bad advice

I love trying new things. I’m quick to believe anything that seems helpful or promises to make language learning quicker or easier. I’m also anxious to test everything — to see how great it works. Most of the time I’m disappointed, but I’ve come to relish bad advice. Knowing what is bad advice can be more useful than good advice.

1. Fast Fluency

Professors hate this. Learn any language with this one weird trick! I’ve personally seen people learn Spanish in 30-days, Italian in a couple months, French in a week!

But they don’t know the real trick. With My-Magic-Memory-Methodtm you can learn Chinese in 7-minutes! Yes, you read that right, 7-Minutes!

Think about it. You walk into a book store, you see “Chinese in 30-days”, and then there’s “7-Minute Chinese” right beside it. Which one are you gonna pick, man?

That’s – that’s good. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Chinese.

No! No, no, not 6. It’s 7-Minute Chinese. Nobody’s coming up with 6. Who learns a language in 6 minutes?

If you’re lost on the reference, it’s from Something about Mary:

Hitchhiker: You heard of this thing, the 8-Minute Abs?

Ted: Yeah, sure, 8-Minute Abs. Yeah, the exercise video.

Hitchhiker: Yeah, this is going to blow that right out of the water. Listen to this: 7. Minute. Abs.

Ted: That’s – that’s good. That’s good. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Abs. Then you’re in trouble, huh?

[Hitchhiker convulses]

Hitchhiker: No! No, no, not 6! I said 7. Nobody’s comin’ up with 6. Who works out in 6 minutes? You won’t even get your heart goin, not even a mouse on a wheel.

Keep the 6-Minute Abs in mind when you encounter dubious claims of fast-paced fluency. Even if you don’t believe that these are scams, they fundamentally miss the point of learning a language. A natural language is not a skill to unlock, it’s an entire world of culture, art, writing, thinking, and learning. We use language in order to learn even more in that language. You’ll never be done learning, and that’s the point.

As a general rule: if you learn something fast, you’ll forget it just as fast.

We spend our entire lives learning and continuously improving our native language. Why should we expect foreign languages to be any different?

2. Language hacking

Everyone’s got a gimmick.

Hacking is a fascinating word. It can be positive or negative, e.g.: the best “life hack” is to not be a hack writer.

I’m not going to list all the “hacks” I’ve tried, but after much hacking here’s what I learned: Language is not a computer network or a block of wood, it’s a means to communicate thought. When people talk about language hacks they’re probably trying to sell you something (or they’re whores to ad-networks).

All the best techniques, from immersion to a memory palace (method of Loci), have been around for as long as humans have been learning languages. Most “language hacks” are simply renamed versions of techniques we’ve known for thousands of years, wrapped up in click-bait bad advice. Honestly, a few hours on Wikipedia is more fruitful than all of the language “hacks” combined.

3. Just travel to a country that speaks the language

I love traveling — I think it’s life-changing — but if I’m to be honest with myself about language learning, traveling is not as useful as we like to think.

Let’s call this improper immersion because it’s similar to what is otherwise good advice. Immersion is wonderful. Traveling, by itself, isn’t always useful, and in some cases can actually be harmful rather than helpful.

If you’re traveling and you don’t know the language, you will find ways to survive. You’ll learn very useful skills. Now, don’t get me wrong, these skills can be a matter of life and death to a confused traveler. For this reason I quite enjoy traveling to places where no one speaks English. But as you progress in your target language, you’ll find your confused-traveler survival skills will actually be a detriment to language learning.

To put this another way: you need to condition yourself to actively listen to the target language, not passively filter it out and rely on body language and hand gestures (which is the unfortunate consequence of improper immersion).

4. Language blogs and online communities

Despite all the hack writers, I love a good language blog. How humans acquire secondary languages is a fascinating topic. Unfortunately, this isn’t helpful towards actually learning a given language.

For example, talking (in English) about learning Spanish won’t help you learn Spanish, but it will improve your ability to talk (in English) about learning Spanish.

Most language learning communities use English exclusively, and they don’t actually do much learning. They talk about it abstractly. Be careful wherever there are lots of beginners commenting on “techniques” and very few intermediate and advanced learners (that should be an obvious red flag).

5. Learn while you sleep (or work)

It would be great if this worked. I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve tried all kinds of hokey approaches like this. I mean, if automaticity is an unconscious process, then surely I can bypass all the hard-work of conscious learning and just train my unconscious mind while I sleep, right?

It turns out that’s not how sleep works, nor consciousness, but I digress. Language learning requires your undivided attention. Immersion, which is good advice, is only as effective as the attention you put in. If you try to learn a language passively, asleep or in any way in the background, the only thing you’re doing is training your mind to ignore the sound of that language. This is the exact opposite of what you want.

You want your ears to perk up when you hear the target language. You want to be able to parse the words automatically such that their meaning is accessible to your conscious mind. Passive learning is not only useless, it will make active learning more difficult (because you’re conditioning a lack of conscious attention to the sound of the language).