Written by: Andrea Polverini, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Have you ever tried learning a foreign language just to throw in the towel sometime later as you didn’t seem to make any progress? Have you ever tried to get to the bottom of what went wrong or did you just think you were not good at learning languages?
If you’ve found yourself in this kind of situation, remember you’re not alone. In fact, just like you, many of us have struggled in the process.
From my perspective, we’re all capable of learning a foreign language as long as we are aware of those features which make us unique as learners.
In this article, I want to share some general tips which will hopefully help you learn faster, more efficiently and make your experience more satisfactory and stress-free. My only advice is to try them and implement those which work better for you in your learning routine.
1. Understand your reason and motivation for learning
One of the first things I learned as a Neurolanguage Coach® (Neurolanguage Coaching®: registered trademark in the USA and Europe in the name of Rachel Marie Paling) was the difference between reason and motivation.
Reason is why we do something. For example, I learn a language because I want to relocate to a foreign country.
Motivation, which could also be defined as vision, is how your life would change if you reached your goal. In this specific case, for instance, you’d be able to reach the level of social integration you wish for and be successful on both a personal and professional level.
2. Set SMART goals
Set goals which are SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, ATTAINABLE, RELEVANT and TIME-BOUND. This is what SMART stands for.
Let’s say that you want to be able to speak the language you’re learning in the present tense (SPECIFIC). To know whether you’ve reached your goal, you'll test your new skill during casual conversations about habits (MEASURABLE). You do that because you want to be able to get by in everyday situations while abroad (RELEVANT). You already know how to handle articles, nouns, adjectives, prepositions and feel ready to focus on verb conjugation and use in the present tense (ATTAINABLE). To finish off, you believe you can reach your objective within one month (TIME-BOUND).
3. Know yourself as a language learner
What kind of learner are you? According to the VARK model of learning styles, there are four main categories of learners: visual, aural, read/write and kinaesthetic. Although we tend to be a mix of them, one learning style might predominate. Being aware of it might help us approach learning in a more efficient manner.
Let’s take a quick look at the implications of every single learning style.
Visual learners need to see new information presented and organised visually. Being exposed to new information through listening and writing is not enough for them to absorb it. I remember that one of my students used to struggle with the Italian verb conjugation in the present tense until the day she saw some example verbs conjugated and clearly organised in a coloured table. From that day, she magically started to get to grips with the Italian verbs conjugation in the present tense much better.
Aural learners like learning through communication. In my opinion, they’d be those who claim, for instance, to have learnt a language just by speaking it. Consequently, there might be quite a gap between their good listening and speaking skills and their ability to write the language or understand its grammar.
Read/write learners are those who rely on written information for their learning. For instance, they might be the ones who learn through reading and constantly looking up the new vocabulary they come across in a dictionary. They learn new words by organising them in lists with definitions, translations and example sentences. They lastly wouldn’t mind going the extra mile and consolidating their learning by applying the new vocabulary in a written text.
Progress for kinaesthetic learners involves movement, hands-on experience and learning by doing. One of my students once told me that he was under the impression that he had a bad memory for vocabulary. He claimed there was only one way for him to be sure to remember a new word, and that was through direct experience. To help me understand, he told me about a time when he was in Germany and learned the German verb “stir” effortlessly. How did he do that? He was simply shown what it meant while cooking.
4. Schedule some time for language learning
If learning isn’t scheduled in your calendar, it’s not probably going to happen.
The next thing to do is, therefore, decide the minimum duration of your language learning session and a realistic weekly frequency. This means finding a way to fit this habit into your schedule.
Start small and be consistent. You don’t need to find a whole hour. Even ten minutes a day is better than nothing.
Finally, try to understand when the best time of day for you to learn is. In my case, it’d be the early morning, when my brain is most active and receptive. If you ask me, ten minutes in the morning are far more effective than 20 minutes at the end of my working day when my brain is tired and just wants to rest.
5. Revise at regular intervals
When learning new vocabulary, consider using techniques such as spaced repetition. This implies revising at some time intervals to improve long-term memory recall. Spaced repetition helps your brain to take in new information gradually instead of trying to cram it in all at once.
Imagine training your brain as if you were training your muscles by combining exercise with rest to help them recover. Just like muscles recovering after an intense training session, our memory becomes stronger when we review some information after having partially forgotten it.
There are some apps employing spaced repetition. They can be used to prepare flashcards and, in this way, learn new vocabulary. The one I like using is Quizlet. However, there are other very popular ones such as Anki which are also worth exploring.
6. Memorise new vocabulary through stories
This is a fun and highly effective technique I’ve learnt from reading Jim Kwik’s book “Limitless”. Imagine you have a list of words you want to memorise. Try and build a story with it. The funnier, more imaginative and extravagant the story is, the more effective the technique is. Besides being an opportunity to put new vocabulary in context and make sure you know how to use it, the story represents a sort of path which will help you memorise those new words. While retelling the story you’ve created, you’ll retrieve the vocabulary in it effortlessly.
7. Increase your focus
As Tony Robbins said, “energy flows where attention goes”. These are a few tips to foster focus and attention.
Our learning environment – The environment can play a part in your learning. In fact, a crammed, heavily decorated and untidy environment might actually negatively impact your ability to focus, giving you plenty of reasons to be distracted.
Music – Do you like learning while listening to music? Studies have shown that Baroque music helps concentration and learning. Thanks to its tempo ranging between 50 and 80 beats per minute, it seems to be particularly effective in stimulating alpha waves. These are the brain waves that are dominant when we are in the here and now, and therefore useful when wanting to concentrate on the task at hand.
Breathing – Box breathing is a type of breathing which consists of 4 stages: breathe in, hold your breath, breathe out, hold your breath. Then the cycle starts again. Every stage has the same duration. A reasonable amount of time to begin with is 4 seconds. If you struggle to hold your breath for 4 seconds, try shorter times. If possible, try to breathe in and out from your nose. This technique helps your breathing pattern to return to a relaxed rhythm, distracts your mind, calms your nervous system and decreases stress in your body. This will in turn improve your focus.
Meditation – According to some research, our mind is usually lost in thought 47% of the time. Meditation relaxes and clears the mind and, as a consequence, helps improve focus and productivity.
Juggling – Besides having been proved to increase the amount of grey matter in the brain, juggling requires intense focus. I personally use this technique whenever I need to take a break from constantly looking at my computer screen. It helps relax my eyesight and train my ability to focus. Here’s the video I’ve used to learn how to juggle.
8. Help your memory with smells
Smells can be connected to memories. This connection is apparently due to the proximity in our brain of the olfactory bulb, the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The amygdala and the hippocampus play an essential role in creating memories. While the amygdala assists in regulating emotions and storing our memories, the hippocampus is where our short-term memory is kept.
Wouldn’t you agree that certain memories can be recalled by some specific smells? In my case, the smell of my mother’s food would bring me back to the time I lived with my parents and had my meals with them.
This example shows that memory recall applied to learning can be triggered by smells. Therefore, what if we could link some specific smells to our learning process?
In order to do that, we could use essential oils. Some smells like rosemary, for instance, are said to be particularly effective in stimulating the nervous system and in so doing give new vigour to memory and concentration capacity.
9. Use learning material relevant for you
Choose material which is relevant for you. This means that what you learn should be aligned with your language learning objectives.
In my case, I like starting off from three questions mentioned in Jim Kwik’s book “Limitless”:
How can I use this?
When will I use this?
Why must I use this?
Let’s say that you want to learn a foreign language because you need to be able to use it to give a presentation (How?) during a meeting at work (When?). Showing your skills might make you a good candidate for a new project you wished to be chosen for (Why?).
If that’s your goal, learning through a book teaching you, for instance, the language to be used in everyday conversations probably wouldn’t be as useful as training on giving presentations. As the material you’re using isn’t aligned with your goal, you wouldn’t feel motivated and focused on what you’re doing as a result.
10. Take frequent breaks
The Pomodoro Technique was created by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s when he was a university student. The Italian “pomodoro” means “tomato” in English, and the technique was named after a tomato-shaped timer used by Cirillo to check the amount of time he was able to stay focused while studying. This technique consists in dividing study time into sections lasting 25 minutes. Every 25 minutes, there is a 5-minute break. One study section of 25 minutes corresponds to one “pomodoro”. Every four “pomodoro”, there is a 15-minute break. Although there are some variations of this technique which propose longer study partitions, Cirillo found that 25 minutes were an ideal time for the brain to remain focused and be fully productive. The 5-minute breaks give the brain some time to rest, besides helping consolidation of the recently acquired information.
11. Expose yourself to sunlight
When learning, try to choose a spot where you’re exposed to some sunlight. On top of the more obvious benefits for your eyesight, sunlight helps improve the quality of your sleep, reduces stress and fights off depression. In a nutshell, it helps you stay fit for learning.
12. Find a safe environment to practise the language you’re learning
We can acquire a language through different types of tasks. However, there’s no way to know whether we’ll be able to use it in a real-life situation until we test ourselves. Then again, real-life situations can be challenging for many reasons and might put us off.
We should remember that there might be many reasons why we feel unable to communicate in a certain situation. Maybe the attitude of the person we’re trying to talk to doesn’t really help. The surrounding environment might be too noisy, and as we can’t understand what we’re told, we aren’t able to respond. Finally, the subject matter of the conversation could be an unfamiliar one.
These, along with other obstacles we’ll possibly encounter, might trigger a fight-or-flight reaction which prevents us from functioning effectively when communicating in a foreign language. Fight-or-flight reactions are provoked by a situation perceived as potentially dangerous by our brain. It doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. As long as our brain sees it as threatening, it reacts by preventing the prefrontal cortex from functioning as it should. Our heartbeat increases as blood is pumped towards our limbs and our body gets ready to react.
This is exactly why we feel blocked and unable to speak as we wanted or could when trying to communicate in a foreign language.
One-to-one language exchanges or conversation groups might be the ideal place to start from as they usually provide a safe environment for you to test your language skills.
Should you be interested in practising your Italian, for example, I organise a conversation group on a weekly basis where I make sure that everybody, in addition to getting some language practice, goes away with the feeling of having lived a positive and rewarding experience.
13. Sleep well
Sleeping well is vital to keeping our memory in good shape. In fact, during the different cycles of sleep, our brain transfers information from our short-term to our long-term memory. In doing so, our brain preserves important information and deletes whatever is considered unnecessary. Therefore, a good night’s sleep is what enables our brain to consolidate our memories by creating new connections for the recently acquired information.
14. Eat the right food for your brain
As Jim Kwik would say: “What you eat matters especially for your grey matter.”
Our sustenance plays an important role in keeping our brain healthy and can improve our memory and concentration.
A list of the most common brain foods would include pumpkin seeds, green tea, oranges, avocado, blueberries, broccoli, eggs, green leafy vegetables, fatty fish, turmeric, nuts and dark chocolate.
Some of this produce offers antioxidants that serve to protect our brain from damage while others contain nutrients that support memory and brain development.
However, it’s not only important to include some of these foods in our diet but also to steer clear of others that can negatively impact our brain health.
Here’s a list of products whose intake we should reduce or eliminate from our diet.
Refined carbohydrates (white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice, sweet desserts, and many breakfast cereals)
Food high in trans fats (commercial baked foods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, fried foods)
Highly processed foods (white pasta, white bread, white flour, potato chips, sweetened juice products, sweetened breakfast cereals, margarine, sweets, cookies and cakes)
Artificial sweeteners (aspartame)
Fish high in mercury (king mackerel, tuna, swordfish and shark)
This fare can impair memory and learning, as well as increase the risk of diseases, such as Alzheimers’s and dementia.
As for me, I’ve recently started to base my diet on the results of the Viome Gut Intelligence Test. This test focuses on the activity in our gut microbiome and on our digestive health. Our gut microbiome are microbes which, among other things, aid us in digesting food, absorbing nutrients, maintaining a healthy weight, neutralising toxins and fighting off detrimental bacteria. How the microbes in our gut respond to the food we eat creates a chain reaction that can be beneficial for us or promote inflammatory activity and microbial imbalance. Our gut microbiome health therefore has a bearing on our weight, energy, stress, sleep, immunity and, in turn, for our ability to stay fit for learning.
That’s it! These were the tips I like sharing during my Neurolanguage Coaching® Sessions with my Coachees and which I also follow as a language learner. I’ve gathered them here thinking mainly of the self-taught language learner.
Then again, should you feel the need for some help to reach your language learning goals and have limited time available, I’d be happy to arrange with you a free Neurolanguage Coaching® Trial Session. Through Neurolanguage Coaching, I’ll be happy to help you acquire Italian, English and Spanish.
"Neurolanguage Coaching® is the efficient and fast transfer of language knowledge and skills from the Language Coach to the Language Coachee with sustainable effects facilitated by brain-based coaching, coaching principles and neuroscience.” (®2012, Rachel Paling)
Andrea Polverini, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Andrea Polverini is an Italian national currently based in Spain where he runs his online business under the name "pa Language Coaching".
Through a Language Coaching he offers Neurolanguage Coaching for learners of Italian, English and Spanish, Life Coaching for Italian, English and Spanish speakers and Subtitling services from English and Spanish into Italian.
He carries out his work with the deep conviction that we can all learn, once we are aware of our own uniqueness as human beings, and learn to value and use our own abilities and intelligence.