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.

Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.

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

Leave a comment:

Comment Policy: Comments and feedback are totes welcome but respect is mandatory. Disagree all you want but be nice. All comments and links are moderated.

Want to learn a language in 12 months?

Language you're learning...