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Don’t learn words and watch videos you don’t understand: tips from a polyglot on how to quickly learn a foreign language

'04.12.2023'

Lyudmila Balabay

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Arie Smith, a polyglot from New York who runs a popular language learning YouTube channel xiaomanyc, admits that he left the first language courses in his life with a very meager knowledge of the language.

“I struggled with languages ​​in high school,” he told the publication. Big Think. – I spent years studying Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but never reached a good level. I was very upset that after studying these languages ​​for years, I still did not understand them, despite constant work and fairly good grades.”

His friendship with languages ​​finally began when Arie enrolled in a year-long immersion program at Princeton University and went to study Chinese in Beijing. All students signed a contract that stated: if you speak English at any time during the program, you will be expelled. Smith eventually became fluent in Chinese, partly thanks to immersion in a Chinese-language environment and partly thanks to spaced repetition language learning programs. This is a method in which repetition intervals are gradually increased. It helps not to forget foreign words over time.

Phrases instead of words

But, according to Smith, you can learn foreign languages ​​effectively without immersion or spaced repetition. Learning Chinese helped Smith develop simple learning strategies that he later used to learn dozens of other languages ​​(he now speaks more than 50 languages).

One key strategy: Instead of memorizing a long list of random words, he studied phrases he was most likely to use in conversation. For example: “Is this worth $1,50 or $2?” or “Do you have coffee?”

“Individual words themselves are less important than useful short phrases that are relevant to you and your daily life,” Smith said. “This allows our brains to learn language naturally, because this is how we learned to speak as children.”

Do not chase after quantity

The phrases we use in everyday life are quite simple. Case in point: The Oxford English Dictionary (the largest collection of English words in the world), contains more than 600 entry words. But an analysis of thousands of English texts showed that just 000 lemmas (the basic form of a word, for example climb; further derived from climbing, climber, etc.) make up half of all the words used in these texts. That is, to speak a language, you don’t need to know thousands of words, you need to know several hundred, but the most common ones.

Smith has a list of phrases in English that he usually uses in conversations. He translates them into whatever language he wants to learn once he starts studying. The idea is to start using these phrases in real conversations as soon as possible, without spending too much time learning the words.

“It is impossible to achieve a high level of language proficiency without speaking,” Smith explained.

Set yourself a high standard

However, fluency also requires a wide vocabulary. One concept that has helped Smith and many others learn languages ​​effectively is the n+1 method, or Comprehensive Input, developed in the 1970s by linguist Stephen Krashen. The essence of the method is listening or reading texts in the language you are studying with a complexity slightly higher than your current level of language proficiency. It's a process that mirrors how children learn languages: They may not understand every word in a sentence, but they use context clues to understand the meaning of what is said. And so over time they accumulate more and more words.

But the main thing here is not to overdo it. There is no need, knowing two words, to turn on a complex movie and try to understand and remember phrases that are completely incomprehensible to you. You can start with children's texts and cartoons, and then move on to simple TV series on everyday topics. And don’t forget about live communication!

Smith believes that learning languages ​​is not just for smart people or those with natural linguistic ability. Natural talent exists, but it's not everything. Learning a language is like losing weight: it's difficult, but everyone can understand the basic rules and how a language works.

The most important thing is consistent, constant effort.

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