How to Master a Second Language


A practical guide using the example of English 

“The bear gives birth to a duck”; “The engineer is in the refrigerator”. Or how about: “The onion eats the girl.” All these are real examples of sentences for translation exercises from “Duolingo”, one of the world’s most popular platforms for language learning. It’s striking that under the sleek, gamified surface it relies on the most old school of methods: the Grammar-Translation method. This approach, useful for training translators, was already popular in the Middle Ages.

We know that language acquisition doesn’t work well this way. Language acquisition is a subconscious process. It happens when we understand messages. The traditional approach, still the method of choice for most schools and platforms, is ineffective because the focus is on form rather than content. The emphasis is on “how”, not on “what”, on structure and grammar rather than on meaning, interesting ideas and valuable information.

That’s how you end up with “The onion eats a girl” and all the other bizarre examples. This is not to say that a form-based approach doesn’t work at all. For beginners, almost every approach works to a certain extent. This includes the Grammar-Translation method, which is frowned upon in the language classroom these days, but has seen a renaissance in the digital sphere.

To Duolingo’s credit, it can be said that linking them to bizarre images actually helps to memorize words. The bear gives birth to a duck. In Spanish this would read: „El oso esta pariendo un pato.“ Read the sentence out loud. Now close your eyes visualize how a bear gives birth to a duck.  Repeat the sentence. The probability that you will at least remember the Spanish words for bear, „oso“ and duck, „pato“, for a while is now much higher than if you had simply translated the sentence.

Don’t learn, acquire

Before I talk about how to apply this knowledge to master a language, let’s clarify the distinction between language learning and language acquisition.

Language learning is the conscious effort associated with the language classroom: translation tasks like the ones on “Duolingo”, grammar exercises and vocabulary practice but also role plays and fluency practice of all kinds. The underlying similarity is that the language is the topic to be learned, it’s not used as a tool to communicate messages.

Language acquisition is what happens when we get the message in the target language, when we focus on the “what” rather than the “how”. It is the subconscious process of acquiring vocabulary and structure. It’s the way children learn their native language and it’s also the way the grown-ups master a foreign language.

The distinction is crucial for a variety of reasons.  It’s possible to learn a bit of a language in many different ways, but it’s only possible to master a language through the subconscious process of acquisition. The process of language acquisition never stops. We are always learning new words and phrases in our second language as well as in our mother tongue.

It is not about an „either/or“ between explicit language learning and implicit language acquisition. Without a foundation in the target language, laid through explicit language learning, the step to implicit language acquisition is impossible for adult learners.  Without the subsequent process of language acquisition, mastery of the target language at a high level is equally impossible.

It is crucial not to be fixated on one approach. Under certain circumstances, even beginners can learn implicitly and more advanced learners can benefit from explicit language learning, through focused grammar explanations and exercises, as well as from looking up words that cannot be deduced from the context.

It is important to place less emphasis on the „how“ and more on the „what“ as you progress towards higher levels of language competence. If the content is interesting and encourages further engagement with the topic, if the communication is meaningful and the target language is used as a tool of communication you’ll remember it more easily. It will stick. The more form-based, diluted and boring the content, the less you’ll achieve this goal.  To master a language at a high level, you need to store a lot of information, not only a large number of words, but also nuances of meaning and use in different situations.

To provide some perspective, let’s look at the word count of the English language. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary includes some 470,000 entries. This number is on the conservative side, there are other estimates that include regional dialects, slang and professional jargon which come up to a million words.

Too much to learn

Nobody knows or uses all of these words, of course. Tests show that native speakers know and use between 20 000 and 35 000 thousand words. Let’s set a conservative goal for a second language speaker who wants to master English: 20 000 words. Memorizing the 20 000 items would be just one goal the language learner has to reach. She would also have to master the appropriate use of the words, understand the differences in register, formal or informal, for example.

When is it appropriate to say “I concur” rather than “I agree”? What is the right word to use if you would like to use the expression ironically? Not to mention accurate grammar, spelling and punctuation, the differences between British and American English, the cultural references, so on and so forth. It is simply impossible for the average person to consciously learn all of this. And nobody ever does.

If people do master a language to a high level of proficiency, it is because they have successfully acquired it over an extended period of time. They heard and read plenty of stuff that in the target language that they understood, that they were able to make sense of. Or, to use the technical jargon: they were exposed to a high volume of “comprehensible input” over an extended period of time.

Recognizing pornography

What then, is comprehensible input? There is a long standing debate in applied linguistics what exactly constitutes comprehensible input which need not concern us here. We’ll stick with the famous definition Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward provided for pornography: you’ll know it when you see it. To give an example: if you are at the B 2 level, a scientific paper about psychology that you will have a hard time understanding in your native language does not qualify as comprehensible input. A well written, clear popular science book about the same topic does.

But don’t you learn a language by speaking it? No, you don’t. What you learn by speaking the target language is making the right sounds.  You get used to producing the language, you solidify what you have already learned and you get the chance experiment with newly acquired words and expressions.

The most important benefit of speaking practice is: you get used to the feeling of expressing yourself in a foreign language. For most people, that feeling is uncomfortable and produces the unpleasant sensation of self-consciousness. The degree of intensity of this feeling differs greatly between individuals and ironically, it is especially challenging for the most ambitious types, for the strivers and the perfectionists.

Drinking to talk

Don’t believe me? Try speaking foreign language after consuming what constitutes a moderate amount of alcohol for you. Again, definitions will vary greatly between individuals. You will find that your performance will improve after a few drinks. Why? Because alcohol lowers inhibitions, it lowers the inhibiting sense of self-consciousness. That’s why it’s popular and why it’s called a social lubricant. It should go without saying that large amount of alcohol will have the opposite effect.

What is the point? The point is that the main problem with actually using a foreign language has more to do with psychology than linguistics. The more perfectionistic you are, the more you are invested in getting it right and avoiding mistakes, the harder it will be for you to actually to become fluent in a foreign language.

This is where learning another language can render an additional benefit of personal growth, beyond the obvious one of broadening your circle of communication. It can help you to face the fear of rejection that lies at the bottom of perfectionism. It can help you to come to terms with your simple human fallibility. Psychologists call this “imperfection tolerance”, a truly valuable trait to acquire. At „L&S“, we use communication training, like our „Training for TED“, to help our trainees get used to difficult situations and remain capable to act under pressure.

So, what should you be doing to master a language?

 Three Steps

1) Leave the beginner stage behind you as quickly as possible. If you actually want or have to master a foreign language, try to make the time for intensive courses. It would be ideal if you could attend the courses over a longer period of time. Beginners have a steep learning curve and your goal is to leave pure language learning behind as quickly as possible. As a rule of thumb, the more similar the target language is to the mother tongue, the faster the step from language learning to language acquisition.

Three to six months should do the trick for most learners and most languages. When you choose a language school, ask to participate in a trial day. If the lessons are very grammar heavy and the teacher does most of the talking, go elsewhere. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this pain will pay off in the end. It won’t. You need to get used to making the sounds as soon as possible.

Likewise, if the teacher refuses to give straightforward explanations, wants to elicit everything from the students and obsessively puts the group into pairs, go elsewhere. The “communicative method” is the current dogma of language teaching. It is useful and should be part of every language course, but many teachers have had too much of the Kool-Aid and overdo it. If you only have the choice between communicative dogma and silent suffering under grammar torture, choose the communicative dogma.

Ideally, there should be a balance between interaction, pair work, practice and straight forward explanation and structural overview. Make sure that the school has arrived in the 21st century and uses authentic video and audio material, not just CD players, textbooks and photocopies.

If you can’t attend an intensive course, use the ubiquitous once a week, 90 minutes format. Make sure you have the grammar basics down. The web is your friend, there are plenty of useful grammar training sites online. www.ego4u.com  is a good site for learners of English, for example. Supplement it with plenty of simple video, audio and reading that you can understand. Pictures are very helpful and you’ll find that you’ll remember the meaning of a word much better when you can connect it with an image.

Deal with this kind of material often and regularly. Use going to the gym as an analogy: you will only see results if do it regularly and when you stick with it. The analogy to the gym has its limits. It won’t hurt if you do a language work out of some kind every day, especially at the beginning. Vary your activities and get into the habit of using material aimed at native speakers. Don’t be a snob. Watch children stories, cartoons, read books and comics for children.

2) Once you have reached the B1 level, seek out all kinds of comprehensible input. At the B1 level, short TED presentations, comic books, graphic novels, graded readers, simple explanatory videos and stories on YouTube are the way to go. Try movies and shows on Netflix, too, just make sure that you have subtitles in the target language. Don’t use subtitles in your native language.

If you understand everything, the material is too easy. Find a ratio of known and unknown vocab that you feel comfortable with. This will differ between individuals, generally, you need to train your ability to figure out words from context and be less teacher and dictionary dependent.

You can and should look up words, but not reflexively, as soon as you do not know a word. Highlight the word and try to deduce it from the context. If it is a shorter text, read to the end before looking it up. For longer text or books, you can proceed page by page or chapter by chapter. The best way to look it up is to use this online dictionary: www.linguee.com. It doesn’t cover as many languages as “Google Translate”, but the quality is better.

The great advantage of “Linguee” is that it will show you a variety of example sentences in addition to the pure translation. Sometimes it can be useful to look up a literal translation of sentences or entire passages. To do so, use this tool:  www.deepl.com/en/translator

Seek out every-day interactions with native speakers or tandems, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is the most important part of your language acquisition. It will help you to become more comfortable in the language and it will build imperfection tolerance. At the B1 level, however, interactions with native speakers can easily feel overwhelming and frustrating.

Don’t get discouraged. You are acquiring the language, by yourself, at your own pace, away from the stress of having to perform in the situation. Trust the process. Assuming they are available for your target language, take one of the assessment tests language schools provide online to check your progress. Here’s a link to our assessment test: https://www.language-and-skills.com/home/placement/

3) Once you have reached the B 2 level, turn to more interesting and challenging material. As a general rule, stay away from dedicated language learning material. Most of it is watered down, boring and hides the focus on form behind impressive sounding brand names like “Financial Times” or the “Economist”. Don’t be fooled. It’s the same old gap fill, grammar tidbit and comprehension question approach with a fancy label. There is a lot more you can do beyond the obvious Netflix and movie watching.

By all means do that, but know that in order to retain vocab well, you need what cognitive scientists call “depth of processing”. The more alert you are, the more the material makes you think and challenges what you thought you knew, the better you will remember it.

If your target language is English, you certainly live in the best of times. There are thousands of hours of free or cheaply available high- quality material to be found online. Start with the TED presentations, www.ted.com, find a topic that you are interested in and research it in the target language. If you are already at the C 1 level, do the same thing; but with presentations given by authors at Google: https://talksat.withgoogle.com/.

Another good place to find long, in depth interviews is Joe Rogan’s podcast, the “Joe Rogan Experience”: https://www.youtube.com/user/PowerfulJRE Rogan is a controversial figure in the United States, but his views are safe enough for people not deeply involved in the American culture wars. Rogan’s podcast is extremely successful, probably because he embodies the average American guy better than anybody else. You won’t get sharp, critical journalism from him, but a sincere interest in learning and time for the guests to fully explain their views.

If a speaker or podcast guest tries to sell you his book and you like the topic, order the book and read it. If that seems a little too extreme, see if you can find a summary online, for example at www.blinkist.com. Or look for a review in an English language newspaper. The British Guardian,  www.theguardian.com, is a good choice, as it has so far dispensed with a paywall.

 The Power of MOOCs

Platforms which aren’t used enough for language acquisition are the MOOCs. MOOCs, short for „Massive Open Online Courses“, are online courses at an academic level. The MOOCs offer an extremely wide range of topics, from Buddhism to securities trading and artificial intelligence. Some of the courses are elaborately produced for the video format; others are simple recordings from seminar rooms. Many of the courses are permanently available and can be used free of charge.

Some have to be completed within a certain period of time and offer the possibility to get in contact with the teachers, to hand in coursework and get it corrected.  A number of MOOCs offer the possibility to obtain a certificate from high profile American and English universities for a moderate fee, normally between $40 and 80. Check out „Coursera“: www.coursera.org   „edX“ : www.edx.org and „Future Learn“ www.futurelearn.com.

Many MOOC videos have also made it onto YouTube. The MOOCs haven’t lived up to the hype of revolutionizing academic education, but they are a fantastic way of killing two birds with one stone: mastering a language while learning something new.

Many language teachers recommend novels, but novels for language acquisition will only work well for literature buffs. Novels are linguistic works of art; they are not written to be easily understood. For many adults, popular science books work better. In the American scientific community, writing successful popular science books is considered a distinction and there are plenty of works worth reading.

Many of our clients like “Behavioural Economics“. Behind this unwieldy term lies an exciting synthesis of economics and experimental psychology, which attempts to get to the bottom of fascinating questions about human nature. Good introductions to the topic are the books and videos of academic superstar Dan Ariely: www.danariely.com

By all means look for contact with native speakers, ideally in situations where there is a topic to be discussed and the language serves as a tool. This is often the problem with tandems, they quickly become boring and peter out. As an alternative to tandems, „Inter Nations“ is a good choice: www.internations.org Inter Nations is a successful German start-up based in Munich and has established a globally active platform for expats. The „Activity Groups“ are particularly suitable for language acquisition.

Theoretically, you can master a language by yourself, just like you can get into shape without a gym and a personal trainer. The main problem, both with getting in shape and mastering a language is compliance.  Working with a good language school helps, because the regular sessions and the relationship with the trainer will boost compliance.

Acquisition works. The best language schools base their method on this insight and good trainers do more than just have a pleasant chat and correct your grammar once a week.  Good trainers will point you toward interesting material and discuss it with you.  They will broaden your horizon and be just as eager to learn from you. If you are looking for a good trainer, visit us under www.language-and-skills.eu
















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