Second language: Learning hacks that you can apply today to get better results
Moving up the learning curve when taking on a second language can quickly become an overwhelming challenge. Practicing pronunciation, grammar, sentence structure or increasing vocabulary quickly becomes a mouthful.
Rather than finding the motivation with all these focus points, you end up doing nothing .
But what if you could jump that plateau for when things get difficult or boring and take an easy simple step closer to fluency?
You’d probably drop your old textbook and get on it asap.
Luckily, we’ve prepared hacks and a method for learning a second language that you can do today.
Let’s start simple and pick your favorite.
- Language Immersion
- Use Movie Scenes on Youtube
- Goals to Fluency
- DISSS by Tim Ferriss
- Music for Understanding and Vocabulary
- Mistakes Crush the Learning Curve
- Combine Reading and Listening
- Exercise Your Language
- Actively Learn
How to Mimic Being Dropped in a Language Immersion Zone
One of the best ways to climb the learning curve is being put in a sort of adapt or die scenario.
For that, language immersion is likely one of the most effective ways to learn a new language.
This is assuming full immersion of being placed into an environment where using your native language won’t be possible.
Typically this requires traveling to that physical location where people mainly speak in the language you want to learn.
By then you won’t have any other choice but to use whatever knowledge you have and constantly adapt and progress in your new environment as quickly as possible.
Now, unless you’re a backpacker or someone who can just leave work and other obligations behind tomorrow, this is not really an option most people can commit to.
Luckily there are ways to mimic language immersion and hack the learning curve in the comfort of your own home.
Labeling Every-Day Things in the Second Language You’re Learning
A great way to expose yourself to a new language is by labeling food items in your fridge. This way whether you’re cooking, snacking or packing lunch for work it will be on your mind several times a day.
It works because you know what the items are already and by seeing the language label every time you’ll quickly make a connection and increase your vocabulary.
Here’s what you do.
Say you’re learning Spanish.
You could take a cucumber, tomato and stick of butter from your fridge. The item isn’t important so just pick anything you want.
Get a piece of paper, a pen and some tape or sticky notes if you have them.
Get a dictionary or just look up the items online.
So you’d write down ‘pepino’ and stick that onto the cucumber. ‘Tomate’ for the tomato, ‘mantequilla’ for the butter and so on.
This way every time you need something from the fridge you’ll be reminded of what that is called in Spanish. It works even better if you use plastic containers since you can label whole meals and dishes.
[Tip: Write the phonetic spelling underneath to pronounce it out loud every time you grab something from the fridge or freezer. This is especially important if you are learning languages where the alphabet is very different from your own, (English), like Russian, Mandarin or Japanese.]
The reason why this is great for food items is that it’s simple and applies to everyday situations. This means it’s super useful in real-life situations for ordering at a restaurant or finding your way around a supermarket for your next vacation.
You can even take this one step further and label kitchenware, furniture or really any items around your house. Pretty much anything that you’re exposed to in your everyday life.
But consider whether or not you want your entire house or apartment covered in sticky notes.
Hack Motivation and Language Exposure Using Movie Scenes
Take your favorite movie scene and turn it into a super prescription for language learning.
Notice I say movie scene and not a whole movie because when your brain obtains new information doing something you’re more captivated by, it sticks better.
Watching an entire movie could be an option for more intermediate or advanced learners. But for the sake of your attention span, sticking to scenes rather than an entire movie is a great immersion hack.
To get the most out of this I’d recommend choosing a movie scene no more than ten minutes long. Ideally, the shorter the scene you choose the better for replaying it over and over again.
The idea is to take something you already know and spend time doing anyway and build on it.
Find your favorite movie scene on YouTube.
Generally, you’re better off with famous movies that would’ve made it big internationally and are likely translated or dubbed into several languages.
[For this, Disney movies are great too since they often have simple monologues.]
Type into the search bar:
[movie + scene + in “language”] or [movie + in “language”].
For example, [scarface + ending scene + spanish], gives this result.
Watch it on repeat and practice the monologue from the scene out loud. You can real fun here with accents too.
Be aware of mistranslations.
Staying with the Spanish Scarface example this trailer has the famous scene where Tony explains their ‘American dream’.
“Then when you get the money you get the power”, that becomes, “El dinero te da poder”, which is more like “Money gives you power”.
“Then when you get the power then you get the women” becomes, “El poder te consigue la mujer”, which is more like, “Power gets you the woman.”
It’s not a huge difference but you get the idea. It’s more about the context of the scene which is why you pick something you already know.
[Tip: If you can find a scene that’s dubbed in the language you’re learning and has subtitles both in that and your native language, you’ll make the connection faster.]
Here’s an example with the Lion King Rafiki scene in Spanish.
Set Goals That Bring You Closer to Fluency
If your typical language class in school were/are anything like mine it’s always along the lines of;
“read out loud this or that paragraph”,
“match the right tense of the verb in this sentence”,
“translate from [insert second language] to [native language]”. All in one single session.
Maybe your situation is different but to avoid getting caught in a web of multitasking, (that won’t give you any significant improvement), defining specific smaller goals can be helpful in focusing your learning for better results.
It’s even been shown how focusing on one single task makes your brain perform much better. While multitasking makes it more difficult to do anything at all.
Not great for learning a new language.
To discover simple tasks like labeling food items, you can use this method that we’ll get to in a minute.
Scrap the Grand Scheme and Plan for Something You’ll Actually Do
- Your schedule.
Your newfound love for learning a second language needs some precedence in your daily schedule.
If you can’t prioritize time for learning or find that you simply end up not practicing as you planned, goal-setting won’t do much. Start small so you don’t overestimate the time and energy required.
- Choice of resources.
Find out what resources are available to you. Are you gonna invest in a course, use a free language learning app , attend classes or make use of language hacks? – we’ll get to those later.
Pick an approach and tool, then build from there.
- The timeframe.
You need this to measure results and progress. Can your goals be achieved in days, weeks, months or dare I say, years?
The shorter the timeframe the faster you’ll experience progress and can evaluate what worked and what didn’t. A short timeframe is also way more motivating than something that’s far into the future.
- Be specific.
Put it together and be specific. Saying, “I want to learn French in 6 months”, sounds good but it’s hard to pinpoint where to start with this.
Instead, make it something like, “I want to read the Little Prince in French, 2 months from now, by getting a basic vocabulary, practicing for 30 minutes every day using an audiobook and flashcards.”
With a specific goal and reasonable timeframe you can reverse engineer and structure each day to achieve it and because of that be more likely to succeed.
Use the Field-Tested Method by Tim Ferriss to Break Through in Your Second Language
The author of the 4-hour chef, Tim Ferriss, has spent tremendous time to uncover how the world’s best, from athletes to entrepreneurs, perform and learn.
He calls his method for learning a new skill, DISSS or DS3. It can be applied virtually on every skill by, Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing and Stakes.
Here’s the approach in a language learning context.
The first step is taking the skill apart. In this case, ‘language’.
Learning a new language is often a sizable chunk. It’s much easier to break into smaller bits.
Tim Ferriss calls this the LEGO blocks. Or the minimal units you can start with.
This also includes finding reasons why you may not succeed by asking questions such as,
“What has made me quit/fail at this before?” and “Why did others before me quit/fail?”
It could be that the approach is boring or that you’re suffering from one of the most popular obstacles; being afraid of making mistakes.
His recommended solution to identifying these is by interviewing people who have already achieved fluency.
For the best approach, you want to target extreme anomalies such as the best in the field as well as the worst. Whatever is in between will follow.
For example, polyglots would be some of the targets for the best learners. While monolinguals who’s had second language learning in school but never achieved fluency would be a good case for failed learning.
The idea is to identify what works and what doesn’t. Then avoid the main pitfalls in the beginning stages.
Simple enough right?
If you don’t feel like organizing interviews you can start simpler by this example.
This is about selecting the LEGO blocks that will give you the biggest outcome.
Also referred to as the 80/20 rule . Meaning 20 % of your language practice will get you 80 % of the way to fluency.
Following an example about world-famous polyglot Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti , who was a cardinal in the 19th century and officially spoke 30 languages.
His 80/20 was a single piece of paper containing the ‘lord’s prayer’ which he would translate into the language he wanted to learn.
To Mezzofanti this contained enough variety and essential words to teach him everything he needed to be fluent in that language. Plus he knew the context extremely well.
The point is to not focus on everything at once. Isolate what will get you furthest in each LEGO block.
In what order should you build the LEGO blocks?
The point here is to avoid taking on something advanced like say pronouncing the long German words. It’s not ideal starting with, “Naturwissenschaft” and “Fingerhandschu”, which translates into “Science” and “Glove”.
Instead, you’d start simpler like “Auto” and “Mädchen”, which are the words for “car” and “girl”.
Making sure you practice in low stake situations is also key here.
Eg., don’t start by trying to pull off new vocabulary at your school presentation, risking a flunking grade. Or at your first encounter with a native speaker accidentally getting on a bus going a hundred miles from where you wanted to.
Low risk is listening to music or watching youtube scenes on a Sunday afternoon.
You should also look at doing the opposite of ‘best practice’.
The idea is that the best succeed in spite of their approach which means that the established ‘best way’ of learning a language often assumes you have a similar predisposition with an ideal schedule, language exposure, focus, etc.
This part follows the goal setting. Without anything on the line, there’s a chance you may quit.
Make sure there’s some incentive to keep you motivated so you follow through.
Most often money is a great way to put something on the line to keep stakes high.
One way to do this is by creating mini-challenges with a friend or fellow language learner for each of the LEGO blocks.
This way you’ll be more likely to progress… or just lose your money.
Make the Music for Your Ears the Language of Your Brain
Music is another great way to mimic a foreign learning environment.
If you love music and listen to your favorite songs over and over again, chances are you know the lyrics offhand.
For example, after studying German for about five years in school I’d shown no dramatic improvement following the ‘best practice’.
In fact, I was told I probably wouldn’t do well on the final test.
At the time I was deep into the heavy metal music genre and had developed an affinity for the German metal band, Rammstein.
After listening to several of their songs on repeat for months I had improved fairly well on pronunciation and sounds but I didn’t really understand what the lyrics were about.
I was so into the music that I sat down and simply translated the lyrics using an old dictionary.
So, what happened?
Adding meaning to the sounds and words I knew from listening on repeat, it expanded my vocabulary much further in a matter of weeks than from an entire year of translating boring texts in class.
This is a good example of a basic LEGO block and the 80/20 rule in effect.
Find a music genre you like in the language you’re learning.
Listen to it often, even in the background and you’ll start to pick up on sounds and how words are pronounced. Even if you still have no clue what those words actually mean you’ll start to memorize them and unconsciously store it in your brain.
Translate the lyrics using whatever tool you prefer. An old school dictionary is fine but you might prefer using Google Translate and double-checking with an online dictionary.
[Tip: Write down your translation for better retention.]
With this musical window into both language and culture don’t be too shy to sing out loud with your lyric translation in handy.
You’ll be surprised that whenever you need to recall a word after a while these songs might just appear from memory and bam the word you’re searching for will present itself with the meaning, sound and context of how to use it.
Again, be aware of mistranslations.
Disney songs are an obvious resource with many different dubbed languages but in my experience, the original sometimes changes from country to country.
For example, the Little Mermaid theme song, “Under the sea”, in Danish is, “Havet er skønt.” This translates to, “The sea is wonderful” and in Swedish it’s, “Havet är djubt” which is, “The sea is deep.”
In some languages, dubbed and new versions will have another meaning entirely but you can avoid most mistakes by sticking to original songs from the language you’re learning.
Crush the Learning Curve by Being Wrong
This is counterintuitive but failure fuels success by expanding your comfort zone.
One common plateau on the language learning curve is when you’ve reached a certain comfort level and grasp the basics in that second language.
It feels safe and reinforcing to stay here since you’re able to maneuver the basic problems of communicating and understanding.
The problem at this point is you probably think;
“I should know this word by now.”
“I should be able to speak this way after three months but I’d rather not look stupid.”
This is super common but unfortunately, it’s holding you back. Moving past this plateau often requires looking stupid and making mistakes.
In fact, embracing failure all the way through the learning curve is a good thing. It’s one of the most effective ways of learning.
Solving problems outside your knowledge field and failing in the process show better future results than those who stick with the comfort of what they know.
According to the DISSS method on language learning, mistakes are not only a way to advance faster. They are prerequisites for becoming fluent.
Use an App to Combine Reading and Listening Subskills
Your favorite book or short story that you’ve read and heard several times before likely has a translated version in your target language.
Unless you’re digging an extremely niche language like Greenlandic, then you might be limited in this option.
Option 1: A good old fashioned story. This works well for any language that is similar to your native language such as English to French.
For example, let’s say your favorite book is, ‘The Little Prince’. This book is translated into about 300 different languages so you’re off to a safe bet. If for some reason you’ve never heard of it before, it’s a kid’s book so you won’t have to dig through hundreds of pages in hardcore Hemingway-ish writing.
Find ‘The Little Prince’ in the language you’re learning.
Simply type into Google, ‘the little prince + [language]’ and you’ll see if there is a translation. So if you’re looking to learn Spanish it would be, ‘the little prince + Spanish’. Then get the book.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t really understand most of the words because you’ll know the story and likely have parts of the monologue memorized and remember the context. Just like Mezzofanti.
Use a dictionary when you’re stuck and you’ll quickly identify the connecting words and phrases.
This will make you retain the language much better than if you’re repeating some lame story from an outdated school curriculum that you have no relation to. Plus it makes learning more fun.
Option 2: A modern program that slows down reading and repeats sentences. Works like option 1 but is especially better for languages that are far from your own such as English to Chinese.
Fortunately, you can hack that by using a tool like our Beelinguapp language learning app.
This gives you the option to download an audiobook and ‘regular book’-version, in one.
So, you have your native language version of the book on one side and your second learning language on the other. In a split-screen view.
You can even use it to isolate sentences and see what the translation of each paragraph looks like in comparison if you want to get really detailed.
Exercise Your Language
The link between higher brain activity through exercise has long been attributed to better performance. Because of this, pairing exercise with learning a new language is ideal for hacking especially the listening part of your language building blocks.
Download an app on your phone for audiobooks or music in different languages and pick the one you want to practice.
Go for a run or to the gym while listening to your audiobook or music. Even taking a walk will boost your brain’s performance if you’re not into full-on exercise.
[Tip: After your session, spend five to ten minutes listening to parts of the tracks or audiobook and write down how you understand the context or what is being said in your own language. This will help boost the retention of what you just listened to.]
Tie an Activity to Your Language Learning
For example, try cooking with a recipe in your target language.
Use Google Translate for the dish you want to cook. Eg. “Lasagna recipe” then copy the translation for your target language and paste it into the Google search bar.
So if you’re learning Spanish, “lasagna recipe”, comes out as, “receta de lasaña”.
Pick a recipe that seems like a good fit and simply follow as well as you can.
If you’re not sure about having the right ingredients for the dish you picked, (or feel adventurous enough to make it more fun), you can go shopping using only the list of ingredients in Spanish from the recipe.
Whenever you’re stuck, simply make a guess and push through.
Looking up words you don’t know can help but for this to work better, you’ll be much closer to mimicking exposure by figuring it out as you go rather than getting the answer.
You might end up with a few alternative ways of cooking at first but when you make the connection you’ll remember that word or phrasing very well in the future because it’s tied to the cooking experience.
Plus it’s a fun and ‘low stakes’ practice which you know by now is a great way to lean.
[Tip: If you choose a dish you know already you’ll find it easier to estimate each ingredient without looking it up.]
How Will You Hack Learning Your Second Language?
Are you going to move outside of the ‘best practices’ of language learning and use one of these hacks?
Try out our audiobook + reading . Or even ‘DISSS’ the process your own way.
We’d love to hear if you had success with either of the hacks and approaches or if you found another alternative yourself.