case, if you want to memorize the spelling of a certain word, repeat it a number of times, emphasizing a different letter each time. E.g.: Amarillo: A-m-a-r-i-l-l-o: a-M-a-r-i-l-l-o, a-m-A-r-i-l-l-o, etc. This allows you to pay attention to every detail in the word. You can also do so for phrases, putting emphasis on a different word each time instead of a different letter each time.
g. Forged synesthesia (still experimental): Synesthesia is this weird phenomenon where the individual’s senses are crossed. As a result, they are able to see music, smell colors, and taste letters. The most common form of synesthesia is the auto-translation of letters into colors (1/200 people have this). People with synesthesia statistically have better memory because they are able to translate one type of information into another (the process is automatic and they have no control over it). I have various forms of number/date synesthesia, which allows me to remember numbers and dates with ease (read about my experiences as a synesthete here). This however, does not allow me to memorize other types of information too well. I have been trying to assign random numbers to vocab words to see if that can help me remember them better. It has been met with mixed results so far. One of the engineering projects that’s in my pipeline is to create apps that can help non-synesthetics develop synesthetic experiences to have superior memory abilities. I’m hoping to get to it soon.
h. Kinesthetic learning (still experimental): When I first started learning American Sign Language (ASL), I realized that not only did I pick it up quicker than other languages, the rest of my class seemed to as well. It’s unclear whether our motor cortex’s involvement in the language acquisition process allows it to speed up but I have been experimenting with translating the language I’m learning into ASL alphabets to see if I can learn these languages quicker.
Your brain is a muscle, and just like muscles in your body, it needs to be stretched on a daily basis. Back when I was learning seven languages in a single year, I had spent 2–4 hours learning on a daily basis (I had a super long commute to and from work every day, so that’s when I did most of my language learning). Nowadays, school keeps me busy enough that I barely have 5 minutes per day for language learning. However, I find that 5 minutes per day to be extremely helpful in forming and maintaining these brain connections that help me to keep going with a language.
- Recommended Tools
Many people have asked me what tools I use for language learning. It really depends on the language, your focus, and comfort level.
a. Modern Languages: Verbal Skills
If you are just trying to learn how to speak and understand a language to — say impress your mother-in-law or go backpacking across a foreign country, exposing yourself to the environment is probably the best way to learn. If you are an absolute beginner, Mango Languages is a good way to get started on absolute beginner level languages. The app might feel a bit repetitive at times, but it’s meant to be that way. It also automatically builds in some of the techniques I talked about in the memory techniques section above. Once you have enough of a basic foundation for the language, talk to people in the language, don’t be afraid of making mistakes! Expose yourself as much as possible to that language through the environment, TV shows, radio broadcasts, etc. Force yourself to think in that language as well. Mango Languages is also a good fit for introverts that are frightened by the idea of going out there and “making a fool” out of themselves when they are not confident enough in their speaking and listening comprehension skills in a language. After all, fear often does not make good grounds for learning.
b. Modern Languages+ Ancient Languages: Reading and Writing
Duolingo is my go-to resources for reading and writing. Duolingo takes on a more inductive learning method mentioned above. Memrise is a nice complementary app to Duolingo that allows you reinforcements of words you have been exposed to. It was created by two memory champions, and has many of the memorization techniques I mentioned above built into the app.
Happy learning! If any of you are interested in participating in the world’s first in-depth brain study on polyglots, please reach out to me via email at jinwu[at]mit[dot]edu. Thank you!