JP’s Crazy, Out-Of-Control, Super-secret Language HACKS!

Folks occasionally ask me for my “secret” to learning a language, as if someone is keeping it from them. The trick is that they want to and they want to learn it FAST, so that they can get on with their lives and do what they really want to do. I’m happy to tell everyone everything that I do, in fact I tell my students every day. I don’t keep anything a secret.

Maybe once a decade I’ll get a student who actually follows my advice. At the beginning of my career I taught a class where all the kids were struggling except for one. His classmates asked him, how do you remember this stuff? His answer was astounding: “I do my homework and make sure I understand it.” This classmates booed him and told him to shut up.

I had another student that was aceing my survey of Spanish short story; his testimony to his friends was this: “I listen in class, take good notes, and actually read the stories.” When his classmates booed him, he told them “(the teacher) tells us exactly what is going to be on the test, and exactly how to answer it.”  Booooo!

Of course, everybody assumed that these kids were lying. Student number one was labeled “talented,” student number two was called “extremely intelligent.” That’s true of both of them, but they didn’t possess any special abilities that the other students didn’t have; they just made different choices, and took different approaches from the majority; they did what I told them, in the spirit of learning.

Anyway, lecture over. The title of this blog posts suggests that i know some crazy short cuts to learning language, and I do. Here they are:

Vera refuses to speak English to me; we have a Chinese language friendship.

Vera refuses to speak English to me; we have a Chinese language friendship.  I think her English is excellent, but it’s been so long I don’t even remember.

Make New Target-Language Relationships. This is true for every level; yes, including very beginning. Find people who have no desire to speak to you in your native language, no matter what. Yes, it’s easiest to do this in an immersion situation, but it’s possible to do wherever there are native speakers. Now for those of you who are thinking: great, I’ll just get my dad/girlfriend/best friend/brother to switch languages; that doesn’t count. It’s very unnatural and taxing on a close relationship to try to change the official language. This is why I recommend new relationships, whose official language hasn’t been established.  Your job is to establish the target language as the official language.

I have no memory of ever speaking English to Esti, although I'm sure I must of.  I knew Mikel for a year before he had an occasion to speak to me in English; I felt physically dizzy when I first heard him talking to my friends in English.

I have no memory of ever speaking English to Esti, although I’m sure I must have. I knew Mikel for a year before he had an occasion to speak to me in English; I felt physically dizzy when I first heard him talking to my friends in English.

Yes, this means I have people in my life who don’t speak to me in English, and yes, our communication power is imbalanced. Also, I learn something new from target-language friends every time I speak to them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Right now, I’m studying Korean, and I don’t have a Korean language relationship with anyone. The only person I know is my Korean teacher. Of course, she’s speaking English in class, but as we get to know each other better, I intend to make Korean the official language between us. I will choose to struggle to communicate over switching into English. Now I know this fills a lot of people with fear and embarrassment, and I will also be filled with fear and embarrassment. However, I will power through it, because I want to learn Korean. Power through THIS, children; chose THIS to power through, not Rosetta Stone.

I email Davidico old-fashioned letters every week; I learn new words every time he writes me back.

What do I do with my target language friends? I talk to them all the time. I treat them to lunch. I write them old-fashioned letters (with things like greetings, information, and well wishes) and send them over email. I instant message them. I involve myself in their lives. I learn something new from them at every turn.

Amber taught me the Chinese I needed exactly when I needed it; names of fruit, how to explain to the cab driver about a second destination, which organ the massage person is crushing…

Amber taught me the Chinese I needed exactly when I needed it; names of fruit, how to explain to the cab driver about a second destination, which organ the massage person is crushing…



Find (or develop) Target-Language Allies. As great as it is to have target language relationships in your life, it’s also great to have allies who have learned the target language as well. They’ll know what you’re thinking, and they’ll know what you’re getting hung up on when the native speakers are looking at you like you’re from space. When you’re hanging out with the your ally, they’ll be able to tell you the exact word your need at the exact time you need it, in ways that a dictionary or a native speaker might fail.

A Taipei cab driver taught me how to say 遊學 and 留學.  Even provided written support!

A Taipei cab driver taught me how to say 遊學 and 留學. Even provided written support!

Create Opportunities to Practice Your Target Language With Everyone And Everyone. Maybe the lunch rush is not a great time to trot out your clumsy, needy Spanish at the taco truck. But maybe 3:30 pm, between lunch and dinner rush, maybe that’s a better time. Sometimes my taxi drivers in Shanghai and Taipei were happy to talk to me, and explain the things that I didn’t understand. Sometimes, as my Korean teacher says, you will get free kimchi for speaking Korean. If you can be charming without being presumptuous or making their lives harder, they may even enjoy playing along with your second language antics.

If you’re taking a class, PRACTICE the target language WITH YOUR CLASSMATES. Take your homework, and make it into a conversation. It doesn’t matter how many mistakes you make between you, or if that person is going to think you’re a dork for making an effort in class; ANY practice is better than NO practice. When they say “learn from your mistakes,” that advice is dependent upon you MAKING MISTAKES. No one in the history of the world has ever said “learn from your fear of trying.”

Create Rock-Solid Referencing Skills. In any language that I study, I always make sure to figure out a system of getting the answer to any vocabulary, grammar, or cultural question that may come up. I have dictionaries on all my devices, and I know how to use them, fast. When the dictionary isn’t enough, I know how to properly use a translator or a search engine, and then I verify with a native speaker. For example, when I have a question about Spanish, I have a network of friends on four continents and many time zones who I instant message for help. I’m not shy about asking, and I’m never shy about helping when one of them has a question

Getting used to the French keyboard was way, way less of a pain in the neck than I thought it was going to be… and that was on an old-fashioned TYPEWRITER; look at where the “A” key is!

Learn to Touch Type. I’ve mentioned instant messaging a couple of times, and now that I’m talking about digital resources, I should talk about a skill that everyone needs, that some people don’t think about: typing. I make it a point to learn to touch type in every language that I study. In France and in Italy, that meant sitting at an old-fashioned typewriter. At first I was typing letters in English to send home to friends and parents, and it was frustrating at first to make those foreign typewriter typos. But then my desire to type was so strong, that I usually learned the foreign keyboard by the time I reached the end of the page. Seriously.

Once I could type in English on a target language keyboard, typing in the target language was a piece of cake. I can still type in French, 20 years later, on a French keyboard.

Learning to type in Chinese is a huge blessing to learning; it helps me clear up a lot of pinyin and pronunciation issues in my head. In fact I know a lot of people who have made the choice to be all about typing and no handwriting in Chinese ever. I wouldn’t choose that path for myself, but those people definitely exist and survive that way.

I learned the Korean keyboard after playing this for about half an hour.

I learned the Korean keyboard after playing this for about half an hour.  Disclaimer:  it might be overstimulating.

I keep forgetting how easy it is to learn to touch type on a new keyboard. Yesterday I googled around for a typing tutor for Korean keyboard. I found this one, and I imagined that I’d be spending the next couple months on it. I told myself I’d just work on the home row. After about half an hour I had learned the whole keyboard. I’m not at 70 words per minute yet, but I am touch typing. It doesn’t matter if I look at my fingers, anyway, the Korean alphabet is not there. Listen, I’m not promoting any kind of drug use, but I imagine that the people who do this typing tutor augment their experience with some kind of amphetamine. I personally found myself craving a relaxant after playing it for half an hour.

Read For Pleasure At Your Level I have a friend that does SAT prep for high school students. When students and parents ask about how to improve their vocabulary scores, she tells them they can study the lists, do flash cards, do online quizzes, etc. But when they students and parents leave the room, she tells me, “you want to improve your vocab score? Go back in time, and READ FOR PLEASURE.” Emphasis hers.

What is the point of NOT reading Le petit Nicolas?

I’ve written before about my favorite strategy: to read short stories;, the idea is that you get through them faster, and the feeling of accomplishment comes more often. I cannot stress enough; solid acquisition of previously unknown words happens by the bucket-full when you’re reading something you’re actually interested in.

I know a lot of people who say things like “just read the newspaper! just read children’s books” without regard to level. I tend to hate those people and their advice, but I’ll say this: read whatever you want, as long as it’s for pleasure. When it stops being pleasure, that’s when you stop learning words.

Finally: listen and watch target language media at your level for pleasure. SpanishPod listeners used to write to me and tell me that their Spanish listening comprehension had improved way beyond their expectations after just six months of listening to our programs, even if all they did was listening. We worked hard to make the lessons entertaining, so that people could listen FOR PLEASURE and still give them level appropriate dialogs and explanations. Higher level listeners would write in to tell us that even though they were more advanced, they still continued to listen to lower level lessons, both because we made them enjoyable to listen to and because they usually learned something new. That was the plan.

It does not require study to improve listening comprehension; it requires sustained listening comprehension practice. We created our lessons to be entertaining, because entertaining is more sustainable than boring.

Mom, I need to watch Korean dramas. It’s for school.

There are a lot of people in my Korean class who were motivated to take it because of their love of Korean dramas. It’s good to watch target language media, and listening comprehension will improve provided that they keep listening comprehension in focus. It’s not enough to know what’s going on from the subtitles, or intuit from the actions and background music; you have to be paying attention to the words that are coming out of their mouths, to the point of being able to repeat to someone if they missed it: that’s the amount of attention you need in order for it to be listening practice.

Make Someone Your Accent Idol. Take one of your native speaker friends and copy their pronunciation, mannerisms, and expressions. Copy. Straight up copy. I’ve written about this before. You can tell them you’re doing it, or you can keep it a secret, it doesn’t matter. You wanted a hack? This is a hack. Don’t worry about offending them, your mimicry probably won’t be perceptible.

Take a look at all my crazy, secret hacks: none of them require spending a lot of money on a product. All of them require doing something that might be out of your SOCIAL comfort zone. Also notice that a lot of these “hacks” are things that we sometimes require/expect of children. Think about that one for a while.

6 thoughts on “JP’s Crazy, Out-Of-Control, Super-secret Language HACKS!

  1. No one in the history of the world has ever said “learn from your fear of trying.”—this made me laugh out loud. Great post, especially for the encouragement to maintain target language friendships and to practice speaking. So often I forget that, which is crucial studying in an English environment. Jp, is there anyway you can message me your email? I had a few questions for advice regarding an upcoming trip to study in Taiwan.


  2. Enjoyed this a lot and hope that it gets read by some people who aren’t “the choir”! And I really like your points about an accent idol and target-language allies.

    Out of curiosity, what language do you speak to Esti and Mikel in?


  3. Hey JP, I’m coming late into this discussion, but wanted to add … the target language relationships that you mention don’t have to be with ‘friends’ (I know you didn’t mean they should, but I don’t want people to think they should 🙂

    For example, here in HK I go to massage places that only seem to employ people from China (who speak Mandarin, not English). This means I can get a massage *and* speak Mandarin for 90 minutes – very convenient. What I found is if I keep getting new masseurs each time, then the conversation tends to be repetitive (where are you from? what do you do? blah blah) – but if I get the same woman most times, the conversation develops beyond that, and I learn things each time.

    I do the same with my laundry & hairdressers – not friends, but I see them often enough, and on a on-to-one basis, that the conversations are in the target language, and they are very useful!


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