Post reading time: 15 minutes.
Language learning need not be complicated.
Principles of cognitive neuroscience and time management can be applied to attain conversational fluency (here defined as 95%+ comprehension and 100% expressive abilities) in 1-3 months. Some background on my language obsession, from an earlier post on learning outside of classes:
From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools (Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?
The ideal system — and progression — is based on three elements in this order…
1. Effectiveness (Priority)
2. Adherence (Interest)
3. Efficiency (Process)
Effectiveness, adherence, and efficiency refer to the “what”, “why”, and “how” of learning a target language, respectively. In simple terms, you first decide what to learn, based on usage frequency (priority); you then filter materials based on your likelihood of continued study and review, or adherence (interest); lastly, you determine how to learn the material most efficiently (process).
Let’s cover each in turn. This post will focus on vocabulary and subject matter. For learning grammar, I suggest you read this short article. For “reactivating” forgotten languages — like high school Spanish — this sequence will do the trick.
Effectiveness: If you select the wrong material, it does not matter how you study or if you study – practical fluency is impossible without the proper tools (material). Teachers are subordinate to materials, just as cooks are subordinate to recipes.
Adherence: Review, and multiple exposures to the same material, will always present an element of monotony, which must be countered by an interest in the material. Even if you select the most effective material and efficient method, if you don’t adhere with repeated study, effectiveness and efficiency mean nothing. In other words: can you persist with the material and method you’ve chosen? If not, less effective materials or methods will still be better. The best approach means nothing if you don’t use it.
By analogy, if sprinting uphill with bowling balls in each hand were the most effective way to lose body fat, how long would the average person adhere to such a program?
If you have no interest in politics, will you adhere to a language course that focuses on this material? Ask yourself: Can I study this material every day and adhere until I reach my fluency goals? If you have any doubt, change your selection. Oftentimes, it is best to select content that matches your interests in your native language. Do not read about something that you would not read about in English, if English is your native language (e.g. don’t read Asahi Shimbun if you don’t read newspapers in English). Use the target language as a vehicle for learning more about a subject, skill, or cultural area of interest.
Do not use material incongruent with your interests as a vehicle for learning a language – it will not work.
Efficiency: It matters little if you have the best material and adherence if time-to-fluency is 20 years. The ROI won’t compel you. Ask yourself: Will this method allow me to reach accurate recognition and recall with the fewest number of exposures, within the shortest period of time? If the answer is no, your method must be refined or replaced.
An Example of Effectiveness (80/20) in Practice
Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 dictates that 80% of the results in any endeavor come from 20% of the input, material, or effort.
We can adapt this principle and prioritize material based on its recorded likelihood and frequency of usage. To understand 95% of a language and become conversational fluent may require 3 months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years. There is a point of diminishing returns where, for most people, it makes more sense to acquire more languages (or other skills) vs. add a 1% improvement per 5 years.
To see exactly how I deconstruct the grammar of new languages, I suggest you read “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour”. Now, on to the meat and potatoes of communication: words.
If you were a student of English (though the list can be adapted to most languages), the following words would deliver the greatest ROI per hour invested for the initial 1-3 weeks of study:
The 100 Most Common Written Words in English
The first 25 of the above words make up about 1/3 of all printed material in English. The first 100 comprise 1/2 of all written material, and the first 300 make up about 65% percent of all written material in English. Articles and tense conjugations that can often be omitted in some languages or learned for recognition (understanding) but not recall (production).
Most frequency lists are erroneously presented as the “most common words” in English, with no distinction made between written and spoken vocabulary. The 100 most common words as used in speech are considerably different, and this distinction applies to any target language.
The 100 Most Common Spoken Words in English
1. a, an
13. (I) can
14. (I) come
16. (I) find
21. (I) go
25. (I) have
31. (I) am
34. (I) know
36. (I) like
38. (I) love
39. (I) make
64. (I) see
71. (I) tell
72. thank you
78. there is
81. (I) think
88. (I) use
Individual word frequency will vary between languages (especially pronouns, articles, and possessives), but differences are generally related to frequency rank, rather than complete omission or replacement with a different term. The above two lists are surprisingly applicable to most popular languages.
Content and vocabulary selection beyond the most common 300-500 words should be dictated by subject matter interest. The most pertinent questions will be “What will you spend your time doing with this language?”
If necessary, the most closely related rephrasing would be “What do I currently spend my time doing?” It bears repeating: do not read about something that you would not read about in your native language. Use the target language as a vehicle for learning more about a subject, skill, or cultural area of interest. Poor material never produces good language.
Feed your language ability foods you like, or you will quit your “diet” and cease study long before you achieve any measurable level of proficiency.
As a personal example, I used martial arts instructional manuals to compete effectively in judo while a student in Japan. My primary goal was to learn throws and apply them in tournaments. To avoid pain and embarrassment, I had tremendous motivation to learn the captions of the step-by-step diagrams in each instructional manual. Language development was a far secondary priority.
One might assume the crossover of material to other subjects would be minimal, but the grammar is, in fact, identical. The vocabulary may be highly specialized, but I eclipsed the grammatical ability of 4 and 5-year students of Japanese within 2 months of studying and applying sports-specific instruction manuals.
The specialization of my vocabulary didn’t present a single problem in communication, it is important to note, as I was spending 80% of my free time training with people who also used judo-speak and other vocabulary unique to sports training and athletic development.
Once the framework of grammar has been transferred to long-term memory, acquiring vocabulary is a simple process of proper spaced repetition, which will be the subject of a dedicated future post.
In the meantime, don’t let languages scare you off. It’s a checklist and a process of finding material you enjoy with a good frequency ROI.