Using Your Brain to Master Languages

fluent foreverI’ve mentioned before how much I love to study languages. But when I say “study” I mean just that. I like to study how they work, what the structure is like, and how they sound.  Studying languages is great brain exercise, and I really, really love brain exercise.  It’s the actual speaking in these languages that I can’t seem to nail down.

And yet, I’d love to speak other languages fluently enough to actually use them with native speakers here or while traveling.  I’ve tried a variety of methods–listening to CD courses, Rosetta Stone, traditional classes–and nothing really stuck.

Enter neuroscience.  It turns out that there ARE ways you can work WITH your brain to learn a new language–no matter what your age, background, or aptitude.

In Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It, author and polyglot Gabriel Wyner explores many of these connections, and how you can leverage your brain to learn a new language.  He tackles big concepts like how to get things into your long-term memory, and then goes into great and helpful depth on how to actually put this into practice.  If you’ve heard of spaced repetition systems but don’t know how to use one, this book is for you.  I LOVED this book.  After reading it, I have a concrete plan for learning Spanish this year, and have already implemented so many of his techniques with fun and satisfying results.  This is the book for you if you like to understand how things work, and if you want a realistic game plan for how to get to what you really want to do in a language.

fluent 3 monthsIn many ways, Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World is similar to Fluent Forever, in that both authors learned multiple languages fluently in adulthood and both advocate leveraging mnemonics and memory tactics to build fluency.  However, Benny Lewis’s book focuses more on jumping in and speaking right away, with less detail on how to use the memory skills he suggests.

The Fluent in 3 Months approach will appeal to extreme extroverts, especially those who aren’t very self-conscious.  It will also work if you’ve got a lot of extra time on your hands (Benny suggests a minimum of two hours per day).  I think some of his ideas are great, and made notes on them to try out once I get some basic vocabulary down.

However, for my personality, I think the Fluent Foreverapproach will work better.  Wyner suggests starting with language sounds (what I’ve learned about sounds and how we make them so far is fascinating even if it never led to language progress!) and then using Anki to nail the top 625 words in your target language.  Then you move into speaking and use sentences and phrases to learn grammar patterns.  You add in the rest of the top 1000 words, then start doing things like reading books in your target language with the audio book at the same time (brilliant!) to build fluency and comprehension, watching TV shows and movies dubbed (not subtitled) in your target language to pick up usage and how people speak colloquially, and then has suggestions for how to direct your language learning based on what you want to do with it.

In my opinion, Fluent Forever is the more broadly applicable choice here, but certainly both books would be a good reference if you’re interested in learning languages.

Do you like learning languages?  Which language would you learn first if you got to pick?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

4 thoughts on “Using Your Brain to Master Languages

    1. I don’t let my kids use the computer, so I wouldn’t use Anki with them, but the book also includes detailed instructions for making a paper spaced repetition system so you could try it. It might be tough, because so much of the method is about applying your OWN connection to the word or phrase. The author even says it’s basically useless to try to use someone else’s flashcards, because his point is that to get something DEEP into your memory you have to explain to your own brain why it matters enough to retain. He also goes into some discussion about why children and adults learn languages differently, and his method attempts to leverage the adult advantages rather than trying to recreate the child advantages as some other methods do.

      That said, you might find some helpful hints. I did see a few things to apply with my kids as we’re trying to do both Latin and Spanish, but if you’re only looking for a way to help kids learn a language, this might not be your best possible resource.

      1. Thanks! I just saw that my US library has it in ebook form (which is always nice since my library here is sub-par so I’ll check it out). Brian is also trying to learn french and I would like to learn another language someday.
        Johanna recently posted..Read-aloud books in 2014

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