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6 Language-Learning Hacks That Actually Work (And 3 That Don't)

Hacks are plentiful. Hacks with substance? A little fewer and farther between.

General Rule #467 Of The Internet: Some things really are as easy as they’re made to seem, but most of them aren’t.

Name a subject, and you’ll name dozens of related hacks by association. Language-learning is a topic that’s particularly ripe for "shortcuts." It requires time, commitment and practice if you’re gonna do it well, but the reward potential is high. This makes it a tempting target for the instant gratification addicts among us, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a grueling and unkind process, either.

In short: real fluency will never happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to do yourself any favors by laboring over your beginner-level textbook all year.

Here are a few language-learning hacks that actually work — and some that don’t.

Try These

1. Double Up With Exercise

Exercise your brain, exercise your body? A recent study found that studying a foreign language while exercising can boost your comprehension, as well as your retention of knowledge. The study participants were split into two groups: one studied foreign-language vocab while riding a stationary bike, and the other studied the same vocab, but minus the exercise. The active group did better on the subsequent test, and they also retained more knowledge when tested again a month later. This is truly a case of killing two birds with one stone. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you don’t kill yourself in the process. Here are some tips for safely learning a language while exercising.

2. Be Deliberate With Your Timing

It’s far more effective to practice for 15 minutes a day, every day, than it is to practice for five hours once a week. It’s also worth your while to consider how you time your review sessions. Spaced repetition is a learning technique that’s been in favor for decades, and it’s been studied and shown to be more efficient than rote repetition (also known as "cramming"). Spaced repetition works because the brain tends to reinforce memories of things it encounters frequently. That’s why Babbel’s courses, for example, reintroduce words through six memory stages that are optimally spaced out to help move information from your short-term to your long-term memory.

3. 360-Degree Immersion

You probably hear this one all the time. But what’s a person to do if they can’t move to Italy for a year and cut off all contact with the English speakers in their lives? Well, first of all, a lot. You can change the display language on your computer or phone, watch foreign-language movies and shows, visit websites in your target language (actually, Googling things from another country’s Google page, like google.se, will bring up search results that are relevant to that country, and often in another language). You can also listen to foreign-language podcasts or cover your entire house with post-it notes in your new language (a favorite trick of two twin superpolyglots). This is by no means an exhaustive list of the changes you can make in your environment to help facilitate the process of passive and active learning. Here are 23 more.

4. Make It Personal

For the most bang for your buck, you’ll want to start by memorizing the most commonly used words in your new language: words like "the," "but," "water" and "say." Beyond that, you might be better off memorizing vocabulary that pertains to your interests. Not only are you more likely to remember it — but you’re also more likely to use it and talk about it. You can also create neural connections between topics that interest you and the language you’re learning (for instance, translating your favorite songs into German).

5. Contextualize It

You go further together than you do alone. That’s not just our way of encouraging you to find a study partner (which definitely helps), it’s also about creating a larger framework for your learning. Words you learn on their own are easy to forget, but if you study a group of them concurrently in the context of a sentence, you have a much greater ability to grasp the interconnectedness of the language. This is a tip we got from accomplished polyglot Luca Lampariello, who says it’s better for your recall to study phrases like "The genes affect the development of such diverse elements as the skeleton, brain synapses, and even individual cells" than it is to study the words "genes," "skeleton," "synapses" and "cells" individually.

6. Deconstruct It

Tim Ferriss has built an empire around life hacking, and he’s got some thoughts on language learning as well. On his blog, he explains that you can deconstruct a language using six simple key phrases that reveal how verbs are conjugated based on the speaker, the treatment of direct and indirect objects, fundamental sentence structures, noun cases and more.

They are:

The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to him.

This might not unlock instant proficiency in a new language, but it can certainly help streamline the process of familiarizing yourself with its framework.

Skip These

1. Teaching Yourself Nonsensical Phrases

It’s tempting to buy into the notion that you’ll learn a language faster by mixing and matching clauses until you’re fluent in every possible type of word salad imaginable. But there are better ways to deconstruct a language (see above) that won’t leave you stuttering about sleepy purple turtles when you’re confronted with an actual, real-life scenario. Instead, opt for a language app or course of study that prioritizes realistic speech patterns. Isn’t the goal to feel comfortable having real conversations rather than just learning the language in theory?

2. Learning In Your Sleep

You wish it were that easy. Unfortunately, the claim that you can absorb languages through osmosis in your sleep has been largely debunked. That’s not to say you can’t be productive in your sleep. It’s just that sleep "productivity" more often looks like cell repair and regeneration, or at the very least, boosting your memory recall. A 2012 study found that test subjects were able to more vividly recall a song they listened to in their sleep, and a 2014 study logged similar results for recently learned vocabulary. However, while this can potentially help with vocab recall, memory formation is not the same thing as registering meaning and semantics — you’re really just familiarizing yourself with sounds. Overall, this might not be worth the reduced quality of sleep.

3. Cramming

As mentioned above, "cramming for the big exam" is only effective for…the big exam. It’s not an effective means of retaining anything you learned, let alone applying it in the context of a conversation three months later. We already touched on this when we talked about spaced repetition (versus rote memorization), but save yourself the trouble and avoid ploughing your way through a textbook without ever going back to practice what you learned. Language learning is a lot like muscle memory. You can only build it with repetition and time.

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