Have you ever given up on learning a new language?
Maybe you studied Spanish at school, and as much as you wanted to become fluent you just couldn’t find the time to practice. Or maybe you just felt like you were never making real progress.
So that time you went to Mexico, you spent the trip awkwardly stumbling through a menu or pointing vaguely and stuttering “b-baño” whenever nature called.
But it’s not your fault, the way we are taught – particularly at school – is usually pretty ineffective. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be your experience with foreign languages.
There are some simple tips and tricks to hack your brain into learning a language faster than you ever thought possible.
So let’s cut to the chase. We need to admit the real problem here.
The problem up until this point is that your mind hasn’t recognized language learning as a priority. That’s why it has been so difficult to stick with it.
The main thing you need to do to learn a language fast, is to trick your brain into believing that the new language is important.
This is why immersion works so well, because when you have no option but to speak another language your brain literally sees learning that language as a survival mechanism. And suddenly you’ll absorb everything a lot more easily.
So how do we do this at home?
To trick our brain into thinking that information is important we need to use certain cognitive tricks.
Here are a few situations in which the brain better learns information:
- If the information is absorbed with multiple senses: visual (images), auditory (sounds), kinaesthetic (feelings)
- If we perceive it to be immediately useful. First to our survival, then our basic needs, and then our wider experience
- If we have already invested (e.g. time or energy) in acquiring it
- If we are experiencing positive emotions (passion or motivation) at the time of learning
- If the information is bizarre or unusual
- If the information needs to be recalled frequently
- If we have worked harder to fill in gaps and create patterns or links
Below I’ve compiled a list of 15 ways in which you can hack your brain using the above 7 principles.
- Learn sounds before words. Always learn the sounds of the alphabet properly before you start trying to memorize vocabulary, that way you can practice reading words you haven’t heard out loud yet.
- Learn the cognates. Cognates are words similar to those in your language – they are the easiest words to learn – there are 1000+ English-Spanish cognates, and you could learn a few hundred in a weekend.
- Set measurable goals. There’s an old saying that goes ‘what gets tracked get achieved’ and this is true with language learning. You need to measure your progress in order to not get stuck.
- Don’t ‘study’. Rote learning and memorization is slow and pointless. Listen and read. Speak and write. That’s it.
- Don’t do boring things. Only learn with topics that you’re interested in. For example if you like sports, you can read the weekends results in your target language.
- Remind yourself ‘why’. Before trying to learn anything, always take a second to mentally remind yourself why you are doing so – your mind needs to be conscious of the value of the exercise.
- Use your Kindle or iPad. Both Kindle and iPad have built in foreign language dictionaries and the option for vocabulary builders.
- Learn Esperanto first. Esperanto was created to be an international language, but it never took off. However, if English is your first language, Esperanto is the easiest language to learn and acts as a bridge to help you learn dozens of others.
- Start with the high frequency words. Try and find a list of the 500 most common words in your target language and learn these first.
- Don’t translate (often). Staying away from translating everything you don’t know will make your brain work harder and see more long term value in investing energy in the language. You should also turn off the subtitles when watching movies, even if you don’t understand much at first.
- Connect new words to weird and personal images. For example with the Spanish word for cat ‘gato’ pronounced gah-toe. You can imagine your cat scratching your feet while you scream ‘Gah my toe.’ Strange, yep, but also memorable.
- Use a memory palace. This is a technique used by world memory champions that builds mental ‘palaces’ and places images in different memorized locations in your mind.
- Recall, don’t review. Reviewing things over and over is not good for long term memory – that’s why we forget the tests that we crammed for. Telling your brain to retrieve information periodically lets it know that the information is important.
- Use intervals with flash cards. One month is the ideal amount of time to convert information to long term memory. Have a reminder to go back over all the lessons you have one month out from now, for a minimum of three months.
- Get feedback. If you don’t have a way to get feedback where you live, you can get a digital pen pal with a site such as italki. Or you can upload a Youtube Video and ask for feedback (if you’re really brave).
It’s time you learned that language you’ve been putting off. Remember the most important thing is to relax and have fun because that’s when your brain really opens up to learning.
Have you had any success with these techniques? How have you learned languages? Let us know in the comments.
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Ben Fishel is a freelance writer, and the creator of Project Monkey Mind – a blog that delves deep into psychology, spirituality, and the mind, and offers practical wisdom for the digital age.