Learning a second language was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.
Language learning classes were some of the most painfully boring classes I’ve ever taken. (Okay… I’m exaggerating a tiny bit but they did suck.)
Somehow they find a way to drain all of the fun and excitement of learning a new way to communicate with the world. After years of researching better studying strategies, most language learning courses look more inefficient than ever. It’s like they’re actively avoiding the most important points of learning.
It makes sense though. They’re avoiding this one fundamental step to language learning intentionally. They’re avoiding it because students don’t like it at first glance. Remember, most students are there for the class credit. They’re not there to learn a language.
If you just want to pass the class then use the usual strategies on this blog. If you want to crush language classes because you understand the language then this article will make it happen.
The reality: once you do what I’m going to teach you in this article, virtually all your future language learning courses will be pleasurable. The step that most students avoid (because it looks hard) is actually way easier than the alternative.
More importantly, it will teach you how to communicate in that language within weeks. (You just might sound like a silly foreigner.)
One note: I’ve learned a couple languages in my life now. They are both “romance” languages. I can’t promise this works for every language in existence but it will apply to the usual languages taught in school.
What Makes Up A Language
Any language you’re learning is made up of words.
You know those vocabulary lists in your textbook that you’re supposed to memorize? Those are words. I know… complex stuff here. Right?
Here is the problem:
I’ve never once needed to ask a Spanish person for a pencil. The only time the word pencil has ever helped me has been in Spanish class. The same applies to blackboard, desk, and paper. Sure… maybe it will apply to the one or two students in each class that end up studying abroad but it didn’t apply to me.
Most people don’t need these vocabulary lists.
These vocabulary lists are just categories of specialized knowledge. I’d argue that teaching in this way is creating a massive domain dependence. It may help you remember the word pencil when you’re in a classroom or thinking about school supplies but it’s not going to help when you’re talking to someone in any other situation.
What Really Snuffles My Snuffleupagus
Words make sentences.
Let’s say I understand you saying the word pencil in a foreign language… Now what…
A guy points at a pencil and says,
(something) (something) (something) (something) pencil (something)
That means nothing.
In class, they’ll teach you a few things that sentence could be saying but 90% of sentences won’t be what you learned in class. In a real world context, this doesn’t help.
It’s a problem that’s actually super easy to fix. You can learn 90% of the words in any particular sentence within weeks. With a few months of reinforcement you’ll recognize the language for years to come.
Pencil is a specialized word.
Less specialized words are common.
In English: the top 100 most used words are 50% of written language.
By learning 100 words you can understand 50% of everything written.
Not understanding the word pencil isn’t such a big deal when you understand the rest of the language.
To go back to the previous example:
A guy points at a pencil and says,
“Please give me that (something) schmuck.”
I admit it, schmuck isn’t in the top 100 but my point stands.
You know what that guy is saying, right? He’s pointing at a pencil and asking you to give him something. You can assume he’s asking for the pencil. You’re a lot closer to understanding him than if you knew the specialized words in the sentence.
Yes… this is an extreme example. Most people are taught the handful of words you’d expect to see around these kinds of sentences. My point is this: why are they wasting any time learning specialized words when there are dozens of more common words to learn?
Improving your grades without spending more time working on them is all about prioritization. Don’t study more. Study more important things. Study more important classes. Put your energy on important things. Spend as little of it as possible on specialized words.
Taking this one step will make learning these specialized words easy.
The One Step To Take
Learn the top 100 most common words in the language.
The 15MSS is ideal for this.
Create a set of flashcards (maybe use Anki.) Then buckle down and learn a few of them everyday. If you’re motivated then you can memorize the most common words in a couple of days. If you want to learn it better then just learn 5 or 10 each day. Within a couple weeks you’ll catch onto new concepts faster than 90% of your class.
Make sure you’re using active recall. You can’t be sure you’re memorizing something without testing it using active recall. When you start using it, studying lists of words becomes one of the easiest things you’ll ever do.
Don’t stop there.
After you learn the top 100, learn the top 500 words in the language.
The top 100 will probably get you through your first class. It will give you a huge head start in your second class. If you want to learn the language well then learn the top 500.
If you’re trying to learn the language so you can speak it fluently, learn the top 1000 words in the language. By that time, you’ll probably know a good chunk of other words from other contexts.
No… you won’t be fluent but you’ll be competent.
This first step won’t make you fluent in any particular language. In my experience, you’ll be great at reading the language. Listening and speaking the language are a different beast. This is one thing classes can help with.
Learning words is the first step. Once you learn the words, it’s possible for you to practice speaking and reading with native materials. You can read books in the language. You can watch movies. This is where fluency will come from.
Experience the language to become fluent.
When you’ve learned a language through classes, this is tough. You know lots of specialized subjects but will struggle with how to fit them together. When you’ve learned the most common words, you have the freedom to interpret sentences for their missing pieces. You won’t understand uncommon words but you’ll have a framework to interpret and learn new words.
Of course, if you’re looking to pass the class. Two weeks of studying the most common words will give you a massive head start in any chapter you’re reading.
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