The Three Elements of Study

Studying is a system. It is made up of several elements, no matter how one goes about learning, which lead to language mastery.

We briefly discussed these 3 in the first article, Why Studying Fails. Now I think it’s time to show you a little deeper. Let’s look at the three elements required for language mastery:

  1. Learn to Read.
  2. Master the Vocabulary
  3. Practice Conversations in Real Life

Learn to Read

Learning to read is as vital as any single element of the language. It forms the foundation of learning, even if you don’t plan on reading all that much. The reason it’s vital is because the human mind isn’t so good at changing its mind once it knows something. The human brain likes to get facts straight first, and it’s very stubborn about changing what it already knows. You’ve heard the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”. Well it’s not really new tricks that are the problem, but in changing patterns that our brains have set up and are already using.

When it comes to learning your new language, learning to read means learning the native alphabet. It is vital to learn the native alphabet, so that as you learn words, you aren’t learning those words as:

English meaning -> native sounds -> English representation.

That’s bad. That will leave your mind in a state of turmoil in the long term, as your mind links the native language with English, and you’ll end up having English phrases “pop up” in your head as you’re trying to talk, because your mind will be visualising the English alphabet and it will be recalling other English-alphabetised words, AKA - English itself!

By learning the native alphabet, you link the new language words with new language writing, and your brain simmers in this fresh space of “newness” that links all the “new stuff” together. Perfect brain soup conditions. Maximum learning.

Master the Vocabulary

I cannot count the number of times I have heard students lose confidence, or default to giving up, because they had this weakness in their language education. Where students fluster and travellers never make really close native friends, because of this flaw.

Vocabulary is vital. Truly vital.

At some point in your path, you’re going to want to know words. A lot of words. In fact, I would go so far as to say that you need to know every common word. And let me tell you what I’m sure you already know: it doesn’t happen “by itself”.

Mastering vocabulary takes implementing a casual, long-term study approach. To build up the memory word bank takes daily contributions. The contributions are small, and they build on each other over time - meaning that later on memorizing new words becomes trivial as most of those words have the components of previous words you’ve learnt. But it does take a systematic approach. You will find that you need to do this continually, a daily system of adding a couple or so words, repetitively over a year or two period.

Practice Conversations in Real Life

And finally, no language reaches that perfect fluency without immersion.

For your voice to be fluent, and I mean fluent so that on the phone people have no idea you’re not a native, then these nuances are only learnt on the subconscious level. The intonations, reflections, pauses, pattern of words used with other words, and more are all learnt by picking them up from natives. There’s no textbook for this stuff. There’s no online course. It takes a real live person.

Now I won’t rule out some passive forms completely, as I’m likely to be linched by some serious language lovers. Yes, it is definitively positive to practice listening to flashcard-style sentences. In fact, our very first product, Study Chat, was based on this very idea. And yes, when you reach a level where you can watch tv without subtitles, that too can supplement your learning, to create a full-on language immersion around your life.

But.. I do have to emphasise that the level of mastery you’ll receive by practicing conversations with a real life partner far outweigh the rest. And once you get to a level of vocabulary fluency that you can speak to them confidently, you’ll actually find that it’s remarkably easy.

Foundations of Language Learning

So where to from here?

I’d like to make this as straight-forward as possible. Study is best when it’s simplified, repetitive, and easy to follow. Complex systems may be interesting at first, but they are mostly unmanageable on the large scale. In other words, mastery is only in the realm of possibility when your approach is simplified, repetitive, and easy to follow.

  1. Learn to Read. Whatever language you’re learning, find a resource to teach the native alphabet, and be learning that first. Before anything else. If you’re learning Japanese, this means mastering Hiragana, Katakana, and then the mother of them all: kanji. If you’re gearing up to finish Chinese or Cantonese, then hanzi is where you’re going to be at. For these writing systems, we’ve created a unified character system, specifically designed to embed thousands of characters into your mind: Scribe Origins. We’ve spent a lot of time, working with experts in the field, to really create a unified character keyword system that works across all three languages. I think you’ll find it invaluable.
  2. Master the Vocabulary. There are very few tools for doing this right, and what you need has to do it right. A foundational vocabulary is a master vocabulary - knowing every single common word. We’ve also created one of the best series available for this: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Cantonese, Thai and Spanish, that really solve this problem and bring about complete comfort with the entire set of common words.
  3. Practice Conversations in Real Life. This one can be tough. It is a great start to familiarise yourself with listening practice with tv and audio. But to learn the true native nuances of grammar, word usage, and situational expressions, only real life practice with a native will get you to the finish love. Sorry for the tough love, but this is one truth we can’t avoid.

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