What Scientists Know About Learning Languages that You Probably Don’t

An ongoing list of hacks for learning languages — what really works best based on studies from cognitive science, psychology, linguistics, and education science

I’ve compiled dozens of strategies from scientific studies on language learning from multiple resources over the years, and I may as well make them public for you here, dear language voyagers.

This includes hacks for learning more quickly and efficiently, as well as for retaining what you learn over the long term. As we’ll see, it’s necessary to incorporate a fair amount of fun as well for any of this to work.

Who this is for: Adults like me — especially the self-motivated — hoping to learn any language(s), and who want to know which methods are more scientifically proven, and which less so.

This is for language learners, who like me, just want to know what truly works best.

How to use this: As you’ll see, in many cases the best language learning methods are highly personal, so pick and choose from the ideas touted by science below. But that said, you’re likely doing something wrong, or stand to could further optimize your learning for your situation and goals, so give do give these ideas a chance, even if you’re sceptical. And report back in the comments!

Who am I to run my mouth: A writer on language learning, former language teacher, an avid and constant learner and traveler, but an amateur — I’m by no means a scientist, nor do I have a particular preference in terms of the various currents in language acquisition research. I do try to take in the best knowledge from any field. Details below.

Updates: I do not ever intend to finish this article; I will continue to add to, delete from, and change it as I delve into the best research on language learning.

Yes you can: I hope this will provide motivation for those who’d like to set out on a language journey, and in particular provide new hope to those hitting inevitable roadblocks. Better optimizing your language learning strategies based on science is a great way to overcome those blocks.

This and the illustration above by Johanna Thomé de Souza.

Update History of This Article

This article was first published on April 9, 2020.

My Experience & Qualifications — and Passion for Constant Language Learning

I’ve been a nomad for most of the last 15-20 years, and lost in one language or another. Drawing of me griping in French by the inimitable Johanna Thomé de Souza.

I freelance as a pedagogical designer and have been doing so for more than 10 years, so I’m quite familiar with various theories on what teaching / learning strategies work best. I also penned many articles on learning grammar for various language sites (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.).

On this — my own — site I write about general language learning strategies and other, less popular (presumably less-profitable) languages that I know well, particularly Catalan and Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian. And I cover my silly forays into minimally communicative language learning (which I wish more people would try, it’s a blast!) in lots of languages.

I learned all of my languages in high school or after, and I’ve been constantly learning, reviewing, and improving multiple languages throughout my adult life. I also taught English and Spanish for a time online and in Parisian public schools.

I’m English mother tongue and fluent in the languages I mention writing about in the paragraphs above, plus I can do a smattering of bullshit in a few others.

Major Sources and Further Reading

I highly recommend the following books, which have give excellent background on language learning, and helped immeasurably as I put this article together.

Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz
I felt overall encouraged through this book about what cognitive science has to say about learning language as an adult, even an older adult; it contains both some cheerleading and some practical strategies based on science; an easy read
The linguists & language teachers' take
How Languages Are Learned (4th Ed.) by Patsy Lightbrown and Nina Spada
My favorite overview of the current thinking on teaching languages; also generously discusses various cultural and personal preferences for learning from a scientific perspective

I cite these books throughout the article below where relevant, as well as individual studies and other articles and books. But these books would be my recommended starting points.

I also liked and have fully reviewed Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It. It draws on some scientific studies such concerning memorization strategies as I’ll mention below, but is mainly a personal approach from an adapt language hacker.

The full list of acquisitional linguistics and cognitive science studies, books, and other references is at the bottom in the footnotes.

How Hard Is It to Learn a Language?

It depends, obviously, based on the person, the method, the language itself, and more. But keep in mind the following points.

No, You Can’t Get Fluent in a Few Months, Poking at an App, Passively as You Drive, Etc. — the Myths of Easy Learning

Far too many books and websites market hacks that make it sound like you can learn a language in three months, or passively through some magic podcast, or whatever. The truth is that second-language learning is real work for adults. If you’re living in an environment where you don’t generally hear Spanish, you need a combination of both immense will and lots of practice (preferably daily) to reach reasonable goals like being able to carry on a conversation that goes beyond superficial junk.

As Roberts and Kreuz1Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above put it, “with the exception of certain people we might call savants, anyone who has ever learned another language as an adult did so only as the result of real effort”. But there is still a wonderful promise in that — that real fluency is possible for adults, and that the process to getting there is also rewarding and fun itself, if done right.

That’s why if you don’t actually enjoy language learning, and don’t need it, you shouldn’t bother. There’s no bigger cheerleader for language learning out there than me, but be realistic before you dive in and ensure that you’ll actually enjoy the (long!) process. And remember too that even once you have “finished” learning a language you’re never really done — just as you hopefully continue to learn vocabulary and refine your ability to express yourself in your mother tongue, you’ll want to do that in any other languages you learn too.

How Long Will It Take, How Fluent Will You Be, and Is Your Language-Learning Fantasy Even Possible?

People almost always underestimate how long it will take to learn a language and how much work it will take, and they overestimate the fluency that they will achieve. (The unrealistic marketing of language software and materials mentioned in the last section doesn’t help.) 

Some of this fantasy is actually good; motivation is a key to learning. But we don’t want to get delusional. Many learners’ overambitious plans can lead to eventual frustration when things don’t go as planned, and then quitting the whole project.

For example, if you only have a few months to study Polish and fantasize about being able to fluently present a story about the bride and groom at a Polish wedding — get real. You’re likely to get bogged down with the first whiff of irregular verbs and cases, get frustrated, and give up the whole thing. But you certainly could learn some key phrases for weddings and toasting in Polish by then, and even enough to make a bit of small talk with the non-English-speaking relatives.

The tendency to underestimate the time and effort you’ll need is called the planning fallacy, and was explained in a psychological study2Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross: “Exploring the Planning Fallacy: Why People Underestimate their Task Completion Times”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994 that looked at people’s estimations of task completion times. Even experts are also shown to be terrible at this sort of estimating.3Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky: “Intuitive Prediction: Biases and Corrective Procedures”, Advanced Decision Technology, 19774Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above

Don’t fall into those traps; in the end they’ll just make you frustrated. I have plenty of friends with big dreams who dive into a language and then can’t stand not reaching them immediately and give up. Often they go through cycles of this with various languages or even the same language.

Fortunately, there are better ways to dream and to plan your language learning. The following sections will help you create realistic, motivating plans.

How to Make Successful Language Learning Plans

A little bit of realistic planning can save you a lot of time and struggle—and above all help you have something you can stick with.

Visualize or Write Out Your Plan — Your Day-to-Day Process, Not Your End Goal

One step at a time, baby

No, in spite of the spiritual and self-help nonsense out there, visualizing success will not make it appear, any more than it will bring a unicorn to your doorstep.

Research shows that this type of visualization of success doesn’t work, but that “mental simulation” of the “process for reaching a goal” does.5David A.Taylor, S. E., Pham, L. B., Rivkin, I. D., & Armor, D. A. (1998), Harnessing the Imagination: Mental Simulation, Self-Regulation, and Coping, American Psychologist, 53(4), 429–439. 1998. So for us language learners, we’re much better off focusing on and fantasizing about the steps in the process (which should be fun and interesting in themselves).

Focus on visualizing your plan for day-to-day study progress — and keep that separate from long-term fluency goals

This means, as suggested in Becoming Fluent6Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above7Kindle loc. 294, you can separate out the reasons you want to learn from the ways that you hope to do so. That is, enjoy the fantasies of flirting in French, but then keep those separate from the day-to-day plans you have to, say, spend 15 minutes on an app, your schedule of three half-hour French classes per week online, and a half-hour study time between each class. That later plan is the one you should focus on, and the one that will provide you a framework, enjoyment, and motivation when the going gets rough.

Visualizing this plan not only makes it more concrete and more doable, it can reduce stress when you’re actually in the midst of your battles with French verb charts.

Set Realistic-but-Ambitious, Specific, Short-Term Goals

There’s plenty of research out there about how goal-setting can help people achieve more.8Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above9Kindle loc. 38210Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 15, no. 5, 2006, pp. 265–268. JSTOR. But it’s not just about reaching for the stars — anything but. Learners’ goals for languages tend to be vague and not particularly actionable. Here’s what could make them better:

  • Aim high, but also within the realm of what you can actually achieve. High goals are fun to shoot for but only if you can actually stand a chance of hitting them; otherwise they lead to frustration.
  • Be specific. Being “fluent” is not a specific goal, being able to read and discuss a Céline novel is.
  • Focus on the short term. If you have a long-term goal, divide it up into achievable short-term goals, say for the next week or the next month.

Putting these together, the goal of “go from zero to one-hundred-percent fluent Spanish in six months” is destined to fail — it’s unrealistic, vague, and long-term.

Better goals: “Be able to order a variety of tacos and mezcals at the local cantina by Friday night” or “be able to use the 20 most popular irregular verbs in the present tense in a conversation with my teacher by the end of the month”.

Frame Your Goals as Challenges — Not Threats

A study on goal setting has found that learning goals that are framed as personal challenges lead to better performance results than goals frames as threats.11Drach-Zahavy, Anat & Erez, Miriam. Challenge versus Threat Effects on the Goal-Performance Relationship. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 2002.

As language learners, this means were likelier to make more progress if we identify specific tasks we’d like to be able to accomplish in a language rather than worry about failing a test or looking like a fool in a new culture.

Many learners for example get obsessed with making sure they have a certain level of a language (such as CEFR levels in Europe — A1, A2, B1, etc.) for a job or just as a matter of personal pride. But worrying that you won’t get to an “A2 level in German” by a certain date isn’t likely to lead you to as positive performance as if you frame it as specific positive goals that are part of the A2 level of communication: say, being able to order beer and schnitzel or ask your sleeping partner for a blanket in German.

Doesn’t that sound like more fun, too?

Get an Accountability Buddy

While you might think you’d learn better on your own, we’re social animals, and we simply achieve more when we work with others and are accountable to each other for our performance.

In the academic literature one oft-cited study showing this found that high school students did the best on a series of study assignments and quizzes when they not only studied with a partner but were also graded together with the partner and received a reward (payment) based on the total score of both. This improved performance compared to going it alone.12Robert E. Slavin & Allen M. Tanner (1979) Effects of Cooperative Reward Structures and Individual Accountability on Productivity and Learning, The Journal of Educational Research, 72:5, 294-298.

Another study with a fitness app found that by engineering competition into the mix along with social accountability, results could be further increased.13Chen, Yu & Jun, Zhang & Pu, Pearl. (2014). Exploring social accountability for pervasive fitness apps. UBICOMM 2014 – 8th International Conference on Mobile Ubiquitous Computing, Systems, Services and Technologies. 221-226. So if you can find a way to compete with your accountability buddy (tricky for languages, I know!), you may find this drives you further.

I think the ideal way to harness this in language learning is to find a study partner who speaks your target language natively, and is interested in learning your language; this person can be not just a motivation to keep working (an accountability buddy) but also someone you can learn from in exchange for helping them with your language.

But your accountability buddy could also be a person learning the same language as you; learning socially has its advantages as shown in the next section.

Learn Socially: Set Out on the Adventure with Others

One study offered graduate students in an online course the option of a peer review process with other students in the course changed outcomes.14Madland, C. & Richards, G. (2016). Enhancing Student-Student Online Interaction: Exploring the Study Buddy Peer Review ActivityInternational Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning17 (3), 157–175. Here, having a study buddy for online learning was shown to help learners:

  • Go deeper into the subject
  • Be more engaged
  • Be considered worthwhile and recommendable by learners who tried it

The few learners who did not appreciate the experience cited a lack of commitment from their study partner, so finding someone who is actually committed to the learning project is key.

A key aspect of this study is that it showed the value of social cohesion in learning, which can be harder to achieve when learning at a distance.

Getting All in Your Head: Your Own Shame and Hesitancy Can Be Your Biggest Obstacle

Adults in particular can fear failure and sounding stupid, compared to children, and even more so sometimes for older adults.

One study suggests adapting learning strategies in order to reduce anxiety and build self-confidence.15Schleppegrell, Mary. The Older Language Learner. ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC. 1987-09-00. In cases where this is an issue, it suggests:

  • Not going overboard with correction of pronunciation and other errors, and not expecting perfectly error-free speech
  • Studying and practicing with other learners
  • Recognizing accomplishments and progress as they occur
  • Focusing on structures that are immediately relevant to learners’ lives
  • Variety and adapting methods to the styles that one is used to

Many of these are commented on further throughout this article — they can do much more than help confidence.

Have a Drink to Improve Pronunciation

A little bit of alcohol improved my level of disinhibition with French vowels, as shown in this cartoon by my French roommate Johanna Thomé da Souza. Note that there were some grammar errors however, which one hopes I would not have made while sober.

Another thing that can help with shame and hesitancy is drinking. I’m serious, and so were the scientists who got students drunk to see if they could learn languages better. It worked too, at least for reducing the shame tied to making weird sounds with one’s mouth in a new tongue.

Where drinking is probably overrated is in helping you put sentences together with proper grammar, and it’s quite unlikely to improve memory. But it can improve your self-perception of how well you speak, and sometimes that kick in the pants is needed to get you comfortable and able to make progress when you’re more sober.

Bonus points if you can disinhibit without booze, through dance, mindfulness, etc. But go for a drink or two from time to time in your target tongue if it helps you feel better about your progress. Just watch out for purposefully handicapping yourself, as in the next section.

Beat Back Self-Handicapping Strategies (Obstacles on Which You Can Blame Failure)

It can be scary to invest a lot of time and effort into a huge project like learning a language — your results might not be what you’re hoping for, and the person to blame will ultimately be yourself. “Research has shown that individuals will do almost anything to avoid a downward revision in their perceptions of themselves,” as Roberts and Kreuz put it.16Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above

Some people avoid that possible scenario through not studying that hard in one way or another, so that failure can be blamed on not having given full time and effort, rather than one’s own lack of talent. This is obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy and one that we should avoid at all costs. Aside from just giving it our all, it can help to remember to find the joy in the learning project itself, so that we know we are embarking on something worthwhile for ourselves aside from whatever success or failure we meet in terms of specific goals.

Another way we can set yourself up for failure through self-handicapping is alcohol and other drugs. A study on alcohol and underachievement showed that this is one way to “externalize” poor performance — blame it on something else.17Jones, E. E., & Berglas, S. (1978). Control of Attributions about the Self Through Self-handicapping Strategies: The Appeal of Alcohol and the Role of Underachievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4(2), 200–206. So if you think you “need” to be drunk to speak Portuguese, and then you flub your verb conjugations because you’re drunk, this might well be what you’re doing.

The Problem of Background Noise When Learning Languages

Even and especially when speaking our native languages, we don’t actually understand every syllable or every word. Fortunately there is a lot of redundancy in language and this helps our brains to fill in the gaps.

In Becoming Fluent,18Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above Roberts and Kreuz call this top-down processing. We adults have the advantage of more life experience that can help us better fill in the gaps of what we miss in a conversation, and this talent applies to hearing second languages as well. That said, we obviously don’t have as much experience in the language as a native speaker, so missing a sound or two can really imperil meaning. And the earlier we are in our language learning process, the harder this is.

My strategies, especially useful for when beginning in a language:

  • Find a very quiet space for any language practice, and if doing a class or practice online ensure you use headphones and a have a solid internet connection if possible.
  • When going out in a group of people who speak your target language, try to sit in the middle of the group, so that you get the full volume of people on each side, and can also intervene more easily to ask for repetition when necessary.
  • You can also harness what is called “bottom-up processing” in cognitive science — taking in information from your five senses to help you put together the meaning of what’s being said. This is another reason to use video calling in online classes — it gives you the extra clues from movement and facial expressions.

The Need for Flexibility

There’s a tendency for language learners to stick to slavishly to a learning plan that isn’t working out. It’s important to recognize that all sorts of learning styles and methods can be successful, and the right thing for you might not be what another learner is doing, or what one particular teacher suggests. 19Lightbown, Patsy., and Nina Margaret Spada. How Languages Are Learned. 4th ed. Oxford [England] ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, above 

Perhaps for example a particular Spanish app is annoying, or you never find time for it. Instead of looking for a different Spanish app, consider whether learning via app may just not work for you at all, and you need to try a totally different tack, like a good Spanish book, or a conversation group, or an online class.

This is referred to in Becoming Fluent20Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above as “anchoring and adjustment”; we set our expectations to one particular thing and then adjust as needed, without considering whether the whole plan is worth letting go of.

Test Yourself: An Effective Way to Improve Recall — Even if it Reminds You of the Drudgery of School

There is a temptation when we’re learning on our own to just enjoy books, songs, and conversations in our target language, and not doing any of the horrors associated with schooling, like tests. But there’s a true value in testing that we can harness, and we can do so without the pain.

The Power of Testing and How to Use it to Improve Language Study

A study published in Science showed that repeated testing (being forced to come up with a word to fill in a blank) led to greater than 150% improvements in long-term retention.21Jeffrey D. Karpicke, Henry L. Roediger III, The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning, Science, February 15, 2008: 966-968.

On the other hand, the experiment also showed that there is no benefit from studying material once you are already able to recall it. So that actual act of being forced to fill in the blank once you already know something is the secret sauce to ensuring that the vocabulary word or whatever sticks.

This shows that memory is not just about repetition — seeing and hearing that Spanish word in different contexts. It’s much better to be forced to engage and retrieve the material from the back of your noggin.

Students who were involved in the study (learning Swahili vocabulary words) did not seem to understand how much the testing aspect was helpful, and predicted the same results for themselves regardless of whether they were getting the magic benefits of being tested. This is perhaps why people rarely use self-testing strategies, and when they do, they use it to see how well they’re doing rather than as a learning strategy itself.

Another study by the same authors showed that getting feedback on which answers were right and which were wrong was a key to how the testing enhanced performance.22Jeffrey D. Karpicke, Henry L. Roediger III, Correcting a metacognitive error: Feedback increases retention of low-confidence correct responsesJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34(4), 918–928. 2008. Feedback allows you to realize when you have the right answer (but were not quite completely sure), as well as to realize when you’re wrong and re-memorize to replace your mistake.

Here’s how language hackers can apply this for more effective language acquisition:

  1. Most language learning apps have tests, like Duolingo and Anki. Realize that these integrated tests and games and challenges are actually the key part of reinforcing what you’ve learned so that you’ll be able to recall it later. The app will have settings that ideally bring the word back just before you’re likely to forget it. “We’re aiming for the point where a dash of difficulty will provide just the right amount of spice and keep the game interesting,” Gabriel Wyner writes in Fluent Forever23Gabriel Wyner: Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It, Harmony, 2014, above. “If we can find it, we’ll get twice as much benefit for our time, and we’ll have much more fun in the process.” These apps should do this for you automatically, but you can fine-tune the settings if you’re frequently forgetting, or if it seems too easy.
  2. Get tutors, teachers, and language practice partners to force you to come up with your own conjugations and corrections, rather than letting them finish a sentence that you are struggling with for you. Have them flag errors but make you correct them yourself if possible — this is a form of testing.
  3. Take online quizzes and tests in language books, and do it for their learning power, not for bragging rights or to check your level.
  4. Make sure you’re always checking your answers — this ensures both that you’re not memorizing mistakes, and that you have more confidence in the things you have learned correctly. Both aspects improve memory performance over the long term.

For more on testing, there is an overview of the research as of 2006 by Jeffery Karpicke and Henry Roediger.24Roediger, Henry & Karpicke, Jeffrey. (2006). The Power of Testing Memory Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 1. 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00012.x.

Which Types of Tests Work Best for Improving Memorization?

In a synthesis of 120 studies on the effects of practice testing, a great meta-study describes how basically any form of testing can work to aid memory. But of course some methods work better than others.25John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2013. Here’s what it suggests.

  1. Free-recall practice: This means just coming up with the vocabulary words without any sort of prompting, and generally performed better than other testing methods in studies.
  2. Fill-in-the-blank practice: This comes in second, and means for example being able to give the missing word in a sentence, without any suggested options.
  3. Recognition: This is weaker, and means just being able for example to recognize the word when you see or hear it and know what it means.

The rule of thumb for language learners is that the more you are forced to come up with on your own (the more “generative” the practice test), the stronger your memories of the new vocabulary that you are working on. So when you have read about a new bit of vocabulary or learned the names of five fruits, for example, put your learning materials away and see if you can write a short paragraph using what you’ve learned, or say something to a language partner or teacher.

Doing A Little Bit Each Day Is Better than a Lot All at Once

Cramming doesn’t help you maintain memory for the long term, and shorter practice sessions keep you from getting in an unfocused rut where you’re not quite sure what you’re even studying — Chinese characters can become hazy and indecipherable if you stare at them for too long, and you’ll no longer be making the best of your practice time.

Studies show, and experienced language learners always agree, that 15 minutes four times a week is far superior to one hour per week. In the literature, this is put as distributed practice being superior to massed practice. 26Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above27Kindle loc. 365

Not surprisingly, the more you repeat something like a practice test of vocabulary, the better you learn it. But it is also much better to test yourself in separate practice sessions and to have some time pass between them.28John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2013.

Create Stronger Memories of Words and Grammar Harnessing Levels of Processing

However you cut it, language learning involves remembering a lot of new stuff. One way that scientists have reliably found to create stronger memories is to harness deeper levels of processing.

There are both shallow and deep levels of processing a new word. Shallow processing would be noticing that it’s a long word with a lot of consonants. To go a bit deeper, we might actually sound the word out. Deeper still, we understand the concept — what the word means and how it’s used. And deepest of all, we explore our personal relationship to the word.

What scientists have reliably demonstrated many times is that the more deeply we process something, the longer we remember it.

This understanding of depth of processing leading to memory permanence was first explored in a study by Fregus I.M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 197229Fregus I.M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart, “Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research”, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11, 671-684, 1972., and later work further developed the power of making a personal connection with what you’re learning.30Symons, Cynthia S. and Johnson, Blair T., “The Self-Reference Effect in Memory: A Meta-Analysis” (1997). CHIP Documents. 9. The highly readable book Fluent Forever31Gabriel Wyner: Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It, Harmony, 2014, above summarizes the research’s application for language learners as follows:

You can make foreign words memorable by doing three things:

1. Learn the sound system of your language

2. Bind those sounds to images

3. Bind those images to your past experiences

Gabriel Wyner

For example, in reading a Kindle book to improve and maintain my French, I recently had to look up the word se coltiner (to lug, lug about, put up with) and decided I ought to know it. But just looking at the shapes of those letters on the page (shallow processing) isn’t enough to make me remember it the next time I see it, let alone use it with my French pals at the next relevant opportunity. It’s not exactly an everyday word that I would learn through repetition, even if I were staying in a French-speaking area right now. I’m at high risk of forgetting it.

I need to process se coltiner at a deeper level. So I:

1. Hear it pronounced on Forvo.com:

2. I find an image that connects to this concept. I could find some funny or compelling images on Google Images, but personal is even more memorable, so I search my Google Photos archive for “suitcase” and this nice picture of me with too much luggage comes up from 2008, before I’d perfected my minimalism.

My very personal connection: Avant de devenir voyageur minimaliste, je me suis coltiné trop de valises. — Before I became a minimalist traveller, I lugged around too many suitcases.

Now I can write a sentence and put it in my Anki flashcard deck with the picture and sound.

Front:

Avant de devenir voyageur minimaliste, je me suis ________ trop de valises.

Back:

coltiné

It takes a little bit more time, but now I’ve had a deeper experience and will likely never forget the word (and if I do, I’ve got a compelling card in Anki that will make sure it comes back).

Another interesting way to use images for languages is suggested in Improving Memory and Study Skills: You can bind the image of the target-language word to a similar-sounding word in your own language. For example, the French nappe means “tablecloth” but sounds like the English “nap”. You can therefore for instance picture yourself taking a nap on a tablecloth, and from there you might never forget the word again. Such image linking in language learning has shown results in more than 50 studies.32Douglas Herrmann, Douglas Raybeck, and Michael Gruneberg: Improving Memory and Study Skills, Hogrefe and Huber Publishers, 2002

Find Your Best Time to Learn Languages

The flashcard app Anki (web/Android/Apple) offers statistics that can, among other things, help you determine when you seem to be at your best in terms of coming up with the right answer in your language study.

Below for example are the stats for my Serbian flashcard deck in Anki. (Serbian is the language that has consumed the most time for me.)

I should note that Anki says I study on average for 8.0 minutes per day, and that I have study on 70% of days. I’ve been persistent over the years, but certainly happy to take days off. And I’m not devoting a huge chunk of my life to memorization, but this does add up to knowing quite a lot of Serbian vocabulary over the the years.

My hourly breakdown in Anki for Serbian shows that I am least likely to give the correct answer at about 7pm and in the hours after, and my highest performance, unsurprisingly to me, is in the mornings. I’m a morning person. I seem to do surprisingly well when reviewing in the middle of the night — say if I can’t sleep.

You can go with the stats or, like me, choose to fight them. I actually love to do my online language classes at about 19:00 when I’m apparently at my worst, because language learning is the lowest priority thing I need to do with my brain each day — writing here and for clients comes first. It’s nice to know that when I’m writing in the morning is also when I apparently also tend to have the best recall for words.

Change Up Your Learning Strategies From Time to Time

Maybe you read about the best way to learn languages in this article, or even in some lesser website. That doesn’t mean that any one way is actually the best, or better put, the best for you. If you try a particular strategy and it’s not working out, give up! And try something else — totally different or just with adjustments for your style and goals.

There is a tendency for language learners to make themselves slaves to a self-learning course or especially institutional courses that they sign up for. But if whatever you’re doing isn’t helping you meet those very specific goals that you’ve identified, consider whether you’re on the right path.33Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, The MIT Press, 2017, above34Kindle loc. 312 Don’t succumb to the sunk cost fallacy.

I notice this in particular with people who sign up for language classes online. Often they sign up for just one teacher, and even if they have problems with that teacher — say, for example, the teacher fails to stay in the target language Italian and keeps getting sidetracked telling stories in English — they continue the classes. It’s fine to switch teachers or to give up one particular way of learning entirely that doesn’t suit you. And this is another reason to be combining multiple teachers and methods — so it’s always easier to change, and so you know when one in particular isn’t working out as much.

Wrapping Up: Your Comments Welcome!

I’d love to hear from you, fellow learning obsessives.

  • Which of these strategies have worked best for you? Which haven’t?
  • Are there other ways that you have found to implement the ideas from these studies?
  • Do you think I’m just full of bull doobie-doo and wish to flip me off in Russian? Or do you want to whisper sweet nothings to me in Mexican Spanish?
  • What is new here that you plan to add to your learning repertoire?

This article will be continuously updated as I learn more about learning, including even perhaps with suggestions from you dears.

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