I always try to do the things that are the least amount of work when learning a language; I like to engage in effortless language learning when I learn any language, not completely effortless of course, but as effortless as possible.
I borrow the word ‘effortless’ from two sources. One is AJ Hoge, who is a great teacher of English. His channel and website are both called Effortless English. My other source is Taoist philosophy.
Effortlessness and the Parable of the Crooked Tree
When I wrote my book The Linguist: A Personal Guide to Language Learning, I began with what I called ‘The Parable of the Crooked Tree’. The author of the parable was Zhuangzi, an early exponent of Taoism, a school of Chinese philosophy from over 2,000 years ago. I referred to Taoism on a number of occasions in my book. Zhuangzi’s basic principle in life was to follow what was natural, what was effortless and not try to force things.
Typically, the Taoist philosophy was in opposition to Confucianism, which prescribed rules of what you should and shouldn’t do in order to be a great person. In Zhuangzi’s Parable of the Crooked Tree, his friend Huizi tells him that a tree they are both observing is crooked because the lumber is not good for anything, like Zhuangzi’s philosophy.
“Neither your philosophy nor the tree is good for anything”, says Huizi.
Zhuangzi replies “You say that because you don’t know how to use them. You have to use things for the purpose intended and understand their true nature. You can sit underneath a crooked tree and enjoy its shade, for example. If you understand the true nature of things, you will be able to use them to achieve your goals.”
I’m in the lumber business and sometimes those gnarly old trees produce very expensive and decorative wood. Compared to trees in a planted forest, however, their wood is less uniform and less suitable for industrial end uses. Zhuangzi defends his philosophy saying it is useful if we accept its nature and know how to use. His philosophy was based on effortlessness, called wu wei (无为) in Chinese.
In other words, you want to learn better, stop resisting, and stop fighting it; go with the flow.That has always been my approach. Language learning does require some effort, of course, but we learn best when effort is minimized and pleasure is maximized.
If I’m reading in a language that I read well, where there are few unknown words, then I don’t bother looking up these unknown words. It’s too much trouble. On the other hand, if I can’t read well enough to enjoy reading away from the computer, or my iPad, then I usually don’t bother. It’s too much trouble looking words up in a dictionary, since the minute I close it I forget the meaning. So I just I read on LingQ, usually on my iPad. LingQ is where I have learned 7 languages in the last 10 years.
Once I’ve looked the word up on LingQ it’s highlighted. The word appears highlighted in any subsequent material, so I’m reminded that I’ve looked it up before. I can see the meaning right away, and eventually it becomes part of me, without any effort on my part. I’m not just looking words up in a dictionary and then forgetting them. I am creating a personal database of words and phrases for easy review as I continue reading.
When I read grammar – and I believe we should occasionally read grammar rules as it helps give us a sense of the language – I don’t try to remember anything.
I don’t try to learn or understand anything. I just treat it as a spark, an exposure of something that might help me eventually get a sense of the language. I don’t worry about grammar. I know it will gradually become clearer for me.
I don’t do questions. When I was learning Czech I found an old Teach Yourself Czech that I had bought many years ago. I found it kind of useful. It had questions and grammar drills, but I never did them. It was, however, useful to go to the back of the book and find the answers.
This way, rather than having to try to answer the question and wracking my brain, I just read all the answers. This gives me a concentration of examples of whatever the book is trying to test me on, case endings, pronouns or whatever else. I don’t like doing the questions because it’s too much work.
By the same token, when I read something I don’t like answering comprehension questions. I would rather have misunderstood the text and have my own interpretation of it than have to answer a list of questions. I have mentioned the great Brazilian educator Rubem Alves before. He once said that nothing destroys the pleasure of reading as much as being asked questions about what you have read.
I use flashcards only occasionally as a break from reading. They’re easy to do, if you do them the effortless way, for exposure.
I don’t set the flashcard with the new word on the front and then the answer on the back. Instead I put everything on the front. The new word, or phrase, the meaning in English and the phrase, which LingQ captures. I just look at the front of the flashcards and go through them very quickly. I don’t have to think, I’m just being exposed to them – effortlessly.
Sometimes the purists will tell you that you must only use a monolingual dictionary. I never use a monolingual dictionary. It’s much easier to use a bilingual dictionary. If I’m starting out in a language and I know few words, a monolingual dictionary is useless.
Even when I’m quite advanced I just find that a bilingual dictionary is more useful. I get a hint of what that word might mean and return to what I am reading, wanting to continue the discovery of what the content is all about. My interest in the text drives my learning. I don’t want to be distracted by a dictionary definition which may contain even more words that I don’t know.
I know that only through a lot of exposure will I eventually get the hang of that word, but I don’t want to spend my time trying to figure it out from a monolingual dictionary. To me it is more effortless to use a bilingual dictionary, and whatever is effortless to me is good.
Strange Language Features
I don’t worry about things that I don’t understand or elements of the new language that I am not used to. One example is the custom, in some languages, to have a large number of very specific terms for relatives, much more than we have in English.
These names are often introduced early in a language, since they are perceived as interesting aspects of the new culture. I can’t be bothered with them. Those are concepts we don’t have in English, and so they’re very difficult for me to relate to or remember. Eventually, after enough exposure, these things will become easier to learn, as is the case with much that is new and strange in a language.
Similarly, if you’re a speaker of a language which doesn’t have articles, like Russian or Japanese, you’re going to find articles difficult in English. I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s going to take a long time before those things sink in.
As for me, I find it difficult to understand the explanations about certain grammatical concepts, like the aspects of verbs in Russian. I naturally get it right some of the time, and some of the time I don’t. I am aware that such a thing exists. I’ve read the explanations and kind of get it but not really. I don’t worry about it. Similarly, in Japanese don’t worry about polite language at first because it takes a lot of exposure in order to have a sense for that. So I stick with a neutral form of the language, and try to avoid being too polite or too casual. There is less strain that way.
So in summary my advice is as follows:
⇒ Do what’s easy.
⇒ Do what comes naturally and is satisfying.
⇒ Don’t answer questions if you don’t want to.
⇒ Don’t force yourself to learn things.
⇒ Don’t cram things into your brain.
Just expose yourself to the language, follow your curiosity, trust your brain and you will learn any language effortlessly…or almost.