I’ve been learning Japanese for the last several months and it’s been one of the best journeys of my life. I’ve found that self-study and practice on a regular basis, improves my memory, helps me think more clearly and react faster, and I’ve found myself to become more creative.
During a study in 2012, researchers measured language learners’ brains before and after language training and discovered that certain regions of the brain grew, specifically the hippocampus (used for storing information and spatial navigation) and three areas of the cerebral cortex. Other studies have shown that language learning can induce dramatic, positive changes in the brain (these changes are sometimes referred to “neuroplasticity”). For all of us who are growing older, we have higher risks of age related reduced brain function and cognitive impairment. I don’t know about you, but I want to do anything I can to minimize these effects, and language learning is one great tool that anyone can use to counteract these effects. This is one of the main reasons I started on my journey to learning Japanese.
Japanese is hard. I had to learn a new character system (systems actually – Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji), as well as a large amount of vocabulary and new grammatical rules. When I’ve had to speak it in my travels to Japan (I’ll give more tips in future articles), it’s been tough to understand others or have others understand me. Given these challenges, I’ve kept up the regular practice and feel that I’ve become a better person while putting the work in.
Languages have been hard for me but the benefits of learning a language can be dramatic. I have some rules and myth-debunking with some of these to help you become more effective at language learning to make the best use of your valuable time.
- YOU DON’T NEED CLASSES BUT LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY. Technology and corresponding material have evolved. Don’t use the fact that you don’t have a good class nearby as an excuse for not learning a language. You can use online tools like Duolingo or Babbel.
- PAIR UP PHYSICAL ACTIVITY. Exercise helps brain function with endorphins and energy. You can accelerate learning by exercising before studying.
- USE MANGA/COMICS OR NATIVE MATERIALS INSTEAD OF STRUCTURED LANGUAGE BOOKS -Comics or native materials are typically dialogue based and more interesting. The words will be more commonly used and you’ll get better faster. And these books are fun!
- USE THE 80/20 RULE TO OPTIMIZE LEARNING – 80/20 rule is based on the Pareto principle, which essentially means, 80% of the effects comes from 20% of the effort. When applying this to language learning, you can see that 80% of the conversational vocabulary you use on a regular basis, comes from only 20% of the words you use. That means you only need to study 20% of the vocabulary to become truly effective. There are some good high frequency lists (often termed top 1000 lists) that can be used to focus your studying based on the most commonly used words.
- USE LANGUAGES TO MAKE LIFE ENJOYABLE – Pick a reason to learn a language. Maybe you are taking a trip to Japan in a year, or you have a family member from France coming to visit you in a few months. If learning a language is going to make life more enjoyable it will be a worthy endeavor. You may only learn a small fraction of the language, but it will make your experiences more enjoyable.
- MAKE FLASHCARDS – and make phrases with them. Learning phrases is way more effective than using individual words. AnkiWeb is a good app that can be effective way to use spaced repetition (a method for regularly repeating certain flashcards after a period of time to help you remember) to learn effectively.
- FIND A LANGUAGE PARTNER (TANDEM) – Find someone that is also learning a language (like English) and talk to them. You should go in prepared with a bio or prewritten, and they should also go in with similar material. They can help you translate your prewritten material into the language you want to learn, and you can help them edit their material into english. You can help quiz each other on different aspects of learning the languages. A good app for this is Tandem. Through this app, you can communicate with other language learners who are native speakers in your target language.
- USE MNEMONICS – Mnemonics is a system of memorization that’s typically used in memory championships (worldwide contests used to find out who can remember the most things). Forms of this are actually a very old technique, often used in Ancient Greece. I recently read a book on this topic called Moonwalking with Einstein that describes the author’s quest to win the US Memory Championships by using mnemonic techniques. For language learning, using the Memory Palace mnemonic technique, you can associate certain syllables in your target language with a visualization in your brain of an actual location. This article describes this technique in full detail and can be a great tool for rapidly increasing your vocabulary.
On a daily basis, here are my recommendations that you can use as a study plan:
- Do the morning routine I describe in this article to get you in the right state, and be able to study effectively. This routine also includes exercise, which will increase the endorphins and energy as I described above.
- Spend at least two hours using Duolingo to do your base studying and learning. Try to progress as far as you can. I highly recommend using the Pomodoro technique when studying your material. You can use a 25 minute interval where you study with no distractions, then take a 5 minute break. Do this continuously for two hours.
- Spend 30 minutes with flashcards for additional study. Also use the Pomodoro technique for this. Make sure you use the 80/20 Pareto principle for choosing which words/phrases to study.
- Spend another hour with your reading material or using Tandem to improve your conversational and language skills.
I hope this helps you start your journey into language learning. You will feel yourself improving your memory and thinking more clearly. Please let me know how this works for you.