Appendix E: Common Questions
Can I learn two languages at once?
There is nothing inherently wrong with learning two languages at once and you can learn them without mixing them up. I advise you only actively learn one language at a time. This is because learning another takes time away from the first. If you want to pick up another language, it is best to wait until you are at least at an intermediate level before you change language. This lets you actively learn one while maintaining the other using content you find interesting.
Can I learn like a child?
A common idea in the language community is that because children learn their first language to a high level, the adult learner can succeed by aiming to emulate the way children learn as much as possible. This advice comes in two forms: 1, that you don’t need to formally study a language to learn it and 2, that you should immerse yourself as much as possible. Both are correct in their own way, but I am going to refine this advice a bit.
While children do learn their native languages very well, it takes around ten years of complete immersion to get there and another ten to become a fully functional adult.
To fully acquire languages, enormous amounts of input are necessary. Children are given far more comprehensible input than adults and, without the grammar book or dictionary, are generally much slower at acquiring basic forms and wait a lot longer than adults before they try speaking. Once they do acquire these forms and start speaking, however, there is no example for them to follow except that of perfect native speech. Also keep in mind that by the time they are an adult, the child will have spent an enormous amount of time in school practising their language skills and having their output critiqued. This video by Tom Scott provides a great overview.
Adult speakers frequently learn rules and then quickly move to applying them by speaking. The result is that most of the adult’s first attempts at communication will not resemble native speech.
For those adult learners who want to speak like a native, the answer is not to attempt to learn like a child, but to surround themselves with as much comprehensible input as possible. Adult language learners can also spend time in focused study to find and improve weaknesses and learn words and complex forms faster.
You can read the article I wrote on the topic here for more information.
Why do some people seem to know lots of languages?
While it is true that learning a language to a high or close-to-native level takes a lot of time, it’s also true that you’ll see a lot of people truthfully claiming to be conversational in many languages.
As we noted earlier, language learning progress is significantly faster at the beginner and early intermediate stages. You can get very far with basic grammar and a small vocabulary. Often, the true barrier to being conversational at that level is skill speaking and listening and having the confidence to try.
If you’d like to be conversational in a lot of languages, you can do so without needing any special technique or talent. In fact, much of it is just good language learning as described here where the learner has fully integrated the principle Work towards your goals and focused heavily on conversational skill. You can read the r/languagelearning FAQ entry for more info.
How important are grammar lessons?
The opinions of the community on the efficacy of using grammar instruction vary greatly. Some consider it a needless distraction, useful only at the very beginning, while others consider it essential, and continue to study it well into the intermediate stage. Most people sit somewhere in-between. As a rule of thumb, you can get away with studying grammar less and less as you progress, but it will be helpful to occasionally or even continually refer to grammar explanations when you notice something and you are not sure why it is formed that way.
If you want to minimise the usage of grammar instruction, good technique is required. You will need to make sure you are noticing grammatical forms and incorporating native-like elements into your speech and writing.
What’s wrong with how schools teach languages?
Language learning in schools suffers from five main problems that make it very inefficient:
They use poor technique—Learning optimally happens when there is just a bit of struggle. Enough to make the brain work but not too much the learner can’t succeed without looking at the answer. Schools typically explain a concept once and then force you to fill out stale grammar exercises. This is not an efficient method because the gap between present knowledge and that required for the activity is too large, leaving the learner feeling frustrated.
They focus far too much on grammar—The majority of successful language learners will tell you to focus on speaking and reading more, as this time will actually help you learn the grammar better and faster than doing exercises. If you like grammar, you are free to focus heavily on it, though a lot of people do not.
They are not timed well—Learning languages takes a lot of time and practice, and languages require active usage and integration into your life in order to improve at a decent speed. The school format of spending a limited and segmented time with a subject while being completely isolated from it at other times is inefficient for languages.
They teach to a test—Your learning is determined by your own goals. Build your skills towards fulfilling that goal. Assess your own progress by thinking about how much closer you are to achieving it. Skills with grammar exercises help you succeed in tests—they don’t help much in the real world.
They can be overly structured—If you only study a topic for a few lessons then move on without a chance to continue to use and practise your new knowledge, you will find yourself gradually forgetting it all. Languages are best learned by actively using them, not segmenting them into a series of topics that need to be rote learned.
Why is the term “language hacks” a misnomer?
Plenty of things labelled “language hacks” are great advice—this is not a case against using them. The term tends to encompass several distinct things, including effective study exercises, marginally helpful tricks, useful advice, and powerful foundational principles. In addition, the term “language hacks” implies to a general audience that they can learn a language quickly and easily by simply “hacking a language”, which would in turn imply they are taking advantage of something within the language itself. To achieve mastery your brain requires thousands of hours of input. You cannot hack your way around this requirement.
You absolutely can learn faster and more effectively by following a few principles. These principles are derived from our collective knowledge of how to learn effectively in any domain, applied to language learning. They let you learn faster and choose your objectives more intelligently. For that reason, the term “principle” is used throughout this guide. You could comfortably call most of what you read here “hacks”, but that would not leave the reader with any more clarity over what “hacking” really is. Using the “principle” framework, the learner better grasps what is required of them and why it is recommended to do something a certain way.
Should I read if my goal is conversation?
In this guide I discuss the importance of engaging with lots of content, often written. Why then should you engage with written content if your goal is to speak? Reading is a good way to encounter new vocabulary or grammar and focus on learning it. In addition, the written form is a good simulation of the spoken language, containing most of the same grammar and vocabulary.
You need to spend a lot of time with the language, but learners often can’t engage directly with their goal—perhaps there are no speakers around—so it can be helpful to use a substitute.