What works the best when learning a new language?

Answer by Gruff Davies:

There is a trick to learning languages that can shorten the journey to fluency from decades to mere months. There's also something most teachers won't even tell students for fear they would never start, but in fact, is vital that you know.

In fact, there's not one trick but a whole suite of tricks to help you learn a language.  I'll use French as an example, but this advice applies to any language.

1. Understand the Language Learning Journey
Language learning has an appalling abandonment rate.  A mere 4% of students embarking on language courses in schools achieve a basic level of fluency after three years. 96% fail to achieve fluency and/or abandon courses completely!  People almost always wrongly conclude two things from this: Myth 1) Learning languages is hard, 2) Other people (but not them) are naturally good at languages.  One of the biggest reasons cited for abandoning is that students don't feel any sense of progression.  A GCSE student with an A* will visit France and find they can't even have a basic conversion.  People largely give up because they had the wrong expectations set.

Learning a language isn't hard.  It's just LONG.

I'm going to use a metaphor that I hope will help you get the knack.

I think of learning a language a bit like climbing a mountain (a large but easy mountain, the sort that anyone can climb so long as they keep going).

Here's what most teachers won't tell you: It takes 600+ hours of study to reach fluency in French (unless you already speak another latin-based language – a so-called romance language).  Think about this.  If schools teach 1 hour of French per week, then in forty weeks you'll do 40 hours.  You'll need fifteen years at that rate to become fluent, not counting all the stuff you forget because of the gaps between study.  (Harder languages like Russian or Mandarin can take 1,200 hours!)

At the other extreme, if you study really intensively, you can rack up 40 hours in one week!  You can achieve fluency in ten to twelve weeks at that rate.  Most people don't have the spare time to give that level of intensity, but understanding the journey helps you be realistic about what you can achieve so you won't get demotivated.

2. Intensity is vital to learning a language quickly.
This is a double-whammy.  1) Immersing yourself as deeply as possible in the subject allows you to rack up the hours as quickly as possible. 2) Memory fades unless it's used. Low-intensity studies (i.e. school French) are ineffective because their intensity is so low that you end up forgetting a large percentage of what you learn.  So, try to learn as intensely as time will permit you to. 

To use my mountain metaphor, the ground is icy and slippery and if you go slowly, you'll slip back as much as you progress.  The faster you can climb, the less you will slip back.

3. Be kind to yourself
I've used sunlight in this mountain metaphor to give you an indication of how it feels to be at these levels. It's not until B1/B2 that the light comes out and it starts to feel really good speaking French.  That happens around the 350-400 hours mark if you've never learned a second language before. 

Expect a lot of fog and confusion for the first few hundred hours.  It's completely normal and you're not stupid.  EVERYONE feels this way, even the people who seem really gifted at languages.  The difference is, anyone who's already been through that and reached the sunlight expects this stage, and it doesn't phase them because they know they'll get there eventually.  So, if you catch yourself saying things like, "I'm rubbish at French" or "I'm stupid" just stop for a moment and remind yourself that you're neither and you will get it if you persevere.

4. Prepare for the journey
If you're a complete beginner I find it's really important to absorb the sounds of the language before beginning serious study.  I listen to hours of audio (audio books are great for this) without trying to understand the content, but still actively listening to the sounds of the language to embed them.  I usually find after a while I end up babbling them a little like a baby which can feel a bit silly . Which brings me my next piece of advice:

5. Practise looking stupid
Being self-conscious is your biggest enemy.  You cannot speak a foreign language without feeling stupid at some point. You have to get over that.  You have to twist your mouth into stange new shapes that make you feel like a caricature; you will speak and not be understood and you will listen and not understand. A LOT.  It's really okay and in fact necessary to learning. If you think about it, what's the big deal? So you look stupid. Who cares?

If you instead give yourself credit every time you feel stupid you can turn this around. Give yourself a little mental gold star each time you feel stupid because those moments are learning moments. Feeling stupid is actually a sign of progress, or the moment just prior to progress.

6. Find out where you are (and therefore what the next stage is)
I strongly advise you measure your level using CEFR levels (https://www.french-test.com/blog…) as these are now standard across Europe.

If you want find out approximately what level you are, you can take our test here:
https://www.french-test.com/

7. Set goals
Plan your language learning journey in stages.  You've seen how long the journey is, so just like climbing a mountain, it's advisable to plan the journey in stages.

Goal setting (and measuring progress against those goals) is one of the most effective tools in your learning arsenal.  I highly recommend setting short term and longer terms goals

Short term goals can be as simple as how many hours of study you will do each week. If you (say) want to study one hour a day then write seven boxes on a sheet and every hour you study, check a box. It feels good and you're measuring progress which is visible to you even when you don't feel like you're progressing.

Set longer terms goals like passing a specific CEFR level.

It's really worth while registering to take DELF / DALF exams which are French exams that match the CEFR levels:
DILF, DELF and DALF – Everything you need to know about French Diplomas.  There are similar diplomas for most languages.

8. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Repetition is absolutely vital to learning most things but especially important when learning a language. It sounds boring, but it doesn't need to be. More on this in a moment.

9. Recall is more important than revision
Practising recall has proven to be 300% more effective than revising something.  In other words, you must challenge yourself to "produce" French, not just comprehend it.  The metaphor I use for memory is a field of long grass.  You drop lots of things in it, but to make them easy to find again, you must practise retrieving them.  Every time you do, you tread down the path to the thing you're recalling and it gets easier to follow.

Anything you do to practise recall is going to help your French.

If you can, the best way is of course to practise speaking with a real French person

Our site, https://www.french-test.com/ offers thousands of tests which will adapt automatically to you and measure your progress at each level.

All of this is building towards my ultimate language learning trick.

If we combine these point (especially 8 and 9) there is an obvious conclusion: the quickest way to learn a language that I have found is to…

10. Rote learn set texts in French

This is my number one trick and I've found this to be singularly the most effective method in acquiring a language rapidly

Find a text that you can learn in a week (you must have audio – this is essential).

Pick a text on a subject you find interesting and at the right level for you (i.e. a bit challenging but not too hard).  If you're a beginner keep it short, i.e. a few sentences at a time.  Graphic comics are really good for beginners (things like Peanuts) which you can order online.

As you progress you can pick longer texts and learn a few paragraphs, or pages of dialogue at a time.  I like using film or theatre texts, or books I liked as a kid which are also good because the language is usually simple.

Listen to the piece at least ten times (repetition) before starting to try to learn it.  Start to commit it to memory (practise rccall). You'll find this very hard at first and it will show you just how important it is to practise recall.

Give yourself a week to learn the piece. Why? Because after seven nights of sleep, something magical happens…

11. Sleep
Sleep is vital to memory. In fact, research shows the time of day that you sleep is not that important. Daytime napping is very effective.  Don’t deprive yourself of sleep for too long after you've learned or practised something.  When you sleep your brain starts to build structures to turn short-term memories into long-term memories.  It may be different for you, but I've found that after about seven nights of sleep is about the amount needed (with daily practice) for a text to be effortless to recall.

12. Exercise
We tend to think of our brains as separate from our bodies, but of course the brain is part of body. If you exercise, you get huge mental benefits.  It might sound bizarre, but keeping fit will help you learn a language.  You can even combine the two efforts by listen to French audio during a workout or run.

13. Learn about learning
I've found that every hour I invested in learning about learning paid off many times over in my learning speed of actual content.  There's general stuff that you can learn about learning that works for everyone, and then there are your own personal learning tricks that can develop; this is about just taking time to reflect on what work best for you and thinking about how to improve on what you're doing.

Hope that's helpful!

What works the best when learning a new language?

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