by Jane Sandwood
Learning a new tongue has become more popular than ever thanks to the variety of online language learning courses available. However, there is no getting around the fact that learning a language can be difficult. Recent research suggests that difficulties in picking up a foreign language arise from trying too hard. As a child, you became fluent in your mother tongue without even thinking about it. Therefore, the trick is in working smarter, not harder. Anyone, of any age or background, has the potential to become fluent in a new language. Here are some hacks to improve your study of language.
Use repetition, but not too much
Have you ever noticed how modern pop songs repeat the same lines over and over again? It’s a cheap marketing trick to get something stuck in your head. Every time you repeat something, the neurological pathways in your brain are strengthened. If you aren’t remembering something the first time, then you just need to keep repeating it until it becomes stuck in there.
There are fundamentally two approaches to learning: the East Asian method of memorization and the European method of deep understanding. Research shows that you need both. If you set yourself a target of memorizing 100 new words a week, then using repetition will undoubtedly help you hit this target. However, if you understand the etymology of words as well, it can become much easier.
For instance, take the French words of animals: le poulet (chicken), le mouton (sheep), le porc (pig). At first, the French and English words appear to have nothing to do with each other. If you know your history, however, it becomes easier. After the Norman invasion of Britain, the upper classes only knew of animals as meat. This is why the French word for animals has become the English word for meat (e.g. poultry, mutton and pork).
So repetition is great, but in order to help your brain absorb the information, you need to have a deeper, theoretical understanding of the language. Simply repeating huge lists of information, while necessary, will burn you out.
Test your knowledge
There are many different ways to test what you know. Doing so is important for spotting gaps in your knowledge. You can try the ‘read, cover, write, repeat’ method, but this will only test your short-term memory.
Have someone design a quiz for you and see what score you get. This is the easiest way to truly determine if vocabulary has been memorized. Make sure you write the words down to check you are accurately spelling them, complete with correct accents and umlauts.
The most effective way of testing your knowledge, however, is to try teaching someone else. This wisdom was even expressed by the ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca and it is backed up by modern research.
Teaching is not just a test of how well you understand something, but also acts as a motivator. We feel disheartened when our pupil fails, which prompts us to revisit the material and understand it better.
Study with Friends
Language is all about communication, so it is a difficult skill to master in solitude. Reach out to friends who are also learning the language or, ideally, find a native speaker. The internet is perfect for this.
You can use social media to connect to people all over the world and start conversing in their native language. They may be trying to learn English too, so it’s mutually beneficial. A native speaker will help you learn the nuances of language, such as slang and idioms.
Look around for online forums or apps that bring language learners together. This way you can politely message someone with the confidence that they are willing to be a conversation partner. Don’t just stick to text messaging either, but use voice and video calls to practice pronunciation.
To quickly take in information, your brain needs to be alert and focused. A clear mind is largely dependent upon the right diet. This is especially true as we age. The brain will deteriorate with time, but we can slow the process down with the right eating habits.
Your diet should be composed heavily of fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and fish. Blueberries have been shown to have a significant impact on brain performance, reducing the risk of age-related conditions such as dementia and alzheimer’s. When tested on animals, older rats who had a diet of blueberries could perform cognitive tasks as well as their younger counterparts.
Practice Good Sleep Habits
The link between sleep and memory is undeniable. Sometimes you may find yourself sacrificing sleep in order to spend more time studying. This is a bad idea. In order to properly memorize a new language, your thoughts have to move from the short-term to the long-term memory. It does this during the REM stage of sleep.
Exactly why we need to sleep is unclear, but perhaps it is to allow the brain to order and organize information that we have gathered during the day. Regardless of the reasons, if you are lacking sleep, you will be tired during the day. Fatigue will make it difficult to concentrate and take in information.
If you find your progress is slowing, then take a break. If you can manage a 30 minute nap, this will allow you to enter REM sleep and consolidate memories. However, even a short nap or simply lying with your eyes closed will reduce fatigue and help you to feel refreshed and ready to learn.
Sleep deprivation is almost an epidemic in America, with one in three failing to get the recommended 7-9 hours a night. You should monitor your sleep schedule closely to ensure you are getting enough. Avoid caffeine after midday and keep electronics switched off at least an hour before bed. This will help your body to produce melatonin and naturally settle in a deep sleep, ready to solidify any newly acquired language skills.
Learning long lists of vocab and trying to remember your dative from your genitive can be incredibly frustrating. It’s like trying to process mathematical algorithms. Language is a beautiful and fluid subject and it’s all to do with communication.
Often our failure to remember the right word is the fear of getting it wrong. This is why you might have found that your foreign language skills improve after a drink or two. Once you become less self-conscious and just talk without feeling anxious, it can be significantly easier to find your words. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but it’s through mistakes that we progress more quickly.
Perhaps the greatest study hack for improved memory, is to allow yourself to relax.
Mastering a language is within the reach of anyone. Begin with a healthy lifestyle, focused on diet, hydration and sleep. This will allow you to use your time more efficiently.
Language is a broad and complex subject, which requires more than simple repetition. Take a holistic approach to gain a deeper understanding in order to learn it fully and effectively.