Since following advice from the many “language hacking” web sites that have grown like a virus on the internet in the past five years, my ability to learn a language has actually decreased. I’ve had to unlearn all the bad habits that I got from them. I want to describe what went wrong.
Spaced repetition flashcard programs don’t work
Every language hacking web site eagerly promotes Anki, the most popular spaced repetition program out there. Anki (and its predecessor Supermemo) essentially tries to duplicate paper flashcards with the added benefit of showing you words only when the algorithm thinks you will forget them. For example, if you get a word incorrect, the program will show it to you again the next day. If you have gotten it correctly the past 10 or so tries in a row, you may not see it for months. Sounds logical and reasonable, right? Wrong.
Consider that these programs were written by computer programmers. The author of Supermemo is legitimately off his rocker, dedicating his life to annotating and memorizing everything he reads. We can only speculate on the social ability of the Anki creator. Programs like this appeal to computer nerds who don’t want to interact with people and who need metrics to confirm how many words they “know.” It’s a way to gamify language, which last time I checked, is not a game but a method of communication.
A more severe problem is that you must use the program every day, or else your reviews build up to such a level that it may take you hours to catch up. If you go on a one-week vacation, you will come back to a mountain of cards that will take you half a day to complete. If Sisyphus decided to learn a language, he would use Anki. These programs make you a slave to the app, keeping you in a constant state of anxiety about maintaining a continuous streak of using the app every day with no exceptions. Once you get into a word bank of thousands, you will be forced to spend a huge part of your life doing the reviews. You become one with the program.
In spite of all the labor you expend, it still doesn’t help you speak the language. Anki aids you with memorizing words in isolation, away from context, where humans aren’t present. It happened many times that I nailed certain words in Anki, but then when I wanted to use it in a conversation, I drew a blank. While flashcards are a great way to review vocabulary, it’s a horrible method in learning how to speak a language. If more than 15% of your language study time is spent on notecards, you’re not learning.
You can’t be fluent in a few months
Language hackers are like the PUAs who market that you will NEVER get rejected while being able to land ANY beautiful girl you want. With a couple weeks of planning and practice, I could construct a five minute Youtube video that will convince most people I’m nearly fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Polish, just like how any guy can hire an actress and do an in-field pickup video that makes it seem like he’s an innovative Casanova. Today you can even find videos of pimply-faced teenagers claiming to speak 20 languages because he said two sentences in each one. I believe him!
How many years does it take to be fluent in a language and talk almost like a native? Years, if ever. These guys are selling the dream to naive and bored Westerners who want to rack up a language like horny men want to rack up notches. The bar has been so lowered that the definition of “fluent” has come to mean “has retained 500 words in short-term memory.”
Speaking a language is now seen as some kind of accomplishment, a trophy to be displayed on your social networking profile, instead of a tool that allows you to communicate with a specific culture or people. Once you take language out of its intended purpose, and attach to that a Westerner’s insatiable narcissism, you turn it into a silly competition, a way for you to brag.
If you want to learn a language, sit down and honestly ask yourself why. If it doesn’t hit two of the following three reasons, don’t even bother:
- Unexplainable love of the culture
The height of idiocy is people learning tribal languages like Quechua just to alleviate their white guilt or make people think they are progressive for going native.
The real key to learning a language is already known
To the credit of language hackers, they know the most effective way to learn a language: speaking it. They don’t hide the fact that you need to seek out conversation and make mistakes. But how the hell are they going to make that sweet internet money with this advice? So they have to add untested and dubious advice in shiny wrapping that can actually be harmful in language acquisition.
You will have to find out on your own the best way for you to learn a language. The reason is because your learning ability is different from others. Maybe you’re visual, or auditory, or sensory. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all technique (just like with game). I was doing just fine with paper notecards, making it a supplement to my studies, until I went astray by letting Anki become my main tool. It’s not the fault of the language hackers that I began studying wrong, but they are so forceful and confident with their advice that I felt like an idiot for not doing it their way.
Self-identifying yourself as a “polyglot” is sad
Imagine that you meet a new guy and ask him what his interests are. He replies, “I’m a player.” Would you not roll your eyes at him? Sure, maybe he is a player, but why is he so quick to take one of his hobbies and make it a personal label that defines his entire essence? It’s the same idea when someone describes himself as a “polyglot.” How about you just be a human being that has an interest in languages? People in Europe, who genuinely speak many languages, don’t get validation in describing themselves in such terms, but get some language nerds from America together who can “speak” a couple Romance languages and all of a sudden they’re jerking themselves off in a polygot circle. Language is a human communication tool, not a lifestyle.
So what’s the answer? How do you learn a language? I’m not an expert, or a polyglot, but here are the tips that work for me:
—Pimsleur and Michel Thomas. These audio courses get you speaking right away. Knowing words is only half the battle because natives still have to understand your pronunciation. These courses aid in that problem.
—Grammar course book in target language (with exercises). Doing boring repetitive examples are critical to learning a language, especially when you’re forced to write things down.
—Easy reading material. Grab a few simple articles or children’s books, a dictionary, and start translating. It also helps to read the articles outloud to work on your pronunciation.
—Watch short television shows or cartoons without English subtitles. Like a baby, you will only understand a few words, but through context, repetition, and looking up words in the dictionary, you will piece it together. When you speak with locals, there will be no subtitles, so you have to use context to construct meaning when you only understand a small percentage of words.
—Try to fornicate with the opposite sex. In Ukraine I wanted to approach women during the day in Russian. The first day I could only say “Excuse me, do you know where I can find a good cafe?” Then the second day I added, “I don’t like that cafe there.” Then the third day I added, “I want very good coffee.” Within a month, I had a primitive day game routine that lasted about three minutes. When I look back at my progress in Russian, the most came with approaching women. I got farther in every approach and doing so many of them in the same fashion made the language stick in my head.
Whatever you do, get away from the computer screen. Spend less time reading the hacker blogs. Stop “language exchanges” with people who are already proficient in English. Don’t fall for the newfangled language tool that wants to make money off you when a 30-year grammar book will get you farther. Instead, focus on materials written on dead tree paper or actually talk to real life people. Learning a new language as an adult is hard as hell and it should be, so don’t buy the hype that it’s not.