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How to train your brain to flip to a new language

This is a guest post by Rubén, who writes on Mostly Maths about programming, productivity and time management. A math PhD student and aspiring procrastinator, he writes about fighting time expenditure and continuous improvement.

Multi-lingual cat.

When you start learning a new language, common wisdom suggests that you have two possible goals (not mutually exclusive). One is passing an exam. Maybe you took French while in High School with no other goal than getting a good grade, not giving a damn about the country, the language or the people. The other common goal is the dreaded F word, fluency. Forget common wisdom, there is something more important than the vague notion of fluency.

The term fluency is very ambiguous, because there is no scale in measuring fluency. Personally, I can get by in most situations with English language, but I only consider myself fluent when talking about mathematics, where my vocabulary is almost complete and the grammar I know is enough for all possible themes that can occur.

When I am starting with a new language, I don’t set my views in some abstract fluency. I want what may be called working fluency, or as I put in a post in my blog, getting to the language switch. What is the language switch?

It’s like feeling that unexpectedly, you have a button in your brain. When you push it you can get thoughts straight to your target language. This is not the same as being fluent, because you can get to the point of being able to push the switch way before you are fluent. You can be happily talking (or writing) in Irish and suddenly one of the words you want to say just isn’t there. You have a small short-circuit in your switch, easily repaired by learning (or relearning) the troublesome word.

Once you are there and have a nice switch inside you, you can be pretty sure of at least being able to interact with locals and stop feeling out of place. Maybe you will have to stop in the middle of a phrase and look at your dictionary, or ask in some common language, or just point your finger to the moon. The million dollar question is then, how do you get there? More to the point: how do you get there when your target language does not have a lot of speakers?

The language switch is not built, it is trained. As Vince Lombardi said, Perfect practice makes perfect. Keep on drilling standard phrases. For example, something I usually do is saying to myself Komdu sæll og blessaður! when I pass a man by the street and komdu sæl og blessuð! when I pass a woman. These are two common greetings in Icelandic, and you need to get used to the correct form for men and women. The best way to make it part of you is just to drill it in some funny way like this, until it is as natural as saying Hello!

You can also use old business cards (or here in Spain train tickets, which are credit card sized) to practise verb conjugation. Write in the blank side of one the conjugation of ‘to be’ (in Icelandic, að vera, in Irish ) and put it in your pocket. Whenever you have a few spare seconds, like waiting in queue to pay at the store or waiting for the street light to turn green (as a pedestrian), take a look at it and repeat them to yourself. You will be amazed how easily this hard-wires constructs into your brain.

You can extend these “cheap ‘n easy” drilling techniques to harder stuff like conditional forms, future, colors, numbers and whatever just by sheer persistence and a constant playful spirit. Throw a few dices and say the number they spell. Count your pocket money in Irish. Plan your weekend in Icelandic. Be creative! If what you really want is being able to communicate, being playful is a must. This is especially important if you’re trying to pass an exam!

Keep in mind that perfect practice makes perfect. You should try to pronounce words correctly and (if necessary) have a clear idea of how they are written. And mixing different kind of drills will also help: keep a stack of verbs by your door and pick one different each morning!

Do a little of this each day and without even realising you will be able to generate phrases without effort, either to speak or to write. Read a little daily and the future with your language could not be any brighter.

Bitesize Irish Gaelic is a site with online Irish Gaelic lessons.

This article has been translated into Japanese here.

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21 thoughts on “How to train your brain to flip to a new language”

  1. This was so informative and inspiring! Thank you. I think Irish Gaelic is a beautiful, beautiful language, and I would dearly love to get in touch with my roots by learning it. Your method sounds like a good idea.

    Oh, by the way, the other website is in Chinese, not Japanese. 🙂

  2. This is a great article.

    Making a language part of your life is essential. Language learning is not difficult at all It just takes lots of repetition and time. People often perform badly with language simply because they don’t repeat enough or they give up too soon.

    You’ve given me some great ideas for creating more of a bubble with my study.

    Thanks! 😀

  3. Great article, and the picture of the cat gave me such a laugh! I am learning Irish and the house is covered in post-its. Which keep falling down and stick to my shoes. I have a 4yr old, and can now just about converese in toddler Irish. Short sentances repeated often. Will recommend your article, and this great website to the others in my Irish class.

  4. Ruben! I very much enjoyed your post – going to try these hacks in the near future. Many thanks for all your support to my blog – so I thought I’d return the favor!!

  5. I know this works!! I’ve never been able to explain it well to others. Half the battle is not to focus on how hard YOU THINK it is but to focus on what motivates you to want to learn the language. Whether it’s travel or curiosity, there’s a reason WHY you’re learning. So immerse yourself in everything that is of the world of the language your learning! that’s what I did when i learned Spanish and Hebrew. Now gaelic Irish. I even read romance novels, (that I would have never read before!) and they’re based in Ireland and even use terms throughout the book! Not even to mention, the geographic terms they use and Ireland’s history! It just makes it more real until i can get there!! This Blog Rocks!! Thanks Ruben!

  6. I definately agree with this! I recently started to learn Italian from a small book containing mainly phrases, no grammar. I tried using colors first in my mind then i spoke with friends and now i can immediately tell any color i see in italian. so to let it go on, like in above article im learning more and more like a native! Just follow it through your mind like you are in the country speaking with fellow italians 🙂

    1. These are clearly two fantastic options, but my suggestions should be just an addition to these. Just add these tips to Anki or Mnemosyne and you’ll learn more, by investing just a little more time!



  7. I enjoyed reading your post since I am a language nerd myself. Learning a language drills down to just doing it, which is of cause a chicken and egg problem. I had great success by meeting foreign language natives in bars and to talk about daily stuff. Social interaction works as an accelerator here.
    Right now I am developing a website that is dealing with bringing those language-interested people together and I am curious how this works out.

  8. Interesting post. I definitely like the suggestion to steal little bits of down time to study; when I was a tutor in college, I would recommend people have index cards with class notes with them so they could do just that.

    I haven’t explored the space, but I’d be willing to bet there are some good mobile applications to do these sorts of language drills. I know people (myself included) are often glued to their phones while standing in line, so being able to do something educational with those moments would be useful.

    1. I’m glad you liked it! I’m as tech and geek oriented as anyone (always carrying my iPod Touch and iPad around), but when just standing in a traffic light, 20 seconds, the quickest is just a simple piece of paper in your trousers. Of course, for longer stretches some tech gadget can be a lot more useful.

      Also, writing down helps memorising!