After repeating myself in many words over and over again, it’s time to put to “paper” a definitive explanation of how to learn a language, so I can link people directly here instead of typing it all over again.
Of course, the real timesaver is knowing that practically everything I say is directly from Stephen Krashen himself. Ignoring the tailored recommendations, you could find this advice better written, and forty years ago, in his books, which are available for free on his website.
If you want to acquire a language I have some great news for you - you’re reading this, so you’ve already acquired a language. Just do that again.
You’ll recall that as a baby, you knew nothing, used no Anki flash cards, read about no grammar rules, and had no realtime subtitles to help you understand the world. You sat around doing baby things, and then acquired the language. Not only did you acquire it, you became the gold standard in language proficiency i.e., a native speaker.
The language centre
Human brains are pretty cool, if gross and existentially terrifying. There’s a whole chunk of them dedicated specifically to teleporting ideas from one brain into another - the language centre. Because we’re all pretty similar on the inside, our language centres are wired up pretty similarly from the get-go, which is kinda required for one brain to understand another.
When we’re born, the language centre is configured to be able to understand and generate human language, but no actual human languages are in there yet. It’s like a flash drive with all zeroes - it can store, but it isn’t yet doing so.
Unlike block storage, the langauge centre is an incredibly efficient, powerful, and subconscious pattern recognition machine. If a human is able to generate language with their language centre, your language centre has the capability to understand it, given enough material to work with.
As you’ve grown up, to avoid getting hopelessly overwhelmed, your brain has learnt to ignore things that it has figured out aren’t important. It can do this on a short term scale, like tuning out the electric whine of the lighting, or traffic noise, or on a longer term scale like the sight of your own nose, the fact that you’re breathing right now, and languages you don’t understand.
When someone gets on the bus next to you and starts speaking Punjabi, there is meaning there, but your brain doesn’t care to hear it at all. You haven’t understood it yet in your life an you’ve gotten along fine, and if you really need to understand, you can ask the speaker to speak English, or look up a translation. Your brain is very happy to keep filtering out this foreign language.
Herein lies the main issue. This is the reason the myth of children being able to acquire languages more easily than adults persists, (they aren’t). You’ve spent years teaching your brain that it’s ok to ignore your target language, and now you need to tear that filter down.
To get your brain to realise your target language is important, you need to remove any crutches you’ve let it lean on. When you hear your target language, you must pay attention. You must never reach for a translation, nor ask the speaker to translate for you. Your brain has to realise that it’s not getting any help, and it had better start figuring things out.
This step takes time.
Compelling comprehensible input
If the first part of your language journey is demolishing your filter, the second part is listening without understanding. Thanks to the way the brain works, the two parts will blur into each other.
Based on personal experience, these two parts took roughly a month of consuming native content for around eight hours per day. During this period, you will disbelieve this method completely, but you can fight off the demotivation with the same thing you’ll need to keep going even after this. You need to find content that’s so interesting to you that you will consume it even if you only understand one idea per hour.
It’s well known that comprehensible input - content that you can understand - is the only way to acquire a language, but without that content being compelling enough, you will just give up and go play RuneScape Classic.
This is THE hardest part of your journey. You have to find something that’s entertaining enough to you that you’ll keep at it. It also needs to be plentiful enough to provide a lot of input. My journey has centred around watching livestreams, of which there are more hours streamed per day than hours in the day.
Some people find good success with television series, but that can be a problem if you want to watch Firefly - there’s not a lot of it. No problem at all if you want to watch Friends.
So let’s say you’ve found a limitless trove of content that you can’t prevent yourself from consuming - you’re done. If you’re going to keep watching/listening, and you never look at translations, you’ll learn the language, and there’s no reason to read on, but for your curiosity let’s continue - what makes input “comprehensible”?
Let’s circle back to being a languageless baby again. Your family spoke to you with simple structures, and you’ll have encountered tiny fragments of language you’d slowly come to understand thanks to that, usually things your parents want you to understand - “daddy”, “mummy”, your own name, so forth. They can say “daddy” to you as many times as they like, and you won’t figure out the meaning of it, but saying “where’s daddy?”, followed by old mate popping up by the side of the cot with a “here’s daddy!” and you’ll catch on some day.
Now you’re older, you know a great deal more about the world than you did back then, so the context from which you can infer meaning is much larger. When you see someone mining in Minecraft and their pick breaks, it doesn’t matter how familiar you are with their language, you can probably infer the meaning of whatever they say next.
This is what it means to be comprehensible, and this is on what the language centre of the brain thrives - meaning, and context. The language centre really wants to solve those puzzles. It’s all about them.
I have nothing for this heading, I just liked the pattern.
The period of silence
Onwards to the third part of your journey, the period of silence. As far as I’m aware, the reasons for this stage aren’t very well known, but it’s almost ubiquitous amongst learners, so you should be ready for it. For reference, this period started at three months for me, and lasted until six months.
During this period, you will be able to understand enough of your target language to more fully enjoy content that’s in the same sort of vein as what you’ve been consuming so far. You’ll be understanding some simple jokes, how conversation flows, simple common structures like asking questions, and many other things. Depending on the type of content, you’ll be stronger and weaker at different things.
Despite all this, you won’t be speaking to people in your target language. Even though you’re able to form very simple thoughts into language, for whatever reason the common thing is to simply not. When trying to speak during this stage, learners almost always find themselves using set phrases, or consciously learnt things, rather than subconsciously acquired things.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of, just know that it will pass, and keep enjoying your content.
The longest part begins here. At this point, you’ll be happy to converse with natives in settings similar to those from which you acquired the language so far. You’ll already know if you’re at this point, but all it takes from here is just more of the same. Keep consuming.
A major difference from this point forwards is you can make friends with people in your target language, and that’s really all it’s about. Humanity as a whole is actually pretty awesome, and being able to join in with a culture outside of your own and make actual human connections is truly amazing.
Once you have your mouth around the shapes and rhythms, you can speak the language. Similarly, once you can draw the shapes, you can write the language. You will not be able to produce more of the language than you could before simply by writing something out on a piece of paper, or speaking aloud in a room on your own.
Production of a language is a function of your existing proficiency in it. Unless you have a specific goal in mind with your production, there is no need for “speaking practice” once you can say something clearly.
When dealing with foreign written languages, you’re always going to start off being a slower reader than a listener. Again, remember the natural order - you were already quite fluent in your native language before you learnt to read and write.
This is doubly so for languages with a different script to any languages you know, and triply for those with pictographic representations.
When it comes to trying to remember written language, don’t fret it too much. The best strategy of which I’m aware is to get “hooks” in your memory - show the characters to your language centre so it has an idea of what they look like, and when they’re in proximity to the right context in future, the language centre already knows the rough shapes, and can start attaching meaning to them, rather than knowing nothing.
As far as attaching meaning to the shapes, for simple things such as alphabets, these can be somewhat rote learnt, but conscious memorisation won’t help with native speed reading. Wve’e all seen taht psasgae of txet wehre the lteters are all jmuebld up, but it’s still really easy to read - we don’t read letter by letter. We see the rough shape of a word, or several words, and only have to slow down and pay attention to the finer details when we get lost or confused.
Learning the individual sounds of the characters in a given alphabet is important, but don’t spend too long on it. Prefer to read along with text read aloud at native speed, with your finger on the page, like you would as a child.
For pictograms as found in Japanese and Chinese, outside of the most common couple hundred, don’t bother trying to memorise them, not until way later on. You’ll be able to read them in context just fine anyway, and for those you can’t, copy paste the whole sentence into Google Translate, switch it to go from Japanese/Chinese to Yiddish so you don’t see the translation, and then get Google to read it out loud for you.
When you come across a new word and have no idea of it’s meaning, putting it into a native dictionary will likely bring you even more language you can’t understand, and as we well know, translations prevent acquisition. Instead, try putting it into Google Images. If it’s a noun, or a simple enough verb, and often if it’s a short phrase describing a situation, you can get a great idea of what it means from context only.
APEX Legends is a team based shooter battle royale game. You are matchmade with two random teammates, and dropped into a large island with 19 other teams to pick up randomised loot, and shoot each other to death. It’s an amazing tool for language learners for the following reasons:
- the odds of winning are very low so losing doesn’t matter;
- the games last up to around a half hour each so you’re not stuck with people you don’t like for too long, and you can quickly cycle strangers until you find cool people;
- there’s plenty of downtime between fights so there’s time to socialise;
- your team is small enough that everything is quite personal;
- you’re working towards the same goal so you start off friends by virtue;
- you can give each other nice things that you find which helps build camraderie;
- there’s voice and text chat;
- there’s language-free communication by way of several different kinds of ping;
- you can choose the server on which you play, (and thus roughly the language of your teammates).
If you happen to not like this game, that’s fine too, just note the qualities that make it a good tool, and see if you can find them in other games. Should you know of any, I’d love to add them here.