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.

How to Pack On Muscle

Marines Pull Up For America's Birthday by U.S. Marine Corps. Official Page
When it comes to losing weight, one of the best things one can do is pack on more lean muscle. This is an obvious thing, in my opinion, but given the number of weight loss programs I see advocating what seems like nothing but incessant, mindless cardio I think it needs to be stated. To put it simply, all that additional lean muscle requires energy to stay around, the more energy those muscles take up the less there is hanging around to become adipose tissue (that jiggly stuff hanging off your gut).

Since I’m under the deadline of a challenge I’m interested in pursuing the most efficient method for putting on muscle and losing fat. Since my concern is ultimately utilitarian (i.e., I want to be fit to increase my ability to do things, not just to have big showy muscles) I’m also interested in a method that builds strength with as little overall mass increase as possible. The solution?

Lift very heavy things.

Or, rather, lift very heavy things in compound exercises. Why? Three main reasons – Testosterone, Human Growth Hormone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1.

Testosterone

Please, ladies, do not be scared of doing things that will increase your body’s production of Testosterone. Testosterone will not turn you into She-Hulk. (Though anabolic steroids might, so please stay away from those.) What Testosterone will do is increase the efficiency of protein synthesis, facilitate the functioning of Human Growth Hormone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1, which we’ll get to in a second, and keeps the body in an anabolic state (that means putting on muscle, and losing fat).

Human Growth Hormone

Three points to whomever can guess what Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is responsible for. Yep, growth. We don’t mean growth like getting taller mind you, we mean muscle growth. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a good thing for anyone with the goal of putting on some muscle, but what you may not know is elevated levels of HGH in your body also cause to burn fat faster. More HGH means more muscle and less fat.

Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1

Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) completes our trifecta of hormones you should very much care about if you want to put on some muscle. IGF-1 is produced in the liver as a result of HGH stimulation and works together with HGH to promote muscle growth.

All three of these hormones work in concert to make you stronger and leaner. So how do you get more of them? Thankfully, not in any way involving needles or pills. You get them by working with your old friend, your central nervous system.

Where the Heavy Lifting Comes In

The thing about your CNS is, you really can’t lie to it. It knows when you’re really being serious about working out and it’s not interested in compromise. To get your CNS to cough up some of these lovely anabolic hormones, you have to give it something intense to convince it you’re serious. This means one of two things, lift something really heavy in a way that utilizes a whole bunch of muscles, or do something really taxing like sprints or HIIT.

Isolation exercises or low weight high rep stuff just won’t do it. Lift a substantially heavy weight in a compound exercise like a squat though and your CNS gets the message. Once it sees that you’re doing things that are genuinely taxing your whole body, it wakes up your hypothalamus which in turn goes and has a talk with your pituitary gland. The pituitary sets in motion the process for more Testosterone to be produced, and then starts synthesizing HGH on its own. The presence of all that Testosterone and HGH kick your liver into IGF-1 production mode, and the end result is a happy hormonal environment that’s telling your body to pack on the muscle and burn off the fat.

So What Do I Do?

So now you get how it works, but what should you actually do? Personally, I’m fond of a 3 times per week 5×5 system of a few different compound exercises. No clue what that means? I’ll break it down.

The first step is finding some compound exercises. These are exercises that hit a whole bunch of muscles, instead of just one or two. Generally, if an exercise is named after a muscle (bicep curls, lat pulldowns, etc.) it’s probably not a compound exercise. Some good compound exercises are squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, clean and jerks, power cleans, snatches, dips and presses among others. If you’re not sure what any of these are, please either research them and make sure you know how to do them properly or find someone qualified to show you how. Doing these exercises improperly, particularly with heavy loads, can seriously hurt you.

The second step is finding an appropriate weight. The weight you choose should be heavy enough that you should just be able to do five repetitions before your form starts to degrade, but not so heavy that you can’t maintain good form for any of those five reps. This will vary from exercise to exercise, and will obviously increase over time, so you’ll have to experiment a little to find what’s right for you.

Putting these together is as simple as picking one pulling exercise and one pushing exercise, and then doing those two with squats. Most people (myself included) recommend both changing it up a bit, and including deadlifts as one of those exercises at least once a week. More than once a week may not be advisable, as deadlifts are awfully taxing, but you really need them at least once a week.

Since the goal here is intensity, it’s best to stick to about 3 workouts a week with at least a day of rest in between each. I prefer Monday, Wednesday, Friday personally. Any more than that and you risk overstressing your CNS and loading your body up with cortisol. That’s not a good thing.

Here’s a sample workout just to get you started:

Monday:
Squats 5×5
Pull-Ups 5xFailure (unless you can do more than 8 or 9 pull-ups before hitting the point of failure, in which case add weight until it gets down closer to 5)
Bench Press 5×5

Wednesday:
Squats 5×5
Deadlifts 5×5
Overhead Press 5×5

Friday:
Squats 5×5 (do you see a pattern?)
Pull-Ups 5xFailure
Bench Press 5×5

After the first week you can mix the order around a little, as long as you stick to the principle of squats, one pulling exercise and one pushing exercise. Also, as I mentioned, deadlifts can be awfully taxing. If you have to, it’s better to cut down to a really heavy weight for a single set of 5 reps, than do the full 5×5, get exhausted, succumb to poor form and hurt yourself.

Lastly, make sure to get enough sleep and to eat properly (and eat enough). This routine is extremely hard on your CNS, which means you need to pay a lot of attention to your recovery or you might wind up taking one step forward and two steps back. If you start feeling particularly worn down, or find yourself getting sick more often, slow down a little until you recover.

Have any other suggestions to add? Have you or haven’t you tried this method for yourself and what do you think?