Repetition is a fundamental part of successful language learning. Until you hear or read the same vocabulary or structures again and again enough times within meaningful contexts, they just won’t commit to long-term, procedural memory no matter how much you may want to remember. A love for repetition is perhaps one of the biggest advantages children have when learning their first language. I am simply amazed how my nephews can watch the same Sesame Street video or read the same Dr. Seuss book a zillion times without getting bored. We adults aren’t quite so patient. We tend to view such repetition as punishment, not pleasure. Fortunately, there are two ways to eat our “repetition cake” without having to eat the “boredom broccoli”. Read on to see what they are.
I made just about every possible mistake when starting out in languages. I used terribly inefficient methods, slogged through boring materials I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, and almost gave up more than a few times. But this is good news for you: struggling so much in the beginning and later correcting course makes me a much better language coach. You never want to learn from a “natural” who picks up new skills easily. As Tim Ferriss points out in the The 4-Hour Chef: “The top 1% often succeed despite how they train, not because of it. Superior genetics, or a luxurious full-time schedule, make up for a lot. Career specialists can’t externalize what they’ve internalized. Second nature is hard to teach.”
You’ve tried, but failed to learn Japanese. For some reason it just doesn’t seem to stick for you? I’ve got news for you: it’s your fault! Or is it? Maybe, but I think I can guess why, and it might be something you can fix—if that’s what you want. Do any of the following sound familiar to you?
Donovan Nagel is an Applied Linguistics graduate hailing from rural Queensland, Australia (the amazing soundscape you hear in the background of our interview) and the man behind the language learning site and community, The Mezzofanti Guild, and the Arabic learning site, Talk in Arabic. Donovan named the site after one of his heroes, Cardinal Giuseppe Gasparo Mezzofanti (1774 – 1849), a hyperpolyglot who Donovan felt a strong connection to given their mutual background in theology, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, and the fact that they both focus on learning via contact with real people.
Just like learning a martial art, mastering a foreign tongue requires ① time and effort (which is the real meaning of the term “kung fu”), ② the proper blend of “self-study” and “sparring,” ③ a great deal of patience, and ④ a focus on mastering the basics instead of always chasing flashy new moves or words. Read on for tips on how to put more “kung fu” into your language learning.
Learning—and actually remembering—new words, phrases, alphabets, Chinese characters, etc. is one of the primary tasks in acquiring a foreign language. But for many learners, it happens to be one of the most frustrating. But don’t despair! The problem is likely your method, not your memory.