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3 Tips from a Language Learning Expert that Will Get You Fluent, Fast

German, French or Japanese, many of us try to learn a new language, but most of us fail. Here are 3 tips to help anyone become a language expert.
by Tom Anderson | Jun 13 2019

Until a few years ago, if you wanted to learn a new language then you’d have to pay a pretty penny for expensive classes or costly software. These days, however, with the help of apps like DuoLingo, Memrise or Babbel, language learning comes at a fraction of the cost.

However, just because learning a new language is cheap doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Many people who attempt to pick up French, Japanese, Spanish, or any other language stumble as the new words continuously fail to stick. Luckily, help is at hand. Gabriel Wyner, language learning expert and founder of shares some top tips and retention hacks in his book Fluent Forever. Here are three of the most useful.

1. Recall, don’t memorize

One of the most common mistakes we make when we delve into a new language is to try and remember a truckload of words. Unfortunately, our memories are pretty useless when it comes to remembering information. Take the work of German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, who, in the late 19th century, tried to learn a series of nonsensical words (like nish, mip and zhik) and then measured how many he remembered in the following days, weeks, and years. He found that, while he recollected 30% a day later, he would only remember 10% the following year.

So what should you do instead? You need to focus on recalling rather than remembering.

Recalling—testing yourself with the words you’re trying to remember—works because it engages the right areas of the brain. The brain likes to focus on remembering the important things: the facts, like venomous snakes are dangerous, or fire is hot. As much as you’d like them to be, your French prepositions aren’t considered vital for the brain to remember. But, by testing yourself, you trick your brain into judging the information as important for the language, learning so it sticks better. What’s more, every time you recall something correctly, you get a shot of dopamine as a reward and that happy feeling pushes you to go on.

2. Practice at the right intervals

Recalling new words works wonders, but if you really want to integrate them, you’ll need to keep practicing. But how often? If you try and recall a word once a year, chances are you’ll persistently forget it. However, try and recall all your words every day and you’ll never have chance to learn some new ones. What you need is a Spaced Repetition System (SRS).

A Spaced Repetition System means that you only recall words when you need to. When you first learn a word, say Mutter, the German for mother, you should try and recall it soon after, say a day or two. If you successfully do this, then you can wait a little longer until you learn it again, maybe this time a week. And if you recall it again this time, then you’ll wait even longer, perhaps for a couple weeks, until you bring it back a third time. But beware: if at any stage you fail to recall the word, then you’ll have start all over again.

The SRS helps you remember an incredible amount; Wyner even suggests that by working at it for just 30 minutes a day you can expect to learn close to 3,600 words in just four months. While it is possible to develop your own paper SRS using flashcards split over different levels, you can take advantage of many language learning apps, like Memrise and Anki (Wyner’s favorite); both use SRS to help you remember words in the long term.

3. Never. Ever. Translate.

One of the commonest language learning mistakes is to learn new words by translating them into your mother tongue. After all, it seems like the most efficient way of doing things: all you need is a dual-language dictionary and the translation and definition of every new word is just a few page turns away. But, this all-too-common method is not a productive way of learning. Not only is translating every sentence quite laborious, you also won’t learn the intricacies of the new language.

Every Sprache is different, so by translating it, you’ll simply be forcing your new language onto the framework of your current one. Here’s what to do instead: instead of studying words using a dual-language dictionary, learn them using a monolingual one. If you want to learn French, then simply use a French dictionary. Not only will you discover what your mystery word means, you’ll also unlock the meaning of all the words used to describe it. You’ll learn much quicker this way, and you’ll be getting familiar with a more authentic version of the language.

Follow these three simple tips when learning a language and you’ll stand the best chance of mastering it quickly and efficiently. However, these are just a fraction of the hacks you can use. Many more can be found by reading the blinks to Fluent Forever, by Gabriel Wyner.

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