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How to Achieve “The Click” Moment Posted by on Dec 1, 2008 in Language Learning

Giving up on a new language is too easy. It’s because starting out is so difficult to do. Now matter how you approach the task, your mind and memory are often ill-prepared for the, well, foreign nature of the language you’re trying to understand. With so many scholars, Web sites, and books telling you how to begin, you may try three or four different approaches (hoping something will click) and then give up after a dozen hours when the language still reads like gibberish.

Recently I taught myself 200 words and phrases in Czech. It took me only a few weeks, even with a busy schedule, of using Byki Deluxe for a short 30 minutes a day. I remember the first few hours of work: they were very discouraging. Nothing seemed learnable; every word had letters that looked like they didn’t belong and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the structure of sentences.

English: How do I get to…?
Czech: Jak se dostanu do…?

Memorizing that phrase in Czech was difficult because nothing matched anything my brain had ever encountered before. I could see that they were both questions, and I could guess that “do” meant “to”, but it could just have easily meant “I” or “how.” Knowing not every language has the same sentence structure as English, I tried not to make any assumptions about Czech. So in the end I just had to memorize the entire phrase, letter for letter, and trust that, later on, I would understand what the words meant.

This is where most people get frustrated. It feels like that moment—the moment when everything clicks and the language makes sense—will never come. Well, take it from someone who’s breached the barrier several times: The Click isn’t far away. There are a few simple rules that I think will help you immensely:

  1. Stick with a single plan of attack. Don’t try a different approach every time you hit a wall. Instead, walk away for a few hours and come back to the table doing the same thing you were doing before. You may be surprised at how fresh and accomodating the material seems.
  2. Keep it simple. Don’t try to become an expert overnight; start with something simple like memorizing common vocabulary and phrases, watching conversational videos, or trying to make sense of some newspaper headlines.
  3. Stick with it for a couple of weeks, even if you feel frustrated. With a busy schedule, two weeks’ work might add up to four or five hours of solid studying. That’s what it’ll take for your brain to finally start noticing patterns. When those patterns start to emerge, that’s when you’ll notice how much easier it is to learn new material.
  4. Refresh what you’ve learned. Every once in a while, go back and make sure you still remember what you learned the previous session. Your brain really needs to know this stuff in order to start recognizing patterns.

After learning just the first few Quick Start! lists, which you get free in Transparent Language Online, and always refreshing material from my previous study session, I began to piece together a puzzle larger than just the words and phrases I was learning. The puzzle told a story about how the Czech language is structured and what each word means. For example, these are some phrases I had committed to memory, including the one I mentioned earlier:

English Czech
How are you? Jak se máte?
How do you get to…? Jak se dostanu do…?
I would like to go to… Chtêl bych se dostat do…

Each of these comes from a different wordlist, each learned during a separate study session. Can you see the relationship between them? As I approached my fourth or fifth hour of studying, my brain had, on its own, recognized some patterns:

  • “Jak se” seemed to mean “how”
  • “Dosta__ do” seemed to be about going somewhere

And knowing those, it was easy to tell what the rest of the words in each sentence must have meant (“máte” meant “you” and “chtêl bych” meant “I would like”). Sure enough, Transparent Language Online confirmed my guesses later on. At this point, Czech was no longer a confusing and hostile city for my tourist brain to get hopelessly lost in. Rather, I had found some familiar ground to stand on; a place from which I could orient myself. In other words, by keeping on with my study of vocabulary, I had achieved The Click moment. And it felt great. I began to recognize adjectives and verbs, and soon I was guessing the correct answers to items I’d never encountered before. The rest of my journey to 200 Czech phrases was a delight.

The moral of the story is: don’t give up. Keep driving. Keep trying. Don’t change your tactics too often. And make sure, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense at the time, to commit everything you learn to your long-term memory. Only by recalling your prior knowledge can you recognize patterns, have your moment of connection with the language, and proceed to roll your little snowball of knowledge into a giant snow-boulder of language proficiency.

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About the Author: Evan Quinlan

I lead the Product Management team at Transparent Language and spend much time pondering deeply the nature of language software.


Comments:

  1. Je:

    Stick to your approach till you can reap results – or not, than change… this is true in every field of learning… and since life is one long track of learning, it’s true in life!
    (Good blog entry, Evan!)


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