I don’t spend much time thinking about “What if?” but today’s article is an exception, because it’s about sharing all of the knowledge I’ve acquired over the last few decades about learning languages the SMART way!

If I had the ability to travel back in time and guide Young Luca with the ways of Current Luca, I would keep it simple and tell him to follow these 5 tips… or else.

Note: My hope is that doing this would not cause a ripple effect that somehow starts a civil war in Italy and leads to all multilinguals being imprisoned for years on end . 

1. Be Flexible

When starting a new language, it's essential to be flexible and open-minded. The level of difference between your native language and your target language can significantly impact the difficulty and time required to achieve proficiency. For instance, learning a language that belongs to the same family as your native tongue might be easier due to similarities in grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. 

That’s why I get so many compliments about my Spanish and French, they’re Romance languages that are similar to my native Italian. Conversely, languages that are structurally and culturally different from your own can pose greater challenges.

This is why I originally failed in my attempt to learn Japanese.  I wasn’t willing to change my learning strategies to learn a language that has a different syntax (subject object verb) than what I was used to.  To get over that hurdle, I should have incorporated some additional resources outside of Assimil to better my grasp of the language. 

Understanding this can help you set realistic expectations and adjust your language learning plan accordingly. Don't be discouraged if progress seems slow; flexibility in your approach and patience in your progress are key. Remember, the best way to learn a language often involves adapting to its unique characteristics and finding methods that work best for you.

Young Luca:  Relies on the BDT method to start a language with only the aid of Assimil.

Current Luca: Still uses the BDT method to start a language, but incorporates any beginner level resource that is well structured and immerses him into the language. Adjusts the BDT as needed to fit the syntax of the language. 

2. The Difference Between Learning, Acquisition, and Study

One of the most significant realizations in my language-learning journey was understanding the difference between learning, acquisition, and study. Traditional methods often emphasize studying grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary, which can be both tedious and ineffective. 

Here's a breakdown of how to balance these three components:

  • Study (5%): While studying grammar and vocabulary has its place, it should only comprise a small portion of your language learning plan. Focused study sessions can help you understand the basic structure of the language, but relying solely on this method can lead to frustration.
  • Learning (20%): Learning involves actively engaging with the language through practice and exercises. You could also call this deliberate practice. This could be through language classes, apps, or textbooks. It’s more dynamic than studying but still structured.
  • Acquisition (75%): Acquisition happens when you immerse yourself in the language naturally, through activities you enjoy. This includes listening to podcasts, watching movies, reading books etc. This approach not only makes learning languages more enjoyable but also more effective in the long run.

Young Luca: Sits down to hit the grammar books and dedicates a lot of his time to mastering the structure of a language.

Current Luca: Sits down to dissect fun, comprehensible texts with SMART reading strategies taught in the OIP course and then watches movies, listens to podcasts or read books in his target language(s) for enjoyment. 

3. Don't Memorize Anything, Just Get Used to the Language

One of the best language strategies I've adopted is to stop memorizing words and instead focus on getting used to the language. Traditional methods often encourage making lists of vocabulary words and memorizing them out of context, which can be tedious and ineffective. Instead, highlight words within the context you consume and enjoy, whether it's books, articles, or videos.

During the first three months, you might still find it helpful to review and revise specific terms, but as you progress, you'll notice that the more you immerse yourself in the language, the easier it becomes to acquire new words and phrases naturally. This organic method of learning languages ensures that you retain information better and develop a more intuitive understanding of the language.

LingQ is a great way to acquire vocabulary and phrases in context without relying on flashcards or space-repetition-systems. 

Young Luca: Works on word lists, obsessively studies grammar and revises his work nonstop.

Current Luca: Doesn’t do any of that, but focuses on consuming compelling and challenging content while revising only when necessary (or within the first three months).  

4. Pronunciation - Focus on Intonation First and Then Pronunciation

When learning languages, it’s easy to get bogged down by the details of pronunciation. However, it’s crucial not to miss the forest for the trees. Pay attention to intonation from the beginning. Intonation, or the rise and fall of pitch in speech, plays a significant role in conveying meaning and emotion. By focusing on intonation first, you’ll develop a more natural-sounding speech pattern and improve your overall comprehension.

Additionally, instead of striving to sound like a native speaker, aim to act like one. This means embracing the rhythm and flow of the language, which will make your speech more fluid and understandable. Over time, as you get more comfortable, you can refine specific pronunciation details.

Young Luca: Can’t pronounce “enough” in English, because he’s still reading the letters from  an Italian.

Current Luca: Observes native speakers and mimics the way they speak, including gestures, to try and capture the “feel” of being a native speaker.  

5. Don’t Study the Basics, Get Into Authentic Content As Soon As Possible

Another key insight is the importance of diving into authentic content as soon as possible. Traditional language learning often starts with studying the basics, which can be dry and uninspiring. Instead, move to podcasts for learners as early as you can for an easier transition to native-like content. These resources are designed to be accessible yet challenging, providing a bridge between beginner material and real-world language use.

Engaging with authentic content not only makes learning more enjoyable but also exposes you to the language as it is naturally spoken. A great way to do this is with Lingopie or another app of your choice. This helps you develop a better ear for the language, understand cultural nuances, and build a more robust vocabulary. The best way to learn a language is by immersing yourself in it as much as possible.

Young Luca: Uses boring books and classroom materials to study English.

Current Luca: Rewatches Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight in order to pick up useful phrases and modern vernacular.  

30+ years and 5 tips later…

Reflecting on my language learning journey, I realize that flexibility, immersion, and enjoyment are crucial components of a successful language learning plan. By understanding the difference between learning, acquisition, and study, avoiding rote memorization, focusing on intonation, and engaging with authentic content early on, you can develop a more effective and enjoyable approach to learning languages.

Remember, learning languages is not just about achieving fluency; it's about the journey and the experiences you gain along the way. Embrace the process, stay patient, and keep exploring. 

As the famous polyglot Kató Lomb once said, "Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly."

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • A useful summary, Luca. But as an experienced language learner myself, I disagree with point 3. A language is its vocabulary. Having words instantly at your disposal to understand others and to express yourself fully is crucial to success as a language learner. The idea that memorising is redundant and that vocabulary is best learned through some of osmosis is, in my experience, an illusion. Vocabulary lists are indeed dull and pointless. But self-made flash cards with words and expressions captured in a context and reviewed in a systematic way is a highly effective way to build both passive and active skills in a language. Καλημέρα σου από την Ελλάδα!

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