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“What’s the best way to learn a language?” “What’s the quickest way to learn new words?” “How can I sound like a native speaker?” “Do I really have to study grammar?”
Language hackers ask themselves these kinds of questions all the time.
We all want to use effective study methods so we can learn a language quickly and speak it well.
How can we know if we’re spending our time on the right things?
Everywhere you turn, language teachers are using different methods and giving conflicting advice. Some learn vocabulary by memorising word lists, others absorb it naturally by reading. Some concentrate on the sounds first, others prefer to improve their pronunciation as they go along. Some swear by grammar drills, others never open a textbook.
Fortunately, language learners aren’t the only ones who’ve been puzzling over these questions. Linguists, the people who study the science of language, have spent decades observing how people learn languages. And while they don’t have all the answers yet, they have discovered a lot of cool stuff about what works and what doesn’t.
So let’s take a look at some of the most common questions in language learning, what science has to say about them. We’ll also look at the strategies science provides that can help us become better language learners.
How Can You Sound More Like a Native Speaker?
Perhaps the first question to address is why you want to sound more like a native speaker.
Lots of language learners don’t worry much about pronunciation. They think that as long as people can get what they’re saying, that’s all that matters.
And there’s some truth in this: you don’t need a perfect accent to communicate well with native speakers.
But the more you sound like a native speaker, the easier it is for them to understand you. And the easier it is for people to understand you, the more they enjoy talking to you. Which comes in pretty handy, given that you need to talk to people in order to learn their language.
So why do we have accents in the first place? And what can we do about them?
Why do we Have Foreign Accents?
There are two main reasons language learners have foreign accents.
Firstly, it can be difficult to tell the difference between two sounds that don’t exist in our native language.
Secondly, other languages can have sounds that require us to use our mouth muscles in a new way.
Let’s take a look at both of these issues, why they happen, and how you can address them.
Sound Differences that don’t Exist in Our Own Language
When I started learning Italian, I spent a few months desperately trying to avoid the word anno (year), for fear of accidentally saying the word ano (ass). It felt as if Italians across the world were playing some kind of cruel joke on me because I just couldn’t hear the difference.
On the flip side, I’m a native English speaker, so the difference between the sheep and ship vowels seems pretty obvious. But lots of learners struggle with difference, which explains why everyone’s terrified of speaking English on holiday, with all those beaches and sheets and what not .
This happens because when we’re born, we have super little polyglot brains that can tell the difference between sounds in all of the world’s languages. As we grow older, our brain zooms in on acoustic differences between sounds that are important for our native language and filters out differences that are not important. This is good, as it helps us understand our own language better. But it causes problems for language learners, because they filter out sound differences that might be important in the language they’re learning.
How to Tell Sounds Apart
But it’s not all bad news. Linguists have been studying this phenomenon for years and they’ve found a way to help learners hear and pronounce the difference between these tricky sounds.
This method, known as minimal pair training, involves listening to a word that has the sound difference you want to learn (like ship or sheep), deciding which one you think it is, and getting immediate feedback about whether you were right or wrong. After a few sessions, you’ll hear the difference more easily and be able to pronounce them better.
You set up your own minimal pair training by using forvo to download sound files of the words you want to learn to tell apart. Then use Anki to put the sound file on the question side and the written word on the other. Listen to the word, try to guess which one it is, then flip the flashcard over to see if you were right.
New Mouth Positions
Some sounds are difficult because they involve completely new mouth positions, like the rolled “R” in Spanish or the “U” in French.
For these sounds, science has some good news: it turns out that with a little perseverance, it’s absolutely possible to train your mouth muscles to pronounce sounds more like native speakers.
How to Train Your Mouth Muscles for Correct Pronunciation
To do this, you need to learn a little about articulatory phonetics (which is basically just a fancy-pants way of saying mouth positions) to find out exactly where the tongue, teeth and lips should be in the sounds you want to learn. Then practice them regularly until your mouth naturally moves to that position.
That sounds great, but where do I learn about all these mouth positions, I hear you ask. Well, luckily a smart guy called Idahosa Ness is already teaching people about the mouth positions in lots of different languages, with his Mimic Method courses, available for English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Portuguese.
Alternatively, try doing a quick search on YouTube. More and more language teachers are uploading pronunciation videos and you might just find one which explains the mouth positions in the language you’re learning.
What’s the Fastest Way to Learn New Words in Another Language?
There are as many ways to learn vocabulary as there are successful language learners.
Throw this question out to a room of polyglots and watch as they they initiate a battle royale style fight to the death, until the last survivor stretches out his weak arms in a victory celebration, clutching a pile of bloodstained flashcards.
The most important debate – as far as science is concerned – is about whether we should make a concerted effort to memorise words, for example using flashcards, or whether we should pick them up naturally through reading and listening.
As with most battles fought between two polar extremes, they’re both a bit right. Both techniques are useful for different reasons and if you can balance the two, you’ll be onto a winner.
The Science of Flashcards
Lots of learners use flashcard systems, which involve writing words or sentences in your target language on one side and a picture or translation on the other. To learn the words or sentences, you look at one side of the card, see if you can remember what’s on the other side, then turn it over to see if you’d remembered it correctly.
These days, most people use apps like Anki or memrise, which leave a specific time lapse between card reviews using a system called spaced repetition. This technique is based on research by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus which showed that people learn more when they space learning out rather than cramming it all together. This means that you’ll remember a word much better if you look at it once a day for five days, rather than five times in the same day.
Ebbinghaus also noticed that people tend to remember things better when they can link them to personal experiences. You can take advantage of this by using a memory technique called mnemonics, which involves linking words in the language you’re learning to words and images in your own language that sound similar. For example, to remember the Mandarin Chinese word for book, shu, you could imagine a book with a shoe on it, which helps you link the image of a bookto its Chinese translation.
Spaced repetition and mnemonics can boost your word power quickly and make your brain feel like an awesome vocabulary learning machine. But they’re not the be all and end all of word learning strategies. In fact, overuse of these techniques can actually harm your vocabulary, and here’s why.
Your N400 Signal: How to Learn Words the Natural Way
You may not know it, but your brain is already an awesome vocabulary learning machine. When you read or listen to something, your brain doesn’t take each word at face value: it’s constantly taking statistics about which words appear together regularly so that it can anticipate what’s coming next and process speech faster.
Neuroscientists have found a way to measure when your brain is doing this. Our brains constantly emit electrical signals, which change depending on what task your brain is dealing with. Scientists can read some of these, using a technique called electroencephalography, to study how your brain processes language (but don’t worry, they can’t read your mind… yet!).
One of these signals, called N400, changes depending on whether words make sense in context or not. The N400 is relatively small for expected word combinations, like coffee and cream, and increases in height for unexpected word combinations, like coffee and crap. This means that scientists can read the N400 height to analyse the kind of expectations you have about which words usually occur together. If your N400 doesn’t increase for coffee and crap, they might wonder how on earth you’ve been drinking your coffee.
In language learners, the N400 changes based on proficiency. The better people get at a language, the closer their N400 pattern is to a native speaker’s. This means that an important part of language proficiency is taking statistics and building up expectations about what kind of words usually appear together, just as native speakers do.
To get better at this, we need to flood our brains with bucket loads of natural content so we can build up a picture or which kinds of words usually appear together. Reading is a great way to do this and there’s lots of research that shows that reading works wonders for your vocabulary skills.
It’s important to choose resources that are right for the level, as if the percentage of unknown words is too high, it can be difficult to figure out what they mean from the context and it’s frustrating having to stop every two minutes to look up a word. Graded readers, which adapt books to make them easier to understand at lower levels, are perfect for this.
And if you’re a higher level but you’re not a big reader, how about watching shows with subtitles in the language you’re learning? It’s still reading, after all!
Do You Really Need to Study Grammar?
Grammarphobes often ask themselves whether it’s really necessary to learn all those grammar rules. Can’t we just pick it up with the natural method, that is, through reading, listening and talking?
Linguists struggle to answer this question because it’s very difficult to control and measure. Experiments usually compare one group who are taught grammar rules with another who sees/hears sentences with the same grammar but are not taught the rules. But how do we know each group has paid attention to the same grammar structure the same number of times? What if the ones who aren’t taught the rules are secretly trying to figure out the rules in their heads, or running off home and learning it on their own? How do you know if they’ve learned the grammar? Is it when they understand it, when they use it or when they don’t make any mistakes?
And what if experiments that find no positive effect of teaching grammar simply aren’t being published? “Hey, we did an experiment and nothing happened” isn’t exactly a bit hit with academic journals.
That’s why, after decades of research, the grammar question is still a very murky one. To clear it up, linguists have started doing meta-studies, which involve gathering all available research on learning grammar rules and seeing if there’s a tendency. The results emerging are that grammar rules do help people speak more accurately, but the results aren’t nearly as drastic as you might think, especially given all of the attention to grammar in the majority of language classes and textbooks.
These results fit in with my experience as a language learner. Knowing the grammar certainly helps, but spending the majority of my language learning time memorising complicated grammar rules doesn’t feel like the most effective way to learn.
What’s the Best Way to Stay Motivated in Language Learning?
This is probably the most important question of all: you can know all the best ways to learn pronunciation, words and grammar, but if you can’t be bothered, it’s never going to happen.
Luckily there’s loads of cool research on motivation that’ll help you get your language learning act together. Here are a couple of ways to get started:
Find a Friend or Language Partner to Study With
Studies show that people who feel like they’re working as a team (even if they’re not physically together) accomplish more. There are a few reasons for this:
- Social: We’re social animals and sharing our experiences with others makes us feel more positive about them.
- Accountability: Once your goals are out there for all to see, you’re more likely to work towards them.
- Support: You get access to a lovely support network who can give you advice and encouragement.
Over the last few years the internet has exploded with online language learning communities which are helping people connect support each other in all kinds of awesome ways. One example is the Fluent in 3 Months community. Another is the Add1challenge (now the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge).
Break Down Your Big Goals into Mini-Missions
Research shows that people who break down big tasks into little chunks get more done in the long run. In one study, people who were given six pages of maths problems per session over seven sessions completed the pages faster and more accurately than people who were given 42 pages from the start.
Breaking down the task is essential in something like language learning, where the outcome feels big and scary. Instead of trying to “speak German”, aim for something smaller and more concrete, like an hour of German a day, or however much time you can afford. By breaking it down this way, you’re much more likely to do it. And if you keep it up day by day, you’ll be speaking a language before you know it.