how to learn a foreign language

#38 – Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner

Kevin Kelly said it best:  “This is the book I’d use next time I want to learn a new language.”

The books has too many useful tips to list. Highly recommended and very inspiring. The reason why this newsletter is delayed this week is because I have been busy learning Spanish words with Tinycards, made by the people behind Duolingo (a popular app for language learning).

three basic keys to language learning:
1. Learn pronunciation first.
2. Don’t translate.
3. Use spaced repetition systems.”

1. Learn pronunciation first

Train you ears by practicing minimal words in your target language. These are words that sound similar, like “niece” and “knees”. Benefits – “you’ll be better equipped to recognize words when they’re spoken, and you’ll have an easier time memorizing them on your own.”

People say you can’t perfect an accent after the age of twelve. But actors and singers do it all the time. How? By learning pronunciation first.

How do we pronounce ? By moving our tongues, lips and vocal chords.

the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a very useful tool: “it turns languages into easily readable sounds, and it tells you exactly how to make each of those sounds.

“In general, you only need three pieces of information to make any sound: you need to know what to do with your tongue, with your lips, and with your vocal cords, and there aren’t that many options. Your vocal cords go on and off. ”

The IPA is quite intimidating to me but looks very useful: “There are two barriers in the way: the IPA is usually full of nasty technical jargon and it uses weird-looking symbols.”

A trick to pronounce difficult words – back-chaining. Split long, difficult words into small, easy chunks. Then start with saying the words at the end. For example, when pronouncing “vzdrognu”, start by practicing “ognu” then add one at a time, “r”, “d” and “z”. I tried this and it works.

Get a solid feel for how a language sounds – “If your grammar book comes with recordings, it likely contains a series of pronunciation lessons scattered through the book. Ignore all the vocabulary and grammar in your book and jump to each pronunciation section. There, listen to and mimic the recordings and then move on to the next pronunciation lesson until you’re done.”

2. Don’t translate

Translating isn’t perfect. It’s also a waste of time. “Skip translating and think in a new language from the very beginning.”

Start learning with frequency lists which lists words that appear most often in a language. There are many such lists on the internet. The book provides a list of 625 words to learn.

“With only a thousand words, you’ll recognize nearly 75 percent of what you read. With two thousand, you’ll hit 80 percent.”

Use flashcards to learn these words. For the answers, use images instead of translations.

Power Tip: Use Google Images to search for words in the target language. Use those images in your flashcard program. Very interesting:

“The Russian word devushka means “girl.” Simple enough. But Google Images will tell you a much more nuanced (and weird) story. Nearly every devushka on Google Images is a close-up chest shot of an eighteen-year-old girl in a bikini. You look at this, and you think “Hm!” And this “Hm!” is exactly what we’re after. It’s the moment you realize that Russian words aren’t just funny-sounding English words; they’re Russian words, and Russian words wear less clothing than you might expect (especially given the cold climate).”

The author called Google Images “the best storytelling tool ever invented”.

“To create a deep, multisensory memory for a word, you’ll need to combine several ingredients: spelling, sound, meaning, and personal connection.”

Include in your flashcard an image that you can personally connect with the new word. E.g. a picture of your good friend with the word “buddy”.

3. Use spaced repetition systems (SRS)

“SRSs are flash cards on steroids.” They tell you what and when to study cards.

“a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) is a to-do list that changes according to your performance. If you can remember that pollo means “chicken” after a two-month delay, then your SRS will automatically wait four to six months before putting pollo back on your to-do list. If you’re having trouble remembering that ropa means “clothing” for more than two weeks, your SRS will put ropa on your list more frequently until it sticks for good.”

A SRS can be paper or computer-based.

“Every time you access your computerized SRS, it will automatically teach you twenty to thirty new cards and quiz you on the hundred or so cards you’re about to forget. Your job is to tell your SRS whether or not you remember a particular card, and your SRS’s job is to build a daily, customized to-do list based upon your input. This list is designed to help you memorize as efficiently as possible, so that you can spend your time learning instead of micromanaging.”

“The most popular SRSs are computer-based, and my absolute favorite is Anki. First released in 2008, Anki is free, easy to use, and runs on every operating system and smartphone.12 It syncs between devices (so you can study at home on your computer and then continue on your smartphone on the train to work), and it can handle images and sound files. You tell it how many new flash cards you want to learn every day, and it handles the rest. In roughly thirty minutes per day, you can learn thirty new cards and maintain all of your old cards. Scale up or down as needed to fit your schedule and tolerance for LCD screens.”

“Start with a small number of new cards (fifteen to thirty) per day.”

30 new cards does not mean 30 new words. You can have different cards for the same word. E.g. one for pronunciation, two for a personal connection, etc.

Creating flash cards can be time consuming. But if you make it fun, you will enjoy the process and make it easier for you to memorise words.

Flash card sample:

Front of card – chat. Back of card – 1. image of cat. 2. un chat (masculine) 3. IPA pronounciation 4. audio recording of pronounciation  5. “Lily” – name of your first cat (personal connection)

Resources – listen to how natives pronounce individual words. I use it all the time. Here’s how to pronounce Hoegaarden. Cheers.

Learn about the IPA. Videos included.

Wiktionary – “a great resource for many languages, with pronunciation entries in IPA for many words.”

Mark Zuckerberg inspired me to start an annual personal project – read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. 

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