Today, let’s talk about how to learn a language from the ground up.
If you want to get better at Spanish, there’s a core skill that you need to master first… and it’s NOT pronunciation, grammar, spelling.
It’s the skill of learning.
Become a Better Spanish Learner by Becoming a Better Learner
Normally on this site I write about practice techniques, routines, and study hacks for getting better at learning Spanish. The two key words here are “learning Spanish”. And based on the mistakes I’ve seen students make over and over again in their Spanish studies, I’ve made a counterintuitive discovery: Focusing on “Spanish” too much is actually a mistake. Focusing on “learning” is equally important.
In other words, if you’re having trouble learning Spanish, the problem might not be Spanish… it might be YOU! As much of a travesty as this is, when we go to school, nobody actually teaches us how to be a good learner. Let’s change that now.
Remember that you can’t learn Spanish if you can’t *learn*, period! Getting better at learning Spanish starts with getting better at learning. And that’s the angle that we’re going to take in this mini-series.
At Accelerated Spanish, our teaching techniques were built from the best research that we could find on learning, and specifically on language learning. We’ve taken that research, built a Spanish curriculum out of it, and used it to train thousands of students to Spanish fluency.
But I’m guessing that in the process of working on Spanish, you’ve found yourself asking the following questions:
- Why is it that I can read the same thing 50 times and never remember it?
- I’ve learned all the vocabulary and grammar; why isn’t it turning into fluency?
- Is most of the study I’m doing just a waste of time?
- Am I doing something wrong, or am I just plain bad at this?
I have some good news (and this is a bit of a spoiler): The answer to that last question is a definitive “you’re NOT bad at that”. As I’ll show you in the very next article, you can get “good at” learning a language if you follow the research-based principles of learning we’ll talk about. In fact, you can be one of the best in the world at learning by implementing a few quick fixes to your learning habits.
It all starts with becoming a better student. Not a better Spanish student, but a better STUDENT student. So let’s dive into the most practical resources I know of for becoming a better learner.
Three Books for Learning
To upgrade you from a mediocre student to a world-class language learner, we’re going to dive into three of my favorite books on learning:
- A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley is a succinct, enjoyable, and actionable book about study techniques.
- Make It Stick goes into more detail about learning strategies that work.
- The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin focuses on making learning second-nature.
I highly recommend reading all of these books. Any wisdom that you read in this blog series has its basis in those books, and I take no credit for the techniques.
What I intend to do with this series is to synthesize the best advice from these three books in a way that will quickly turn you into a better student. Read these eight articles to scratch the surface, then dive into the books to upgrade your learning even further.
If you’re curious, here are my more detailed summaries of what these books are:
A Mind for Numbers is about study habits. This book will train you to use your brain in ways that it finds natural and meaningful, especially to learn topics that you might think are impossible for you. For example, many artists, language learners, and musicians might think that learning math or science is outside their capabilities. This was the story of the author, Barbara Oakley, who went from failing at math to becoming a language enthusiast to eventually becoming a professor of math and science, something she never would have imagined. Conversely, I’ve worked with hundreds of people who had the opposite story: Almost every kind of software developer, math whiz, lawyer, or mechanical engineer has told me that they thought that learning a language was impossible — at least, they did before they discovered the techniques that A Mind for Numbers so charmingly and effortlessly lays out. If you want to stop dreading learning a subject and actually enjoy it, and feel comfortable and satisfied while learning it, this book is the best place to start.
Make It Stick is a summary of research on what works and what doesn’t work for durable learning. A lot of the focus is on defeating “illusions of knowing”, which are ways that we trick ourselves into thinking we’re learning when we really aren’t. The book seeks to replace these illusions with solid, proven strategies for true learning. This book draws heavily on research studies that debunk many learning myths and replace them with reliable strategies for durable learning, laying out tried-and-true strategies for making learning “stick”. If you find that no matter how much you study, you never seem to be able to accurately recall or use what you’re learning when you truly need it, this is a book for you.
The Art of Learning takes learning to the next level. The other two books will help you truly learn something, but The Art of Learning will push you even further beyond that. The author, Josh Waitzkin, is a world champion of both chess (the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” tells the story of his childhood rise to fame) and of Taiji Push Hands, a subtle Chinese martial art. His strategies will help you turn a skill from good to world-class. If your dream is to demonstrate extremely high mastery while under a competitive level of pressure, this is the best book I know for getting there.
What To Expect in the Next Seven Weeks
Long story short, I’ve written seven articles about “how to learn”. Each one of them covers an essential skill for being a good student, and all 7 skills are dealt with extensively in all 3 of the books that I just mentioned.
1. Adopt a growth mindset so that you’re setting up your learning journey for success.
2. How to study Spanish so that you can have self-awareness of your own learning at every step.
3. Chunk the information into mental models so that everything you learn makes sense.
4. Focus AND unfocus so that you don’t get stuck and learning remains interesting and effective.
5. Interrupt and interleave your learning so that the things you learn become both more durable and more accessible over time.
6. Create analogies and examples so that your new knowledge bonds with existing knowledge in increasingly interesting ways.
7. Become a natural by training your performance to be intuitive.
That’s your roadmap for the next seven weeks! Fortunately, each of these topics builds on the previous article, so after you’ve internalized the information from one article, you’ll be prepared to learn what’s next.
Next week, we’re going to get started with the most essential skill of all. According to all the research, this is the foundation of any good learning: Adopting a Growth Mindset.
Ready to put your learning skills to the test? Start the Accelerated Spanish course for free.