Copyright © 2011 by John Fotheringham. For more tips, tools, and tech for Mastering ANY Language, go to LanguageMastery.com
To do lists seem like a good idea in theory, but they have one major disadvantage: there is an infinite number of potential to do items. With this in mind, Timothy Ferriss, best-selling author of The 4-Hour Workweek (and a speaker of 6 languages), recommends “not to lists” instead. Since they isolate a finite set of behaviors that are getting between you and your goals, they are far more effective than traditional to do lists. This tool applies perfectly to language learning, where most learners waste a lot of time on ineffective methods and bad materials.
Here now are my top ten NOT to do’s for effective language learning:
1. Do NOT spend more than 5% of your study time on grammar, translation, vocabulary lists or any other overt information about the language.
Languages are acquired, not learned. And acquisition by its very definition happens subconsciously over time given proper input. Which leads us to number 2.
2. Do NOT spend time on materials that are too difficult or don’t interest you.
Motivation is one of the greatest keys to success in foreign language learning, and motivation’s favorite fuel is interest. There is a wealth of free language learning content available today; you need simply look.
3. Do NOT study in long, infrequent sessions.
Behind motivation, consistency is the most important factor in language learning. If you are strapped for time (and who isn’t?), it is far better to study a little bit everyday than doing marathon study sessions a few times a month. For example, if you only have 2 hours free per week to commit to language studies, it is far better to do 20 minutes per day, 6 days a week than doing the whole 2 hours on one day.
4. Do NOT worry about speaking too soon.
Although oral fluency is certainly the goal of most language learners, it takes the brain some time to assimilate enough input to be able to produce meaningful output. Babies listen actively to the language around them for up to 2 years before uttering a single meaningful word. Adults can get to the output stage much earlier if they follow the advice on this site, but they should not force themselves (or let themselves be forced) to speak before they are ready. This is perhaps the single greatest problem with formal language instruction: students are expected to speak long before they are ready, creating a great deal of anxiety and diminishing the student’s motivation and interest.
5. Do NOT memorize vocabulary out of context.
To have any chance of retaining or using new words, they must be heard or read (preferably the former) many, many times within a meaningful situation. “Narrow reading” is a good way to increase the repetition of key words in a meaningful way.
6. Do NOT try to learn new words, alphabets, ideographic characters or spelling using “rote” memory.
We have 5 senses at our disposal: use them! Integrate taste, touch, smell, sound and movement as much as possible. Use “imaginative memory” to visualize connections, stories, objects, etc. The crazier the story, the easier it will be to imprint in long term memory.
7. Do NOT overly rely on the written word.
Whenever possible, try to listen to a piece first before reading it. This trains you to rely on your ears first, and better follows the natural order of acquisition (remember: you learned to speak your first language long before you learned to read it!)
8. Do NOT look up words before making at least one full pass through each reading or listening material (or each section for longer pieces).
Only once you have gone through once or even twice, then go back and look up words you don’t know. When you don’t interrupt the “semantic flow,” it’s easier to get a feel for the big picture. And this prevents us word-nerds from getting lost in unrelated vocabulary and new linguistic connections.
9. Do NOT let the “affective filter” put a damper on your language learning.
The affective filter is a fancy word for a simple and intuitive concept: your emotions and psychological state significantly affect your performance in a foreign language (or any skill-based act for that matter.) If you are nervous, angry, hungry, tired, or preoccupied with the fight you had last night with your significant other, your ability to speak well in a foreign language will go down faster than the current stock market. On the other hand, I am sure you have noticed that a few brewskies can significantly improve your ability to converse in a foreign tongue. Why? Because booze (like meditation, exercise, and experience) helps lower inhibitions and boost social skills like verbal communication. If your teacher makes you feel nervous or stupid, fire their ass. If your language partner does not see the logic in your incorrect, but nevertheless intelligent errors, replace them. You will never make any real progress if you are afraid to speak and are not free to make all the wonderfully logical—albeit incorrect—utterances that define both infant and adult language acquisition.
10. Do NOT forget to have some fun!
Language learning takes time, but it needn’t be difficult. If you follow the tips listed above and throughout the site, and approach language learning with a smile instead of a grimace, you too WILL succeed!