You've probably heard that each successive language you learn will feel a bit easier than the previous one. In my experience, this has been true.
Some of it comes down to grammar—in language one you have to learn what a direct object is and how it works in that language; in language two, as you already know what a direct object is, you only need to learn how it works in this new language. Accumulating experiences is also important. It can be nerve wracking to speak a foreign language for the first time, but by language two or three, you'll have already worked through those feelings.
The key difference between an experienced and new language learner, however, is that the experienced learner already has a kind of roadmap in mind. They've encountered many hurdles and gotten over them, a fact that gives them a leg up in the next language they approach. Whether it's memorizing vocabulary words or figuring out new sounds, the experienced learner has already figured out a few strategies that work for them.
This post lays out 10 strategies you can experiment with for yourself.
In the Classroom
The standard classroom experience was how most of us got acquainted with our foreign languages. Classic methods like rote learning, memorization of grammar tables, vocabulary quizzes, listening to lectures with little opportunity to speak, and so forth, are things we’ve all experienced.
There are some upsides to this environment, such as structure and accountability. The fact that your course follows a syllabus means that you don't have to know a lot about educational theory or linguistics—your teacher and the textbook writers have done that heavy lifting for you. Having a fixed time(s) each week that you devote to your language is also important, and simply doing your homework guarantees that you'll at least develop some command over the basics.
Another good thing about the classroom is that you (hopefully) have access to a language expert for questions that come up in your studies. Whatever problem you might run into, you've got access to the brain of an experienced language learner and someone who has observed the progress of many students. That can be invaluable, especially in the beginning, when we're still getting our bearings about us.
Game based learning (GBL) is a method in which games are altered slightly to incorporate learning. Edtechreview describes it as “a type of game play that has defined learning outcomes… learning is designed to balance subject matter with gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world.”
In other words, you play games that have educational content built into them.
This is nothing new: chess has been used to teach war strategy for over 1,000 years. The idea that kids learn through play was the heart of Friedrich Fröbel’s Kindergarten movement in the mid-19th century, and today the game Minecraft is used to teach ratios, proportions, and even electrical engineering.
For language learning, GBL is a fantastic tool for children. Games are a way that children can interact with the world. One example that has become popular in language classrooms since the late 70’s is Professor James Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR). Best suited to young learners, this method has teachers give instructions in the target language while students respond with whole-body movements. It is often incorporated into games like ‘Simon Says’ and has found great success—these physical movements serve as an anchor that helps us to remember things.
But GBL is not just for kids. There are lots of examples of games that can be turned into learning opportunities for adults. How about bowling in Japanese, playing poker in Finnish, or learning the game Go in Chinese. Learning all of the new specialized vocabulary, social etiquettes, and sentence patterns while engaging in a game-based activity is a great way to improve your abilities.
Wait, didn’t we just talk about this?
No, not exactly. Game-based learning is the idea of using games to learn a subject. Gamification is making learning resemble a game. In other words: game-based learning is game-based, while gamification is education-based.
Get the difference? Let’s test your knowledge:
Playing a round of musical chairs where you sit every time you hear a specific word?
GBL or gamification? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~> GBL
Learning verbs by matching written words with pictured actions.
GBL or Gamification? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~> Gamification
Playing a speed-typing game that gets harder as you progress?
GBL or Gamification? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~> Gamification
Learning career-related vocabulary by playing a game of 20 questions?
GBL or Gamification? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~> GBL
(by the way, this whole ‘let’s test your knowledge section’ is an example of gamification.)
Now let's get a bit more technical.
Gamification takes elements from games, like badges, leaderboards, avatars and points, and applies them to an educational task. This turns boring, mundane tasks into something more engaging and stimulating.
Gamification has seen an explosion in the language-learning industry ever since Rosetta Stone became famous in the mid-90’s. Today, programs like Duolingo use gamification as their primary learning model by providing an interactive platform where users match sounds with images, write words and phrases with real-time error correction, and even progress through the program in a game-like tier system. Even text and audio-based systems aimed at more advanced learners, like Glossika or LingQ, make use of gamification by introducing badges, evolving avatars, point systems, and so forth.
The main drawback to both GBL and gamification is that they can only take you so far.
Listen and Repeat
This is the method that you might associate with many popular language learning systems including Pimsleur, Michel Thomas and Glossika. Here, the basic idea is that you listen to a snippet of audio, usually a few sentences or a short phrase, and then repeat back what you hear.
The ‘listen and repeat’ method might seem simple at first, but there’s actually a lot to it. Mimicking, shadowing, and chorusing are three types of ‘listen and repeat’ that all have slightly different aims, but all produce incredible results.
In mimicking, you listen to a short audio clip, usually a sentence or short phrase, and then repeat back exactly what you heard. It seems simple, but is a very powerful method for improving pronunciation, vocabulary, and phrasing.
To shadow a language, you play an audio clip that is at or just above your current ability level. Then, as soon as the sound hits your eardrums, you repeat back what you hear with as little delay as possible. There is a bit of a learning curve, but once you get used to it, you’ll be able to focus in on the speaker in the audio clip and instantly adjust your own speech to match.
Chorusing is repeating or chanting along with an audio clip as it plays. It is a method that many language learners discover all on their own, but has also been described in detail by linguists like Dr. Olle Kjellin M.D., PhD.
Learning through stories is a method that has swept language curriculums in the last few decades. Despite the title, learning through stories isn’t about reading books in your target language (even though that’s a great idea, too).
Instead, learning through stories is a way of incorporating vocabulary, sentences, or phrases from your target language into your native language. These linguistic tidbits are then merged into stories that give context to the foreign-language content being presented.
This system is formally known as TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling), and was developed by Blaine Ray in the 1990’s. Ray was a high school Spanish teacher and built his system on the successful models of Steven Krashen’s Comprehensible Input and James Asher’s TPR.
It works like this: The teacher finds words that are within the grasp of students and uses them in a story that they can understand.
Take an example of teaching the word gato (cat) in a Spanish class.
Teacher: (holding a picture of a cat) This is a gato
Teacher: What is it?
Teacher: One day, a big black gato went to the store.
Teacher: Who went to the store?
Teacher: Did a dog go to the store?
Teacher: Did a cat go to the store?
Teacher: Is a gato a cat?
And so on. The teacher incorporates foreign-language words and phrases, melds them into a story for context, and then checks for comprehension.
Unfortunately, not everyone has a charismatic teacher at their disposal.
Thankfully, you can recreate this method yourself by using Chrome extensions like “Vocablurry”, “Mind The Word”, “Kypsis”, or “Flewent”. These work by randomly choosing words from the webpages you visit and replacing them with the same word in your target language. That means that you can continue visiting the news sites, social media pages, etc. that you already use and get in a bit of extra studying as a bonus.
Singing is a fantastic way to learn a language.
You’ve probably noticed that you can sing along to an entire 5-minute song without having to think about the lyrics. But if you were asked to give a 5-minute speech from memory, that's suddenly quite the challenge. Why?
It’s because music has a profound effect on our ability to learn.
In 2013, researchers at the University of Edenborough were able to show that people who studied languages using singing doubled their retention rate.
The study introduced participants to various phrases in a language they were not familiar with; Hungarian in this case. The participants were split into three groups: one heard the phrases spoken and repeated them back, one heard the phrases spoken in a rhythmic pattern and repeated them back the same way, and the last group heard the phrases sung and then sung them back.
15-minutes later, all three groups were tested to see how well they retained the information. The singing group performed twice as well as the other two!
But there are even more reasons to incorporate singing into your learning routine:
- Song lyrics are a great way to increase your vocabulary.
- Repetition is important. Singing a song you like over-and-over is easy.
- Music is a great way to learn about the culture of your target language.
- Singing is fun!
Everyone loves watching movies, and if you find some movies you like in your target language, they can be a great language-learning tool.
The trick with using movies to advance your language level is to actually study it, not just watch. Here’s what you do:
On the first go-round you can feel free to just watch the movie. Enjoy it, and think about how useful the language might be for language learning: Does it use modern language, or is it a period-piece with antiquated language and accents? Is the story and/or dialogue interesting enough that you'd be willing to re-watch it several times? Does the movie have subtitles in both your native language and the target language? Etc.
Next, break the movie into manageable chunks—maybe just one scene, or a two- to three-minute clip.
If the language level of your selected clip is beyond your current ability level, play it with the subtitles in your native language showing. Find the words and phrases that you are unfamiliar with and make sure you understand their meanings.
Next, play the clip again, this time with the subtitles of the target language showing. Follow along and really tune-in to how the words are being spoken, how the characters gesture and show their emotions at different words and phrases.
Now play the clip again, this time without subtitles. Listen closely to make sure you’re clearly hearing and understanding every word. See if you can speak along with each character's dialogue.
Lastly, turn off the movie and try to describe the scene you just watched. Using your target language, could you tell a friend what that scene was about? Can you explain the context of that scene within the larger story of the entire movie? Try to incorporate language that you learned from watching the clip.
Finding a good Spaced Repetition System (SRS) will do wonders for your language learning.
SRS is a computer-based system that uses special algorithms to display information at varying intervals. These intervals are selected based on a number of factors, often how difficult information was to remember.
For example, if you see a word that you remember immediately, you might not see that word again for two days; meanwhile a word that you marked as moderately difficult to remember might pop back up within 12 hours. As you begin consistently recognizing a given word, this interval extends out indefinitely. Eventually, you'll only see a given card once every several years.
The best-known use of SRS is probably as a digital flashcard tool. Programs like Anki allow you to import decks that have been created and shared by others, or create your own sets of flashcards with whatever you want on the front and back.
SRS can also be used for audio-based learning systems as well. Instead of creating cards with vocabulary or phrases on one side and the translation on the other, you can put audio clips in the target language on one ‘card’ and the written or spoken translation on another. Or you could even put a spoken question on one side, something like “what do you want to order”, and on the other put a possible answer, such as “I think I’ll try the chicken”.
One of the great things about SRS flashcard systems is that you can do it anywhere: a few minutes waiting in line to get your morning coffee, a few minutes during your lunch break, a few minutes while cooling down at the gym…all that time adds up.
Another advantage about SRS systems is that they are very efficient — they curate your review sessions so that you spend more time on the things you struggle with and less time on the stuff you know well. If you don't have a lot of time to devote to language learning, an SRS tool will help you to make the most of what time you do have.
Immersion is the ultimate language-learning tool. It allows you to be constantly surrounded by the target language, gives you unlimited opportunities to practice in a variety of linguistic settings, and forces you to leave your mother-tongue behind.
But there are two important things to keep in mind.
First, moving abroad won’t necessarily mean immersion.
Many people think that a trip to a country filled with native speakers of their target language will immediately boost their language abilities. While this has the possibility of being true, it is not necessarily the case.
Many times, travelers will find it all too easy to get trapped in a ‘foreign bubble’. These are places (both literal and symbolic) where expats congregate, engage in activities that they engaged in at home, and speak their mother tongue.
Don’t get me wrong, a respite from your host country can often be important for mental health. But if you find yourself constantly spending your free time in these types of situations, you’ll be no better off language-wise than if you had stayed at home.
This is especially difficult if you are supporting your travels by teaching your native tongue, requiring you to speak a language other than your target one for your entire work-day. English speakers have an even easier time getting trapped. In many countries around the world, regardless of the national or native language, you will be able to find English-speaking friends, watch and listen to English-language media, and interact with English-speaking service workers. Many people live abroad for several years but never acquire any meaningful level of ability in the language spoken there.
The second thing to remember is that you don't necessarily need to get on an airplane to find opportunities to immerse in your target language. You can turn your own home environment into an immersion environment.
A popular way to learn a foreign language without leaving home is to constantly and intentionally surround yourself with the target language.
Websites like Khatzumoto’s All Japanese All The Time detail the lengths that some people go to to be immersed in their target language from home. In this case, blogger Khatzumoto watched Japanese TV shows, played Japanese video games, spoke with Japanese strangers, read Japanese books and newspapers, and even sneakily listened to Japanese audio while at the movie theater with friends.
Role play is an integral part of the language learning classroom.
The role play scenarios you already know, like going to the bank, talking to a cashier, asking for directions, etc., are perfect for when you’re just starting out with a language. They let you gain mastery over basic grammar points and will enable you to get through daily life if you ever visit a country where your target language is spoken.
The usefulness of role playing, however, is not limited to these early stages. Role playing is a great way to practice advanced topics, too.
For example, imagine you’re at a dinner party and a fellow guest asks you how the president is elected. How would you respond?
Or maybe you’re a guest on a popular podcast; could you talk about your area of expertise for an hour or more?
Just imagine a scenario taking place in a foreign language and work through what you would say, what the other person might say, how you would respond, and so forth. Even if it's just practice and imaginary, having put together a game plan gives you something to fall back on if you get stuck. On the other hand, if you feel nervous about speaking your target language, running through it once in the mirror can be helpful: you give yourself proof that you're capable of getting over this hurdle.
SRS, listen-and-repeat, gamification, Glossika has it all. If you haven’t tried Glossika yet, now is the time! You can try it for free — no credit card required.