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  • Danielle Allen

You Don't Want to Learn a Language

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

Hear me out. You don't actually want to learn a new language. It's the same reasoning behind not actually wanting to sweat buckets at the gym, eat lettuce and grilled chicken for dinner, and stay late at work. What you want is to feel confident in your swimsuit, feel full of energy throughout the day, and get that banging promotion with the 30% salary boost.

That face when you've been staring at conjugations for 45 minutes

So with language learning, you don't actually want to sit down and memorize conjugates, make hundreds of flashcards, and ping-pong around on the free language learning apps. You'd rather stroll confidently into a Peruvian restaurant and be able to chat up the chef on her new ceviche recipe. You want to impress your in-laws who are still wondering why their daughter married someone who can't speak Vietnamese. You want to be able to switch back and forth between languages without your brain having a complete meltdown, which fair enough.

The problem is, which is a problem for me, so I assume it's a problem for you, is that no one is offering up a couple of thousand bucks for me to go immerse myself in the rich language and culture of Coptic Cairo so I can "absorb" the Arabic language. So what are we to do?

I'd be lying if I said I invented a magical app where you can learn through mere osmosis. I'd also be lying if I said I created the best language learning tool, trick, hack, strategy, scheme, course, etc. Type in 'Why we fail to learn languages" into Google. The first hit is Vikash Gupta's, 'Top 5 Reasons for Language Learning Failure, and Solution.' I've read through countless numbers of these types of articles. It goes like this:

  1. Something about no motivation

  2. Something about no time

  3. Something about consistency or lack thereof

  4. Something about poor tools & curriculum

  5. Something about no practicing speaking

While this is all true, it always amazing me how I can go to Mexico for 6 days, Italy for 9 days, or Vietnam for 3 weeks and come back with loads of words and phrases without opening a single book, app, or guide. It's nearly impossible for me to go to a new country and not pick up some of the words and phrases in that language.

I taught physics classes in Vietnam and came back knowing ten different ways to say noodles. I ordered an avocado smoothie in Vietnamese by week 2, and for some reason, even though I downloaded six different Vietnamese phrasebooks and apps, all I could remember from them was, "Xin lỗi, nhà vệ sinh ở đâu?" Translation? Excuse me, where is the restroom.

Truth be told, very few of us want or even like language learning as it has been prescribed. That's why famous polyglots are akin to famous celloists... super impressive, but there's no way you're spending 8+ hours a day practicing to achieve their level of mastery. So what's my solution, if any?

Start experiencing your target language. As gimmicky as that sounds, just read 2 more paragraphs. The reason I picked up so much Vietnamese in a short period of time was that I was all in for the experience. Eating roasted crickets from the street vendor? Check. Ordering hand-blended avocado smoothies? Check. Chatting up the granny pho master? Check. (Yes, I know these are all food-related because I adore food).

When you dive into a culture from the experiential side, you turn on your child's brain. Everything is novel. All of your senses are heightened. Your limbic system (the part of your brain that deals with motivation, emotion, learning and memory) is naturally primed for new experiences and begins to store them into memory. The enhanced excitability of your neurons create new networks and neural pathways for memory. All this neuroscience speak is trying to say that when your brain experiences something new, you put more energy into capturing the details of that experience to store it away in your memory for later.

How do you consistently prioritize experience first as you're closing in on become an intermediate Mandarin speaker? Here are some tips:

  1. Connect with your community

  2. Eat good food

  3. Find the poets, musicians, and artists

  4. Sign-up for our Waitlist!

Obviously we plug our company, but we also want to build a community where you can build confidence in the language you are learning with help from the people who speak it. How do you connect with your community? Find the nearby stores, restaurants, dance halls, music festivals, and go to them. Make a fool of yourself ordering in Thai. Reach out to the local artists in your city and let them show you their artwork.

When you begin to prioritize experiencing a language, you realize that language learning isn't really about learning at all. The learning part happens pretty passively, so why keep banging your head against the wall when you know your German flashcards aren't really getting you anywhere.

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