What are the best techniques for learning languages?
February 20, 2011 11:58 AM   Subscribe

What are the best mnemonic or other methods for learning a language?

I'm trying to learn Dari. I've got a lot of resources, but struggle with getting beyond basic conversation along very narrow lines. What are some mnemonic or other methods I can use to boost my vocabulary and other abilities?

I read more and more lately about memory palace techniques but have never seen these methods applied to learning languages.

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Bisyar Zeod Tashakur,

posted by atchafalaya to Education (12 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend the use of spaced repetition for vocabulary memorization. I am very happy with Mnemosyne.
posted by dfan at 12:16 PM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

My basic method is putting aside time every day for both reading and trying to express myself in the language. Every time I come across words or concepts that I don't understand or can't express, I look them up and add them to the spaced repetition program Anki, which makes it easy to memorize them. Last month, I learned 2000 new French words and expressions using that method.
posted by martinrebas at 12:27 PM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Possibly some of this thread could be of use?
posted by serazin at 12:32 PM on February 20, 2011

What worked well for me--

I kept a small notebook and a small dictionary with me at all times (both small enough to fit in my pocket so I actually had them with me always).

Whenever I saw or heard a word I didn't know I would look it up in the dictionary and add it and the English equivalent to the notebook.

Now not EVERY new word, that would be WAY too many. But the ones where you're thinking, "I know I've seen/heard that word before, I should know what it means--What is it? What is it?" So the ones where you are primed and ready to learn them.

Every day add a sheet or two of new words, maybe 10 or 20 max. More than that is too overwhelming.

Line them up in columns so you can cover up either language and test yourself to come up with the other language. I also added notes on declension, plurals, verb conjugation, or whatever else is relevant in your language and learned those along with the word.

Every day I review the new words from that day, the day before, and maybe a week and two weeks before. Occasionally review the older ones.

Since this system was simple & low tech I always had the notes, vocabulary, and dictionary with me, so I usually used time riding buses or trains or other downtime to add to the vocabulary list and review it.

Since they were words I was seeing/hearing/reading in the environment anyway there was constant reinforcement, even beyond the planned study of the vocabulary list.

I would put down things like words I saw on signs while riding the bus, or words on signs in the subway station--so I would see them again every day for months.

Or if I'd had a ten minute conversation, getting frustrated trying to explain X to someone without knowing the right words, I would go afterwards and look up maybe the five most important, relevant words related to X that I had been trying to think of and add them to my list--now I've got some real incentive to remember them for next time.
posted by flug at 1:47 PM on February 20, 2011

I should add, the above is based on the idea that you are in a place where your target language is being used and spoken all about you (which it sounds like you are). It's just taking maximum advantage of that opportunity.

If you're in an English-speaking enclave in a place like that, though, the other thing is you have to put yourself out there with people who speak the language, and speak with them. Your language learning is directly proportional to time spent immersed in it, and if you do that you will learn fast--and if you don't, you won't.

Just for example, I went on a study abroad in a German-speaking country where we lived in a building with other English speaking students from our university. Those who stayed in the compound with the English-speaking friends most of the day, and then went out with their English-speaking friends whenever they went out, speaking English with their friends pretty much the whole time, improved their German very little.

By contrast, when I came home from the study abroad experience I lived in a "German House" at a University in the U.S. There we had a pact, strictly enforced, to speak German whenever we were in the house. Everyone there improved their language ability by leaps and bounds--but we were using it 10-12 hours per day, easy.
posted by flug at 2:03 PM on February 20, 2011

Seconding Anki, it's wonderful.
posted by fire&wings at 2:16 PM on February 20, 2011

Like many language learners, I too used to write down individual words in notebooks along with my translations. After a lot of study on my MA, and some very categorical no-no-ing from a tutor, I learned that this is Not A Good Idea (TM).

The reason for this is the brain works much better with chunks of language, rather than tiny units. The studies I looked at showed that learners made more progress, and quicker, when working with chunks. This is true, even to the point whereby you have whole expressions that are recalled in exactly the same way as single words, with no time lag. (I know, my jaw hit the ground too. But, I kid you not.) It seems that the brain does not distinguish between expressions or single words - they are all just chunks of language.

This means that learning longer phrases or expressions is totally A Good Thing To Do (c). So, instead of writing down an individual word, deal with what's around that word too. For example, if you see the word entry, write the whole sentence: last entry at 4pm. This way, you are also working with a proper example of that word as it is being used, and it will usually gives you a good structure for a similar sentence. You will also strengthen many, many connections with other words in your good old mental lexicon, and the more you strengthen them, the better your command of the language.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 5:41 PM on February 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've always picked up languages fast and I think it's because I start trying to talk to myself in that language. So, "hm, where should I go for lunch... thai food is delicious but a sandwich is cheaper..." and translating signs / overheard conversations / things I want to say to people ("What time is the concert?") and then I notice that I don't know a word or that I'm not 100% sure on phrasing and maybe I look it up later or I ask a native speaker.
posted by Lady Li at 5:53 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like songs! You take a song in a language you know and learn a song in a language you don't.
posted by Ekidnagrrl17 at 8:15 PM on February 20, 2011

Listen to original music too. There is so much great Afghan, Tajik, and Iranian music to immerse yourself into (and also plenty of sites to acquire it, if you look). Even if you don't understand much (or any) at first, as your ear gets trained you will listen better, and then you will start picking up phrases. There's not much better mnemonic (for me, anyway) than a line of a song!

If you have an iPhone or similar device, look for word of the day apps and that sort of thing (I know there's a Farsi one for iPhone/iPod touch). Language learning requires constant development, but even if you don't have a lot of time to devote to it every day, even just adding one word to your vocabulary will help keep things fresh in your mind.

Muvafagh boshed!
posted by Gordafarin at 2:39 AM on February 21, 2011

I agree that songs are a great resource. I listen to a lot of music in Japanese, and frequently when I learn a new word or phrase my mind will immediately recall a song lyric (or two) which uses that word/phrase/grammar structure. I think it goes back to Juso No Thankyou's point about learning chunks of a language: the song lyrics give you an example you can use that's already in your head in another context (the music-listening one), so you can more easily build a connection with actual usage. I think watching media in your target language (with or without subtitles) is another great way to hone your listening skills and get used to native speech patterns.
posted by you zombitch at 9:26 PM on February 21, 2011

Following on from you zombitch's point about watching media, don't underestimate the importance of gestures, facial expressions and body language in conveying meaning. It's great to listen to radio and songs to get a lot of input, but don't neglect the visual side too. Video is so prevalent these days - use it to your advantage. The visual input we get does very important things (depending on the language) like help you decide where one word ends and the other begins, and the shape of someone's mouth even helps us to predict which sound is coming next. You'd be surprised by how much visual input is actually important when you think you're only listening.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 5:04 AM on February 22, 2011

« Older '99 Corolla...worth it?   |   This is worse than finding a needle in a haystack. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.