JP’s 3 Keys to Language Learning

I’ve said this before; one of the things that is most irritating to me is when people tell me that I have a “talent” for languages. Of course, it’s usually meant as a compliment, but people use it as an explanation;  JP learns languages because he has a talent, he is some kind of freak who can not relate to us non-talented people.

Bullshit.  We all have an instinct for learning language, and that’s why we all learned our first language with no instruction.

They people say “well, it’s different when learning the SECOND language.”  And then they jackastically refer to some critical period hypothesis, “they say that after puberty it’s too late, your brain changes, it’s science.”  At that point I point out that they’ve NEVER ACTUALLY READ any literature on the critical period hypothesis, and they don’t actually know what it says.

Nobody ever asks, but I’m perfectly happy to share my secrets to language learning.  In fact, I’ll share them below.

1)  Language learning is a habit, not a talent.  The only language learning “talent” that I believe in is the human instinct for learning language.  If there’s any difference between you and me, it’s that my collection of counterproductive and self-defeating bad habits and bad attitudes that stop me from learning is smaller than your collection of counterproductive and self-defeating bad habits and bad attitudes that stop you from learning.

I have compiled a laundry list of bad habits that people have, and some day I’ll write a book about them all, complete with stories that will make you think I really hate my students.

One big bad habit that many many people have is focusing on English.

Like the time I was in El Salvador with J.  J was always lamenting that he hadn’t learned Spanish.  One day a little girl was offering him some “agua.”   J asked her “water?”   She looked at him, puzzled, and said, “…agua.”  He repeated his question, “water?” this time artificially pronouncing a hard /t/, to make her understand (?).  “Agua…” she said, and J looked up at me, puzzled.

“J,” I said, annoyed, “she’s teaching you the word for water.”  J was surprised himself when he realized how focused he was on English.

Another time, in the classroom, a kid ran across the word “frenos,” and asked me what it was.  I pantomimed hands on the steering wheel, stepped on breaks and screeched to a halt and said “frenos.”

“Brakes?” he asked.

Rather than reward his English, I did it again, I repeated action and said “frenos.”

“Brakes?” he asked.

I repeated my action and said “frenos.”

“Brakes?” he asked.  He started to get the look in his eye like I’m a jerk for not just saying ‘yes,  it’s brakes.’

We repeated this, I swear, 10 times, me saying “frenos,” and him asking “brakes?”

Finally, when he was sure that I had lost my mind, I asked, “Dude, what’s the word for brakes?”  He was speechless; he looked down at his text to find the word.  “Stop,” I said, “anyone, what’s the word for brakes?”  They were all speechless, they all looked down at their text to find the word.

“I literally just repeated it 10 times.  The reason you suck at this is because all you care about is the English word “brakes.”

They rolled their eyes at me, like I was being lame.

Anyway, the point is that focusing on English “meanings” instead of the target language forms is one huge counterproductive and self-defeating bad habits that stops people from learning.

I can write pages and pages about this and other counterproductive and self-defeating bad habits that prevents learning, and maybe someday I will.  For now I will continue with my keys to Language Learning.

2)  You will get good at what you practice

We teachers say there are five skills; listening, speaking, reading, writing, and culture.  If you practice those things, you will become good at those things.  Period.

I’m amazed, though, at what people choose to practice besides those five skills.

I’ve seen people who practice asking their girlfriend or neighbor, “what did that mean?”  Anytime they don’t understand something, rather than figuring it out for themselves, they get translation.  You become good at what you practice, so these people become experts at getting translation.  Since that is NOT listening comprehension, their listening comprehension never improves.

Other people refuse to practice speaking; they freeze up, they get all worried about mistakes or sounding stupid, and then they end up not making any sounds.  These people become experts and holding their tongue, but unfortunately never practice speaking, which means they do not become good at speaking.  What do you expect?

I’ve met people who relish their conjugations, and after years of practice, they become good at… conjugations.  Other people drill themselves endlessly on flashcards, and guess what, they become really good at flashcards.  Do conjugations and flashcards translate to any of the five skills?  No, but don’t tell them, it would break their hearts.

China, as a culture, has a lot of emphasis on memorization and testing.  As a result they are wonderful and delightful memorizers and test takers… and for the most part terrible ESL speakers.  Of course we all know some Chinese people who speak excellent English speakers, but given that ALL of them younger than 40 studied 12 years of English, you’d think there would be more English speakers, but there’s not.  Because they don’t practice speaking.  They are some amazing English test-takers, though!

3)  Pleasure is good.  

Today I was listening to 80s Lunch on the radio.  I knew all the words to Things Can Only Get Better, and Everybody Have Fun even though I’ve never studied the lyrics.   I knew none of the words to Higher Love even though I’ve heard it as many times (or more) as the other two songs.  The difference?  The first two songs, I ENJOY.  I like those songs.  I’ve never really liked Higher Love.

The point is that my brain retains the lyrics of the songs that I like.  In other words, when I listen for pleasure, I learn effortlessly.

My friend teaches an SAT prep class; she tells kids that they have to study vocab to raise their verbal score; there are flashcards, lists, practice exams…. but then we go to lunch and she tells it how it is:  “The only way to raise your verbal score is to go back in time 10 years and start reading for pleasure.”  So the bad news is that you can’t go back in time.  The good news is that reading for pleasure lets you learn vocabulary effortlessly.

There’s an attitude, especially among the learners of Asian languages, that learning requires pain, effort, buckling down, hours of excruciating concentration.  I believe exactly the opposite; I believe that the key to language learning is hours of enjoyment and fulfillment.  My listening skills improve in any language when I meet someone I really want to listen to.  My vocabulary increases dramatically when I’m reading something that I actually care about finishing.

For example, I know a bunch of ridiculous words in Spanish:  magic wand, wizard, spell, hex, curse… all because I read Harry Potter 6 in Spanish… once.  I will pass a vocab quiz on magic vocabulary with flying colors, right now, with zero study or preparation, all because I read that book in a moment of boredom.

Wouldn’t it be great if Spanish was just taught that way, as a matter of enjoyment?  Wait, actually it is.

The problem is that students refuse to take any pleasure in it; they look at listening as a chore; speaking as an embarrassment, reading as bore, and writing as a punishment.  It’s a damn shame, because they could be learning effortlessly.

Next time:  The Truth About All Those Language-Learning Podcasts.

11 thoughts on “JP’s 3 Keys to Language Learning

  1. Hey JP,
    I was nodding furiously in agreement through this (lucky no one was watching me). I find it to be very true. I think we also sometimes think that we’re INCAPABLE of producing sounds in a new language, as if our mouths, tongues and vocal chords can’t be made to move that way (I felt like this about the rolling r in Spanish for a long time). Of course it can be done. Not that I can pronounce the Chinese tones or Russian glottal stops, but I think it’s much more about overcoming the fear of sounding silly with unnatural pronunciations than it is that we’re not capable of making those sounds. Interesting post mate and looking forward to the next.


    • Thanks Tristan!

      You know, speaking of phonology and articulation, I did find that the phonology courses I took in college helped a lot when it came to my accent. After three months in France I couldn’t do a lot of French vowels, but after a phonology class and a couple good charts, I could force myself to make all those exotic sounds with my own mouth!

      That reminds me of a story….


  2. Pingback: The Truth About All Those Language Learning Podcasts « you don't have to read v2.0

  3. Hi JP,

    Always a big fan of you for your great work in SpanishPod.

    Even sometime between me and my wife, we are saying “JP has great talent, and so he picked up language so easily.” I am sure that you have great talent for languages. What People might have ignored is that the fact that you have put in so much hard work and dedication behind the scene to get a great language foundation (well, phonetics, grammatical concepts, the desire to use the new language, etc). So as you suggested, we should rather be thinking more positively that the success is attainable if we forget about the counterproductive self beating and just “live” the language like we pick up the first language.

    My 2 cents about “they say that after puberty it’s too late, your brain changes, it’s science.” I think it has more to do with mentality than ability.

    1) When we were little, we had no concept of fear. We thought about something, we said just it without thinking whether we were right/wrong ( I bet we made more mistakes than we could ever imagine now). As we grow up in the family or the society, there are expectations and boundaries, and we become self-conscience when we speak, especially when it comes to our second language.

    2) Kids learn with repetitions and adults usually focus on structure. So why can’t we pick up a SECOND language as an adult the same way we pick up our mother tongue? I would argue that the reason is not because our brains do not have the same learning capacity as they did when we were young, but because we can’t stand the repetitions. Preferably we are looking for something quicker.
    The following may sound familiar to anyone who has kids at home. My niece (2 and a half) loves Nemo and she watched that 100 times and still enjoyed every single bit of it.
    At the beginning of the month, she did not seem to understand the movie, let alone following to speak along. I saw her after 3 weeks, she nailed the phrases from Nemo with almost perfect accent and intonation.
    So yeah, I am a student of my niece when it comes to that mentality;)


    • Hi Jonathan!
      I’ll tell you what, if I have a “talent” it’s a talent for loving language learning, because I’m telling you very sincerely, when I’m doing it right, it does not feel like hard work. Talking to a friend does not seem like hard work; listening to a podcast that is entertaining does not seem like hard work; reading a great short story in Spanish does not seem like hard work… it’s more rewarding than anything else. And I believe that if you can focus on language when you’re enjoying yourself, the language will stick to you; i.e., you’re learning it by instinct.

      It’s true that people are different before and after puberty, and what you say about attitude is a big part of it. Also, like I said, adults have BAD HABITS. I had dinner with a woman tonight who is a speech therapist, but when another friend was trying to tell her a word in Chinese, she WOULD NOT REPEAT it, you could see she was desperately afraid to repeat and be wrong. Then later she told she HAD to write it, and that she tried once, but then forgot it all, and I thought, wow, bad attitude, bad habits.

      Your story about your niece is great! There is some developmental psychology that has been done that shows that the reason kids like to repeat programs is that they totally enjoy them the first time, but they haven’t developed the capacity to take it all in; it’s not that they’re not smart, but they can only absorb so much. So then they watch it again, and guess what, they enjoy it again! And absorb a little more. And then they watch it again, and absorb a little more, but also, THEY ENJOY IT JUST AS MUCH. So as they absorb it little by little, they’re enjoying it every time!

      My parents used to hate that, they would get tired of reading the same books to me, and when I wanted to see a movie again on tv they’d say “didn’t you already watch that?” and be very annoyed. That was then; now we know that the repeated exposures is actually the JOY OF LEARNING.

      Haha I get very excited about language learning, and that’s why I do a lot of all caps.

      The point is: in the JP school of language learning, if you don’t enjoy it, and you feel like you’re working hard, then you’re doing it wrong.

      One last thing: I’m definitely going to write a post about the training that I did in linguistics, because it really did arm me with a bunch of tools and skills that I use like a Jedi. But can you call that a talent? I just call it my college major.


  4. JP–great post, you’re a good blogger! 🙂 I suggest you switch your style though, to black text on a white background. All my webdesign-learning books recommend it, as it’s what humans are most comfortable reading (including me). Thanks for the neat language posts!


  5. Hi JP,
    I love reading your blog about language learning!! I enjoy SpanishPod and FrenchPod a lot. I am from Hong Kong and i have to admit that my reading and listening skills are so much better than my speaking skills even in my mother language. I am learning French in Alliance Française. But for Spanish, I am still struggling in rolling my Rs, and then I read some people saying in the Internet that they can’t roll Rs and they can do nothing about it. I am frustrated because I really love the language.


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