Accelerating Language Learning

Accelerating Language Learning

I just wanted to write a quick post about some of the language experiences I’ve encountered in the past month or so, in the hope that it might be useful to the one or two people that might perhaps read this. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your perspective! – this post has turned into a bit of a behemoth, and currently stands at over 3,500 words. If you’re learning a language – especially if you’re in the very early stages – I hope that my experiences might help you to accelerate your learning and get you on track at a faster pace. Even if you only learn one or two things from this post, I hope it can still be useful to you in some way. This is several years of reading, learning and my own personal experience condensed down into a single post. Please enjoy!

The Initial Challenge


In the two months since I last wrote a post, I’ve been playing on a ship sailing back and forth between North Shields (near Newcastle) and IJmuiden (about 30-40 minutes from Amsterdam, in the Netherlands). As I was fortunate enough to have a decent amount of free time during day, I made sure to keep myself busy with several different projects and learning experimentation. Specifically, towards the end of the contract, I resolved to make a more concerted effort at properly attempting to learn Dutch, compared to the meagre few words I’d previously attempted to learn. It seemed like a shame not to start with Dutch, actually – being in the country every other day and only being able to grasp the absolute bare minimum of what’s going on around you gets frustrating very quickly!

Traditionally, however, I am appalling at following through with projects unless I organise myself in some way – manufacture a fake deadline, set reminders on my phone to get me to start things, or hold myself accountable with a third party, for example. The way I decided to do this on the boat was to give myself a strong incentive for getting some things learned whilst I was still in a relatively Dutch-speaking environment. Therefore, I asked a Dutch friend of mine if she would humour me by allowing me to attempt a conversation solely in Dutch – all English strictly forbidden! She happily agreed, but the catch? She was leaving the boat in around a week, so I had to hurry. What were my best options? How could I accelerate my progress from knowing literally a couple of basic pleasantries into being able to hold a basic conversation – within the space of a single week?

Picking and Choosing: Where to begin?

Tim Ferriss maintains that there is a difference between being efficient and being effective, and I happen to agree with him. Efficient is doing things well with maximum productivity – but effective is doing the right things. The main point here is that you might be doing something very well, but unfortunately, that particular thing might be totally unimportant or redundant – or even the wrong thing altogether! – and it therefore negates the entire point of all your hard work. Therefore, it’s crucial to get the two working in harmony – if you’re doing the correct, most important things and you’re doing them very well, then chances are fair that you’re automatically going to be ahead of most of your peers.

Another way to accelerate language learning – and learning in general – is to use the Pareto principle, better known as the 80-20 rule. What 20 percent of tools / words / methods can you use to generate 80%+ of the results? Boiled down to essentials: what is most useful to me right now and what can, or should, be avoided?

It’s actually even better in real life: the 300 most frequently used words in any language give you an effective 65% of most of the words that you will use in a day-to-day context. 65%!

With 2,000 words, however, you’re getting closer to 90% of the average basic spoken vocabulary. Whilst in one way this is massively encouraging, this is definitely worth a brief pause to consider further. With a mere 300 words, you get 65% of your conversational lexicon – a phenomenal chunk. However, it takes a further 1700 words (over five and a half times the amount!) to add a measly 25% extra. Already, we can see that the learning curve is growing exponentially at a massive rate. The more words you learn, the slower the percentage rises, until you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of words to begin pushing a 97-99% comprehension rate.

Luckily, this isn’t a big problem. Chances are fairly good that you don’t regularly use words like ephemeral, placenta or antidisestablishmentarianism on a day-to-day basis (unless you’re a philosopher, nurse or extreme hipster, in that order) so we can safely disregard the last few percentiles for the time being whilst we focus on getting the most value for money, as it were.

I boiled the “Dutch problem” down to essentially three things:

– Dutch sentence and conversation order (essentially, grammar. How does the sentence slot together? For now, the main priority is word order within the context of a sentence. As for things like verb conjugations, I would actually put this under the category of vocabulary for the time being.)
– Vocabulary. (You can get some basic sentences together very quickly. However, vocabulary helps you to expand this rapidly. For instance, you can say “I want a…” and then all you will need is to “slot in” the relevant word. Once you’ve said “I want a parrot”, you can still use the same basic core of “I want a…” for millions of other contexts. Likewise, if you learnt to say “I need”, you can then manipulate this sentence too. Along the same lines, you can also learn – verbatim – advanced sentences with complex grammar in order to get ahead quickly, and then modify them according to your needs. Languages are not vacuums, and they should not be treated as such.)
– Correct pronunciation / accent. (I thought this was crucial to get correct from the very beginning as it saves the considerable hassle of unlearning and re-programming your brain months down the line, which is actually far, far harder than getting it correct from the beginning. What’s the point of spending all these hundreds or thousands of hours learning a language if you don’t sound even remotely convincing? We’ve all met English tourists who spoke French like this “BON JOOR! OO AY LE SALL DE BAYN, SILVOO PLAY?!” (“Bonjour! Où est la salle de bain, s’il vous plaît?”, or “Hello! Where is the bathroom, please?”)

That’s essentially it. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been through the UK language education system is aware, it’s not always that simple. Does anyone think it sounds uncomfortably familiar when I state that it’s all too possible to have been through five years of French classes and be totally unable to say anything other than “bonjour” in French? I still think that the language education system is totally, totally broken (more on this in another post).

At this point, I was beginning to get a better idea of where I could begin in order to give myself the biggest head start. But I still needed to consider a few more things before I could get started.

Most common mistakes: What NOT to do


A few months ago, I was lucky enough to be able to phone up a professor of linguistics (who is the wife of a family friend) and pick her brain about languages over the course of a couple of hours. She doesn’t know this, but the whole time I was talking to her, I was furiously scribbling notes and trying to extrapolate every piece of useful advice from the conversation.

One of the most useful things I remember was her phrase: “Copy from the correct.

I’ve heard a LOT of people begin to learn a language and attempt to form their own sentences by improvising from the very beginning, when they know NOTHING about the language’s background, culture, sentence structure, grammar, colloquialisms, and so on. How can you possibly stand a chance of getting a single thing right before you even know anything about the language?

I knew that I had to prioritise the rapid building of a core vocabulary whilst at the same time learning basic but accurate sentence construction, so that I had a solid foundation from which to begin having spontaneous conversation of my own. At the same time, I had done a lot of reading – specifically, from a very recent book, “Fluent Forever” by the polyglot Gabriel Wyner – about the mechanics of vocabulary acquisition, and the key takeaway was that vocabulary is essentially useless unless used within a context, as otherwise you won’t have a clue where it fits within the sentence, or how it changes depending on use. Therefore, if I learned any words, I had to learn to use them immediately within the context of a real, live functioning sentence.

With this in mind, my brain began summarising and amalgamating all of these experiences and explanations and started semi-consciously forming a plan. Where possible, I would absorb existing Dutch structures and sentences to minimise the probability of going wrong if trying to “invent” my own sentences. I would try to find the most useful and most-used words and build up from there.

Actually getting started: the hard part


With barely a week to get started, I decided to opt for beginning by ploughing my way through the Dutch Michel Thomas course. This method is an audio-only course, with an emphasis on very organic learning, linguistic cognates (finding words that are similar in your target language and your native language) and rapidly building up a core vocabulary of useful words and sentences.

As I can read much faster than I am able to listen, I took extensive notes as I listened (typing them out in Notepad on Windows 8.1), so that I would be able to track literally every single new word I learned without missing a single thing. I took notes for individual words, but also wrote out example sentences that I was learning so that I could reference my new-found vocabulary in context. I also (and this is not advisable for everyone) decided to accelerate my pace by listening to the recordings at higher speeds. I found that I was able to listen to the course at 175-180% speed without noticeably losing attention, retention or comprehension; any higher than that and I found it difficult to concentrate (except for bursts of 200% speed after a coffee or five!) but the original speed had quite a lot of pausing and waiting, which I found to be unnecessary for my personal needs. Granted, my solution is perhaps a little unorthodox and certainly won’t suit everyone, but it meant that I was able to do an hour of audio in 33-34 minutes, which helped me immensely.

How to accurately memorise and retain a lot of vocabulary with minimal effort

Once I had lists of new words, I went through and put them into a custom-made spaced-repetition system (SRS) which I created with the help of Anki, a free flashcard program. This is an incredible tool for any budding language learner, as Gabriel Wyner mentions in his excellent book Fluent Forever. Essentially, the best way to properly learn a word is to recall it just before you forget it, as this helps with long-term memory retention. Once you hear a word, you might remember it for about thirty seconds. If you get automatically prompted after twenty-eight seconds, you’ll then remember it for ten minutes. If you get prompted after nine minutes and thirty seconds, you’ll remember it for a day, and so on. This is essentially the premise of Anki – you can either download pre-made decks of flashcards or create your own (I highly recommend creating your own) and it will then prompt you at the relevant time so that the words effectively stay lodged within your long-term memory.

Also of large importance is how you memorise new words and concepts. Personally, I use memory “hacks” that I first encountered from the mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown in his incredible book “Tricks of the Mind”. I know that Benny Lewis, of Fluent in 3 Months fame (both his blog and his excellent book of the same name!) uses very similar techniques, and that’s because they are very effective.

Rather than just trying to memorise things by rote (i.e. repeating them again and again and again until you hope you remember them), take a few moments to really cement them in your head in a more unusual method. For instance, today I learned fifty Dutch verbs using the mind-blowingly useful app Memrise, and here’s how I learned one of them: the word toestaan, which is the verb “to allow”. This is obviously not even vaguely related to the English word of the same meaning, so I had to get inventive. I imagined myself wearing steel-toecapped boots, and a friend of mine jumping up and down on my feet as I get more and more exasperated, hearing them shout “Am I allowed to do this? It’s fine, right? Am I allowed to stand on your toes?” This is a stupid example, but it works well enough for me to recall it hours later with nearly zero mental effort on my part, and chances are very high I will also remember it tomorrow. If I forget it in a week, then I’ll simply recall the stupid story and re-learn it again in seconds, but as I have already put all these verbs into my spaced-repetition system, it will actually be harder to forget them than to remember them.

I was therefore able to consume – and more importantly, retain – five or six full CDs of genuine Dutch content within the space of literally a couple of days, and it was the vast majority of this that allowed me to struggle through my ten minutes without once reverting to English.

Speak from day one – and make it RELEVANT

The great thing about Michel Thomas courses is that they get you actually using the content immediately, which is the entire philosophy of Benny Lewis’s approach (“Speak from Day One!”). In school, you’re forced to memorise entire verb tables and grammatical anomalies before you’re even able to say “Can I have some water, please?” I like to compare this to a six-year old being forced to memorise pages of football strategy and tactics before they’re even allowed outside with a real ball to kick around with their friends. It’s antiquated, and even worse, it’s totally ineffective. With Michel Thomas, you’re very quickly able to put together moderately complicated – but still very useful – sentences such as:

– “I would like to know why it cannot be ready today.”
– “He wants to know when you want to see it.”
– “I’m not doing it now because I have no time, but I can bring it tomorrow, if you want. ”

The best part is, the whole course develops very organically, so you begin with just a few words and build up from there – and by the time you get around to constructing longer sentences, it genuinely doesn’t feel any more difficult. This kind of low-pressure early win is crucial for maintaining morale whilst in the tricky, formative stages of the language. Another highly useful part is that the teacher is a native speaker, so you’re able to copy their phrases exactly as they say them, and this allows you to try to get a handle on the correct native pronunciation as well as the words themselves.

Another thing that helped me was – by pure coincidence! – Duolingo releasing their beta Dutch course for public use for the first time. This allowed me to get a quick handle on some additional sentences, grammar usage and vocabulary, all the while extrapolating in order to blend the total sum of my very limited knowledge into something useful. As a 100% free course, I would recommend it – as long as you supplement with other input at the same time. Duolingo can be extremely useful, but it can also land you with very strange sentences (I remember having to translate “Ik ben een banaan”, or “I am a banana”). Neither am I the only person to have had such experiences – indeed, there is an entire subreddit dedicated to hilarious Duolingo sentences in the form of r/ShitDuolingoSays. Definitely worth checking out.

I also used Memrise, which is a very effective (and free!) method of learning new languages. It’s essentially a self-contained mix of an SRS and the great, quirky memory methods that Benny Lewis and Derren Brown use, all in one package. (Each funny story for memorising a word is called a “mem”, and people have created plenty of language courses that are all totally free to download and try.) If you want to memorise tricky things effectively in a short space of time, I would highly recommend Memrise – I’ve used it to good effect with learning not just European languages, but also more exotic / tricky languages like Mandarin Chinese and Russian, and I was able to go through the courses quickly with an average of a 96-100% success rate, even with Chinese character recognition.

By the time I finally got to having my conversation, I’d essentially compressed the equivalent of maybe a year’s worth of “school language learning” into around three days of fairly solid effort. My friend was extremely gracious and patient and stayed in Dutch even when it was obvious that I had no clue what to say next, and helped correct my awkward, fledgling pronunciation. The worst part was when I understood what was being said, and knew what I wanted to reply, but I had a frankly pathetic three days’ worth of vocabulary and had no idea how to express my reply, so I had to guess. At no point did I lapse back into English (a point Benny Lewis also stresses massively for accelerated language acquisition) and this is an achievement I’m fairly proud of.

Moving on after leaving the starting blocks


So, this is where I am now. I still speak almost no Dutch, but I’m definitely much further ahead than I was a few weeks ago and I now understand the basics of the language. I’ve switched my phone and my Facebook into Dutch so that I can pick up everyday phrases (I now know that “I like this” is “Ik vind dit leuk” thanks to Facebook, for example.) This got me a bit of heckling from the troll brigade of Facebook, but I can take it…

So, where do I go from here? Well, I’ve decided to stick with the Dutch project up until the end of November (it’s now mid-September), as I’m curious to see if it’s possible to reach a basic conversational level in that amount of time. Also, I shall be returning to the boat at the beginning of November and so I’ll hopefully have more of an opportunity to use Dutch on an everyday basis. I plan to complete the Michel Thomas Dutch course within the next few days, and then I will be mixing and matching the following methods to follow up on that:

– Duolingo
– Assimil
– Pimsleur
– Hugo Teach Yourself Dutch in 3 Months (fairly appropriate)

and of course, cramming as much relevant vocabulary into my custom SRS as possible. In addition, I’ve been using YouTube videos and I will also be checking out some Dutch podcasts in iTunes. I also have a couple of books in Dutch which I’ll hopefully be able to begin reading (as I love the idea of gradually being able to become proficient enough to enjoy reading in multiple languages). In short, as I don’t begin on the ship until November, I hope to be able to shatter the myth that you *have* to be in a country in order to learn the language. Granted, it helps, but it’s certainly not a requirement!

The only tricky thing – tricky for me, that is – is deciding that as long as I’m learning Dutch, I’m going to try to avoid studying other languages at the same time. Here is my reasoning:

One of my long-term, lifelong aims is to become conversationally fluent in a list of around 11 foreign languages (a separate post on this specific list another time). My single biggest linguistic problem is that I flit around and get over-excited about lots of different languages and find it hard to focus on just one at a time. A case in point – yesterday, I went for coffee with a friend who is a fellow language enthusiast, and we were talking about all sorts of languages and language learning in general. We were switching every few seconds with occasional words from languages we don’t even speak, like Russian, Mandarin Chinese and so on, because we’ve been curious enough to learn a few words of each language.

My point here is: whilst it’s a definite “buzz” to hear occasional phrases from “exotic” languages and understand them – even if that’s your entire vocabulary exhausted immediately – it’s essentially pointless to have tiny bits of many different languages. It’s far more useful to have real function in a smaller number of languages. That’s why I’ve capped the number on my “lifelong list” at 11 for the time being. That’s not to say I will only ever attempt 11 languages, because I won’t. I love learning phrases in different languages. It’s just that realistically, I will never be fluent in ninety languages, and I will never have the interest in all of them. Therefore, my aim is to eventually become conversationally fluent in around eleven languages, and then learn odd phrases if I encounter different languages throughout my life that don’t fall into this “master list”.

Having considered this, I decided to map out a rough timeline for trying to achieve fluency in these languages – it’s a multi-year time plan, which I’ll explain another time, but suffice it to say: until the end of this November, Dutch is the only foreign language I will be focusing on. I’m curious to see what I can do! If you’re taking on a language project of your own, good luck, and let me know how you’re doing!