Why People Who Memorize Vocabulary Lists Fail to Become Fluent

This post is part of a series of posts dedicated to revealing and explaining the 8 strategic components of a learning system that yields continuous progress with minimal effort.Chinese Landscape

Linguistic research frequently makes use of large databases of frequency data among words in a language. These databases organize and compile words as functions of frequencies of being used together in phrases.

There are two important points to make here that illustrate your impressive intuition for your native language.

First, you intuitively know that not all words that you know can be combined in ways that make sense. When you speak, you don’t think about this, but nonetheless your output in your native language reflects this intuition.

Second, you intuitively know that even if words could be combined in a way that follows a rule, they don’t always sound natural. If you’ve ever spoken with someone whose second language is English, you’ve likely encountered times where you’ve said, “Well, you could say it like that, but it would sound better like this.”

These linguistic databases compute these intuitions that you have as a native speaker and compile them for analysis. The important point of this is that your brain is organized in much the same way as those databases, organized according to word and phrasal frequencies. This organization is what makes the two intuitions above possible.

When learning a second language, however, you don’t have these intuitions because you haven’t been exposed to enough of the language yet. You don’t have that “It just sounds right” intuition yet. But, all second language learners can and will develop that “It just sounds right” intuition through increased time of exposure to the second language.

The crucial point to consider, though, is that you can eliminate a vast amount of the time that’s required to develop this intuition by building up your mental lexicon (the linguistic database of your brain) in a way that’s easily compiled by your brain.

How Classes Teach Vocabulary

Notice that in most textbooks and classes, students are given seemingly endless vocabulary lists to memorize. Yeah, that’s great that the students learn how to say some new words, but these vocabulary lists provide absolutely zero frequency information! You have no idea how to use the words; you simply know what they mean.

So, you need to build up your mental lexicon by using chunks that provide the necessary frequency information. Remember how I said that the linguistic databases are organized by this frequency information? Well, since you know that your knowledge of this frequency information in English is intuitive, just how did these databases figure out the frequency information in the first place?

The surprisingly simple answer: context

That’s it.

And that’s exactly how your brain organized its own database in English when you learned it as a child. The best part is that you don’t need to create a computer program to make sure you organize your mental lexicon in this way for your second language. All you need is context.

By learning words in context, you’ll effortlessly compile your own database of knowledge about how a word is used and what it means. And over time, as you see the same words used in multiple different contexts, you’ll increasingly develop this lexical database and increasingly develop your intuitive understanding of your second language.

You’ve probably been told that context is important when learning words many times before. But each time you hear this, you probably have no idea how to use context to learn words.

As a strategic language learner, you want actionable steps that produce visible results! In a following post in this series, you’ll learn exactly what the actionable steps to learning words in context are.

For now, let’s hear from you. Have you been told before that learning words in context is the most efficient way to learn? If you have been told this before, have you ever followed the advice? Let me know in the comments!

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Just How Important is Grammar?

This post is part of a series of posts dedicated to revealing and explaining the 8 strategic components of a learning system that yields continuous progress with minimal effort.Great Wall at Sunrise

Grammar. The part of language learning that everybody dreads. Is it really as big of a deal as everyone makes it out to be, though?

When you first start learning a second language, everything about that language is new to you. Although you know what language is, how it works, and what it’s used for, you don’t know how your specific language of choice accomplishes those tasks. You know that your second language contains grammar, and you’ve likely heard from other learners at least something about it.

In order to give yourself a solid foundation that enables you to put learning grammar on autopilot, you’ll need to explicitly focus on learning it as a Beginner.

Once you progress to the Elementary or Intermediate stages, you will know enough grammar to be fully functional in your second language, so explicit grammar study yields diminishing returns after the Beginner stage (and it’s usually what destroys your interest in learning the language, anyway, so it’s a win-win).

Since you know that the grammar of your native language is complex, you also know that the grammar of your second language is complex as well. That being said, you’re left wondering what parts of the grammar you should learn as a Beginner.

It’s much easier than you’d first expect: use a Beginner textbook for learning your second language.

I know, sounds boring and “obvious,” but you’re not going to use it in the same way as you would in a class.

Instead, you’re going to comb that textbook, laser-focused for grammar information.

Ignore everything else.

Read all the explanations and rules, and try to understand them as best as you can. If the textbook provides exercises or pattern drills to give you practice with the grammar points, complete them, and take notes as you do to help you remember how to use the grammar points.

However, if your textbook makes you do exercises that are anything but “plug-and-play” style exercises, skip them.

You only want exercises that control for all variables except the one grammar point you’re being taught. Do these same exercises as many times as you like over time.

The key to remembering these grammar points you’ll be learning is to enter example sentences that illustrate them into an SRS (which will be discussed in a later post).

Why does this work?

Because Beginner textbooks only teach you foundational grammar that is vital to being functional in the target language and avoid unnecessarily complex grammar.

Both the fact that all the grammar you’ll be learning from the Beginner textbook will be comparatively simple and foundational and the fact that you’ll be utilizing an SRS for efficient practice and review will facilitate you reaching the point where these simple grammar points become automatic and fully understood without having to focus on the patterns or rules.

What has your experience with learning grammar been like? Do you agree that grammar study is only beneficial as a Beginner?

Let me know in the Comments!

The Ultimate Guide to Language Learning

This post marks the first of a series of posts dedicated to revealing and explaining the 8 strategic components of a learning system that yields continuous progress withguilin-kweilin-chn1205 minimal effort.

Language learning is one of those subjects that elicits heated debate, both among learners and teachers. Unfortunately, all this debate ends up detracting from the original purpose of language learning: learning another language. What results is mass confusion about how to learn a language, especially because teachers falsely promise that a good grade in a language class means you’re on the right track.

Read that again, because it’s such a widespread misconception that it actually is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, reason that most people who aspire to learn another language end up disgusted, dejected, and ultimately quit. Grades in language classes, both good and bad grades, do not at all measure your proficiency in a second language, nor do they measure whether or not you’re making progress. Grades were only constructed to give schools a way to measure something.

In language learning, however, there are many more factors to measure and take account of, simply due to the fact that language learning is a skill. Skill-based learning is in complete contrast to fact-based learning, which is why rote memorization of languages doesn’t work and doesn’t produce fluent speakers.

Think about it: did you learn how to ride a bike by memorizing the process? Riding a bike is a skill, as is language learning.

That being said, of course teachers are going to tell you that good grades mean continued progress and bad grades mean you’re not learning (which usually turns into them saying you’re not studying hard enough), simply because that’s the way schools work. As we just said, though, studying in the usual sense, will not make you fluent and will not increase your language proficiency.

This is precisely why I said that teachers stressing grades in foreign language classes is such a big problem. Foreign language classes already put the students at a disadvantage by forcing the creation of artificial and unnatural learning environments focused on studying and memorization.

This flawed system will produce flawed results in most of the students, especially in the students that only use the language or are only exposed to the language in class. However, the grade-focused teacher sees these sub-par results and concludes that the student just isn’t trying hard enough, instead of working to create a learning environment that is conducive to learning a skill.

This, in turn, causes the students to not only stress about their grades but also to conclude that language learning is tough or impossible for them.

Remember something very crucial, though: if you’re reading this, you have already learned a language. How can you say learning a language is impossible for you, if you’ve already successfully learned one?

I know what you’re thinking: “But, learning your first language isn’t the same as learning a second language as an adult.” You’re absolutely right.

And that’s your advantage.


When you learn your first language as a child, you know absolutely nothing about language, about any language. You have no idea what language is, how it works, what it’s used for. That’s why it takes so long to learn your first language to high proficiency (would you consider a 5 year old to have high proficiency in their native language? Chances are, no. Children are fluent at age 5, but certainly haven’t reached a high proficiency).

However, as an adult learning a second language, your cognitive abilities are already highly developed. You already understand the basics of what language is and what it’s used for. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is.

Since you already understand what language is, you know what to look for and what to expect when learning your second language. This allows you to springboard your progress, as long as you efficiently tackle your second language in strategic areas.

In the next post, we’ll go in-depth on everyone’s favorite: grammar. Do you need it? Tell me in the comments below!

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The Serious Flaw in Conventional Approaches to Language Learning

Dictionary LookupThis topic is one that I find to be of the utmost importance, simply due to the fact that its widespread prevalence throughout society leads to such a large amount of people either relinquishing their language learning goals or feeling as if their progress is going nowhere fast. The widely accepted “correct” way to learn a new language leaves countless amounts of people feeling starved of what they used to think would be a fun goal for themselves, due to the fact that there is way too much emphasis placed on the technical aspects of language at way too early of a time. In this post, I want to expose the flaws of conventional approaches to language learning and offer concrete suggestions on how to prevent yourself from getting sucked into the whirlpool of stagnation that conventional methods all inevitably breed. Language learning is a fun process, and it is one that all should enjoy. Put things into context for yourself: as you learn a new language, you gradually, day-by-day, word-by-word, learn how to SPEAK with people who before were completely inaccessible to you! In this way, language learning is a puzzle, a secret code to be cracked, that enables you to investigate reaches of the world you never before could even brush the surface of. The people you meet and the exchanges you engage in as a result of your language learning efforts make the journey all the more worthwhile, because communication, in any language, is one of human beings’ inherent, defining traits.

That being said, it’s important to call attention to the fact that the root of all languages is communication with others. Nowhere in the world has a language developed without the intent for communication between people who happen to speak the same language. Language is such an integral part of all of human life, that it serves as one of the characteristics that separates us from other animals. Therefore, language learning, regardless of what age the learning process is undertaken, should be completed as a social activity. How does it make any shred of sense to take an inherently social activity, cram it into words on the pages of textbooks, measure progress by the strokes of a pen on a piece of paper, and completely discourage actual dialogue and discourse until a “high enough level is reached.” It doesn’t. Not even a little bit. Sadly, though, this is exactly how we’re told that successful second language acquisition occurs: through repetitive, dry textbook tasks that are all heavy on grammar and syntax. Unfortunately, these learning methods discourage actual speaking, substituting development of communication abilities for the development of your ability to analyze the linguistic structure of the language you’re learning. While the structure of a language can be important at certain times, these fine details of the language you’re learning should be gradually acquired and practiced through continued speaking practice. The best way to internalize concepts in your second language is to speak with other people who speak the language you seek to learn. Since the goal of any language exchange is communication, regardless of your expressive power at the given moment, you can much more accurately measure your command of certain concepts within your second language based on your ability to engage in meaningful communication with others. If others can understand what you say to them, and respond accordingly, you have concrete proof of your command of whatever concepts of the language you just put into practice by uttering whatever it was you just said as a result of this instant feedback. If your only teaching method involves poring over a textbook where countless rules are presented to you in countless convoluted hypothetical scenarios, you will never be able to gauge the degree of your internalization of these concepts. Successful internalization is not marked by memorization, nor is it marked by comprehension when presented with a cookie-cutter scenario in a textbook. Instead, successful internalization of new concepts within your second language is marked by your ability to use these new concepts productively when engaged in real speech, with real people, in real speech situations.

A word of advice, though: don’t over-analyze this. You may have been wondering as you read the previous paragraph, “Well, how do I know what concepts in my second language I’m using if I just go out there and speak?” The answer to this is simpler, and much more counterintuitive, than you may think: most of the time, you don’t. And that’s exactly the way it should be. Aside from focusing on internalization of specific vocabulary words (a topic that will be addressed in a future post), you should not be focusing your energy on being consciously aware of every single little detail and linguistic concept of your second language that you apply in a given conversation with someone in your target language. Even though it may, at first glance, seem as though you will never learn or remember anything, this is not the case. The brain has the incredible ability to internalize concepts without you being actively focused on the internalization of such concepts. Furthermore, this ability of the brain to facilitate the internalization of your L2 concepts can only occur through your productive use of them. Communication via human language is a constant game of tug-of-war, alternating between the passive listening acts and active speaking acts that occur in every conversation. The brain combines these acts synergistically to produce its own mapping of your target language little by little. Consider things in light of your native language: when you speak to someone, anyone, in your native language, do you spend time thinking about what to say, how to say, how to organize the words, etc etc? Never more than an extremely small fraction of a second, which is often so infinitesimally small that it passes by unnoticed by you. You have an innate “feel” for your first language, and this “feel” for your native tongue allows you to be so proficient at speaking in it. If someone were to ever ask you (i.e. a learner of your native language) why you said what you said, why you put words in that order, what the full meaning of your utterance was, you’d likely find it at least moderately difficult to clearly explain to them the answers they seek. You just “know it.” This is how successful language learning occurs. You didn’t learn your first language by studying textbooks, you learned it by constantly communicating and building off of the feedback you received from adults and others who knew how to use your native language correctly. Even though you weren’t consciously focused on internalizing the concepts of your first language, it still happened, but only because you constantly thrust yourself into opportunities to speak what you new, regardless of how grammatically incorrect your sentences were, regardless of how many errors you made in your pronunciation, regardless of how many words you used incorrectly because you didn’t fully understand their meaning and how they should be used. When learning your first language you wanted to speak and you wanted to be heard, so why would you squander excellent opportunities to increase your proficiency in your second language by forgoing speaking and getting lost in the pages of countless textbooks? Go out and speak! The world has much to say!

As always, feel free to leave a comment below if you have questions, comments, or want to engage in discussion!

Looking Over the Horizon

Looking over the horizon. (Image from swissre.com ad.)

After slowly but surely puttering along over the past few months with the creation of my first product line, as well as with the logistical duties involved in setting up my Cloud Pronunciation Tutoring system, I’m excited to announce that there has been some concrete advancement in the status of both! After returning to University classes last January, my time was split between completing my credits and developing what I have in store for the site, so little observable action has been seen on this end. However, that will all be changing! With classes coming to a close, I now have more time to devote to the development of this site, so continue to visit regularly for some great posts on language learning in general (call it Tongue Training, if you will), as well as to check out the progress on what I have in production to be released in the coming weeks. Throughout the semester, I’ve read lots of great articles on Second Language Acquisition and other aspects of Linguistics, and I’ve pored over some very interesting research, so I have lots to share in future blog posts that you definitely don’t want to miss if your goal is to Train your Tongue to be proficient in another language. Additionally, on my future blog post agenda, I have plans to discuss several different study methodologies that could be what takes your language learning past new horizons! Lots of exciting things have been happening behind the scenes here, even though I haven’t updated things on this end of the site. It’s summer, Tongue Trainers; the weather’s nicer, and the sky is looking clear: dust off those wings, do some tongue warmups (tongue pushups, perhaps?), and prepare to fly through your language goals!

If you ever have specific language learning questions, something you’re curious about, or simply want to engage in a conversation about something I post about, feel free to leave a post in the comments below!

Attention Mandarin Chinese Tongue Trainers!

Traditional-Chinese-LanternI’m pleased to announce to all you Tongue Trainers interested in learning Mandarin Chinese, that a course dedicated specifically to the learning of Chinese is currently in development! The course will feature multimedia materials, and will serve as the essential first step of learning this language. Within the course, you’ll be able to learn how the Chinese language works, why anyone can learn it, and what the first steps to learning the language successfully are, as well as how to continue along your learning path once you’re accustomed to the basic mechanics of the language. You’ll even be able to start speaking a number of very useful, high-frequency phrases (including slang!) that pack a lot of expressive power into bite-sized chunks to prevent linguistic overload. Oh, let’s not forget to mention: these phrases are NOT limited to the basic “touristy” type of things that all other books and courses love to give beginners.  No boring vocabulary lists, no unending fill-in-the-dots type of dictionary entries as you’ll see in many phrasebooks, and certainly no being limited to only discussing topics related to traveling to China for a short stay. Finally, this course will also address how to cultivate proper pronunciation and flow of speech, using real audio spoken naturally, complete with practice exercises and activities. Stay tuned for more details, including when you can start your journey to the Pearl of the East!

Does Your Tongue Have Its Wings?

Winged TongueWelcome to Winged Tongues!

I’m sure that many of you out there from all corners of the globe have dreamed about learning a foreign language, no matter what foreign language that may be or what your native language may be. For one reason or another, a great deal of people are fascinated by the diverse ways in which the human race communicates (and with good reason!). However, I’m also sure that a lot of those same people that have dreamed about learning a foreign language in order to become fluent in that language, being able to travel to the language’s country of origin without fear of a language barrier, etc etc, have unfortunately become dejected, unmotivated, or discouraged by the daunting task (or at least what seems like a daunting task) that lies before them. Yes, learning a foreign language takes work effort. Why did I refrain from using the word “work”? Simply put: FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING SHOULD NOT BE TREATED AS A CHORE. After all, you and I both learned our native languages effortlessly; we didn’t sit down one day after being born and decide to learn it and subsequently put all of our energy into learning it. Learning the language simply just happened through TRIAL AND ERROR and REPEATED EXPOSURE. These two things are two of the biggest keys for learning a foreign language, and strangely, these two keys are also so often misunderstood and employed in inefficient ways. Additionally, the fact that we are more cognitively developed than babies serves as the defining point between adult learners’ capabilities to learn language and a baby’s capabilities to learn language. Since we all have learned a language to fluency (our native language, or L1), we all know how human language (referring to languages as a whole, as compared to other arbitrary sounds) works. Using this knowledge of how language works, and the increased cognitive abilities that adults have, as compared to babies, language learning can occur at a much faster pace than both a baby learning its L1, as well as much faster than an adult learning a second language (or L2) in the horribly misinformed ways that plague the standard system today.

But, at this point in time, I’m getting ahead of myself. The details surrounding the topics introduced above, as well as many many more concepts that will turn your perception of language learning on its head, will be discussed in later posts, so stay tuned! Now, however, I need to take some time to more formally introduce what this site is all about! Winged Tongues is about just that: getting your tongue its wings. When your tongue gets its wings, you go from zero fluency with a tongue tied in knots when speaking your desired second (or third, or fourth!) language, to the point of being so comfortable in your second language that your tongue effortlessly flies through all of those once seemingly “alien” sounds of your desired foreign language that used to leave you with headaches. In future posts, I have lots of great stuff to share, both from a general point of view that applies to all languages, as well as from the point of view of a learner of Mandarin Chinese, as I am myself, so that everyone can realize their goal of learning a foreign language successfully.

Learning a foreign language is not as out of your reach as you may think. ADULT LEARNERS ARE NOT DISADVANTAGED! Anyone can learn whatever language they want to learn, and I’d like to help. Today marks the first day towards getting your tongue its wings and becoming the cultured world traveler that you all can be! Welcome!