Newsletter #57: Learn Languages Without Studying

Ramses Oudt
Ramses Oudt
Newsletter #57: Learn Languages Without Studying

Happy Friday, fellow lovers of knowledge!

In this week's newsletter I'm indulging in one of my strongest addictions: language acquisition. Oh, how I could write newsletter after newsletter on the topic! But I'll restrain myself and only write about it every now and then.

If you're not interested in language learning, you can skip this edition. But if you ever want to expand your horizons and meet new cultures in the future, make sure you keep reading. And don't forget to save this newsletter for later reference.

Still here? Great!

As I'm picking up steam with one of my personal goals for the year (acquire Italian), I wanted to lay out my approach. For most of you this method will be counterintuitive, especially if you've always relied on teachers or courses to learn languages. I want to show you how you can stop learning and start acquiring languages—without being bored for a minute.

While this platform is called Think Stack, I often notice that language learners tend to overthink their approach. But if they'd just spend less time with their noses in their textbooks and more time enjoying good stories in their target language, they'd get more fluent a lot more quickly.

Are you in a hurry and just want the gist of what's so counterintuitive to my method? Scroll down to the end of this newsletter to learn my five language acquisition principles in less than 300 words.

Oh, and before I forget: there's a Roam Research Office Hours with Clara from Roam support on Thursday, February 10th. Click here to share your challenges and call in live.

Now, let's dig in.

🎒 Follow my journey towards Italian fluency

While much of the discussions in Think Stack Club are about software tools, one of my aims is to also provide information about mental tools. And in the journey towards fluency in another language, mental tools are crucial. So, I've decided to log my journey towards mastering Italian this year.

In the first entry of my learning log I give an overview of my language acquisition principles (which you can also find in shorter form at the end of this newsletter). I also explain what software tools I'll use to support my process. If you liked my series on how I take smart digital notes and are interested in acquiring another language, I'm sure you'll like this upcoming series of articles.

Click here for Ramses' Journey Towards Italian Fluency — Part 1: Packing the Tools and Techniques.

🛠 How to acquire languages with Roam, LingQ, and Anki

In October 2021, Clara (from Roam support) and yours truly hosted a 90-minute live session on our language acquisition methods. We talked about how to use tools like Roam Research, LingQ, and Anki to speed up our learning speed.

We also touched on other topics, like:

  • Learning (studying) a language versus acquiring it;
  • How Clara acquired 6 languages by reading extensively;
  • How I acquired Spanish to fluency by watching television, using flashcards, and mimicking my friends;
  • How to apply our techniques in Roam Research.

Think Stack members can find full notes and links here. The video below is the full session recording.

On Thursday, Clara will join us again for a Roam Research Office Hours. Click here to ask your question(s) and attend live.

🏋️ Language acquisition through deliberate practice

Much of my approach to acquiring languages is getting myself out of my comfort zone. When I tackled Spanish, that journey was filled with challenges by spending as much time with native speakers as possible. By enrolling in a Spanish college program without knowing a word of Spanish, I wasn't making it easy on myself.

Last year I did an interview with Andrew Barry when he asked me the question: "how did you learn Spanish?" In 70 minutes, I outline my entire approach and recount my journey from not knowing a single word of Spanish to near-native fluency.

Click here for the recording, notes, and links.

🗺 Refold: The roadmap to true fluency

If anyone asks me for an in-depth description of my language acquisition philosophy, I always point them to Refold. Created by my buddy Matt, it outlines everything that you need to know if you want to master any language to fluency.

Using the Refold principles, I acquired near-native fluency in Spanish. Matt himself mastered Japanese and runs a popular YouTube channel Matt vs Japan, where he interviews fellow learners and talks about his process at length.

Click here for the complete Refold roadmap to true fluency. The roadmap is completely free and teaches you everything; from the language acquisition principles to how to set up Anki to practice. The Refold community also has a free Discord server, which I highly recommend you join.

📺 Learn with YouTube and Netflix

One of my core language acquisition principles is to get massive amounts of input from media aimed at natives. But how do I get what a show or movie is about if I don't understand much? Technology to the rescue!

I use the Language Reactor browser plugin to add a dictionary to YouTube and Netflix subtitles. Formerly known as Language Learning with Netflix, the plugin lets you hover over a word in the subtitles to stop playback and show a little pop-up with the translation. It even comes with its own flashcard program that saves the original sentence, the translation, and the audio.

Click here to read more about Language Reactor and to download the free browser plugin.

📖 Make your immersion effective using stories

Through Matt (Refold) I stumbled upon Olly Richards, who came up with the simple but effective StoryLearning framework. It's basically a set of 10 principles to help you acquire new languages by reading and listening to books. As I'm attempting to do extensive reading for my Italian project, I immediately paid attention.

In the discussion between Olly and Matt below, it's clear that natural language acquisition principles are the same regardless of the medium. No matter if you use (audio)books or watch television, many principles hold up. Get lots of comprehensible input, show up every day, revisit what you've learned, don't obsess over grammar, and just have lots of fun are enough to master a language.

For a clear overview of some solid language acquisition principles, watch this 38-minute video:

⚛ Atomic essay: Don't learn languages — acquire them

Do you learn languages, or do you acquire them?

Most people acquire their native language but learn foreign languages. Brainwashed by school, adults ditch the natural approach for artificial materials that never lead to fluency. Be different if you want to become fluent.

Throw away your apps, books, and courses. All you need is a lot of exposure to your target language. Immerse yourself and rewire your brain. Let the language become part of you.

Follow these five principles to acquire any language:

Fun first. To acquire a language, you need to show up every day. You'll only find the motivation and energy to return to your target language if you enjoy the journey. Make fun the all-deciding factor when choosing materials.

Input over output. What doesn't go in can't come out. Focus on getting a lot of input first. Invest your time in reading and listening to your target language—output can wait. The more input you get, the better your output will be.

Use native content. Skip the unnatural language from textbooks and other materials aimed at learners. Massive input is only fun when you use real content. Listen and read like the natives—immerse yourself in the culture.

Practice with flashcards. What you can't understand won't be fun for long. Build your comprehension by using flashcards. Only add full sentences, put your target language on the front, and the language will grow in you.

Don't study grammar rules. Memorizing grammar rules never leads to fluency. Spontaneous output is only possible if the language becomes part of your subconscious. Review grammar once you've started to write in your target language. Your intuition for grammar grows through input.

Apply these principles daily, and you'll become fluent.

I originally wrote this atomic essay in January 2021. Here you can find the essay in Twitter thread format.

Do you want to (re)publish your atomic essay in this newsletter? Hit reply and pitch me your idea, or directly send me a link to your essay.

Join the conversation.

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