How languages are learned (2)

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I would like to share a little exerpt from a book that tries to encourage learners of any given language not to be afraid of exposure to original material even in their early stages of learning.

Language is one of the most complex systems our minds manage to master. We should or can trust our brains to acquire a lot of skills in ways we do not always understand or are able to describe. (And that we cannot or need not always control).

Developing this system of language is a very long, but not necessarily hard, process. We sometimes forget that children spend whole days of their early lives doing this – many hours for many years before they have reached a level of complete mastery of the structural system. Developing vocabulary, adding phrases, words, collocations etc. to our language systems is a life long process. Language is our tool for learning of all kind, and each new domain we explore includes the vocabulary it uses.

Research has found that the most important element for the process of child language acquisition to be successful is interactive ‘input’ – communicating with the child as much as possible. Their brains, our brains, figure the system out ‘on their own’ – its regularities, structures and meanings – without any artificially constructed grammar exercises or corrections by adults. (Correcting children when they speak has actually been shown to hinder the process. When you think about it, it is understandable why. Correcting other speakers’ language while they are trying to convey thoughts, feelings, wishes etc. is unnatural and can thus be very confusing).

In any learning process, be it learning a new language, or an instrument, a sports skill, anything, there is no way around quantity of practice and exposure. There are no short cuts. Instructions and structured exercises can help practice in more efficient ways, especially in the beginning stages, but in the end it is the amount of time you spend with the skill you want to be able to master that determines the level you reach. However, when it comes to language development, this need not be hard and difficult, as the authors of the text below explain. Trust your brain to figure things out, don’t be afraid of making mistakes, and expose yourself to things you also do or enjoy doing in your native language.

Further selected literature:

The Articulate Mammal, Jean Aitchison

How Languages Are Learned, Patsy Lightbown

Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Colin Baker


Adapted from: HOW TO GET REALLY GOOD AT ENGLISH, Learn English to Fluency and Beyond, Polyglot Language Learning FIRST EDITION

The Language Learning Bubble

Most people who have learned to speak several languages fluently (so-called polyglots) weren’t always good at learning foreign languages. It’s a skill that they develop with each new language they take on. This is why the first one can be such a challenge for everybody. (…) And then, native speakers spit out at high speed seemingly a bazillion words a minute. It certainly sounds like a lot of hard work and study will be needed.

It’s hard to argue against the value of hard work. It creates high-quality results. It pushes people to do what they need to do. It gets things done.

But in the case of learning a foreign language, hard work can be somewhat misleading.

Rereading, rewriting, and re-listening to the same vocabulary, sentences, dialogues, and short stories may work well enough to pass your school exams, but they are not very effective means to store new language in your long-term memory. They are also tedious and not very fun ways to learn.

These simple methods may put new words into your short-term memory, but if you hope to be a fluent English speaker one day, you’ll need to store these words into your long-term memory and be able to recall them with ease. You’ll need to instantly recognize them whether they are written or spoken.

All of this is possible and relatively easy to achieve, but traditional learning and study is not how you get to this point. While some initial study is recommended to learn and acquire the basics of English grammar including simple vocabulary and phrases, traditional learning and studying becomes less and less effective as the number of words and phrases you encounter increases.

Polyglots teach us that it is far more effective to learn and retain these thousands of words and phrases through extensively reading and listening to native materials.

You get really good at English or any language not by reviewing and mastering a few hundred pages of grammar rules and vocabulary lists but by reading thousands of pages and listening to thousands of hours of native English.

Many language learners, however, do not freely read and listen to native materials, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s completely overwhelming in the beginner and intermediate levels. On a single page of anything written in native English, you’ll find more words that you don’t know than words that you do know. And it’s extremely difficult to listen to native English for very long when you really can’t understand anything that is going on. Nothing is broken down nor explained in native materials (…)

While (…) instructional materials can be helpful especially in the beginner levels, the problem is that most language learners stay far too long within the bubble of these traditional learning methods and materials. They spend too much time memorizing and reviewing the few hundred or thousand words they have accumulated while native speakers use more than 30,000 words to communicate with each other in daily life. 

(And many believe this traditional approach to be the ultimate one to follow. And if you are not successful, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough; my comment)

The Crash and Burnout

(…) It might seem like we should spend three or more hours studying every day considering all of the phrasebooks, course books, grammar books, flashcard programs, apps, and online tools available.

If you have ever reached the intermediate stages of a foreign language, however, you might have experienced the frustration in trying to manage all of this studying and reviewing. You forget words. You forget grammar rules that you have read multiple times. And of course, native speakers still talk too fast. It’s quite easy to find yourself in language learning hell.

Many dedicated English learners simply burnout and quit before ever reaching fluency. The truth, however, is that there is no need to study for three or more hours each day to achieve fluency.

The real issue preventing many people from learning English is their definition of what it means to learn a foreign language.

This problematic definition is formed from being required to take unimaginative and uninspired foreign language classes in high school and college. The excessive focus on studying and reviewing to pass exams in the

 short-term completely overshadows the long-term benefits of extensive reading and listening.

In the beginner phase or at any level, it would be a huge mistake to exclude content made by native speakers for native speakers in the target language. We aren’t talking about good and educational sources to learn conversational English from.

We mean content that is fun and deeply interesting to you. You can learn from the native English material that you love like movies, TV shows, music, videos, books, and video games. Unfortunately, because of the initial overwhelming difficulty, beginners to language learning often omit this content in favor of more traditional learning from materials like textbooks, online courses, and audio lessons.     

The Fast and Fun Way to Learn

The real English language and the real fun in learning it, however, lies outside the bubble of instructional materials.

(…)In learning any language, there is no point where we become ready for native-level materials.

You just have to start.

So how do you learn from fun things like English movies and TV shows? Do you just press play and listen as much as possible? But when you understand so very little in the beginner and intermediate levels, it can feel like we aren’t learning anything at all.

So then, do you continually stop to look up each new word that you find? But looking up every single new word and grammar structure can be absolutely exhausting. And on top of that, how are you supposed to remember all of them? It’s very easy to give up trying to learn from the fun things that we truly care about.

It’s common to find yourself surrounded by thousands of words and question their usefulness in everyday conversation. Why would we ever need to know words like “Alpha Strike” and “Aqua Prison” from video games when we should be learning practical things like “take out the trash” and “job interview”? (…)


Once you understand how to easily learn from native English materials, you will be able to immerse yourself more deeply in whatever material you choose to read and listen to on a daily basis. And when you enjoy the learning process as a whole, you’ll be willing to put in the hours of reading and listening every single day and naturally make faster progress. If you are aiming for just a conversational level of fluency that allows you to hold basic conversations with native English speakers, you may not need to put in these multiple hours every day.

But if you want to understand everything native speakers say to each other and reach a truly high level of English especially within a few years, you’ll need to put in the hours of reading and listening each and every day. (…)

Example: Immerse yourself in any kind of native English material of your choice without subtitles or translations in your native language for roughly 20 minutes or so. This can include watching exciting English shows and movies, listening to podcasts or radio programs in English, reading up on topics in English that you are highly interested in, or even playing video games in English.

For this brief amount of time, very carefully listen and look for words unknown to you and that are repeated multiple times. Without stopping the reading, video, or audio, quickly jot down the unknown words that are repeated two or more times. Include the page numbers, video times, audio track times, or in-game screenshots for reference later. After the 20 minutes or so have passed, use online dictionaries and grammar resources to quickly break down the words and lines to learn their meaning.


Language Learning, Polyglot. English: How to Get Really Good at English: Learn English to Fluency and Beyond (S.2-3). Kindle-Version

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