Why You Shouldn't Study A Foreign Language

I'll bet a few of you never expected to see that headline from me. But this isn't a joke post, and it's not reverse-psychology. I'm absolutely serious... if you're studying a foreign language, you need to stop.

Surely you must think I'm mad. A guy who says anyone can learn to speak a foreign language is telling people not to do it? Well... not exactly. I'm not telling you not to learn... I'm only telling you not to study.

Stop studying

People study to pass tests. Students study in order to do well in school. New drivers study for their driving exam. A doctor studies an x-ray. An investigator studies a crime scene.

If you were paying close attention to that last paragraph, you will have noticed a pattern: people study for intense short-term results. When people study, they devote elevated, sometimes even intense amounts of attention to a particular topic with the specific intent of high short-term recall.

But that's not how we use language! You don't study for a conversation. You can't know what's going to be said. Okay, if you knew you were going to meet a football player, you might think you could study football vocabulary beforehand. But he doesn't want to talk about the rules of the game, or the position on the field... and when he changes to the more interesting subject to his opinion of instant-replay you'll already find that the words you learned in advance weren't helpful. But more importantly, whether your study helped or not, you will most likely forget those words soon afterwards.

Quit making time to study a language. Stop cramming. Put an end to all that ridiculous memorization. Never use flash cards. Throw out those vocabulary lists. Seriously!

And I know you hate all those things. I'm certain that those are the details you dread about language learning anyway. So stop doing them!

Learn instead

Think about how you learned your native language. There weren't lists. You didn't have to study. You just learned the words that were important to the things you were doing — which usually meant learning the things you enjoy. So why not learn like that now?

I can tell you that I have spent almost no time studying Italian this year. I'm not lying. I do not study. I have not done any flashcards. None. And in spite of my post about frequency lists, I have not bothered to look at one or check off any words. If I had a particular word-count for a goal, I might do that... but I don't have any such goal. My goal is to communicate.

In spite of not studying I'm learning just fine, and so can you. Here's what I am doing, and why (in spite of not studying) I'm quite pleased with my progress in Italian:

Every night I read at least one chapter of a book written in Italian. In the beginning, that was a simple reader, but I am currently reading Pinocchio in the original Italian, and thoroughly enjoying it. In the earlier chapters I had to look up a lot of words as I read, but half-way through the book I am now reading almost uninterrupted. Often, I can figure out the meaning of a word from context, and I only have to look up one or two difficult words in a chapter.

I only listen to music in Italian. Whether I'm paying full attention or just listening passively (and I do both), the only music getting into my head this year is Italian music. And it's working. Instead of having Lady Gaga's latest hit stuck in my head, I'm stuck repeating something in my target language. That helps more than you might imagine.

When I want to watch recent movies, I try to find those movies in Italian. This isn't always possible, but if you know how to search and use torrents, you can find some pretty good films professionally dubbed in Italian. This is how I watched Iron Man 2, The Crazies, Green Zone, The Men Who Stare At Goats, Did You Hear About The Morgans, Robin Hood, and several others. Watching a movie is much more enjoyable than "studying", and if you're going to spend time being idly entertained, at least this way it counts toward your language goal.

When writing an email or chatting with an Italian-speaker, I write only in Italian. Even if I don't know how to say something. Especially when I don't know how to say something! How else will I learn if I don't try it then? You only learn when you do the things you don't know. And since the moment I started learning Italian, I, too, am an Italian-speaker, so that includes any notes I write to myself. Figuring out how to say something when you write a note to yourself is a great way to save the stress of figuring it out when talking to someone else. A great place to do this is Lang-8.

And, perhaps the most helpful of all, I take the time to learn things (expressions, grammar, etc) as I write about them to explain them to you in my posts! When I write a 400-word post about Italian, it takes me several hours... not because I write slow, but because I spend time learning the things I'm writing about and double-checking my information. And sometimes I still end up getting corrections in my comments. Learning this way keeps everything relevant to what I'm doing (writing a blog) and it never feels like studying. When listening to a song, or watching a movie, or having a conversation with an Italian, when I hear a new expression, I write it down and learn it so I can share it later with you!

All of these things are compatible with having a normal life. When asked how much time I spend studying, I know that the question stems from the belief that I must have no life if I'm learning a new language every year. But I have a life! I have plenty of time for everything because I'm not adding any hassle to my schedule. I'm simply replacing activities in English with activities in Italian. Once you get past basic grammar, it only takes a few moments to look up a word you don't know.

So my answer is... I don't study. And neither should you.


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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • I'm really sick of people telling me to learn like a baby. I don't have 16 hours a day for 6 years to learn the minimum necessary bits of a language to get my point across. I certainly don't have the 12+ years it took me to be able to write essays and have intelligent conversation.So I study. And I practice. And I use the language. Like an adult.

  • This is the best information about learning a language that I've ever read.

  • "16 hours a day for 6 years to learn the minimum" WTF??
    With 16 hours "a day" you'd learn the minimum necessary bits before breakfast on day 1 and after a week you'd be communicating pretty well if you were in learn-mode rather than study mode.I'm also not a fan of saying "learn like a baby" since adults are SOCIAL creatures, but retorts like that just show how illogical the study-focused attitude is. People think that full time learning just means their current unbalanced study method times twenty. It's no wonder they think you have to be a genius to learn a language...

  • I really enjoy study and as a result I retain most of it and use it so I don´t think everyone should stop studying. Different things work for different people. I agree with the other stuff you said and do it too but I also really enjoy studying and feel the benefits of it when talking, listening, reading etc.

  • Really great post. I personally think spending some time in Anki / with grammar does help, though using the language absolutely should be the focus. I don't see how WC got that you should use the language like a baby or that it'll take 16 hours for 6 years this way..

  • I would disagree, boing both is the best thing, at least for me. I attempt to watch films, read articles and listen to music in my target language, and without a doubt it helps and is much more enjoyable than studying. Any words that I see frequently, I add to ANKI, and I spend at least 10-20 minutes a day going through my ever increasing ANKI word list. Since I discovered Anki, I'm amazed at how fast I'm able to learn words and phrases.But studying is a must, even if it's a little. I will read up on grammar, do exercises and use books to practice writing and speaking in various different situations. Situations that I may never encounter, but it's practice and exposure non-the-less. I'm certainly not studying to pass an exam, but I'd like to understand what I'm hearing, reading and speaking. Having a good balance between the two is important, I don't study too much that I get bored, but I study enough so that I make progress.I don't mean to sound critical, but after reading some of your earlier posts it seems like you are contradicting yourself. Didn't you learn hundreds of Russian phrases using Anki? Spending a few hours reading and then writing articles about grammar is also studying (Although in an unconventional way). I think "Stop Studying" is far too much of a strong statement. I would say "Study less, and have more fun :-)". Find a balance that is right for you.

  • Now, that really feels creepy cause I have the impression you just
    looked into my head! I spent 3 years in Spain when I was a child and
    obviously learned Spanish exactly this way. I spent a year in France
    staying with a French family, never studied but nevertheless _learned_
    French. And now I live in Scotland and I really want to improve my
    poor English (I'm German), so I read English books, only English books
    which I get from the local library - and as you said: In the beginning
    I looked up a lot of words but then my reading became more and more
    fluently - and I so enjoy that! I write English short messages,
    English e-mail (English comments ;), watch English movies - and I
    enjoy it. That's exactly the way I love to learn a language - and it
    works!

  • Excellent! I can see that it has worked well for you.

  • I have never used ANKI or any flashcards. Last year, I did try to learn from a frequency list, but I can tell you that what I learned from studying that list was slow and painful and didn't stick, whereas those same words, when I read them in a news article, stuck permanently in my mind. Without context around the word, you're memorizing. It's slow, and not very fun, and not very effective for recall.And regarding the grammar I learn as I write here, I don't think of that as study, because I read it, find a way to understand it, write about it, and then stop thinking about it. Study would seem to imply that I keep looking at it over and over... which I don't.

  • I'm seeing a lot of people mention Anki. Call me unconventional, but I just don't believe you can learn a language from flashcards.

  • If you enjoy study, then at least you're getting something out of it when you do it.

  • Thanks!

  • I can tell from your congenial response that you have absolutely no built up frustration on this topic.

  • Everyone told me it would take seven years to learn fluent Russian. I did it in one. I can't help thinking that my method works. :)"Learn like a baby" is an ignorant thing to say, since we are not babies. But "learn like a child" actually makes sense, because children learn almost everything socially, and the average five-year-old in Spain speaks better Spanish than most adults I know.

  • Right right. I don't think using anki is absolutely essential as well (nor any flashcard program), as I didn't use one when I learned Chinese... although I did write down words and look at them occasionally. Language is for sure easier to learn (and sticks better / more motivating) when learned through use, although doing 20 minutes of Anki a day really does help.Check out https://www.alljapaneseallth..., he has some good posts on this, although I really don't agree with the overall Heisig method of first learning to read, then learning to pronounce. It's dull, robotic, and doesn't make sense in terms of how our minds piece together information.Instead of thinking about flashcards in the traditional boring way, perhaps you can try to think of Anki as a memory assistance program. The best part of Anki IMO isn't that it's flashcards, but rather the SRS part of it - outsourcing the review process to a program that can do it more efficiently than you can. You don't even have to just input words - you can input sentences too. It is nice having pre-built decks to learn from, but I do my learning outside of Anki (as you say), then use it to help me remember - very little effort to maintain it for life.

  • just like you said, you practiced and used it. Thats what they say. You may study all you want but that not how you improve. You have to use it and practice it to get better and understand a language.Too me what they mean by studying like a child is you aren't worried about making mistakes and you choose what you want to watch, listen to, or read. have fun, like kids do. They dont learn grammar til in high school. At least where I grow up.

  • Whether you choose to call it "memory assistance" or something else, it's still just flashcards, which means you're learning to memorize words out of their context. Not only do I think this is a terrible way to learn, but I also believe it creates problems for you later on.Bottom line: Whether it's flashcards or frequency lists or any other arrangement of words in a list, if you're learning for the sake of increasing the number of words you know, you're already missing the point. If I was learning Italian for the purpose of musical study, I could learn every word I needed from just talking about musical study, and every additional word that I learned would be useful in that realm. But if I started reading vocabulary lists or doing flashcards, I would be spending valuable brainpower on things that I don't need and will never use.(Disclaimer: That's not the reason I'm learning Italian. It just makes a good example.)

  • Did you learn Russian the same way as you have been learning Italian? I'd love to see a post summarizing how you learnt it to such a high-level in the course of a year (Maybe you already have posted, but I don't remember seeing it).Although as I wrote above, I do read and watch films in my target language, I'm at a loss on how I'd progess quicker without actually spending time studying books, learning vocab using Anki, etc. I'm absolutely 100% for ditching the boring books and Anki :-)

  • The same way? No. It was similar. While I wasn't writing the blog then, Russian was, essentially, my first "fluent in one year" project. So in addition to learning what works, I also learned a lot about what doesn't work.There is a lot of grammar involved in Slavic languages, and the important thing was getting my head around all of that. No matter what language I'm learning, I start early on with learning the grammar. Sure, I'm not going to master it that way, but understanding the grammar gives me the ability to understand and learn from the things I'll see from then on.Fortunately, there are only two verb tenses, and a few other really simple details, which lightens the burden when you're learning 6 noun cases in 3 genders.Anyway, the reason I was able to learn Russian well in a short period of time is because I was constantly using it. Since the beginning of the year, I was listening to mostly Russian music and very little else. I was watching movies and tv shows in Russian every few days. I was around Russian speaking people regularly. And I was chatting online with Russians every day.That was all very overwhelming at first, but slowly as I learned, things began to make more sense. And by the end of the year, I was able to host a Christmas party for all of my Russian friends.I can argue with people all day about whether or not it helped to study the grammar... but nobody can deny that the intense level of immersion I created for myself was the biggest key to my success in Russian.

  • could you please provide a bit more details on how you learn words, for example, while reading? when i find a new word in an article, look it up and try to learn it for a few seconds, it may not always stick. so then the next day when i find the same word i'll have to get the dictionary once again. i think it's quite a waste of time. (i haven't used anki yet, but i think it could be a possible solution for this. and anki doesn't necessarily mean learning lists of separate words - you can make a sentence list and therefore learn words in context.)
    do you have the ability to learn most of the new words in a few seconds or half a minute, so that within a few days you would recognize them? if so, is there any technique that you use for quick memorisation, or is it natural for you :) if not, how do you deal with having to look the words up more than once?

  • Excellent questions!First, my strategy isn't to learn every word. In general, writers use a vocabulary much bigger than speakers. In most cases, I'm happy to figure out the meaning of a particular word from context, though if I'm unclear I will look it up.I try to focus on words that are important to the theme of what I'm reading, which I find isn't very hard, since they are repeated often. For example, when reading a book about personal finance, you'll see words like "saving" and "account" and "retire" a lot. You may have trouble learning it on page 7, but by page 50 you're never going to forget those words.As for remembering words, I don't think I'm blessed with any special gift of memory. I just use what I know to help me with what I don't. For instance, two days ago I learned the Italian word for thumb is "pollice", which sounds a lot like палец, the Russian word for finger. So in spite of having never seen that word before, or again, I was able to look it up and then remember it permanently within a few seconds.The same thing worked when I learned scocciare, whose verb stem sounds to me like the stem from the Russian verb скучать, and since the two mean similar things, I was again able to learn the word permanently withing a few seconds.Obviously, that doesn't work for everything. And some words just aren't going to be learned that easily.But there are usually ways to facilitate memory. Learning prefixes and suffixes, and deconstructing words tends to help a lot! An example from last week, I learned the word comportarsi, meaning how you treat others. I paused the conversation for a moment, and deconstructed the word - co=with, portare=carry, si=yourself. So the word means "to carry yourself with", and that makes a lot of sense. "Non comportarsi così" = "Don't carry yourself [with others] this way."I can see this is a great topic for a post.

  • these are some great tips and examples!
    looking up all the new words (sometimes up to 20-30 per page) was quite a tedious task. i used to think that it's a great opportunity to improve my vocabulary and understanding of the language, but i just couldn't cope with it. now after reading your comment i'm trying to go a different way - look up just the words which are essential for getting the plot/story (some 3-5 words per page), and guess or even skip the rest. even though i will learn a smaller amount of words from each specific source, i will learn them better and the process will be more enjoyable (which is very important!) and less stressful.

  • Fantastic post, Randy! I would love to share this with some people I know who are scared of learning languages and ask me "How can you do that much studying?" I always reply, "It's not study, it's fun!" but they don't seem to get it. Now I'll just send them the link to this post of yours instead. :)

  • Fantastic! I'm glad you liked it.

  • Nice! But I have to say, I took 3 semesters of Italian and I friggin hate Italian music. Oh well.

  • I agree that you shouldn't study a language. I used to use flashcards but now I don't. I just read french on a language website called lingq. When I read, it helps me a lot because it shows me how to use words. I also practice my french on facebook and I talk to people. I don't like flashcards, they are boring and I'm so glad I don't have to suffer.

  • I have something to say on flashcards. I've been using Mnemosyne for about a week to improve my English (I'm a native German speaker), but in a different way than you describe here or in your other post "Why I don’t use flashcards (and you shouldn’t either)". Since I've been using it only for a short period of time, I can't really tell whether it's effective, so I'll just describe how I intend to use it.Apart from school, I've mostly learned English by using the internet and watching English movies/series (yes, with English subtitles), pretty much in the way you describe in your posts, looking something up when necessary, but basically just taking in the information. However, I've recently decided that this isn't enough, and that I should make an effort to retain the learned vocabulary more actively, instead of just being happy if I understood enough of the language to understand the content. This includes not being satisfied with being able to figure out the meaning of a word out of the context it appears, which holds especially true for phrasal verbs, because they mostly consist of common words, and most of the time, it's possible to figure out the meaning from the context, which is probably why with phrasal verbs I sometimes don't even notice that I come across one that I am actually not familiar with (e.g. "to pass sth. up" [an opportunity], to "take sb. on" (to challenge sb.), I probably would have had no idea what they meant had I come across them out of context, but in the context they appeared, it was perfectly clear and I didn't even notice that this was actually new vocabulary).So at some point, I decided to use an online vocabulary trainer to train all new vocabulary from the TV series I was watching at that time, making one list per epsiode, training that list at least one day after I watched the episode (to get some sleep in between), and always trying to remember the words or phrases in the context they appeared in. I was already aware at that time that my goal was not to create links between German words/phrases and their English equivalent, it was just that I didn't know any better way to practice the newly learnt vocabulary. I thought this worked pretty well, and to my surprise, I was indeed able to use two or three or so of the learned words/phrases in conversation when I was abroad with a friend and a group of people and we were speaking English.About a week ago, I googled for a better way to train my TV-series-vocabulary, something that was better suited for what I wanted. I had no idea about spaced repetition, and although I knew what I was looking for, I didn't know that it was called "flash cards", so it was a bit of a hassle finding what I wanted, but in the end, I got there.I'm now using Mnemosyne in the following way: As a "question", I write the whole sentence the word or phrase appeared in, or sometimes more, depending on how much information I need to remember the context (but trying not to include more than necessary) and an explanation of the context, including who said it, but I leave out the word I'm trying to learn (sort of a cloze), and put that in the "answer" field. Sometimes I get more than one word/phrase per card if they're appearing in the same context. As I already said, I didn't know about spaced repetition, I was merely looking for a way to train a selected list of vocabulary (e.g. all vocabulary from one season of a series) in a way than suited me as opposed to traditional vocabulary training (German–English in this case), but now I'm happy that I've found out about it.Damian Gryski mentioned this potential use of flashcards in a comment on your post "Why I don’t use flashcards (and you shouldn’t either)" (https://www.yearlyglot.com/d... ), but neither he nor you elaborated on it, so what do think about this approach?

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