So I’ve recently found out that an adult is supposed to be able to learn a language in 6 months. Yes, I realise that seems like a remarkably short amount of time, but before you come at me, I’m just reporting what I’ve heard. More specifically, what I heard in this TED talk, so kindly recommended to me by the YouTube Algorithm:
As a perpetual language learner (and one who isn’t nearly as successful at it as she’d like), it’s no surprise that Youtube would recommend this to me. It’s also why I’m going to share what I’ve learned with you, so that we can test it out together. Misery loves company, after all.
For those of you who don’t feel like staring at your screen for the next 20 minutes and suffering through Chris Lonsdale talking about squirrels and hypnopeadia (the practice of memorising things with a recording while you sleep which, apparently, doesn’t work), and to save you the agony of hearing him boast about learning Mandarin Chinese in half a year, I’m going to sum up the basic tenets of his theory – because Despite the flack I’m giving him here (purely fuelled by jealousy, I’ll admit) they do make a lot of sense.
So how does one learn a language in just 6 months?
“Well, it’s actually really easy,” says Lonsdale in the talk. “You look around for people who can already do it, you look for situations where it’s already working and then you identify the principles and apply them.”
If this sounds much easier said than done, that’s OK, because he’s gone and done it for us. There are, he says, five principles and a few corresponding actions, that are absolutely essential for any one trying to learn a language in 6 months.
So what are they and how does we implement them on our language learning journey?
Focus on relevant content
Instead of trying to memorise lists of vocabulary you’ll only use once or twice a year, start with the language that applies to your everyday life. If it’s relevant and meaningful, and important in your lived experience, you’ll memorise it that much faster, as well as have way more opportunity to use it. Which brings us to Lonsdale’s second point.
Start communicating from day 1
Start practicing your second language the way you practiced your first language: as a child does. Use the handful of words you know to form broken sentences. They may not be correct, or sound very sexy, but they’ll not only help commit words to memory and also build your confidence in the language. Children learn so fast because they don’t let an obsession with the rules slow them down – and you shouldn’t either. Don’t be afraid to use hand gestures and glorified rounds of charades if need be, for reasons Lonsdale explains in his third point.
The language follows the message
“When you first understand the message, then you will acquire the language unconsciously,” says Lonsdale. “ Comprehension is key and language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many, many ways it’s about physiological training…we have filters in our brain that filter in the sounds that we are familiar with and they filter out the sounds of languages we’re not. And if you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it and if you can’t understand it, you’re not going to learn it.”
It’s here that those vigorous games of charades can come in handy, helping you understand the situation so that your brain can absorb the language needed for it.
Language takes muscle
In addition to the workout you’ll get from trying to act out what you need to communicate, Lonsdale argues that language is also about the muscles in the face. Like any other muscles, these need to be trained in order to achieve a desired goal.
Finally, learning is dependent on your psycho-pysiological state
It’s hard to focus on anything when you’re anxious, stressed, or worried. Language learning is no exception. If you’re relaxed, curious, and enjoying the process, you’ll learn much faster than someone who’s agonising over every mispronunciation or missing vocabulary point.
“If you’re one of those people who needs to understand 100% every word you’re hearing, you will go nuts, because you’ll be incredibly upset all the time, because you’re not perfect. If you’re comfortable with getting some, not getting some, just paying attention to what you do understand, you’re going to be fine, you’ll be relaxed and you’ll be learning quickly.”
So based on these five tenets, what are the actions Lonsdale recommends we take in order to actually achieve this lofty goal of learning a language in 6 months?
The first action is to listen a lot. Expose yourself to the language at every opportunity. He calls this “brain soaking”. Whether you actually understand it is beside the point. You’re listening for patterns, rhythms, and words that crop up often in a certain situation. You’re connecting the dots between the speakers and what they’re actually saying.
The second step is to focus on meaning rather than on individual parts of language. Listen for tone and body language to deduce the meaning of an utterance even if you can’t understand the words themselves. Human beings use a lot of the same, universal patterns in order to create meaning, and these can often overcome any cultural differences and language barriers that may lie in the way of communication.
Action three is to mix and match. “If you’ve got ten verbs, ten nouns and ten adjectives you can say one thousand different things,” says Lonsdale. Use the building blocks you have – it doesn’t need to be perfect – as a tool for communication, and as a way to learn more about your new language. “Week number one in your new language you say things like: ‘how do you say that?’ ‘I don’t understand,’ ‘repeat that please,’ ‘what does that mean,’ all in your target language. You’re using it as a tool, making it useful to you, it’s relevant to learn other things about the language”.
For step four, find yourself a “language parent”. This is someone with whom to practice your new language the way children practice their first language with their actual parents. “When a child is speaking, it’ll be using simple words, simple combinations, sometimes quite strange, sometimes very strange pronunciation and other people from outside the family don’t understand it. But the parents do. And so the kid has a safe environment, gets confidence”. Your language parent should be someone who will guide you along in your new language, using simple words, phrases and body language in order to help you process meaning.
Lonsdale says there are four rules to being a language parent, and that spouses are usually (and unfortunately) not very good at following them. “First of all, they will work hard to understand what you mean even when you’re way off beat. Secondly, they will never correct your mistakes. Thirdly they will feedback their understanding of what you are saying so you can respond appropriately and get that feedback and then they will use words that you know”.
The next thing you have to do, he says is copy the faces of those who speak the language you’re looking to learn. You need to work towards making the muscles in your face do what theirs do, in order to make the sounds they’ll understand.
Finally, you need to utilise direct connection. This means not simply trying to find direct translations of words in your new language, from words in your mother tongue. Not only will this not often work, but it’s also a highly inefficient way to memorise vocabulary. Instead, you need to understand that everything you know takes the forms of emotions and images in your mind. So each word in your new language needs to take on similar associations, and not just the letters printed on a piece of paper.
If you make a point of taking these actions, and keeping the principles behind them in mind, says Lonsdale, you should have no problem learning a language in 6 months. So, while I am dubious – and somewhat doubt that by June I’ll be fluent in Mandarin – there’s a hopeful part of me that’s willing to give this a try. If you’re the same, and are willing to take on the challenge, keep the following in mind:
Language learning myths
According to Lonsdale there are two huge myths that stand in the way of language learning. The first is that you need to have talent in order to learn a second language. But convincing yourself that you lack the talent is a sure way to make sure that you never actually put the energy into actually learning it. The second is that you need to be immersed in a country and its language in order to become fluent.
“Look at all the Chinese living in America, Britain, Australia, Canada have been there ten, twenty year and they don’t speak any English. Immersion per se does not work. Why? Because a drowning man cannot learn to swim”.
The principles and actions listed above are meant to help dispel these myths and put learners on track to learning their next language in six months, rather than wasting years of their life on Duolingo just to be able to almost order a plate of fries.
I’m looking forward to implementing these – although some, like finding a language parent – seem a little easier said than done. If you’re joining me on the journey to try to learn a language in 6 months, get in touch so we can support each other!
Good luck, language learners!