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How to Learn a Second Language in Your Bedroom

Learn a Second Language in Your Bedroom

Learning Russian taught me how to effectively learn a second language. I’m now using this method to learn German in my bedroom. I’ve been studying for 15 months and I’m about 6 months from being fluent. While this method doesn’t bring fluency as fast as living in country and chatting with native speakers every day,  it works no matter where you live and it’s inexpensive.

Key Points

  • Study every single day. Failing that, a bare minimum of five days a week. The benefits of studying 30 minutes a day heavily outweigh that of 10 hours just one day a week.
  • In larger cities Couch Surfing and MeetUp offer events where you can connect with native speakers. I’m currently not attending these events for German, however, I attended them regularly when I was learning Russian.
  • Learning a language can take years. Embrace the process, celebrate small victories and know that you’ll get there eventually.
  • There are some really cool language learning channels on YouTube

    There are some fascinating characters in the language learning community. Luca has a great YouTube channel, as does Benny. Tim Ferriss has also released an excellent guide.

My Learning Process

  1. Find an online translation dictionary that has high quality pronunciations in your target language. For German I use Linguee. They have other languages as well, I’m not sure about pronunciation quality. If you can’t tell which is best, ask a native speaker.
  2. Learn as many pronouns as possible. I start by memorizing I, she, he, they, you, your, his, her, their, it, etc. This can be harder than it sounds because you have no ear for the language. You’ll be surprised how many times you can forget a simple sound.
  3. Begin listening to the language every day. I’ve found that Spotify has awesome playlists for German. YouTube is also good, as are live stream radio shows from that country. These are easiest to find by typing in the capital city + radio. For example, “Berlin talk radio“.
  4. Find a Skype tutor. The website Preply is the best choice, I’ve used it to find my Russian and German tutors, both of whom are excellent. For German I pay $14 a lesson, twice a week, which adds up to about $120 a month (my Russian tutor only cost $6 a lesson). That’s a steal compared to a paying for a college class. Also, it’s more effective. With a Skype tutor it’s 1 on 1 and the lessons are catered to your needs.
  5. Keep notes during the lesson. While me and my teacher are speaking I write down each new word. Over the next couple of days I’ll review these words in the following manner. I type them into the German dictionary and listen to the pronunciation multiple times, mimicking it. Then I’ll write down the word in my notebook along with examples of the word used in context. I often spend as much as 5 minutes working with a single word.
    *In my notebook I write solely in German, I don’t write an English translation next to the word. Instead, when I review the words 90% of the time I can figure out the meaning based on the context sentences I wrote. I find that that writing only in the target language creates a more immersive experience. 
  6. Input all new words into Anki. This is a flashcard App that I use to review the words. After I’ve written down all my words into my notebook, I input them into Anki.
  7. Write a sentence or two for each new words. This is the third time I’m looking at my list of new words in the space of a couple of days. It can be somewhat repetitive but that’s the point! The more you review your words, the more you remember them. I take all my new words and write sentences with them in Google Docs. At the start of each lesson my tutor reviews these sentences and corrects any mistakes I’ve made.
  8. Repeat this process. This is my entire strategy for learning a language. It can be done anywhere in the world, so long as you have a good internet connection. Of course hanging out in country and chatting with native speakers it the fastest way to learn. However, if that’s not possible then this is a viable alternative.

Dealing with Deficiencies 

I was able to learn Russian in 13 months because I lived in Country. However, that’s not necessary

The major pitfall of this approach is that your speaking ability tends to be weaker. You’ll be spending a majority of your time writing, reading and listening to the language, not speaking it. To compensate for this it’s essential to try and speak as much as possible during your Skype lessons and to practice the language whenever you can.

Planning a trip to the country is always smart, especially if you can live there for a few months. In most places this can be done for a surprisingly small amount of money, which is a topic I cover in my article: How Much Money do you Need to Travel Abroad?

Josh Waitzkin’s Unique Approach To Learning

Josh Waitzkin

Before turning 30 Josh Waitzkin was a world champion twice over. Labeled as a chess prodigy, he won multiple world championships. After retiring from chess at an age when most people are starting their careers, Josh started practicing Tai Chi. What started as a meditative exercise quickly grew. A few years later Josh would become a world champion push hands competitor, beating Taiwanese fighters who had been training since childhood. Josh is clearly operating in a different arena than most, and this is the story of his unique approach to learning and mastery.

Lessons Learned on the Chess Board

A chess champion is a combination of skill and thousands of hours of practice

Josh Waitzkin was born to play chess. Players with a decade of experience began losing to Josh after he had been practicing just several months. There’s something to be said about innate talent, and when it came to chess Josh had the goods. However, talent does not deliver success without hard work. When you learn Josh’s story you’re struck by how hard he worked to master the game.

  1. Josh deliberately studied in adverse conditions. He played loud music in his bedroom or went to smokey bars, conditioning himself to perform in all environments. For every skill you can simulate difficult conditions to make performing under pressure easier.
  2. Under the guidance of his first coach Josh studied positions of reduced complexity. For example, three pieces on the chess board instead of the full entourage of thirty-two. Every art form has base principles that must be internalized. These are more important than flashy tricks or techniques, learning them first makes it easier to master complex principles later.
  3. Chess tournaments are grueling, games can last for hours. While other parents and coaches attempted to teach lessons after each match, Josh’s dad took him outside to play catch. He understood that recovery was more important than squeezing in another lesson. If you’re struggling with a difficult task, take a fifteen minute break, forget everything, relax. You won’t lose your edge, you’ll come back ready to act.

Beating Lifelong Practitioners at their Own Game

Josh practicing Tai Chi, the exercise that push hands is based on

On his path towards becoming a world champion at Push Hands, Josh won matches against opponents who had thousands more hours of practice than him. What allowed him to do so? Let’s look at a few answers to that question. Most of these insights come from Josh’s book: The Art of Learning.

1. Drawing Smaller Circles

The process by which a skill is internalized in small steps. Josh uses the example of a boxer learning a straight job. At first he requires a certain number of inches (say ten) to deliver all the power of the punch. However, with time and practice (years’ worth), he’s able to refine the punch. Eventually he can deliver a potent blow with half an inch of space.

This is the art of refining a process and it’s applicable to nearly everything. As you look at a skill that you’ve learned to a high level you’ll be able to see how you’ve “drawn smaller circles” over time, making a complex task simple.

2. Learning from Novel Experiences

In the beginning you can learn from almost any experience. However, to continue growing you must continually seek novel experiences. For example, if a basketball player does nothing but practice free throws he may get very good at it. But to gain a high level of competency at the game he’ll also need to work on three pointers, dribbling, defense and situational awareness.

Josh learned the power of the novel experience when he broke his arm during a push hands competition. He was forced to practice with only one hand. While difficult it gave him that novel experience required to grow. In time, he learned how to control opponents with one arm, a large advantage. When learning a skill we can ask: how can I get new, novel experiences?

3. Investing in Loss

Investing in loss requires working with more skilled opponents

Learning a skill means failing. Whether you’re studying a language or becoming a world champion push hands competitor, you’ll have to invest in loss. In Josh’s case that meant purposefully skirmishing with opponents who were better than him. He spent months getting tossed to the mat, manhandled by more experienced practitioners.

This was painful but it allowed Josh to cut down on the learning curve. By training with superior opponents he was able to cram decades of practice into years. To improve faster we should seek out situations where a loss is likely. It might hurt the ego but the lessons will be more effective.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice 

Whether it was chess or push hands, Josh would study several hours a day. This is the foundation upon which his success is built. Without practice there cannot be improvement. In our society we lionize the results but rarely look at the effort behind them. As Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s) says:

I was an overnight success all right, but 30 years is a long, long night.

5. The Mental Game Determines the Outcome

Speaking about chess, Josh comments on the importance of having a proper mental state.

Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered.

This can apply to any discipline. Most top competitors have a comparable technical understanding of the game, the result is often determined by their mental state. Who can stay cool under pressure, recover from a mistake, and find the energy to fight when the body is depleted. To become world class one must focus just as much on their mental state as their practical knowledge.

Why You Should Invest in Becoming an Effective Autodidact

Learning “how to learn” may be one of the most efficient uses of your time. If you can learn a skill 25% faster than your neighbor, that can save you thousands of hours compiled over a lifetime. Invest in loss, seek out novel experiences, and practice every day. Josh Waitzkin is a world class performer of the highest order and his advice is invaluable. The best resource to discover more about Josh is his book: The Art of Learning. It tells the story of Josh’s rise to prominence, how it affected him and the lessons he learned from mastering two unique skills. In addition, Josh has done several interviews on the Tim Ferriss Show.