Post reading time: 15 minutes.
Language learning need not be complicated.
Principles of cognitive neuroscience and time management can be applied to attain conversational fluency (here defined as 95%+ comprehension and 100% expressive abilities) in 1-3 months. Some background on my language obsession, from an earlier post on learning outside of classes:
From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools (Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?
The ideal system – and progression – is based on three elements in this order…
1. Effectiveness (Priority)
2. Adherence (Interest)
3. Efficiency (Process)
Effectiveness, adherence, and efficiency refer to the “what”, “why”, and “how” of learning a target language, respectively. In simple terms, you first decide what to learn, based on usage frequency (priority); you then filter materials based on your likelihood of continued study and review, or adherence (interest); lastly, you determine how to learn the material most efficiently (process).
Let’s cover each in turn. This post will focus on vocabulary and subject matter. For learning grammar, I suggest you read this short article. For “reactivating” forgotten languages – like high school Spanish – this sequence will do the trick.
Effectiveness: If you select the wrong material, it does not matter how you study or if you study – practical fluency is impossible without the proper tools (material). Teachers are subordinate to materials, just as cooks are subordinate to recipes.
Adherence: Review, and multiple exposures to the same material, will always
present an element of monotony, which must be countered by an interest in the material. Even if you select the most effective material and efficient method, if you don’t adhere with repeated study, effectiveness and efficiency mean nothing. In other words: can you persist with the material and method you’ve chosen? If not, less effective materials or methods will still be better. The best approach means nothing if you don’t use it.
By analogy, if sprinting uphill with bowling balls in each hand were the most effective way to lose body fat, how long would the average person adhere to such a program?
If you have no interest in politics, will you adhere to a language course that focuses on this material? Ask yourself: Can I study this material every day and adhere until I reach my fluency goals? If you have any doubt, change your selection. Oftentimes, it is best to select content that matches your interests in your native language. Do not read about something that you would not read about in English, if English is your native language (e. g. don’t read Asahi Shimbun if you don’t read newspapers in English). Use the target language as a vehicle for learning more about a subject, skill, or cultural area of interest.
Do not use material incongruent with your interests as a vehicle for learning a language – it will not work.
Efficiency: It matters little if you have the best material and adherence if time-to-fluency is 20 years. The ROI won’t compel you. Ask yourself: Will this method allow me to reach accurate recognition and recall with the fewest number of exposures, within the shortest period of time?