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Five Techniques that Make Learning A Foreign Language Significantly Less Impressive

“What did you eat for breakfast as a child?” asked a wide-eyed woman from across the conference table.

My friend had just introduced me to her clinical research group as “Kelley from Korea who speaks Chinese, Korean, and French” because she loves nothing more than to engineer awkward moments with strangers just to watch me sweat. The scientists, whom I had expected to react to the unnecessary boast with polite but detached smiles and nods, instead seemed to be more impressed by my various language experiences than by the admission that a white girl named Kelley was a friend “from Korea.”

While this anecdote admittedly tiptoes into dangerous humblebrag territory, it also illustrates what I think is a sorrowfully inaccurate popular perspective that learning a language is a harrowing undertaking reserved for people with oddly wired brains fortified with supervitamins. I certainly won’t knock the necessity of nutrition for proper cognitive function, but I will stress that this cognitive function is something that the grand majority of us possess. Developing proficiency in a foreign tongue, even at a relatively mature age, should not be intimidating for either the learner or those who might praise her: Critical periods of pronunciation development aside, we are “wired” from the start to learn language—which is, after all, a creation entirely of the human brain, and one that most of us have mastered in at least one form already.

While I have been immersed for over a decade and a half in developing and maintaining proficiency in three foreign languages that I began learning relatively late in life—French at eleven, Chinese at seventeen, and Korean at twenty-four—I am not a teacher and thus have no authority to claim any well developed theories on what language-learning strategies might work for most or even many people. I can only look back with limited retrospection and report on what I think has been effective for me, in the hope that my advice might enable or embolden some others to succeed at their own linguistic pursuits.


  • Fabricate need: Like any pursuit, learning a language is a lot easier given the proper motivation. Unfortuately, unless you have an immediate need to develop spoken and written proficiency in another tongue, it’s difficult to justify putting in not just the time but also the consistent energy and attention it requires. Spend some time in a country where that language is spoken, even if just a semester or a short vacation. Set a deadline to take—and pass—a proficency test. Join a weekend discussion group or set up regular meetings with a language partner for some stimulating social pressure. In short, find out what motivates you and establish a study system that takes advantage of those tendencies.


  • Prepare to feel stupid: Learning a language requires assimilating a lot of new information—countless vocabulary words composed of phonemes you may never have heard before, various arbitrary rules about how they can and cannot be combined, cultural context behind the potentially strange new concepts they might be used to express. And it’s often difficult to appreciate the subtleties of foreign diction and logic of syntax until you’ve blindly learned, botched, corrected, and re-learned multiple instances of it. So if you’re doing your learning job right and processing your rich inputs with a sizeable number of corresponding outputs, you’re going to make mistakes.And if you spend any part of your language-learning experiences interacting with native speakers (as you should!), your powers of understanding and expression will also inevitably be both over-and underestimated at awkward turns. Be prepared to swallow your pride, both to ask questions when you don’t understand something that your interlocutor assumed you did, as well as to avoid distracting frustration when they repeat or water down a concept that you grasped sufficiently from the start.


  • Have fun: Have fun, that is, while feeling stupid (see our previous article on drinking in Korea for some ways to practice this art). Deciding to devote the resources needed to master a new language requires passion, and passion is not distilled from punishing goals and strict schedules. Developing passion for a subject means not taking yourself too seriously and not feeling guilty about turning studying into a game. It means spending hours playing classic game ROMs in your target language and staying up later than you should binging on dubbed Pixar movies and foreign dramas. It means reading cheap fiction and comics that you might not normally allow yourself to waste an afternoon on were they in your mother tongue. Because the point is maximizing exposure, and isn’t being able to effortlessly integrate your desired language into the activities you love one of the ultimate goals of learning it in the first place?


  • Be patient: According to one widely cited but unfortunately apocryphal statistic, “research shows” that mastery of foreign pronunciation alone—one tiny and sometimes even slightly disposable aspect of the multifaceted undertaking of language learning—depends in part on the purely physical development of tiny orofacial muscles that can take months of daily practice to reshape themselves. Even in the event that this particular factoid is just an Internet rumor, it stands to reason that going from mute to conversational, conversational to proficient, proficient to eloquent, and unlettered to literate doesn’t happen overnight. Indeed, the more you begin to parse and understand, the more poignantly you become aware of how far you have to go, making the uphill climb toward a satisfactory skill level a painfully Sisyphean process. Be patient.


  • But also… don’t wait: Don’t wait to “learn” the language before you start forcing yourself to “use” it; the best way to learn is to use, and developing proficiency only promotes rather than deprecates the learning process.

    It’s a little-applied fact that one does not need a large vocabulary to speak a new language with confidence; you just have to learn to creatively apply what you have. Focusing from the start on the most commonly used words is also important for developing efficiency, and one of the best ways to determine what words you need the most is to force yourself to speak and listen to only your target language for an extended period. It wasn’t until I moved to Beijing after two years of college-level Mandarin study that I realized how absurd it was that I could expound with some confidence on the advantages brought by China’s socialist history for the status of women in society but didn’t know the word for “hairbrush.”

    You should dive into listening with the same confidence, as you’ll find that the human brain can understand quite a bit even with weak knowledge of verbal components and structure. In the words of social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, “Fake it until you make it”—don’t write off a conversation as incomprehensible simply because it’s in a language you just started to learn or even haven’t learned at all; throw yourself into it with full attention and take note of every scrap of recognizable data—tone, expression, hand signals, loan words—that might be useful to you. At the very least, you’ll find yourself passively absorbing information on intonation and accent that could be useful for later adventures in proper expression.

    I decided to take a short vacation in Tokyo following college graduation and use the opportunity to practice Japanese. This was a slightly problematic decision because I did not know Japanese, and even after a few halfhearted glances through survival language books between final exams, I had a paltry vocabulary of fewer than twenty words. I assumed (naturally) that I was just setting myself up for failure.

    And yet, feeling the full brunt of Point 2 above, I pressed on anyway, finding to my pleasant surprise that when I challenged myself to use my scant knowledge to ask passerby for directions or order from a menu, I could generally pick up on the interlocutors’ responses: By focusing on gestures and the very few words that I knew (mostly verb particles and place or food names), I could fake a conversation in Japanese—without knowing Japanese.


So manipulate yourself into desperation, have fun feeling stupid, and be patient about the inevitably unsatisfactory results of precipitously challenging yourself to use the language you wish to learn. It might sound like a tall order, but just remember that what you’re seeking to master is something that’s already known by countless others, something that the brain is primed to acquire–indeed, something that has been suggested to be important, if not necessary, for some forms of thought itself. So eat whatever you want for breakfast. What’s the big deal?

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Written by 桑凯丽

桑凯丽 is a graduate student in Seoul researching the relationship between traumatic brain injury and addiction and exploring possible evidence-based applications of traditional Korean medicine to the treatment of affective disorders. She believes that a thorough understanding of the brain requires as much knowledge of culture as a thorough understanding of culture requires of the brain.

There are 4 comments

  • Fascinating read. Very helpful, in fact. I was always told some people have “knack” for language acquisition and it didn’t run in my family! I could never decide on a language to stick with. I like French, but I had a real reason to learn Korean based on the first point of this article: Necessity. Granted, most of my friends spoke English and all of my Korean pals wanted to practice English, so I was never motivated enough to make the effort. Plus I told myself I would rather learn French. Now I think I would choose Korean simply because it is less common for Westerners, which might be an advantage. One question: How important is memory skill in language acquisition? It’s weird, but of the little Korean I can speak, some I had to work at remembering, and some of it I just heard once and it stuck. No idea why.

    • 桑凯丽 says:

      Excellent question. In my experience, far more important than any apocryphal super-human memory ability—which, I assume, would enable the easy assimilation of most information regardless of type or source—has been a willingness to work around memory patterns that don’t stick (of which I have unfortunately encountered way too many) and find something easy to associate new input with. For example, I have found that learning Korean words that come from Chinese characters (hanja) is about 1000x easier for me than learning native hangul words because the hanja word already has a ready-made mental representation for me, thanks to existing knowledge of Chinese. It’s just a matter of making a small leap of pronunciation, much like from English to many French words.

      But for words that are strictly Korean, I initially had to work very hard to build a vivid representation that I wouldn’t forget, and in the beginning stages that usually involved some sort of weird mnemonic. For example, I had trouble remembering the word 껍질 (“skin” or “peel”) until I envisioned a line of grapes jumping up and down yelling “껍질! 껍질!”, which stuck a) because the sound of the word itself is sort of buoyant and reminiscent of jumping and b) an image of frenetically jumping fruit is sort of hard to erase for me.

      So I really think that what’s more important than the amount of storage space or processing speed one’s brain anatomy might enable is finding the kind of memory representation that sticks best for your unique thought processes. I recommend that you check out Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci for some awesome historical anecdotes on techniques that have worked extremely well for multiple people. The book focuses mainly on the Chinese exploits of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who could reportedly glance over a page of Chinese characters for some ridiculously short time and then recite the whole thing backward, but it also talks about mnemonic devices–especially visual ones—more generally, including in the context of language learning.

      I posted a brief piece on my own blog awhile back about how the brain automatically categorizes information to make it more easily digested—you might want to glance it over for another presentation of the concepts I’m getting at: http://www.kelleyswanberg.com/2013/04/28/our-stupid-brains/. I swear that wasn’t a purposefully shameless plug of my own site.^^

  • Most people I know who complain about not being able to learn a foreign language never put in the effort…Therefore, I would say that time and effort is the most important factor.

    • 桑凯丽 says:

      I can’t agree with you enough. People—at least in my experience, and not just in the United States—tend to express the opinion that if someone has accomplished something at which they failed it’s because that person is more talented or privileged than them. They seem interestingly more ashamed to admit that maybe they just didn’t work hard enough than that they’re somehow intrinsically not good enough.

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