Stealth Learning: The Fast, Easy Way to Learn a Language
Do you wish you could make faster progress in your language learning? I know I do!
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE studying languages. In addition to my mother tongue (English), I’ve dabbled in seven languages, have become fluent in one (French), and speak another one at an advanced-intermediate level (Thai).
But it didn’t come quickly. I started studying both languages over 15 years ago (25 years in the case of French!).
What gives? Why so long? Well, like Fluent in 3 Months founder Benny Lewis, I started by following the “traditional” approach to language learning: taking classes and doing my homework. No more, no less.
A fat lot of good that did for me! To this day, the only languages I can speak at a useful level are those that I stopped studying in a traditional manner.
It still took a long time, though. Even though I had taken my language learning out of the classroom, I still employed the strategy of only studying my target language when I had explicitly scheduled some time to sit down and focus on studying in one way or another (be it watching Thai cooking shows, chatting with Thai speakers on italki, or listening to lessons on ThaiPod101). The rest of the time, it was English, English, English!
I did this for years. My skills progressed at a slow crawl as a result.
Well, you know what they say about insanity: it’s doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I realised that if I wanted to start learning quickly, I needed to do something different.
One of my most useful strategies has been what I call “stealth learning”. It’s brought me from being able to chat only about food and the weather in Thai, to being able to chat about tons of complex subjects that are important to me.
I still struggle with it. But this year, my resolution is to speak Thai with full fluency before the year is out. Stealth learning will be one of the more important strategies I plan to use to reach my goal.
What is Stealth Language Learning?
If you’ve seen the movie The Karate Kid, you’ll remember all those times in the movie when Mr. Miyagi made Daniel do chores around his house, such as painting the fence, sanding his deck, and waxing his cars (“Wax on, wax off!”). We later discover the real purpose of the chores. Yes, Daniel was painting the fence and waxing the car. But what he was actually doing was learning how to block punches and kicks. In doing all those chores, he gained muscle memory and learned how to block without even knowing it!
Wouldn’t it be great if you could do the same thing with language learning? Learn a foreign language without even realising it? Well, you can’t. At least, not quite. You can’t learn a language without actually realising you’re learning. It would be pretty cool if you could!
But like the Karate Kid, what you can do is incorporate your learning into normal activities you’d do anyway. That way, you end up studying your target language without explicitly setting aside time to do so. Language learning becomes the result of the activity rather than the activity itself.
In short, stealth learning means going about your daily life without always having to plan special “study time”, and still fitting a lot of studying into your day.
Here’s how you can put stealth learning into practice.
7 Simple Strategies for Stealth Learning
Stealth learning is really simple: think of any normal activity you do – such as using your phone, listening to music, or watching TV – and find a way to incorporate your target language into it. Here are the techniques I use:
1. Change Your Phone or Computer Settings to Your Target Language
This is such an obvious language learning strategy that I overlooked it for a long time! But now that I’ve tried it, I can personally vouch for its effectiveness. I’ve had my phone in Thai for several months now, and it’s been so useful for everything from listening to Google Map audio directions in Thai to understanding technical information about my phone in Thai. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Thai translation for “Your phone’s memory is almost full. Please go to your settings to delete some files”; I see it every couple weeks (I think it’s time for a phone upgrade).
An added benefit of this is that it will discourage your family from “borrowing” your phone or computer when you’re not looking!
2. Label Objects Around Your House
This is an easy way to learn the names of household objects. Give it a try! Just take some sticky notes and write the name of each object in your target language only (don’t write the English word on it). Stick it on the object in your house, and every time you use it, say the name of it out loud.
This is a real-life variation on Benny’s Google Image search suggestion for learning vocabulary in your target language. But instead of setting aside time to google for vocabulary words, you’ll be able to see them all around your home as you go about your business.
3. Listen to Music in Your Target Language
I recently learned how powerful it can be to learn songs in my target language.
While doing some research for another article a few months back, I discovered the Spanish band Amaral and the Mexican band Maná. Now I’m totally hooked on both of them! I listen to them all day at work. I’ve learned a tonne of their songs, and although I’m not actively studying the language, this has helped me get nearly to upper-beginner level in conversational Spanish.
I’ve had some luck with this in Thai as well, but I haven’t yet found a Thai band that I absolutely love enough to listen to their stuff really often – with one exception: Venus Butterfly is a Thai rock band that formed in 2001, in which yours truly played the guitar and trumpet at their first live gig.
4. Play Games in Your Target Language
Most people enjoy playing games. And since you’re reading this, I’m guessing that you like learning languages. So why not combine the two?
Pick games you’d play anyway, even if you weren’t learning a foreign language. In my case, I love crosswords, Scrabble, and other word games. So I downloaded the app Word Search Multilingual, which has word search puzzles in thirty languages. When you solve a puzzle, it shows you the list of words you just found, along with a link to their dictionary definitions in English. I could play this all day.
Depending on the language you’re learning, and the type of games you like playing, there might be a few of your favourite games available online in your target language. For instance, if you love memory games and are learning Spanish, try searching for “juego de memoria” online and see what’s available.
5. Stop Reading the News in Your Native Language
You probably spend a little time every day catching up on the news. If you’re at an intermediate or advanced level in your target language, reading the news is a highly effective way to practice your language skills while doing something useful.
I downloaded the Sanook.com news app onto my phone to get the news in Thai. There’s almost certainly a news app out there in your target language. Just be sure to actually use it, and don’t cheat by reading the news in your native language first!
6. Commit to Counting in Your Target Language
I don’t know why it is, but numbers have always been a difficult aspect of foreign languages for me. Virtually all of the language learners I’ve met say the same thing.
I don’t just mean learning the numbers in a foreign language. Anyone can do that in an hour or two. I mean mastering numbers. Thinking numbers in your target language. This is much more difficult.
I know people who speak English with native-like fluency and have for decades. But when it comes to quickly reading a series of numbers, or counting, they nearly always revert back to their native language.
You can avoid this trap by making a conscious effort to always use numbers in your target language, right from the beginning. You have to count anyway, right? So why not do it in your foreign language to get some practice in at the same time? When reading phone numbers or quantities, do so in your target language (either out loud or in your head).
This technique has helped me a lot in French. Even though I’m fluent, I used to find it insanely difficult to read any numbers in French, or understand when they were recited quickly to me. These days, whenever I read a phone number or another series of numbers, I go out of my way to read them in French.
7. Watch Well-Known TV Shows in Your Target Language
Somehow, I doubt that I’m the only one who watches the same episodes of my favourite TV shows multiple times (especially when my favourite TV shows get cancelled after only fourteen episodes – cough Firefly cough). If you know a certain TV show well enough, then watching it in a foreign language won’t be difficult at all. You already know what the characters are going to say; only now, you can hear how it translates to your target language.
The trick is finding TV shows that are dubbed in your target language. Most popular movies and TV shows are available to order online on DVD. If you’re willing to pay for international shipping, you can order them from online stores in the country where your target language is spoken.
Alternatively, you can search YouTube and other sites on the internet for your favourite TV shows in your target language. The downside is that they might not have subtitles, but if you watch shows that you know really well already, you shouldn’t need subtitles anyway.
By the way, if anyone knows where I can find a Thai dubbed version of Firefly, I’d be eternally grateful 😉
Learning Opportunities are Everywhere – Add Them to Your Life Wherever You Can
With stealth learning, you can integrate language learning into many of the daily activities you already do. While these are a fantastic way to supplement your studying, they should not replace your studying.
Continue to set aside time in your schedule to focus entirely on studying your target language. And always, always be sure to plan regular times to speak with real people. I can’t emphasise this enough. If I didn’t have regular Thai lessons and language exchanges with native speakers, I wouldn’t benefit nearly as much from the stealth learning methods I use.
You can learn a foreign language fluently in nearly any time period you choose. It took me nearly twenty years to be comfortable enough in French to consider myself fluent. Don’t do what I did!
If you want to speak a language fluently without waiting literally decades, take every opportunity you can find to integrate language learning into your everyday life.