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6 Ways to Simplify Your Foreign Language Learning

6 Ways to Simplify Your Foreign Language Learning

In 2013, it’s almost impossible to get through school without learning a foreign language.

In the U.S. and U.K., speaking a foreign language isn’t necessarily valued, because we aren’t always confronted with opportunities to learn and use other languages. But once you get outside of North America, monolingualism is far from the norm.

And if you’re thinking of traveling or studying abroad, learning a new language is imperative.

Actually speaking a foreign language fluently takes a lot of hard work and practice. Even if you study every day, it can take years to master some languages. Meanwhile, you start to get frustrated at your lack of progress and you want to give up.

Don’t.

There are all kinds of rewards associated with speaking a second language. Not just intangible rewards, like being able to chat with locals when you travel, but psychological and health rewards as well. Studies show that being able to speak a second language may help you multitask and prevent dementia.

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So if you want to reap all of the benefits of speaking a second language, how can you continue working on your language skills without getting burnt out?

Here are 6 tips to simplify your language learning.

1. Have a Word of the Day.

Trying to learn everything at once and getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of words in your new language can be overwhelming. Sometimes, even if you do learn new words, you forget them quickly because you haven’t heard them enough in context.

One way to get around this problem is to keep a few new words in your vocabulary by using them on a daily basis. Since it takes an adult an average of 150 times to learn to use a new word properly, having a Word of the Day or several words can help build your vocabulary.

You can do this one of two ways. One, you can keep a running list of words you’d like to learn and designate one to be the word of the day. Or, two, you can wait for new words to come up organically in conversation, and then try to use the new word several times.

2. Speak the language as much as you can (especially with native speakers).

It goes without saying that the best way to learn how to speak a language is to actually speak it. Reading and studying grammar books will only get you so far.

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And yet, it’s so easy to get trapped in the “not-good-enough” mindset, where you don’t speak because you think you don’t speak well enough. And then your speaking doesn’t get better.

I know this from firsthand experience, because I basically refused to speak French all throughout high school. I was embarrassed that I would make mistakes and have a terrible accent.

When I went to the Middlebury College Language School after my first year of college, and was forced to speak French 24/7, I got placed in graduate level classes because my written French was so good. It took years to build up confidence speaking, but now, I’m married to a French guy, and French people ask me regularly what region of France I’m from.

So make an effort to communicate with native speakers of your language. You’ll learn a lot more in a 5 minute conversation with a native Spanish speaker than you will from another English speaker who’s had 2 years of college Spanish. Try to spend 80% of your time speaking with those who speak the language better than you. (If you’re in a program like Middlebury’s, don’t neglect students who don’t speak as well as you do. Part of the purpose of the program is to help lower-level speakers.)

3. Listen to foreign language radio or TV, even as background noise.

Part of learning to speak a foreign language properly is learning the intonations and rhythms of the words. In French, for example, you can’t put the emphasis on different words in a sentence to vary what you mean (like you can do in English). And it’s easy to distinguish beginner students from near-native speakers by listening for the ones who pronounce French like it’s English.

The remedy to that is to listen to the language as much as possible.

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Try to hear the pacing of the words, how they’re pronounced in different contexts, and what the different intonations are. How does the language sound when the speaker is excited, or angry, or asking an accusatory question?

Even listening to the language in the background will help you to pick up information on how the language is spoken.

4. Look up words you don’t know in a monolingual dictionary.

Figuring out the meaning of words can be tricky in a foreign language, since direct and accurate translations don’t always exist. While getting the word for physical objects, like milk or desk, might be straightforward, translating concepts can be a lot harder.

Consider, for example, how we say “to drop” to indicate that something fell. “I dropped the tray and the glass smashed.” It’s passive. In French, “to drop” translates as “laisser tomber.” “J’ai laissé tomber le plateau et le verre s’est cassé.” I *let it fall*. Google Translate and WordReference can’t always give you that nuanced meaning.

By looking words up in a monolingual dictionary, you can make sure that the word or phrase you choose actually means what you think it does.

5. When you make a mistake, immediately try to correct yourself.

Lifehack recently published an article stating that if you mistype a word, you should delete the whole word before retyping it correctly to reprogram your brain to do it properly the next time.

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The same goes for learning a language.

If you misspeak, and catch your mistake, immediately correct yourself by repeating the sentence correctly. It will help you program your brain to avoid making the same mistake again, and solidify the grammar rules in your mind.

6. Carry around a notebook and write down new words you learn.

One thing I did at Middlebury and during my first year in France was carry around a small notebook. Any time I heard a word I didn’t know, I’d write it down (asking the other person to spell it, if necessary).

After a few weeks, I had a great resource to look at whenever I thought, “Oh, I remember talking about that recently, but I forget what it’s called.” And just as importantly, I had a written record of all of the words I learned.

If you’re in the beginning stages of learning a language, this process might be too overwhelming, since you’re learning new words all the time. But once you get to an intermediate or advanced level, your learning process slows down. In the beginning, you progressed easily because you were learning simple verb tenses and lists of super useful vocabulary that you use every day – hello, “How are you?”, “Can I have a pen, please?” – and when you get past that stage, the learning suddenly gets more difficult.

When you’re advanced, keeping a record of the words you learn can also help you from getting frustrated and thinking that you aren’t learning anything new.

As long as you use the language, you’ll always be progressing.

More by this author

5 Reasons to Consider Graduate School in Europe 6 Ways to Simplify Your Foreign Language Learning 6 Ways to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings When Traveling Abroad

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Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

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More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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