When a young Slovak student decided to improve foreign language skills, she took a Spanish course in her hometown university in Bratislava. After a few weeks in this class, she concluded that it is not going to work. The professor barely spoke the language herself, and the class was meeting for just a couple hours a week, which clearly wasn’t enough. So the student decided to do an experiment: try to learn Spanish on her own.
She picked up her favorite book – Harry Potter – in Spanish, and settled upon devoting it at least 20 minutes a day. She also found an audiobook. And this was her evenings: listening and reading Harry Potter in Spanish. Day after day, week after week.
At first, it was frustrating. She could understand only three words: Harry Potter, Hermione, and Voldemort. Everything else remained obscure. A few days later, the student made first progress: now she could grasp little chunks of text like “Harry didn’t understand” or “Hermione was curious“. She remembered the story, and the familiarity with the context helped her to fill the gaps. After all, it was her favorite book that she read multiple time in Slovak, her mother tongue.
In a matter of weeks, the student learned to read in Spanish as if it was her native language. She spent two more years polishing her Spanish skills until she became fluent in this language.
This student is Lýdia Machová, and by now she is fluent in 7 languages.
How to improve foreign language skills
I just finished watching Lýdia’s TED talk1, and the whole story is quite telling. Although most of us are brought up thinking that taking classes is the only way to learn a language, nothing can be further from reality.
Taking classes doesn’t help you to learn foreign languages. Even if you are in Translation & Interpretation program where you are expected to speak a bunch of them fluently. In fact, traditional language classes almost always fail to provide three crucial elements:
- Input. A three-hour class once a week is just not enough. For comparison, FSI programs for American diplomats are typically designed for 25 hours a week. And diplomats, unlike most language students, actually end up being fluent;
- Iteration. The human brain relies on repetition for learning anything. And yet, language classes try to expose you to as many topics as possible. No surprise the brain has a hard time picking it up;
- Interest. Language textbooks are boring. And boredom is not the best companion of learning. If you don’t care about Jose and his red car, black hair and a big nose, textbooks won’t be a good help;
People like Lýdia manage to master several languages because they do things differently. Polyglots organize their language learning program based on these three Is: Input-Iteration-Interest.
One of the ways to accomplish that and improve foreign language skills is the Double Input Method.
The Double Input Method
Reading in a foreign language for fun has been the favorite tactic of many polyglots (including Kato Lomb who spoke more than 20 tongues). In her guide to language learning “With Languages in Mind: Musings of a Polyglot“, she explains:
Texts of general-interest books and articles are natural; they are not limited to the meager vocabulary of beginning textbooks. They speak to the normal reader. The great variety of books and articles gives us the luxury of choosing one that suits our interests or relates to our profession or hobby. These texts are reliable because they don’t use the artificial language of textbooks. They are dynamic because no simplification breaks the whole into colorless and odorless particles.
Kato Lomb, With Languages in Mind: Musings of a Polyglot
Reading is indeed a great way to combine all input, iteration, and interest in an appealing language-learning mix. But in the 21st century, we have a chance to improve Kato Lomb’s “bookworm” strategy. How?
By combining reading with the simultaneous listening to an audiobook.
Reading while listening
The audiobook sets up the pace. You end up reading faster and “swallowing” larger amounts of input. Because of the high speed of the recording, you have to scan the text and process it in chunks rather than word-by-word. Consequently, you acquire new words in their natural environment, which is better than in isolation.
The audiobook also keeps you going. Many people who want to improve foreign language skills commit the same mistake. They get too engaged in creating vocabulary lists. They read with the sole purpose of writing down words they don’t know. The problem with such reading-and-writing, however, is that you read with a speed of a snail. And, obviously, you lose interest and don’t get as much input as you could.
With the Double Input method, you have to keep going even if you don’t know half of the words. Pausing an audiobook every time you want to look up a word is just too big a hassle.
Neuroscience behind the Double Input Method
During reading, the human brain carries out the task of word decoding. It recognizes written words on the page and associates them with corresponding verbal forms. The faster your brain establishes these connections, the better your reading fluency and vocabulary.
Word recognition depends on two mechanisms. The first one is lexical processing – or using a “mental dictionary” of written forms to recall the meaning of a word. This ability is well-developed in strong readers. The second one is phonological processing – or using the pronunciation form of a written word. Non-readers mainly use this mechanism, as most of their vocabulary comes from verbal conversations.
Language learners have neither an extensive “mental dictionary” nor a mental database of verbal forms. You build the two automatically via extensive exposure to the target language, like reading and listening. When you combine these two activities, however, your brain processes both written and verbal forms of a word simultaneously, which creates stronger associations between the two2. So next time you see the same word, you recall it faster.
And this is how you memorize new vocabulary more effectively.
Three Steps to Better Comprehension
So we want to break down the mystery of how to improve foreign language skills, we could summarize it this way:
- Find your favorite book in your target language
- Get the accompanying audiobook
- Commit to reading and listening to it for at least 30 minutes a day
The Double Input Method is not a language hack. It is just a smart and reasonable way to combine your interest in languages with your other interests in life. This is a way to start using a foreign language on a daily basis. And after all, that is what all of us want to achieve.
Image Credits: Photo by Ethan Johnson on Unsplash
- The Secrets of Learning a New Language – TED | Lýdia Machová
- Stuart Webb, Anna C-S Chang – Vocabulary Learning through Assisted and Unassisted Repeated Reading