How to hack your memory for efficient language learning with Taalhammer (Part 2)

In order to learn foreign language you need to memorize thousands of words and sentence patterns. There is just no other way. Memorization is fundamental to language learning. However, the method you will be using, the content and the timing of your learning will determine your success or failure.

We looked at the mechanisms of human memory and we integrated them into the Taalhammer app. We give you a ready recipe so you can effortlessly optimize your memorization and be successful. 

In the first part of this article we talked about short term memory, how you create mental reflexes and how the spaced repetition algorithm works in taalhammer.  

In this article we are going to focus on the best ways to create an unconscious knowledge of language, the importance of creating your own curriculum and how a healthy lifestyle can boost the way to store and recall information.

Three reasons Sentence Mining is the best way of learning foreign language

What is the best way to learn a language?

While memorising lists of words and grammar rules is one of the most common ways to learn a language, it is also one reason many people end up quitting. For most people, it’s grammar and vocabulary that is the most tedious part of learning a second language. It usually takes many hours of senseless repetition; there’s no fun in that and the results are mediocre at best. 

So, what can we do to change this? 

Well, there’s a far more effective technique that will keep you engaged and put you in contact with real-life language from day one: sentence mining. Sentence mining is the act of learning a new language by understanding sentences instead of isolated words.

This is why in Taalhammer you are predominantly learning with sentences. 

Look at these examples:

  • I go to the gym.
  • She goes to the gym.
  • She goes to the city.
  • They do not go to the city.

Memorising such sentences has several advantages. 

Most importantly, your brain is optimising the memorised data — it cuts them into fragments and identifies patterns. This is exactly the same process that took place in our neurons when we acquired our native language. You will be able to speak grammatically without consciously knowing the grammatical rule behind it.

Learning words in context is not only more memorable, but also it is more useful to learn how words are actually used. Seeing the same word or grammatical item in different contexts will help you innately absorb how it should be used in other sentences, as well.

Finally, you can expose yourself to how the language sounds and improve your pronunciation.

Learning foreign language with whole sentences can seem difficult at first. People often prefer learning vocabulary because it is simply easier. 

However, language is all about sentences, and these sentences need to be memorised and practised. Say them out loud with every repetition! Each time you will be able to give the correct answer to more and more items.

How to Easily Create Your Own Curriculum with the Hammer Editor

The core collections in Taalhammer teach you the fundamentals of the language, but what if you want to invite someone for a date? Or buy flowers for your girlfriend?

In order to prepare yourself to talk about the things that are relevant specifically for you, you need to create your curriculum. In Taalhammer you can use the Hammer Editor to add your own content to the learning stream. Your own content carries a lot of emotional connections with the context and the situation it was created in. And research suggests that words and sentences that carry an emotional connection are remembered the fastest. 

Have you found an interesting sentence on the web? Did you go to the flower shop and wanted to say “bouquet of roses” and did not know how? Or did you get stuck in a traffic jam, and were wondering how to say “traffic jam”? Own your own language learning process: paste all those phrases into the editor, use the automatic translation and save it to your own collection. Taalhammer will make sure you remember it forever.

Are you having online classes? Ask your teacher to add all the new words you are learning directly to Taalhammer. All your information will be stored in one place, directly available for learning on your desktop and mobile devices. 

Finally, you can use the editor to build your individual memory associations — using our autosuggest functionality. 

Start with a word you did not know, for example “kiss”. Type it in the editor and Taalhammer will suggest some example phrases and sentences. 

Taalhammer Editor: Sentences suggestions for the word “kiss”

Choose, for example, “to give a hug or kiss” which is “een knuffel of een kus geven”. With one click you can save this sentences to your learning collection and Taalhammer will make sure you will never forget it.

Taalhammer Editor: Adding a new flashcard to your learning collection

Now search in your target language for the word you did not know in the previous sentence, for example for “knuffel” (i.e. hug).

Taalhammer Editor: Sentences suggestions for the Dutch word “knuffel”

 Choose a sentence you like and save it again, e.g. “We vreeën en knuffelden urenlang.” i.e “We made love and cuddled for hours.“.

And now again search for the English word you did not know e.g. “make love” etc. I hope you see the patters.

By doing that you are attaching the meaning of new words and sentences to previous ones. And because you are the one who makes the choices, your brain will remember this immediately.

Why is sleep so important for your memory

OK, maybe not immediately. Have you ever felt that you remembered things better after taking a nap or, even better, after a good night’s sleep? You are not alone.

Biologically our memory requires consolidation, and the consolidation happens when we sleep.

Of course we are not claiming that you can learn new things during your sleep. Actually attempts at learning during sleep should be discouraged. But you need to sleep well in order to make sure the things that you learn during the day are optimally remembered.

A good analogy is the gym again. Your muscles don’t grow in the gym; rather they grow when you are giving yourself a break. If you don’t have regular rest and recovery days, then you are actually hindering your bodybuilding process.

One of the most important functions of sleep is the reorganisation of neural networks in the brain. 

We can compare the brain and its sleep cycles (which are REM i.e. Rapid Eye Movement and NREM) to a computer. During the day, while learning and experiencing new things, you store your new data in RAM memory, which is very fast but short term. After a long day, the brain is full of disorganised pieces of information that need to be integrated with things we have learned earlier in life.

Piotr Wozniak, the father of SuperMemo writes quite extensively about the phenomenon in this article.

During the night, while first in NREM, you write the data to the hard disk: the words and sentences are moved from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. During REM sleep, which follows NREM, you do the disk defragmentation, i.e. you organise data, sort it, build new connections, etc. Here your brain discovers the seemingly unrelated structures, so you can build grammatically correct sentences without conscious knowledge of rules.

Overnight, you repeat the write-and-defragment cycle until all RAM data is neatly written to the disk (for long-term use) and your RAM is clear and ready for a new day of learning. Upon waking up, you reboot the computer. 
Respect sleep as your tool for high IQ and good learning.

Follow this simple pattern if you want to further hack your memory:

  1. study
  2. sleep
  3. study again.

How physical exercise helps in foreign language learning

When should you study?

You should study when your brain is at its maximum alertness. There are two quality alertness blocks during the day, both based on your circadian rhythm and sleep pressure. The first one is in the initial five hours after awakening and the second is after the siesta period, i.e. 9–13 hours into the day.  

So how can you increase your alertness?

A number of recent studies have shown that working out during learning amplifies the ability to memorise and retain information. Weightlifting, cycling, walking, running, aerobics or any other physical effort alters the biology of the brain to make it more malleable to learning by increasing the flow of oxygen and the number of neurotransmitters in the brain.

This assists your ability to focus, concentrate, remember and handle stress.

Don’t push it too hard, though: vigorous workouts can raise your stress levels, which can impede your memory circuits.

How Does Listening Mode Work With Taalhammer

What and how can you revise while exercising? 

Taalhammer offers a great listening exercise where you can listen to all the items you have previously learned. Our algorithm will arrange the items in such a way that the ones that you have problems remembering will be first. This is a completely hands-free activity and all you have to do is press PLAY.

Taalhammer Listening Mode

You will first hear the item in your source language. Then you have time to think about the translation in your target language. If you know the answer immediately, say it aloud. If you don’t know, make a real effort to scan your memory (to train your memory muscle).  After a few seconds you will hear the translation, so you can verify if your answer is correct. Again, you’ll then have time to repeat the answer. And again, repeat it loud!

The whole sequence looks like this:

Source language – Pause – Target Language – Pause – Next Item.

This is similar to how you learned your first language — repeating sounds exactly as you hear them. It is the best way to hack your memory even more but to master the accent and intonation as well.

Enjoy hacking your memory with Taalhammer — Language Learning that Works.

How to hack your memory for efficient language learning with Taalhammer (Part 1)

Whatever language-learning method you are using, one thing remains the same: you need to memorise a large amount of information (typically thousands of words and patterns) and develop reflexes that enable you to recall this information efficiently when you need it.

To help language learners with such a mundane task, we took the best available scientific ideas about how human memory works and integrated them into a language-learning application.

It all started when we met in Amsterdam and wanted to learn Dutch. We shared two important things: passion for learning languages and struggles in learning them efficiently. As we were both software engineers, we also saw the shortcomings of existing language apps. We experimented with some well-known memorisation techniques and some software engineering. It worked like a charm. The Taalhammer app was born.

In this article, we will show you how you can use the Taalhammer app to hack your memory for language learning. Although we are going to use Dutch as an example, the methodology can be applied to any other language with the same success.

What Makes Working Memory so Important for Language Learning

Your journey to memorisation starts with the working memory, also called the short-term memory. It is here your brain manipulates newly learned words and sentences. Short-term memory is limited in capacity (can hold 5 to 8 elements) and persists for only a maximum of 30 seconds. 

Picture the short-term memory as a funnel through which you are pouring water. If you pour slowly, all of the water can go through the funnel. But if you pour too fast, the funnel gets backed up, and some of the water pours out. 

Working memory works like a funnel

In language learning this is what happens when you try to learn too many new things at once.

You learn a lot, but you do not remember much.

If the Exercise is Too Easy, You Will Not Learn Anything (Taalhammer Board)

This is why in Taalhammer we always start learning by showing you five language elements on what we call a Board. 

Taalhammer Board in Learning Mode

Listen to these elements by clicking the speaker icon, and then repeat them loudly and clearly, trying to parrot what you have heard. Go through all the elements and make the first mental note if you remember them. By doing this, you are creating the very first memory traces in your short-term memory.

As soon as you think you remember them, click NEXT and we are going to ask you to recall the answers from your working memory, one by one. 

This seems to be an exercise like any other, but it has a huge advantage — we force our brain to work harder by taking several elements at once and trying to remember them for a while.

How to Create Mental Reflexes with Taalhammer Flashcards

Your main learning element is the flashcard. We’ll show you a word or a sentence in your source language, with an image to help it stick better.

Taalhammer Flashcard in Learning Mode: Initial Question

Now see if you know the translation. If you do not know it immediately, don’t press SHOW ANSWER too quickly. Put some serious effort into scanning your memory – it works analogously to lifting weights that are just too heavy for now. It trains your memory muscles. Always repeat the answer aloud, ideally to another person. Finally press SHOW ANSWER. You will hear the audio and see the translation.

So how can you hack your memory even more?

Start by playing the source and target one after another a few more times, and then repeat aloud again. This will create mental reflexes. Then deliberately focus on the meaning, visualising objects and situations. Try to find any other words that resemble the answer — even nonsensical words would do the job. Our brain remembers better if new information is somehow similar to information you already know.

Then look at the pronunciation transcription, and even if you don’t know the symbols yet, they will strengthen the reflexes even more – and they will later fire every time you hear or see it in your language.

Taalhammer Flashcard in Learning Mode: Self Evaluation

Finally evaluate yourself. Was it EASY? Did you ALMOST know it? Or was it DIFFICULT? Your evaluation will be subject to the Atom Algorithm, which is our implementation of the well-known Spaced Repetition technique.

Use Spaced Repetition and Forget about Forgetting

So what is Spaced Repetition? It is arguably the most powerful technique to improve your brain’s ability to recall what you study.

Over 100 years of research shows that information is lost over time if you don’t try to retain it. In practice this means that, if you do not repeat systematically, you will forget 90% of what you have learned within the first month. The phenomenon is referred to as the Forgetting Curve.

Taalhammer Spaced Repetition: Your confidence grows with time

The solution to this problem is a memory phenomenon called the Spacing Effect, which describes how our brains learn more effectively when we space out our learning over time. In language learning this means that you should repeat a word or sentence a few times, spread over several weeks, in order to remember it — five to seven repetitions are usually enough to remember it forever. If you follow this process on a regular basis ​​you can expect to retain information with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. Over a year this allows you to retain more than 10,000 words or sentences!

So how do you know when you should repeat? Well, when you evaluate yourself as EASY, ALMOST or DIFFICULT, the Atom Algorithm will use this to plan your repetitions so you will repeat less and remember more.

It is like building a brick wall: if you stack the bricks up too quickly without letting the mortar between each layer solidify, you’re not going to end up with a very good wall. Spacing out your learning allows that “mental mortar” time to dry.

Three types of Learning Queues in Taalhammer

While studying with Taalhammer, you will work with three types of queues: Homework, New Material and Drill.

Taalhammer: Learning Overview and Basic Statistics

You always start with your HOMEWORK, which is all the items you have already seen and that the Atom Algorithm has scheduled for repetition today. Go through all the elements you have planned for today and evaluate yourself. The ones that are EASY will no longer appear in your repetitions for today. The ones you find DIFFICULT, or the ones you ALMOST know, are automatically put into a queue called the DRILL.

Once you’ve finished your homework, the application will automatically start serving NEW material from the collections you’re subscribed to. You will see the blue dot moving from the HOMEWORK to one of your collection on the overview.The new material will be always in groups of five on a board, followed by the individual flashcards as discussed above. Everything that was not EASY ends up in the DRILL queue.

So what is this drill queue? 

Drill is where you start to commit words and sentences to your memory by hammering them into your head. It’s simply a queue of items that holds all elements that you were not sure about today. When you enter DRILL mode (by clicking on the black DRILL button with Taalhammer logo), you will be repeating those elements again and again, as long as you need — until you can answer EASY to all of them. You only need to answer EASY once and the application will no longer ask you about this item today. If, on the other hand, you have trouble with a particular element and evaluate yourself negatively, the algorithm will continue to show you that element as long as it takes you to remember it.

There is an interesting phenomenon — the more elements you have in the Drill, the stronger it works on your memory. This is because we force our brain to work harder. Clearing the Drill queue to zero when it has 10 or 20 elements is quite simple and fast. Doing the same with a queue of 100 items, that we don’t yet know so well, is much more difficult. Forcing our short-term memory to juggle a large number of items makes it very difficult so our brain is quicker to harness our long-term memory to help us — and that’s exactly what we want.

However, you shouldn’t worry if you don’t have time to clear the queue each day; the algorithm schedules repetitions in the following days anyway.

Why is Long-term Memory Essential for Fluency in Foreign Languages?

Remember when we talked about short-term memory? This is also the gateway to long-term memory – the storage of information over an extended period of time. The drill transfers information from short-term memory to long-term memory.

Long-term memory can be divided into explicit and implicit. The explicit is the “knowing that” kind of memory – it is conscious and includes knowledge about individual words or grammatical rules. Unfortunately it is not enough.

In order to speak the language fluently and with confidence, we need to transfer the knowledge into the implicit memory, which is the unconscious, “knowing how” kind of memory. It includes, among other things, knowledge of the structure of the languages (i.e. grammar) and how words can combine with other words (i.e. the collocations).

How to create this unconscious knowledge of language is the topic of the second part of this article which you find right here. We also discuss why you should learn a language by memorising sentences, how to easily create your own curriculum, and how sleep and physical exercise can further help you hack your memory for language learning. 

If you you are interested in more information about how your brain learns a language, watch the talk “Efficient language learning for all: What your brain needs to do” by Helen Abadzi.

Do you want to put the ideas into practice?

Go to www.taalhammer.com and start learning a language right now!

If you do the right things (and do them right), you can become fluent in a foreign language faster than you think

Did you know that just 9 words cover 25% of spoken and written English? These words are: and, be, have, it, of, the, to, will, you. With another 50 words, you can cover almost 50% of the language. Add another 1000 words and you’ll cover around 80%!

Wow! So what’s the big deal about language learning if all you need is 1000 words?

In this article I am going to explain to you why this is not enough and what exactly do you need to do with these 1000 words. Then I’ll tell you how to become fluent in your foreign language faster than you might think. At the end, I’ll chat in Indonesian with an Indonesian lady – proving you can become fluent in 4 months!

How learning languages made my life an amazing adventure

My name is Mateusz and I’m co-founder of Taalhammer – language learning that works! During my lifetime, I’ve achieved fluency in four foreign languages. 

Growing up in a small city in Poland, I suffered from a stutter. My life would probably have been boring if I hadn’t started studying languages.  

I first started learning English when I was 14. German followed soon after. With growing confidence, my stuttering disappeared at age 17.

I became very fluent in both of these languages and went to Warsaw to study Applied Linguistics. Of 100 students there, only 6 were male. So I learned how to talk to girls and my adventures accelerated. 

As part of a student programme, I worked a few months in the United States as a door-to-door books salesman. One day I knocked on the door of a German family and they were impressed with my English and German. They bought a lot of books from me and I caught the eye of their daughter, who was my age. I still remember her saying “Ich stehe auf Dich!” (which means ‘I ​​got the hots for you’). She took me on a date to a local club in West Virginia and we kissed to the rhythm of 99 Luftballons (99 balloons)! How cool is that! After that we spent a wonderful few weeks together as a couple. 

After returning from the US, I took the opportunity to study in Germany. I improved my German a lot, but I also took an Italian course at the university. I didn’t learn much at first, but enough to impress an Italian girl in one of my classes. We went for a coffee and had an interesting conversation about languages. At some point she told me ‘​​Siamo fatti l’uno all’altra’. I asked her what it meant. She answered ‘We are made for each other’. We kissed. And had a beautiful romance, we travelled a lot of Italy together and I became fluent in Italian.

After graduating, my language skills landed me a job in an AI start-up in Amsterdam. I decided to learn Dutch, which I used as a pick-up line to start conversations with ladies. Worked like a charm!

With even more confidence, I started travelling the world. I went to Thailand and learned some Thai – not much, but enough to impress an Indonesian lady who was living there. I met her at the bar in a beach club and I told her ‘Yindī thī̀ dị̂ rū̂cạk’, which means ‘Nice to meet you’. She smiled and told me that if I knew a magic password she would have a drink with me. Without hesitation I answered ‘Khwām s̄uk̄h thī̀ leụ̄xk dị̂’, which means ‘Happiness is a choice’, a phrase I learned earlier that day. We had several drinks together and we danced on the beach during the full moon. She invited me to Indonesia the next day and we spent a wonderful time together.

I decided to come to Bali and have currently been studying Indonesian for 4 months. But this time, it’s different – I’ve done the right things in the right way. And I can already speak Indonesian!

Like I said, my life would probably have been boring if I hadn’t started studying languages!

Let’s go back to the 1000 words!

Why learning 1000 words won’t lead to understanding

I used to think learning 1000 words is enough to speak a language. But here’s the sad truth. If you learn a list of the 1000 most frequent words, your understanding of a language will be close to 0%.

But didn’t I say before that 1000 words cover 80% of the language? Yes – but there’s a big difference between “covering” and “understanding”.

What 1000 words do we mean?

  1. First are the so-called closed sets of words: pronouns (e.g. “she”, “we”), prepositions (e.g. “on”, “to”), determiners (e.g. “the”, “these”) and numbers. 
  2. Then you need to learn the most frequent words – preferably in colloquial rather than academic language.
  3. Finally, we only count the base forms of words (called lemmas), which can change by adding suffixes, prefixes etc. ‘Go’ and ‘going’ are just one word.

In Taalhammer we have applied advanced statistical methods to compute 1000 words according to these principles. We call it the core of the language.

And make no mistake, these 1000 words are absolutely essential to learn, but they are only filler material. The other 15–20% convey the real meaning!

So how many other words do you need to learn to communicate fluently?

Take control of your learning and become fluent

Well, it depends on your particular situation. Learn words that are applicable to your life, so you can talk about things you have something to say about. So if you want to talk about basketball, you should learn and repeat vocabulary and phrases related to that.

This is where most language courses and apps
make the biggest mistake. 

They teach you situational language that isn’t applicable to you. What benefit is it to learn about art or cooking if I have zero interest in such things?

Duolingo goes a step further and teaches you sentences like “The moon is mad at the sun” or “Giraffes eat apples”. Not only are these sentences pure nonsense, but the vocabulary is applicable only if you’re interested in astronomy or safaris!

This is why you need to take active control
of your language learning!

Taalhammer’s Editor was designed specially to help you build your own vocabulary. Use it to:

  • Search for vocabulary
  • Find suggestions of sentences so you see words in context
  • Automatically translate your own private sentences.

If you do all this, you’ll become fluent faster than you think!

Three important things about fluency

So what is fluency?

  1. Fluency means being able to sustain a conversation. It doesn’t mean using language flawlessly.
  2. Fluency doesn’t apply to all situations. Start with one topic, e.g. basketball or buying flowers. Master it well through repetition, then move on to other situations. 
  3. Fluency isn’t about how many words you know, but how quickly you can combine those words in sentences that mean what you want to say.

This is where grammar comes in.

Learning grammatical rules first is against your nature

Here again is where some language courses make mistakes!

Grammar isn’t rules – it’s a statistical structure of a language. Rules (and exceptions) are only an attempt to describe this structure – they’re not the structure itself.

Our brains have been evolutionarily designed to discover this structure through pattern recognition –  by taking lots of sentence examples and computing statistics. This is exactly what happened when you learnt your native language as a child. You heard lots of examples and developed reflexes that allowed you to intuitively create “grammatically correct” sentences.

Learning grammatical rules is against our nature. It’s the most tedious part of learning a language. It’s also one of the main reasons learners quit.

Don’t get me wrong, grammatical rules can be helpful, but they should be used only for reference. First you should learn a large number of sentences, to give your brain a chance to do what it was created for. Only after that can you look up grammar rules to explain what you’ve learned intuitively.

It’s like riding a bike. You don’t learn rules about balance and torque in order to cycle. You get on a bike and you try it out. Only after you’ve practised might you go to a book to solidify what you’ve experienced.

Develop language reflexes: learn sentences instead of words

So how do you learn the structure of a language?

Learn lots of sentences by heart. But not just any sentences:

  1. They must be short, optimally between 3 and 7 words.
  2. Each sentence must exemplify a particular grammatical or communicative pattern.
  3. At least 60% of each sentence should consist of  at least 60% of words you know.
  4. Sentences should use the core of the language (the 1000 most frequent words).
  5. Sentences should be ordered in increasing complexity.

By learning like this, you’ll give your brain a chance to do what it does best.

In Taalhammer, we’ve carefully selected 3000 such sentences and combined them into what we call “Core Collections”, which we offer at three levels: absolute beginners, beginners and intermediate.

Learning from a Core Collection will teach you the fundamentals of the language: asking questions, negating, confirming, referring, disagreeing etc.

Think about it analogously to learning football. First you learn dribbling, passing, receiving and shooting. Only if you master those are you able to combine them into “playing football”.

Last but not least: you can know thousands of words and sentences, but if you don’t put them into practice and start speaking, you have little chance of becoming fluent. It’s only when you start speaking that words fall into place. Language evolved as a medium of communication, so start communicating and you will become fluent in your foreign language faster than you think!

Now I’ll prove it works! I see a pretty lady sitting alone, and I’m going to approach her and have a conversation in Indonesian. Wish me luck!

Go to www.taalhammer.com and start learning with Taalhammer – language learning that works!

How to talk to strangers in a foreign language without being afraid of making mistakes

Are you learning a foreign language? Do you feel you already know enough to be able to speak but you just mumble – or even worse, freeze – when it comes to having conversations with native speakers?

You are not alone! Nearly 95% of language learners are afraid of speaking and making mistakes. What a pity! Learning a language is the perfect opportunity to start a conversation with someone you don’t know and make new friends! Right now, you can comfortably make mistakes and be interesting at the same time.

My name is Mateusz and I’m one of the co-founders of Taalhammer – language learning that works. I have been studying Indonesian with Taalhammer for two months and I’ve managed to learn around 1500 sentences so far. But most importantly, I enjoy making many mistakes while talking to Indonesian people with my limited language skills.

In this article I will first tell you why I was afraid of speaking and how I personally overcame it. Then I’ll explain what can happen if you change your attitude, and how the Taalhammer app can help you do that. Finally, I’ll put it all into practice and talk to an Indonesian lady in Indonesian.

Three reasons you’re afraid of speaking a foreign language

So why is it that you are afraid of using the language you are learning? And why don’t children seem to be affected by this?

  1. One of the main reasons you’re uncomfortable is that you feel you’re being judged on your performance – something that your teachers in school probably implanted into you by giving you grades for performance. Throughout your education, teachers were punishing you for making mistakes! You have been trained to feel that way. So the younger you are, the less you care about being judged.
  2. The language you use defines you and your intelligence. Have you ever heard the theory that you are less intelligent in a foreign language compared to your native language? So if you cannot articulate your thoughts clearly and eloquently, you tend to take it very personally – and you panic. This happens a lot when you are put on the spot, especially when trying to speak to a native speaker. It feels like an attack on your intelligence. You get very anxious and virtually forget all the language you have learned before. You freeze or mumble.
  3. You cannot script a conversation. You can never predict what the person you are talking to will say. And they will say something that you do not understand, and very often when this happens you blame yourself and conclude that you are not ready to speak in that language yet. You panic again! Taalhammer can help you prepare for conversations as much as possible, by offering you an editor where you can search for examples of use or sample sentences around a certain topic.

How stuttering helped me become a better speaker

I’ve been in this situation many times before. Even worse, I used to stutter when I was younger. It was very severe, to the degree that I was not able to open my mouth to people I did not know because I felt judged.

I visited many therapists, but there was one whom I remember very well. On the first visit, he gave me an exercise: go to a local shop and buy chewing gum. There were no supermarkets back then in Poland, so buying anything involved talking to a shop assistant – mission impossible for me at that time. But I was a good student and I took the challenge.

I took a long time preparing. I remember playing the whole scenario in my head: how I would enter the shop, how I would approach the shop assistant, what I would say, how he would respond, what I would say to his response, and so on and so forth. I wrote everything down and practised with my mother and sister.

I attempted the mission a few times. Often, I failed even before entering the shop. And then there were those really embarrassing moments when I managed to approach the shop assistant but ran away as soon as they asked me what I wanted.

Success came very unexpectedly. One day I was passing the shop with my mother and something became very clear for me – the shop assistant did not really care about me! They didn’t know me and they wouldn’t judge me, they were just selling.

That’s all. Even if I stuttered, they would sell me what I wanted and go to the next customer. It was like a switch in my head. I entered the shop, approached the assistant and bought some chewing gum. Quick and painless!

Following that victory, I learned how to accept the embarrassment when talking to people. In the next years this led to a passion for communication. And the more challenging the communication, the more interesting for me. This is how my love for learning foreign languages was born.

Three tricks to overcome your fear of talking to strangers in a foreign language

The stuttering just disappeared one day, when I was around 16. But because of it, I’d managed to develop tricks to make me believe in myself and push me into having conversations with people. All of that has led me to translate and apply the tricks to language learning. So how did I do it?

It is effort that counts, not performance

First of all, I realised that real life does not work like school! It is effort that counts, not performance. People always appreciate you if you’re making an effort, especially if the effort is to learn their language. Native speakers will never judge; they’ll be grateful that you are interested in their culture, and they’ll respect you for your courage. Even if this courage means the smallest attempt in communication, such as a simple question.

Memorize sentence rather than words

Second, I changed my learning techniques and started memorizing sentences rather than words. Not only is learning vocabulary and grammatical rules the most tedious part of studying a language, it is also really not effective when talking to native speakers.

In your native language you speak at a rate of around 120 words per minute. Of course it is less when you start speaking a foreign language, but nevertheless you need to recall a lot of words and phrases at the same time! This is very difficult, and being stressed makes it even harder.

Learning full sentences helps a lot here: it gives you a way of saying things from the very beginning, it helps you learn how words are used in context, it automates language reflexes and it gives you confidence when speaking. This is the method we use in Taalhammer.

Stop taking yourself too seriously

Last but not least – stop taking yourself too seriously. Just accept that you won’t be able to have deep philosophical conversations! Accept that you’ll be making tons of mistakes and sometimes saying incomprehensible things.

This is unavoidable – learning a language is about making mistakes! All learning is about making mistakes – you learned how to walk because you fell 1000 times!

Let me assure you, the people you’re talking to don’t care if you make mistakes! And you shouldn’t either. The main purpose of learning a language is to communicate, and who cares how many mistakes you make if communication takes place.

Fail in order to succeed

Your new challenge when learning a language: make as many mistakes as possible and enjoy the hell out of it!

Have you ever heard of Michael Jordan? He is not only a great basketball player but also arguably the greatest athlete to ever play any professional sport. In a Nike commercial, Jordan said:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Change your attitude and you’ll become a confident foreign-language speaker

Is it easy? No, it’s not, but it gets easier with time. So the sooner you change your attitude, the sooner you will embrace the opportunity to speak a foreign language and start enjoying the process, including making mistakes and being embarrassed.

You’ll develop a habit of talking to people, and by doing that you’ll be putting your skills into practice. And through this, you will prove to yourself that what you are doing is bringing results, which in turn will give you the motivational kick to keep going in your journey.

A lot of theory, so let me show you how it works in practice. I’ve seen a pretty girl sitting at the pool, and I am going to take my chance, have a chat with her and invite her for coffee!

Wish me luck and enjoy making mistakes in your foreign language!

How to prepare yourself for your first conversation with a native speaker (after one month of learning)

So you have just started learning a new language, maybe a month ago or so. And you keep telling yourself, well, wouldn’t it be nice to have a chat with a native speaker of that language? This is why you are learning a language in the first place, aren’t you? When exactly will you be ready to do it? 

My name is Mateusz and I am one of the co-founders of Taalhammer, language learning that works. And I am in this exact situation right now! I have been studying Indonesian with Taalhammer for about one month. I have managed to learn ca. 1000 flashcards, which is ca. 250 different words.

Is it enough to hold a few minutes of real conversation?

In this blog I am going to tell you what you need to do to get yourself ready for this very first contact with a native speaker. I am going to tell you something about the mindset that you need to have, then I am going to demonstrate to you how you can use Taalhammer to prepare the phrases and vocabulary for that first contact. And then I am going to test myself by going to a flower shop in Indonesia and buying flowers in Indonesian for my apparently angry girlfriend.

What makes it impossible to have a natural conversation after one month of studying a language?

Let’s be clear about something. At this point, I do not know enough language to express my thoughts and to understand the speech of native speakers. One month is just not enough for your brain to develop that real sense of language. Unless, of course, you are a polyglot speaking multiple languages, and the new language is very similar to one you already know. Otherwise it is just impossible. Prove me wrong!

Indonesian has very little in common with the languages I know. OK, some words are similar to Dutch, some others to English, but this does not really help at the beginning. 

  • The vocabulary is really abstract – I cannot connect it to anything I know.
  • I confuse the very basic words like YOU (kamu) and ME (aku), and I keep saying BOAT (kepal) instead of WHEN (kepan).
  • The verbs are really confusing as they all seem to be the same, like USE (menggunakan) and SEARCH (menemukan). 
  • The word order is sometimes very unexpected and unnatural for me

All of that becomes really problematic when I try to speak to local people, like in the shop or the launderette. Sometimes I become so nervous that I just produce unintelligible language.

There are better days, of course, when I manage to actually formulate some questions. But then, when I receive the answers, I understand next to nothing. It is just one stream of sounds, and in most cases I am not able to determine when a word starts and when it ends.

Does this sound familiar to you? I bet I am not alone in this situation.

So how in this state can I have a conversation, which is defined as exchanging ideas between two people?

If you find courage, you can fake a conversation

There is one workaround that makes it possible, even if you are a complete beginner in a language. Fake it! Virtually trick the native speaker (and your own brain) into believing that you know the language well.

How is that even possible?

Of course it needs to be a relatively simple, so-called well-defined situation. Think in advance about the conversation, and script who is going to say what. Find out the words, phrases and sentences needed for that. Learn by heart what you are going to say and plan in your head all the possible scenarios. Then start the conversation and become an actor! Play your part well, be confident when reciting from memory, and when you hear the response of the native speaker, pretend with a poker face that you have understood it perfectly.

Is it easy? No, it is not easy at all!

It is going to be extremely uncomfortable, so you need a lot of courage to pull it off.

Have you seen the movie We Bought a Zoo? If not, go and see it – it is a really good movie. There is a beautiful quote there by Benjamin Mee, a character played by Matt Damon, who says:


You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come out of it.

How I found courage to have my first conversation in German

Let me tell you a story to illustrate how this works out for language learning.

My first foreign language was German, and I vividly remember the very first time I went to Vienna in Austria. I was maybe 14 back then. It was December; there was a lot of snow and the city was beautifully decorated. I had been studying German for two months back then, so I really could not say anything useful. I was a shy teenage beginner.

One day I saw a Porsche on the street parked near where my aunt lived. A Porsche! Imagine a Porsche in the eyes of a 14-year-old child from post-communistic Poland. Life could not get any better. I loved that car so much that I became obsessed with the idea of meeting the owner and asking him questions about his car.

I prepared sentences in German like, “Was ist die Höchstgeschwindigkeit Ihres Wagens?” (What is the maximum speed of your car?) and “Wieviele Pferdestärke hat das Auto?” (What horsepower does the car have?). I then memorized the sentences and all possible numbers, so I would be able to understand the answers. 

And then one day, while going home, I saw a guy opening the door of that very Porsche … my heart started beating much faster … it was my moment … This was a now-or-never opportunity for my dream to come true.

I remember the overwhelming feeling of embarrassment, breathing in, biting my lip and approaching the guy. I asked the question. He understood me and answered something. And it didn’t even matter then that I did not understand a word of what he was saying. And then I asked the second. And he answered again.

I said “Danke schoen” (thank you), turned around, breathed out and smiled.

The whole conversation took maybe 20 seconds, but it felt like forever.

How 20 seconds of courage helped me become a better language learner

I must say, these 20 seconds of insane courage have probably not only shaped my love towards languages but made me believe that I can achieve whatever I want, so long as I put effort into it.

Directly after this, I went home and studied even more words related to cars, and more possible questions. 

Some 15 years later I graduated from a German university, writing my thesis and defending it in the German language.

Now, some 25 years later, I have co-produced a language learning app, Taalhammer, and I am in Bali learning my sixth language – Indonesian.

I am about to have my very first serious conversation with a shop assistant in a flower shop. But this time I am not only older and smarter, but I also have Taalhammer. So I am going to use it to prepare myself much better.

Now I will give a demo on exactly how I use Taalhammer in this way. Directly after that, you are going to witness me buying flowers. 

Wish me luck and enjoy language learning with Taalhammer – language learning that works!

How to start learning a new language from scratch with Taalhammer

If many learners fail in learning a language, will you fail too?

Have you ever wondered how to start learning a new language? Or was your experience that you were motivated to learn a new language, you started learning it, but then you gave up quickly because you did not know how or did not see results? Or even worse, did you feel like you were lacking some special language talent?

Well, let me tell you: you are not alone. Actually about 50% of language learners give up in their first four months. And what is even worse, 80% of the remaining ones never reach conversational fluency in their target language. Staggering, isn’t it?

The main reason why my language learning felt like a waste of time

My name is Mateusz and I am one of the co-founders of Taalhammer — language learning that works. I have been learning foreign languages for over 20 years, and apart from my native language Polish, I have managed to learn English, German, Dutch and Italian. All eventually with quite some success. But it took a lot of time and it was never easy for me. Every time I was learning a language it felt like I was wasting my time.

  1. the content (i.e. the ‘what’) I was learning was hardly relevant for what I was trying to say, as it covered topics that I was not interested in. The lessons were about going to a restaurant or talking about art. But I do not eat out! And I just don’t care about art — I have nothing to say about it.
  2. the methodology (i.e. the ‘how’) I was using was not really efficient. How difficult is matching a picture with a word, a moment after you have seen the translation of the word? How challenging is putting the words in a sentence in order? Not challenging at all …

In other words, I was learning the wrong things in the wrong way!

Why learning the wrong things (and in a wrong way) is a problem?

Let me tell you a short story to illustrate why this is a problem. A few years ago I was going on holiday to Mexico, and before going there I spent three months learning Spanish with Duolingo as preparation.

Then, while travelling in Mexico, I ended up in a minibus full of Mexicans going from Tulum to Playa del Carmen. And I really wanted to say something to someone, just for the human connection. But unfortunately the only thing that came to my mind was “Yo como pollo con arroz” ( “I eat chicken with rice”, a very typical Duolingo sentence).

I had never had a conversation in Spanish with anyone before, so the situation was really stressful for me. Under this circumstance, I really could not find anything else in my memory, except for the sentence mentioned above. And I did say it to the person next to me, greatly amusing not only him but all the passengers in the minibus. Quite entertaining, isn’t it? But also embarrassing — you have to admit it is not really what you would expect from learning a language for a few months.

What is different about Taalhammer compared to other language apps?

Taalhammer is the answer to all those frustrations that we go through using other tools or visiting language courses. In Taalhammer we focus on:

(1) a highly personalized curriculum — through interaction with our application you are building your own language course with things that you really need or want to speak about.

(2) development of native-like reflexes — through focusing on fundamentals of the language (i.e. question, negation, disagreement etc), so you react instinctively without searching through your memory or applying grammatical rules like in mathematical equations.

We achieve that by learning complete sentences (or variations of sentences) rather than words. This has a number of advantages.

First of all, your brain, while memorising, cuts the sentences into fragments, identifies patterns, optimises the memorised data and calculates statistics. This is exactly the same process that took place in our neurons when we acquired our native language. You will be able to speak grammatically without consciously knowing the grammatical rules behind it.

Secondly, learning words in context is not only more memorable, but also it is more useful to learn how words are actually used. Seeing the same word or grammatical item in different contexts will help you innately absorb how it should be used in other sentences as well.

Finally, this also makes sure that you always have something to say, which allows you to have conversations very early in your learning journey — which will in turn improve your motivation to keep going.

My story of how I decided to learn Indonesian with Taalhammer

Back to the current situation. A few weeks ago I decided to go to the island of Bali, in Indonesia. I had got really depressed by staying at home in Europe during the pandemic and I figured out I can work just as well remotely from a tropical island. After a few complications with my visa and five days’ quarantine in Jakarta, I finally arrived in Bali a few days ago. I like it here and hope I will spend several months here!

I have also decided to learn the Indonesian language. Why? Because I like learning foreign languages, and out of respect for the Indonesian people, but predominantly in order to be able to chat with ladies. Who knows, maybe I will find my second and better half here in Bali!

And of course I want to use Taalhammer for this purpose! It is a tool that I have been building with a friend of mine for the last few years of my life. The only problem was that Taalhammer did not support Indonesian out of the box. It supports Dutch, Italian, German and English, but not Indonesian. So something needed to be done.

Because of this, our team has created the first ever core collection for Indonesian for absolute beginners, as I do not speak any Indonesian right now. Two users from our community have already created collections for Indonesian, so I will also use them for support.

How exciting is the beginning of language learning?

The very beginning of learning a new language is the most exciting stage of the whole journey! It is like the first day of a new school, where you meet a new friend, or of a new job, where you meet your colleagues for the first time!

At the beginning, every new word or structure will contribute a lot to my progress. Think about it. I know one phrase in Indonesian, which is “teri makasi” meaning “thank you”. So if I learn 10 new phrases, this is 1000% more phrases! And then with every new structure, I am learning a new way of saying something. I am building my new self, a new person that is able to express thought in a new language.

Talking to people is the best way to put your skills into practice and feel like you’re making progress, which is going to be my motivation. I plan to spend ca. 2–2.5 hours each day — this is the amount of time you need to invest in order to truly learn a language. It is ca. 700–900 hours per year. This is a marathon and I will need very strong motivation to keep going!

Now I will give a very practical demo on how to take the first steps in learning a language using Taalhammer. This will be the absolute first minutes of my learning journey. I am actually excited!

Let’s start learning a new language with Taalhammer — language learning that works!

Czy da się szybko nauczyć angielskiego?

Kiedy byłem w ósmej klasie szkoły podstawowej, rodzice zapisali mnie na kurs angielskiego. To był już któryś z koli kurs. Tym razem zajęcia odbywały się w małych grupach, prowadzone przez młodą i sympatyczną nauczycielkę. Ja jednak zamiast chodzić na lekcje i uczyć się angielskiego, w każdy poniedziałek i środę wolałem chodzić na wagary do mojej przyjaciółki z klasy, w której byłem zauroczony po uszy.

Przez kilka miesięcy wychodziłem z domu na zajęcia ale na nie zazwyczaj nie docierałem. Nie chodziło nawet o to, że nie chciałem chodzić na kurs języka angielskiego. Już wtedy dobrze wiedziałem, że będzie to kluczowa umiejętność w moim życiu, która, jak się później okazało, pozwoli mi zarobić dużo pieniędzy i znaleźć się w conajmniej kilku bardzo ciekawych sytuacjach. Niestety moja znajoma mieszkała znacznie bliżej i co ważniejsze czas z nią spędzany był znacznie ciekawszy niż półtorej godziny spędzone w grupie na wałkowaniu czasów angielskich.

Moja droga do płynnego mówienia w języku angielskim była mocno wyboista. Nie tylko dlatego, że w kluczowym momencie mojej nauki angielskiego, język miał bardzo silną konkurencję w postaci mojej uroczej koleżanki. Było tam jeszcze coś. Ja po prostu czułem pod skórnie, że coś jest nie tak z w sposobie nauczania przyjętym przez nauczycielkę. Czułem po prostu, że się nie poruszamy wystarczająco szybko. Wizja mówienia faktycznie po angielsku była wtedy tak odległa, że kiedy przychodził czas zajęć, ja coraz częściej wybierałem dużo ciekawsze rzeczy.

Jak to się stało, że angielski w końcu stał się moim podstawowym narzędziem w pracy? Co było nie tak w sposobie nauczania, który jest powszechnie praktykowany po dziś dzień przez wielu nauczycieli i na wielu różnych kursach?

Czytaj Dalej

What is the best way to learn a language? – real personal story with happy ending

In February 2016, I was having a lazy morning at the office. I was drinking a coffee, trying to focus after the weekend, when I received a phone call telling me that I had successfully passed the final stages of the recruitment process and my job application to eBay in Amsterdam had been accepted. I was thrilled and terrified – my heart was thumping! Till then I had happily lived my entire life in my hometown of Kielce, with short breaks here and there in Poland, but had never moved abroad as part of my professional career.

I knew I had to learn Dutch, fast. Although it was not a requirement for the job, I thought it was the best way to connect more with locals, to feel just a little less of a stranger and to be able to understand what was going on around me. I spoke pretty good English and French, but it had taken me years to get to that level, while my start date was next month. I desperately needed something better than the approach I had taken so far.

Bear with me

In the next six chapters you will discover the best way to learn a language based on my personal experience and numerous talks with other people who were facing the same problem that I was. We’ll go over modern techniques of language learning, such as spaced repetition, the language immersion method and comprehensible input, and we’ll try to understand when and why they work and how they complement each other.

Continue reading “What is the best way to learn a language? – real personal story with happy ending”