What Are the Most Effective Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language?: Six TED Talks Provide the Answers

Ear­li­er this week we fea­tured the For­eign Ser­vice Insti­tute’s list of lan­guages ranked by how long they take to learn. Now that you have a sense of the rel­a­tive life invest­ment required to learn the tongue or tongues of your choice, how about a few words of advice on how to start? Or per­haps we’d do bet­ter, before the how, to con­sid­er the why. “A lot of us start with the wrong moti­va­tion to learn a lan­guage,” says Ben­ny Lewis in his TED Talk “Hack­ing Lan­guage Learn­ing.” Those moti­va­tions include “just to pass an exam, to improve our career prospects, or in my case for super­fi­cial rea­sons, to impress peo­ple.”

Real lan­guage learn­ing, on the oth­er hand, comes from pas­sion for a lan­guage, for “the lit­er­a­ture and the movies and being able to read in the lan­guage, and of course, to use it with peo­ple.” But Lewis, who now brands him­self as “The Irish Poly­glot,” says he got a late start on lan­guage-learn­ing, con­vinced up until his ear­ly twen­ties that he sim­ply could­n’t do it.

He cites five flim­sy defens­es he once used, and so many oth­ers still do, for their mono­lin­gual­ism: lack of a “lan­guage gene or tal­ent,” being “too old to learn a sec­ond lan­guage,” not hav­ing the resources to “trav­el to the coun­try right now,” and not want­i­ng to “frus­trate native speak­ers” by using the lan­guage before attain­ing flu­en­cy.

None of these, how­ev­er, seem to have occurred to Tim Don­er, who went viral at six­teen years with a video where­in he spoke twen­ty lan­guages that he taught him­self. He dis­cuss­es that expe­ri­ence, and the fas­ci­na­tions and tech­niques that got him to that point and now well past it, in his talk “Break­ing the Lan­guage Bar­ri­er.” At first put off by the drudgery of French class­es in school, he only began to grasp the nature of lan­guage itself, as a kind of sys­tem break­able into mas­ter­able rules, when he began study­ing Latin.

Want­i­ng to under­stand more about the con­flict between Israel and Pales­tine, Don­er decid­ed to find his way into the sub­ject through Hebrew, and specif­i­cal­ly through rap music record­ed in it. Using lan­guage study as a means of deal­ing with his insom­nia, he dis­cov­ered tech­niques to expand into oth­er lin­guis­tic realms, such as the method of loci (i.e., remem­ber­ing words by asso­ci­at­ing them with places), learn­ing vocab­u­lary in batch­es of sim­i­lar sounds rather than sim­i­lar mean­ings, and seek­ing out the for­eign-lan­guage learn­ers and speak­ers all around him — a rel­a­tive­ly easy task for a New York­er like Don­er, but applic­a­ble near­ly every­where.

In “How to Learn Any Lan­guage in Six Months,” Chris Lons­dale deliv­ers, and with a pas­sion bor­der­ing on fury, a set of use­ful prin­ci­ples like “Focus on lan­guage con­tent that is rel­e­vant to you,” “Use your new lan­guage as a tool to com­mu­ni­cate from day one,” “When you first under­stand the mes­sage, you will uncon­scious­ly acquire the lan­guage.” This res­onates with the advice offered by the much more laid-back Sid Efro­movich in “Five Tech­niques to Speak any Lan­guage,” includ­ing an encour­age­ment to “get things wrong and make mis­takes,” a sug­ges­tion to “find a stick­ler” to help you iden­ti­fy and cor­rect those mis­takes, and a strat­e­gy for over­com­ing the pro­nun­ci­a­tion-hin­der­ing lim­i­ta­tions of the “data­base” of sounds long estab­lished in your brain by your native lan­guage.

Your native lan­guage, in fact, will play the role of your most aggres­sive and per­sis­tent ene­my in the strug­gle to learn a for­eign one — espe­cial­ly if your native lan­guage is as wide­ly used, to one degree or anoth­er, as Eng­lish. And so Scott Young and Vat Jaisw­al, in their talk “One Sim­ple Method to Learn Any Lan­guage,” pro­pose an absolute “no-Eng­lish rule.” You can get results using it with a con­ver­sa­tion part­ner in your home­land, while trav­el­ing for the pur­pose of lan­guage-learn­ing, and espe­cial­ly if you’ve relo­cat­ed to anoth­er coun­try per­ma­nent­ly.

With the rule in place, you’ll avoid the sor­ry fate of one fel­low Young and Jaisw­al know, “an Amer­i­can busi­ness­man who went to Korea, mar­ried a Kore­an women, had chil­dren in Korea, lived in Korea for twen­ty years, and still could­n’t have a decent con­ver­sa­tion in Kore­an.” As an Amer­i­can liv­ing in Korea myself, I had to laugh at that: I could name at least three dozen long-term West­ern expa­tri­ates I’ve met in that very same sit­u­a­tion. In my case, I spent a few years devel­op­ing self-study habits for Kore­an and a cou­ple oth­er lan­guages while still in Amer­i­ca, and so did­n’t have to imple­ment them on the fly after mov­ing here.

Even so, I still must con­stant­ly refine my lan­guage-learn­ing strat­e­gy, incor­po­rat­ing rou­tines like those laid out by Eng­lish poly­glot Matthew Youlden in “How to Speak any Lan­guage Eas­i­ly”: seek­ing out exploitable sim­i­lar­i­ties between the lan­guages I know and the ones I want to know bet­ter, say, or find­ing sources of con­stant “pas­sive” lin­guis­tic input. Per­son­al­ly, I like to lis­ten to pod­casts not just in for­eign lan­guages, but that teach one for­eign lan­guage through anoth­er. And just as Eng­lish-learn­ers get good lis­ten­ing prac­tice out of TED Talks like these, I seek them out in oth­er lan­guages: Kore­an, Japan­ese, Span­ish, or wher­ev­er good old lin­guis­tic pas­sion leads me next.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Map Show­ing How Much Time It Takes to Learn For­eign Lan­guages: From Eas­i­est to Hard­est

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

215 Hours of Free For­eign Lan­guage Lessons on Spo­ti­fy: French, Chi­nese, Ger­man, Russ­ian & More

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

Where Did the Eng­lish Lan­guage Come From?: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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