How to hack your English – 10 ways to make your language learning more effective

What is a lifehack?

gordian knot

The Gordian knot – impossible to untie

Life hacking refers to any trick, shortcut, or method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all areas of life. Like Alexander the Great’s idea of chopping the Gordian Knot with his sword, a hack is anything that solves an everyday problem in an inspired, ingenious manner.

Whether you embrace lifehacking as a philosophy is a matter of personal choice. I am all in favour of labour-saving tricks – unless they’re less fun and enjoyable than the way I currently do them. I remember once getting into an argument about the way I was peeling an apple. My friend wanted me to do it more efficiently, whereas I wanted to get the peel off all in one piece. Tim Ferris of The Four Hour Work Week fame seems to have replaced the stress of doing things the normal, inefficient way with the stress of doing a million different things more efficiently.

Do shortcuts exist for language learning?

Here are the fruits of my research into this question, arranged for your viewing/reading pleasure in order of the length of time the authors claim it can take to learn a language.

Improve the process

What these people are actually talking about are ways of

  • minimising attention deficit, energy expenditure and the cost of learning a language
  • making the process of learning a language more motivating and enjoyable
  • preventing you from giving up and abandoning your efforts to learn a language

Learning a language – like going to the gym

going to the gymBecause what we need to remember about language learning is that as a challenge, it’s very similar to going to the gym. In other words, it involves a lot of discomfort and risk, special equipment and conditions, effort and discipline. And time and money.

Language learning is more about building muscle memory than creating a database.

If you are someone who is required by your company or business to work in English, your second or third language, you may find some comfort from the fact that native English speakers are realising that their careers will not progress if English is the only language they speak.

So the tips in this post apply to everyone who has to work in an international environment. And I have focussed on tips that apply to language learners who already have a good level of English as well as to beginner levels.

Time flies when you’re having fun

Anthony Lauder, in his YouTube post, “Become a Polyglot in Minutes, not Years” shows the most insight into learning processes. In spite of the wildly optimistic title of his video, he starts by pointing out that

  • high frequency languagemany skills take a long time to master: playing a musical instrument, playing chess, learning a second language, etc.
  • mastery takes 10,000 hours = 3 hours of focussed study a day for 10 years. Claims that mastery can be achieved by immersing yourself in a culture to learn the language for a short period are exaggerated. You will learn the language quite well, you won’t speak it like a native speaker.
  • the Pareto Principle, or 80:20 rule, states that 80% of rewards and benefits come from 20% effort and investment. In language terms, you are 80% effective in a new language after 2 years, and mastery takes another eight years, and adds only 20% communicative competence.

But most importantly, he says this:

The famous jazz musician Michel Betucciani said “Every hour I am at the piano feels like a minute. Every minute I am away from the piano feels like an hour.” – so the only secret to being able to achieve mastery in minutes rather than decades is to really enjoy the process.

So, are there any hacks for language learning?

First of all, the good news is that all the language learning experts above seem to agree that what you DON’T need to learn a language is

  1. talent or genetic predisposition
  2. immersion in another culture
  3. youth
  4. an excellent memory

10 winning principles, attitudes and actions for effective and efficient language learning

Here are 10 of the best tips taken from the resources listed above:

  1. learning english cartoonFocus what is relevant to you – What do you need English for? Concentrate on learning the language that will allow you to do what you need to do.
  2. Urgency is a great motivator: you will learn the language quickly if you actually need to use it. Is the language already a necessary tool in your life?
  3. Listen a lot – Chris Lonsdale calls this “brain soaking” – expose yourself to the sound of the language as much as possible. What are you interested in that you can read about/ listen to in English? Watch your favourite TV series in English with English subtitles; listen to BBC 6 minute English (with the transcript if necessary); listen to TED talks with English subtitles.
  4. Tolerate ambiguity: be satisfied with the general sense of what you’re hearing or reading. When you UNDERSTAND the message, you will unconsciously ACQUIRE the language. Language learning is not about accumulating vocabulary and grammar rules. Focus on meaning not quantity. Understanding every word, expression or sentence is completely unnecessary for comprehension. While watching programmes in English, focus on getting the meaning first from body language, then from what they’re saying.
  5. Are you “English deaf?” To understand the sounds native speakers make in the language you’re learning and to pronounce them correctly, you might need physiological (pronunciation) training. You need to retrain the 43 muscles we have in our faces to produce the strange grunts and bat squeaks required. If your face is hurting you’re doing it right! If you’re trying to learn from watching and listening to a native speaker, copy their face, don’t listen and repeat.
  6. Your physical and mental state matters (like in sports). If you’re tense, stressed, sick, you’re not going to learn or perform. You need to feel well, relaxed and focussed to engage in language learning.
  7. readingReading is the best way to learn new vocabulary. CEO David Bailey, in describing how he taught himself French in only 17 days, managed to read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, a book he’d read as a child, in French. Reading books in the language you’re learning that you’ve already read in your mother tongue is a great hack to learning new languages. Knowing the story helps you to guess the meaning of new words and avoid using a dictionary.
  8. Writing things out by hand is the best way to memorize things. Write down the language you want to remember in a notebook. You don’t need to alphabetize it or do anything fancy. Write new words and expressions in sentences that provide context, so you can see what they mean when you read them again. Write difficult-to-pronounce words phonetically, underlining the accented or stressed part of the word.
  9. Listen and sing along to English songs. If you like listening to music in the car, shower or while running, listen to songs with lyrics that make you feel like singing along to them.  Music is a great way to learn the intonation of a language and train your facial muscles as you sing along. Beware: it’s more difficult to understand sung than spoken English, so you probably want to do it karaoke style the first time, and look up the lyrics and read along as you sing along.
  10. Learn the filler words. These are the words and phrases people say then all the time between sentences (well, actually, I mean, let’s see, etc.) but have no real meaning; allowing you to buy time in a conversation and increase your confidence.

This is the third in a series of posts on English language learning.


How to understand the sounds English speakers make – The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing “R”

10 fun facts about phonemes for Italian speakers of English

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