Scientifically proven best ways to learn a language
So here’s the thing.
There is no 1 ‘golden bullet’ when it comes to learning a language.
If you’re in the UK, learning German and happy to take some private German lessons in London or any other city then you’ll be giving yourself a good head start.
We, along with millions of others have tried and tried over the entire course of history (well, for at least as long as languages have been a thing!) to shortcut, or hack, our way to mastery in as short a time as possible, with as little effort as possible.
The results are that there is no substitute for the hard grind. Systematic, consistent, effort and practice of the correct activities, over a sustained period of time is what gets results.
That said, all that searching hasn’t gone to waste, and scientists have come up with a few ways that can help to crush that learning curve and start learning a language fast and fluently.
Give your memory a helping hand
If you’re familiar with language learning you will probably have come across the idea of using flash cards and spaced repetition to effectively memorise vocabulary.
Scientific research backs up the idea that systematically spaced exposure to anything you want to memorise (be it vocabulary or anything for that matter – chess grandmasters often use this technique to memorise highly complex opening theory or example), gives the brain a significantly higher chance of memorising the content.
The theory is that repeated exposure over time is better than the same exposure crammed into a short space of time.
If you’re learning a language, start writing down new words as you come across them. Put them on cards with a translation into your language on the back. Then take some time each day to practice. Start with the simpler task of seeing the word in your target language and trying to remember the translation in your own language. If you can’t get it, keep it near the top of the pile. When you get it put it towards the bottom of the pile.
Soon you’ll be exposed a lot more often to those tricky words with the easier words repeating less often.
The next task is to look at the other side of the cards first and try to remember the word in your target language. This can be a tough task but is well worth the effort when you’re ready.
Another technique that has been proven to work is the use of images or mnemonics. You can essentially think of the word as an image (often a funny image, or at least an image that evokes an emotional response) so that this image is recalled each time you need to remember the word. Eventually you will remember it without needing the image.
Leverage your sleep
Exposure to listening material in your target language before and during sleep can aid language acquisition significantly. Even among learners with little to no knowledge of the target language. This is one of the more unorthodox methods for learning a language and isn’t all that well documented aside from a few studies. But a large number of polyglots and language learners already use this technique to aid their learning.
The exact mechanisms of how this all works are still unknown, but it is thought that different parts of the brain ‘fire’ during pre-sleep and sleep and these enable more effective processing of language inputs, regardless of whether it is your native language or another language.
It is thought the brain ‘washes itself’ each night during sleep. Exposure to listening material during the process is literally a form of brainwashing.
As an interesting aside, this has also been proven to work for learning pretty much any skill where large amounts of theoretical listening/reading are required. For anybody familiar with the film ‘The Matrix’ where Neo is literally ‘plugged in’ to a machine where he learns Kung-Fu in 7 hours this is much the same idea. Except more natural and still quite a bit slower than 7 hours!
‘Overload’ your mental processing
The human brain is actually quite well adapted to taking in overwhelming amounts of confusing information at the same time. One proven way to get better at a language using this knowledge would be to have a radio or some form of spoken word program on at all times around the house/at work.
There’s no need to focus or ‘listen’ to what’s been said as your brain will naturally pick up on the words/speech patterns anyway.
Doing this for days, weeks, or months can have a significant impact on all aspects of your language learning vs not being exposed to these inputs.
This is very similar to how hackers can crack a password protected computer through brute force. An automated program tries every conceivable password by brute force until something works. This method essentially feeds information to the brain by brute force until the brain is forced to slowly make sense of the information.
Coupled with more traditional learning methods this can really speed up and cut the learning curve significantly.
Practice speaking – even at lower levels
We’re not going to go into this too much here but suffice it to say that the science backs up the fact that people who start speaking their target language early on have more chance of success. Even at the very lowest levels you should be prepared to speak your chosen language.
Scientific research suggests that there may be motivational factors at play here as well. Research carried out in Germany pointed to the fact that learners at beginner level (with a couple of weeks learning behind them) who also practiced their spoken German made more progress than their counterparts who were just given grammar and vocabulary tasks to do alone.
One of the conclusions from this was that it may actually have been motivation that was key here. Actually using the language to speak and communicate with people may have helped it come alive for the learners, giving them more fuel to the fire to learn more vs those who just studied the theory.
Use SMART Goals
This is quite well-known but nevertheless useful for you if you are learning anything, including languages.
You need to set goals. And these goals should be:
A wealth of literature points towards the effectiveness of goals that follow these simple criteria.
“I’m going to learn to speak German” is a poor, non SMART goal.
It’s not very specific, no way to measure if you’ve achieved it or not, and there is no time set for achieving this. A better way to put this might be.
“I’m going to get to B2 level in German by my 33rd Birthday”
This puts everything into context. To measure the B2 level you’d need to take and pass a B2 German exam before your 33rd birthday. If you do that then mission accomplished!
The litmus test here is: Can I tick this goal off my list at a certain point in time?
This may or may not be realistic depending on your current level of German and how close you are to your 33rd birthday at the moment. You’d need to decide how long you think you need. And we could write a whole other blog post on how long it takes to learn German, or any other language for that matter. But we will leave that for another time.
Ok so that’s it. Scientifically proven best ways to learn a language. Good luck!
Comments are closed.
Founder of the UK Language Project and avid language learner.
Download Free eBook Now