The “Secret” to Learning Any Language

Man, that’s an ambitious title, right?

Well, I’m about to give it to you, the secret to learning any language. It doesn’t matter which language, what your language aptitude is, how much money you have, where you live. You can learn any language if you apply this secret.

But first, send me four easy payments of $49.99…

…okay, kidding. Here it is:

Persistent Effort

That’s it.

And now you’re thinking, “That’s it?”

The secret that’s hidden in plain view

Okay, I suppose persistent effort might not be a secret, per se. But it might as well be, seeing as how badly it’s overlooked.

You have practically infinite options for language learning. Consider all the different learning methodologies out there, all the classes, all the courses, all the books, all the websites, and all the apps, each one claiming to be the best. Then consider all the different things you could be reading, watching, or listening to. The possible combinations of those elements are endless.

Some people are frozen by analysis paralysis. They’re out looking for perfection before they start. They think, “I’ll start learning Chinese when the community college offers a class.” Or, “I’ll improve my Spanish if I can take an immersion trip to Colombia.” Or, “I’ll learn Arabic once I can afford Rosetta Stone.” But with so many options out there, why wait for just one? The sooner you start working, the sooner you’ll get to your goal.

Yeah, of course, some approaches are going to be better than others. But let’s say you’re in a class with a perfectly designed curriculum, being taught by a perfect teacher. How much good would that class do you if you quit it in a month?

There’s so much discussion out there about which language approach to follow, and as a language blogger, I’ve contributed my fair share to those conversations. But a lot of times, we’re arguing about the cherry on the sundae instead of making the sundae itself. You are much better off following an imperfect language routine while making persistent effort than following a near-perfect routine halfheartedly and inconsistently.

(For the record, I know there are some flat-out bad language learning approaches out there. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to waste your time with counterproductive activities. With that said, don’t automatically dismiss activities that seem unusual or that you don’t understand, because sometimes the weird stuff is really good.)

What do I mean by “persistent effort”?

Persistent effort means:

  • You work hard
  • You work often
  • You stick with it for the long term

Working hard

No, you don’t have to have smoke coming out of your ears after a study session for it to be productive. With language learning, working hard simply means that you’re giving your attention to the task at hand.

If you’re listening to a podcast or watching a TV program in your target language, really try to pick up the meaning of what’s going on. Don’t daydream or scroll through your Facebook Timeline.

If you’re speaking with a language exchange partner, don’t switch to your native language because you’re feeling too lazy to struggle coming up with the right words in your target language. Keep struggling.

Engage. Put a little passion into what you’re doing.

Working often

I get the best results when language learning is a habit, when my target language is front and center in my mind. Ideally, I interact with the language several times a day, starting from the early morning and lasting until I go to bed.

I’m really pushing right now, so my schedule is pretty intense. But this is how often a day I get exposure to German:

  • First thing in the morning when I wake up
  • Car ride to work
  • Morning break at work
  • Lunch
  • Afternoon break at work
  • Car ride home
  • Before dinner
  • Before bed

It’s a little embarrassing seeing that typed out. But it’s become such a habit that I don’t even feel like any of it’s a chore. I use a lot of dead time, such as during my commute, and except for me staying up later than my family to study, I’m pretty inconspicuous. For the most part, I don’t think anyone around me even notices that I’m studying so frequently. (For new readers, how I’m studying has been discussed in previous articles.)

And this still only takes up about two hours of my day, three if I’m feeling ambitious. Some of these are longer sessions, but many are only 10 minutes at a time.

My brain is constantly humming with German, and I can really feel the language settling in.

Sticking with it over the long term

It takes time to learn a language. US military personnel and State Department personnel who enroll in intensive language courses study 8 to 10 hours a day, 5 days a week (and often on the weekends too). It still takes them six months to a year and a half, depending on the language, to get proficient.

Even if your goals are modest, it’s going to take time to reach them. It’s very, very difficult to rush language acquisition.

So you have to stick with it for weeks, months, and maybe even years to get to where you want to be.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a drill sergeant mentality. I think the key to sticking with your studies is finding a few approaches that you genuinely like and that fit your personality. For example, I like language exchanges, but I like doing things on my own schedule more. So podcasts, television shows, and studying vocab maintain my interest and feel manageable. Speaking sessions, not so much. I throw them in when I can.

Maybe you’re the opposite, though. Maybe you’re social and really like engaging with people. Meet ups, classes, and Skype sessions would be your go-to activities, while going through a text book on your own would be something you’d rarely or ever do.

You can take days off, and even weeks off. But part of being persistent is spending more days studying than not studying. Really, the important thing is to be making progress toward your goal, even if it’s slow.

Wrapping Up

So that’s the “secret.” I was being tongue-in-cheek with the title, but at the same time, I really wanted to make you appreciate how important all this is.

It’s kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if you don’t make this persistent effort, you’re not going to make it very far with language learning.

On the other hand, if you make the persistent effort, then you’re over halfway there. Once you have that taken care of, it’s just a matter of filling in the details. The language will come.

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