If you had hours of free time every day and thousands of dollars to spend on tutors and classes, of course you could learn a new language.
Unfortunately, that’s not the situation most adults find themselves in. As a result, many people assume they have got no chance of ever mastering a foreign tongue.
But that’s where they’re wrong. Just ask opera singer Gabriel Wyner, who achieved fluency in four languages — Italian, German, French, and Russian — in the span of just a few years. (He’s currently learning more.)
In his book “Fluent Forever,” Wyner shares the techniques that helped him maximise his time and resources on the route to polyglotism.
We checked out the book and highlighted three must-know strategies for anyone hoping to learn a new language — and never forget it.
1. Practice recalling words, not reading them.
Wyner cites a growing body of research that suggests the best way to remember something forever is to practice remembering it.
In one study, for example, students either read a list of 40 words five times or read it once and practiced recalling the words several times.
Results showed something fascinating. Although the students who read the text five times remembered more than the other group did five minutes later, the students who read the text once and then were tested remembered significantly more one week later.
The takeaway is that, if you want to cement your memory of a series of foreign words, you should read through it once and then test yourself multiple times, instead of reading and re-reading the list.
2. Use spaced repetition.
“At its most basic level,” Wyner writes, “a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) is a to-do list that changes according to your performance.”
Here’s Wyner’s example of how it works: If you can remember that “trabajo” is the Spanish word for work two months after learning it, the SRS will wait another four to six months before putting it back on your to-do list. But if you’re having trouble remembering that “computadora” means “computer” for more than two weeks, the system will put that word back on your to-list more often until you can finally remember it.
You can either create your own SRS or use one available online. (Wyner recommends Anki‘s.) If you’re going the DIY route, you can construct what’s known as a “Leitner Box,” in which you move index cards to different parts of the box depending on whether you remember them after a specified time period. (Wyner shows you how to create a Leitner Box on his website.)
The SRS is designed to make language-learning considerably more efficient. Instead of wasting time reviewing words you’ve already committed to memory, you get straight to the trickier ones.
3. Train yourself to ‘hear the unhearable.’
Before you begin building up your vocabulary, there’s a simple step you can take to make learning those new words easier. It involves a process called “minimal pair testing.”
“Minimal pairs” are words that differ by a single sound. If that sound doesn’t exist in your native language, you might not be able to distinguish between those two words right away.
In one study, researchers recruited a group of Japanese adults and asked them to push one button when they heard the word “rock” and another button when they heard the word “lock.” In the Japanese language, there’s a sound that falls right in the middle of the “r” to “l” spectrum. Unsurprisingly, the study participants could barely hear the difference between “rock” and “lock.”
The researchers then had another group of adults go through the same procedure — except the computer provided feedback every time they hit the right or wrong button. This time, results showed that the participants’ performance improved over time.
“They had learned to hear the unbearable,” Wyner writes.
If you practice minimal pair testing when you first start learning a new language, the words won’t sound foreign to you anymore and it will be easier to remember them. Plus, Wyner says, you’ll be able to understand native speakers better, meaning you’ll learn more vocabulary and grammar every time you hear someone speak the language.
On his website, Wyner shows you how to create your own minimal pair testing system. (He’s also created his own recordings of minimal pairs in different languages that you can purchase.) First, you’ll want to create a list of word pairs (check out a pronunciation book for examples) and record a native speaker saying each word. Break down those recordings into individual sound files, with one word per file.
For example, if you’re an English speaker learning French, you might use the words “rue” (street) and “roux” (red).
You can either test yourself on your ability to detect the difference between these words, or upload the sound files like flashcards into Anki.
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