Habit Change as a Language Learning Tool

Forgotten Habit by Trường Đặng

Being about three quarters of the way through the first month of our semi-unofficial Swedish challenge, I’ve noticed one of the biggest obstacles starting out was that I had almost entirely lost my study habit. With so many other things going on I’d frequently forget to do my vocab study until way late in the day. Then I’d either have to grudgingly accept that I was going to be behind and have to do extra to catch up, or force myself to grind it out before bed when neither my heart nor head were really into it.

As a result I fell a bit behind and have had to play a lot of catch up. (I’ll post a full analysis of how well I did at the end of the month challenge period.) It got me thinking a bit about how hard it could be for people who had no past experience building that habit. After all, I’ve done this all before and have a solid handle on how to bring that daily Memrise habit back. If you struggle to build habits or have never done it before I’m sure it’d be even more difficult.

So here’s how to build a habit that will stick, and how to use it to aid your language learning.

What’s a Habit Anyway?

There is some discussion to what really constitutes a habit, so I figure it’s best to clear up specifically what we’re talking about before we dig into the meat of things. The way we’ll be defining it here is that a habit is an action that you perform without conscious impetus to do so. An action which you would do completely on autopilot and which often would feel very strange to not do.

A couple easy examples are brushing your teeth in the morning or buckling your seat belt when you get into a car. You probably don’t have to tell yourself to do either of these things. For most people it’s entirely automatic to stumble into the bathroom half asleep after waking up and immediately start brushing their teeth. Similarly when you sit down in the car seat you probably reach for the seat belt unconsciously. Both these actions would also feel wrong to skip. You would have to force yourself to not brush your teeth and the fact that you hadn’t would probably grate at you in the back of your mind. Starting to drive off without buckling up would also take a conscious decision and feel very viscerally wrong (I hope).

Both of these things are the kinds of habits we’re talking about. You could maybe also call them ‘compulsions’ although that tends to hold a more negative connotation.

Bad habits follow the same rules. Biting one’s nails is an easy example. A person does it unconsciously, compelled without realizing that they’re doing it, and it would feel viscerally wrong somehow to consciously force themselves to not do it when compelled.

Positive or negative all of the habits we’re talking about here will have these basic qualities. Primarily because all of them follow the same pattern of activation.

How Habits are Triggered

All habits follow the same cyclical pattern of activation and reinforcement. This habit cycle starts with some kind of cue or trigger, the cue or trigger then causes you to unconsciously perform the habitual action, which then provides some kind of reward. It is, in essence, the same kind of positively reinforced classical conditioning used to train animals today. You probably don’t even recognize this Pavlovian response happening (quick aside to note, as an animal lover, that despite the potential value of his research Pavlov was a monster to those dogs), but it’s being built and reinforced every time you engage in the habit.

First comes the cue, something that occurs that triggers your habit response. In the case of brushing your teeth in the morning it’s probably waking up and heading into the bathroom or whatever part of your morning routine that precedes it. That action triggers the behavior in question, brushing your teeth in this case, and then you get the reward. The reward in this case being the personal satisfaction of having avoided future discomfort, or knowing that you’ve improved your appearance, or whatever subtle psychological trigger is present in you for completing that task.

The cue may be something obvious, or it may be something very discreet. In the case of buckling up in the car or brushing your teeth it’s fairly obvious what triggers it, but some habits are caused by more obfuscated forces. For example, an emotional eater might find a snack half finished without even recognizing that they had even felt lonely, bored, or whatever emotion happened to trigger that response.

The reward may be something very obvious as well, if the habit you’re trying to break is having a cookie for dessert every time you finish lunch the reward is pretty obvious – the cookie and all the pleasant hormones that come with a sugary treat. In other instances, brushing your teeth or buckling up for example, the reward may be something you don’t notice like the feeling of contentment, security, and having avoided future danger and all the feel good hormones that releases.

Regardless of whether it’s a positive habit or a negative habit they all follow this same cycle of trigger and reinforcement. The good thing is, once we understand this cycle and how it works, we can manipulate the variables to create more good habits and erase all of our bad ones.

Building a Language Learning Habit

Since I mostly want to focus on using habit creation to aid language learning, I’m going to save how we manipulate the habit cycle to erase bad habits for another article and focus on how to build new habits – specifically ones for language learning.

For our example habit, since it’s the one I had to rebuild, I’m going to choose vocab study. In my case it was using Memrise, but this could be putting some time into Anki or your other SRS of choice, or even a quick study session on Duolingo or a chat with somebody on iTalki. You can substitute any behavior you want in for the habit and play with things to see what works for you.

The first thing we need is something to set off the habit.

Creating a Habit Cue

The easiest way to create a habit cue is to build upon an action that is already habitual, or inevitable enough for one reason or another that you are already certain that it’s going to occur essentially everyday. It’s also important, or at least extremely helpful, to pick a habit that occurs at roughly the same time everyday and to make sure it’s the time of day you want to perform this new habit we’re building.

For me, I wanted to make sure I got to my Memrise practice as early as possible in the day because it’s important to me and I like to tackle the things that are most important as early as possible. I also feel like I study better early than later in the evenings.

To that end, I decided to make my cue sitting down with my morning coffee. I love my coffee and, unless we run out and I don’t realize soon enough to order new beans, Caroline and I both have two cups every morning (burr ground, drip, Chemex – for any fellow coffee nerds). That made it a perfect habit cue for me to utilize. It’s an essentially inevitable part of my routine and it’s first thing in the morning which is what I want.

You can create your own cues at certain times if you don’t have an activity you already habitually do then by setting alarms on your computer, phone, watch or whatever. I personally find this method a little harder to stick to, and in my experience it seems harder to bind the action to the timer in the first place than to bind it to another action, but you can experiment.

Once you’ve got your habit cue, you can move on to creating the actual habit action.

Developing a Habitual Action

One of the biggest mistakes people make when developing an action into a habit is to try to do too much too quickly.

If you were to commit yourself to studying 200 new words per day on Memrise everyday after sitting down with your coffee, you might get a few days in through sheer force of will – but soon you just won’t feel like it. You’ll miss a day, then maybe two or three, and your efforts to build that habit will have been wasted.

Good dog trainers will tell you that when building a response in a dog you want to avoid a ‘miss’ at all costs. A ‘miss’ meaning a failure to perform the behavior. If you’re trying to teach a dog to sit ideally you give the command, the dog sits, you mark the correct behavior with a clicker or similar marker and then give a reward like a treat. If the dog ‘misses’ – does something other than sit like jump up – you don’t keep giving the command, you regress to an easier behavior then work back up.

This is because you want to condition in the cleanest response possible and avoid conditioning in additional, unwanted behaviors or making the desired action you’re pairing with the command less clear. Conditioning your own habits follows similar rules, you want to avoid a miss – in your case failing to perform the new habitual action – at all costs.

The easiest way to ensure that you aren’t going to miss is to start your habitual action out so small that it would make you feel foolish not to do it. So in our case you could make it to learn 5 new words on Memrise. If you need something even easier than that, you could make it just to sit down with your coffee and open the Memrise app.

That’s it. Just open it. You don’t have to do any actual studying if you don’t want to.

That kind of action ensures that you’ll always actually do it. After all, if you’re so lazy or opposed to study that you can’t even be bothered to take two seconds to open the Memrise app on your phone, then you have much bigger problems to address first.

Eventually you can build upon that foundational habit to get to a genuinely productive habit. So after a week or so of just opening up the app, you can bump up to 5 words studied every day. After a week of that, when it feels easy and automatic, make it 10 words per day instead and so on. If you miss, then just regress back to an easier stage until you’ve got a good consistent stretch of hits or successes and then try increasing the load again.

The biggest key here is to start small. Choose something that takes a minimal amount of time, maybe less than 30 seconds, requires almost no effort, and is relevant to the larger habit you’re building. The relevancy is important, conditioning yourself just to pick up your phone might not cut it – you could wind up on Facebook or playing games. Conditioning yourself to open Memrise (or Duolingo, iTalki, whatever) is relevant because it’s a necessary first step to the larger habit we’re gunning for.

Now that we’ve got a habitual action developed and tied to the habit cue we created, now we need to finish things off with a habit reward.

Finding a Habit Reward

Technically speaking you can develop new habits while neglecting this step. This is primarily due to the fact that in general we like accomplishing things and even if you don’t consciously build in a reward for the new behavior your brain will release some of those feel good hormones when you actually do the thing you’ve been wanting to do.

That being said, you can encode the new habits much, much faster by actively building in a habit reward.

A habit reward can be anything at all that makes you feel good. I personally like to make them a little more psychological for most things rather than physical, both for convenience of use and because there’s no worry about negative side effects, but you can choose something physical if that works better for you.

By a psychological reward I mean an active confirmation that you have done something to be celebrated. So using our previous example after you finish your Memrise session for that day (whether that was just opening the app or doing 50 words), you put a big grin on your face, tell yourself that you just did something awesome, give yourself a big thumbs up, then flex and roar out a Randy Savage-esque ‘OH YEAH!’.

Ok, so you don’t have to do all that. The point is to really feel like you’ve done something great though, whatever you need to do to generate that feeling. Your brain really likes that feeling, and will release a lot of chemicals like dopamine that make you feel happy and actively reinforce the behavior we’re trying to habituate.

If you need a physical reward, try to choose something that has other positive effects on your life rather than negative ones. If you use a pint of ice cream as a reward, for example, and wind up eating a pint of ice cream everyday on top of everything else, you might wind up with other problems as a result of your work to create that habit. A small piece of candy or something else sweet but healthier like a piece of fruit are decent options, or using an activity you like as a reward for successfully completing the behavior you’re habituating. Directly physical/chemical rewards like food, drink, or maybe sexual favors from a partner are all potent, but difficult to implement well.

Immediacy can make a big difference as well, which is another reason I prefer psychological/psychosomatic rewards, the longer your reward takes to trigger after the habit you’re developing is completed the less effective it is at reinforcing that habit.

This is one reason habits like going to the gym or eating healthier are notoriously hard to develop – the rewards (being fit, losing weight, etc.) are all far delayed from the habit. If someone gave you $5 immediately after you finished every workout, you’d build that habit in no time.

Putting All of It Together

Doing those things in order will eventually lead you to having a strong study habit conditioned in that you’ll do automatically every morning without thinking about it – like I do now.

In practice, what the above looks like is this – the first week every morning as soon as you sit down with your coffee you open the Memrise app. Immediately after opening it, you may a big deal out of it and jump up and down and celebrate because you’re the best for opening that app. Maybe after the fanfare you study a bit, maybe you just close it. Doesn’t matter.

The next week, having done that every morning for the previous week, you bump it up. Now, after you sit down with your coffee, you immediately open the Memrise app and learn 5 new words. Once those 5 words are done you congratulate yourself like you just beat the Technodrome level on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. Again, maybe you do more words after that, but it’s no big deal if you do or don’t.

The next week, after never failing to do 5 words each day the previous one, you repeat the process but bumped up to 10 words, and so on. Before long when you sit down with your coffee you’ll be pulling Memrise up before you even think about it.

You can use this habit building process for any language learning element to learn faster, and more effectively. That can mean developing a vocab learning habit like what was outlined here, or maybe you build a habit to chat with a native speaker on iTalki or HelloTalk each evening. The point is to build well-ingrained habits that sequentially bring you closer to your goal of speaking a new language.

Have you tried these methods to habituate your language learning process? Have any suggestions to make it easier or areas where you had particular trouble? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Trường Đặng Rok

Learning Swedish – A Segmented Approach

Yellow Cross by Christer

How much Swedish can we learn in 3 months using a new method we’ve never tried before?

In a way, this is equal parts both a personal challenge and also an experiment. We’ve wanted to learn Swedish for a while now, mostly because of my ancestry (I’m told ‘Wik’ comes from the same Swedish root as the ‘vik’ in ‘viking’, and one of our family historians insists that there’s some evidence ancestors way back of ours were vikings).

It’s no fun if you can’t make it a challenge though, so I’ve been considering ways to ramp things up a bit. To add that challenge element I decided to see how far we can get in the language in 3 months with what I would consider a minimal amount of study. What I mean by that is, we’ll only be studying for a few hours each night on the side of our other projects – not spending 8 hours a day cramming.

I think this will be a bit more instructive since in the past when we’ve taken on a language challenge I’ve not only given us a longer timeline (6 months for Korean) but we also made it something of a side job. We dropped a lot of other projects to clear enough time every day to study intensely. It was certainly effective, but I know not everyone has the luxury to do so. Now we’ve got more writing projects to keep on top of and the responsibility of teaching classes at the self-defense school I opened, so we’ve less ability to just drop things and devote ourselves to language study.

Since we’re already making things interesting, I also wanted to change up our methods a little bit as an experiment.

Since we have less time overall, rather than focus on learning as much as possible in vocab and grammar and getting to speaking practice immediately, we’re going to segment things out.

  • Month 1 Vocab – The first month we’re going to spend entirely on vocab acquisition with no real worries about grammar, speaking, or listening practice. Right now the plan is to use an SRS system, likely Memrise, to memorize as many of the most commonly used Swedish words as possible.

    Ideally the goal here is to learn at least the first 1,000 most common words in Swedish before the first month is over so that the foundations are well laid for beginning grammar study.

  • Month 2 Grammar – The second month will be devoted entirely to grammar study. I expect there will be some inevitable continuation of vocab learning – 1,000 words will not be enough even if it’s the 1,000 most common – but learning new words won’t be the focus it’ll just have to come incidentally.

    I’m not certain yet what resources we’ll use to learn things on the grammar side, but I’ll figure it out before the second month begins. I’m certain with the Internet we will have no problem at all finding free, high quality resources for Swedish grammar study. If you do have any recommendations however, leave them in the comments.

  • Month 3 Speaking – The third and last month is when we’ll finally hit the speaking and listening practice. This basically goes against the way we’ve learned all of our other languages (speaking with natives as soon as humanly possible), but it’s this inversion that I think will make it more interesting for me. Knowing I have to wait until the third month to get to the part I really enjoy will probably also be an extra motivating factor.

    I’ll mostly be using iTalki as our primary resource for this last month. I’d like to primarily use language exchange partners where we can give them some English instruction and then they can help us out with Swedish, although if need be I’ll give in and pay for an actual official tutor on iTalki to walk us through speaking practice. It’ll depend largely on how well, or poorly, we feel we’re progressing.

Why the Compartmentalized Approach?

All of our language acquisition experiments so far have followed the same basic learning structure – memorize as much vocab as possible and get to speaking with natives immediately with a little bit of grammar study on the side to help gain a better understanding of things.

This approach has worked very well, particularly I think because language is a skill and the best way to learn a skill is practice, not study. It’s very intensive though. It can be done I’m sure in a more relaxed manner, and a lot of that intensity was likely a manufactured result of the time constraints I placed on us to ramp up the challenge aspect, but it’s a lot for some people to tackle at once.

I think this compartmentalized approach may be a little easier to swallow for some people. Rather than having a variety of things to work on, each month has it’s sole goal. We can throw ourselves into vocab acquisition and vocab acquisition alone for the first month with myopic fervor not worrying about neglecting other aspects of our study.

I think this will make it less stressful, but will it also make it less effective?

I don’t know.

That’s the fun part.

Currently I don’t think it will, but I’ll document our progress as we go along and we’ll see. The nice thing about a challenge like this is, even if I completely fail by general standards to meet the goals I’m setting for myself and it turns out on top of everything else that this different method I’m testing is an extremely inefficient way to learn a language, we’ll still speak more Swedish by the end of it than we do now. So no matter what, we win.

Any thoughts on this challenge / experiment of ours? Resources you think we should look into or use? Just want to cheer us on? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Christer

Learning to Think in your Target Language

Losing my Mind by Mark Auer

One of the biggest obstacles in moving from the beginner or low intermediate levels of a language into more advanced stages is the problem of constantly translating in your head. This is a problem that effects everyone and is a common place for people to either give up, or just accept that it’s the way things are when you learn to speak a second language. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Problems with Translating

Even if you don’t have the lofty goal of becoming simultaneous interpreter or doing anything tricky like that with your language learning, having to translate everything you hear or want to say into and out of your target language is a painful, taxing process. There are two big issues with always running everything through the translator in your brain.

The first is that it slows everything way, way down. In a natural conversation between you and another person in your native tongue you don’t have to really think about what the other person is saying. It’s processed unconsciously and you can respond right away. In some cases you’ve probably even responded to people’s questions before you were aware of what you were saying.

That makes conversations quick and fluid, which is what we need.

Conversely when you have to translate everything there’s a bottleneck at both the input and the output. This can be exacerbated in languages like German where you might have to wait through miles of sentences before you finally get that all important verb. Then you have to process that back out into English, come up with your response in English, processes it back into German and say it.

By the time you’ve done all that, particularly if you’re in a group of people or trying to follow a natural group conversation, you may have fallen way behind by the time you even open your mouth to speak.

The second big issue with this method of translating before speaking is that it can make your native language bleed into the language you’re learning making you speak either incorrectly or at the very least in a very unnatural sounding way.

An English speaker for example might ask for a glass of water by saying ‘我可以有一杯水吗’ (lit: I can have a cup of water?) which, to a native Mandarin speaker sounds weird – potentially like you’re asking if you physically have the capability of possessing a cup of water. They’d understand, but it’s very clearly Mandarin crammed into an English box. A more natural way might be ‘能给我一杯水吗’ which is more like ‘Give me a cup of water?’ if you directly translated it into English.

The translating process encourages you to make these kinds of mistakes because you’re not conversing in Mandarin in the real sense, you’re just translating English into Mandarin. It can make it sound like the other person is trying to talk to someone using Google Translate. It’ll get the job done, but it’s clearly going to sound a little off.

What Does it Mean to Think in a Specific Language

Technically speaking when you boil it down to its essence no one ‘thinks’ in any particular language.

What we call ‘thinking’ is an electrochemical reaction in our brains. What we’re talking about here is the sensory experience of ‘hearing’ words as you think. You may say that this means that we do all think in a language, but people who have deaf since birth have no experience of spoken words and don’t think in them, infants who don’t speak a language can still think, and there are plenty of other higher intelligence animal species that no one would argue are ‘thinking’ even though they don’t speak any human languages.

What we’re worried about here though is that combination of your ‘inner voice’ that you think with and your ability to process non-language information directly into and out of a particular language without having to pass it through the translation filter of another primary language.

So how do we get to that point?

Silencing Your Mental Native Tongue

There are a handful of methods I think work particularly well for getting over the natural habit of translating from your native language into your acquired one and back.

  • Speaking Practice with Native Speakers – This, in my opinion, is paramount for successful language learning in general. Find a native speaker as soon as you can, whether in person or online, and start practicing with them. Even if the furthest you can get is “Hello, how are you doing?” that’s still preferable to cloistering yourself with a textbook in fear of embarrassing yourself.

    Get out there and talk to people. The more you do the more you’ll begin to outgrow the habit of mentally translating.

  • Ditch the Dictionary and Make Visual Flashcards – At least, the traditional kind of dictionary. Part of what contributes to the habit of mental translation is that the standard way to learn a new word is to have it defined by its connection to a word in your native language.

    We learn by connections and conditioning. Assuming you’re a native speaker of English, when you hear/see the word ‘water’ you probably mentally picture the physical substance that particular arrangement of sounds symbolizes in English. The problem is, when you’re learning German for example, you might have a flashcard that says ‘Wasser’ on one side and when you flip it over it says ‘water’.

    This conditions you to not think of the physical substance these sounds represent, but rather hearing ‘Wasser’ makes you think of the particular arrangement of sounds that make the word ‘water’, then you have to decode that second arrangement of sounds into the physical thing it symbolizes. This happens relatively quickly, but it still slows things down.

    It also causes a problem when going from English to German, because your brain has to conceptualize the physical thing we call ‘water’, then it has to connect that to the English word that we use to symbolize that physical thing, then it has to dig up what German word was connected to that particular English word. Whereas if you had H2O encoded directly with the German word it would be one less step.

    Using visual flashcards and dictionaries is the way to go to avoid this problem. Rather than have one side say ‘Wasser’ and the other ‘water’, have one side say ‘Wasser’ and then put a picture of water on the other side. A similar idea if you don’t have a visual dictionary handy is to look up words by typing them into a Google image search. That way you learn the word via the image or concept it represents rather than learning it by its equivalent in your native language.

  • Monologuing and Free Writing – It may seem like a small thing, but just yammering to yourself about a random topic in your target language or having times where you sit down and write about whatever you want, or even just journal the day’s activities, can make a big difference in getting over the mental translation problem.

    The key is to make an active effort not to translate as you do it and just talk to yourself in your target tongue without letting your native one creep in.

    I, personally, like to do it out loud when I can. There are added benefits to activating the motoneurons involved in actually speaking the word in the same way that there are benefits in repeating an activity that you want to get particularly good at like shooting a basketball or drawing free hand. You can certainly just talk to yourself in you head though if you’re concerned about people thinking you’re crazy.

    If you find it hard to just talk or write spontaneously without any kind of pre-set topic then try to summarize something you’ve read or watched recently, or pick an easy topic like describing your day or talking about your favorite food. The point isn’t necessarily to produce something noteworthy as it is to drill in that comfort in not translating.

I’m probably forgetting some other methods that work well to silence that inner voice translating things into and out of your native tongue, but these handful should get you well on your way to overcoming it. The sooner you can get out of that translation habit and into thinking in your target language the sooner you’ll be able to produce even more fluid sentence and conversations. If you can think of any you like that I’ve missed, leave a comment and share with everyone!

Photo Credit: Mark Auer

3 Common Language Learning Obstacles

Parkour Visions Adult Obstacle Challenge by Beth Jusino

Facing obstacles can be painful, or it can be a fun challenge – it’s all a matter of attitude.

Learning a new language is a long and involved process and, while it can be a lot of fun most of the time, odds are you’re going to run into some major obstacles.

I always like to take the parkour view of things and think of roadblocks like these as challenges to overcome, but I do recognize that some of them can be extremely discouraging – especially when they slow or halt your progress.

I’ve put together a list of some of the most common obstacles language learners find themselves stuck at and frustrated with from a collection of personal experience and the experiences of all of my language coaching clients along with suggestions for ways to get around, over or through these walls between you and success.

1. I Can Read or Have Learned a Lot, But Still Fall Apart When I Speak

I put this first because it’s probably the most common obstacle I see affecting people who have followed the standard one teacher to twenty students classroom format or have tried to learn on their own through some of the popular at home language learning products.

People study and study and study some more and, after months or even years, feel pretty good about their progress in the language. Maybe they took classes all through college, or bought and completed that home study course that the commercial said NASA / the CIA / whatever-impressive-organization uses. They might not call themselves fluent necessarily, but they feel comfortable saying ‘I speak ,’ rather than just ‘I’m learning .’ Secure in their ability to speak, our intrepid language learner walks into a local market from a country that speaks their target language natively or maybe even steps off a plane in that country.

They strike up a conversation with the first native speaker they meet, eager to flex their new linguistic muscle and, to be honest, probably show off a little. When the native speaker responds something that sounds a little bit like what they studied comes out, if you blended all the sounds together and played it at triple speed.

Our poor language learner panics. They caught a few words, they think, but that was it. Was that a different dialect? What did that one word mean? Bewildered, their mind scrambles to remember the right response and freezes up from the shock of it. They stumble their way through, but in broken sentences and with a lot of ‘um’s. Nothing like the easy flow of all those practice dialogues.

All that time studying, and they feel like they can barely communicate.

If it sounds familiar, or if you haven’t gotten to the ‘I tried talking to a native speaker and wound up looking like a deer in headlights’ stage but see it coming, don’t worry – it happens all the time.

So how do you fix it or avoid it entirely.

Don’t wait to start talking with native speakers.

The biggest problem I have with the standard classroom model or most home courses is that you either get no practice with native speakers or very limited practice with only one or two. Usually the best you can hope for in a class is practice with a native speaker instructor, but their time is divided between you and 19 other people. Most of your other speaking practice will probably be with other students. In home courses you’re lucky if you get anything better than mp3 files to chat with.

You should be talking to as many native speakers as you can as soon as you can. Even if you can only say ‘Hello’ in your target language, go say hi to a native speaker.

It doesn’t have to be in person, finding native speakers to Skype with is easy with sites like iTalki and Lang-8. If you would prefer face to face conversations look on Meetup for groups related to your target language or look on Couchsurfing (you can meet for coffee and chat or if you want a lot of practice opportunities offer to host a traveler that speaks your target language).

The point is to start early and keep talking with native speakers as often as you possibly can.

2. My Vocabulary Isn’t Sufficient to Have a Conversation / I Don’t Know Enough Words

This problem is one that tends to lead directly into that most common issue above – correctly or not people feel like they just don’t have a big enough vocabulary to really talk to natives or use the language so they never try. This turns into a type of self-sabotage because they never allow themselves to get the kind of exposure and real world practice they need to reach their goal.

Fixing this problem is two-fold.

The first aspect of it is realizing that you don’t need a big vocabulary to practice with a native.

If you know a single word, that’s enough. Use it. Then ask the native speaker to tell you more words. It really doesn’t take that much. About 80% of most conversations are made up of only 20% of the lexicon. That means that you don’t need to know how to say words like circumlocution, defenestration, or empiricism in order to talk to 80% of the people you’ll meet. Probably more, honestly. Just jump in and use what you’ve got, filled in with lots of gestures and explanations using more basic words.

The second aspect of fixing it is, well, actually fixing it.

Go choose a SRS program you particularly like – I’m personally fond of Memrise – and find a collection of the 1,000 most common words in your target language. Now that you’ve got that, just practice them on your SRS until you’ve got those 1,000 down. I guarantee you that will be enough vocab for a majority of conversations, and from there you can expand out to the next 1,000 most common and then the next.

3. I Can Have Conversations, But I Want to Sound More Native

While personally I think accent reduction and working toward sounding ‘native’ in a target language is more of a frivolous or tertiary goal compared to actually being able to have fluid conversations, I recognize that it’s something a lot of people would really like to aim for. Whether it’s for business purposes, wanting to move to a different country and fit in better or just for the sheer coolness of being able to speak a second language that well – a lot of people would like to reach that level.

There are a few things to keep in mind here:

  1. 1. This is going to be pretty difficult. Compared to actually learning the language complete accent removal will take a lot more focused, intentional practice. In other words, it’s going to be a lot of work and probably take a while before you get there.

  2. 2. Contrary to what some people would have you believe it is not impossible to completely remove your accent in a language acquired as an adult. You don’t have to have grown up bilingual to speak two languages accent-free – regardless of what people might claim. It just takes a lot of effort.

Since it is something that’s going to take a considerable amount of effort, I highly suggest ensuring that you have some damn good reasons for wanting to remove your accent. Motivationally speaking, if you need to speak a second language accent free to avoid losing your job and winding up on the street you’re going to be a lot more motivated to stick it out through all the grueling work than the guy who decided it’d be kind of cool to be able to speak another language like a native and show off in bars.

If you are willing to put the work get ready to talk to yourself a lot, because your best tools are going to be mimicry and shadowing.

I won’t go in to extreme detail because accent reduction deserve an article (or, probably, a series of them) all to itself. You can get started by going through and deconstructing the phonetic makeup of the language you’re learning. Usually you can do this on Wikipedia, just type in the language you’re learning and the word ‘phonology’. For example here’s Japanese Phonology and Korean Phonology.

From there, you can identify what sounds are identical to those in your native language, what sounds are non-existent in your native language and are completely new to you and, the most difficult, what sounds are similar to ones in your native language but slightly different. I suggest learning IPA if you haven’t already.

Next find native speaker examples of these particular sounds either through music, from native speakers you know or from online via Forvo or a similar site. Once you have them you can plug them into your audio editor of choice (I personally like Audacity because it’s functional and free) and then slow the audio down enough to clearly identify the sounds but not so much that you distort them.

Then practice. Practice. Practice and…. maybe practice.

Shadowing is an easy way to get practice on your own, although I also suggest finding a native speaker who can listen and then correct the nuances. A dedicated speech coach would be ideal, but they tend to be pricey.

There are certainly more obstacles people run into, but these three seem to come up frequently. If you can think of any others you’d like to see addressed, or have more questions on how to get over these, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Beth Jusino

How We Learned Fluent Korean in 6 Months

Hangeul Day by The Republic of Korea

Learning fluent Korean in a 6 month timeline was one of the first challenges we took on back when we started Road to Epic – it was a big success and a lot of what we learned during the experience has influenced our articles on language learning since.

Recent renewed interest in the challenge has made me realize though that I never really did a satisfactory job of outlining exactly how we did it. That was a big oversight on my part, so I’m posting this to make up for it and lay out exactly what all we did to meet our six month deadline successfully.

I’m going to split it into three sections because that’s essentially how we broke things down.

The Vocabulary

Even when I’m not working under the constraints of a deadline, I don’t like to waste time. There are just way way too many words out there to try to learn all or even most of them – particularly in 6 months. Thankfully, you don’t need to know much vocabulary to be fluent.

We applied the 80/20 principle and focused on the most commonly used couple thousand words only, that way we were learning the words that we would be most likely to hear and use the most first and ignoring extraneous vocab like ‘defenestration’ that probably won’t come up much.

In my experience having a good handle on the first 3,000 most common words or so gives you the tools to have a fluent conversation 90% or more of the time so that’s what we focused on. 3,000 words divided into six months comes out to about 17 words per day which is totally reasonable. We learned 1,000 words in one month for a bit of a sub-challenge and, while definitely a bit work-intensive, it wasn’t all that painful to accomplish. 3,000 in six months isn’t bad at all.

To do the actual learning part we used a combination of memory hooks and spaced repetition system (SRS) learning.

At the time we mostly used Anki which you can download here.

Anki uses a spaced repetition system to show you flashcards in tailored intervals to maximize long term retention. There’s a huge library of pre-made flashcard decks and we simply chose the best looking deck of the most commonly used Korean words.

While we didn’t use it at the time, Memrise has since come out with a free iOS and Android app that uses a similar spaced repetition system but with crowd sourced pre-made memory hooks so you don’t have to come up with your own.

I currently prefer Memrise to Anki, mostly because of the convenience factor, but there’s no reason you can’t use both or whichever one you personally prefer.

Once we had our SRS program and our decks of the most common Korean words we scheduled set times everyday to practice on them just like we set scheduled times to work out.

The Grammar

For the grammar we were really only concerned initially with the very basics. Like with the vocab we made a point of focusing on the most common grammatical points first (simple present tense declaratives, interrogatives, etc.) and worried about the more complicated stuff as it came up (conditionals, subjunctives, etc.).

One of the biggest helps was one of our Korean friends who was kind enough to translate a bunch of example sentences for me that I wrote specifically to tease out some common grammatical points. I have a background in linguistics, so I knew what to look for and wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach for most people unless you’re into grammar on its own. If you do want to find someone to translate some example sentences for you but don’t know anyone who speaks your target language I recommend iTalki and Lang-8 which we’ll get to in the next section on practice.

What I would recommend is a combination of Talk To Me In Korean and Monash University’s My Korean.

Talk To Me In Korean (henceforth TTMIK because I’m lazy) is one of my absolute favorite resources for Korean language learning. On their site at TalkToMeInKorean.com they have a ton of excellent grammar lessons. We jumped around quite a bit since we knew what we wanted to target first and had the most questions about, but you can do the lessons in order if you’re not concerned about specific things.

My Korean is a free textbook put out by Monash University. You can download it here for free. We used My Korean similarly to how we used TTMIK, mostly jumping around and targeting things we specifically wanted to practice or learn. Again though you can go cover to cover and get a ton out of it. It’s one of the best Korean textbooks we’ve come across.

Like the vocab practice we had an hour or so set aside each night of our six months to either go back over a grammatical point we were still struggling with or to learn a new one that we hadn’t gone over yet.

The Practice

Last but absolutely not least comes the actual practice.

If your goal is fluency, i.e. being able to carry on a casual, fluid conversation with a minimal amount of breaks, then practice is just as important as the other two above. Speaking a language is a skill and just like how you can’t learn to swim by reading lots of tutorials and never getting in a pool you can’t learn to be fluent by doing all studying and no practice.

In our case we made heavy use of our native Korean speaking friends alongside the sites iTalki and Lang-8.

iTalki is an excellent resource that you can use to find native speakers to practice with or even dedicated language teachers you can have remote lessons with over Skype.

In our case we used a pretty even mix of both. We didn’t have time scheduled everyday for Skype sessions, but we had them as often as possible and filled in conversations with our local friends as much as we could.

We used Lang-8 as often as possible as well by writing posts on there using whatever grammar item we were learning at that point as much as possible. That gave us a way to practice them while still putting a little thought into things and get corrections from native speakers in a written form that we could save long term.

In addition to these three areas there was a lot of passive learning (watching Korean media, listening to Korean music, reading Korean news and books, etc.) but I don’t consider these things to be nearly as important a the dedicated and focused learning and practice.

Have any other questions about what we did or any suggestions of things you’d add to help other learners? Any good resources for people learning something other than Korean? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: The Republic of Korea