Learning a new language is incredibly rewarding and fun, but there are times when our brains seem to be working against us.
As someone who has learned to speak four new languages from scratch, I know that there are concrete steps you can take to overcome a learning slump and to turbocharge your learning.
Here are my top three ways to trick your brain into learning a new language faster:
1. Create a sense of urgency
A common complaint when learning a new language? Lack of time.
After a full day at work or in school, exposing your brain to massive amounts of information, your brain might refuse to study a new language at all costs for a simple reason – it doesn’t want to spend the extra energy!
So, how do you fight back?
Join an actual class with human beings
Any class. An online class, in-person class or a Saturday workshop. The goal is for somebody to keep you accountable. Committing to showing up with other people, especially with a class and a teacher, will provide a healthy degree of pressure.
Track your progress…and share it
Have you ever thought of recording yourself in audio or video to track your progress? How about sharing your latest essay, your latest letter or your favorite expressions on social media? There is a huge language learning community on Twitter and several Facebook groups that will keep you going and share back.
Give your brain no chance to escape your target language
Listening to music on your way to school or work, watching movies or Netflix shows on the weekends, reading a magazine during breakfast or posting on social media in your target language are all great ways to start getting real with your learning.
You could even label objects around the house with post-it notes in your target language. That way you are exposed to new vocabulary the entire day. The goal is sending your brain the message that you must use this language…because it is all around you.
2. Make your learning as personal as possible
Our brains tend to forget things we don’t need. Or things we find uninteresting. In fact, most of us complain of having a bad memory and not remembering new vocabulary, for example, but it’s only natural given the amount of information our brains are bombarded with every day.
Your mission? Tricking your brain into believing these foreign words are meaningful, necessary and personal.
Use your own photos
Next time you create a flashcard for the word “dog” in Spanish, French or German, know that your brain is more likely to recall the word if you take a picture of your own pet and then use it as the face of the flashcard, rather than using the equivalent English translation, for example.
And doing this on your smartphone is super easy – install a free flashcard app such as Quizlet or AnkiApp and upload your own photos.
Choose key expressions over lists
Rather than memorizing vocabulary lists, choose words that are relevant to your own life experiences, routines and relationships.
For example, it is common to learn words for different jobs when you start learning a new language. Rather than memorizing endless lists of job positions, start with your own, your partner’s, your parents’ or your best friend’s jobs! You’re much more likely to use what you learned and therefore remember it longer.
Write about yourself as soon as possible
Use new vocabulary to talk about your own life and to explain your feelings, opinions and personal story, rather than sticking to generic textbook examples. What you see in textbooks is the starting point to your learning, not the endpoint – the endpoint is actually using the language in real life and in a way that is natural and useful.
3. Learn to repeat in a way that actually works
Some people can vividly remember entire tables of English or Spanish verbs they learned in high school. However, ask these people to conjugate them, use them in context or apply them while telling a story…and you will then understand why repeating for the sake of repeating is not always the best road to take.
While learning through repetition does have its own benefits, the secret isn’t cramming. It is repeating effectively.
Get familiar with spaced repetition
In his book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It, polyglot Gabriel Wyner introduces us to the spaced repetition technique for learning a second language. Rather than cramming and then never looking at your materials again, the goal is to repeat vocabulary from time to time, over a longer period of time and with longer intervals.
The goal is to expose your brain to the target language just when it is about to forget it. As Wyner says, “In a four-month period, practicing for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy”. Count us in!
Be more visual
Remember what we said previously about personalizing your learning by using your own photos in flashcards?
Not only does using your own pictures help your brain memorize things better, but the simple gesture of searching for a foreign word on Google Images and saving one of the images to your phone to use it as a flashcard can really aid memorization. Try using your own customized flashcards with fun images, places you know, family vacations or the faces of loved ones. You are sure to remember those better after some repetition than using words only!
Repeat and apply what you learn immediately
Recalling entire lists of verbs is not the same as knowing how to apply them, and our brain is more likely to remember things once they’ve been put to use in real-life conversations.
Applying what you’ve learned by speaking to a teacher, a classmate or a group is crucial, as external reward keeps our learning going. You can also practice writing the same word in at least ten different sentences as soon as you learn it – repeating it in context will not only help you remember, but it will also help make sense of what you just learned.