I am often asked if there any tricks or shortcuts to learning a language more quickly. I always respond with the same answer:

The trick to learning a language is to actually learn the language.

This may sound obvious, but it points to the fundamental (and so often under-appreciated) reason why most adults fail to learn a foreign language no matter how many years they sit in a classroom or live where the language is spoken:

Most adult learners spend nearly all of their study time reading and learning about their target language, with very little time truly listening to or reading in the language.

If you doubt this, you need only look at a typical foreign language classroom, textbook, audio CD or podcast intended for native English speakers: with a few exceptions, nearly all of them present 75 to 90% of the course in English, not the target language. The same is true across the globe, though is perhaps most pronounced in Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea where materials intended for English learners are nearly all in Japanese, Mandarin and Korean respectively.

This approach is certainly more comfortable for adult learners (and therefore allows publishers and schools to sell more courses), but it is a recipe for failure. Just look at how few people emerge from years or even decades of formal language study unable to say more than “My name is…” or “One beer, please.”

You can study grammar rules and memorize vocabulary until you are blue in the face, but this will do little for your ability to actually speak the language. Researchers like Victor S. Ferreira (Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego) have shown that this is due to a significant difference in memory types: most formal language study focuses almost entirely on “declarative memory” (e.g. information and facts), while the ability to actually form grammatical sentences off-the-cuff is determined by “procedural memory”, the same mechanism that allows you to drive a manual transmission or swing a golf club without “thinking” about it. (See How Does the Brain Form Sentences? in the April 2009 edition of Mind Magazine and don’t miss my interview with Dr. Ferreira, available as a free bonus to Master Japanese readers). If you are terrible at a foreign language (or golf for that matter…), it’s not because you are stupid or uncoordinated, it’s simply because you haven’t practiced enough yet to develop the necessary procedural memories.

Or as Khatzumoto of All Japanese All the Time so eloquently puts it:

“You don’t suck at the language; you’re just not used to it yet.”

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