Sounds too good to be true? Well, unfortunately, it is. There is no trick, simple or otherwise, that will allow you to master a language in such a short space of time. To be honest, if there were, I’d be out of a job.
A quick Google search, however, results in hundreds of websites making similarly incredible claims. “How to learn any language in seven days” one boasts. “One simple method to learn any language” another one promises.
So, do any of these techniques have any merit? Perhaps. In “seven days” you can learn quite a lot if you approach language learning in a very dedicated way. However, realistically, we’re talking about learning some greetings, a few simple phrases and a little vocabulary, as opposed to actually obtaining a working knowledge of our target language. Indeed, there may exist a “simple method” that is very helpful in structuring your learning. Nevertheless, any method also needs to be combined with the holy trinity of time, effort and concentration.
In other words, there are no “cheats,” no “shortcuts” and no “miraculous tricks” that will transform you from a novice to an adept communicator without you putting in the hard work over a prolonged period of time. However, before you close this article and promise never to fall for a clickbait title again, let’s look at what does work. I’ve been teaching languages full time for close to six years and I’ve learnt that a few simple changes to how you approach learning can make an enormous difference over the long run. Essentially, those students who develop a few practical habits can find themselves progressing quickly and with ease.
Other students, however, can struggle. Despite the best efforts to instil effective habits in them, they seem determined to make their language learning journey as difficult and drawn-out as possible. And that’s why this list is useful. It doesn’t offer anything “revolutionary” or “miraculous,” merely practical pieces of advice that anyone can incorporate into their learning routine (if they haven’t already!).
As such, I present to you my five practical tips for learning a language as efficiently as possible:
Tip #1: Review your work outside of the session
This is number one for a reason. Lessons with a professional teacher are crucial for navigating the intricacies of a new language. However, without reviewing the language in your own time, it’ll never stick. Of course, everyone has commitments outside of language learning. It might be work or family or whatever, but generally, this is the difference between a language learner who succeeds and one who struggles. And this doesn’t have to mean long, tiring hours doing homework. Just a quick glance over some of the language you learnt during your last lesson will suffice if time is an issue. Who doesn’t have a spare five minutes on their way to work to peek at their notes and remind themselves of a few words of vocabulary or how to structure a particular tense?
Numerous studies have shown how the knowledge we learn begins to fade rapidly from our memory soon after we acquire it. However, if we actively focus on it again a few days later, it “refreshes” the memory and helps it fade a lot slower the second time. If we do this a couple of times, the memory stops fading entirely. We have now “learnt” this information and can draw on it at will. This is the key to not only learning, but actually retaining new information. Imagine being able to recall every bit of a new language perfectly, every tense, every idiomatic expression you’ve ever learnt in a class. Incredible, eh? Well, that’s what language retention means. And that’s why you should focus on reviewing your work.
Tip #2: Keep a language learning folder
Such a small thing, but such a big difference. If you’re not sure that you need a paper folder or a folder on your computer’s desktop, let me give you a tip: you need both. Having all of your lesson notes and completed homework assignments next to your course materials and all in one place will make it so much easier to study. And if it’s easier to study, that’s what you’ll do. In my experience as a teacher, the number of students who spend the first five to ten minutes of any lesson frantically searching for their notes from the previous session is staggering. It’s understandable, of course. We all have issues with organisation sometimes. However, making that little effort to bundle everything up in one place means that you will have easy access to all of your notes, your PDFs, your audio files, print-outs, course books and more.
Even just making sure that you use the same notepad for each lesson will help you immeasurably. Instead of trying to find random scraps of paper from two weeks ago, you’ll have everything in order, in one document and dated. That way, you can easily find the page where you scribbled down that useful bit of vocabulary during the previous lesson. If this sounds a little like your school days, it is. The system worked then, so why change it?
Tip #3: Practice all four skills
The most common skill students tell me they want to improve is speaking. This is natural and understandable. Speaking means we can communicate with people face-to-face; look them in the eyes and have a meaningful conversation with them. However, there are four skills to any language (reading, writing, listening and speaking) and you’ll struggle if you focus too intently on only one. Think about it this way: what’s the point in being able to speak if you can’t understand what anyone is saying? That’s right, you need listening as well. Or perhaps you want to get better at writing? Well, reading will help you.
The thing is, the four skills all feed back into one another, meaning that learning one often helps out the others, whether it’s by picking up new vocabulary, improving comprehension or maintaining your interest in learning by engaging you with new material. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one particular area, especially if it’s a weak point. However, being a well-rounded learner will serve you infinitely better in the long run. What this means in practice is that you need to expose yourself to as many forms of the language as possible: read books, listen to music, write text messages and yes, speak as much as possible.
Tip #4: Focus on the small goals
Learning a language to an almost native level takes years. There’s no two ways about it, I’m afraid. And although focusing on the long term goal feels great at the time, it’s actually likely to lead you to being disheartened as you peer into the future and see the long and tiring road ahead of you. So, what can you do to keep on track? Focus on the small goals, that’s what. By concentrating on mastering small segments of the language at any one time, you’ll get to regularly feel a sense of achievement and progression. Ignore the “big picture” and learn to find satisfaction in each piece of the puzzle as you slot it into place.
Endurance athletes often talk of something similar. Focusing on the end of the race has the counterintuitive effect of sapping your self belief and determination. Instead, concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and slowly racking up one small achievement after one small achievement, until you look up and there it is: the finish line. Essentially, you were able to achieve your goals without once focusing on them.
Tip #5: Try and have fun!
Remember, you don’t need to approach language learning like you’re heading out to war, where a moment’s misjudgement could be fatal. Acquiring knowledge is a beautiful thing that enriches you as a person and brings countless opportunities for travel, career progression and new adventures. Beating yourself up over every little mistake is a surefire way of training your brain to hate learning. Instead, laugh off your mistakes, remind yourself that you’re only human and learn to take pleasure in the undeniable fact that every day you’re getting just that little bit better.
Hero Image by Steven Depolo (CC BY 2.0)