The 10 Commandments of Language Acquisition

Pablo Roman Humanes
November 1, 2016
 min read

Learning a foreign language is an amazing endeavor and something that can be very rewarding. Especially once you are able to do things like going to the country and mingle with the locals, watching a humor TV show and understand the jokes, or have a conversation with an authentic geisha.

It can however seem a daunting task. Many people, after years of studying, still struggle to have a free-flowing conversation, understand native speakers talking to one another, or have strong accents that make their communication difficult.

In this post I’m going to talk about the factors that I’ve found over the years to contribute to successful language learning. These principles have been designed to allow anybody to make steady progress towards their language learning goal. They’ve proven to hold true both for myself and for most people I’ve met who reached really high levels in a foreign language, including speaking fluently without hesitation, and a clear pronunciation close to that of a native speaker.

1. Listen, listen, listen

Listen a lot. Listening is the basis of language acquisition in children, and really the only source of input they have during the first few years of their life. As adults, we need to do A LOT of listening to to get used to the sound of the language, which includes intonation, rhythm, and possibly, subtle differences between sounds that we’re not used to making in our first language.

Recent research is showing more and more clearly the importance of input. The focus on input from the start is vital to get used to the language and eventually become able to speak fluently and sound natural.

While I was in Bangkok learning Thai I realized that this is even more vital in languages with very a different pronunciation, especially tonal languages and languages with similar sounds like Thai and the Chinese languages.

To read more about the importance of listening and about how the mental image of a language forms in our brains, check out the post How to Play a Foreign Language.

2. Do something fun

No matter what, learning a language is a long process. While it doesn’t necessarily have to take many years, surely it’s going to take many and many hours. It can possibly take one to two thousand hours to reach fluency in a language that’s completely unrelated to yours.

Traditional language education usually has us doing really boring things, like learning complicated conjugation tables, or trying to memorize frustrating vocabulary lists. Few humans have the will and perseverance to keep doing such boring things long enough to become good at a language.

The only way for most of us mortals to get there is to enjoy the path to mastery. It makes it much more likely that we won’t give up, and helps us pay more attention to the input we are receiving.

I’ll tell you one secret: While it’s great to learn a foreign language because of all the things that you can do with it, there’s no big reward at the end. By the point you reach mastery, you’ve grown so used to the language and have made such gradual progress that it all seems kind of obvious and you take it for granted. It’s even hard to remember what it felt at the beginning to not understand the language at all. Therefore, it’s better to have fun the whole way than to suffer and push through it in hopes of a big reward at the end, because it never comes.

3. Do the easy thing

At each step of your progress in a foreign language there are parts of the language that you are ready to absorb and parts that you are not. When receiving input in the language, we mostly first learn nouns that refer to physical objects, like “banana“ or “house“, and actions like “to walk“, “to eat“. Once we know enough of those it becomes easier for us to pick up words for adjectives like “red“, “big“, etc. We then start gaining some ability to understand more abstract words like “to like“, “to want“, and only once we start to understand some whole sentences we can figure out the meaning of certain connectors like prepositions.

The trick here is to take the path of least resistance. Accept whatever learning you can get from the input you are receiving, and don’t try to be a perfectionist. Context is what’s going to help you add meanings and nuances of new words to your mental image of the language. Not trying to understand every single word reduces your stress levels, helps you pay attention to the actual meaning, and allows you to be exposed to more input in the same amount of time. If the input you’re receiving is really too hard to understand, you’re better off looking for something easier to watch or listen to.

Doing the “easy thing”, though, is not an excuse to start slacking off and going back to watching TV in your first language. Rather your efforts should be focused on being more immersed in the language. The immersion itself should be effortless.

4. Understand

Could you learn much Chinese from zero by listening only to Chinese radio for 10,000 hours? You may get really used to how it sounds, but little else.

For you to acquire language you need to understand the input you’re receiving. At the lower levels that may mean using very basic materials like TV shows for children, or getting a good partner to do Crosstalk with.

The SEG cram school in Tokyo teaches English through massive amounts of reading. According to their data, the optimal amount of unknown words in a text for the fastest progress may be around 1 in 20, or 95% of known words, for close of 100% of understanding of the text thanks to context. Actually, they calculate that learning goes down by the 4th power of the comprehension factor. That means that someone understanding 80% of the meaning of a text is learning 40% as fast as somebody who understands 100% of it, since 0.8⁴ is approximately 0.4. That means that the ideal amount of understanding for an optimal learning may be higher than most people think.

5. Do something that matters

We have already established that you are going to need to receive many hours of input in the language. However, it’s not very effective to just have audio in your target language playing in the background while you pay attention to something else. You need to be paying attention to what’s being said. That means that whatever input you’re receiving shouldn’t be boring. It should be either fun to watch, of particular interest to you, or even better, something relevant to your personal life. That’s why it’s always better to learn from contact with native speakers of the language. If you can do homestay or find people to do Crosstalk with you’re going to learn much faster and remember much more of what you learn.

That’s not to say that playing an audio in the background is bad, especially when you’re doing other things like cooking, shopping, or taking a shower. The more exposure you get to the language, the better.

6. Run away from grammar rules

This one is a tough one to believe for some, but luckily more and more people are realizing this. Here’s the thing: studying grammar rules is not necessary. They’re not necessary to get a native-like feeling for the grammar of the language, and they don’t help you put together a sentence when having a normal-paced spontaneous conversation.

I had my own suspicions of this after my English improved just by reading a lot. I got a feeling for the more complicated grammar that had never been explained to me. I then further confirmed it by learning Japanese and Thai from the start without any study of the grammar.

It is true that many accomplished language learners started by studying the grammar of the language, but it’s not until they started really being exposed to actual language in context that their skills really started to take off. More and more people are realizing that it wasn’t necessary to study the grammar to begin with.

Additionally, grammar rules have a big drawback. Using them to make your own sentences, without first having a feeling for the grammar, leads to imposing your own assumptions. Those assumptions are necessarily based on your first language or on your own guessing. You end up with interlanguage in your head, a mix that’s neither the target language nor your first language.

In the post You’re Not Stupid I give more details about how our brain can get used to the grammar without studying it.

7. Avoid vocabulary lists

Studying vocabulary using translation is another thing to avoid. There’s never a 100% match between two words in different languages. Using translation makes you make the wrong assumptions about the meaning and the usage of each word. Studying the words as individual items, the same way you would do for an exam, is the main reason why many people feel that after not studying a language for a while they forget most of it.

To really learn a word, you need to hear or read the word being used in context many times. That’s the only way you can grasp the whole range of meanings a word can have, learn to use it naturally in a sentence, what are the situations where it’s appropriate to use it, etc.

Again, in You’re Not Stupid I explain in more detail how our brain can learn vocabulary without translation and get used to the different nuances and the usage of words.

8. Don’t speak, don’t read (for a while)

The reason to listen a lot to the language, especially at the beginning, is because we need to form the neural centers in our brain that represent the sounds of the new language. At the beginning, even if you consciously studied the sounds of the letters in the target language, your brain hasn’t developed those neural centers yet. So, in the early stages, if you try to speak the language or sound it out in your head when reading, your brain tries to use the closest thing it can find instead: the sounds of your first language. Speaking and reading makes you create connections to them, and that results in fossilization of a strong accent and bad pronunciation.

Eventually you’ll want to start speaking, since I imagine that one of your goals for learning a foreign language is to be able to have a conversation in it. The amount of speaking practice necessary is much less than most people think though, and my own experience is that if I’ve got enough exposure beforehand it’s not too much effort to have a conversation in a new language.

Once the language sounds very clear in your head, you’ll want to start reading too, since that’s going to expose you to a higher variety of vocabulary and a wider range of topics. There’s no need to do that, though, until you are at a level in which you can have daily conversations without much trouble. I personally made that mistake when I was learning English, and after many years I’m still working on fixing my pronunciation.

To know more about the effects that reading too early can have check out the following post: The Mythical Visual Learner.

9. Don’t think

The ability to think about language is the main difference between us and children, and it’s also the main reason that’s preventing adults from being as good at learning languages.

Every time you try to force yourself to do something too hard, you’ll get inside your head and start thinking (see point 3). That can happen when trying to put together sentences using grammar you didn’t get used to yet (see point 6), trying to use words you’re not yet familiar with (point 7) or trying to speak before getting used to the sound of the language (point 8).

While you may have the need to do something above your current level, for example to get by in the country where the language is spoken, doing a lot of it can have a bad effect on your grammar, your use of the vocabulary, and on your pronunciation.

For more about this check out the post Be a Child.

10. Don’t give up

The only way you can possibly fail at learning a language is if you stop being in contact with it.

Hopefully if you hit most of the previous points, the experience of learning a new language should be a quite enjoyable one. That’s really important to keep your motivation up, and your chances of sticking to it will increase dramatically. It is also important for your motivation to notice your own improvement, but that’s a big topic in and of itself, so I’ll leave it for another day.

How to do it

The following are suggestions of activities that can be done to hit all of the points above.

  • Crosstalk: The advantages of Crosstalk are many. You’re having a conversation with a native speaker of the language, which is inherently interesting, your partners can adapt their speech to your level to make it comprehensible, and you’re not forced to produce output in the target language before you are ready.
  • Media immersion: Media immersion is especially important at the intermediate and advanced levels, since it can give you exposure to a whole different range of vocabulary, expressions and voices. It’s also useful for beginners though, since it helps you get used to the sound of the language. Additionally, it’s something that you can use to easily fill those dead times of the day. Even a minute here and there can add up to hundreds of hours in the long run.
  • Immersion in the country: This one is not possible for many people, but it’s one of the most efficient ways of learning the language. You have to make a conscious effort, though, to hang out with the locals and get real immersion in the language and the culture. Home stays and room sharing with locals often have very good results.
  • Making friends: Once you’re at intermediate level you can start making genuine friends with whom you speak only the target language. You can do crosstalk with them if you’re still not confident or you find that having a conversation in the target language is exhausting, and eventually switch to the target language. In case there aren’t many speakers of your target language where you live you may need to find them online.

Summing things up

In this post I’ve tried to give an overall view of what I consider the most important factors when learning a foreign language. I didn’t want to make it a really long post, so I didn’t get into much detail for any of them. Check out the linked posts for more details about each of the points.