The Three Habits of Highly Successful Foreign Language Learners


            Throughout my essays here, there are a subset of themes that I’ll be underscoring repeatedly.  There are some fundamental principles that are generally applicable for absorbing a foreign tongue and which, if you’re cognizant of them, will greatly facilitate both your learning and—even more importantly—your long-term retention.  You’ll gain more out of each minute and hour you invest in your studies.  I’ll be illustrating and making reference to these tenets in the individual language articles. 


            Rule #1:  Make your foreign language more than an academic exercise.


            If you’re trying to pick up a foreign tongue, nothing is more essential than ensuring that the language occupies the ineffable part of your brain which declares, “Darn, this stuff’s important; I’d better get good at this.”  In essence, you have to relate to the language at a visceral level; it has to become a vehicle for important, repetitive, often emotionally-laden communication for you.  The language, in other words, must become in your mind a valuable tool for accomplishing tasks and interacting with peers.  This is easy to do if you’re actually dwelling in a foreign country or in a neighborhood in the US where such a language predominates culturally; but there are ways to simulate and effectively “fool” your mind into construing such an environment even without acquiring a passport.  The more you can convince your mind of the language’s value as a practical tool, the more rapidly you’ll learn it and the more effectively you’ll retain it.

            Part of your conscious mind can be considered to be the seat of your voluntary actions, but another portion acts more like a machine… or, perhaps more accurately in this case, a skeptical customer at a hardware store.  You have to persuade this tough customer to expend the time and energy to learn and retain information long term.  Our brains have evolved in such a way that they tend to eschew frivolities and trivialities in favor of directly useful and applicable knowledge, and to convince your brain to hold on to the deluge of information entailed by a new language—indeed, a fundamentally distinct framework for communication—your brain has to be receiving a signal that “This is important.”  Your memory can roughly be divvied up into factual memory faculties (coordinated by a portion of the brain known as the hippocampus) and emotional memory (associated with the brain’s amygdala, near the hippocampus).  You learn information best when the learning process engages both factual and emotional memory in the hippocampus and amygdale. 

            Think about it, which do you recall more easily—that spate of algebra lessons in the middle of the eighth grade, or that first kiss (or embarrassing incident in track-and-field practice) around the same time?  Probably the latter, since it tapped into your emotional sensors as well as the ones dedicated to imbibing raw, factual information.  Emotional experience is not distinct from more purely cognitive processes like fact-gathering and information processing; rather, our emotions help to tag information as possessing import, as something that we should refer and reflect back upon periodically for our own benefit.  This tenet applies especially to language.  You learn a foreign tongue best when you can convince your brain that it’s more than just an interesting diversion or a school subject to be survived and then promptly forgotten after final exams.  The more signals the brain receives in this regard, the easier and more effortless it will be to retain a non-native tongue.  Although I supply many useful hints and tricks on these pages for more efficient foreign-language learning, you can retain quite a bit from sheer repetition if your mind has become truly sold on the idea that the language is something that will be of value to you.  Obviously, economic benefit is an especially strong motivator (one of the reasons that Spanish is comparatively easy to learn in the US, aside from its similarity to English), but “full engagement” in learning a foreign tongue involves more than simply persuading yourself that you’ll land a fatter paycheck at the close of each month.  You’ll absorb a foreign language like a sponge if it gets your groove going when you hear it—specifically, the language will gain an exalted status if it feels like a desirable cultural vehicle to you.  Indeed, one of the best ways to absorb a foreign tongue is through popular culture expressed in the language, and when you use that idiom for repeated communication with friends, family, co-workers—when you jest and crack jokes in it, when the language becomes a tangible medium to assist you in getting things done—then your brain will take to it like a bee to nectar. 


            Rule #2:  Whenever possible, supply a context for what you’re learning.


          The brain abhors isolation—specifically, it possesses a distinct aversion toward retaining information that lacks connection to other information.  If you’re absorbing new vocabulary, phrases, grammar, and syntax of a language, yet failing to place these elements within a matrix that makes them relevant, they’ll dribble out of your mind like the names of all those folks at the keg party after one too many vodka shots.  For purposes of long-term retention, any sort of relation you can establish will be valuable.  If it’s a new word, try to associate it with an antonym, or craft a sentence in which it plays a starring role.  Seek out patterns that link it to the internal logic of the language; if a word is a compound, take note of the meaning of its constituents and how each “sub-word” contributes to the overall meaning.  In Farsi Persian, for example, a “kitchen” is “ashpazxune,” or “house of cooking”; in Mandarin Chinese, a train is “huo\/che-,” or “fire vehicle.”  Be conscious about how the language is assembled; try to place yourselves in the shoes of a clever linguistic inventor of antiquity who may have crafted the new word via an analogy to a story or an observation.  Becoming intuitively familiar with such internal logic is perhaps the most indispensable cognitive challenge of mastering a foreign tongue.  I argue, for reasons detailed in my essays, that spoken Mandarin Chinese is probably the most straightforward foreign language to learn and master—in spite of the fact that Chinese, the closely guarded cultural vehicle of an ancient civilization, has virtually no relation to English and has vigorously resisted the incorporation of foreign loanwords!  The reason for this, in my discourse, is that Chinese—despite its initially unfamiliar vocabulary—has an extraordinarily consistent internal logic due to its lack of foreign borrowing, and thus mastery of difficult vocabulary is readily accomplished once a basic foundation is attained.  (It also helps that Chinese has an extremely simple grammar, with no verb inflections for tense, person, or case, therefore no verb irregularity or adjectival inflectional idiosyncrasies, and the use of easy-to-learn and consistent auxiliaries where English and other European languages alter the words or insert articles.  These facilitators more than outweigh the quirks of the “mega-adjectives,” tonal variations, and measure words common to Chinese and many other East Asian tongues.) 

            Remember than abstract words are coined metaphorically, via “archetype fostering” based on a concrete image.  The word “insult” is based is originally a Latin term whose components roughly mean “to pounce on” (in + saltare, “to leap”).  A “project” (pro- + jetere) is something that, in Latin, is “thrown forward” (to work on later); something that is “simple” has one (sim-) fold [ple(x)].  To “implore” is to cry (plorere, like French pleurer) in or about; the word “rival,” in turn, conjures up two foes facing off across a river.  Novel vocabulary to express ineffable concepts in foreign tongues has been coined in the same manner, and the more that you can discern the metaphor in the misty origins of the word, the more effectively you will learn and retain it. 

            Whenever possible, link the vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and syntax of your foreign language with another you already know (your native tongue or any other).  For historical reasons, numerous languages exhibit subtle links with each other that will aid you enormously if you’re observant enough to detect them.  Most European languages, for example, are either based directly on Latin or have absorbed a substantial cohort of vocabulary therefrom (either directly or via the conduit of the Romance languages).  Germanic languages (German, English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and many others) all descended from a common ancestor nearly 2,000 years ago, and the basic lexicon and grammar are similar enough that you can use this to make sense out of otherwise unfamiliar material.  Languages in numerous Muslim countries—like Farsi Persian, Pashto, and Urdu—have imbibed substantial amounts of vocabulary from Arabic since the 7th and 8th centuries A.D.  Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and other East Asian languages in countries within China’s historical sphere of influence—all have become Sinified to varying degrees in their vocabulary.  You can use this fact to establish “bridges” from one language to another, so that you’re commencing your study with a headstart.  Details about these relations constitute a central element in my system of practical linguistics, outlined in these pages. 


Rule #3:  Use “down times” in your day to gradually, persistently master your foreign tongue.


            With daily demands on our time as unyielding as they are these days, how is there time to carve out for foreign language study?  Where can it fit into our PDA-generated weekly plan?  In the midst of such busy lives, our best shot at introducing ourselves to a foreign tongue is via those “down times” that are otherwise lost during the day.  Standing at a line in a cafeteria for lunch, sitting on the train during the long commute home, jogging with the walkman on our ears—these are all little-used opportunities to absorb a new language.  My favorite language-learning milieu is the exercise bike in the gym.  I have to undertake aerobic exercise every week anyway for cardiovascular health, and so rather than pushing the pedals for 20 minutes and staring blankly into space, I pop in a language tape, lay out the accompanying book before me, and cover a couple chapters in my book.  After over a decade of this, I’ve learned and reviewed multiple foreign tongues. 

            Be aggressive with your learning.  Pretend one day that you’re in Tehran or in St. Petersburg and think in your Farsi Persian or Russian; when those usual daily anxieties and questions flit through your head, force yourself to conduct them in the language that you’re imbibing.  This will automatically make the foreign tongue feel more pertinent to you.  Practice at every opportunity.  At slow periods during lunchtime, bounce your Spanish off of the Honduran or Puerto Rican folks in the food court.  Insist on conversing in German or Danish with those affable tourists from Bremen or Aarhus.  Practice, practice, practice.  You’ll need patience, but after several years you’ll have the immense satisfaction of being able to parley in a new tongue—not to mention the potential financial boost of having such a marketable skill.


n      Wes Ulm


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