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.

(*whistling*)

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.


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  • Surely you study a bit at the beginning? Would it be possible to learn from reading newspapers, only looking up a few words, trying to work out others from context, and doing only that? I'm learning spanish and from studying since july can understand only around 30% of what I see. Is the problem that I study too hard? Also, thanks for your tip on learning vocabulary. That has really helped, and I mean it.

  • A little bit of study in the beginning is necessary, naturally, because you need a starting point. But in reality, I spent a couple of weeks learning useful phrases and a couple of weeks learning basic vocab and, then I read about one new grammatical construct every day or two, just so I could be familiar with what to look for... but that's not really learning. Learning is acquiring new knowledge, and I have acquired the bulk of my knowledge by actual language use. Just the same as in English.

  • Sorry, I've just been putting your advice into use and have been reading an article in spanish. I've come across a sentence and have no idea what it means. What do you do in cases like this? It's : "Hacía tiempo que queríamos hacer una película contada desde el punto de vista del malo", in case you want to know.

  • I've always liked the idea of achieving more with less. I guess it's not really what you're saying in this article, but I think we can find similarities in those two concepts - 'sipping from the hose' and 'learning just enough to use a language efficiently'!

  • Agreed!

  • This is a perfect example of what I'm getting at! Fantastic!
    Okay, here's the thing: You're trying to understand it word-for-word.Hacía - imperfective (past continuous) of hacer
    tiempo - time
    que - that
    queríamos - imperfective of querer
    hacer - to make; to do
    una - a
    película - movie
    contada - past participle of contar: to count
    desde - since
    el punto - the point
    de - of
    vista - view
    del malo - from the badOkay, I completely agree -- this makes no sense when you do that! But that's because languages don't have one-to-one translations... and that's why I hate things like flashcards and vocabulary lists.I'll bet what's happening here are two things:
    First, that the phrase "hacía tiempo" means "it had been some time".
    -- "quanto tiempo hace?" = "how long has it been?"
    -- "hace mucho tiempo" = "it's been long time."And second, in addition to "to count", the word "contar" can also means "to tell". So "contada desde" means "told from".So this sentence actually means, more-or-less, "For quite some time we had been wanting to make a movie told from the bad guy's point of view."The key here is that you just simply couldn't have known that. There's no way you would translate word for word and come up with the actual meaning of that sentence. So the thing to do would have been exactly what you did: take note of the sentence that confused you. Write it down. Set it aside. Remember it. Then later, when you're reading something else, you'll again find yourself confused by "hacer tiempo", and you'll begin to notice that phrase appears to have a different meaning than its individual words might imply. And/or you would notice "contar" being used in relation to stories a lot, and you might even draw the connection to the English word "recount", which also means to tell.In some cases, you might go to WordReference and look at all the examples...
    https://www.wordreference.co...
    And eventually as you read all the possible meanings of the word, you would:
    a) take note of some things to look for in the future, and
    b) find one that did make sense in the sentence you were reading.I hope I've explained myself well here, and that you find it useful. Please, feel free to continue asking for help if there's anything that's unclear.

  • where do you go to read 10 blogs and 20 songs in your target language?
    I too am trying to learn italian. I've tried the flash cards thing, etc. I was so frustrated that I started looking for a better method and stumbled across your website. I was hoping that you point me in a direction and help me find some useful resources.

  • Finding blogs is easy! Just go set your Google preferences to allow search results in Italian. Then, search for things you like... in Italian!For example, if you like travel, search for "blog di viaggi". If you like photography, you could search for "i migliori blog di fotografia". Etc.Then, for music, follow a similar path. For example, you could find out the best Italian singers by searching for "gruppi e cantanti italiani più famosi" or something to that effect.Once you find a list of names, go over to YouTube and search out songs by those singers. Find the ones you like, and then there are endless ways of acquiring those songs... you can buy CDs on Amazon, you can buy MP3s on Amazon or iTunes, you can add them to Pandora, or you could go search out torrents of their music. The possibilities are unlimited.Myself, I have blogs about travel and photography fed into my Google Reader, so I don't have to do the work of visiting them every day -- they come to me. I've also "liked" several Italian news sources on Facebook, so I get Italian news in my Facebook feed regularly.And I've downloaded several gigabytes of Italian music and filled my iPod, so I'm actually listening to Italian music all day long.

  • Also, I should add that often when I type the name of a singer into Google, the first results I get are free, playable songs by that artist.

  • You said that conversation requires a higher level of awareness of the language before you can truly start to participate (which makes sense to me). What's your opinion on when you should start trying to talk to people?

  • Brilliant! Thank you. The article is about the fil "despicable me", so the sentence could be: It has been a loong time since someone has wanted to make a film told from the point of view of the bad guy.I now understand what these posts have been getting at (no offense). There is no need in studying really after you have the basics. The most important way to become fluent is to use your knowledge in a practical way, like reading or speaking.My example has also shown me really (this is starting to sound like my language epiphany here) that things like srs and lingq are no good because they just teach you word for word.Thanks,
    James

  • I should also add that some of your blogs I've been dismissing because I thought they were just some stuff about some positive mental attitude which made me stop reading fluent in 3 months. Re-reading shows me I shouldn't of ignored them because in essence they were telling me ways to avoid what I've just done!

  • Some people find it hard to accept, I think the first requirement is the ability to not worry about the things your are not catching some people find this hard. It is even harder potentially when you have made some progress, it is not easy to face the fact that although you can have some conversations and feel comfortable, that news program is almost totally incomprehensible.So I guess this this is why many people would still prefer to have little sips of water packed into small vials, characterised and then presented to them in way where they can keep track of exactly how many vials they successfully sipped from. Meanwhile the hose is still gushing.Since the advent of the internet, multimedia, widespread foreign travel the hose has been gushing relentlessly for years it doesn't take long to learn to drink from it without drowning :).A hundred years ago there were two choices for many languages, total immersion (hopefully extended the metaphor without overloading it ;)), or sipping from the vials carefully prepared by others. Some of those guys would have been extremely grateful for language on tap.

  • James, good point, you are not the only one, I have disagreed with Randy on a number of posts along those lines (where are you from James I am finding non-American English speakers are often those that view the positive mental attitude stuff as largely useless). But and this is a big but if you read this blog it is quickly obvious that Randy has a lot of language learning insights and is a very thoughtful language learner, certainly worth reading :).As for some others that rely almost entirely on re-hashing the same positive mental attitude message and re-defining all the "scary" adjectives out of existence so everything looks soft and cuddly ............

  • Honestly, I think the moment you have something to say to someone, you should say it... even if you don't know how. You can use chat, and look things up in a dictionary or a translation site, and you're certain to get some responses that you'll need to look up, but you'll be using - and learning - with the language.I think that when your skill is too little, you'll naturally find other people keep conversations short with you. So don't worry about when to start having them... just try having them whenever you have something to say, and eventually you'll start finding they last longer.

  • I'm really excited for you, James. Epiphanies are exciting moments!

  • Wow, thanks for those kind words!

  • Yes, I am from England.For me, I don't like all the positive attitude stuff. I believe personally that those who are reading blogs already have a brilliant attitude to learning, or they won't be on these blogs. Also, I prefer actual methods which show to me that I am advancing. Reading a full page in spanish without aid is what truly makes me feel good and ready to learn more, not being reasured that learning a lanuage is easy, that anyone can do it, and that I learnt english, so why can't I learn any other language (all that being said to me slowly and them being really patronising, like I'm six). In short, I don't need a carer when learning a language, I need to get out their and be independant, not worrying about mistakes and just being proud about what I can do at that very moment. I'm not going to learn any other way.

  • Agreed, the internet certainly has changed things!Still, I think even those people 100 years ago in their total immersion had to face the same problem: "I don't understand everything, what do I do? AAaaaggghhhh!!" And I think they had to naturally come to the same realization: learn a little each day and let that be enough.Actually, I think without an online translator, and without instant answers to everything, and with a barrage of immersion coming at you, I think there's a survival trait that kicks in, causing people to learn how to sip. I think it's the internet generation who have the disadvantage.

  • Many times those songs are blocked in many countries (not the states) by Sony. This was the case in Germany for me and is also the case in Colombia. So people can know to use hidemyass or a similar piggy-back site to view it through.
    I love seeing the music videos of songs I like :)

  • Oh, good point. I hadn't thought of that.

  • The thing I'm curious about is how do you learn (i.e. Commit to memory) the words that you don't recognise when reading blogs/stories etc..As an example, everyday I attempt to read a chapter out of a book and everytime I come upon a word or phrase that I don't know which stops me understanding the sentence I will look it up. But what about if you accumulate say 20 new words from your reading session? Do you write them down and repeat them, or just hope they come up again. I would have to see a word at least 4 times and use it in some context before it becomes imprinted in my memory. Writing all the words down and drilling them definitely wouldn't work for me, and I"m curious how you handle it?

  • I do it the same way that I would do it in my native language. If I understand everything except for one word, I won't have a very hard time remembering that one word. But if I'm still missing one or two words per sentence, I'm not going to concentrate on understanding or remembering everything I look up, I'll just let those words sit in my subconscious and when I hear or see one again, I'll let that trigger the memory.For example...I'm reading Pinocchio in Italian. Last night I came upon a phrase like "si ha gettato su un ramo della quercia", which turned out to have meant "he flung himself upon a branch of the oak tree" or something like that. Now in this case, recognize grammatically that "he has [done something] to himself, onto a [something] of a [something]", and then I just looked at the entire translation, got the meaning and kept reading.This morning, in the shower, I'm singing along with the CapaRezza song "Ulisse", and the repeating phrase comes up "slegatemi, gettatemi giù" which I've previously learned means "untie me, throw me down". As I'm singing along, I realized "gettatemi" and "si ha gettato" are the same thing. And the world became just a tiny bit clearer. :)No writing down, no memorizing, no exercises. Just using the language. Our brains are built to do that. We'll learn the things we see and hear a lot, and we'll forget the things we don't. Trying to fight that would be foolish.Now the really funny thing is, I had completely decided to let "ramo" and "quercia" go, because I don't need to know those words right now. But actually, having used them in my response to you, they're now more prominently burned into my brain too. It seems it would be in my interest to go write something at Lang-8 later today about an oak tree and a branch, to help get them committed into my memory! :)

  • Thanks for the tips. I will give this a try and not worry too much about remembering the words. If I need the word it will come up a several times and by that time I will have hopefully remembered it

  • It can be a general strategy to just let the language pass by without even looking words up. That's the way we learn most words in our first language throughout our whole live. Our brains are extremely good at sorting out language and meaning, in particular if we have contextual, visual or other clues. In doing that, one has plenty of experiences of the type Randy describes above with gettatemi. Most people don't like the idea of letting the meaning grow by observing the circumstances in which words are used and prefer strategies that give them some sense of control about the learning process. For others, however, it works well and is generally experienced as effortless.

  • I think the general resistance comes from the fact that we spend several years in our native language just learning basic sounds, it's not until age four or five that a person starts to develop basic conversational skills. Learning a foreign language in that way would be absolutely frustrating, given that we already have the ability to converse quite well in a first language.I think a combined approach works best. I like to learn the sounds, key phrases, and basic grammar right from the start, and then use those things to help me as I figure out the rest of what I'm hearing, seeing, learning.People are impatient; they want to understand everything right now. But in my experience, that impatience leads to over-study, which ends up having a negative result, because less knowledge is retained long-term.

  • Yes, maybe the general resistance comes from the idea that we need the same amount of time as a child. In my experience, this is not true. Children spend most of their time learning about reality, what things are, how they work etc. I already know most of this. If I watch a program in Thai on, say, the effect on climate change on coral reefs, I understand a lot more (content, language) than a small child would, because I'm familiar with the basic biological, physical, chemical processes involved, I've been to coral reefs and I'm familiar with the overall story in general.Another point why learning without translation might be more efficient than most people think is that you get much more exposure that way. If you don't stop to nail the meaning down right now and just stay attentive and focused on what's going on, you get a lot more input.

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