METHOD

Here’s a step-by-step blueprint to learn any foreign language by ear:

  1. Tune your pronunciation
  2. Master the core of your target language
  3. Sing your way to fluency
  4. Speak up
  5. Watch content
  6. Read – at last!
  7. Maintain your target language

 


 

First, let’s answer a simple question: Why would you learn a language by ear?

Conventional language learning methods focus on text. They make you read and write from the get go. They make you memorize vocabulary and grammar. And they don’t make you speak enough. And they don’t focus on your pronunciation or your ear.

The problem is, it’s much more difficult to go from the eye to the ear, than it is to go from the ear to the eye. Meaning, if you learn to listen and speak first, then you’ll become good at reading and writing faster than doing the latter first to then speak and listen.

I could go on and on about why I don’t like the learn-by-eye approach, but here’s just a few cons to consider:

  • Most languages aren’t phonetic. What you read isn’t what you say. A same letter can have different pronunciations depending on the letters around it.
  • Some languages have a different alphabet.
  • You delay communication… even though that’s why you’re learning a foreign language in the first place.

The reality is, we’ve all “learned” a foreign language in school. Yet, how many of us were able to speak it? Despite hours and hours of studying the language.

But who am I to talk about languages? I feel as though I must first earn some street cred before I go any further:

  • I was born and raised in Normandy, France, speaking only French until my early twenties.
  • I taught myself several languages: English, Spanish, Italian, and I’m now working on my German.
  • I dabbled in Catalan, Romanian, and Hungarian.
  • I learned and forgot Portuguese.
  • I also failed at several languages: English & Spanish in school of course, Finnish (not once, but twice!), and German once. All these failures were the result of ignorance and experimentations. But I don’t see them as failures. They are learning experiences  that made me hone my skills.

Let me show you how you can learn a foreign language while enjoying it.

Let me show you how you can speak another language without memorizing endless lists of vocabulary.

Let me show you how you can have conversations in a matter of weeks instead of years.

 


 

0. How long does it take to become fluent?

Different polyglots estimate that you need between 400 and 600 hours to reach a conversational level. These numbers come from countless hours of experimentation. There is no law for this yet. If you find a way to become fluent after just 100 hours, please call me asap! 400 hours is such a long period of time that there’s not much data about it. To be honest, I didn’t time anything while learning my first languages. But a (very) rough estimate puts me in this range too. I exceeded the 400 hours with my English and Spanish a long time ago. I’m barely at 400 hours with my Italian. And, as I’m writing these lines, I’m at around 250 hours with my German.

The new tools are so young (the Internet, YouTube, Skype, italki, …) that there hasn’t been enough thorough research on the subject yet. The first estimates give us the 400-600 hour range when you’re focused and learn with the right tools.

I wish there were a precise number. It would give us a precise target to reach. As if we were running a marathon. You reach the line, and you know you’re done. Congrats, you just made it, you’re now fluent in Hindi! But there isn’t any clear mark. There’s no equation giving a clear result of how much time you need. Your native language, your target language (and how similar those two are), what kind of resources you’re using, how many languages (and which ones) you can already speak, your environment, your ability to be laser-focused on the task at hand, how much time per day you spend on your target language.

I also want to add that fluency doesn’t have a clear definition. For you, maybe it means being able to speak to your neighbor about his vegetables. But for your cousin it means being able to watch a soccer game and understanding the sports commentators. It’s hard to measure something abstract. So just focus on your definition of fluency. What is your goal? Why do you want to learn another language? What level do you want to reach?

 


 

1. Tune your pronunciation

Each language works with a given set of sounds. A language, when you speak it, is just a series of given sounds. If you approach a foreign language without paying attention to its set of fundamental sounds, then you’ll speak it relying on your native language’s sounds. That’s like playing soccer with a tennis racket, or skiing with your slippers… it doesn’t make sense!

You first need to get used to the new sounds in your target language. And when I say “pay attention”, I don’t mean “be perfect”. Aim at communication, not perfection. Learning a new language gives you a tool to communicate with your fellow human beings. And it’s all that matters to me. It’s not a trick I want to use to impress people at a garden party.

Communication is #1

There’s nothing wrong with having an accent. On the contrary! Your accent will be your signature, your unique touch. Ever heard Arianna Huffington, Jérôme Jarre, or Arnold Schwarzenegger? Their English pronunciation is far from perfect. Yet they’ve had exceptional careers in the US because they’re able to communicate in English. Aim at communication, not perfection. If your pronunciation is good enough then you’ll be able to speak clearly and people will understand you. This chapter is here to show you how to tune your instrument to get to that good-enough level. If you have a heavy accent, if you butcher every single word, if your pronunciation is atrocious, then, believe me, native speakers won’t understand you. And if they can’t understand you, then you guys can’t communicate. End of discussion. Game over. Bye bye, thank you for coming.

Learning a language is not about writing and reading. It’s not even about speaking and listening. Sure, all these skills matter. But learning a language is about communicating. Learning a foreign language is about connecting with other people. It’s about discovering foreign cultures. No one cares whether you are fluent in subjunctive. Your goal is NOT perfection. Your goal is NOT to become a grammar jedi. Your goal is NOT to know every word of the dictionary. Your goal is communication.

Heavy accent VS. slight accent

When you pay no attention to pronunciation, you end up with a heavy accent. Your mother tongue influences you, and you build up bad habits with your new language. A heavy accent prevents you from communicating. A slight accent means your pronunciation is not perfect, but you have no problem to communicate. That’s the difference between butchering every single word and butchering a word here and there. Here and there is fine. Every single one and you lose connection.

Why you have an accent when you speak a foreign language

Remember the last time you decided to start jogging again? Or when you started going to the gym? Remember how you felt the next day? Your legs were sore, and you could barely lift up your arms. That’s because you hadn’t used these muscles in a very long time (or ever).

The same thing happens when you start learning a foreign language. You may have never used the muscles involved (your tongue, your throat, your jaw, …) in this way. There’s no secret magic trick to master the deep greasy French r. All it takes is the right instructions and some practice to recondition your muscles.

The question now is: How? How do you learn the new sounds specific to your target language? Where do you find the right instructions? You don’t have to pay hundreds, or thousands of dollars for a personal language coach. You’re not a movie star. And to be honest, you don’t need to.If you want to aim at a perfect accent, perfect pronunciation, or if you want to become a Hollywood star, by all means, go for it! I’m just saying, you don’t need all of this to speak a foreign language. You don’t need to break the bank. You don’t need endless hours of boring drills. You don’t need a personal tutor. It works, sure. But you can keep it simple and achieve 80% of the same results for a fraction of the cost (in money AND time).

How to have a better accent than 99% of language learners – IPA 101

You’re going to use a simple system called the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) instead. It’s a simple alphabet where each letter represents a sound.

Here’s an example:

English: I love Pitch Perfect.

IPA: aɪ lʌv pɪtʃ pɜːfɪkt

Note that the pronunciation (and thus the symbols) may change, depending on the kind of English you’re using (American, British, Australian, …).

The IPA letters (the symbols) are the same across every language. But, since each language has a specific pronunciation, all the letters don’t appear with every language. For example, the trilled r appears in Spanish, but not in American English. So the reason why you have an accent is because you are using your native IPA system to speak your target language. But your native language and your target language are different, and thus have different IPA systems. The IPA is just a convenient way to write pronunciation. We put the sounds on paper, and distinguish languages by their group of symbols (sounds). Then it becomes easy to compare two different pronunciation systems.

Your first task is to get familiar with these two IPA systems (native and target). Compare your target IPA with your native IPA. Pay attention to the sounds that don’t exist in your native language.

I can already hear you:

« Phew, seems like a big headache! Do I really have to learn all those weird symbols? »

Well, I’m glad you asked. Because the answer is no. It’s intuitive. All you need to do is listen to the different sounds, and read the instructions of the sounds you don’t know. Phonetics don’t have to be boring. It’s a useful tool. And you don’t have to memorize anything. The goal is not to learn a new alphabet and read your target language in IPA. The goal is to learn about the different sounds, play with the model and practice.

Let me give you a quick introduction to the IPA. The main parts of the model are vowels and consonants. They are the building blocks of your pronunciation.

Vowels

The following diagram is a rough representation of your mouth:

 

 

 

 

 

 

A point on this diagram represents the position of the center of your tongue. For example, the sound [i] as in see is:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Say see and pay attention to your tongue and how close it is to the roof of your mouth.

Some languages, such as Spanish and Japanese, have only a few vowels and you’ll master them in no time. Others, such as French and German, have many vowels. It can get tricky, in particular when two vowels are close and give similar sounds. How can you recognize them when they are that close? Simple: you can’t…yet! They are so similar that your brain can’t tell the difference yet. Your ear isn’t tuned yet so you won’t be able to distinguish the two sounds. That’s why you need to train your ear. That’s why I put a huge emphasis on audio from the get go. Second, it’s not that big of a deal in most cases – Remember? Communication > Perfection. Look at: ship and sheep. A foreigner might not get the difference between [i] and [ɪ], but you’re able to tell whether he’s saying “I’m in the sheep” or “I’m in the ship” based on the context of your conversation. Even though you must pay attention to this kind of detail to fine-tune your ear in the long run, relax!

Notice your tongue’s position when you say shoot and foot? What about hot and hat? That’s how you tune your ear. By playing with it. There’s just no other way. Most native speakers won’t be able to give you feedback. They can tell you “well, that’s not how we say it” but they can’t tell you how to fix it! Because most of them have no idea of how their native language works. That’s why you need to get your hands dirty and go through IPA 101. 

This is the only technical part of the method, so bear with me here.

Play with your tongue. What happens when you make your tongue go from the back to the front of your mouth? When it moves downward? Experiment with roundness too. What happens when you round your lips? As if you were whistling. Say [i] as in see. Keep your tongue still and round your lips. Hear the difference? You get something close to a French [y] as in tu (=informal you).

Consonants

If vowels were the bricks, then consonants would be the mortar, holding them together. Consonants appear in an array:

Your new best friend.

Relax. Again, you don’t have to know all the terms and to memorize all the symbols. It’s intuitive. You can just click on the symbols to hear the sounds and read a short description of how to make the sounds.

Learn the right movements of your target language

As I said, each language has its own set of sounds. The French phonology system contains sounds such as [ʁ] and [ɔ̃] that don’t appear in English. Your task here is to compare the phonology system of your target language with your native language.

You can find any language’s IPA online. Go to Wikipedia, and search for « [language] phonology » where [language]=Japanese, Swahili,… whatever your native/target language is. Read the phonology page of your native language as well. Compare the two systems. Use this interactive IPA chart to hear each sound. Spot the sounds you aren’t used to. Focus on these sounds. Click and read the features of each sound. You can also find tutorials on YouTube. For example, type russian pronunciation or how to trill spanish r, and you will find many videos with different tips.

Record yourself to compare with the original audio. Don’t freak out when you hear your own voice. It’s always uncomfortable to hear one’s voice at first. But no one cares. You’re doing it for yourself, and I guess you’re on your own while practicing. You can also check out this simulator and see how your body makes each sound.

Then read the full phonology page of your target language. You need to dig deeper and check if your target language is a tonal language or if it has other specificities (diphtongs, stress patterns, vowel and consonant length, …). Again, the goal is not to master everything and to be perfect. But it’s easier to start with good habits than it is to revert bad habits.

Don’t memorize anything. Just read the full page. Keep it somewhere and come back from time to time. When you start absorbing your target language, you’ll hear what you’re reading now. It may be a little bit overwhelming at first, but everything will soon make sense. You were just given the pieces of a big new puzzle and you’re about to piece them together.

Learning this way may also destroy some myths about your target language. For example, I’d always thought the Spaniards had the ability to trill their tongue on demand. They would just make their tongue trill, like winking, as if their tongue were a super flexible muscle! The reality is very different. A trill is a simple physical phenomenon: it’s just the tongue acting as valve while air flows out of the mouth. Reading the IPA charts will help you to understand the building blocks of your target language. And it will demistify any doubt you could’ve had before.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m not saying all of a sudden you’ll have a great pronunciation. You’ll need to practice. And it’s a messy process. Don’t overthink it. Just do it. Have fun with it. You’re like a child learning new sounds.

Also, keep in mind the IPA is just a model. It’s a guide, not a God. Linguists and native speakers often argue over the exact position of vowels on the diagram. Or whether the sound [t] is dental or alveolar. The truth is, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. And guess what? No one cares. Communication > perfection baby!

The IPA is here to give you the tools you need to learn the right movements. You get a feel of your target language. No need to spend hours and hours on it. Compare, listen, practice, record yourself, assess, adjust. Clear & rinse.

If you’re willing to spend some time on this step, I recommend the Mimic Method. They have premium pronunciation courses to help you develop your ear and understand your target language’s unique sounds.

 


 

2. Master the core of your target language

I believe any efficient method needs to include two critical components, however you decide to approach your language absorption process. And these two components are audio and repetition.

Unless you want to become a linguist or study the Bible in your target language, you will end up communicating with people. You have to train your ear and your mouth. Thus the need for audio material. Maybe someday we will find out how to wire our neurons in a way that make us absorb a new language in a matter of minutes. But for now, audio is the best approach we have.

Your ear is like a broken leg. You have to teach it how to hear again. Scientific studies have shown that babies can recognize any sound produced by a human being. However, they lose this ability as they grow up. An American baby loses her ability to hear Chinese tons because she has no exposition to a tonal language while growing up. But it’s there, somewhere in the brain. What you’re doing, when you’re learning a foreign language, is reshaping your brain and your lost neuronal connexions.

Also, texts aren’t always your friend. They will betray you. Consider these two words: Height and weight. Very similar words, but the pronunciation is different. And you wouldn’t know that just by reading these two words. You need to hear them. Hence: Audio 1, text 0.

Then repetition. Simply put: You don’t become The Rock just by doing 100 push-ups one day. You have to do it over, and over, and over again.

Your first mission is to learn your first words and sentences. Nothing fancy. You must start with the basics of your target language.

Start with one of Language Transfer’s courses. They’re free and efficient. You’ll learn the fundamentals of our target language through audio recordings in a matter of hours.

Language Transfer is still young and they don’t have many languages yet. If you have money, I recommend using an audio program like Pimsleur. It’s expensive and quite boring. But it’s super efficient to acquire a strong foundation.

If you have no money, go to YouTube and search for German audio program (if you’re learning German, of course). You’ll find videos that last 3 to 5 hours with simple sentences in your target language. It’s not as efficient and well structured as something like Language Transfer or Pimsleur. But it’s good enough for a free resource. Remember, at this stage of the process, ear only! So, even though the videos have visual support, don’t watch it! Just listen to the audio and repeat what you hear.

I’ve experimented with so many variations to change this step. I resisted using this kind of audio program for so long. They’re just very boring! But I couldn’t find or make something as efficient on my own. I wanted a 100% audio-based method and there’s just nothing else as good as those. Unless, maybe, speaking with natives from the very beginning. But you must be very patient, and you must find very patient friends.

There’s no definite time for this step. As I said earlier, it depends on many variables. What I like to do is starting with 1 (IPA), reading the pages, playing with the sounds. Then step 2, while going back to step 1 when necessary. Then I start step 3 (songs) & 4 (speaking) before I’m done with step 2, so that I’m having more fun with my target language. Instead of just listening and repeating boring sentences. You can also power through step 2, and put in 5, 8, or 10 hours a day for several days in a row. And then you move on. It’s up to you.

 


 

3. Sing your way to fluency

The best way to build your ear while enjoying the process is to use music.

Careful here though. You’ll be tempted to read the lyrics, since you won’t understand a thing at first. But that’s a no-go! We’re learning by ear. Eyes are not welcome yet.

Enjoy the music. Don’t focus too much on the lyrics. Listen to the song and see if you can recognize a few words. But just enjoy it!

And here’s how you find songs in your target language:

  1. Go to Lyrics Translate.
  2. Click on Artists (upper left).
  3. Select your target language in Language. You can also choose a country. It can be useful if you’re learning Spanish and you want to focus on an Argentinean accent, for example.
  4. Select your favorite genre in Genre. Or leave it blank if you’re curious.
  5. Click on Search.
  6. You get a list of different artists singing in your target language. When you click on a name, you can see a list of his/her songs whose lyrics are available on the website. They also mention if there’s a translation.

Or:

  1. Go to Google.
  2. Choose a country where people speak your target language. For example: Greece.
  3. Search for top charts [country]. So here: top charts greece.
  4. The first few links will show you the most popular songs in this country at the moment. Some websites will let you listen to them. If not, go to YouTube or your favorite streaming service.

You can also find playlists like Top 20 France on Spotify or similar platforms.

 


 

4. Speak up

Most of us, when playing a sport, are amateurs. Even if we’re great at our sport. Even if we work out and practice everyday. The truth is, we just can’t play at a professional level. We’d get our ass kicked in 2 seconds. And that’s fine. We just find other amateurs to play with.

Language learning is a sport too. When you start learning a foreign language, you’re an amateur, you don’t know how to play. The pros here are native speakers. They’ve been practicing their mother tongue their whole lives.

While you can speak with other amateurs (other language learners), your end goal is to play with the pros, to communicate with native speakers. So you have no other choice but to go pro. That’s why language learning is the hardest sports of all. There’s no amateur circuit. Unless you want to spend your life sparring with other language learners, you have no other choice but to go pro.

That’s why learning a foreign language is very hard. You just can’t be an amateur. You have to go pro. You can say you’re a tennis player even if you only play once a week. You can’t say you speak Russian unless you do speak the language and you’re able to communicate and understand native speakers.

So it’s never too early to have a conversation in your target language. You only need a few hours before you can start speaking your target language. Of course I’m not talking about having a perfect ear or perfect speaking skills. But you don’t need much time to be able to speak like E.T.. Remember: Forget about perfection. Focus on communication.

You’ll never be ready. You never stop learning a language. Note that I just said a language and not a foreign language. Let me give you an example: I don’t know how and when I’m supposed to use the subjunctive in French. I know some sentences may or may not call for the subjunctive. But I never know when and if I have to use it. So I just wing it. One time, I use the normal form – also called indicative, in case you want to look fancy at a garden cocktail party. And next time, I use the subjunctive. Yet French is my native language. I grew up in Normandy and I’ve spent most of my life in France. People who study French literature or French as a foreign language learn the rules about the French subjunctive. Who speaks the language though? I know I do. I know I’m able to communicate with my fellow Frenchmen (or at least I think I can…). Again: communication trumps perfection. Every.fucking.time.

You’re absorbing a language to communicate and meet people. But how can you talk with native speakers before you travel? Or how can you talk with native speakers if you can’t afford a plane ticket? What’s the point of doing this if you can’t practice speaking? Don’t worry, I have a simple solution for you. There’s a website called italki, with thousands of language lovers. I’m all about free content and how to practice without spending a dime. And italki is perfect for that. You can find language partners to practice your target language for free. There’s a big community, and you’ll meet many language enthusiasts. You can look for people who are learning your native language and then have conversations where you spend half the time speaking your target language and half the time speaking your native language. Once you have a language partner, you can both decide when you are going to talk via Skype for example. Will it be once a week, once every two weeks? There’s no perfect solution. It depends on your schedule but also on your needs: Are you traveling in two months? If so, speaking everyday won’t be too much. If you need to speak a lot, you may want to find several language partners. Now, what’s the best way to structure your conversations? I tried different formats and I found that the best way to enjoy it and not feel overwhelmed is to divide the conversation in four parts. Let’s say you spend 1 hour talking. People often do 30 minutes 30 minutes. But I prefer to do 15-15-15-15. Start by speaking your target or native language for 15 minutes. Then switch to the other language for 15 minutes. And go back to the first language for 15 more minutes. And end with 15 minutes in the other language. 30 minutes in your target language can be exhausting when you’re just starting. You can also have 40-minute sessions and in this case divide them in 10-10-10-10.

If you have more money than time though, you can find native speakers to speak only in your target language. You can pay for either certified teachers or personal tutors. In my experience, I prefer to go with personal tutors. They don’t have any diploma, so you’ll just have a normal conversation with them and they’ll give you feedback or help you if needed. It feels more natural whereas certified teachers are too academic sometimes.

 


 

5. Watch content

The best way to absorb a foreign language is to get continuous exposure. No problem when you’re traveling. But easier said than done at home. Where do you go to get into full immersion mode?

You just create an immersion environment. One of my favorite online places to get immediate immersion is YouTube. Hours and hours of quality free content in the language of your choice. Plus, this kind of content wasn’t made for language learners. We’re talking about content made by natives FOR natives. No unnatural robotic slow voice. No weird sentences no one ever uses!

You want to become a sponge. While listening to music and watching videos, pay attention. Soak it in! Notice the contractions? Notice the liaisons? Notice people’s hand gestures? Everything matters. Details can go a long way.

There are three methods I use to find foreign native content:

Method 1: The trending trick
  1. Go to youtube.com
  2. At the bottom of the page, choose the country of your choice as your location.
  3. On the top right of the page, click on Trending.

You now have a page of the trending videos in the country you just chose.

Method 2: The socialite
  1. Go to socialblade.com
  2. Click on Top lists and then Top 250 from United States.
  3. On the left, choose your country under Top 250 by country.

You now get a list of the most popular YouTubers in the country you picked.

Method 3. The neighbor strategy

This method can only be used once you’ve already found YouTubers you like in your target language.

  1. Go to the homepage of a YouTuber you like (in your target language).
  2. On the right, there are usually two lists: First, friends and personal recommendations from this YouTuber. Then a second list, generated by YouTube, of other YouTubers with similar content.
The Kevin Bacon strategy

It may take a while before you find content you actually enjoy watching. But keep exploring, you never know. Did you know that any two YouTubers are six or fewer acquaintance links apart on YouTube? Yeah, me neither. YouTube is indeed full of surprises…

The beauty of this system is you choose what kind of content you absorb. You don’t have to go through boring fake conversations. You don’t have to memorize vegetables’ names. Want to learn food vocabulary? Find a cooking show in your target language on YouTube. I found Masterchef Italia and Masterchef Brasil on YouTube while learning Italian and then Portuguese. Love Fortnite? Find a gaming channel. History buff? Find a history channel and learn about history in your target language.

If you’re early in the process, you can start with channels made by natives (or more advanced language learners) for people like you learning their native language. Type learn [insert target language here] and you’ll find dozens and even hundreds of videos made for people who want to learn this language.

Of course, the more popular the language is, the more content you’ll find. There are way more YouTube channels in English than there are in Lithuanian. But even when I was experimenting with Finnish, I was able to find so much good content. So don’t worry, and start hunting!

You can also use Netflix (or a similar platform) to find native content. I know it’s not free. But Netflix’s catalogue is so good that you’re paying pennies on the dollar for great content. They’re getting more and more awesome foreign shows every year. And they make it very easy to find content in your target language. Let’s say you want to find German content. Search for German. Then you can choose options such as German-language Movies & TV, German TV Shows, Audio in German, or German Independent Movies.

I also started a list of YouTube & Netflix shows in different languages. There isn’t much on it yet, but you can start here if your target language is there.

 


 

6. Read – at last!

This is the only step where I want you to wait. Steps 1 to 5: you do them in their numerical order, but you don’t have to wait too long before starting the next one. You can do steps 3 & 4 at the same time for example. Go back to step 1 from time to time to check your pronunciation and tweak it. Then reinforce steps 5 & 2 if needed. Or back to 4. And so on.

But, for step 6, reading, I want you to wait. Take time to develop your ear and speak. Don’t rush it.

It’s up to you to decide when you start reading. I can’t give you a specific benchmark to reach. But, please, trust the process. And take your time before reading. Focus on your ear. That’s your priority number one!

Then, when you’re ready, it won’t be that hard. You’ll already be feeling the language inside of you. You’ll be able to hear it and speak it.

If your target language has a different alphabet, start by learning the alphabet, obviously. Use simple online resources. You can find great tutorials on YouTube. For example: learn to read Chinese with ease, how to learn 2000 Chinese characters in 50 days, or how to read Korean here and there.

Then – and start here if your target language’s alphabet is no different – practice. Start by reading lyrics of your favorite songs. Read as you hear. Listen to the song while reading. You can also watch videos in your target language with subtitles in your target language as well. That’s another way to read while you hear.

But of course you can also read the normal way. It’s just going to be more challenging at first. Here are a few options to find reading materials in your target language:

  • Project Syndicate has articles in different languages about economics and politics.
  • Project Gutenberg has a collection of free ebooks in several languages.
  • You can find free Kindle ebooks on the Amazon page of your target language (I’ll write a detailed how-to soon).
  • Search for blogs in your target language on Google, just like you’d search for YouTube channels.

 


 

7. Maintenance mode

Language learning is a sport. And like any sport, if you stop playing for too long, you’ll lose your professional status, and end up as an amateur.

Yet you don’t always want to play like a professional, at an intense level. Sometimes you just want to take it slow for a while. Sometimes all you need is a break. But how to take a break when you don’t want to lose your language skills? How to approach it without wasting all the time you already put in absorbing your target language?

Simple: You get into maintenance mode.

I consider two levels of maintenance: Low maintenance, and high maintenance. Low maintenance is like a couch potato. You don’t want to lose your language completely, but you’re not willing to put in much effort either. And high maintenance is when you keep learning, but not that much.

You can also decide to let it go completely. Because you won’t travel again for a while. Because you can’t take it anymore. Because your spouse left you (that Swedish rap was getting on his nerves somehow!). And that’s fine. Your life, your choices. If you ever decide to start learning again, you won’t start from zero. You will forget a lot, but you’ll be able to pick it up fast.

I’m not here to convince you to maintain your language ’til the end of time. This section is here to show you how to maintain a foreign language, should you choose to accept it. Learning a foreign language can be exhausting. It can be frustrating. It can be harmful to your spouse’s ears. But maintaining a foreign language doesn’t take much. 5-10 minutes a day per language is all you need.

The couch potato, or low maintenance

Find a daily (or weekly) activity that doesn’t take too much time, or involve too much brain power. A few ideas:

  • watching a 5-minute video everyday,
  • watching a movie once a week,
  • listening to a 10-minute podcast everyday,
  • having a 15-minute conversation once a week.

The principle here is still audio and repetition.

Low-key learning, or high maintenance

The idea is to keep discovering new words without doing too much. You’re not in warrior mode anymore. When you start absorbing a new language with songs and videos, you find yourself in a lot of uncomfortable situations where you don’t understand anything. Sometimes it even feels like you’re going nowhere. But high maintenance is not this kind of experience. Think chill and relax. The high-maintenance mode is absorbing and chelax.

High-maintenance activities:

  • having a 15-minute conversation everyday,
  • singing a few songs you already know everyday,
  • watching a movie every other day (or binge-watching videos on YouTube).

You absorb a foreign language to open new horizons, not to be stressed out by the activity itself or your results. You absorb a foreign language to meet new people, not to feel self-conscious about judgemental people and haters. If you ever feel overwhelmed, go into maintenance mode for a few days. Keep it simple. Relax, and absorb.

You have to make a lot of effort to get a 6-pack. You have to work out. You have to pay attention to your diet. And you have to put in the hours. Let’s say you reach your goal and get to 5% body fat. The moment you start chilling, you start losing your 6-pack. The same thing will happen with your target language. You worked hard to reach your goal. And you celebrate and start chilling when you get there. You think you deserve a rest. After all, you’ve been putting in all these hours day after day. And you don’t want to spend your life doing it everyday. That’s not the lifestyle you want. And maybe you realize that staying at 5% body fat requires a lot of effort. Whereas staying at 10% gives you more flexibility in your life and choices. And you realize that should you need to get back to 5% body fat for a sports event or your wedding, then you’d get back on your routine, work hard for a few weeks and reach 5% again. Same with your language routine. Maybe you don’t need to be near-native all the time and maybe you don’t want to spend 1-2 hours a day everyday on your target language. And you’re fine speaking a little worse but spending only 10 minute a day or 1 hour a week on your second language. And same here, should you need to, if you’re going on your honeymoon in Greece in 6 weeks, or you have to negotiate a business contract in China in 2 months, then you can go back to your old routine.

 


 

Here’s a quick recap:

  1. Tune your pronunciation – IPA 101
  2. Master the core of your target language – Basic words & sentences through audio & repetition
  3. Sing your way to fluency – Foreign music
  4. Speak up
  5. Watch content
  6. Read – at last!
  7. Maintain your target language

 

Et voilà !

 

You can also read a more condensed version of the method applied to learning French.