How To Learn A Language Without Being Overwhelmed

I recently discussed learning as a lifestyle, and said that I learn by using the language, not by studying it. I've pointed out that I don't do lessons, I don't use flashcards, I don't take classes, and I don't think you should either.

I claim that I learn from reading, listening to music, watching movies, chatting, talking, writing, etc. But you might be wondering how a person can learn from doing that. In fact, I was recently asked by one of my readers to explain how I learn new words without getting overwhelmed.

It's hard not to get overwhelmed — especially in the beginning, when there's so much that you don't know.

Information is like water coming from a hose. It comes in a huge quantity and doesn't stop. Too often, when learning, people think they need to understand everything, but that's a lot like trying to put your entire mouth around the water hose. I invite any one of you to go outside right now, turn on a hose, and then put your mouth around it to see what happens.

Go ahead. I'll wait.


Did you try it? Good. Now, tell me, starting from the moment you put your mouth around the hose, how much of that water were you able to swallow? If you're human, the answer is probably none of it. After one second, your eyes bulged out and you took the hose away, and you were left with a few drops of water and an overwhelmed feeling that you'd never be dumb enough to try that again.

Now, think of your new language as that water. And information is that hose. The internet, the books, the movies, the CDs, phone calls, Skype, meetings in person, etc. There's a ton of information coming at you, and you need to accept that you can't swallow it all.

Sip from the hose

If you put your lips next to the stream of water coming out of that hose, you can drink at a casual pace until you're satisfied. And you can do that whenever you want, for as long as you want. Once you accept that you'll never get all of it, it's much easier to get what you need. Or want.

That's how I learn a language.

I may read 5-10 blog posts every day. In the beginning, I read them and understand very little of what's there. But that's okay. I'm reading. I'm getting used to seeing words in a new language, and I'm learning to recognize the words I see often. And when I see a word more than once or twice, I look it up and learn it. I don't have to know everything, but now I know something useful.

I may listen to 20-30 songs every day. Maybe more. Some days it's more than 100 songs in the language I'm studying. Do I understand everything? No. In the beginning, I'm happy just to start recognizing the chorus, so that's where I start! I'll hear the chorus over and over, so I look that up, find out what it means, and next time I hear that song, I think about it's meaning.

Reading books and watching movies in a foreign language is a little harder, because without understanding what's going on, it's hard to follow the story. So these things can't really be begun until I've already done a lot of sipping from the hose, but they still provide me with more bits and pieces to learn. I don't need to understand every sentence or every bit of dialog, but when I see or hear a word or phrase repeatedly, that's a good time to pause and find out what it means.

Similarly, chatting and/or talking to people requires an even higher level of understanding, but there's still a lot that can be ignored. If I get the general idea of what's being said, I can keep the conversation going even if there are some nuances or subtleties that I may have missed. But I take note of things that keep coming up, or things that needed explanation, and learn those.

Nobody needs 100%

There will always be more to learn. There will always be things you don't know. Officially, there are over 1 million words in the English language. I'll bet I could understand 100,000 of them, and I probably only know 60,000 of them, and my regular vocabulary probably consists of less than 20,000 of them. (These are just guesses.)

So do I need to know every word? No. Nobody ever taught me the word chocolate, but I figured out that every time someone used that word, something delicious was nearby. If the word circumloquacious comes up, I can go to a dictionary. (And then I'll probably decide that the person who used it is a bit too pretentious for me, as I'd rather spend my time with a person who says "talking in circles".)

Don't try to put your mouth around the hose. Just sip enough to satisfy your thirst. And later, when you're thirsty again, come back for more.

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.

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