Shortcuts for Learning a Language

Are there any shortcuts for learning a language? You probably already know that programs that promise fluency in less than 3 months are scams. There’s no free lunch, and learning a language takes a lot of work and a lot of time. We can’t force our brains to learn faster, after all.

In fact, I don’t think you should even try to learn faster. The process of learning should be enjoyed in and of itself. While you learn a language your mind will expand. You’ll begin to see things differently. Not only will you learn about other cultures, but you’ll learn more about your own.

But what you can and should do is eliminate or streamline as much of the grunt work of learning a language as possible. Spend less time on boring memorization and more time reading books, watching foreign movies and TV, and speaking with native speakers.

Unfortunately, the need for memorization isn’t going to go away. You need to build a large base of vocabulary and grammar rules to get to the entertaining stuff. But you can make the memorization of these more efficient.

Don’t Study Words You’re Not Going to Use

This might seem obvious, but teaching vocabulary out of sequence seems to be endemic to language instruction. I think the problem comes from the fact that it’s easier to design lessons around logical groups of nouns. Nouns are easy to find pictures for (and everyone loves pictures, right?). They’re generally not ambiguous. And they’re easy to enumerate in groups. But no matter how simple it is to list thing you’d find in a classroom, the parts of the body, and common fruit names, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be using those words any time soon1.

Logically grouping words does not make them any easier to learn. So why should you bother studying them this way? Why spend your time following a lesson plan because it was easier for the instructor to make? If basic verbs are what you need right now, why shouldn’t you be learning them?

Unfortunately, our brains are not good at estimating how common a word is. That’s why you should use a word frequency list built from modern everyday speech and writing2.

Don’t Study Words You Already Know

But you’ll forget them if you don’t study them, right? Well, yes and no. You do need to review words you’ve already learned, but you don’t need to review them all equally. If you try to regularly review every word you’ve learned, your study would soon be dominated by review. And the review would feel (rightfully) like a boring waste of time.

You can cut out inefficiency here by realizing that you’ll remember some words better than others. For some reason or another, some words you’ll never forget. Others you’ll have to forget half a dozen times in the short term before you remember them in the long term. Your time should be spent reviewing the words you tend to forget.

But how do you know which words these are? Use a review system that tracks which words you forget and brings those words up for review more often.

Don’t Forget Words in the First Place

This might seem ridiculous to say. Of course you’re not trying to forget words.

Spending a little bit longer learning a word more deeply the first time you encounter it can save you a lot of time and frustration later when you’re reviewing it. One way to learn words more deeply is through mnemonics. Use mnemonics whenever possible to learn new words.

Don’t Tackle Text or Speech Too Far Outside of Your Skill Level

Trying to listen to newscasts or read the newspaper when you’re in the first stages of learning can be an exercise in frustration. Sure, you’ll learn something from it, but at best it will not be the most effective use of your time and at worst it will be discouraging.

You’ll eventually get to the level where these types of activities are easier. They’ll still be challenging, but they’ll be more fruitful. In fact, I think that should be the goal of formal language study: to get you to the level when you can learn at your own pace in the way that’s most entertaining to you.

However, trying to get there too soon can be counterproductive. When you don’t know more than 50% of the words you’re reading or hearing, it’s impossible to keep up with what’s going on. And the confusion is cumulative: most of what you read or hear won’t be completely comprehensible without contextual clues from what you read or heard earlier in the conversation.

Until you’re ready for the language in the wild, use a series of written and spoken language examples in order of gradually increasing difficulty.

  1. One exception to this is the numbers. You might as well learn the numbers at the same time as you definitely will be making use of them often.↩︎

  2. It’s important that the word frequency list comes from modern sources. Imagine if you learned English by studying the words that were common in Shakespeare’s plays. An example of a good source of word lists are those that come from analyzing the Open Subtitles project (words from movies and television).↩︎