Many people are after “the” perfect method to learn a language, but I don’t think there’s any one perfect method. However, there are some universal principles one should follow in order to learn a language in a “brain-friendly way”.
Principle 1: Time
Time is a crucial factor in language learning. There is no doubt that the amount of time we spend on a given learning activity has a huge impact on our learning curve. A lot of people might think that the more time we spend with a language, the better. That is true for a number of learners, but not all of them. It depends on each individual’s tastes in learning, their mental stamina, their daily routine, and the stage they find themselves in.
At the beginning (Phase 1), language learning activity is often restricted to the use of books that impose their content, and is also restricted to the time we spend on these books. This often turns out to be a challenging and not particularly engaging or interesting experience. That is one of the reasons why I believe that stage 1 is a bit like being at the foot of a high mountain, and getting to the top seems to be a long and difficult journey. I think that in this phase, it is better to walk, step by step, rather than run.
The number one rule to follow during this stage is to work a little bit every single day. You get to the top of the mountain step by step. You are probably wondering what “a little bit” means. I normally set up a time, say, 25-30 minutes, twice a day. Once in the morning, and once in the evening. Working with small time units and short material helps the brain to retain the information better. Do more challenging things in the morning and more “relaxing” things later (reading and listening) and find a physical position that suits you according to how you are learning. Quality time takes priority at the beginning.
Principle 2: Variety
Varying your learning activity is extremely important to avoid getting bored quickly. While repetition is the mother of all learning processes, it can easily lead to boredom if it becomes too mechanical.
There are three kinds of variety:
- 1Variety of materials: Varying your material is healthy and keeps you motivated. You can stick to one language resource at the beginning, and then quickly move on to others. You may find some aspects of a language learning resource interesting and engaging, while others are not. If so, you can choose another book that offers other interesting aspects and that makes up for what the other book lacks. The goal final goal is to access real content as soon as possible: it reflects the “live nature” of the language and one can start choosing one’s one content. Learning through content that you find interesting is an enormous step towards learning more efficiently.
- 2Variety of activities performed on a single unit of contentReading and listening are two extremely beneficial activities for language learning, but they are not the only ones. The more varied our approach to the learning material, the better. It is important to engage in activies that aim to activate the language in your brain, and also to keep yourself motivated. I will show you how I’ve optimized my language learning, and how you can do it as well.
- 3Variety of physical positions. It might surprise you quite a bit, but our body position and how we move it plays an important role in learning. In other words, the position of your body has an impact on your concentration, and thus on your capacity to retain new information. There are a number of actions we can carry out with our bodies, depending on the learning activity. I will talk about this extensively in my book.
Principle 3: Consistency
In a process such as that of language learning, it is important to do the right things at the right time, and to do the things that are right for you. The rate and ease at which we acquire a language varies with time, and the path we follow should be consistent with this ever-changing rate of learning. I explained the progression through the various stages in the video I published two years ago about the path that I follow in order to reach advanced fluency in a given foreign language.
Some things are exciting at first, but turn out to be boring later. Some are too difficult at the beginning, and thus not very effective, while they get easier with time. For example, listening to the radio at stage 1 is not of much use, but it becomes extremely beneficial at stages 2 and 3. Being consistent with your level and learning tastes is key to optimizing your language learning acquisition.
In my book, I will tell you what learning methods work best for each phase.
Principle 4: Quality
I believe in the value of quality work. When one starts learning a language, one is confronted with a series of difficulties, and many aspects of the language might be discouraging. So, especially at the beginning, it is important to aim for quality in order to build a base – I call it the “language core” - on which we can then expand our knowledge in a language. It’s important to focus on small amounts of material and learn them thoroughly from the start.
Here are some rules of thumb that one can follow:
Principle 5: Quantity
Once the independent learner has cleared the first hurdles, adding quantity is the right thing to do because learning becomes easier, and thus our enjoyment of the language and our mental stamina increase. We can spend much more time on real content, and that time is not restricted to language learning material anymore. We can talk with friends, watch TV and movies, read books. We are not deliberately spending time with the language anymore-- we are using and enjoining it. We can spend countless, precious hours with the language.
Principle 6: Attitude
Learning a language to fluency is not only a matter of how well we can handle language learning materials, but also the result of other factors that are often underestimated or simply ignored. This includes psychological factors such as how relaxed we are in conversations, how open we are to receiving feedback whenever we make a mistake, and how open we are to new cultures. Given the same language material, the same ability to learn and the same method, the people who learn faster and better are those who start “exploring” sooner, and who are happy to make mistakes and learn from them. One can learn how to develop a great attitude towards language learning, and this can change things dramatically.
Principle 7: Curiosity
It is no surprise that most multilingual people are interested in other cultures and ways of living. Languages are vehicles of culture, and every language conveys a different vision of the world. Curiosity is what constantly pushes us to learn more about new cultures, new people and new things. Curiosity is intimately linked with motivation. Don’t be curious just about the language, but about everything that has to do with it: people, places, literature, cinema, and art. Curiosity about the world around me has fueled my will to reach fluency in other languages.
Principle 8: Flexibility
Flexibility is very important in learning. We must be flexible with our method, our tastes, our mistakes and our limits.
Be flexible with yourself and your limits. If we accept that human beings can’t be perfect, a huge load is lifted off our shoulders and the process of learning gets much easier. Many people don’t progress because they are mentally blocked, afraid to make mistakes. They wait for the moment where they will finally feel confident, and that moment will never come. Getting confident, throwing yourself out there, making mistakes, accepting and above all absorbing the feedback you get in return makes you learn faster and better. It might sound a paradox, but the people who end up speaking a language extremely well are those who made tons of mistakes, were corrected many times and appreciated and absorbed the feedback.
Be flexibile with your method. If you have developed a learning method, it should have a solid core, but it must also be flexible in two ways:
I) The method must adapt and change according to the language learning stage your are in.
II) Not all languages are the same, and your native tongue plays a huge role in the learning process, so you must adapt your method to each language.
Principle 9: Motivation
I like saying that having a Ferrari with no fuel is not having a Ferrari at all, because you can only look at it and can’t drive it. It is a dangerous delusion. I think practically everybody agrees that motivation is key to language learning, but that is not the point. The point is to identify the reasons why many language learners lack motivation, and to give valuable advice on how to keep the motivation up. Many start out with enthusiasm, but this enthusiasm quickly tapers off. This happens for a number of reasons. In my book, I will show you how to keep up your enthusiasm throughout all the stages of your language learning process with a few simple steps.