5 ways to reclaim your brain and master a foreign language

The more I study and reflect on my language studies, I have semi-regular realizations about myself and how things work. The most recent is a simple one: A lot of this language learning stuff is as much about what not to do, as what you actually do.

Tracking back a little, if you read this website, then you will be aware that here are certain timeless principles to follow when it comes to learning a foreign language. Namely:

Learn new vocabulary.
Listen a lot.
Read a lot.
Find interesting content that will motivate you to stay immersed in the language.

And so on. These principles are fundamental and unchanging. And you know what? Maybe in years gone by, they may have been enough. But things have changed.

So what has changed exactly? OK I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m not about to unveil a secret new method of learning that beats all the others. That would be dishonest. The basics are still the same.

No, what I’m referring to is the massive brain damage that is going on these days. OK not literally, but I’d estimate that 90% of us are total scatterbrains trying to achieve too much all at once. We are constantly distracted by our phones, internet sites and a hundred other things. The challenge is clear. We need to reclaim our brains in order to push ahead with mastering another language.

1. Turn off your smartphone

Listen, I understand how much you love your iPhone, Android or whatever zany phone model you are a fan of. Admittedly, I spend way too much time on my iPhone. But when it comes to concentrated study, smartphones are a killer. Turn it off. It will only serve to constantly interrupt your study sessions with phone calls, texts and other random updates. Who is in charge here? You or your phone? Now and then, you have to show your smartphone who is boss.

2. Massively cut down on social media

While many of you might manage to follow the first point and turn off your phone for an hour or two, things are about to get real now. I’m telling you to massively cut down on your  social media. Facebook and Twitter are perhaps the biggest existing distractions for the modern language learner. Any time spent on these mindless sites is time you could have spent learning Chinese, Swahili or whatever cute language you are currently dating.

And don’t give me that “I need to enjoy my life” line. Nobody really enjoys looking at Facebook. Surprisingly enough, language study is much more fun once you get a regular routine going.

3. Go old school

Next, you need to go old school, by which I mean that you should read physical books now and then. I’m a fan of digital books as much as anyone else (hell, I was reading interesting Japanese ebooks before my Japanese friends!), but going old school can help your brain to recover from all the electronic stimulation that is confusing it. Going old school will stop the rot that is turning your concentration levels into something more fitting to a goldfish than a human. Read good books in your target foreign language if you can. If you aren’t at that level yet, then some moderately challenging reading in your native language is just fine.

4. Meditate

Meditation has been shown to help improve concentration levels and memory retention, both skills that directly translate into more effective language acquisition. Even 5-10 minutes a day can make a noticeable difference, so give it a shot. If you are new to meditation, I strongly recommend Finding Peace in a Frantic World as a great introduction.

5. Show up

Honestly, I’d conservatively estimate that showing up is 80% of the language learning game. It’s probably much more than that, but 80% is a nice round number that everyone understands. Let’s say that 20% of your results come from the method you follow and the quality of materials you use (good job you have this blog to help you with those!).

Either way, what matters is putting in the study time, day after day, week after week. I don’t care how much talent for languages you believe yourself to be lacking. You will make progress. And, over time, your brain will change with regular practice. Months into a solid learning regime, you will begin to feel the difference in your thinking. You will hear the sounds of the language differently. You will start singing in the shower. It’s a beautiful thing to experience and it makes you feel more alive.


Hopefully, the above hints give you something to play with. Nobody is perfect. We all procrastinate and fritter away time. And that’s OK. But if you are regularly missing your language goals and getting frustrated, then reclaiming your brain is a solid first step on the road to fluency.

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