Monologue of a Multilingual (Part 2): Seven underlying thoughts about language learning

In the previous article , I shared my story of learning four foreign languages ​​so far. I went around and took a lot of detours, but also through continuous trial and error, I summed up some “underlying thinking” in learning languages.

In this article, as the second chapter of this series, I will share these “underlying thinking”, which may allow you to go better and faster on this road.

repeat and repeat

Many people think that people who are good at foreign languages ​​must have a good memory, because they can remember complex grammar and thousands of words.

But it is not. People with good memories may have a relative advantage in learning languages, but that doesn’t mean people with poor memories can’t learn languages ​​well. Because the trick to language learning is repetition, not memorization.

I’m not a person with a good memory. I basically don’t remember things when I was a child. I just watched the drama last week and I forgot the plot this week. I have to check my calendar several times a day to remind myself what I need to do. what.

But I can say that I am good at languages ​​because I learned the importance of repetition very early on.

In the previous article, I mentioned that when I was in high school, I made myself read new concept English and vocabulary books repeatedly (I can’t do the same thing now, only during the special period of high school).

But “repetition” is also divided into levels.

Take reading a vocabulary book as an example. It is the most stupid way to only repeat the word itself; a little smarter, repeat the word together with the example sentence; more advanced, repeat the word through different input methods, such as in the article It is read and heard in the dialogue of the series; more advanced, it is used repeatedly in the output process, for example, when you use a new word for the first time in a conversation with a native speaker, you may hesitate, But when you find that the other person is not confused, or points out your mistake, you know: I used the word correctly. So your memory of this word will be extremely deep, and when you use it for the second or third time, you will be able to use this word with ease.

At the same time, repetition means the accumulation of time. A lot of repetition takes a lot of time, and referring to the theory of the forgetting curve, we’d better repeat it according to a certain rule-under the same efficiency, learning 100 hours can gain more than learning 50 hours; but the same learning time, a week Studying for half an hour every day is more rewarding than studying for three hours on a certain day of the week.

Therefore, learning a language requires long-term persistence.

Seeing this, some people may want to retreat. Life is so short and time is so limited, why use it to learn languages?

many benefits

Just because learning a language is a long-term commitment, fully understanding the benefits of learning a language can help us go down this road.

What are the benefits of learning a language other than getting good grades in exams?

First of all, learning a language will make you “smarter” and “age slower”. Many studies have shown that learning a new language can increase the volume and density of the brain’s gray matter, the volume of the white matter, and the establishment of more neural connections (brain connectivity), which means that the brain’s cognitive ability is stronger. And because the brain builds more neural circuits in the process of learning language, the brain can use these neural circuits to transmit information and perform cognitive compensation during the aging process, which means that the brain ages slower than others.

At the same time, learning a new language gives you a new angle of information acquisition. Needless to say, English, many important journals, documents of international organizations, and even many books are published in English; and Spanish, as the language with the second largest number of native speakers in the world (Chinese is the first), is even more so. Numerous contents; the same applies to French, German, etc. If you can read these contents in your native language, in terms of timeliness and completeness, it cannot be compared with reading translated works.

The above two points may have been known to many people before. But as far as my personal experience is concerned, in addition to the above two points, the creative nature of language learning itself and the thinking about language fairness after learning multiple languages ​​​​have also benefited me a lot.

First of all, learning/using a language is a creative activity, and humans are born to enjoy creative activities . Language is made up of finite language rules and countless details. The limited language rules refer to grammatical rules, while the infinite details refer not only to vocabulary, but also to changes in vocabulary itself, phrases, and countless permutations and combinations based on grammatical rules. And using a language to express what you want to say under certain rules is a very creative activity in itself. Think about it this way, isn’t language learning itself a lot more interesting?

Secondly, after learning multiple languages, I can truly appreciate the fairness of languages .

I once read a story: A lady from a rich family hired a Vietnamese gardener. The gardener’s English is not good, and he always stutters when speaking, so she always thinks that the gardener is not very smart, and even has some intellectual defects. Until one day, she saw him and his daughter talking in Vietnamese. He seemed to be a different person, speaking fluently and expressing smoothly. Although she didn’t understand what they were talking about, she felt that the information was in this place. There is a smooth flow between the gardener and his daughter. So she wondered: Why do I think he’s mentally handicapped just because he doesn’t speak English well?

This is actually talking about the fairness behind the language.

For example, we think that a person who speaks a foreign language (such as English) poorly is not smart, or is not qualified for a job, even if English is not required for this job. Or as native Chinese speakers, when we see a foreigner stuttering in Chinese, we subconsciously think that this is a “silly foreigner”. Or, when Chinese people live abroad, there may be native English speakers who think we are not very smart because we cannot express ourselves fluently in English.

Assuming that when I speak Chinese, I can use 100% of my brain capacity to think about what I want to express, and I don’t need extra brain capacity to think about the language itself, then when I speak English, I may need 1-5% Brain capacity to think “how to express in English”, Japanese needs 30%, Spanish needs 40%, Dutch > 50%, does that mean that I speak Dutch more than I speak English or Chinese? Stupid?

Of course not, I’m still me.

So when I communicate with others, if this person expresses himself clumsily in a language other than his native language, I tell myself: Don’t judge him by the fluency of his language.

The advantage of this way of thinking is that the other party will feel that they are treated equally, and the dialogue between each other is in the same position, so the other party will also talk to me more sincerely. And I felt the same way when I was that “language speaker”.

clear goal

Language learning is a long process, and having clear goals can make this road easier, and it is best to have both long-term and short-term goals.

The advantage of short-term goals is that they can guide your current actions, such as “TOEFL test 100+ in three months”, “pass B2 in Spanish in December next year”, “read xx books within next year”. This short-term goal is best to be something that is directly related to us and we want to do from the bottom of our hearts. Then when we break down this goal into a plan and then into actions, it will be much easier to implement. And we can get feedback in a short cycle, and these feedbacks will become a booster for us to keep moving forward.

The long-term goals can be slightly vague and long-term motivational goals, such as “I am going to live in this country and communicate with the locals without barriers.” This long-term goal will continue to guide myself to formulate new short-term goals.

Taking my own example, my long-term goal of learning Japanese is “to be able to communicate with local people in Japanese (I plan to live in Japan for a period of time in a few years)” and “to be able to read in Japanese and watch what I am interested in. Content (literature and two-dimensional related)”. These long-term goals have existed for a long time, but I have been waiting for “sometime in the future” to start picking up Japanese again, and I have many other things to do at the same time, so learning Japanese has been postponed. But at a certain opportunity, I decided “I want to read the original novel by Shinsekai Yori”. I wanted to read it so deeply that I immediately bought the electronic version on Nichia, and started to re-learn Japanese grammar while reading it. etc. to help you understand better. And I believe that after reading this set of books (there are three volumes from New World, all of which are quite thick…), I will have new books that I want to read. If this continues, I will gradually realize the long-term goals. the second. And when I have a lot of input + deliberate practice of grammar and words, it is a matter of course to communicate with native speakers without barriers.

massive input

The basis of learning a language is a lot of input . There are three meanings behind this.

First of all, input methods can be varied , such as listening input, including listening to recordings/podcasts, watching TV series/movies; or reading input, reading social media posts/books/articles on any carrier, Even looking at the example sentences I have accumulated repeatedly is all input.

These inputs are useful, but the efficiency of the input is different. For example, watching movies with Chinese subtitles is not as efficient as watching only original subtitles, and skimming articles is not as efficient as intensive reading. But we also need to realize that human energy and willpower are limited. We cannot watch every movie and read every article in the way of learning a language, so we need to combine multiple methods and implement them according to the “feasible” plan , which I will mention in the next article.

Second, in the early stages of language learning, input is more important than output . In my opinion, at the very beginning of language learning, if learners don’t want to/don’t want to, there is no need to force them to speak or even talk to native speakers.

The expression here refers to the expression that is separated from the classroom environment and personal exercises. Others such as pronunciation learning, word memory, and oral grammar exercises need to be run through.

In the early stage of language learning, when we can’t express a complete sentence, or can only speak some very simple sentences, we force ourselves to talk to native speakers, which may lead to “reverse psychology”.

And for adult learners, they often fall into the dilemma of wanting to say too much but cannot express in this language. As a result, they become less and less willing to learn, or directly switch to the language they are accustomed to.

So don’t force output at first, but lots of input.

The last point, as long as you want this language to “live” in your place, you can’t stop typing . Take my native Chinese as an example. Even though I have been using Chinese since I was born, when I read books by different authors and in different fields, I will still learn different expression styles and new vocabulary (especially vocabulary in professional fields) ). The same applies to foreign language learning. The input content can be different at different stages, but the action of “input” is eternal, so this echoes the goal we talked about in the previous point of language learning: we need to continue to set ourselves The goal is to find new input content, so that the language will progress.

The role of native speakers

Language learners all over the world seem to have a common understanding: talking to native speakers is a very effective language learning method. If I live in the country where I learn the language, I will “automatically” speak the language up.

I think this overstates the role foreign teachers/native speakers play in language learning, at least in the early stages of language learning.

I saw a person learning Japanese on Reddit say: After I went to Japan, I found that most of the time I was still learning Japanese with the way I learned before I came to Japan. Even in Japan, a country where English is not widely spoken, I still have to “study” after I come here. I don’t know how to speak Japanese just because I live here.

This is the second/third foreign language learning method, which is different from the way we learn our mother tongue since childhood. We lose the ability to learn as babies and children, and so-called immersion learning no longer works for most of us. On the contrary, since we are “adults”, we are embarrassed to speak and ask “how do you say this in xx”. Simply talking to native speakers is actually a less efficient way of language learning.

But this does not mean that this method is useless, it depends on the stage of language learning.

In the beginner stage (A1 & A2), foreign teachers can play little role. When explaining very basic grammar and pronunciation, native speakers who have not received special training cannot explain clearly than “foreigners who have learned the language well” , because for native speakers, many things are Naturally, they cannot experience firsthand how a foreigner learns the language.

But things will change later on. After reaching the B1 & B2 level, practicing dialogue with native speakers will play a relatively large role. This process may not be of great help to language knowledge itself, but it can play a great role in helping oneself “speak”.

Before I came to the Netherlands, no matter which language (except English), I had never communicated with native speakers, so I was actually afraid of speaking this language. But after I exchanged languages ​​with several native Spanish speakers for a period of time, although my vocabulary did not increase significantly, I dared to speak. Because through many repetitions, I know that “it’s okay to say this”, “it’s okay if the grammar is wrong, because ta can understand it”, and at the same time, I can personally experience what a truly natural conversation is like, language/culture It also makes me enjoy the process of language learning more.

Therefore, regarding the role of foreign teachers/native speakers in language, my conclusion is: there is no need to force it at the beginning, but you need to use this method to overcome your fear in the later stage; in addition to practicing with native speakers, you should learn more about words, grammar and corpus Learning needs to run through.

Horizontal comparison of different languages

A very useful method of language learning is to find the similarities and differences between the language you are learning and the language you are already good at. Through horizontal comparison and analogy, we can speed up language learning.

Take Japanese as an example.

There are many similarities between Japanese words and Chinese, not only the pronunciation and writing of Japanese Kanji, but also the meaning of words. Therefore, by observing how some Chinese words are borrowed into Japanese, you can learn words by yourself Much more efficient.

But at the same time, the meaning and pronunciation of some Japanese Chinese characters are different from those of similar Chinese characters in Chinese, which is called a false friend in linguistics, and it is necessary to focus on learning and distinguishing these words/Chinese characters.

There are also many words in Japanese that originate from English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, etc., mostly influenced by past trade, as well as modern English culture, so if you happen to know a few of the languages ​​​​mentioned above, there is another A large number of Japanese words can be memorized without much effort.

In addition, the biggest feature of Japanese grammar compared to Chinese is the use of auxiliary words and the deformation of vocabulary, so more practice is needed for these two points.

Most of the time when learning Japanese, we can use Chinese to learn, what about other languages?

Learning Spanish should not be learned from the perspective of Chinese, but should be borrowed from the perspective of English.

There are many words derived from Latin in English, especially the more “advanced” words, and Spanish belongs to the Latin family, so when memorizing Spanish words, you can use the knowledge of English to memorize them. But at the same time, the use of verb conjugations and reflexive pronouns in Spanish is very different from English and needs to be learned separately.

This form of language learning allows us to lift huge rocks with relatively little effort by levering one end of the lever.

vocabulary myth

Is the bigger the vocabulary, the better the English?

Yes and no.

A large vocabulary is of course a good thing, but more important than the quantity of vocabulary is the quality of vocabulary.

If you look carefully at the dialogues in American dramas, you will find that the words that you have never seen may be less than 10%, and more are words that we are very familiar with, but their usage in the dialogue may be unfamiliar to us.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “common 3,000 words,” referring to the most common words in a language. The key to truly learning a language is to learn these common words in depth, which is more important than memorizing the Chinese interpretation of 10,000 words.

For example, we may know that take means to take, put means to put, and pull means to pull, but as the most commonly used words, these three words can be expanded to thirty or forty usages respectively. In addition to taking, take can also express patience (I can’t take it anymore), spend time (It takes me five minutes), and take pills; in addition to putting, put can also express putting someone in a certain situation (put someone at risk), can also mean spending time/energy (I put a lot effort into it); the phrase pull off of pull means to do something important (we finally pulled it off), and pull over means to pull over.

These common usages are the focus of authentic English, and blindly increasing quantity while ignoring quality is putting the cart before the horse.

So how to improve the quality of your vocabulary?

First of all, for a new language, you need to know which words are commonly used. For example, English has many lists such as “commonly used 3000 words”. For relatively small languages, if you cannot find an existing list, you can find a list of commonly used words based on corpus statistics on some linguistic websites.

Secondly, you need a good dictionary, preferably the original language dictionary, because when you need to use the original language to explain a word, you usually focus on the meaning and usage of the word, rather than directly translating it to Chinese, especially some words There is no direct Chinese translation.

Finally, based on the understanding of words, it is necessary to repeatedly input and output, such as observing how others use the word in books and dramas, and boldly use it in your own practice and daily life. Gradually, these words will be used by the insider into “active words”.


The above are the seven bottom-level thinking about language learning that I summarized based on my four-language learning experience, which can also be understood as the framework of language learning methods.

But how to use this framework? In the next chapter, I will introduce a set of learning methods and processes, as well as recommended tools, to integrate the thinking mentioned in this article into executable daily activities.

Although this method may not be suitable for everyone, it may give you some inspiration to improve your own learning methods.

Welcome to pay attention + comment, see you in the next article!

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