People trying to learn a new skill are always in search of little hints, tricks and tips to make it easier, do it faster or improve their returns. Who can blame them? If you look up “tips to learn languages” you’re likely to get a ton of results from any number of bloggers, teachers, polyglots and language product sites.
Most of them probably say a lot of the same things and promise you results. They tell you that by following their strategies to the letter you “are guaranteed to learn a language like a pro!” or some other nonsense. I’m not making that assertion, I’m merely making a suggestion based on my own experiences.
In all my searching I’ve never seen anyone else approach languages in quite this way. Sure, most successful learners do the same things – namely they work their butts off, are outgoing enough to speak their language from the get go, and realize that the best resources are other speakers – not expensive programs. This “secret” isn’t really
So I’m not going to guarantee that this tip will work for you, or for anyone other than me, but its worth a shot right?
So here’s how it works…
When I’m learning new vocabulary I like to imagine that I’m not learning a new language, but merely expanding upon an existing, singular lexicon of words and grammatical structures.
Confusing, I know, but try to bear with me.
I try to forget that I’m studying Russian or French or Quechua or whatever it is and think about my languages as a single vast communicative directory rather than dividing them into separate categories for each tongue. I do what I can to envision one big pool of mixed grammatical rules and vocabulary to use with different audiences.
Think about it. Most of us, if not all of us, use some form of slang with certain audiences. We speak differently when we’re texting or writing to someone than we do when we’re speaking to them. We speak differently to our drinking buddies than we do to our grandmothers and we address individuals differently than we do groups. We would never use certain words or grammatical structures with certain audiences, just like I probably wouldn’t use Russian with someone I know to be a non-speaker.
Don’t get me wrong…
It’s not like I really ever forget that I’m speaking another language, but I find that visualizing all of my languages into extensions of a single general language, rather than as separate mental files, simplifies the learning process in two important ways:
- It allows me to think in that language with less difficulty. We tend to think in the language we use the most. I think in English 99.8% of the time. If you can envision your 2nd languages as merely extensions of your first you may find it easier to “slip” into this new way of thinking. Not only does it set the mood for maximal learning but thinking in the language you’re learning really allows you to overcome that “I’m speaking a foreign language” mindset and makes it easier to process what you already know. We need to shake loose the “foreign” aspect of the languages we learn and incorporate them into our lives as though they are natural. As though they belong to us, not just someone else.
- It makes it easier to learn more than one language at a time. Maybe you’re only focusing on one language at a time, or maybe you only want to learn one additional language. That’s fine. However, many polyglots and language enthusiasts juggle multiple language projects, myself included. Currently I’m working on two major language projects, casually flirting with a few other minor projects and of course attempting to keep it all tied together in my long term memory. By envisioning all of your languages as a single amalgamation you might find that you retain new vocabulary and recall old vocabulary more efficiently
- The prospect of learning a new language becomes less daunting. I think that part of the reason we struggle when it comes to learning languages is that we let it get inside our heads a little too much. We convince ourselves that what we’re doing is especially difficult and I think that there is a degree of fear that keeps us back from really embracing the challenge openly and charging forward without hesitation. When I visualize a new language, thinking about it in this sort of format helps transform it from something strange into more of a continuation of something far more familiar.
Perhaps the reason that this strategy works for me is that English is my native language. English has managed – and continues to manage – to incorporate elements of many different languages into itself. Due to this fact the idea of tossing in genders, different writing systems, or vowel sounds that don’t exist in English, doesn’t seem so ridiculous. It seems a lot less strange to incorporate unfamiliar language elements when your language is already the king of incorporating unfamiliar language elements.
Our brains do not consist of filing cabinets. They’re a lot more complex than that. So why should we try to file languages into segregated categories?
You’re not going to literally mold the languages into one language, you’re just going to try to think of your language faculties as a single database from which you can pull the appropriate words, accent, tone and grammar at will in the same way that you would when changing registers within your native language.
This is what your brain does automatically, but language learners often tend to profile their projects into separate mental “files”.
If you can; try to consider your language projects to be no more than a continuation of your native language; a singular language with which you can communicate to anyone for whom you possess the words. It’s all a matter of philosophy, simply a different way of looking at things, and it may not work for everyone, but it can’t hurt to give it a shot can it?
Leave a comment letting me know if this sort of thinking has helped you with a learning project. Do you have similar tricks of your own?
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