Learning Strategies: Dump Your School Curriculums, ‘Fads’ and Nail The Core Principles
Don’t you love obsessing over cutting techniques, methods and ‘hacks’ for learning a new language in the best way?
I mean, think about every exciting style available right there in your pocket, at the tip of your finger. It’s just about finding an easy ‘bulletproof’ learning strategy that’ll make you fluent in no time, right?
Allow me to treat that thought with a big fat NO.
Then allow me to explain ‘why?’, by diving into an important but overlooked core in successful language learning strategies.
“Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?” – Sun Tzu
What Is The Damn Point Of a Learning Strategy?
Well, in its most basic form a learning strategy for languages should organize the most effective and efficient ways for how you wish to communicate in that language.
Effective meaning picking the right approach and laying out what actions to take to develop the skill. Efficient meaning executing them properly.
Some ways of doing this, that you probably run into a lot, is what you might learn in school.
The problem is that most people graduating, after five-seven years with a second language, have little to no clue about what to say the first time they meet a native speaker.
This was true for my school days.
“Sorry, I don’t speak French.”
“Didn’t you take French classes in school for like, five years?”
“Yes, but also, I don’t speak French.”
How often have you heard something like this? Maybe you’re even among the horde of so-called ‘failed’ language students? – and why, oh why don’t these systems create more fluent speakers now that we seem to stick with them so rigidly?
As far as I can see, most conventional strategies, (let’s call them ‘how you learn in school’), are aimed at one size fits all and an outdated academic focus.
What I mean is that there is a lot of focus on learning the full skill of a language at once.
Writing, reading, speaking and (god forbid) grammar often turn into an overwhelming task that knocks you down and makes fluency seem like a cloudy speck on the horizon.
Let’s take a look at some ways we learn in school that makes a lot of things difficult
1#Relying on language class.
Take your typical language class with 15+ students and several days between each class.
This is neither effective nor efficient.
You’re taught something in one class but the teacher only moves as fast as the slowest student.
Even if you somehow happen to fit perfectly with the curriculum and enjoy a few moments of, “I see, it’s Leviosa, not Leviosar,” then you still have to wait for days until the next class.
This means you’ll likely have forgotten 90 % of what you learned in your last class.
If you’re also learning as part of a full school curriculum then you have several other classes to focus on which makes this even worse.
2#Go hard at the ‘best’ books.
I spent about seven years in school with such textbooks and progressed marginally at best. Even hitting the books between classes didn’t do much to level up my language skills.
Especially because these often focus on starting with grammar.
Here’s my two cents, grammar sucks.
At least in the beginning or until you feel confident about having a casual conversation with a native stranger.
Besides, conversations just so happen to be fluid.
You don’t have time to look up a word or check your grammar table. Sure, you might get away with flipping through a stack of flashcards or looking up the odd word here or there with a fast digital dictionary.
Although I don’t recommend it.
While grammar inevitably becomes more important it certainly isn’t the main thing for getting your language rolling.
Why? You ask. Because grammar makes it boring and demanding which is not a great way to start your language journey.
“But wait, don’t you have to understand the rules before you can start learning how to speak, listen or even read?”
Learning a language should be fun.
Think about how it would be if you started with a few success stories that made you see how you were able to say or understand something.
Even if you wildly mistreated every conjugation, and the articles weren’t on point, you’d still have a feeling of “I can learn how to grasp this new language,” and that gives you the fuel to follow through.
Later you can care about being correct.
For example, starting with German grammar nearly murdered my desire to learn right at the beginning.
3#Choosing the wrong resource.
Forget about ‘best conventional methods’.
Choose a resource that sparks a sense of curiosity and excitement in you.
If there’s an aspect of your native language that you already love then use that inspiration to approach a new language.
For example, if reading or audiobooks is your thing, Beelinguapp has a straight forward and fun reading feature, and for extra sweet sprinkle on top, you get bite-sized news stories in your target language.
This is a real classic I’ve seen so many of my friends use, (who don’t speak a second language yet btw.)
You’re trying to increase vocabulary by writing down a list of words. Then you meticulously run down the list repeating them over and over and over again. Like a robot at a conveyer belt.
When the time comes for actually needing to use one of these words, most of my friends think for about three seconds then grab at their notebook to look it up. Case in point.
5#Overloading your brain.
This is another classic. The most common approach I’ve seen here is after a long class the diligent language student sits down and thinks “I must practice another two hours to make it stick.”
While brain melt is a good thing you don’t want to go beyond.
Just because you put in four to six hours every day doesn’t mean you’ll get four to six hours worth of new knowledge.
6#Waiting to speak.
If anything can be said about how we learn in school it’s that we talk with other learners about speaking in another language, instead of speaking in another language.
The first time we stand in front of a native speaker of that language, (years later), we think “Shit, how do I explain what I want to say, that’s not in English.”
It’s kinda funny when you think about it to study a language for so long before actually trying it on and see how it feels.
Okay, So How Do I Dodge These Conventional Traps?
Instead of digging deep into specific learning strategies and language programs, an overlooked point is the discipline, expectations, and dedicated time as a core concept in any strategy.
If you look at the questions asked by a large number of people in the language community, it’s sizzling with topics about shortcutting the process with little to no effort.
Now, I’m all about a good language learning shortcut when it’s in the right place to help you get over an obstacle on the road or just to spark new motivation. But it’s not part of the core in a language learning strategy.
Expectations like this can run in two directions.
For example, you might think you can learn a new language, only by immersing yourself.
On the other hand, you may angle expectations slightly more negative and think that there are certain ‘levels’ you need to master before you can start using a new language.
The thing about learning a new language is that it’s pretty closely related to other kinds of self-improvement that you cook up, in a new year’s resolution.
Saying that you want to start reading more books or start hitting the gym harder is much like deciding to pick up a second language.
Does the following sound familiar?
You search high and low for things like, “best time of the day to read,” or “most effective workout exercise.”
Then you apply these ‘miracle pills’ here and there over a few months and eventually decide that there just isn’t the right method out there for you.
If you want a language strategy to work there needs to be consistency and a plan you can follow through on.
Roughly speaking there are three types of planners when it comes to language.
The overenthusiastic planner.
You hit the road running, hard.
You plan to build new vocabulary with language apps, online courses and organizing flashcards to do whenever you have five minutes of free time. Then a day for connecting with native speakers on Skype daily and… crash, burn.
Typically this last in the first week or two, then start to fade off because, damn, that’s just way too overwhelming.
Language is casual and cool and should be all about how and when you ‘feel the passion’ for doing it.
You’re probably downloading and deleting a new language fix every other day.
Sometimes you practice in the morning, sometimes at night, and it changes each week and when you need to ‘catch up’ on the days you skipped.
Also, let’s not forget how you love to talk about all the cool software, and hacks there are for learning but not using them.
The real deal planner.
You know the reason why you want to learn a new language.
You realize that you’re unlikely to master everything at once but also that you need to put away enough time to do something, even if it’s just a ten-minute translation of a short text.
You make slow and steady progress and find out what works best for you and what doesn’t. The side effect of discipline and dedicated time will likely inspire you to do more and do it more efficient and effective.
Of course, you probably fall somewhere between these three.
The thing about time is that it’s a priority. The thing about discipline is that it’s all about you.
Yes, language should be fun but it will also be tough and you should think; “Shit that was hard. I messed up so many things in my learning today but tomorrow, I’ll do it again.”
A Polyglots Strategy For Learning a New Language
You probably know about polyglots but let’s just put down a quick definition.
A polyglot , or from the Greek term ‘poluglōttos’ = ‘many-tongued’, is someone who commands several languages. In both speaking, writing and reading.
As we get past the term bilingual it starts to become a mix of different multilingual descriptions but let’s say a polyglot command three languages or more.
If you search around on Google and Youtube you’ll find tons of impressive videos of someone speaking languages from every continent and stories about how these people achieved fluency in so many ways.
For some of the famous ones, there’s a look into their learning strategies here.
You’ll quickly see that most polyglots have a style and preference for learning a language. (No one-size-fits-all.)
But I’ve found they all seem to share four common traits, more or less.
They have the right motivation, they experiment, they do something and they constantly move past their fears.
The right motivation is important because it will become difficult.
Wanting to speak a second or third language simply because it’s cool will make you drop the ball.
Being motivated for the right reasons is what’s gonna help you push through any mental obstacles you may have about learning a new language.
It manages realistic expectations and stops you from saying things like, “I’m just bad at languages”.
Think about all those French or Spanish classes you took in high school. How cool it would be to speak a romance language. Yet what came of it?
That’s not to say that you’ll constantly feel motivated but it’s a driver that will lead you to do something. Which brings us to the next part.
Polyglots do something about their language.
That doesn’t mean they start by chewing through eight hour days like some language maniac. Rather, they decide to get started whether it’s by speaking, reading or translating.
Then whatever they decide to do, they experiment to find what works best for them and make sure there’s variety to their learning so it doesn’t become a boring struggle.
Being flexible in your approach, (not in your planning or discipline), will make learning a language fun and drive you to do more.
For example, I remember wanting to run a half marathon. My training approach was to practice by running ten kilometers a couple of times a week.
After a few weeks, I started thinking;
“Damn, there’s no way I’ll be able to run 10k today, so I’ll do it tomorrow when I have more energy.”
Did I have to run 10k? No.
I could’ve just ran 5k on days I didn’t feel as energized. At least then I would’ve done something, which is far better than doing nothing.
If your main motivation is to reach a casual conversation level, grammar isn’t all that important.
If you wish to run a marathon, lifting weights doesn’t do a whole lot for what you want to achieve. That’s why you experiment.
This brings us to the last part which is the fear that’s holding you back.
Polyglots expect that they’ll make many mistakes in the beginning, so they jump into something even if it means only being correct once or twice in a session.
They seek early rewards, like using the right conjugation here or there that sparks a feeling to try a little more.
Slowly but surely the fear of using a language you’re not fluent in yet becomes just another mini-challenge of doing something.
I found their learning strategy as a cycle that goes like this;
The right motivation for learning a language → finding an effective and efficient strategy (for yourself) → early rewards from noticeable progress → pushing through your fears → more motivation to continue.
These are overlooked core combinations in any strategy you decide and they can eventually turn language learning into a habit, aka effortless learning.
Start Today, In The Right Way
Let’s be honest. Little effort with a huge outcome is a daydream for language learners.
“I swear I never searched for, ‘what’s the easiest vs hardest language to learn’,” right…
Again, the problem is that low effort and great results are rarely linked together – in any aspect of life if you ask me.
But a small task, (like practicing 10 min a day), can still be effort if you use the right motivation to plan it and you’re disciplined enough to be consistent.
Should you start by finding a language exchange partner online? Use the shadowing method ? Pick an immersion-style? Maybe buy a swanky online language course?…the answer, yes, sure.
There is no magic bullet. It all depends on your preference.
This is not to be confused with learning styles which is another thing entirely.
The most important thing is that you make a decision and avoid choosing the most effortless way possible for the sake of making it easy.
So if it comes to whether you should download Duolingo or Beelinguapp, just pick one.
Don’t waste time on minor decisions.
I get that we’re all afraid of doing something wrong or making the wrong choice but you should do the ‘wrong’ thing.
Lose that perfectionism, it won’t work out for you anyway. Don’t take on everything at once, instead embrace the 80/20 rule.
This will take you closer to what works for you just like the polyglots experimented to find their optimal strategy.
Besides isn’t the fun part about learning a language, you know, actually learning it?!
4 Steps To Start Your Learning Strategy Today
Start by asking yourself the reason(s) you have for learning another language and what part about it is most fascinating to you.
Put a cap on your research.
You don’t need much time to pick a resource or method. If you like audiobooks and music then start with language learning app Beelinguapp.
If you prefer to do more research then look around for one hour , maximum, and make a list of options. Remember the point is to do something and avoid obsessing over the latest trending learning-tool.
Pick the one resource that fits your goal, (what you wish to use the language for the most).
Scrap everything else for now.
Make a plan where you set aside time to f**k around with that resource and find out how you feel about it, (aka using your motivation for action). If it’s not for you, go back to step 1 and pick another option off your list.
Structure your time to make sure you follow through efficiently. Something that can help make this more likely for you is to put something on the line and use accountability.
As you progress you’ll find out more about the best learning strategy for you.
Most strategies, (like the conventional ones we listed in the beginning), claims one-size-fits-all. Given my own experience with how we learn in school and what polyglots are saying, this probably isn’t the case for you either.
Remember the core principles and you can find a language learning strategy that works for you.Learn a new language