How To Learn A Language By Doing Something Else
As an intermediate to lower advanced level learner, you face many challenges that can prevent you from rising to the next level. Many language learners reach a certain level, but then do not progress further. Once you can already have a conversation or better, how do you go from there?
Many times you lose the motivation to keep on going and your language learning dies as a result. You get stuck in the intermediate level purgatory. What you need to do is continue on learning the language by combining it with something else you love or want to know more about. That way you kill two birds with one stone and keep yourself motivated.
This is something that I have been applying to my own foreign language studies. Unfortunately, my motivation is not always that great, so I often skip doing those grammar exercises that I should be doing.
By using the technique described above, where I combine learning languages with doing something else that I am interested in, I do keep on progressing in my target languages. It sort of lets me bypass the problem of not having motivation and keeps me on the right path.
Learning Spanish by Reading About Gladiators
There are several examples of how I apply this strategy in practice. Last summer, I was in Spain for a few days and did what I always do, I found a local bookstore and went in to browse the books that they had available. I am really interested in ancient history and went over to the history section to check out the books. Since I was in Spain, all the books were in Spanish of course. 🙂
I was looking at the books, when I noticed one on gladiators. I was always interested in ancient sports and this topic caught my interest. Then it hit me, why not satisfy my curiosity by reading a book on gladiators, but do it in Spanish?
That way not only do I get to learn more about gladiators and how they lived, but I also get to practice my Spanish! I decided to buy the book.
When I returned from Spain, I opened up the book and started reading. My Spanish is at a B2 level and so I understand most of what I am reading, but I do come across some words or sentences that I don’t understand.
The key here is to do what I call active reading. While reading the book, I have Google Translate open (or a dictionary) and consult it whenever I don’t understand a word or phrase. I keep the words and their translations listed on screen and when I am finished with the chapter, I transfer them to Anki in order to review them later. That way any new words you learn will stick in your head better.
This type of learning is something you can apply by yourself easily. If you want to learn about a certain subject or watch a certain movie, why not do it in another language?
Especially cartoons can be quite good for immersion in a foreign language. With cartoons, you don’t have the problem of a lack of synchronization between the lips and the spoken words that you get in dubbed shows, so your brain doesn’t have to work as much when listening.
I have a friend who learned English through this method. Her English is very good and one day I asked her what her secret was. I asked: “How did you learn English?” and she replied: “By watching cartoons and MTV!”
She enjoyed watching cartoons and listening to songs and as a side-benefit she picked up very good English! This way she did not have to face the problem of having to motivate herself to study the language, because her motivation was intrinsic.
One of my favorite shows to watch in other languages is The Simpsons. If your native language is English, you are already familiar with their exploits and that makes it much easier to follow what is going on when you are watching the show in a foreign language.
How To Make Learning More Fun
Having something familiar as a bridge can help you in picking up the language faster before you move onto pure native materials. A psychological principle called the mere-exposure effect is at work here. This effect, sometimes also called the familiarity principle, states that people develop a liking or preference for things they are familiar with.
Heinrich Schliemann, the famous adventurer and polyglot, most known for the discovery of Troy, used a very similar method when starting to learn a language.
Whenever he wanted to learn a new language, he would go to a local bookstore and pick up two books: a grammar book of the language he was going to study and a translation of the “Adventures of Telemachus” in that language.
The principle here was that he was already familiar with the story of Telemachus, and so could guess at words and meanings of what was written much easier than if he had picked a completely new book.
This technique works very well with mini-goals and is also good for people who have a hard time sticking with their goals. Since they are already doing something that they enjoy or know about, they don’t have to force themselves into it. It’s just a natural thing to do.
Learning by doing something else
If you are a person who likes to set mini-goals, then you can easily do it here. For example, you can set up a mini-goal of finishing up one chapter or one episode of a series and understanding it.
In today’s hyper-connected age, you can easily get transcripts, subtitles or commentaries, and you can rewatch that exact episode several times. The internet is full of native materials that you can use in order to help you with learning your target language. If you are a person who is lazy and can never finish any language learning goal, then this can be a way to overcome that.
I had a friend who really wanted to be a surfer. He went down to Brazil for a month in order to learn. Not only did he come back being much better at surfing, but he also picked up quite a lot of Portuguese. His instructor did not speak any English and so if my friend wanted to learn, he had to try to communicate.
He started off with a few basic words and phrases, but by the end he could hold a decent basic conversation. He did not go to Brazil to learn Portuguese, but only learned it as a by-product of learning something he loved.
If you want to learn Muay Thai, you can go to Thailand and go to some local gym and get taught by instructors who only speak Thai. If you want become better at BJJ, you can go to Brazil and hang around with the locals who practice at the gym. If you are into cooking, you can go to France or Italy and sign up for a local cooking class. That way you are interacting with locals, but it’s not a chore, but something enjoyable.
For those of you who don’t have the option of going to a different country, there is a solution as well. Pick something you love and do it in your target language. Set up a small immersion environment for yourself. If you love cooking and watch cooking shows all day, why don’t you watch them in the language you want to learn?
This way you are exposed to your target language on a regular basis in an easy and fun way. It still requires a bit of effort, but the effort is much less than forcing yourself to practice just for the sake of practice. Your mind accepts this way of learning much more easily and doesn’t put up as many obstacles as when you are learning the language in other ways.
The key to success and achieving your goals is intrinsic motivation. This is motivation that comes from the inside and when you are doing something because you like doing it. The satisfaction is internal and can often induce you into a state of “flow”. Flow is a mental state in which a person doing an activity is fully immersed in that activity. You are completely absorbed by what you are doing, which leads you to excel.
Unfortunately, many of us have a problem with long-term motivation and willpower in learning languages. For some, the activity of learning a language is an enjoyable experience by itself, but for most of us it is often a dreary chore. Oftentimes we falter and give up.
However we all have things that we love to do. For some it might be sports, for some it might be music, for some it might be cooking, while for others it might be reading books. By combining language learning with an activity you like to do or something that you want to learn more about (and would do anyways in your native language), you can overcome these long-term motivation problems. It can help you learn a language in a fashion which is much more fun. As a bonus, you also improve in the activity that you love doing!
How to learn a foreign language