We all want shortcuts in life. And when we hear of them, it’s seductive. From the quickest way to make a million dollars to the fastest way to build six-pack abs to the shortest route to a rewarding career, people have continually chased after shortcuts like it was the holy grail.
The same thing happens in language learning. Too many times, we focus on the shortcuts — the courses that claim to impart fluency in three months, the quirky techniques that worked for some guy we don’t even know and the weird subliminal stuff that will have you learning a new language effortlessly. And when one shortcut doesn’t work, we look for the next one. Before we realize it, we’ve spent an entire year trying shortcuts instead of just sitting down and learning a language.
There Are Shortcuts
Are there shortcuts in language learning? Sure, there are shortcuts to everything. The thing with shortcuts, though, is they tend to work differently for different people. What proven shortcuts are there in language learning?
1. Immersion. If you immerse yourself in a country where the target language is spoken and make a point of conversing in the local parlance, then you’ll likely learn a lot faster than people studying from a book with no one to practice with. People who are naturally social and extroverted tend to benefit the most from this, since actually going out and making a point of using the local language is key. The more you’re able to do that, the faster you’ll develop your skills.
2. Dive into the culture. There was probably a time when you needed to visit the foreign country in order to do this (i.e. immersion). Nowadays, it’s perfectly doable remotely. I have a friend, for instance, who learned Japanese from downloading scanned Japanese comic books online, joining communities of fans, and using translations posted on forums to get a handle on the language. While he is nowhere near fluent, he can read and comprehend most Japanese comic books, apart from being able to converse with reasonable levels of ability. If you can do this obsessively (yeah, it has to become an obsession, at least temporarily), along with regular lessons, you can really skyrocket your skills development.
3. One-on-one tutoring. Getting a dedicated tutor, especially one who can work with you for extended periods of time, is one of the best shortcuts available. Not only can a tutor give you focused and personalized teaching (e.g. they can tailor the lessons according to what you’ll need, depending on what you intend to use the language for), they can also monitor your every progress, apart from giving you someone accessible to get daily practice with. Even when working with a tutor possessing average teaching skills, the practice alone can probably grow your skills by leaps and bounds, compared to what you can get from other learning resources.
All the above are real shortcuts. However, they’re also not feasible for a lot of learners. Not all of us can have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a country for an unspecified period of time, nor can we all afford personal tutoring (which is, in all likelihood, the most expensive language learning resource).
Are there any shortcuts beyond those? Probably, but I wouldn’t recommend jumping on them unless you fully understand there’s a good chance you’ll just end up wasting your time. All the magical shortcuts with outlandish promises usually are just that — magical and outlandish, rather than having a high chance of working.
If you apply yourself to your language studies, chances are that you’ll find your own shortcuts. By shortcuts, we mean simple tactics and techniques that you can use to learn things faster (e.g. memorize vocabulary) and build skills more efficiently than the traditional process. Unlike the “magical shortcuts” above, these are shortcuts you’re able to take advantage due to advantages you have innately, such as:
1. Your environment. Do you live in a place conducive to learning the new language? If you’re in a foreign country where that language is spoken and are surrounded by supportive people, for instance, then that’s something that can really give you a leg up. If you have family and friends who speak the target language, they can be very valuable resources for helping you level up your abilities. Never discount the value of environment — that could be your most potent ally in your language learning travels.
2. Your educational background. Have you learned a foreign language before? If you have, then you’re probably clued in on what works and what doesn’t, so it’s easier for you to figure out which ways to go with your current target language. If you have an extensive background in language studies (e.g. English major), that could also have an effect, since you have a better appreciation for how languages are structured, the different figures of speech and many other components of language.
3. Languages you know. If you’re studying a language related to your native tongue, then you can use the similarities as shortcuts to help you learn the new vernacular. You can parlay that into a huge jump over someone whose native language is very different from the target language.
4. Your natural abilities. Some people are naturally wired to learn languages quickly the same way some people can pick up math solutions or investment strategies with ease. If you’re one of these, then you can probably progress a lot faster than other individuals, so don’t be afraid to speed through lessons at a faster-than-prescribed pace.
5. Degree of focus. Are you able to focus on one thing for extended periods of time? If you are, then you have one of the requirements for successfully completing rigorous study. And I also envy you — I’m one of those people whose brain flies from one thing to another without much prodding. Chances are, you’ll have an easier time learning languages than me.
When you come across shortcuts that stem from any of these, take advantage of them. Use them to further your development in the language, applying them to every aspect of the learning process where they can make a difference.