December 18, 2023

What are effective principles of language learning. Effective learning can be simple

by Anna Zielazny

Learning a language is strenuous and demanding – after all, you have to learn a lot of new words, understand how to combine these words into sentences, and so on. This means that you are in for quite a long process, which requires a lot of motivation and perseverance. Learning a foreign language can be really frustrating if it doesn’t produce the expected results. People often give up quite quickly because they don’t see results. However, this doesn’t happen because people don’t have a talent for language. It is because they don’t know how to learn effectively. The good news is that there are rules for effective learning.

At Taalhamer, we are polyglots and we love to share our vast experience in language learning. Based on research and years of experience, as specialists we have selected the most effective advice for you.

In this article, I have collected for you the principles of effective learning that will help you learn a language and remember it forever, not just for a test or a paper.

Regularity, motivation, discipline

The fulfillment of dreams is on the other side of I-don’t-want-to.

Finding your motivation for learning a language can help you get started. Think about why you really want to learn a foreign language. Perhaps you dream of going on a student exchange, or you want to get a job in a foreign company, or maybe you have a crush on someone from another country and want to make that person happy – any motivation is good, as long as it comes from you (intrinsic motivation). You’ve probably heard about this before. 

Learning, however, takes time, and as research shows, motivation is often fleeting. Assimilating knowledge takes time, focus, and often dedication. What motivated you in the beginning can disappear very quickly. That is why it is crucial not to rely solely on it. The key is discipline. Try to build discipline through regularity, and even if you feel that you don’t want to (that you’re not motivated), sit down to study. This is the only way you will see progress, which in turn will become your new motivation to learn. Motivation boils down to having a mindset to do things, and discipline is simply doing them, without considering the mindset. Feeling good will come after the tasks are done. When you find passion in learning languages, it will be much easier to act.

If you want to succeed, you have to do what you don’t like as if you loved it.

Mike Tyson

Procrastinating on learning causes a buildup of material you need to master. If you’re not up to date, you may find it increasingly difficult to get down to work. What’s more, if you don’t learn a language regularly, you risk forgetting everything you’ve already covered. 

With regularity, you will build a habit and get your brain used to a new routine. Remember, however, that contrary to the promises of many language apps, 5–10 minutes of learning a day is an illusion of progress. While it’s a great way to get into the habit of learning at first, you’ll need to spend about an hour a day studying to achieve tangible results. 

According to many studies, you need about 700 hours of study to achieve fluency in a foreign language. This means you need an hour a day to achieve fluency in two years, or two hours a day to achieve fluency in a year. 

So the effects won’t appear right away. Arm yourself with patience. If you’ve ever learned to play an instrument or acquired any other skill, you surely know that results come with time, but only if you work diligently for them.

Mnemonics and effective learning

Effective teaching methods do not mean that you can learn new material much faster, but more importantly, they mean that the knowledge you gain will not fly out of your head after five minutes.

Mnemonics are mental techniques that help us organize, retain and remember more. In terms of language learning, mnemonics can help you master your desired foreign language faster. They increase the efficiency of learning, and they allow us to store information in long-term memory and recall it quickly when needed. 

One such mnemonic technique is the so-called memory palace. This technique requires creating an imaginary structure based on a real location. For example, think of your apartment and make a mental list of words and sentences you want to remember. This could be a shopping list, posters on the wall or your closet. Then connect these areas with the words you want to remember. 

For instance, if you’re learning Italian, envision a picturesque piazza hanging above your bedside table titled “La piazza” (Italian for “the square”). The Italian word “piazza” sounds similar to the English word “pizza.” Visualize a bustling piazza with people enjoying slices of pizza at outdoor cafes, linking the two words in your mind. This imaginative scene will reinforce the association between “piazza” and its meaning.

There are many such techniques – you can read about them in our article about effective use of memory of language learning.

A girl thinking very intesively

Create your own content

One of the secrets of polyglots is that they use an active way of learning when studying. This means that they don’t always rely on existing materials, but also create their own.

Perhaps you’ve been on vacation abroad and although you already knew a little of the language, you didn’t know how to string words together in such a way as to express yourself? Prepare specifically for the so-called “mini-conversations” you can expect in specific situations. You know best what you are talking about in your life, so don’t just rely on textbooks or apps. Create and memorize words and phrases that are most likely to be useful in a given situation. Do you buy flowers for your girlfriend? Learn all about the vocabulary associated with buying flowers; learn words like “rose” or “bouquet of flowers.” Going to a party? Practice phrases that will help you become the life and soul of the party, such as “have a drink” or “get a round.” Going to the mountains for skiing? Learn how to say “get off the slopes” or “rent equipment.”

Your brain remembers best what it considers essential to your survival. By having frequent “mini-conversations” in a foreign language, you make your brain realize how important the information and vocabulary is! Your conversations will be more natural, impress your interlocutors, and motivate you to continue learning.

Effective repetition

Memorizing information may seem easy. After all, you’ve crammed vocabulary words and got an A in a test. However, is such data really permanently stored in our memory? Not necessarily. If you don’t fix the language properly, it won’t be stored in your long-term memory, so it will be fleeting. Repetition of data is therefore key. 

You are probably not surprised by this information – repetition is used quite often, even in schools. But I’ll let you in on a secret – how you repeat makes a huge difference in how your brain will consolidate information. The learning process should be divided into intervals of a certain amount of time. Instead of repeating material in a haphazard manner, use the techniques and methods described as “desired difficulties.’. The most powerful technique is spaced repetition, which is repetition of material separated by time. 

Want to learn a language using the spaced repetition method, but don’t know exactly how to do it? Use the Taalhammer app, in which an algorithm divides your material so that you repeat it at appropriate intervals – so you assimilate it quickly and effectively.

Focus on listening

If you have trouble understanding a foreign language, you don’t know where words or sentences end and where they begin, or you understand only partially – it is essential to practice listening. How do you do it? The answer is simple: listen as much as possible!

Listen to: (1) children’s stories: they contain easy language; (2) news reports: they cover well-known facts, and the speakers have great diction; (3) songs: they are relaxing, and the intonation is very clear; (4) words and sentences you have learned, to remember them better.

Knowing a story or topic can help us better understand it, even if it is presented to us in a foreign language. Listening improves sound and word recognition skills, teaches how words work in context, and also, surprisingly, improves pronunciation!

Start talking as soon as possible and practice conversations 

Many people are afraid or embarrassed to speak in a foreign language, or even to answer questions. This is quite normal. Remember, however, that in order to fully learn the language and have a use for it, you need to start speaking. Ideally, you should start doing this from the very beginning. Your sentences don’t have to be perfectly constructed or grammatically correct right away. 

Try to deliberately put yourself in a situation where you have to speak a foreign language. Many people feel comfortable speaking to themselves in a foreign language, but when it comes to talking to a native speaker, things get a little complicated. Engage in more conversation (easier said than done) and accept your embarrassment – everyone goes through a stuttering and embarrassment phase. You get better at what you do, so in order to become better at talking… well, you have to talk! 

By talking to others, you not only gain skills related to speaking, but also to listening, understanding, etc. Only in this way will you learn how to speak a foreign language.

By overcoming embarrassment, you allow yourself to develop your speaking skills, enrich your vocabulary, and learn what else you can improve. For more tips on overcoming embarrassment in speaking, see the article “Anxiety When Speaking a Foreign Language and How to Overcome It.

Use complete sentences instead of focusing on grammar alone

Out of all my language classes at school and university, the thing I remember best is buying into grammar rules and names of tenses. You likely know from experience that this does not lead to effective teaching. It wasn’t until I started using the method of learning with sentences that I noticed tremendous progress that I hadn’t been able to achieve for years. 

Such a method is based on the fact that instead of learning only single vocabulary words, you practice right away on complete sentences. This way you are able not only to enrich your vocabulary, but also to learn grammar, and often subconsciously. Your brain automatically analyzes sentences and their structure, and later it will be able to recall the most important information it has recorded about grammar and automatically apply it to sentences. This means that even without knowing the rules of past perfect or past simple tense, you will be able to recognize them and use them.

For more information on learning in whole sentences, see the article “The best way to learn a language is through sentences.”

Additional tips

Create study-friendly surroundings

When I was in my first year of college, I lived with three roommates. I also didn’t have a desk in my room where I could spread out my study materials. These were definitely not conditions conducive to effective study. That’s why I often went to the library, where I could study in peace and quiet. 

If you want to study effectively, try to create or find the right conditions where you can focus to the max. Remember, too, that your phone is a distraction – it’s best to mute it, or even turn it off, so that no one disturbs you while you’re studying. You’ll quickly notice that 30 minutes of full concentration can yield better results than four hours during which you’re constantly checking notifications on your phone, or procrastinating in other ways.

The theory of “desired difficulties” also encourages you to change the environment and mode of learning as often as you can. So it pays to go for a walk while listening to your repetitions. In Taalhammer we offer hands-free exercises in our Language Radio, so you can practice while jogging, cycling or exercising. 

Take breaks and focus

Human concentration has its limits. It is important to give yourself a rest. So don’t forget to take a day off from time to time, even if you are studying for a language exam. Also remember to take regular breaks while studying. I very often underestimated the importance of this, and then I was overtired and over time I couldn’t focus, and also my brain didn’t process information in an efficient way. 

If you also have a problem with taking breaks, or don’t know how to focus, I recommend the Pomodoro method. It involves learning in intervals interspersed with breaks. The most popular method is 25/5, which is 25 minutes of study, 5 minutes of break, but you can choose other ratios, such as 50/10, which is 50 minutes of study and 10 minutes of break. However, remember not to go for more than an hour of studying without a break. Studies show that after that time, our attention span is no longer as good, and prolonged learning can be a waste of time, as information is not stored in long-term memory.

Ensure sleep, healthy lifestyle and regular physical activity

The more rested you are, the better your brain works. So don’t overtire yourself. Take care to take breaks, but ones that are restorative. Watching a TV series to relax is a good idea, but 5-hour binge watching is not necessarily. Focus on regular sports. It doesn’t have to be running marathons – a half-hour walk or twenty minutes of yoga is enough. This way you will refresh your body and regenerate your mind. 

Studies conducted in recent years clearly show that physical activity during the learning process has a beneficial effect on the ability to remember and retain information. Engaging in sports causes significant changes in the biology of the brain that make it more receptive to the learning process, including by increasing the flow of oxygen and the number of neurotransmitters. 

A number of studies also show that the right amount and quality of sleep significantly affects our mood, as well as our ability to learn. So don’t sacrifice your nights just to learn two vocabulary words that you’re about to forget anyway. Do you get the feeling that you remember things you’ve learned better after a nap, or better yet, after a good night’s sleep? You’re not alone. It works because biologically our memory needs consolidation, and consolidation happens when we sleep.

Of course, I am not saying that you can learn new things while sleeping. In fact, trying to learn while sleeping should be discouraged. However, you need to sleep well to make sure that the things you learn during the day are remembered optimally.

At night, being in the NREM phase first, you store data on your “hard drive.” Here, words and sentences are transferred from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. During the REM phase, which follows NREM at night, you defragment the disk – that is, you organize the data, sort it, build new connections, etc. Here, your brain discovers seemingly unrelated structures, so you can build grammatically correct sentences without conscious knowledge of their rules.

Also, try to eat well – this way you will provide your memory with everything it needs to function efficiently.

Choose the best learning methods by choosing Taalhammer

As you can see, there are many methods and factors that can increase the effectiveness of your learning. However, you don’t have to waste your time thinking about how to combine them so that they give the most optimal results – Taalhammer has done it for you. Our app is the perfect way to learn a foreign language. Developed on the basis of years of research and experience of polyglots, it is an excellent learning resource. The methods for easy memorization and recall of information will let you start speaking a foreign language in a short time.

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