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You Need To Know This Science Of Learning Languages To Perfectly Master A Foreign Language

You Need To Know This Science Of Learning Languages To Perfectly Master A Foreign Language
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Picking up a new language is not really that easy, but knowing more about the science of learning languages may help you speed up the learning progress. Belle Beth Cooper has shared her views on Crew Blog:

I’ve been attempting to learn French for a while now, and it’s a slow process. It’s all much harder this time around than it was to learn English, my first language. All this effort made me wonder if there were some tricks to learning a foreign language that I’d been missing. It turns out, it’s just a tricky thing to do once you’re an adult.

How we learn language

Learning language is something we’re born to do. it’s an instinct we have, which is proven, as one research paper says, just by observation:

To believe that special biological adaptations are a requirement, it is enough to notice that all the children but none of the dogs and cats in the house acquire language.

As children, we learn to think, learn to communicate and intuitively pick up an understanding of grammar rules in our mother tongue, or native language. From then on, we learn all new languages in relation to the one we first knew—the one that we used to understand the world around us for the first time ever.

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Although language is something we learn, research has shown that the instinct to do so is present from birth. Not only are we inclined to process and adopt language, but it seems that the human brain has common linguistic constraints, regardless of the language we’ve learned. Certain syllables, which aren’t common in any language, are difficult for the brain to process, even in newborns who haven’t started learning any language yet.

Learning a foreign language

When it comes to learning a second language, adults are at a disadvantage. As we age, our brain’s plasticity (its ability to create new neurons and synapses) is reduced. Following brain damage that causes a loss of speech, for instance, researchers have observed that children are more likely to regain the power of speech, by creating new pathways in the brain to replace the damaged ones.

One theory of why learning a foreign language is so hard for adults focuses more on the process we go through to do so, rather than the loss of plasticity. Robert Bley-Vroman explains in Linguistic Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition that adults approach learning a new language with an adult problem-solving process, rather than in the same way a child develops language for the first time.

Although this means adults generally progress through the early stages of learning a language faster than children, people who are exposed to a foreign language first during childhood usually achieve a higher proficiency than those who start out as adults.

There’s still hope, though. A study of secondary language pronunciation found that some learners who started as adults scored as well as native speakers. It’s also been shown that motivation to learn can improve proficiency, so if you really want to learn a language, it’s not necessarily too late.

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Give yourself the best chance

If you want to put in the effort to learn a new language, try these methods that are known for improving learning and memory.

1. Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition is a proven memory technique that helps you keep what you’ve learned strong in your mind. The way it works is you revise each word or phrase you’ve learned in spaced intervals. Initially the intervals will be smaller: you might revise a new word a few times in one practice session, and then again the next day. Once you know it well you’ll be able to leave days or weeks between revisions without forgetting it.

Here’s a diagram that shows how the “forgetting curve” drops less dramatically with each new repetition:

typical forgetting

    I like using Duolingo for vocabulary and phrase practice because it takes care of spaced repetition for me. The app keeps track of which words I haven’t practiced for a while and reminds me to strengthen my understanding of those. During each lesson, it mixes up familiar and new words to space out the repetition.

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    2. Learn before you sleep

    One of the many benefits we get from sleep is that it helps to clear out the brain’s “inbox” – the temporary storage of new information and memories from our time awake. We need sleep (even just a nap) to move anything we’ve recently learned into our brain’s long term storage. Once it’s safely stored, spaced repetition will help to strengthen the connection so we can recall the information faster and more accurately.

    3. Study content, not the language

    Although most language learning classes and progams focus on purely learning the language, a study of high school students studying French found that when they studied another subject taught in French instead of a class purely to teach French, the students tested better for listening and were more motivated to learn. Students in the standard French class scored better on reading and writing tests, so both methods clearly have merit.

    Once you’ve mastered the basics of a new language, try including some content on a topic you’re interested in to improve your understanding. You could have conversations with friends learning the same language, read articles online or listen to a podcast to test your comprehension.

    4. Practice a little everyday

    If you’re busy, you might be tempted to put off your studying and cram in a big chunk of learning once every week or two. However, studying a little every day is actually more effective. Because your brain’s “inbox” has limited space and only sleep can clear it out, you’ll hit the limit of how much you can take in pretty quickly if you study for hours at a time.

    Studying in small chunks every day combines spaced repetition with the best use of the brain’s temporary storage.

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    5. Mix new and old

    The brain craves novelty but attempting to learn lots of new words or phrases at once can be overwhelming. Novel concepts work best when they’re mixed in with familiar information.

    When you add new words to your vocabulary, try spacing them in-between words you’re already familiar with so they’ll stand out—your brain will latch onto them more easily.

    Et maintenant, c’est l’heure pour moi apprendre des plus mots francais!

    The Science of Learning New Languages | Crew Blog

    Featured photo credit: Paris, Montmartre, square Jehan Rictus. In 1936 was build this wall with 311 via shutterstock.com

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    More by this author

    Anna Chui

    Anna is the Chief Editor and Content Strategist of Lifehack. She's also a communication expert who shares tips on motivation and relationships.

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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