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How Not To Learn A Language – Avoid These 8 Common Mistakes

How Not To Learn A Language – Avoid These 8 Common Mistakes

Maybe you have to learn a foreign language to get a new job, communicate with colleagues abroad or just need it because you want to travel and not feel helpless. In any case, you are part of an exclusive club as only about 17% of US citizens are able to speak a foreign language! But apart from the statistics, there is an even more worrying trend. The way foreign languages are taught is full of pitfalls and not many schools are doing it right. Here are 8 wrong ways to learn a foreign language. So if your teacher is insisting on any of these, it might be a good idea to find another school. We need to keep in mind that language study is not a one-size-fits-all exercise as learning styles will vary.

1. Learning grammar rules

The grammar of a foreign language is full of complicated uses, exceptions and fine distinctions. Teaching these rules might be useful when writing an academic essay but at beginner level, grammar will not help a student to understand or to communicate in the language.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency decided to abandon the grammar based approach when teaching their border agents Spanish. They prioritized the language tasks the agents needed such as communicating with immigrants, calming detained families and explaining legal rights in simple terms. You can see why knowledge of the subjunctive here would be pretty useless! They helped them develop the language skills for these tasks by using role play exercises and videos. At the end of the course, there was a dramatic improvement in their Spanish competence.

2. Learning lots of new vocabulary

Did you know that you only need a limited number of words in any language which are used over and over again? Yes, in English, you can get by for most purposes by just using 300 words. The same goes for most other languages.

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How do you get to know what these words are in your chosen language? Just download an app such as Anki app on your phone and you are ready to go. The system uses flashcard methods which shows you the new words at strategically spaced intervals to help you remember them. The visual element in helping to memorize new words has been stressed by Tim Ferris. He found that reading comics in Japanese was a turning point for his Japanese language skills.

3. Repeating meaningless sentences

If you find that you are asked to repeat meaningless sentences which have no context or even relevance to you personally, then it is unlikely that you will become proficient in the target language. Stephen Krashen, the distinguished linguist, has made it very clear that unless you can understand the messages from comprehensible input, then there is little chance that you will be able to learn the target language. This, he believes, is the most effective way to learn a language. He illustrates this very clearly in the video below.

4. Reading classics in the target language

Experts now agree that reading classics or even simplified versions of them is not the most efficient way to acquire a language. The language may be outdated and the vocabulary archaic. A better alternative is to read children’s books in the target language. This is a great way to get exposure to the language, its essential grammar and vocabulary. Everything is illustrated and the language is perfect for beginners. There is an added advantage in that if you know the story of a fairy tale then that is a great help to contextualize new words and be able to guess their meaning correctly.

5. Underestimating listening skills

The key to communication is understanding what people are saying in your target language. If you neglect this, then you are on the road to failure. Many schools make listening a rather boring exercise and insist on answering comprehension questions which are barely relevant. The result is that students’ listening skills are way below par and this is an obstacle to effective communication.

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Listening must be a daily exercise. With MP3 podcasts, TV shows, news broadcasts, radio, YouTube and a host of other resources, the choice is embarrassing. Students need to listen when they are jogging, commuting or eating alone. This is the easiest and cheapest way you can get to full immersion which would, of course, be ideal.

6. Learning a language the traditional way

Studying grammar and memorizing endless lists of words is not the best way at all. There are now apps which are widely available and I, personally, think that they can complement more traditional methods, so maybe a mixed approach is best.

Did you know that one free app called Duolingo has 50 million users? Experts have said that one college term of language tuition is equivalent to using this app for about 35 hours. But some learners yearn for more formal verb tables and a more structured approach, so find out what works best for you.

7. Not exploiting cognates

“Mastering the vocabulary of most European languages means simply learning to recognize a number of old friends under slight disguises.” – Henry Sweet

Cognates are words which are similar in English and other languages. For example, English and Spanish have lots of words which originally derive from Latin. Learning about cognates is often underestimated because people are obsessed with ‘false friends’. If you say ‘embarazada’ in Spanish, thinking that it may be the same as ‘embarrassed’, you are telling people that you are pregnant! This is an example of a ‘false friend’. But cognates are a great resource as well and language learners need to be aware of this, rather than obsessed with making mistakes.

For example, the following English words:

  • mechanical
  • historical
  • ideological
  • ethical
  • cultural

have almost identical equivalents in Dutch, German, Swedish and Norwegian.

8. Seeing learning a language as a task

Those students who regard the whole language learning process as a means to an end or to achieve a certain goal are going to find the task an uphill one, if they are not passionately involved

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The best way to approach it is to regard it as opening up a box of opportunities to learn about a new culture, to enjoy new literature, movies, computer games, and songs. All your favorite activities can be done in the language you are learning. Chat to new friends on Skype, update your status on social media and reply to emails. Organize a trip to the country to try out your new language skills. This will make the whole process so much more enjoyable and also make your learning really much easier.

Let us know in the comments how you overcame any obstacles when you studied a foreign language.

Featured photo credit: Jumbled wooden letters close up via shutterstock.com

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Robert Locke

Freelance writer

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Last Updated on September 20, 2018

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

You go to the gym to train your muscles. You run outside or go for hikes to train your endurance. Or, maybe you do neither of those, but still wish you exercised more.

Well, here is how to train one of the most important parts of your body: your brain.

When you train your brain, you will:

  • Avoid embarrassing situations. You remember his face, but what was his name?
  • Be a faster learner in all sorts of different skills. No problem for you to pick up a new language or new management skill.
  • Avoid diseases that hit as you get older. Alzheimer’s will not be affecting you.

So how to train your brain and improve your cognitive skills?

1. Work your memory

Twyla Tharp, a NYC-based renowned choreographer has come up with the following memory workout:

When she watches one of her performances, she tries to remember the first twelve to fourteen corrections she wants to discuss with her cast without writing them down.

If you think this is anything less than a feat, then think again. In her book The Creative Habit she says that most people cannot remember more than three.

The practice of both remembering events or things and then discussing them with others has actually been supported by brain fitness studies.

Memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation—receiving, remembering and thinking—help to improve the function of the brain.

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Now, you may not have dancers to correct, but you may be required to give feedback on a presentation, or your friends may ask you what interesting things you saw at the museum. These are great opportunities to practically train your brain by flexing your memory muscles.

What is the simplest way to help yourself remember what you see? Repetition.

For example, say you just met someone new:

“Hi, my name is George”

Don’t just respond with, “Nice to meet you”. Instead, say, “Nice to meet you George.”

Got it? Good.

2. Do something different repeatedly

By actually doing something new over and over again, your brain wires new pathways that help you do this new thing better and faster.

Think back to when you were three years old. You surely were strong enough to hold a knife and a fork just fine. Yet, when you were eating all by yourself, you were creating a mess.

It was not a matter of strength, you see. It was a matter of cultivating more and better neural pathways that would help you eat by yourself just like an adult does.

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And guess what? With enough repetition you made that happen!

But how does this apply to your life right now?

Say you are a procrastinator. The more you don’t procrastinate, the more you teach your brain not to wait for the last minute to make things happen.

Now, you might be thinking “Duh, if only not procrastinating could be that easy!”

Well, it can be. By doing something really small, that you wouldn’t normally do, but is in the direction of getting that task done, you will start creating those new precious neural pathways.

So if you have been postponing organizing your desk, just take one paper and put in its right place. Or, you can go even smaller. Look at one piece of paper and decide where to put it: Trash? Right cabinet? Another room? Give it to someone?

You don’t actually need to clean up that paper; you only need to decide what you need to do with it.

That’s how small you can start. And yet, those neural pathways are still being built. Gradually, you will transform yourself from a procrastinator to an in-the-moment action taker.

3. Learn something new

It might sound obvious, but the more you use your brain, the better its going to perform for you.

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For example, learning a new instrument improves your skill of translating something you see (sheet music) to something you actually do (playing the instrument).

Learning a new language exposes your brain to a different way of thinking, a different way of expressing yourself.

You can even literally take it a step further, and learn how to dance. Studies indicate that learning to dance helps seniors avoid Alzheimer’s. Not bad, huh?

4. Follow a brain training program

The Internet world can help you improve your brain function while lazily sitting on your couch. A clinically proven program like BrainHQ can help you improve your memory, or think faster, by just following their brain training exercises.

5. Work your body

You knew this one was coming didn’t you? Yes indeed, exercise does not just work your body; it also improves the fitness of your brain.

Even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. But it’s not just that–exercise actually helps your brain create those new neural connections faster. You will learn faster, your alertness level will increase, and you get all that by moving your body.

Now, if you are not already a regular exerciser, and already feel guilty that you are not helping your brain by exercising more, try a brain training exercise program like Exercise Bliss.

Remember, just like we discussed in #2, by training your brain to do something new repeatedly, you are actually changing yourself permanently.

6. Spend time with your loved ones

If you want optimal cognitive abilities, then you’ve got to have meaningful relationships in your life.  Talking with others and engaging with your loved ones helps you think more clearly, and it can also lift your mood.

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If you are an extrovert, this holds even more weight for you. At a class at Stanford University, I learned that extroverts actually use talking to other people as a way to understand and process their own thoughts.

I remember that the teacher told us that after a personality test said she was an extrovert, she was surprised. She had always thought of herself as an introvert. But then, she realized how much talking to others helped her frame her own thoughts, so she accepted her new-found status as an extrovert.

7. Avoid crossword puzzles

Many of us, when we think of brain fitness, think of crossword puzzles. And it’s true–crossword puzzles do improve our fluency, yet studies show they are not enough by themselves.

Are they fun? Yes. Do they sharpen your brain? Not really.

Of course, if you are doing this for fun, then by all means go ahead. If you are doing it for brain fitness, then you might want to choose another activity

8. Eat right – and make sure dark chocolate is included

Foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables help your brain perform optimally. Yet, you might not know that dark chocolate gives your brain a good boost as well.

When you eat chocolate, your brain produces dopamine. And dopamine helps you learn faster and remember better. Not to mention, chocolate contains flavonols, antioxidants, which also improve your brain functions.

So next time you have something difficult to do, make sure you grab a bite or two of dark chocolate!

The bottom line

Now that you know how to train your brain, it’s actually time to start doing.

Don’t just consume this content and then go on with your life as if nothing has changed. Put this knowledge into action and become smarter than ever!

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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