The 5 Catalysts of Language Learning
It feels like I’ve been always learning at least one language. By now I am fluent in 5 languages which usually impresses people and leads them to ask me what about my secret.
What is my secret?
I like and dislike this question at the same time. Firstly, it shows people are interested in learning languages and possibly inquire to boost up their learning, which, as a language learner, I appreciate. Secondly, it shows that people think there’s a need for a secret to be successful with language learning.
I used to answer there was no secret and that the important part was just consistency and that it facilitated living in a country or environment where everybody speaks your target language. I found out this approach never really led to interesting conversations and people weren’t too excited about the news. In 2015 I started working as an English teacher in Brazil and figured out a better answer to this question. I came up with one that was helpful and led to inspiring conversations and I am going to share it here with you.
There are a couple of principles and strategies I used throughout my language learning efforts to achieve good progress. I filtered and comprised them into what I call the 5 Catalysts of Language Learning. I use the word catalyst because it implies these strategies are not a requisite, meaning you can learn a language without adhering to them, but they speed up the process big time!
1. Daily Contact
Apparently, our brain never forgets things. I say apparently because if you’d ask anybody on the street whether they had forgotten anything in their life, they will say “yes”. In fact, everything we ever process in our brain will be stored somewhere inside. Why it seems we forget things is because we cannot easily retrieve them. That’s why we need practice! Practising your target language daily will create stronger and quicker neural connections between the words and other language-relevant information (pronunciation, intonation, grammar, cultural values, etc.). Even contact with the language which does not take a lot of effort will strengthen these bonds and boost your language learning success. The type of contact I suggest to my students is dependent on their personal learning style; some prefer to study with music, others with films, books, online magazines, etc. It does not matter so much what style you use, as long as you pay concentrated attention to the language! Just listening to music in English while being concentrated on the traffic will not help much, you should put all your focus on the music, noticing words, rhymes, the meaning of metaphors, etc. Do this on a daily basis.
2. Produce the Language
The first catalyst was about connecting the dots in your mind to facilitate remembering. Language is not one-way though, you do not just receive information, you also want to be able to send out information. In the end, language is about communication and communication is two-way (at least)! To learn and get more comfortable with expressing yourself you have to produce the language. There are two main ways to produce a language: text and speech. Most language learners find producing text much easier than speech, for obvious reasons: when you write you can not only take your time and think about the right word, conjugation, etc., you also do not have to know the pronunciation of what you’re producing. You shouldn’t forget, though, that speaking the language helps you even more to learn it! Of course, whatever you choose depends a bit on your current level and your focus, nevertheless bear in mind that the more mentally challenging it is, the more you get from it! When speaking you might get nervous and struggle to find the right word, you might pronounce things not precisely correct, but in the end, it will help you more than just writing the same phrase down without thinking about pronunciation and noticing the need to remember it better!
3. Learn Relevant Material
This point is one that many schools and teacher do not or cannot focus on very well. This goes especially for large classrooms. Hence, it might be something you personally have to focus on. The idea is that you learn your target language for a reason (be it travelling, having moved to a different place, for business, for reading, etc.) and that you should focus on what’s important for your reason. For example, if you learn Spanish for business, you should know how to correctly address an email to somebody unknown “Dear Sir or Madam” translates to “Estimados Señores”. However, if you learn it to speak to your friends or colleagues it’s likely much less important. Rather you might want to focus on more slang or sayings that are used among friends. Further, you should learn how to talk about things that are relevant to you, like your hobbies, your profession etc., whatever you’d like to be able to talk about. It is wasted time to learn vocabulary you’re never going to use! Most of us don’t have much time and even if you do, rather focus on something more useful.
4. Making (and Understanding) Mistakes
It is widely believed that children learn languages more easily than adults. Why is that? For children, it might be much harder to learn new words than for people who speak another language already. Why? Because we can translate the word! Imagine a Brazilian child asking what “reto” means. If you speak English it’d be enough to give you the translation “straight”, it’d be much harder though to describe this rather abstract meaning in Portuguese. One thing about the belief that children learn languages more easily is true though. They learn by doing mistakes and are fearless! Many adult language learners fear to make mistakes and shy away from trying if they aren’t certain. This is a bad habit for learning a language! Instead of thinking of mistakes as errors you should think of them as steps in a learning process. Making mistakes itself does not yet help learning, you have to understand (or recognise) the mistake as well! Sometimes a small hint by a teacher is enough, other times a more complex explanation might be needed. Nevertheless making mistakes is crucial! I suggest my students not to look back to mistakes and feel ashamed but proud, after all, without having made that mistake they wouldn’t be where they are now!
5. Don’t Pause
This last point is similar to the first point I made because I want to stress continuity! In order keep a language in your mind it is essential to continuously be connected with it. Even if you are very busy in your daily life, if you put learning or improving your target language as a priority, you will always be able to squeeze in a couple of minutes you spend with the language! Be it reading, music, texting one of your friends who speaks the language, or whatever! Even if you experience a change in your life – a new job, moving to a different city, going on holiday – it should still be possible to devote a couple minutes of focused attention on the language you are learning.
If you are learning a language already I suggest you follow my advice and you’ll see a steepened learning curve. If you are just beginning to learn a language or are thinking about learning one, these tips can help you just as much! The important think is making language learning a habit and enjoying it :-)
If you're interested in learning languages and pronunciation, check out the series of blog posts on my old blog below.
P.S.: I originally wrote this article in December 2015 while in Brazil (hence the cover picture that I took in Rio de Janeiro)