What Science Says About the Best Ways to Learn a Language

Have you ever wondered what science and research say about learning a language, especially when it comes to adult learners? Unfortunately there isn't one perfect brain hack for multilingual fluency. But, some tips and methods are actually founded on quantifiable, proven scientific study.

You might be surprised to know that language learning is a popular area of research for scientists. The best methods for language-learning have been proven time and again through rigorous research and testing. To spare you from sifting through the research yourself, we've captured it here.

1. Do your studying before you go to sleep - and even during sleep.

A Swiss study had language learners review terms before they went to sleep. Then, while the participants were sleeping, they were played language tapes with the same words. When they woke up, they were given a vocabulary test and scored significantly better than the group who did not have tapes played in their sleep.

One of the conclusions behind this study is that sleep helps boost our learning capacity. So, while you may not want to play tapes while you’re sleeping, why not give it a try? Spend some time before you go to bed reviewing your vocabulary and important concepts and listening to the same information as you sleep. It definitely can’t hurt.

2. Speaking your new language and receiving immediate feedback is better than simply practicing comprehension.

Two researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that those who had to speak and practice in a second language performed better than those who only had to comprehend and practice the same language. The results were better for speakers with respect to vocabulary and grammar, too.

Spend as much time speaking your new language as you can, even though it feels uncomfortable at first. Language classes, travel, and attending events with native speakers can all go a long way to help you.

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3. Use hand gestures to help you learn.

A study done in 2012 had researchers creating a fake language known as “Vimmi.” They taught Vimmi to 20 people. Some words were taught using hand gestures, and others were taught without. The research showed that the words taught with hand gestures stayed with students better than those that were not.

This is probably not a surprise to you. If you think about simple words you learned as a child, or perhaps have taught your children, you probably associate many of them with hand gestures. For example, thumbs down is bad, while thumbs up is good. These same things apply to learning a foreign language.

4. Focus on learning sounds first.

You may want to learn all sorts of vocabulary and grammar, but studies have shown that this is not the best way to go about it. When you’re a baby, you learn your native language primarily through the sounds that you hear from those around you.

As an adult, while studies have shown that we lose some of this ability to learn from sounds, the skill isn't gone. We just dont use it as often as we did as a child. So, the fix is easy - spend more time listening to, repeating, and practicing the new language you’re learning.

5. Use “spaced repetition” to help you.

Have you heard of “spaced repetition?” It’s the idea of “reviewing information at gradually increasing intervals.” There have been lots of studies done using spaced repetition, but Gabriel Wyner shared promising new data in his book, Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It. He concludes that in a four-month period, practice 30 minutes a day to learn and retain 3,600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. Flashcards can cover an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation.

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6. Your proficiency depends on your motivation.

You may be saying to yourself, “Well, duh! Of course, if I’m highly motivated I’ll learn more!” But since the 1970s, numerous studies have drilled down into how motivation ties to language-learning. Primarily, the reasons that people learn play a huge part in how well they retain information, and which teaching styles are most appropriate for their case.

When it comes to learning a second language, perhaps the most important thing is your motivation. Find an important motivator for learning, and it will serve as the driving force to keep going through difficulty or boredom.

If you're feeling motivated today, browse the language courses on offer at Fluent City. Our instructors use data-driven teaching methodologies to make learning practical and fun.