The Alchemy of Learning a New Language


The truth about learning a new language is that there is no silver bullet — no single activity or exercise will take you to fluency.

Language is complex, that's one of things that makes it so cool. But to learn something complex and intricate requires a multilayered approach. Each of the individual exercises one does to learn a language can be quite simple, but the right combination is crucial. How much of what activities at what time will yield the best results?

This was a question I struggled with for a long time before starting to articulate a clear process of language learning for myself. What quickly became clear were three things:

  1. Spending hours a day studying at a desk or computer was not sustainable
  2. The sooner I could get beyond "resources" and into actual examples of the language, the better
  3. I needed to know the structure of a language in its entirety

These three things go hand-in-hand, and underly the construction of the Linguisticator program. Although language is made of pieces we can identify — structure, vocabulary, writing, etc. — it functions as a whole. In actual use of the language, the whole structure is employed simultaneously. No one speaks purely in the present tense. No one avoids using the subjunctive or different forms of the plural. All patterns of a language are used immediately, so wouldn't it make sense to at least familiarize oneself with the whole set of patterns first?

Structure is the one thing in a language that every native speaker will know completely. There are words and idiomatic expressions in English I've never heard and never will hear or know. But there aren't tenses or patterns I don't know. Structure is key.

Does that mean you just do structure? Of course not! Structure must be combined with other aspects of the language. The beautiful thing about a language's structure, though, is that it doesn't take that long to map out. With a complete map and a limited vocabulary, one can plunge directly into "real" examples of a foreign language and focus on more immersive activities. If one looks at structural approaches at one extreme of language learning, and immersive approaches at the other, by employing both simultaneously in the right combination, the two eventually meet in the middle in what could be described as a sort of alchemical process: for the learner, the language "clicks" as a whole unit.

By spending a small amount of concentrated time at a desk (no more than 15 min a day) working on structure, then reinforcing that study by listening to audio materials, reading in the language, and "reaching" for the language in all that you think and do, the process of working both ends against the middle can go very, very quickly without being mentally taxing. When you experience it happen, it's truly exhilarating.

Back to blog