field notes, languages

Language learning advice I freely ignore

As part of my language learning project, nicknamed a cup of tea, that I started in earnest at the beginning of this year (but which I’d been toying with on and off for maybe a year longer), I’ve read and heard plenty of advice and opinions on language learning from lots of different sources, from books (Fluent in 3 Months, Fluent Forever, Kató Lomb’s book Polyglot) to blogs (All Japanese All The Time) to podcasts (I Will Teach You a Language) to Reddit. I’ve even attended a Polyglot Gathering.

There’s a lot out there. I pick and choose tactics based on what seems intriguing, what works for me, what doesn’t, what’s fun, what’s boring. My system is always evolving, and it’s still pretty unsolidified, but already I can identify a few things that work for me and a few things that don’t.

We’re only a few months in and I don’t actually spend that much time on languages, so it’s too early to say like, “You can do what I do and still be wildly successful,” but I am happy with my progress given the time I put in, so all I can say is, “You can do what I do and it’s a valid way to go about things.” (Though as I’ll explain later in this post, you shouldn’t just blindly do what I do. I don’t think that will work either.)

Here’s some common pieces of advice that I freely ignore:

Focus on one language at a time. Work on that language until you reach a certain threshold of fluency, so that you don’t forget it as easily.

I experimented with this advice by attempting to follow it, but seeing what I gravitated towards (and letting myself stray from the rule if I wanted to). What I found was that I can focus on one language for a few months, and then all of a sudden it starts to feel icky and boring, while another language starts to feel exciting and urgent, and I would have to force myself to keep working on the original one. And I don’t learn quickly when I force it.

Instead, I just switch my focus to the new one, and I find that the original one becomes exciting again in time. It’s like rotating your crops. Or something. Or to switch analogies, riding the surges of motivation is like drafting, in cycling and car races and bird flight.

After a while, I get a little rusty in my inactive languages, but it comes back very fast. When I return to one, it’s not like relearning so much as reactivating.

I usually have one main language that I’m most actively working on at any given time. But it’s also not uncommon for me to have days where I might do my flashcards in Mandarin, complete a lesson from my Italian grammar book, put on a podcast in Turkish while I’m making dinner, and then watch a movie in Spanish. Those are great days.

While I find the “one language at a time” advice perfectly reasonable, and it’s quite possible that it would be more effective for me to follow it, I’m not in this to be effective, I’m in this to have fun. I try not to draw too much on willpower, which can run out and need to be replenished. Doing whatever I’m already motivated to do is my long game.

Speak from day one.

I get the sentiment behind this. Too many people try to learn a language without ever using it in real life. And you just can’t. (Well, most people can’t.) The best way to learn to use a language is to use it.

The only problem is, I don’t like awkward conversations. I don’t even like having them in English. So I’m not gonna speak from day one.

Conveniently, it turns out there’s an entire opposing school of language learning that happens to align well with my preferences, which we might term the school of “keep your mouth shut from day one.” In this approach, you listen to hundreds or potentially thousands of hours of audio by native speakers, without ever uttering a word, until you feel like it (which you probably will eventually, after having listened to thousands of hours of other people speaking). The argument is that by starting to speak too early on, you’ll develop more of an accent, or other bad habits, because you haven’t gotten enough correct input yet.

That’s what I do. Keep my mouth shut. Like a little baby just watching all the grownups talk around me. Or at least, I listen about 100x as much as I speak. Jury’s still out on how well it will work for me, as I have yet to reach my first 100 hours of listening in any of my languages, a far cry from AJATT’s recommended 10,000 hours, but it already works wonders for my listening comprehension, which is also really important to develop.

Use keyword mnemonics.

Keyword mnemonics are the kind where you try to learn some word in the target language by pairing it to some word that it sounds like in your native language (this is the keyword), then coming up with a memorable visual scene that links the two. Like Benny Lewis’s example of learning the French word gare (train station), which reminded him of the cartoon character Garfield (gare, Gar), by imagining Garfield in a train station. This seems to be a common suggestion in language-learning literature.

Personally I don’t do this because I’m fundamentally against any strategy that relies on sounds in the native language. (Another example is the sound charts in textbooks that are like, “this vowel is like the a in car.”) You risk messing up your pronunciation if you map sounds in one language to sounds in another that are not quite the same. Plus, I don’t want to make up a memorable image for every word I want to learn. That’s just not what I want to do with my time.

I do use some visual mnemonics that don’t involve English, whenever it would help. For example, in learning the Chinese character 影 (ying3, “shadow,” but I know it from 电影, which means “movie,” literally “electric shadow”–pretty cool right?), I imagine the written character as a drawing of a movie projector casting shadows on the wall. No English involved.

Watch TV/movies with subtitles in the target language, not in English (L1).

The argument behind this one is that if you watch a movie with audio in the target language and subtitles in English, then all you’ve done is read the movie in English, and gained no experience in the target language at all.

Of course, it’s only true for you if it’s true for you. When I watch with English subtitles, I really do listen to the audio and read the subtitles at the same time, and the English subtitles inform the way my brain parses the audio, allowing me to identify words in the audio that I wouldn’t have been able to make out otherwise. Which all makes for an immensely satisfying, active, multilayered watching experience.

In fact, it’s my killer tactic. Don’t let someone else steer you away from something that could be a killer tactic for you.

Make your own flashcards.

Hell no. Making flashcards is so boring. (UPDATE May 2020: I do now make my own flashcards, but not in the very involved and “fun” way described in the book Fluent Forever.. I make mine as quick and minimal as possible, just a word/phrase sentence and the translation. And I don’t enjoy it.)

Those are a few of the things I DON’T do. What DO I do? Briefly, here are a few components of my system thus far:

  1. SRS (spaced repetition software). I use Anki app on my phone. I find a deck that someone else has made online, of the most frequent sentences/words/characters in a language, depending on what I want to focus on, and then use it every day until I feel that it’s not valuable anymore. (As a side note, active recall might just be the most underrated learning tactic, in any subject, ever. Google it.)
  2. Mass input. Not 18 hours/day like AJATT (more like.. a couple of hours a week), but as I said above, I listen about 100x more than I speak. When I get better at reading, I’ll also read much more than I write.
  3. Grammar practice. Acquire any decent grammar book that has lots of exercises (my Turkish grammar book, I randomly found at a used bookstore, I have no idea whether it’s considered good or not). As long as it’s a grammar and not a textbook with annoying dialogues, vocabulary lists, or pictures. I do the exercises longhand in a notebook, for about an hour at a time.
  4. Watch TV/movies with English subtitles. See above.
  5. Occasionally text with a native speaker. If I have a friend or family member who’s a native speaker, we can text each other. Not only is it a more realistic time investment for them than speaking with me, I learn better this way, because if they use words I don’t know, they’re already written down, plus I can look them up before I respond. The most annoying side effect of this is that I have a ton of keyboards I have to toggle through on my computer and phone.

But the real point I want to get across in this post, is not that you should adopt my system. It’s that NOTHING beats a system that you create for yourself, picking and choosing tactics from a wide range of sources, based on what does and doesn’t work for you and what is and isn’t fun for you, which you find out by experimenting and paying attention.

I have no judgment re: laziness, as sometimes it’s beneficial to be deliberately lazy in something and limit the attention you invest in it. But if you value results and/or fun over laziness in the area of learning languages, NEVER blindly follow someone else’s system.

All of the work that really multiplies the payoff, is essentially the work of developing self-knowledge: the knowledge of how the system of your body interacts with the systems of the world. This is a metaphor for life.