10 principles for language learning

  1. Don't listen to anyone who says that a particular way of learning is right or wrong – they don’t know how you learn.

    Victoria Harbour - Hong Kong

    Victoria Harbour – Hong Kong

  2. Most teaching methods, including those derived from the mammoth field of second language acquisition (SLA) research, are based on sweeping generalisations about learning. By definition, a method will aim to work for most people. But you’re not most people – I know that because you have enough initiative to be reading this. Don't assume that any one method will work for you, no matter hard they sell it.
  3. …but it might! If it does, exploit it. I've personally found the Pimsleur series to be helpful for me at certain points in time. Others, however, consider it a waste of their time.
  4. If the language you’re learning involves a different script (e.g. Chinese, Arabic), this adds an important dimension to the process. You goals become key here. If you only need survival Japanese, for example, or want to be able to chat up girls in Shanghai, learning the script would be a significant and costly distraction. If, however, you intend to progress beyond an intermediate level at any point, learning the script is essential. This is because, if you don't, you are denying yourself well over 50% of the input you will ever receive in the language – if you can't read then you are completely reliant on spoken language for input and are missing out on the richest source of all: written material. This is especially pertinent at higher levels.
  5. Build up your metacognitive awareness. In other words, learn how you learn. Is there a certain number of times you need to hear something in order to really get it? Does it help you to remember something if you write it out five times? Or say a particular sentence backwards in the shower? Whatever it may be – this is your learning style and it's key. Listen to it, and allow it to trump whatever anyone else tells you to do
  6. Repetition is the mother of skill. Some estimates say you need to encounter a new word seven times before it is committed to long-term memory. Factor this into your study. Learning something once may not be enough.
  7. Focus on language that has the highest surrender value – a term borrowed from the insurance world. If you live abroad, start with your surroundings. What do you see and hear everyday – station names, road signs, billboards, shop names, leaflets, sign-in sheets, timetables, train announcements, the name of that fruit you buy every morning from the local shop? Because you encounter it daily, you don’t have to work to get the practice in – hence the high surrender value. That sign you see everyday on the door to your building – write it down, ask someone what it means and commit it to memory.
  8. Learn language in chunks –whole sentences. Embedded inside that sentence you’ve just learnt is grammar-at-work. I learnt my early Japanese grammar from memorising announcements on the Tokyo subway and repeating them word for word, day after day. Despite being quite complex language, and although I didn’t understand all the nuances at first, the grammar entered my subconscious mind and went to work. When I actually came to encounter those particular grammar points in textbooks, I realised that I’d been using them for a long time and understood their usage. It's grammar for free.
  9. Keep a notebook. Don't assume you'll remember something. Write everything down or it might be lost. Then, if you can, rewrite your notes in an organised way later (it could be organised by topic, but whatever allows you to find what you're looking for later is fine).
  10. As you reach higher levels, reading becomes key (hence the need to learn the script). There is an acknowledge ‘intermediate plateau' – reaching a point where progress seems to stall. The only way to break through this plateau is by getting massive exposure to quality language, and if you are going to have time to process all the information, it has to be written rather than spoken. If you have relied on transliteration up to this point (writing the language in the western alphabet for foreigners to understand) you are now stuck because only basic material is usually available in transliteration.

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