What's The Most Effective Way To Learn A Language?
There's no definitive silver bullet, but these 4 best practices will get you pretty close.
Much ink has been spilled over effective language-learning techniques, but it’s tempting to ask: what’s the best method of them all?
The truth is, people, cognition and the universe in general are way too complicated for a question like that to have a valid premise. Everyone is different, and experiments always come with a margin of error — or the risk of being invalidated by a future finding. If you want to be definitive about it, you can probably only narrow it down to a technique that works best for you, which is something you can really only arrive at through trial and error.
However, there are techniques that have generally been found to work better than others, and for the vast majority of learners. You’re probably not reading this because you’re ready to embark on a long journey of self-discovery around learning techniques. You’re here because you want the quick and dirty — an approximation of a silver bullet for language learning.
Here’s one last quick reminder that you’ll inevitably wind up on a journey of self-discovery whenever you endeavor to learn something new. But for now, here are a handful of tried-and-tested techniques that, amassed together, can very likely put you in the express lane.
Build It Into Your Routine (And Your World)
As with any sort of habit formation, your commitment to language-learning won’t stick if it’s not something you can readily sustain over time.
Because humans are generally pretty bad at exerting willpower over long periods of time, you’d be better off building an environment around you that supports your goals, whether they be weight loss, language-learning or having an untouchable Snapchat streak. You’ll do better if you’re in an environment that inspires you to snap often, and you’ll lose more weight if you have to walk a little farther to your car, or if you’re not constantly surrounded by junk food.
Similarly, you’ll go further in your language studies if you have a built-in period of time each day that you devote to learning. The good news is that you’re way better off learning every day in short bursts (maybe 10-20 minutes) than you are cramming for hours on end. This leaves countless opportunities for you to be practicing when you’d otherwise be idling on the subway, or in line at the grocery store. That’s why Babbel’s lessons are formulated into bite-sized, 10-15 minute lessons you can complete on the go.
There’s also a lot you can do to create an environment around you that nurtures your learning goals. Some people refer to this as "immersion," and contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to leave your current city of residence to accomplish this. You can try recipes in another language, practice ordering food at nearby restaurants, change the display language on your computer or phone, listen to foreign-language podcasts or take any of these other suggestions.
“I tend to want to absorb as much as possible right from the start," language expert Matthew Youlden told Babbel. "So if I learn something I really, really go for it and try to use it throughout the day. As the week progresses I try to think in it, try to write in it, try to speak to myself even in that language. For me it’s about actually putting what you’re learning into practice – be that writing an email, speaking to yourself, listening to music, listening to the radio. Surrounding yourself, submerging yourself in the new language culture is extremely important.”
Use Spaced Repetition
If you’ve ever crammed for a test, felt like an expert on neutron degeneracy pressure for a week, and forgotten everything you learned within a year, then you’re familiar with the forgetting curve.
To counteract this tendency, you have to periodically review information and strengthen your "muscle memory" through repetition.
The timing with which you reintroduce information to your brain matters, too. Spaced repetition is a favored learning technique because the brain tends to reinforce memories of things it encounters frequently. In other words, there are specific and optimal intervals for information repetition that help you retain what you learn.
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.
Learn The Vocab That Actually Matters
If you want to go far, travel light. What this means in practice is that you’re not doing yourself any favors by bulldozing your way through a foreign-language dictionary or textbook.
Bear in mind that if you can learn the most frequently used 3,000 words in a given language, you’ll know 90% of the language that a native speaker would use on a given day.
You can whittle this down even further and begin by familiarizing yourself with just the 300 most common words. In English, 300 words make up 65% of all written material.
Once you get a solid grasp of the basics, it’s actually more effective for your learning to focus on expanding your vocab set to include words that are meaningful and relevant to you. For instance, if you’re a musician, it probably makes sense for you to learn words like "bass" and "octave," whereas a foodie might want to brush up on terms like "slow cooker" and "mixologist."
Babbel’s lessons are hyper-focused on actual, commonplace language that native speakers use, which is why they’re ideal for learning real-life conversation skills.
Do Your Drills, Sound Like A Native
It can often be difficult for non-native speakers of a language to differentiate certain sounds, which is why the word "beach" can sound rather vulgar coming from the mouth of a non-English speaker.
As you begin to move past the basics of your new language, you can close this pronunciation gap through a technique called minimal pair training. Basically, this involves listening to the correct pronunciation of two words that sound similar, guessing which is which, and learning whether you were right or wrong. When you do this enough times, you can train yourself to identify the subtle differences in intonation.
You can also train your mouth muscles to pronounce foreign words correctly. There are plenty of resources online that can teach you about mouth positions, or how you should position your tongue, teeth and lips to produce the desired sound.
Babbel’s lessons feature audio from native speakers that helps familiarize you with the way the language actually sounds, as well as speech recognition technology that tests you on your pronunciation.
Taken together, these techniques create an optimal recipe for effective language-learning. And if you can only take one thing away from this article, it’s that consistency matters — no matter what the ingredients are.