Why You Need Two Types of Reading to Learn a Language

intensive reading extensive reading language learning

Failing to use both intensive and extensive reading when learning a language is a big mistake.

Most people who are learning a second language understand how important it is to read material in their target language.

Even if your goal is purely conversational – maybe you just want to be able to watch movies or only need to use the new language in business calls – and literacy isn’t a concern at all, reading is still too powerful a tool to pass up. I’m all about having conversations as soon and as often as possible in your new language, but I’d never do it at the complete expense of reading.

The problem is, most people don’t recognize the differences between the two ways to approach reading in a target language. If you aren’t making full use of both, you’re making things unnecessarily hard on yourself.

Intensive Reading vs. Extensive Reading

It’s easy to think of reading in a target language like you might think of reading in your native language, as a relatively passive & relaxed kind of activity. That’s one way to do it, but there’s a second option you’re missing out on if that’s the only way you’re approaching your reading. You need a good balance between Extensive and Intensive reading, not just a focus on one or the other.

So what’s the difference between the two?

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading, to make a fitness analogy, is your relaxed low intensity steady state cardio. It’s going for a long walk at the end of the night or spending a little time just strolling leisurely on the treadmill. This type of reading is the kind of reading most people do in their native language – broad, relaxed, and casual. Think about curling up somewhere cozy with a novel, that’s the feel of extensive reading.

Extensive reading will technically take up more of your time than intensive reading. So what’s it good for?

  • Increasing Reading Speed/Fluency – Extensive reading is great for increasing your reading and comprehension speed since it’s a lot of slow constant practice. The more time you spend reading the more comfortable and habitual it feels as your brain builds all the little shortcuts to make for more rapid word and idea association.

  • Internalization of Grammar – Another benefit of extensive reading’s nature of being long and somewhat repetitive is that you’ll start to internalize common grammatical structures without thinking about it too much. When you’re exposed to the past participle form three hundred times reading a novel for an hour you stop thinking about it.

  • It’s Relaxing – I really enjoy learning languages, in the way other people might enjoy playing games or some other hobby, but even I hit times when studying or practicing just feels like work. Extensive reading is prefect for those times because the idea is to do it for fun. You’re not really worrying about whether you understand 100% of the material, or that you’re looking up unfamiliar words and adding them to a study list, it’s just the literary equivalent of plopping on the couch and watching some TV.

The keys to extensive reading is to set aside a moderate to long stretch of time to read, and to select something that’s either appropriate for your level of understanding, or even something a little below your level.

The goal here isn’t to have your dictionary and notebook handy, but just to read. Make sure you do pick something interesting, the goal here is to have fun. Novels (especially bilingual reader versions), magazines, and comic books are all good options in my opinion, but you may personally love reading personal style blogs or online automotive reviews – just find whatever is most enjoyable.

Once you’ve got something all you have to do is read. That’s it. Relax and enjoy. It’s not supposed to be intense, unlike…

Intensive Reading

If extensive reading is your long slow steady state cardio, then intensive reading is your high intensity interval training. This is the reading equivalent of doing hill sprints – short, intense, and focused.

The purpose of intensive reading is to dive deep into focused study of a text that’s beyond your current level, but not impossibly so, and deconstructing it as much as possible to tease out colloquialisms, implied or finer meanings of words, non-standard grammar usage, etc. What does intensive reading help most with?

  • Learning Colloquialisms – This depends a little on the material you’re selecting, a formal business report for example is less likely to contain the number of colloquialisms a blog post might, but intensive reading is a great way to single out and deconstruct usages that are more reflective of real life and less the inside of a textbook.

  • Developing Targeted Vocab Lists – Intensive reading also provides a good source for building vocab lists or study decks around things you’re interested in, or things relevant to the reason you’re learning the language in the first place. If you’re learning German because you’re being sent to a conference on gardening, then material on gardening and botany will provide more useful vocab for you than a book for tourists.

  • Comprehension Testing – Since you’re taking the time to dig deep into whatever material you’ve selected for reading, it provides an excellent opportunity for comprehension testing. After your first pass reading you can circle back and start deconstructing everything to see if you actually understood the material and what things tripped you up or meant something other than what you originally thought.

It’s important for intensive reading practice to keep sessions short. Treat it like you’re cramming for a test the next morning on whatever it is you’ve chosen to read, make lots of notes, look up words you don’t know, dig into unfamiliar grammars and usages to see if you can work them out.

Like those hill sprints, these should be brief but difficult. Pick a text that provides the right amount of brevity and challenge, you want it to be above your current reading and comprehension level but still fairly short. Wikipedia articles, news sites, and blogs are often good choices depending on how casual of language you’re looking for since they tend to be short and focused but still interesting.

Treat it like studying because that’s exactly what it is.

Finding the Right Balance

I would never prescribe someone nothing but slow, easy walks for someone looking to get fit nor would I prescribe daily hill sprints and barbell complexes – you need to have an appropriate balance of both to be successful.

Now where that balance is will certainly differ from person to person. Someone just starting out who is untrained and substantially overweight might do lots of walking and only one higher intensity session per week, someone who’s a high level athlete with an understanding of proper recovery might be able to handle five higher intensity sessions a week. The trick is figuring out what works best for you.

The balance between extensive reading and intensive reading is the same.

Some people might do better with more relaxed extensive reading to complement their other studies, especially if there’s severely limited amounts of time available for focused study that could be better spent with a teacher or native speaker. Others might find that they do better with a lot of deep dives into particular topics, especially if their reason for learning is tied to topics or factors related to the sorts of reading material they’re diving in to. There isn’t a perfect ratio for everyone, but the key is to be sure that you’re not devoting all your time to one and not any to the other.

Do you have any thoughts on extensive or intensive reading you want to add? Any tips for making either more effective or pitfalls to keep an eye out for? Share them with us!

Creating and Using a Personal Language Learning Notebook

Language Learning Notebook

I’m a fan of Code and Quill notebooks, but there are lots of options for putting together a language learning notebook.

Confession time – I am a bit of a notebook addict.

Okay, ‘a bit’ is too soft of phrasing. A serious notebook addict. I tend to fall more on the eco-conscious, paperless, ‘let’s digitize everything’ side, but there is just something about the experience of sitting down with a nice, physical notebook to draw or write in that I just love. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that a notebook has always factored heavily in my language learning.

Regardless of my proclivities for fine stationary, I’ve found keeping a notebook like this to be a huge benefit to learning a language. It helps with motivation, planning, lesson structuring, memorization – just about every area of language learning except conversing with another human being. The trick is in knowing how to make the most of it.

Let me show you my favorite ways for building and benefiting from a personal language learning notebook.

Prepping the Language Learning Notebook

First things first, you’ll need a notebook.

Personally I am very fond of Code and Quill notebooks, particularly for language learning. They’re reasonably priced, come in both hard and soft cover, have lay-flat binding, offer a range of sizes, use paper with little to no bleed through, and they have both dot grid and indent ruled pages which make them great for working with languages with non-romanized writing systems like Mandarin, Russian, Greek, Korean, etc.

For my language journals I prefer the Monolith since I like a larger notebook, but all of them are good. You can buy them directly from their website if affiliate links bother you, or you can get the Monolith, the Origin, or the Traveler through Amazon and we’ll get a small cut.

As much as I like them you can really use any kind of notebook or journal you want for this task, even a ten cent spiral bound notebook from a back to school sale. I would recommend finding one you really like though because the more you like the notebook itself the more inclined you’ll be to use it.

Once you’ve got your notebook there are a lot of different ways you can set it up in order to facilitate better language learning. Take everything here as more of a suggestion than a rule – I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of how I set things up but personalization is fantastic. It’s your notebook.

I always like to start mine off with a goal sheet at the very front, and then planning, resources, and the meat of the notebook after that. Here are my general set-up pages:

  • Goal Page – The goal page tends to go right up at the front for obvious reasons. This isn’t just a sheet with ‘Goals’ written in big letters at the top and then ‘Speak Japanese’ (or whatever language) scrawled underneath. I tend to lay out my goal page first with a specific big picture goal and a time frame for it. For example a specific big picture goal might be ‘Test at B2 Level in Swedish’ or ‘Be able to understand an entire film in Cantonese’. Then I set a time frame that I want to shoot for and write that down next to it.

    Even though for me (because I just really enjoy learning languages) these tend to be fluency oriented goals that doesn’t mean yours have to be. If you’re just learning German to prep for a couple weeks of studying abroad or to not look like an ass on a business trip, then your goal might be something like ‘Be able to order food at a restaurant’ or ‘Be able to have a basic five minute conversation’ along with a much shorter time frame. That’s totally fine.

    Below the big picture goal, I like to put a halfway goal or a benchmark goal. So using my first example, this one might be ‘Test at A2 Level in Swedish’. Sometimes I include time frames with these, sometimes not. If it helps you to stay on track, go for it. Below that I’ll mark down another benchmark goal that’s about halfway to my halfway goal, like ‘Test at A1 Level in Swedish’. Finally, I like to list out any recurring goals or habit goals I think will help me get there. Things like ‘Do at least one 10 minute Memrise session per day’, ‘Schedule two iTalki sessions with a native speaker per week’, etc. These last ones are all recurring, repeatable goals that keep me on track and making progress.

  • Planning Page – Following the goals page I usually lay out my planning page or pages. The idea here is to lay out as much as I can about how I intend to reach all those goals I just set on the previous page. I like to structure it around a series of questions I ask myself and then write down the answers to. First, what level am I at currently? You might not be starting this out at zero, and it’s nice to have a good appraisal of where you’re actually beginning.

    How will I measure progress? Having as quantifiable a way as possible of measuring progress is way more important than you think for staying motivated and knowing you’re on the right track. It can be as simple as the progress bar on Memrise, Anki, or Duolingo, or it can be as complicated as posting a weekly YouTube video in your target language or having a native speaker give you a full assessment via Skype or in person. The point is to plan out and write down how you intend to gauge your progress as you learn.

    When will I fit this into my schedule? Learning a language takes time. Like learning an instrument, you need to set aside specific times to study and to practice. Not knowing when exactly you plan to do these things is a surefire way to wind up too busy to do them or just outright forgetting. Like with the others, go as specific or general as you need here – anywhere from ‘Every Tuesday and Thursday evening I’ll study for an hour’ to ‘3 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily I study vocab, and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. is conversation practice’. Know how much time you’ve got and how you plan to spend it.

  • Resource List – On my resource list pages I like to, well, list all my resources. This is partially to not forget new things when I come across them, and part to make sure I have a wide variety of study tools to pull from since I get bored easily. Put down specific things like ‘Memrise 1,000 word Frequency Deck’ or ‘My Korean Book 1’ and general stuff like ‘Watching movies’ or ‘Reading online news’. The idea is to make this more expansive than limiting so I always leave a blank page or two where I can fill in books, specific YouTube channels, podcasts, websites, and whatever else I find as I go.

    You’ll always find more great resources after you’ve started, so leave plenty of room and always be hunting out things to fill that blank space with.

  • Optional: Table of Contents – I don’t use this one much myself, since I like flipping around in my notebook more to be reminded of all the things I went over and generally if there’s something I want to ‘look up’ it’s easier to use Google than my personal notes.

    Still, some people really like having a table of contents. If you do think you’ll want one just leave a couple blank pages before you start your actual note taking and then as you fill the rest of the notebook flip back in whatever increments you want things organized in and write down the name of that section and the page number. Once your notebook’s filled your table of contents will be finished too.

Those are the main prep pages I like to start with. If you can think of others you think would help you then definitely add them (and leave a comment about it to help the rest of us out too). After those we get into the meat of the notebook itself.

How to Use Your Language Learning Notebook

Now that you’ve done all your prep work, how do you make the most out of the journal itself? Here are some of my favorite ways that I’ve found help me the most – again, feel free to mix and match and add your own as necessary.

  • Taking Notes – I realize you don’t need to be told to take notes in a notebook, but it’s still worth mentioning. Copying down vocab lists, summarizing lessons, writing out grammar ‘rules’ in your own words, transcribing dialogue from shows and movies, these are all great ways to help solidify and retain what you’re learning in your study sessions.

  • Lesson Review Outlines – A lesson review or lesson review outline is different from regular notes in that rather than copying things down as you learn them, you basically try to summarize the entire lesson on a sheet or two immediately afterward from memory. These give you a good outline to then compare and review against your lesson notes because it tells you what stuck from the lesson and what elements you didn’t remember as well. They’re also a good resource for building…

  • Quizzes – It might seem like cheating to take a quiz that you put together yourself since theoretically you had to already know all the answers to make the quiz, but writing out basic quizzes from your notes and lesson reviews and then circling back to them a few days, a week, or a month later and seeing how well you do is a great test. That spaced repetitive recall pattern also helps you remember things better for longer.

  • Lesson Records – This is more for people who are incorporating classes or things like iTalki sessions with a native speaker. The idea here is to note down things like the date and length of the session (if necessary), what you focused on, key notes from the lesson, what new things you learned, and a study or topic to-do list before the next session.

    More than once I have finished out a lesson over Skype and, due to timezone differences, gone straight to bed only to realize the next morning that I had basically forgotten everything we went over. I’ve also had times where I had to go longer than a week between sessions and totally lost the thread of what we were working on before the following session. Keep good records, don’t waste your lessons.

  • Progress Reviews – Just having written down some way to quantify progress at the beginning of the notebook isn’t going to do much if you don’t actually sit down and measure your progress against it.

    I like to include a half-page to a page in regular increments where I assess where my current progress level is, and then refer back to my previous progress review entry to get a feel for what kind of rate I’m progressing at. Not only does this help motivate me, it’s helpful to be able to see if something has caused my progress to slow or if the addition of new study materials or habits has accelerated my learning. I know. I’m a huge nerd. It’s fine.

  • Compositions and Dialogues – Writing out your own little diary entries, made up conversations, stories, or whatever else in the target language is a great way to practice new vocab and grammar in a way that’s not as abstract as memorizing lists and trying to internalize rules outside of actual context. You can write about whatever you want, it’s always good practice.

    Personally, I like to write things out by hand in my notebook, then transcribe them from there into Lang-8 or to send them to native speakers I know to get the mistakes corrected, then go back and correct all my errors with a red pen in my physical notebook. Then every now and again I’ll go back through the old corrected entries and see if I’m still making the same errors or if there are certain things I need to focus on more because I keep screwing them up.

  • Visual Vocab – Do you like to doodle? Rather than write 犬 on one side of the page and ‘dog’ next to it, draw a little dog and then write the word over it, or inside it, or whatever without having to involve the English word ‘dog’.

    Even if you can’t draw well at all it doesn’t matter – these are your personal notes not a contest submission. The point is to help your brain associate the word in your target language with the thing it represents, and not teach your brain to associate the word in the target language with a word in English, which it then associates with the thing it represents. It seems like a small distinction, but it can make a big difference in how well words come to mind when you’re speaking and listening.

  • Study Log – Like the table of contents, this is one I don’t tend to use much but enough people have expressed how much they feel it helps them so you can include one if you like. A study log is just a section, usually reserved at the end of the notebook, where you can log the date, duration, and method for your study sessions.

    I prefer tracking my progress in other ways, but if you think you’ll be most motivated by seeing that you’ve put in an hour of study every day for the last ten days or if you need to track your study hours for work or school or some other reason then leaving a couple pages at the end works well for it.

Make It Your Own

These are just some of my personal favorite ways to use the notebook, but I’m sure this is not in any way an exhaustive list of all the ways you can use it to study better and more efficiently.

Add in whatever other suggestions you come across that you think will help, or things you think up that you enjoy having in there. The idea is to build something for your learning process that you can get excited about and feel invested in, and personalization is a great way to accomplish that.

Have you tried putting together a language learning notebook? Do you have any other ideas for using one you think everyone will find helpful, or things you’ve had trouble with? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

Language Learning Excuses

No More Language Learning Excuses

One of the things that I’ve noticed about speaking several languages is that when people I meet for the first time find out a huge majority of them make some kind of excuse for why they don’t.

They say they wish they could learn another language but they’re too old now, or they don’t have the time or money, or they wish they had my talent for languages, and so on. None of these are valid reasons for not learning a second language if it’s something you really want to do. When you repeat these excuses to yourself it just internalizes this self-fulfilling narrative that you can’t do it. That you’ll never successfully learn a new language.

Here’s why you’re wrong.

Common Excuses for Not Learning a Language

This list is, sadly, not extensive. These are the handful I hear people telling me (and themselves) most often though.

  • I Don’t Have the Time to Learn a Language – Whenever people say “I don’t have the time for X,” I hear “I don’t make X a priority.” I get twenty-four hours everyday to play with. So do you. So does everyone else. The question is how you choose to allot that time. Tally up the amount of time you spend each day watching TV and tell me you couldn’t spare an hour of that if it meant speaking another language. If you really aren’t willing to drop an hour of TV, browsing Reddit, playing video games, or whatever else to be able to speak a new language then it’s not that you don’t have time it’s that you clearly don’t actually want to speak another language.

    Most of the time you don’t even need a full hour. You can make real progress by sneaking in five minute sessions on Memrise, or Duolingo. Unless your day is so full of tasks you must do for survival that you do not have even five minutes of down time to devote to bettering yourself, you have ample time.

  • I Don’t Have the Money to Learn a Language – When I learned Swedish I went from knowing only as much Swedish as I could pick up from my visits to the local Ikea to being able to have fluid conversations with natives without spending a cent.

    For that in particular I used Memrise to build my vocab as much as possible, Duolingo to start getting a handle on grammar and free exchange sessions on iTalki to practice and refine everything. I also did a quick Google search for ‘Online Swedish Lessons’ and ‘Free Swedish Lessons’ and found a plethora of resources to help fill in gaps. I could’ve paid for a dedicated teacher on iTalki, but I wanted to keep everything free and I like being able to help people out with their English in return.

    There are plenty of other resources out there completely for free. If you’re reading this you can at least afford the Internet, so you’re set.

  • I Don’t Have a Talent for Languages / I’m Too Old to Learn a Language – I combine these into one excuse because the response to both is the same.

    You’re wrong.

    That’s… pretty much it. There is no such thing as a ‘talent for language learning’ or an ‘aptitude for language learning’, at least not in any significant, meaningful kind of way. These are terms perpetuated by people who have never seriously tried to learn a language and want to make themselves feel better about not putting in the effort. Unless you have a diagnosed learning disability you have no excuse (and even if you do have one, you can still learn a new language).

    The same goes for being too old. The notion that children are better at learning languages is flatly wrong. The reason they seem to learn them so easily is because we never let them stop. They’re constantly hearing new words, being spoken too, and spend almost every waking moment being bombarded by the language – they can’t help but learn it. The ability to learn languages doesn’t diminish with age, it improves. You can understand things a child can’t, and don’t have to learn by sheer osmosis.

  • [X Language] Is Just Too Hard to Learn – Are some languages potentially more difficult to learn because of their differences with your native tongue (presumably English)?

    Of course. Potentially.

    The fact is it’s all relative though. Some English speakers pick up tonality like in Mandarin or Cantonese right off the bat, others don’t. Sometimes grammar that’s wildly different from English grammar makes learning more difficult, sometimes it makes it easier because the contrasts stand out and make it memorable. Personally, I had a much harder time memorizing the genders and understanding the lengthy sentence structure of German than I did memorizing the tones and understanding the grammar of Mandarin. It will differ for everyone.

    Besides, if you genuinely want to speak a language it shouldn’t matter if it’s hard or not. Don’t be a baby.

Don’t Discourage Yourself

Everyone can learn a second language.

Everyone.

The more you come up with excuses or tell yourself you can’t do it the more you poison your own attitudes. Remember that there are always options, always resources, and always people out there who can help you. If you want to learn another language the only thing out there that can stop you is yourself.

Have any other excuses you’ve heard people use for not learning a language that you think aren’t valid? Do you have your own excuse or struggle with language learning that you think is a real problem? Share with everyone in the comments!

New Guide: Learn 1,000 Words in 30 Days

Learn 1000 Words in 30 Days by Adam Wik

If you’ve always wanted to learn a second language but have struggled to get to even a basic speaking level even after years of classes and study, you’re not alone. Just about everyone has a story about how their four years of classes in Spanish, French, or any other language during high school or college left them totally unprepared to converse with native speakers. It isn’t a problem with the students – the problem is no one is ever taught the most effective ways to learn.

For the past month we’ve been working on a guide that details the process Caroline and I use to kick start all of our language learning projects and enables us to learn a substantial volume of new vocabulary in a very short time so we can start speaking and practicing the language as soon as possible. We’ve finally finished, and the 60 page guide is available for download at a special discount to celebrate its launch.

The guide works through the processes, techniques, and tools you need to learn 1,000 new words in as few as 30 days – but the principles and systems within can be applied to any language learning goal.

You can get the guide on Amazon for Kindle. It’ll be discounted to 99 cents until Wednesday, June 24th after which it’ll go back to the full price of $2.99 so now’s a great time to get it.

Habit Change as a Language Learning Tool

Forgotten Habit by Trường Đặng

Being about three quarters of the way through the first month of our semi-unofficial Swedish challenge, I’ve noticed one of the biggest obstacles starting out was that I had almost entirely lost my study habit. With so many other things going on I’d frequently forget to do my vocab study until way late in the day. Then I’d either have to grudgingly accept that I was going to be behind and have to do extra to catch up, or force myself to grind it out before bed when neither my heart nor head were really into it.

As a result I fell a bit behind and have had to play a lot of catch up. (I’ll post a full analysis of how well I did at the end of the month challenge period.) It got me thinking a bit about how hard it could be for people who had no past experience building that habit. After all, I’ve done this all before and have a solid handle on how to bring that daily Memrise habit back. If you struggle to build habits or have never done it before I’m sure it’d be even more difficult.

So here’s how to build a habit that will stick, and how to use it to aid your language learning.

What’s a Habit Anyway?

There is some discussion to what really constitutes a habit, so I figure it’s best to clear up specifically what we’re talking about before we dig into the meat of things. The way we’ll be defining it here is that a habit is an action that you perform without conscious impetus to do so. An action which you would do completely on autopilot and which often would feel very strange to not do.

A couple easy examples are brushing your teeth in the morning or buckling your seat belt when you get into a car. You probably don’t have to tell yourself to do either of these things. For most people it’s entirely automatic to stumble into the bathroom half asleep after waking up and immediately start brushing their teeth. Similarly when you sit down in the car seat you probably reach for the seat belt unconsciously. Both these actions would also feel wrong to skip. You would have to force yourself to not brush your teeth and the fact that you hadn’t would probably grate at you in the back of your mind. Starting to drive off without buckling up would also take a conscious decision and feel very viscerally wrong (I hope).

Both of these things are the kinds of habits we’re talking about. You could maybe also call them ‘compulsions’ although that tends to hold a more negative connotation.

Bad habits follow the same rules. Biting one’s nails is an easy example. A person does it unconsciously, compelled without realizing that they’re doing it, and it would feel viscerally wrong somehow to consciously force themselves to not do it when compelled.

Positive or negative all of the habits we’re talking about here will have these basic qualities. Primarily because all of them follow the same pattern of activation.

How Habits are Triggered

All habits follow the same cyclical pattern of activation and reinforcement. This habit cycle starts with some kind of cue or trigger, the cue or trigger then causes you to unconsciously perform the habitual action, which then provides some kind of reward. It is, in essence, the same kind of positively reinforced classical conditioning used to train animals today. You probably don’t even recognize this Pavlovian response happening (quick aside to note, as an animal lover, that despite the potential value of his research Pavlov was a monster to those dogs), but it’s being built and reinforced every time you engage in the habit.

First comes the cue, something that occurs that triggers your habit response. In the case of brushing your teeth in the morning it’s probably waking up and heading into the bathroom or whatever part of your morning routine that precedes it. That action triggers the behavior in question, brushing your teeth in this case, and then you get the reward. The reward in this case being the personal satisfaction of having avoided future discomfort, or knowing that you’ve improved your appearance, or whatever subtle psychological trigger is present in you for completing that task.

The cue may be something obvious, or it may be something very discreet. In the case of buckling up in the car or brushing your teeth it’s fairly obvious what triggers it, but some habits are caused by more obfuscated forces. For example, an emotional eater might find a snack half finished without even recognizing that they had even felt lonely, bored, or whatever emotion happened to trigger that response.

The reward may be something very obvious as well, if the habit you’re trying to break is having a cookie for dessert every time you finish lunch the reward is pretty obvious – the cookie and all the pleasant hormones that come with a sugary treat. In other instances, brushing your teeth or buckling up for example, the reward may be something you don’t notice like the feeling of contentment, security, and having avoided future danger and all the feel good hormones that releases.

Regardless of whether it’s a positive habit or a negative habit they all follow this same cycle of trigger and reinforcement. The good thing is, once we understand this cycle and how it works, we can manipulate the variables to create more good habits and erase all of our bad ones.

Building a Language Learning Habit

Since I mostly want to focus on using habit creation to aid language learning, I’m going to save how we manipulate the habit cycle to erase bad habits for another article and focus on how to build new habits – specifically ones for language learning.

For our example habit, since it’s the one I had to rebuild, I’m going to choose vocab study. In my case it was using Memrise, but this could be putting some time into Anki or your other SRS of choice, or even a quick study session on Duolingo or a chat with somebody on iTalki. You can substitute any behavior you want in for the habit and play with things to see what works for you.

The first thing we need is something to set off the habit.

Creating a Habit Cue

The easiest way to create a habit cue is to build upon an action that is already habitual, or inevitable enough for one reason or another that you are already certain that it’s going to occur essentially everyday. It’s also important, or at least extremely helpful, to pick a habit that occurs at roughly the same time everyday and to make sure it’s the time of day you want to perform this new habit we’re building.

For me, I wanted to make sure I got to my Memrise practice as early as possible in the day because it’s important to me and I like to tackle the things that are most important as early as possible. I also feel like I study better early than later in the evenings.

To that end, I decided to make my cue sitting down with my morning coffee. I love my coffee and, unless we run out and I don’t realize soon enough to order new beans, Caroline and I both have two cups every morning (burr ground, drip, Chemex – for any fellow coffee nerds). That made it a perfect habit cue for me to utilize. It’s an essentially inevitable part of my routine and it’s first thing in the morning which is what I want.

You can create your own cues at certain times if you don’t have an activity you already habitually do then by setting alarms on your computer, phone, watch or whatever. I personally find this method a little harder to stick to, and in my experience it seems harder to bind the action to the timer in the first place than to bind it to another action, but you can experiment.

Once you’ve got your habit cue, you can move on to creating the actual habit action.

Developing a Habitual Action

One of the biggest mistakes people make when developing an action into a habit is to try to do too much too quickly.

If you were to commit yourself to studying 200 new words per day on Memrise everyday after sitting down with your coffee, you might get a few days in through sheer force of will – but soon you just won’t feel like it. You’ll miss a day, then maybe two or three, and your efforts to build that habit will have been wasted.

Good dog trainers will tell you that when building a response in a dog you want to avoid a ‘miss’ at all costs. A ‘miss’ meaning a failure to perform the behavior. If you’re trying to teach a dog to sit ideally you give the command, the dog sits, you mark the correct behavior with a clicker or similar marker and then give a reward like a treat. If the dog ‘misses’ – does something other than sit like jump up – you don’t keep giving the command, you regress to an easier behavior then work back up.

This is because you want to condition in the cleanest response possible and avoid conditioning in additional, unwanted behaviors or making the desired action you’re pairing with the command less clear. Conditioning your own habits follows similar rules, you want to avoid a miss – in your case failing to perform the new habitual action – at all costs.

The easiest way to ensure that you aren’t going to miss is to start your habitual action out so small that it would make you feel foolish not to do it. So in our case you could make it to learn 5 new words on Memrise. If you need something even easier than that, you could make it just to sit down with your coffee and open the Memrise app.

That’s it. Just open it. You don’t have to do any actual studying if you don’t want to.

That kind of action ensures that you’ll always actually do it. After all, if you’re so lazy or opposed to study that you can’t even be bothered to take two seconds to open the Memrise app on your phone, then you have much bigger problems to address first.

Eventually you can build upon that foundational habit to get to a genuinely productive habit. So after a week or so of just opening up the app, you can bump up to 5 words studied every day. After a week of that, when it feels easy and automatic, make it 10 words per day instead and so on. If you miss, then just regress back to an easier stage until you’ve got a good consistent stretch of hits or successes and then try increasing the load again.

The biggest key here is to start small. Choose something that takes a minimal amount of time, maybe less than 30 seconds, requires almost no effort, and is relevant to the larger habit you’re building. The relevancy is important, conditioning yourself just to pick up your phone might not cut it – you could wind up on Facebook or playing games. Conditioning yourself to open Memrise (or Duolingo, iTalki, whatever) is relevant because it’s a necessary first step to the larger habit we’re gunning for.

Now that we’ve got a habitual action developed and tied to the habit cue we created, now we need to finish things off with a habit reward.

Finding a Habit Reward

Technically speaking you can develop new habits while neglecting this step. This is primarily due to the fact that in general we like accomplishing things and even if you don’t consciously build in a reward for the new behavior your brain will release some of those feel good hormones when you actually do the thing you’ve been wanting to do.

That being said, you can encode the new habits much, much faster by actively building in a habit reward.

A habit reward can be anything at all that makes you feel good. I personally like to make them a little more psychological for most things rather than physical, both for convenience of use and because there’s no worry about negative side effects, but you can choose something physical if that works better for you.

By a psychological reward I mean an active confirmation that you have done something to be celebrated. So using our previous example after you finish your Memrise session for that day (whether that was just opening the app or doing 50 words), you put a big grin on your face, tell yourself that you just did something awesome, give yourself a big thumbs up, then flex and roar out a Randy Savage-esque ‘OH YEAH!’.

Ok, so you don’t have to do all that. The point is to really feel like you’ve done something great though, whatever you need to do to generate that feeling. Your brain really likes that feeling, and will release a lot of chemicals like dopamine that make you feel happy and actively reinforce the behavior we’re trying to habituate.

If you need a physical reward, try to choose something that has other positive effects on your life rather than negative ones. If you use a pint of ice cream as a reward, for example, and wind up eating a pint of ice cream everyday on top of everything else, you might wind up with other problems as a result of your work to create that habit. A small piece of candy or something else sweet but healthier like a piece of fruit are decent options, or using an activity you like as a reward for successfully completing the behavior you’re habituating. Directly physical/chemical rewards like food, drink, or maybe sexual favors from a partner are all potent, but difficult to implement well.

Immediacy can make a big difference as well, which is another reason I prefer psychological/psychosomatic rewards, the longer your reward takes to trigger after the habit you’re developing is completed the less effective it is at reinforcing that habit.

This is one reason habits like going to the gym or eating healthier are notoriously hard to develop – the rewards (being fit, losing weight, etc.) are all far delayed from the habit. If someone gave you $5 immediately after you finished every workout, you’d build that habit in no time.

Putting All of It Together

Doing those things in order will eventually lead you to having a strong study habit conditioned in that you’ll do automatically every morning without thinking about it – like I do now.

In practice, what the above looks like is this – the first week every morning as soon as you sit down with your coffee you open the Memrise app. Immediately after opening it, you may a big deal out of it and jump up and down and celebrate because you’re the best for opening that app. Maybe after the fanfare you study a bit, maybe you just close it. Doesn’t matter.

The next week, having done that every morning for the previous week, you bump it up. Now, after you sit down with your coffee, you immediately open the Memrise app and learn 5 new words. Once those 5 words are done you congratulate yourself like you just beat the Technodrome level on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. Again, maybe you do more words after that, but it’s no big deal if you do or don’t.

The next week, after never failing to do 5 words each day the previous one, you repeat the process but bumped up to 10 words, and so on. Before long when you sit down with your coffee you’ll be pulling Memrise up before you even think about it.

You can use this habit building process for any language learning element to learn faster, and more effectively. That can mean developing a vocab learning habit like what was outlined here, or maybe you build a habit to chat with a native speaker on iTalki or HelloTalk each evening. The point is to build well-ingrained habits that sequentially bring you closer to your goal of speaking a new language.

Have you tried these methods to habituate your language learning process? Have any suggestions to make it easier or areas where you had particular trouble? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Trường Đặng Rok

Learning Swedish – A Segmented Approach

Yellow Cross by Christer

How much Swedish can we learn in 3 months using a new method we’ve never tried before?

In a way, this is equal parts both a personal challenge and also an experiment. We’ve wanted to learn Swedish for a while now, mostly because of my ancestry (I’m told ‘Wik’ comes from the same Swedish root as the ‘vik’ in ‘viking’, and one of our family historians insists that there’s some evidence ancestors way back of ours were vikings).

It’s no fun if you can’t make it a challenge though, so I’ve been considering ways to ramp things up a bit. To add that challenge element I decided to see how far we can get in the language in 3 months with what I would consider a minimal amount of study. What I mean by that is, we’ll only be studying for a few hours each night on the side of our other projects – not spending 8 hours a day cramming.

I think this will be a bit more instructive since in the past when we’ve taken on a language challenge I’ve not only given us a longer timeline (6 months for Korean) but we also made it something of a side job. We dropped a lot of other projects to clear enough time every day to study intensely. It was certainly effective, but I know not everyone has the luxury to do so. Now we’ve got more writing projects to keep on top of and the responsibility of teaching classes at the self-defense school I opened, so we’ve less ability to just drop things and devote ourselves to language study.

Since we’re already making things interesting, I also wanted to change up our methods a little bit as an experiment.

Since we have less time overall, rather than focus on learning as much as possible in vocab and grammar and getting to speaking practice immediately, we’re going to segment things out.

  • Month 1 Vocab – The first month we’re going to spend entirely on vocab acquisition with no real worries about grammar, speaking, or listening practice. Right now the plan is to use an SRS system, likely Memrise, to memorize as many of the most commonly used Swedish words as possible.

    Ideally the goal here is to learn at least the first 1,000 most common words in Swedish before the first month is over so that the foundations are well laid for beginning grammar study.

  • Month 2 Grammar – The second month will be devoted entirely to grammar study. I expect there will be some inevitable continuation of vocab learning – 1,000 words will not be enough even if it’s the 1,000 most common – but learning new words won’t be the focus it’ll just have to come incidentally.

    I’m not certain yet what resources we’ll use to learn things on the grammar side, but I’ll figure it out before the second month begins. I’m certain with the Internet we will have no problem at all finding free, high quality resources for Swedish grammar study. If you do have any recommendations however, leave them in the comments.

  • Month 3 Speaking – The third and last month is when we’ll finally hit the speaking and listening practice. This basically goes against the way we’ve learned all of our other languages (speaking with natives as soon as humanly possible), but it’s this inversion that I think will make it more interesting for me. Knowing I have to wait until the third month to get to the part I really enjoy will probably also be an extra motivating factor.

    I’ll mostly be using iTalki as our primary resource for this last month. I’d like to primarily use language exchange partners where we can give them some English instruction and then they can help us out with Swedish, although if need be I’ll give in and pay for an actual official tutor on iTalki to walk us through speaking practice. It’ll depend largely on how well, or poorly, we feel we’re progressing.

Why the Compartmentalized Approach?

All of our language acquisition experiments so far have followed the same basic learning structure – memorize as much vocab as possible and get to speaking with natives immediately with a little bit of grammar study on the side to help gain a better understanding of things.

This approach has worked very well, particularly I think because language is a skill and the best way to learn a skill is practice, not study. It’s very intensive though. It can be done I’m sure in a more relaxed manner, and a lot of that intensity was likely a manufactured result of the time constraints I placed on us to ramp up the challenge aspect, but it’s a lot for some people to tackle at once.

I think this compartmentalized approach may be a little easier to swallow for some people. Rather than having a variety of things to work on, each month has it’s sole goal. We can throw ourselves into vocab acquisition and vocab acquisition alone for the first month with myopic fervor not worrying about neglecting other aspects of our study.

I think this will make it less stressful, but will it also make it less effective?

I don’t know.

That’s the fun part.

Currently I don’t think it will, but I’ll document our progress as we go along and we’ll see. The nice thing about a challenge like this is, even if I completely fail by general standards to meet the goals I’m setting for myself and it turns out on top of everything else that this different method I’m testing is an extremely inefficient way to learn a language, we’ll still speak more Swedish by the end of it than we do now. So no matter what, we win.

Any thoughts on this challenge / experiment of ours? Resources you think we should look into or use? Just want to cheer us on? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Christer

Learning to Think in your Target Language

Losing my Mind by Mark Auer

One of the biggest obstacles in moving from the beginner or low intermediate levels of a language into more advanced stages is the problem of constantly translating in your head instead of learning to think in your target language. This is a problem that effects everyone and is a common place for people to either give up, or just accept that it’s the way things are when you learn to speak a second language. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Problems with Translating

Even if you don’t have the lofty goal of becoming simultaneous interpreter or doing anything tricky like that with your language learning, having to translate everything you hear or want to say into and out of your target language is a painful, taxing process. There are two big issues with always running everything through the translator in your brain.

The first is that it slows everything way, way down. In a natural conversation between you and another person in your native tongue you don’t have to really think about what the other person is saying. It’s processed unconsciously and you can respond right away. In some cases you’ve probably even responded to people’s questions before you were aware of what you were saying.

That makes conversations quick and fluid, which is what we need.

Conversely when you have to translate everything there’s a bottleneck at both the input and the output. This can be exacerbated in languages like German where you might have to wait through miles of sentences before you finally get that all important verb. Then you have to process that back out into English, come up with your response in English, processes it back into German and say it.

By the time you’ve done all that, particularly if you’re in a group of people or trying to follow a natural group conversation, you may have fallen way behind by the time you even open your mouth to speak.

The second big issue with this method of translating before speaking is that it can make your native language bleed into the language you’re learning making you speak either incorrectly or at the very least in a very unnatural sounding way.

An English speaker for example might ask for a glass of water by saying ‘我可以有一杯水吗’ (lit: I can have a cup of water?) which, to a native Mandarin speaker sounds weird – potentially like you’re asking if you physically have the capability of possessing a cup of water. They’d understand, but it’s very clearly Mandarin crammed into an English box. A more natural way might be ‘能给我一杯水吗’ which is more like ‘Give me a cup of water?’ if you directly translated it into English.

The translating process encourages you to make these kinds of mistakes because you’re not conversing in Mandarin in the real sense, you’re just translating English into Mandarin. It can make it sound like the other person is trying to talk to someone using Google Translate. It’ll get the job done, but it’s clearly going to sound a little off.

What Does it Mean to Learn to Think in your Target Language

Technically speaking when you boil it down to its essence no one ‘thinks’ in any particular language.

What we call ‘thinking’ is an electrochemical reaction in our brains. What we’re talking about here is the sensory experience of ‘hearing’ words as you think. You may say that this means that we do all think in a language, but people who have deaf since birth have no experience of spoken words and don’t think in them, infants who don’t speak a language can still think, and there are plenty of other higher intelligence animal species that no one would argue are ‘thinking’ even though they don’t speak any human languages.

What we’re worried about here though is that combination of your ‘inner voice’ that you think with and your ability to process non-language information directly into and out of a particular language without having to pass it through the translation filter of another primary language.

So how do we get to that point?

Silencing Your Mental Native Tongue

There are a handful of methods I think work particularly well for getting over the natural habit of translating from your native language into your acquired one and back.

  • Speaking Practice with Native Speakers – This, in my opinion, is paramount for successful language learning in general. Find a native speaker as soon as you can, whether in person or online, and start practicing with them. Even if the furthest you can get is “Hello, how are you doing?” that’s still preferable to cloistering yourself with a textbook in fear of embarrassing yourself.

    Get out there and talk to people. The more you do the more you’ll begin to outgrow the habit of mentally translating.

  • Ditch the Dictionary and Make Visual Flashcards – At least, the traditional kind of dictionary. Part of what contributes to the habit of mental translation is that the standard way to learn a new word is to have it defined by its connection to a word in your native language.

    We learn by connections and conditioning. Assuming you’re a native speaker of English, when you hear/see the word ‘water’ you probably mentally picture the physical substance that particular arrangement of sounds symbolizes in English. The problem is, when you’re learning German for example, you might have a flashcard that says ‘Wasser’ on one side and when you flip it over it says ‘water’.

    This conditions you to not think of the physical substance these sounds represent, but rather hearing ‘Wasser’ makes you think of the particular arrangement of sounds that make the word ‘water’, then you have to decode that second arrangement of sounds into the physical thing it symbolizes. This happens relatively quickly, but it still slows things down.

    It also causes a problem when going from English to German, because your brain has to conceptualize the physical thing we call ‘water’, then it has to connect that to the English word that we use to symbolize that physical thing, then it has to dig up what German word was connected to that particular English word. Whereas if you had H2O encoded directly with the German word it would be one less step.

    Using visual flashcards and dictionaries is the way to go to avoid this problem. Rather than have one side say ‘Wasser’ and the other ‘water’, have one side say ‘Wasser’ and then put a picture of water on the other side. A similar idea if you don’t have a visual dictionary handy is to look up words by typing them into a Google image search. That way you learn the word via the image or concept it represents rather than learning it by its equivalent in your native language.

  • Monologuing and Free Writing – It may seem like a small thing, but just yammering to yourself about a random topic in your target language or having times where you sit down and write about whatever you want, or even just journal the day’s activities, can make a big difference in getting over the mental translation problem.

    The key is to make an active effort not to translate as you do it and just talk to yourself in your target tongue without letting your native one creep in.

    I, personally, like to do it out loud when I can. There are added benefits to activating the motoneurons involved in actually speaking the word in the same way that there are benefits in repeating an activity that you want to get particularly good at like shooting a basketball or drawing free hand. You can certainly just talk to yourself in you head though if you’re concerned about people thinking you’re crazy.

    If you find it hard to just talk or write spontaneously without any kind of pre-set topic then try to summarize something you’ve read or watched recently, or pick an easy topic like describing your day or talking about your favorite food. The point isn’t necessarily to produce something noteworthy as it is to drill in that comfort in not translating.

I’m probably forgetting some other methods that work well to silence that inner voice translating things into and out of your native tongue, but these handful should get you well on your way to overcoming it. The sooner you can get out of that translation habit and into thinking in your target language the sooner you’ll be able to produce even more fluid sentence and conversations. If you can think of any you like that I’ve missed, leave a comment and share with everyone!

Photo Credit: Mark Auer

3 Common Language Learning Obstacles

Parkour Visions Adult Obstacle Challenge by Beth Jusino

Facing obstacles can be painful, or it can be a fun challenge – it’s all a matter of attitude.

Learning a new language is a long and involved process and, while it can be a lot of fun most of the time, odds are you’re going to run into some major obstacles.

I always like to take the parkour view of things and think of roadblocks like these as challenges to overcome, but I do recognize that some of them can be extremely discouraging – especially when they slow or halt your progress.

I’ve put together a list of some of the most common obstacles language learners find themselves stuck at and frustrated with from a collection of personal experience and the experiences of all of my language coaching clients along with suggestions for ways to get around, over or through these walls between you and success.

1. I Can Read or Have Learned a Lot, But Still Fall Apart When I Speak

I put this first because it’s probably the most common obstacle I see affecting people who have followed the standard one teacher to twenty students classroom format or have tried to learn on their own through some of the popular at home language learning products.

People study and study and study some more and, after months or even years, feel pretty good about their progress in the language. Maybe they took classes all through college, or bought and completed that home study course that the commercial said NASA / the CIA / whatever-impressive-organization uses. They might not call themselves fluent necessarily, but they feel comfortable saying ‘I speak ,’ rather than just ‘I’m learning .’ Secure in their ability to speak, our intrepid language learner walks into a local market from a country that speaks their target language natively or maybe even steps off a plane in that country.

They strike up a conversation with the first native speaker they meet, eager to flex their new linguistic muscle and, to be honest, probably show off a little. When the native speaker responds something that sounds a little bit like what they studied comes out, if you blended all the sounds together and played it at triple speed.

Our poor language learner panics. They caught a few words, they think, but that was it. Was that a different dialect? What did that one word mean? Bewildered, their mind scrambles to remember the right response and freezes up from the shock of it. They stumble their way through, but in broken sentences and with a lot of ‘um’s. Nothing like the easy flow of all those practice dialogues.

All that time studying, and they feel like they can barely communicate.

If it sounds familiar, or if you haven’t gotten to the ‘I tried talking to a native speaker and wound up looking like a deer in headlights’ stage but see it coming, don’t worry – it happens all the time.

So how do you fix it or avoid it entirely.

Don’t wait to start talking with native speakers.

The biggest problem I have with the standard classroom model or most home courses is that you either get no practice with native speakers or very limited practice with only one or two. Usually the best you can hope for in a class is practice with a native speaker instructor, but their time is divided between you and 19 other people. Most of your other speaking practice will probably be with other students. In home courses you’re lucky if you get anything better than mp3 files to chat with.

You should be talking to as many native speakers as you can as soon as you can. Even if you can only say ‘Hello’ in your target language, go say hi to a native speaker.

It doesn’t have to be in person, finding native speakers to Skype with is easy with sites like iTalki and Lang-8. If you would prefer face to face conversations look on Meetup for groups related to your target language or look on Couchsurfing (you can meet for coffee and chat or if you want a lot of practice opportunities offer to host a traveler that speaks your target language).

The point is to start early and keep talking with native speakers as often as you possibly can.

2. My Vocabulary Isn’t Sufficient to Have a Conversation / I Don’t Know Enough Words

This problem is one that tends to lead directly into that most common issue above – correctly or not people feel like they just don’t have a big enough vocabulary to really talk to natives or use the language so they never try. This turns into a type of self-sabotage because they never allow themselves to get the kind of exposure and real world practice they need to reach their goal.

Fixing this problem is two-fold.

The first aspect of it is realizing that you don’t need a big vocabulary to practice with a native.

If you know a single word, that’s enough. Use it. Then ask the native speaker to tell you more words. It really doesn’t take that much. About 80% of most conversations are made up of only 20% of the lexicon. That means that you don’t need to know how to say words like circumlocution, defenestration, or empiricism in order to talk to 80% of the people you’ll meet. Probably more, honestly. Just jump in and use what you’ve got, filled in with lots of gestures and explanations using more basic words.

The second aspect of fixing it is, well, actually fixing it.

Go choose a SRS program you particularly like – I’m personally fond of Memrise – and find a collection of the 1,000 most common words in your target language. Now that you’ve got that, just practice them on your SRS until you’ve got those 1,000 down. I guarantee you that will be enough vocab for a majority of conversations, and from there you can expand out to the next 1,000 most common and then the next.

3. I Can Have Conversations, But I Want to Sound More Native

While personally I think accent reduction and working toward sounding ‘native’ in a target language is more of a frivolous or tertiary goal compared to actually being able to have fluid conversations, I recognize that it’s something a lot of people would really like to aim for. Whether it’s for business purposes, wanting to move to a different country and fit in better or just for the sheer coolness of being able to speak a second language that well – a lot of people would like to reach that level.

There are a few things to keep in mind here:

  1. 1. This is going to be pretty difficult. Compared to actually learning the language complete accent removal will take a lot more focused, intentional practice. In other words, it’s going to be a lot of work and probably take a while before you get there.

  2. 2. Contrary to what some people would have you believe it is not impossible to completely remove your accent in a language acquired as an adult. You don’t have to have grown up bilingual to speak two languages accent-free – regardless of what people might claim. It just takes a lot of effort.

Since it is something that’s going to take a considerable amount of effort, I highly suggest ensuring that you have some damn good reasons for wanting to remove your accent. Motivationally speaking, if you need to speak a second language accent free to avoid losing your job and winding up on the street you’re going to be a lot more motivated to stick it out through all the grueling work than the guy who decided it’d be kind of cool to be able to speak another language like a native and show off in bars.

If you are willing to put the work get ready to talk to yourself a lot, because your best tools are going to be mimicry and shadowing.

I won’t go in to extreme detail because accent reduction deserve an article (or, probably, a series of them) all to itself. You can get started by going through and deconstructing the phonetic makeup of the language you’re learning. Usually you can do this on Wikipedia, just type in the language you’re learning and the word ‘phonology’. For example here’s Japanese Phonology and Korean Phonology.

From there, you can identify what sounds are identical to those in your native language, what sounds are non-existent in your native language and are completely new to you and, the most difficult, what sounds are similar to ones in your native language but slightly different. I suggest learning IPA if you haven’t already.

Next find native speaker examples of these particular sounds either through music, from native speakers you know or from online via Forvo or a similar site. Once you have them you can plug them into your audio editor of choice (I personally like Audacity because it’s functional and free) and then slow the audio down enough to clearly identify the sounds but not so much that you distort them.

Then practice. Practice. Practice and…. maybe practice.

Shadowing is an easy way to get practice on your own, although I also suggest finding a native speaker who can listen and then correct the nuances. A dedicated speech coach would be ideal, but they tend to be pricey.

There are certainly more obstacles people run into, but these three seem to come up frequently. If you can think of any others you’d like to see addressed, or have more questions on how to get over these, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Beth Jusino

How We Learned Fluent Korean in 6 Months

Hangeul Day by The Republic of Korea

Learning fluent Korean in a 6 month timeline was one of the first challenges we took on back when we started Road to Epic – it was a big success and a lot of what we learned during the experience has influenced our articles on language learning since.

Recent renewed interest in the challenge has made me realize though that I never really did a satisfactory job of outlining exactly how we did it. That was a big oversight on my part, so I’m posting this to make up for it and lay out exactly what all we did to meet our six month deadline successfully.

I’m going to split it into three sections because that’s essentially how we broke things down.

The Vocabulary

Even when I’m not working under the constraints of a deadline, I don’t like to waste time. There are just way way too many words out there to try to learn all or even most of them – particularly in 6 months. Thankfully, you don’t need to know much vocabulary to be fluent.

We applied the 80/20 principle and focused on the most commonly used couple thousand words only, that way we were learning the words that we would be most likely to hear and use the most first and ignoring extraneous vocab like ‘defenestration’ that probably won’t come up much.

In my experience having a good handle on the first 3,000 most common words or so gives you the tools to have a fluent conversation 90% or more of the time so that’s what we focused on. 3,000 words divided into six months comes out to about 17 words per day which is totally reasonable. We learned 1,000 words in one month for a bit of a sub-challenge and, while definitely a bit work-intensive, it wasn’t all that painful to accomplish. 3,000 in six months isn’t bad at all.

To do the actual learning part we used a combination of memory hooks and spaced repetition system (SRS) learning.

At the time we mostly used Anki which you can download here.

Anki uses a spaced repetition system to show you flashcards in tailored intervals to maximize long term retention. There’s a huge library of pre-made flashcard decks and we simply chose the best looking deck of the most commonly used Korean words.

While we didn’t use it at the time, Memrise has since come out with a free iOS and Android app that uses a similar spaced repetition system but with crowd sourced pre-made memory hooks so you don’t have to come up with your own.

I currently prefer Memrise to Anki, mostly because of the convenience factor, but there’s no reason you can’t use both or whichever one you personally prefer.

Once we had our SRS program and our decks of the most common Korean words we scheduled set times everyday to practice on them just like we set scheduled times to work out.

The Grammar

For the grammar we were really only concerned initially with the very basics. Like with the vocab we made a point of focusing on the most common grammatical points first (simple present tense declaratives, interrogatives, etc.) and worried about the more complicated stuff as it came up (conditionals, subjunctives, etc.).

One of the biggest helps was one of our Korean friends who was kind enough to translate a bunch of example sentences for me that I wrote specifically to tease out some common grammatical points. I have a background in linguistics, so I knew what to look for and wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach for most people unless you’re into grammar on its own. If you do want to find someone to translate some example sentences for you but don’t know anyone who speaks your target language I recommend iTalki and Lang-8 which we’ll get to in the next section on practice.

What I would recommend is a combination of Talk To Me In Korean and Monash University’s My Korean.

Talk To Me In Korean (henceforth TTMIK because I’m lazy) is one of my absolute favorite resources for Korean language learning. On their site at TalkToMeInKorean.com they have a ton of excellent grammar lessons. We jumped around quite a bit since we knew what we wanted to target first and had the most questions about, but you can do the lessons in order if you’re not concerned about specific things.

My Korean is a free textbook put out by Monash University. You can download it here for free. We used My Korean similarly to how we used TTMIK, mostly jumping around and targeting things we specifically wanted to practice or learn. Again though you can go cover to cover and get a ton out of it. It’s one of the best Korean textbooks we’ve come across.

Like the vocab practice we had an hour or so set aside each night of our six months to either go back over a grammatical point we were still struggling with or to learn a new one that we hadn’t gone over yet.

The Practice

Last but absolutely not least comes the actual practice.

If your goal is fluency, i.e. being able to carry on a casual, fluid conversation with a minimal amount of breaks, then practice is just as important as the other two above. Speaking a language is a skill and just like how you can’t learn to swim by reading lots of tutorials and never getting in a pool you can’t learn to be fluent by doing all studying and no practice.

In our case we made heavy use of our native Korean speaking friends alongside the sites iTalki and Lang-8.

iTalki is an excellent resource that you can use to find native speakers to practice with or even dedicated language teachers you can have remote lessons with over Skype.

In our case we used a pretty even mix of both. We didn’t have time scheduled everyday for Skype sessions, but we had them as often as possible and filled in conversations with our local friends as much as we could.

We used Lang-8 as often as possible as well by writing posts on there using whatever grammar item we were learning at that point as much as possible. That gave us a way to practice them while still putting a little thought into things and get corrections from native speakers in a written form that we could save long term.

In addition to these three areas there was a lot of passive learning (watching Korean media, listening to Korean music, reading Korean news and books, etc.) but I don’t consider these things to be nearly as important a the dedicated and focused learning and practice.

Have any other questions about what we did or any suggestions of things you’d add to help other learners? Any good resources for people learning something other than Korean? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: The Republic of Korea

Stop Thinking Every Little Bit Counts

African Pygmy Hedgehog by Adam Foster

Little things may be cute, but they’re not always helpful.

Not only is thinking it probably false in relation to whatever it is you’re working toward, it’s probably directly sabotaging your progress.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this way – stories of how every little bit helped someone in their endeavor are popular. You hear about candidates winning by a single vote, or people taking small, seemingly insignificant steps toward their goals which add up over time into something huge. People like to hear about these types of things.

The problem is it puts the focus on the wrong areas and leads people to make bad prioritization. Bad prioritization leads to failed goals.

The Forest for the Trees

The realms of fitness, time management and language learning are rife with tips, tricks and advice – I directly contribute to all of it.

If you approach this huge volume of information with the mindset that ‘every little bit helps’ then you’re going to get into some trouble because there’s going to be a lot of little bits to follow.

This may not seem like a bad thing. You might figure if you can cram together enough easy tricks you can lose those ten pounds or learn a new language without much extra effort, but you have to remember that you have a finite amount of resources. You don’t have unlimited time, energy or willpower. You can’t do it all.

You have to prioritize.

Imagine you have someone trying to lose weight. She has a terrible diet, eats lots of junk food and drinks nothing but soft drinks. She’s also completely sedentary and sits at a desk all day.

She reads a bunch of tips online and decides to walk an extra five minutes everyday, switches to sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair, adds cinnamon to her cereal every morning because she heard it helps blunt insulin, takes green tea capsules and cranks her showers extra cold to take care of that brown fat.

Honestly, you could pick ten or fifteen more things she could do that I hear recommended under the ‘Every Little Bit Helps’ standard, but I’ll keep it there for brevity’s sake.

After six months, all things being equal, she’ll likely be heavier than when she started.

The reason for this is simple, she ignored the big important stuff in favor of a bunch of small changes that didn’t add up to much but took all her resources.

Remember the 80/20 rule – roughly 80% of your results are going to come from 20% of your efforts, so if you want to make the most progress in the shortest amount of time you should focus on the high return variables in the 20% rather than the low return variables that fall in the 80% of things that will only get you 20% of your results.

Back to our weight loss example, imagine our subject combines those extra five minutes per day and maybe skips a TV show or two to make time for three 30 minute lifting sessions per week. She focuses on heavy, compound lifts to make sure she gets the most out of her time spent. Rather than make a hundred little changes to her diet like adding cinnamon to things and popping a million supplements she ditches soft drinks and tracks her calories or macros.

Those two large changes, adding in three lifting sessions per week and controlling her macros, will net her orders of magnitude more progress than all the little changes combined.

Language learning is no different. If you’re spending all your time on little tips or focusing too hard on passive learning like listening to target language music all the time but neglecting the important things like actually using the target language to talk to people – you won’t get very far.

Every little bit doesn’t count if you ignore the important stuff. Hit the big variables first if you want to succeed. (Tweet that.)

There’s a story I’ve heard a thousand times that I kind of hate to repeat here but I think it makes a good point.

A guy had a big jar, some large rocks, some gravel and some sand. When he tried to fill it with the sand and gravel first the big rocks wouldn’t fit. When he put the big rocks in first and then the smaller gravel and sand everything fit because the smaller stuff filled in the gaps.

The point of that story is usually something to the effect of ‘Worry about the big things first and the small stuff will fall into place’. I’d rework it a bit to be ‘Focus on the things with the biggest return first, then worry about all the little stuff.’

There’s certainly a time and a place for small tweaks like meal timing, cinnamon for glucose regulation, & reading blogs on how to make the best flashcards ever – but that time can only come after you’ve dealt with the big stuff.

Get your priorities in order and stop telling yourself every little bit counts.

You’ll get a lot farther a lot more quickly.

Have you ever gotten bogged down by minutiae and lost sight of the important stuff? How’d you get over it? Any advice for other people overwhelmed by all the little things? Leave a comment.

Photo Credit: Adam Foster