In an earlier post I discussed some common mistakes people make when they learn a foreign language.  I received several emails from people who were not able to comment because they didn’t have accounts with blogspot, and so I am working on setting up a different platform that will be more user friendly.  In part because of the response I got to that entry, I want to spend some time explaining in greater detail why the right attitude, expectations, and processes are so important.  More often than not approaching a new language with the wrong mindset will only lead to wasted time, wasted energy, and wasted finances.  Working hard and not seeing any benefit is frustrating for anyone.


Fortunately, human minds are created very efficiently to filter through an overwhelming amount of information to find and keep only what is useful.  If your brain believes that the language you are learning is useful to you, then you and your brain can be partners in the learning process.  If your brain believes that what you are “studying” is superfluous or worthless, then your will-power will constantly grind against your brain in a battle that will only end when you burn out.

Often the harder you work to remember things, the quicker your mind wants to forget what you are focusing on! I think of the brain as a great storage facility.  Your brain only keeps things that are 1: interesting to you, or 2: important to you.  Anything that does not fit those criteria is promptly flushed out of your memory.  That helps to explain why two people can witness the same event and yet still have dramatically different memories regarding what happened.  In language learning, as soon as the stress of the next test is gone, FLUSH! The brain flushes away that entire vocabulary list, because those words were never interesting to you, and now the brain has decided that they are not important to you either.

true story

I have two friends who, years ago, both decided to learn Japanese at roughly the same time.  One of them was employed by a company that was expanding rapidly in Japan, and offered to double this person’s salary if he became proficient in Japanese.  We’ll call him John.  The other friend loves video games, especially Japanese-made video games.  My video-game l

Double your salary? Pretty good motivation.

oving friend, we’ll call him Jake, had no other motivation to learn Japanese other than the fact that he LOVED these games, and on a regular basis Japanese writing would appear on the screen, and random

voices would periodically shout instructions out at him in Japanese.

Knowing how much important motivation is in language learning, I would have guessed, at the beginning, that John would completely annihilate Jake as they both set out to

master a very difficult language.  I left for China.  Didn’t see either of them for about two years.  At the end of that two years, only one of them was fluent in Japanese.  Shockingly, it was Jake.  After o

nly two years, with FUN as his major motivator, Jake had become FLUENT in Japanese.  He was reading, writing, and conversing in Japanese.  John, on the other hand, had suffered through two years of a grueling daily study schedule.  He studied so hard that at times that his frustration would boil over.  At times he HATED the Japanese language.  At best he would feel good when he could look at an article and be able to read it.

Lets look more closely at what each of my friends did on their quest to learn a difficult foreign language.  Why is it that Jake seemed to play his way towards becoming fluent, and John seemed to work his tail off with little to show for it.


First, lets look at John.  See if you can see yourself in this example:


John REALLY wanted to succeed.  He would double his income, JUST by learning Japanese.  Because he was so committed to learning the language, he did a number of great things.  He set goals, and wrote them down, he made lists of vocabulary words that he wanted to memorize.  He had his own private tutor, who held him accountable, gave him homework, as well as necessary feedback.  At first, he woke up early to study, but after a couple months he started sleeping through his “study” sessions.  He changed to lunch-time studying, and later to late nights.  Each time he changed his study time was due to his frustration with the language.  He felt like changing the time of day he studied might make the studying itself a better experience.

Video games were fun for Jake

After a few months, John noticed that his studying was really starting to slack.  He wasn’t enjoying Japanese, and started to dread that hour/day.  But he had committed himself to aggressive goals, and with few exceptions, he met his goals.  When he didn’t want to study, he forced himself to at least sit with a language book in front of him.


Jake, on the other hand, didn’t set any goals at the beginning.  For him, it was just cool that he might be able to understand more of what was happening in the video games.  Within a couple of weeks of trying to figure out his language materials on his own, he realized that he could progress much faster with his own private tutor, and so he hired one.  Since John and Jake lived relatively close to each other, it wasn’t too surprising that Jake found John’s tutor, and so the two of them were taught by the same personal tutor.  (Although John had a pretty hefty head start…)

Jake started mimicking the sounds he heard during the games he played.  He played so often that the sounds were very familiar to him.  It was easy to copy them.  Almost as soon as he hired his tutor, he asked the tutor to begin by teaching him what was being said in the video game.  As soon as he figured out what they were saying, it was a snap to review those new vocabulary words.

Within a few weeks he had completely mastered everything in the video games.  His tutor introduced him to Japanese aname.  He LOVED it!  Soon (within a matter of months, anyway) he was watching Japanese TV shows and getting by without English subtitles.

Understanding the television felt INCREDIBLE!!  Jake couldn’t get enough of it!  During “class time” (individual time with the tutor) he would learn new grammar and expand his vocabulary, and after class, whenever he had a free minute, he would watch more Japanese television.  When he heard or saw something he didn’t understand, he would write it down so that the next day he could ask his tutor.


Clearly, Jake enjoyed his language learning experience much, much more than John.  John “worked” much, much harder than Jake.  So which is more useful in learning a language, enjoying the process, or working hard?  For Jake and John, the proof was in the pudding.  After two years, Jake was already completely fluent in all aspects of Japanese.  He could read and write, and it made him feel great to be able to do that.  John, on the other hand, could say some memorized phrases, he still remembered most of the two essays that he memorized earlier, he could spell out words and could tell you how to translate over a thousand words from English to Japanese.  What John accomplished in two years was no small feat, but he was far from fluent.  There was no question that Jake had progressed far, far beyond the level that John achieved.  They both studied for about the same amount of time, and even worked with the same tutor.  They both had set schedules for studying.  The similarities, however, stopped there.

In a future post I want to go into greater detail on why Jake’s experience was so much more enjoyable and effective than John’s.  For now, I feel like it would be impossible to understate the importance of learning your material in a way that excites you, so that the brain believes the material you are working with is both interesting and important.

until next time…

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5 Responses to The Key to Learning a Foreign Language

  1. Great article this is very informative…

  2. I actually enjoy doing grammar translation exercises. I did nothing but grammar translations for an hour everyday and then read aloud what I’d translated and at the end of a couple of months I found that the fluidity of my speech had improved dramatically, most helpfully informative for all language learners. Thank you so much for taking the time to make these for us!

  3. Errol says:

    Serious follower of your page, a bundle of your blogposts have really helped me out. Awaiting improvements!

    • Steve says:

      I’m thrilled that you are reading and gaining value from the posts. Keep me posted on the improvements!

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