If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.—Nelson Mandela
When we lived in Korea our biggest regret was not learning the language. Sure, our profession required only English and most locals spoke English, but the language barrier kept us from interacting deeply with the people and culture, leaving us feeling quite isolated at times.
This year we have made it a priority to learn language first before we step into our primary work spaces. Despite the sizable hurdle still ahead of us, here are two tricks that have helped us considerably with endless vocabulary words and grammar rules. They come from a book a good friend gave me, called Fluent Forever, by Gabriel Wyner, pairing the latest neuroscience into a weapon to tackle any language.
If you’re serious about learning a new language or skill, learn ‘how’ to learn before you simply throw yourself at it.
1. Create Visual Flashcards
Create. We absorb information far better when we create. Therefore, by constructing our own set of flashcards we build knowledge that we remember since we build memories during the creation process.
Visual. Think of a strong memory of yours. Did you remember it in typed out sentences or visually? When Abby agreed to begin a relationship, I distinctly remember dark, murky water methodically rushing under the Bridge over the Thames as I awaited her response. What she said is tied together so deeply to the entire visual surroundings. Hence, creating visual flashcards allows us to take advantage of how we remember best. So I have been wrapping each new vocabulary word in a nice big photo from google photos without writing the english translation anywhere.
2. Spaced Repetition
Ironically, I am now going to promote repetitive memorization. Hold on, this isn’t your typical, memorize the text book procedure. Instead, using the visual flashcards, you review them in intervals that extend each time you correctly answer the question. That means you can introduce much more knowledge while you wait for older flashcards to come up again.
We only keep knowledge in our short-term memory when we are interacting with it every day. When we all of a sudden stop interacting with it, we are likely to forget very easily (take just about any test you studied for). Instead, by having a flashcard come up in two days, then ten days, then forty days, we begin to remember it better and attach it to long-term storage. Why? For some reason, neuroscience tells us that when we are just about to forget a memory and have to work hard to remember it, we end up retaining that memory far better.
We use an app called Anki (there are many others that use spaced repetition) that does all the work of spacing out our flashcards for us when we review. The hard part is consistently carving out the time to review.
After saying all this, nothing really beats getting into the community and practicing that new knowledge in a fully immersive setting. I find myself sounding slow and robotic when I have a lot of vocabulary but little application. Opportunities to interact in Nepali can sometimes be uncomfortable and especially difficult with a family. You definitely have to be ready to be laughed at as you bumble along.
Focusing on language this first year invites a much richer experience to unfold when we can speak to people’s hearts during teacher trainings and in our community. Hopefully, these memorization hacks provide insights into what you’re learning this year or tickle your fancy enough to get you started on something new. Increasing our awareness about how we learn best, or metacognition, provides the tools for life-long learning.