Learn Language by Ordering Takeout

Learn languages faster by working towards a specific goal.

How do you know that you’ve learned a foreign language “well enough”?

Many language learners discover that after hours of studying flashcards and grammar, they are still unable to effectively communicate in their target language. This sense of being mute can be infuriating. There is even a specialized name for those who understand a language, but not speak it: passive bilingualism.

The problem with studying a language is that there isn’t really an end in sight. All native speakers of English are actively learning new words and concepts as they engage with media and have conversations. As new words and concepts arise within the culture, we collectively learn new words and meanings. A month ago, many Americans didn’t know the term “Karen” as anything other than a name. A few years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who understood what a “yeet” is (or a “FOMO” for that matter). Languages change continuously, so trying to learn one as a set, static thing is an impossible task.

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Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash

Instead of asking “how do I learn a language?” try asking “how do I learn to do X in my target language?”

By creating a purpose-driven goal, you can orient yourself towards learning something tangible, helping you see whether you’re progressing towards your goal or not. Setting specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals should be the base for your learning stack. Figuring out why you want to get better in English (or Greek, or Portuguese) involves figuring out what you want to achieve with your language skills.

By creating a specific activity goal with your language, you are also helping yourself ignore all the parts of language learning that will just hold you back and frustrate you.

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Photo by Caroline Selfors on Unsplash

This applies even if you are seeking to master a language, not just to a professional level, but go beyond and expressively create in your target language. If you are learning English with the goal of writing the next great American novel, you don’t need to learn everything all at once.

Create a Relevant Scenario

By concentrating on a specific action in the language (say, talk about your day, or discuss what you’re learning about theoretical physics), you are also creating a greater degree of relevance in what you are practicing.

If your goal is to write a song, have a conversation about stocks, or enjoy an opera in the original, these goals have specific relevance to you. Instead of just “practicing English”, you are now engaging in something that connects to your other parts of life. When you finish practicing, you are not putting your “language learner” brain away, it’s connected to the other things you are passionate about. And passion is key to remembering words and phrases longer. Our brains are wired to discard irrelevant information, and if you make your language learning about irrelevant subjects, your brain will be quick to take all that information and deposit it directly into the wastebasket.

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Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

By engaging with something deeply meaningful to you, you are discovering aspects of your target language that stick in your memory, naturally.

Make your life easier, whether you’re practicing by yourself, going to a class, working with a coach, or even an online tutor (like the ones on Tutor.id). Pick the instructor or the class based on their relevance to your goal. If you are trying to pass a test in English, choose an approach tailored to passing that test. Don’t waste your time (and motivation) on doing something that will just make you want to quit.

Practice, Practice, Practice Flow

By limiting your language learning goal to a particular set of actions, you are giving yourself the opportunity to practice deliberately. Instead of trying to learn everything all at once, you can methodically practice a particular scenario, say a presentation, to the point of feeling really comfortable in that context.

Comfort is extremely important when learning. Feeling like you have mastered a skill can greatly increase your motivation to keep practicing the said skill. With a bit of practice, you will be able to get into flow, a psychological state that makes practice fun, engaging, and effortless. A significant body of work has emerged in recent years, showing that flow is where we learn at our bestdo our best work, and experience high levels of well-being.

To get there, start with something small. Practice by yourself, with a friend, or a tutor, and once you feel pretty comfortable, try it out in the wild. Go to a restaurant where your target language is spoken (preferably at a time that’s not too busy, so you’re not distracting to the staff) and just… try to say what you’ve practiced.

Once you get good at ordering takeout in your target language, you will find it easy to expand to other topics. Talking about food is a natural next step. From there, you will be able to learn more and have conversations about subjective experiences. Soon enough, you will be having rich, complex conversations because those incremental steps of learning more vocabulary and applying grammar came effortlessly.

By putting a vague goal ahead of yourself, you are creating an insurmountable barrier. By concentrating on something small and getting good enough to feel good when doing it, you are building a stairway towards mastery.

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Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

Of course, the above suggestions apply to practically any skill you want to learn. Whether it’s painting, or math, or construction — figuring out what you want to accomplish is key. All general fields of knowledge are complex sets of inter-dependent sub-skills, routines, and best practices. We are never really learning just one thing. So, if you want to be motivated, happy, and effective in your learning, stop chasing the abstract big thing. Instead, concentrate on the small, the specific, and the meaningful.

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