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A super short history of what hacking means for non-English natives
Hacking is a term that came from the computer industry. In the computer world, a hacker is someone that uses computers to break into other computer systems to steal information or to spread computer viruses. A second meaning of hacking is to alter a computer program to make it better for the needs of the user.
Later, the term life hack became popularized for people that wanted to solve problems of daily life (for example, how to get hair that sticks up not to stick up, how to lose weight while only eating cake, how to save your music collection in the best way – alphabetical or by genre?, how to eat food good and do other stuff good too).
Ok, Ok, I got it, so what is language hacking? ??
Language hacking is currently an in vogue term in the language community with many language influencers (famous on the internet how to learn a language advice people) giving their language learning tips and advice but renaming them as language hacks.
Basically, language hacking is a fashionable way to say language learning advice. So with that in mind…
Here are my top 8 language hacks
If you study for long enough you will learn a language, right? No, not necessarily. Studying for 1 hour sounds good, but if that hour is 15 minutes getting stuck on an exercise, 15 minutes looking in the fridge and making cups of tea, 15 minutes searching for grammar answers and 15 minutes checking Facebook and watching YouTube videos, then that is not the same as studying for 1 hour.
You can study for years and not improve. I am living proof of that. I had 7 years of French class, but I cannot even have a basic conversation in French. Instead, identifying weak areas and then working on them to improve is the road to progress. To identify weak areas, you need feedback. In other words, you need to know what you are doing wrong and how to make it better.
To identify weaknesses, you can:
- Use Anki – Anki is a flashcard quiz app that tests your memory. It is great because it has a spaced repetition system that adapts to your memory. Anki’s feedback is very useful. Anki will tell you if you have remembered something (a word, a grammar pattern) or not. Then, it will help you learn and memorise the word by showing it to you before you forget it. I introduce Anki again below, but for my in-depth guide on how to use Anki guide click here.
- Test yourself by doing quizzes or exercises AND remember to check the answers.
- Attend online or offline classes and get the teachers feedback. Work on the things that are identified as weak areas by your teacher or by yourself during the class
- Get feedback for writing from natives. You can use these websites for this (all are free) Lang8, Hellotalk, italki, Quora.
- For pronunciation, record yourself speaking and listen to yourself. With a friend or teacher, identify the sounds that you are weak at pronouncing.
Timeboxing is about allocating a short amount of time, from 5 minutes to 15 minutes, to complete a set task. If you have 5 minutes, you can, for example, revise a vocabulary list, read a magazine article in the language you are learning, or check a few words in the dictionary that you have been having problems with.
Spending 5 minutes that was otherwise free or dead time (for example, waiting at the bus stop, in a queue, the 5 minutes before a class starts, the 5 minutes spent hiding in a cupboard until the boss leaves the office) doing some language study is time well spent. In 1 year, 5 minutes a day study adds up to over 30 hours.
Save vocabulary, sentences or grammar that you don’t know to a word file or in a notebook. Then, the next time you have a lesson with your teacher you can ask her or him about it. Or you can use the saved notes for things to work on in your 5 minutes timeboxed study time.
For example, if you are making mistakes with using, everyday or every day, noting it down can be the prompt to later spending time looking up the differences.
This purposeful study, while small and minor, is exactly the kind of study you need to do to improve your language ability. As working on the small language issues we collect stops us from getting things wrong over and over again, and slowly but surely, takes us to the advanced levels.
Get Anki in your life
Anki is free (on Android, or browser, paid for on iTunes); it is also the boss of memorising stuff. In language learning having a large vocabulary is a must. Unless you are a memory palace kind of person, you will need to spend a lot of time memorising vocabulary, grammar, writing systems, idioms, irregular verbs/adjectives/adverbs, forms of everyday language, polite and extra polite language, slang, names, places and everything else. Anki will reduce that time drastically. You need Anki in your life.
Read my in-depth guide to Anki here.
Reading on Kindle, e-reader or computer for intermediate learners
I know real books are better than e-readers. They feel nice, they smell nice, hey they even look pretty damn good too. But for learning a language, they are not as good as reading on Kindle or computer.
Because on Kindle you can check the Kindle dictionary for words you don’t know quickly. On computers, you can use browser mouse-over dictionaries to check word meanings. With this support, you can read faster, spend more time immersed in the language and ultimately learn quicker.
For reading in Japanese and Chinese, I use the pera pera browser plugin which is free to download and use.
This hack is for intermediate learners only.
For beginners, I recommend reading graded readers or texts with translations or children’s books first. This is because novels, newspapers or other more authentic materials will have too many words and grammar structures that you have not studied yet.
If you are a beginner, I recommend you first learn 2000 to 5000 of the most high-frequency words of your language of study. This will give you a firm basis to start reading from. If you use Anki, you could learn 2000 words in 3 months quite easily. (You would need to learn about 22 words a day for 90 days and review the same amount each day)
For advanced level peeps, e-readers and browser mouse over dictionary plugins are great but you probably already knew that.
Recommended further reading:
https://goo.gl/4o6gRV – link goes to an in-depth fluentu.com article about how many words you need to learn to start reading in a new language.
Language hack for learning two languages at the same time
In short, if you want to learn a language quickly, don’t learn two or more at the same time. By learning two at the same time, you are cutting your study time in half. If you have plenty of time that is ok, but if you are learning in limited spare time then this is going to be problematic.
However, if you just have to learn two languages at the same time, you could try the 80/20 method. Here you spend 80% of your time on the main language and 20% on the other language.
Now and again, you can switch and increase the amount you study on the 20% language to satisfy any urge to get more involved in the second language. I’m using this strategy at the moment, and I can report back that it does satisfy the craving I have for Chinese study.
Study for short amounts of time (45-52 minutes) then take a break.
Taking regular breaks helps refresh our brains. Studies have shown that after 52 minutes our brains become confused and tired. If we take a break at this stage, our brains benefit from being refreshed. Many schools in the UK have lessons that are 45 minutes long for this reason.
Also, doing something active in the break, such as, going for a walk and getting away from the desk can help you feel physically better as moving your body, or rather, body movin’ is great.
Have a sleep
Did you know having a sleep aids our memories? Researchers think that our brains process our memories when we sleep. While the research is not yet conclusive, the overall evidence is that getting enough sleep each day is important for our brains to work to their best abilities.
To get the refreshed feeling, a power nap is also a good option. Either 15 or 20 minutes could be just long enough to feel fresh enough to go again.
https://goo.gl/kQYFtJ – An academic journal article on healthy sleep.
Did you read all the way to here? Wow, you must be a self-motivated language learner or a masochist.
But seriously, these language hacks, advice, tips, methods whatever you want to call them, do work. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? As Baz Lurhman might have said in an alternative universe:
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it
Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of
Fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off
Painting over the ugly parts and recycling for more than it’s worth
But trust me on the
sunscreen language hacks.
- Hacking cat emoticon ↑
- I made some of these ‘life hacks’ up, my bad. ↑
- Amazon, Rakuten Taobao not included. ↑
- http://lang-8.com/ – website for practising writing. Native writers correct your writing, https://www.hellotalk.com/?lang=en – same as above but app only, https://www.quora.com/ – ask a question and get answers website ↑
- I’ve never done that, probably. ↑