My (working) language learning philosophy

In the past three years, I've read about lots of learning methods, tips, and have done a lot of personal experiments to see what works best for me when it comes to learning a language. I've also interviewed students, language experts, and those who have reached a level of the language that makes them happy.

I've pieced my philosophy from everything I've ever read, watched, experimented with or heard in the fields of language learning, psychology, business, and literature.

For the sake of clarity for The Iceberg Project brand and my own sanity, I thought it would be a good idea to put down what I believe about language learning in one tidy, easy-to-digest package. What I have to say won't necessarily be original to the field, but I think it's worth organizing, nonetheless.

The below is what I believe will help any language learner reach a level where they're conversational. Some things may not be for you, and some may be spot on. Pick + choose at your discretion. After all, your experience is what you make it.

First, here's what I mean when I say "conversational".

You're able to talk about a wide variety of topics, like your job, family, hobbies, and navigate everyday situations, like shopping at the market, in the language without feeling uneasy or as if you're unable to express what you want to say or need. If you ever don't know a word, you're able to work around it with the words that you do know or explain yourself to learn the word you need. It's a sense of having command in a language, of having automatic responses when a thought needs to be expressed.

Thoughts matter.

Being able to get to a conversational level in a foreign language is ALWAYS about the person learning it and NEVER about the language. Having a healthy mindset toward what it means to learn a language is a recipe for success, but when you come into the game with a negative attitude and perfectionism, you're going to have a rough go at it.

Here are some qualities and maxims for mindset that I've found to be absolutely essential for my personal journey but also for many other language learners.

Learning a language is hard. - It is. Don't drink the Kool-aid that people are selling. It's complex, and it asks a lot of you. If you recognize this at the very beginning, you'll have a more realistic perspective on what the journey might be like, so when the going gets tough, as it will, you'll be better prepared. It's even harder because it brings us face to face with the pieces of us that we don't like to acknowledge, like our perfectionism, our fears of looking stupid, and our need to be right.

Hard: difficult or troublesome with respect to an action, situation, person,etc.:, difficult to do or accomplish; fatiguing; troublesome:; involving a great deal of effort, energy, or persistence:; performing or carrying on work with great effort, energy, or persistence:

"Kids do not necessarily learn better, but their feeling for time and success is different.” - Rainer Ganahl

Sisu - Sisu is a Finnish word that is a combination of bravery, persistence, & inner fire, as paraphrased from the book The Smartest Kids in the World. I think this is such a perfect word to embody the attitude you need to have when you take on a hard, long-term task like learning a language.

It's wanting something badly, being tenacious in your efforts, and being brave when things get hard or uncomfortable. This looks like showing up everyday to learn, creating opportunities to talk to native speakers, constructing an environment that surrounds you with the language, and generally doing whatever you can to keep learning. There is joy in pursuing something challenging with your whole heart. 

"The people who actually get through the tunnel networks have been through an adventure. They have had to struggle a tiny bit, and therefore upon arrival, they feel a sense of gratitude, relief, and accomplishment and are committed to the project of having a good experience, with the most possible vigor and imagination. I think your memory training is extremely similar to this. Although it sounds silly to say 'No pain, no gain,' it's true. One has to hurt, to go through a period of stress, a period of self-doubt, a period of confusion. And then out of that mess can flow the richest tapestries." - Ed, Moonwalking with Einstein

Connect with your "why".  - Everyone has a reason for learning a language. Hold yours with you always, and be proud of it. Besides giving you motivation during tough times, it will also help you define what success looks like for you.

"It was in a bathtub back in New York, reading Italian words aloud from a dictionary, that I first started mending my soul. My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn't have picked me out of a police lineup. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you fact-first out of the dirt -- this in not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight." - Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Treat learning like a grand experiment. - Never stop trying new methods, resources, or learning tips. The variety will help your studies stay fresh, and you'll constantly be growing.

Be candid with yourself. - You will be bad at some things. You will know when you're holding yourself back. You will have a feeling that you're not giving your full effort. When that happens, be candid with yourself, which is something like being straightforward and frank without judgment or harsh words. Then, decide what you're going to do about it and do it.

Study smart, not hard. - All of us come to language learning with preconceived ideas about what it means to acquire a new skill or learn something new. Many of us will feel fiercely loyal to the old-school methods of rote memorization and grammar drills. But by now, studies in academics have proven that some methods work better than others. So when you hear that there's a better way, the least you can do is try it. Your experiments will never be a waste of time.

Let go. - It's human to want to be flawless. So it's often horrifying to confront the reality that we're not perfect as we learn a language. It's unnerving.

We like to give ourselves the illusion that we can keep our spotless image together, but learning a language ruins that. It gives us grammar rules that have 15 exceptions and so aren't really rules. It asks our mouths to do tricky and uncomfortable things to pronounce new words so we end up sounding silly or not being understood at all. It makes us feel like children again as we struggle with expressing the simplest thoughts.

The gift is that we are given the option to choose to let go. The successful language learners do. They let go of their ego's need to be perfect and embrace the fact that language is fluid, difficult to wrangle into perfect boxes, and will make them look foolish.

The truth is that we're all doing the best we can with what we have and what we know, and being perfect is boring.

Enjoy the process. - Because learning a language is hard, it often takes a long period of time to get to a level where we start to feel comfortable again. Despite it being a weird, thorny place, we must remember that it can be fun. It's an exploration of the foreign language and our own. It's full of weird cultural quirks that help us reexamine our own cultures.

It's fun to show ourselves what we're capable of. Let yourself be in awe of all of the wonderful things you learn, and approach your studies with a sense of wonder.

"Every day after class, Sofie and I go sit by the Tiber, eating our gelato and studying with each other. You can't even rightly call it "studying," the thing that we do. It's more like a shared relishing of the Italian language, an almost worshipful ritual..." - Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Know that learning never ends. - Many of us think that everything will be great once we get to a conversational level, and to be honest, it is great. But it also gives the false illusion that the learning stops and that we have a chance to reassume our flawless selves. Nope. Not so. We will keep making mistakes at that level. We will keep learning. And it will still be wonderful.

BE CREATIVE! - Learning a language can be boring, or it can be interesting, and how it goes is completely up to you. Be creative with how you approach your language studies and with how you play with the language.

Instead of just studying verb conjugations, make it a game with your own rules and point system. Give yourself some kind of reward once you finish. Or even more fun, some kind of interesting punishment.

For example, my friend Hannah hates eating sushi, so when she started learning Korean, she told her friend that if she wasn't able to have a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker after 90 days that she would go eat sushi with her once a week for a month. If you're wondering, she didn't have to eat the sushi.

"There are spontaneous conversation classes everywhere." - Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Make hard decisions. - When you commit yourself to learning a language, you will change everyday. Some of the changes will be unnoticeable, and some will be hard decision you have to make. When you decide to study every day, the time you spend studying has to replace something else you used to do.

So instead of scrolling on Instagram for 10 minutes every morning while you're still in bed, you complete a couple lessons on Duolingo instead.

Take care of yourself. - Get enough sleep. Eat healthy foods. Your body and your mind will help you out if you're good to them.

"With all the drive in the world, swear you still need gas." - Mr. Big Sean

Don't rush. - I know lots of people who glide through learning a language without the feel of urgency on their backs, but I am not one of them. I am a habitual rusher. I rush through explanations on grammar. I rush through exercises. I rush through speaking.

I am obsessed with the dopamine rush that comes from accomplishing something. So I know that when you rush through things, you cheat yourself. After I always wonder why I can't use the grammar point I just read or why I didn't quite get the meaning of that paragraph.

Learning something well takes time, so really, slowing down is a revolutionary concept in a world that keeps telling you to go faster. I want to be into depth, not breadth.

"This (speaking automatically) is calculus, and as a beginning student, you're still learning algebra." - Gabriel Wyner, Fluent Forever

Be open to receiving help. - I used to say I wanted to learn Italian, but when I would go out in the streets of Viterbo, I wouldn't open my mouth to start a conversation. I said I wanted to learn, but I wasn't doing the work that would help me learn. My words didn't match my actions.

A lot of people say they want help when learning a language, and they hire tutors, go to classes, and buy resources, but not everyone is open to receiving that help. Instead of going to lessons and trying out complicated sentences, we stick to the safe ones so we can be seen as competent.

Instead of going to class and taking control of your own learning, you sit passively hoping that the things the teacher says absorb into you. Be vulnerable and put yourself out there. Trust me. No one ever died of embarrassment.

"Most people fail to learn a foreign language to fluency because they don’t take control of the learning process. They rely on teachers and language courses to take them to fluency, but  languages cannot be taught, they can only be learned. " - Luca Lampariello


Do the work.

1.) SHOW UP EVERY DAY. You must be committed to showing up every day, in some way, to the language you're learning. Choose a routine that you think you can manage and stick with it. Then, if after a few weeks you realize it isn't working, change it. But no matter what, play with the language every day. Nobody has time for anything. They make time for the things that are important to them. How important is this to you?

2.) Focus on learning things that help you express yourself in the language instead of just grammar.

One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar." - Kató Lomb

3.) If you don't review what you've learned, you're wasting your time. Use spaced repetition flashcards like Memrise, Anki, and Flashcards Deluxe.

"There is a complex balance between the advantages of nearly forgetting and the disadvantages of actually forgetting, and it breaks our forgetting curve in half." - Gabriel Wyner, Fluent Forever

4.) Take each activity one step further. Don't just write a composition. Get it corrected. Then review your corrections. Then make them into flash cards.

5.) You can improve your memory.

6.) Variety of resources is beautiful, but so is simplicity. Be open to change, but commit to going deeper into each resource so you can give it your full effort.

7.) No resource is perfect. Modify it to work for you, and stop expecting it to give you the keys to the language.

8.) Practice difficult things. Try saying the sentences that are hard to put together. Don't default to English. Work your way around the things you don't know. Be creative.

9.) Find a way to track your progress. This will remind of how far you've come.

10.) Ask yourself: Where can I improve the most? Then work on those areas.

11.) You can train and improve your pronunciation.

12.) Accept that you won't learn concepts until you're ready to learn them.

"...studies show that you'll learn a language faster when you learn the rules. You don't need to drill them -- as we've discussed, grammar drills won't help you skip over any developmental stages -- but a passing familiarity with grammar can help you logically break down complex sentences into chunks you can understand, and the more sentences you understand, the faster you'll learn."  - Gabriel Wyner

13.) Stop depending on your dictionary. Please. Give your mind some time to come up with the word. And what's better, when you do, you'll remember it better.

14.) Collect your mistakes. Make mistakes quickly + with flair. Then, learn from them. Treat them like gold. A pile of mistakes is an accomplishment and a gift.

15.) Set goals + milestones. Can't go somewhere if you don't know where "there" is.

16.) There is a difference between learning actively and learning passively. You need both.

Here are some of the resources that I've been heavily influenced by:

Luca Lampariello

The Smartest Kids in the World

How I Learn Languages and The Harmony of Babel by Kató Lomb

Brian Kwong

Stephen Krashen

Hi, I’m Cher!

I write about the place where business + social responsibility meet. When I'm not researching whatever my latest obsession is, you can find me re-watching Remember the Titans, posting on Insta @___whatthehale, or hiking somewhere in the PNW. If you're interested in working with me on a marketing or PR campaign, I do that, too.

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