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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 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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