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Learning a Language from Scratch – 10 Techniques for Quick and Easy Mastery

Learning a Language from Scratch – 10 Techniques for Quick and Easy Mastery

According to a BBC report last winter, there is an “alarming shortage of people able to speak the 10 languages vital to our future prosperity and global standing… [and that] more adults should learn at least one new language”. John Worne of the British Council, quotes that failure to act will risks the UK losing out “both economically and culturally”.

It seems learning a language is becoming increasingly more important. However the thought of learning a language, especially the older you get, terrifies most people. Our instant reaction is usually “I am not a language person” or “I am too old”. But learning a language is like anything else in life; once you know a few tricks, short cuts and tips, then things become a lot easier.

Here are my top tips on learning a language…

1. Get in the right mindset

Before you even start to pick up the text books and dictionaries, make sure you are in the right mind set first. If you start your learning journey with a negative attitude, you’ll never be as receptive to learning a new language as you could be, no matter how hard you try. You’ll instantly create a block in your mind, so even with the best of efforts, you will minimize your ability to absorb anything new. So ditch any preconceived pessimism and think that you can!

2. Learn the characters and the alphabet (including pronunciation)

Before you plow straight into it and learning to ask where the beach is, make sure you understand the basics first. Learn the alphabet and if the alphabet is not the same as English letters, for example such as Japanese, then take the time to learn this thoroughly.

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There are three parts of a letter or character, and these are meaning, pronunciation and written character. Ensure that you know the alphabet thoroughly first before worrying about verb endings and sentence structure.

3. TV and songs

Immersing yourself in the culture of your learning language, isn’t just fun but actually very beneficial, and just for you coach potatoes, you’ll be glad to hear that watching TV is part of that. Engaging with popular culture (magazines, songs, tv, films etc) is a great way to also pick on different dialects and colloquial phrases too that you might not find in a formal dictionary. Who knew watching a Spanish version of Coronation Street could be so educational!

4. Eat

As with top 3, part of that popular culture you should try to immerse yourself in is the cuisine.  In a study conducted at Örebro University, SwedenEmma Asplund, Maria Backsell and Isabella Samuelsson reported that you can in fact learn about a country’s culture by studying the food culture.

So by indulging more in the cuisine, not only will you broaden your vocab but you’ll also increase your cultural awareness. Choose your restaurants and dishes wisely though – I am not sure a trip to Nando’s will broaden your cultural understanding of Portuguese any more than eating a korma will increase your knowledge of Punjabi!

5. Tap into your inner child

We might have to think back a little while here, but remember when you were at school, how much fun learning was? The cute pictures, bright colors and funny analogies, were all created to help you remember.

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Well, revert back to the good old days and start injecting a little bit of fun in to you language learning! Make brightly colored flash cards and include pictures. I sometimes even use word association to remember new vocab. For example, I remember the word “korobu” which means ‘to fall down/over’ as it sounds like ‘collarbone’…my association is you might break your collarbone if you fall over!

Also perhaps try to attach imagery to your new lexicon… for example, in Japanese “shimeru” means ‘to shut’ so I imagine someone shimmering (sounds like shimeru) through a door that is about to shut. Odd but it works.

6. Set a goal

We all know about SMART goal setting, so set realistic and sensible goals for your chosen target language. For example, making a new year’s resolution to ’start learning Spanish’ is going to be as successful as a “keep off the grass” sign. Set a realistic goal, such as, ‘be able to read a Spanish magazine in a year’ or ‘to be able to ask for directions’ or ‘navigate the capital within 4 months’.

It will also help if you can make a trip to a place where they speak the language. Having the goal of learning Spanish in conjunction with being able to use it on a weekend break to Barcelona will be 10 times more beneficial and rewarding.

7. Stop worrying about “translating”

Learning languages, I have discovered that sometimes there is no like for like translations. For example in Japanese there are no plurals or words such as “the”, their use of “I, he, she, it” is often admitted and they have a polite and informal version of every verb. And in Spanish, the nouns are either masculine or feminine with “el” or “la” in front of the word. When there are such differences in your native tongue and learning languages that it might help to try thinking of the sentence as a whole, in context rather than of thinking a word for word translation.

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8. Scrap the textbook

OK, that is a little harsh as actually there are some great text books out there and I suppose it does depend on what your end goal is. But, if you are looking to be fluent in a conversational way, then it is often best to scrap the learning directly from a formal text book and focus on real-life cases and conversations.

As with most subjects, theory and practical is very different! For example, try having a conversation with a native or try to write a few basic sentences, then only when you get stuck, you can check your dictionary, online or the text book.

9. Learn 100, then 1,000 most popular/common used words

One thing I have learnt through learning languages is that you can apply the 80:20 rule to it. What do I mean by this?According to the Oxford English Dictionary online, the 100 most common words account for 50% of the language, and the 1,000 most common words account for 75%. But to account for 90% you would need a vocabulary of 7,000 words and to get to 95% the figure would be around 50,000*. The correlation of the number of worlds you know and your fluency are not in line.

To be fluent enough, learn the most popular 1,000 words and don’t misuse your initial time on words you’ll never come across again.

10. Focus on some themes

I have already highlighted that when learning a new language, you should at first focus your efforts on the first 100-1,000 words to maximize your lexicon. You can take this a step further though and also consider words within a theme that you would often use.

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For example, if you are a massive sports fanatic, then learning the vocabulary for sporting terminology will be more relatable to you and therefore much more likely to stick in your mind, as well as providing you with the motivation to learn. Perhaps you could buy a sports magazine or watch some matches with subtitled commentary of your learning language to inspire.

Good luck!

*note: the OED uses the term “lemmas” instead of words. A lemma being the base form of a word. For example, climbs, climbing, and climbed are all examples of the one lemma climb. Just ten different lemmas (the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I) account for a remarkable 25% of all the words used in the Oxford English Corpus

Featured photo credit: Ardelfin via morguefile.com

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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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