Language Learning Hacks

“The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
by ~Albert Einstein~

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Are you someone who struggles to learn a second language or feel it is taking you too long? Do you seem to get stuck at “a level”? Have you tried this and that but your progress is still not as good as you wish it was? Your issue might be in general language skills or it might be with one aspect of them, such as pronunciation. If this is you, you might be interested in some language learning hacks you can take on to transform the process. 

Is This The Language Learning Hack To Top All Hacks?

Sometimes to find really good hacks that can put us on a new trajectory we have to consider possibilities that we have not even thought of. I would like to explore one possibility here that is seldom looked at. This one possibility can yield us insights that can impact nearly everything we do. The one I am talking about is the view that as children we were given everything we needed to learn a language. The way kids learn can provide us with real hacks. Sure, they take years to learn. Don’t forget, though, that they are learning a lot more than “just” a language. They are learning to express their humanity for the first time! If we took away that element, then their speed, I would suggest, would be … pretty impressive.

As children, we are the ultimate learning machines. We learn nearly everything, as we come with so few reflexes at birth, unlike animals that are born with nearly everything they need. So, many four-legged creatures are walking sometimes within minutes of being born whilst we can take a year to learn to walk. Humans are given the potential to be and do “anything”. This can be seen by the amazing breadth of skills, we show as well as with all that humanity has accomplished. Language is just one element in all that, but it is a clearly a critical one.

Consider for a moment that we have everything we need to learn a new language. This is not so hard to accept as we all learned our mother language, the most difficult language to learn by a country mile. It is incontrovertible that we learn the majority of our first language by ourselves. It has been said that if we intentionally set about teaching the whole of a new language to an infant, they would never learn. Of course, some parents do teach some vocabulary and other things to children, but it is ad hoc. On the other hand, many parents don’t teach their children much at all and still they learn. Which parent teaches their child the use of “ever”, “considering”, “if” and so on? None, I would say. Yet the child learns everything they need to sound like a native and to express all they want to.

Language learning hack

Once this understanding is taken on board, even tentatively, then it is not a long stretch to consider that amongst the other things that may be preventing us from learning is what we are doing to stop ourselves from learning. In other words we have to consider that we have taken on views and practices that are preventing us from exercising what we need to learn a new language effectively.

Some of you may be thinking that there are other reasons why there are differences between infants learning and adults learning.  Yes, we could say a lot about the differences. But for now I am asking you to consider (not accept) the possibility that we still have everything we need. All we have to do is find what it is we have. Let us consider (again, we don’t need to accept) that some of the ways we are learning are inhibiting us. That is, that they are preventing us from expressing the capacities to which we all have access.

This mental attitude of “considering” is something we all do in our lives when are facing, for example, personal problems. We consider – we might say this, we might say that, or they might be saying this for such and such a reason, and so on. So, I am not asking you to do something that you haven’t done before. I am just asking you to do something that you might not have done in regards to the subject we are talking about in this post.

What is stopping you?

So let us look at what exactly might be stopping us.  What if the following practices were actually stopping you from exercising your amazing learning powers? The ones I have chosen you to consider are practices that no child does in ways that adults do. By coming to this from this perspective then, I will propose what this practice may actually be preventing.

Fear

No infant has fears about the unknown until we do or say something that brings it into their consciousness. And even when it enters, it is usually limited to certain situations. It does not define how they interact with all new experiences.

I have put fear first as I believe it is one of the key factors that stops language learners from embracing the unknown. Language learning is all about embracing the unknown; facing it and accepting it as a given thing. The ones who are comfortable with it and ready to turn it over, look at it from different sides without backing away, are the ones who will go on and learn more effectively. The ones who are not will be less willing to:

  • speak to others, out of fear of making a mistake and believing they will look foolish
  • try to say what they want in new ways out of fear of making a mistake
  • try new ways of learning
  • stop doing those things with which they are already comfortable.A language learning hack

Letting go of fear is the most difficult of the issues I have brought up here. However, it does not mean that it can’t be done. Many have done it. It does not mean that fear stops. It just means we accept it and walk towards it, knowing that by doing what we need to the fear will no longer be a force to stop us learning.

Studying

No infant studies. They learn as they do, speak, etc. Adults set time aside to learn a language. By focussing on studying as the place/time to learn, you reduce the emphasis on situational learning. The reality is that you can learn whenever you have any interaction with the new language (watching a movie, listening to a song, reading a book, talking, etc). For many, instead, the prevailing attitude can become “I have to get to a good level (through study, classes, etc) before I can do all that.” This belief dramatically reduces your learning time and actually can stop you from developing the skills you need to learn whilst you are using the language.

This might sound a bit harsh, but I have seen this in many students who keep returning to classes and make very slow progress.

Memorising Vocabulary

Of course we never see infants trying to memorise vocabulary. They just learn the vocabulary, again, through usage of it. On the other hand, many people who learn a second language put time aside to memorise vocabulary. Just consider what would happen if you didn’t put time time aside for this task. You would then need to put your attention on what you need to do to retain what you learned. Wouldn’t that be something! 🙂 The reality is that by focussing our energies on how we can be better learners, we can discover strategies to achieve precisely that. 

You know what it’s like when you face a difficult problem. You spend time thinking about it, you ask people about it, you may even dream about it. You end up activating more of yourself and you will eventually figure out that you do have ways of solving the problem in front of you.

Translating

Translation is only a skill we develop later in years. Infants learn their first language through a variety of means. All parents will tell you how attentive their children are. They see things in a light we don’t because they have no cultural, attitudinal, or perceptual filters. They work out from what they see and what they hear, and that meaning can be conveyed. They learn that actions can replace crying ( pointing to what they want, for example). Then there are words that can be used to name things, including people, around them as well as to get food brought to them (also instead of crying!). All this they learn by themselves through observation and action.

By an excessive reliance on translation there is a real danger that these kinds of capacities we all have never get a real chance to show themselves. Don’t get me wrong; translation does have a place … it’s just that an over-reliance deadens the amazing capacities we all have. Sometimes these capacities have been driven underground, so when we turn to language learning, these capacities don’t naturally pop up. They have to be teased out by putting ourselves in situations where they need to come out.

By trying to stay away from translating as much as we can, we can stimulate these capacities to reveal themselves and, over time, to become increasingly powerful.

Practicing grammar in artificial ways

Of course infants practice what they are learning. However, they do this by using the language; not through artificial exercises such as the kinds you will find in language course books and most language classes. These exercises are flawed for many reasons. One key cause is that they are one-dimensional, only calling upon simple memory skills. Language is far more than that. Again, if you want to stimulate the whole variety of skills we have for learning languages, letting go of these kinds of exercises can only do you good.

You are probably asking, “Ok, if I stop doing these, what can I do instead?”. The key thing I would suggest is to focus on using the language, in any way you can. By doing that, you will be forced to recycle what you have learned and it will expose you to new language in situ (not in some artificial setting that strips the layered meaning from the language). 

There are ways of semi-artificial learning we can create that can start to approximate ways of education that are more organic and call upon more of ourselves than many exercises do. You will find some here.

Mimicry

Mimicry or straight copying is not something you will see a child do in the way adults typically do. I have been fortunate enough to be around my grandchildren learning English recently. I have seen them have a go at copying what I say, when they don’t understand it. They typically do so with a question tone embedded in the repetition. When this happens, they are typically more questioning the meaning, than the pronunciation, but that is there as well. When I repeat, usually in an explanation of a kind, they may well repeat again. But that is where they leave it…until the next time the word comes up.

Very young kids before they start talking will repeat sounds and combinations… like mu-mu-mu-mu. This, again, is not mimicry. This to me is the child working and exploring the various parts of their sound system. This is creation; not mimicry

Mimicry does not address the issue of how we create new sounds that we may not have in our first language. It does not address how we actually automate what we have created. On so many levels mimicry is a strategy that misleads us.

Focussing our awareness so we can notice more, our listening so we can hear more and our will so we can use our muscles differently and consistently, are all capacities we have access to and, indeed, express in our daily lives. Why not do so learning languages as well?

As an adult we would get much more value from our efforts if we focussed more of our efforts on listening, to ourselves, and to others. Then see what we have to alter in the way we use our mouth (etc) to bring closer what we say to what another says.

Conclusion

As they say, “You don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” I am not suggesting that you forget everything that infants don’t do. I am, however, suggesting that you can learn faster and better by understanding that you have so many capacities that you don’t utilise. And we simply don’t utilise them because the ways that we learn do not call on them. The only way we develop muscles is by using them. It is not enough to talk about them. So THE hack of all hacks is, wherever possible, to let go of ways of learning that don’t call on the considerable powers we all have. Instead, as I have shown, embrace practices that engage “all” of you. Sometimes this might mean tweaking what you are already doing, other times it may mean wholesale changes.

  • R. Paige

    The problem with this article is that we are not children and to equate adults’ styles of learning to children is foolish. We cannot regress or go back in any way to the learning (or any other) style that we used decades ago.

    • Thank you for your comment.
      Yes, I agree with you. We are not children.
      I was not suggesting that we can equate our learning with children learning. I was merely asking the reader to consider how our understanding and practices would change if we used some of the ways that children learn in the ways that we learn.
      In other words, how could our learning ideas practices be recast, or amended if you will (not regressed) once we better understood what young kids do.
      I believe by completely ignoring what they do, we are doing ourselves and our students a great disservice