Live a Language to Learn a Language

Bubble by Zzub Nik

Building a 'Language Bubble' can be the best way to learn a new language without traveling.

Contrary to what some people may tell you, you don’t have to move to a country that speaks your target language natively to become fluent.

For some reason a lot of people seem to treat moving to a country that speaks their target language as the ‘magic pill’ of language learning. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of ‘Well, if I had the money to go live in [country] for a year or two I’d be great at speaking [language]!’

I will admit, I can definitely see why people are fond of repeating it – you have plenty of success stories from people using this method, and since traveling to foreign lands is often seen as an expensive, difficult thing (a lie I’ll address in another article) it makes a perfect cop-out. There are plenty of ‘good excuses’ for why you just can’t travel right now, so no one can fault you for not learning that language you’ve been wanting to speak for years, right?

The problem is, moving to a country – regardless of duration of stay – will not teach you to speak a language unless you put the same amount of work in as would be required back home. I’ve met plenty of people who have lived, not vacationed but lived, in foreign countries for several years and never learned more of that country’s language than basic necessary phrases. I’m not the lone voice in the wilderness on this problem either.

So why does moving to a new country work for some people and not for others? Easy, it’s a question of immersion.

Diving into Language Immersion

Sorry for the mild pun. People who move to countries who speak their target language and are successful in learning it can get there so quickly because they are constantly exposed to their target language. If they want to chat with a new friend, it’s done in the target language. I they want to watch TV, it’s in the target language. Read a newspaper, buy a coffee, decipher the bus schedule, whatever – it’s in the target language.

You may be thinking, ‘Wait… some people aren’t successful. They’re exposed to the language constantly, why do they fail?’

Easy, if you got to know these people you would find that, consciously or not, they do everything they can to not expose themselves to the country’s native language. They ‘turtle-up’ and create a shield of their native language around themselves. I’ve seen it happen with non-English speakers too, but I have to admit we Americans seem notorious for this kind of behavior. People surround themselves with other English speaking expat/traveller friends, watch English TV via satellite or internet, and read only English news online. This English language bubble effectively insulates them from a majority of their exposure to any other language. They essentially create and inhabit an artificial, miniaturized, English-speaking country abroad – peppered only by a handful of excursions across the border.

Turning the Tables

Thankfully, we can take these problems and redirect them to our advantage so well it would make even O Sensei proud. See, if success comes when one allows oneself to be immersed in a language, and people in other countries can manage to keep themselves immersed in their native language, then that means people can do the opposite and immerse themselves in their target language without leaving their homeland.

So how do you do it? You construct your own language bubble – an L2 embassy, a linguistic fortress of solitude, a native language no man’s land, a… um… ok, you get the idea. The trick here is to take everything you would normally do throughout the day in your native language, and start doing it in the language you’re trying to acquire. This sort of tactic has been used extensively in the past to great success, one notable example being Khatzumoto who acquired Japanese without ever setting foot in Japan. Here’s some tips to get started:

  • Use your Technology – The easiest and, in my opinion, best first step to take is to go through every piece of technology you have and change the language settings into your target language. Be thorough too, don’t just switch your iPod’s language settings and call it a day. Change them on your computer, your e-mail client, everything. You’d be surprised at how many things have language settings now.
  • Work the Web – Most websites have language settings now too. Use them. There’s no reason you can’t use Gmail or Facebook in your target language. A handy trick if you’re using Google Chrome is to set it to automatically translate the pages you visit into your target language. Need to look something up? Use your target language’s Wikipedia page. A quick search should also turn up some news sites written in your target language.
  • Make Every Task Count – Start changing every little thing you do into an exercise in your target language. Need to make a shopping list? Do it in the target language. Memo for later? Target language. Keeping a journal? Target language. Compiling a hit list? Targe…. alright, don’t make a hit list. The more you can do in your target language, the better. It may take a while at first to look up all the words you don’t know. No worries, jot them down in a notebook for later. You’ll be impressed at how quickly you find yourself not needing to reach for the dictionary.
  • Update your Music Library – Clean out all the Backstreet Boys and Rick Astley, music in your native tongue isn’t going to get you anywhere. Spend a little time on YouTube or and dig up some artists who sing in the language you’re trying to acquire. If you’re too cheap to buy their music once you find something you like, make a Grooveshark playlist of all your favorites. Don’t just use this for passive listening either, learn some of those songs!
  • Find New Friends – Let’s be honest, all your friends are deadbeats and they say mean things about you when you’re not around. Besides, all they ever want to do is speak in your native language- that’s so last year! Ditch those losers and find some cool friends. Kidding aside, finding native speakers of your target language to interact with is a huge step in becoming fluent in that language. Join Lang-8 and start posting, do a search for the social network of choice for the country which speaks your target language, or look for a Meetup group dedicated to it. There are a million ways to find native speakers in your area, so get social and go find them.

I’m sure there are a multitude of other ways to build your own self-contained immersion zone, and if you have any good ones please share them in the comments, but these should get you started. Before long, you’ll find you’ve gotten much, much further than people who stick to classrooms or bury themselves in ‘Total Immersion’ textbooks written mostly in English.

Have any of these tactics worked for you? Do you have any insights about them, what is easy what’s hard etc.? Let us know in the comments!

Learn 1,000 Words in 30 Days

Korean Dictionary by Bittegitte

Is it possible to learn 1,000 new words in 30 days?

Being fairly well invested at this point in our challenge to learn to speak Korean in six months, we’ve decided to toss another minor challenge on top of it.

Learning 1,000 new words in Korean in 30 days

The motivation for this is simple, I just don’t feel our vocabulary is progressing quite as quickly as I would like it to for meeting our 6 month challenge. I’m also finding that in many cases our vocabulary is the limiting factor in the speed of progress in other areas of practice. I figure the best way to fix this is by learning the 1,000 most common words in Korean.

Why the 1,000 most common? Well, like I’ve said before, the 80/20 rule applies to language too. By focusing on the most common 1,000 words we’ll be taking the most efficient route and learning the stuff we’re most likely to need to know first.

Why in 30 days? Well, for two reasons to be honest. The first reason is that we’re on a constrained timeline. Our goal is to speak Korean in six months, if we take four months to learn those thousand words, we’re not going to be able to make as much total progress. The second reason is because it’s a challenge. 1,000 words in 30 days probably sounds crazy to most people (a lot like learning a language in 6 months probably does), which is a perfectly good reason to see if we can pull it off.

How are we going to go about it? The first step is finding a listing of the 1,000 most common Korean words. That part is easy, a quick Google search has given me this one which is likely what we’ll use.

With our list in hand, the next step is to divide and conquer. A quick bit of math reveals that 1,000 words divided into 30 days comes down to 33.3 words per day. Since I have no interest in learning 1/3rd of a word everyday, I’m going to round that up to 34 words per day.

I do realize that at 34 words per day we can actually learn 1,000 words in 29 days, but I’m going to assume we’ll need that extra day for review anyway.

Everyday we will tackle the next 34 words using all of the memorization hacks we have available to us, from SRS systems like Anki to good old-fashioned memory hooks. If, by the end of the day, we haven’t learned all 34 words then I’m not going to worry about it too much. The most wonderful part of this challenge is even if we have a dismal 50% success rate, we’ll still have learned 500 of the most common Korean words – an accomplishment I would be proud of on its own.

Anyone else want to try to learn 1,000 words in 30 days?

Learn to Write in Your Target Language Without Ever Studying

Hangul Street Sign by Camera on Autopilot

Learning a new writing system can be easier than you think.

So far I have learned to write in two syllabaries (Hiragana & Katakana) and two alphabets (Hangul & Cyrillic). That’s not counting English, German and Chinese since I learned English natively, the German is barely different from English’s and learning to write in a logography is an entirely different process. Mostly by accident, I approached the learning of each one in a completely different way and by doing so have figured out what the biggest roadblock is when trying to learn a new writing system.

Too much studying.

Hiragana and Katakana I learned almost entirely by traditional study. Cyrillic I learned with half study, half use and Hangul I learned entirely by use after trying to study it a year ago and failing. After my experiences with Hangul I realized that the harder I worked and the more I studied, the worse my gains were.

Hiragana / Katakana

I learned to write in Hiragana and Katakana in an environment that most people would think is the best you can get, a structured college course at a big university. Ironically, not only did it take the very longest to learn, but I still go blank on some of the Katakana at times. Since the textbook the professor selected used only Hiragana and Katakana after the first chapter, we spent the first two weeks of the class just learning the syllabaries.

Every lesson and all our homework for the first week consisted of essentially nothing but writing each character over, and over, and over, and over, and over again with the goal of memorizing them all. Can you guess how well that worked? Everyone did terribly.

By the end of the week, most people had only a halfway decent grasp of the characters. Nevertheless, our teacher kept going and we started on the first chapter. I kept up the memorization tactics, and tacked on the new homework on top of it. Being forced now to read and write in Hiragana, I noticed my recognition of the characters getting faster. I also noticed I was able to recall a lot more of them when I was writing. I chalked it up at the time to my continuation of the list writing, as well as making little flashcards for each character and studying them obsessively. Oddly enough, my Katakana recognition and production didn’t improve nearly as fast as my Hiragana.


Fast forward a few years and you find me in a Russian class at the same university. Our professor tells us the first day that we have to learn how to read and write Cyrillic first, in both print and cursive, before we can get going on the textbook. I think I audibly sighed when she told us. Here we go again, weeks and weeks of memorization and repetition.

Figuring I’d get a head start, I dove into it as soon as I could. I made my flashcards and I started doing my list writing. Didn’t help a bit. I progressed just as slowly as my classmates, all of us moving at a rate dismally reminiscent of my previous experiences in my Japanese class.

Fed up with it, and not wanting to waste anymore time before learning what I really cared about, speaking Russian, I just skipped ahead and started going through the first chapter of the textbook on my own. It was slow, since I didn’t really know how to read Cyrillic, but I made it work by flipping back to the chart at the beginning of the book to remind myself of the sounds each character stood for. By the time I hit the end of the chapter, something interesting had happened.

I knew the Cyrillic alphabet.

While the rest of the class was still struggling terribly, I had ditched the idea of studying and had just started working on other things is which I was forced to use Cyrillic. I started to think I was on to something.


Fast forward one more time, to just before I graduated. Caroline and I wanted to learn Korean, but the university we attended didn’t offer it anymore. We decided we would just study it on our own. After all, we’d been through enough language classes, we could figure it out as long as we had a proper textbook. One college level textbook on Korean later, we dove right in.

If I were continuing the pool metaphor, this would be the point where I realized it was empty, and I broke my spine from the fall.

I failed miserably at learning Hangul, let alone Korean. I had used all my old methods, repetition, flashcards, rote memorization. Yet by the end of it, I only knew the sounds of five or six of the letters – and even then I often got them mixed up. Feeling defeated, I pretty much gave up.

Fast forward again (last one, I promise) to this year. I find myself working as a waiter in a new Korean restaurant. I write down the orders I take in English, while everyone else writes them using Hangul. All of the notes and things they post are in Hangul (though they usually realize and put English under it a while afterward). I am essentially surrounded by Hangul.

I frequently find myself asking the other servers, the chefs and anyone else who speaks Korean to tell me what the Hangul says. After a few times of having my poor English handwriting read the wrong way, I pick a few dishes and learn how to write them copying the other servers, and start writing those few dishes in Hangul instead of English. Before long, without ever really studying what sound each letter represents, I find I can kind of figure new words out. Not long after that, and my Hangul is now better than my Katakana.

Applying What I Learned

I’ve said it several times already – the key to learning a new language is to practice it, not study it. That’s why I had such success with Hangul, and such failure with Katakana. The Hangul I was forced to use because of being at work so much. Katakana I studied a ton but, since Katakana words come up a lot less in Japanese than Hiragana words, I never got to use it all that much.

So rather than studying, start reading. Find a basic chart of what sound each character makes, and set it off to the side. Google should be able to find one for you, if not any good basic textbook for your target language should start with one. Once you have that chart set aside, find something in the target script to read.

Newspapers are good, since they’re easy to find online, but anything will work. Again, Google is your friend here. You can find lots of reading material by translating the word ‘news’ or any other topic of interest into your target language via Google Translate and pasting it into the search box.

It will be extremely slow going. At first, you’ll probably be spending equal time looking at what you’re trying to read, and the chart you set aside for help. That’s alright, before long you’ll be looking at the chart less and less. Pretty soon you won’t need it at all. Congratulations! You can now read in the script of your target language.

Once you have that down (or concurrently if you like) start learning to write some words in your target language using the native script. Using very common nouns is a good place to start. A good way to both learn the script and tie the new word in with its real world equivalent rather than its English translation is to carry a notepad around and write the word down every time you see that item. For example, every time you walk by the fridge, scribble down the word for refrigerator in your target script. It may not be the most practical, but it will definitely help you a ton.

Another way is to write words from English using the target script. This can be a little more difficult though if the target script contains characters for lots of sounds that just aren’t present in English.

So what are your thoughts? Have you had more success with immersion, studying, or a little bit of both?

How to Start Learning Any Language

Kanji by Chrissam42
If you’ve been through traditional language classes, you know how awful they tend to be. Chances are, unless you took measures outside of those classes to build up your ability, you barely speak the language that was being taught now that you’ve been out of the class for more than a year or two. I honestly think, in America anyway, that the poorly designed language classes we all go through are the main reason learning a new language is viewed as such a Herculean task.

The problem with these classes is they teach a second language like it’s just about knowledge. It’s treated the same way a history or math test might be. You’re asked to memorize and digest information and rules, and then regurgitate that information onto a test or vocally from time to time. As I mentioned previously when posting about the method I’m using for my language learning challenge, speaking a new language is a skill.

You don’t get to be a very good archer spending 90% of your time reading books on archery, memorizing techniques and watching other people shoot. Nor would you learn to be a very good swimmer reading books about swimming and watching other people swim to study their technique. Sure, those things might help. If you really want to get good though, you have to go out and do it.

For languages, that means ditching all those lessons and just getting out there to chat with some native speakers.

You may be saying, ‘That sounds great, but I don’t speak a single word of [target language]. How do you expect me to go talk to people in it?’

Obviously you can’t just go out and have conversations with people in your target language if you’ve just started learning, if you could do that you wouldn’t need to learn. You have to start somewhere. So I’ve compiled a short list of things that you should know first and foremost to start talking.

The Basics

This is hardly comprehensive, but is actually more than you need to get started. Feel free to add some to the list, but don’t get bogged down with grammar study. You don’t gain fluency hunched over a book memorizing rules for the subjunctive clause, you gain it by practicing.

The Grammar

  1. Learn the basic structure of a sentence.
  2. Learn how to conjugate for past, present and future tense.
  3. Learn how to form the interrogative / ask a question.
  4. Learn how to form the negative.

You can actually stop here. The rest can be picked up from native speakers. Say ‘It is I water’ and have enough people tell you that you mean to say ‘my water’ and pretty soon you’ll understand possessive forms without ever looking up grammar rules. For those of you who like to do a little more studying, you can flesh things out a bit with the following.

  1. Learn how plurals work.
  2. Learn how the possessive works.
  3. Learn how modals (can, will, may, might etc.) work.
  4. Learn how prepositions / locations work.
  5. Learn how comparatives & superlatives work (-er, -est etc.)
  6. Learn how conjunctions work.

That should be more than enough grammar to allow you to start talking to people. Keep in mind, not all of these may apply, and some from the second list may be too advanced to worry about right now. Don’t worry about it, at least get the first four down and move on. Now you need some words to use with all those grammar rules you learned.

The Vocabulary

There are three different methods I’m fond of for learning new vocabulary, all of which are based off of that old standard the 80/20 principle. The idea here is to learn the most used, most important words first, and then pick up the rest as you go along. The first of those methods involves using frequency lists.

Frequency lists, as the name implies, are lists of the most frequently used words. Unsurprisingly, about 80% of conversation is made up of only about 20% of the vocabulary, after which the returns for learning additional vocabulary diminish rapidly. The idea behind frequency lists is that by learning the most frequently used words first, you maximize the benefit to time investment ratio. Knowing the word for ‘defenestrate’ (or even something more mundane like ‘ski lift’) is nice, but not likely to come up until you already have enough language skill to ask what it means.

Frequency lists can be found on Wiktionary in a variety of languages, or you can find one for English and look the words up in the target language. Keep in mind though that there’s not always a 1 to 1 translation for words between two languages.

The second option is to find an average text in your target language. A Google search for a newspaper in your target language should get you one (hint: look up the word for ‘news’ in your target language and search for that). If you don’t want news, look on Amazon in the target language for a book on a topic that really interests you. Once you have your target language newspaper or book or whatever, start trying to read it. Every time you hit a word you don’t know, look it up.

This will honestly get extremely tiresome, and the first page will probably take you an hour or two to get through at least. If you keep at it though, you’ll quickly find that you need to look less and less up. Even better, since a newspaper is likely to use very common words, and since any publication is likely to repeat words regularly, you get a nice, focused spaced-repetition system for learning new vocab.

The last (and my least favorite) is to go about your day and every time you do or see something, jot it down to look up in your target language. Before long most of the things you come across or do will have been learned, and you can start branching out into more uncommon words. I say this is my least favorite because it’s somewhat impractical, some people have said they had a lot of success with it though, so I suppose if the above two methods didn’t work for you this may be a last resort option.

Have anything else you think should be added? Be sure to share it. In the end remember that what’s going to help the most is to get speaking as quickly as possible.

Fluent in 6 Months Challenge: The Method

Yesterday I introduced our latest challenge, learning fluent Korean in 6 months. Today, I’ll share the method we’re going to follow to try and accomplish that goal.

We’ve had a lot of experience with language learning (I even have a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics) and so far I think the most effect method for language learning we have found so far is to just start using that language.

After all, while our stated goal is to reach fluency, in the end learning fluent Korean isn’t really an end goal in and of itself. It’s a tool, and it should be treated the same way when you’re learning. A lot of people seem to make the mistake of treating the language they’re learning like it is the goal itself. They study and pour over textbooks and slave away in classes or listening to and repeating after recordings of native speakers as if they’ll eventually hit some finish line where someone officially declares they know the language. They may say they want to speak the language, but they go about it like all they care about is ‘knowing’ the language.

In reality, knowledge of the language is just a tool with which to communicate your ideas and find out the ideas of others. Doesn’t it make sense then, if the goal is to be able to communicate with others, that most of the time learning/practicing be spent actually trying to communicate? After all, speaking a language is a skill, and you don’t learn a skill just by studying – you learn by going out and doing it.

Would you learn to swim by reading textbooks on swimming, memorizing all the different methods for swimming, practicing holding your breath and miming the different strokes in mid-air? No. You learn to swim by getting in a pool and trying to not drown. Maybe you have some help or some of those little arm floaties, maybe you have really mean parents and just get chucked into the deep end. Either way, you may learn a little bit before getting into the water, but you never really learn how to swim until you start trying to actually swim.

That’s how we’re going to approach completing this challenge. To keep the pool analogy, we’re going to learn a little first, and then jump right into the water.

We’re not going to bother with any classes, courses, or purchasable methods. Honestly, I have never met anyone who reached fluency from just a class. I personally think that’s because of fundamental pedagogical/methodological problems in modern language courses, but that’s a discussion for another time. The point is, I think they’re largely a waste of time.

We’re going to start by learning a handful of necessary basic grammar constructions (present tense, past tense, how to form a question etc.) and a handful of the most common words, and then we’re just going to start chatting with our Korean friends and coworkers as often as possible. We’re also going to immerse ourselves in Korean by watching mostly Korean TV and movies and listening to mostly Korean music (something we already do anyway) as well as writing entries in Korean on Lang-8, reading Korean newspapers online and, well, basically doing as many things as we can that we would normally do in English in Korean instead.

We may make daily vocabulary study sheets following a lemmatized frequency list in order to maximize the number of useful words we learn, but I’m no sure yet. In all likelihood just reading new material with a dictionary/iPhone nearby and constantly bugging our Korean friends by asking (in Korean) ‘What is this called in Korean?’ will introduce to more than enough new words, in context, with appropriate memory hooks, without needing to worry about lists and study sheets.

So what do you think? Sounds like a good plan or are we doomed to failure? Think we can pull it off in 6 months or less?

Fluent In 6 Months Challenge: Speak Fluent Korean in Half a Year

While I’m just barely at the end of my third week into my first challenge, losing 56 lbs. in under 4 months, Caroline and I were talking and decided that today we would like to start a second challenge:

Become able to speak fluent Korean in only 6 months.

Why Korean? Why in 6 months? How does this help us on the way to being epic? One question at a time.

We chose Korean for two main reasons. The first is that we’ve been wanting to learn it for a long while now, but have never really committed to it. We already speak some Japanese, Mandarin, German and Russian (though not nearly as well as we’d like) so it seems right to pick a language we know almost nothing in that we’ve wanted to learn for a while. The second reason is that right now we’re working on the side at a Korean restaurant, so we have tons and tons of access to native speakers to practice with, which is really important.

Why 6 months? Well, that’s actually somewhat arbitrary I suppose. Benny the Irish Polyglot manages to become fluent in a new language every 3 months, but his method is studying in a country that predominately speaks his target language (although, that’s not true of his latest mission). Then there’s Randy at Yearlyglot who becomes fluent in a new language every year, but without travelling. Right in the middle is Lyzazel at the I Kinda Like Languages blog who goes for six months, three traveling and three in his home country. While we can’t travel, we do have daily, constant access to native speakers because of work. We figure that’ll be good enough to manage fluency in six months.

Lastly, what makes this so epic? Well being epic largely comes down to experiences. We think that being equipped with as many languages as possible facilitates having those really epic experiences and meeting really epic people. After all, it’s a lot easier to have really awesome experiences in a foreign country when you aren’t trying to speak English with everyone (Native English speaking countries aside). On top of that for most Americans, crippled as they are by traditional high school/college language courses, becoming fluent in a second language at all let alone in a year or less is kind of epic.

What Constitutes Fluent

Defining fluency can be a little tricky at times, since there’s no real set goal line and a lot of people have differing opinion on where that line should be drawn. Our definition of fluency falls somewhere very near Randy of’s definition of fluency. We’re going with:

Fluency – The ability to express oneself fully in a fluid manner without any more pauses to think than might be expected of a native speaker. Must also be able to understand others expressing themselves in the same way and have a command of common slang comparative to that of a native speaker.

I’m not so concerned about trying to be grammatically correct all the time (I can’t even seem to pull that off in English) nor am I concerned about accent or superficial things like that – the basic goal is to be able to chat with a native speaker in the target language about nearly anything without any conversational difficulty (confusion, searching for words, misunderstandings etc.).

We’ll post about the method we plan to use to beat this challenge soon. For now though, here’s the official challenge.

The Challenge

In six months time (May 19th, 2011) Caroline and I will both be able to converse in spoken and written Korean well enough to meet the criteria above for fluency, i.e., we will be able to have natural, fluid conversations with any native Korean speaker we meet with no more difficulties than would be expected of a native speaker.

Have any advice? Think we’ll never be able to pull it off? Let us know.

The Method
Halfway Point Progress Update
The Conclusion

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