How to learn a new language

The Secret to Speedy Learning of a New Language

This lens explores the ways to learn a second language. Which way is the best way? Which way is the fastest? Is the best way the fastest way? When I first became a foreign language teacher, I used to tell people that there is no short-cut to learning a language. Now, I know better. There is a secret way to speed up learning–based upon sound understanding of cognitive psychology.

The BALM of Second Language Acquisition


The BALM of Second Language Acquisition: Mnemonics


What if I told you that one could learn English as a Foreign Language (or any foreign language) in 1/100th the time it normally would take you? Would you believe me? I believe I have found such a way. It is called mnemonics. Whether you are Mongolian wanting to learn English or a foreigner wanting to learn Mongolian, this article may change the way you learn a foreign language forever, and save you time. What used to take 100 minutes, will now take you 1 minute to learn, and make your language teachers elated with your progress.

In the past, it has normally taken a lot of time and effort to learn a language. When people asked me for the best way to learn English, I used to reply, “There are no short-cuts.” In fact, my formula for language learning was: A = T * E, or “ATE”, which stands for: “Acquisition (of the language) equals Time multiplied by Effort.” Effort included learning by rote methods, repeating over and over again, in order to establish new neural pathways and innervate the muscles in the tongue.
A New Paradigm

I have recently discovered that we can speed up the process of learning/acquiring a new language. In order to effectively convey the concept, I have made a formula: BA = L + M, or “BALM”. In the “BALM” formula, “BA” stands for “Better Acquisition”, “L” stands for listening, and “M” stands for Mnemonics. The BALM formula will reduce one’s time in learning new words by a factor of 100.

Please be aware that the BALM formula is not an end-all panacea for language learning. Learning a language is a complex task that requires many kinds of input and practice. The postulate behind the BALM formula is that language is basically composed of words (lexis). It is aligned to the Lexis-based approach of language acquisition.
Mnemonics vs. Mneumonic Device

Mnemonics is not a new science, actually. Mnemonics is the science of memory and it goes back to ancient Greek times. Furthermore, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term “mnemonic device” was first used in 1858. It is particularly the “mnemonic device” that this article is about. A mnemonic device is a verbal instrument used to help one remember something. While I am not inventing anything new, my attempt to integrate mnemonics into the acquisition of language may be completely novel.

How Does It Work?

Perhaps the best way to explain is by giving several examples of how mnemonics can be used to learn new lexis. Ever since coming to Mongolia in 2010, my son and I have been attempting to acquire the Mongolian language. I would learn the words first and then teach my son. Take, for instance, the Mongolia word for tree: mod /mud/. My son asked, “Dad, how can I remember that?” I thought for a few seconds and then replied, “Think of mud. Trees grow in the mud.” Since then, he has never forgotten the Mongolian word for tree.
Then, we started to learn the colour words. I taught my son that the Mongolian word for black is khar /har/. Again my son asked me, “How can I remember that?” I replied, “What colour is Mongolian hair?” He answered, “Black.” I continued, “That’s right. Think of ‘hair’. Hair sounds like khar.” Since then, he has never forgotten the Mongolian word for black.
After that, we moved to the Mongolian word for yellow, which is shar. My son asked, “How can I remember that?” I responded, “This time you think of a way to remember shar.” He thought for a minute, then said, “I’ve got it! Shar sounds like shore and the shore is yellow.” I lauded, “Great job, buddy!”

Why does it Work?

Firstly, one must understand how the brain works. The French Cognitive Psychologist Piaget has provided amazing insight into how the brain works in cognitive development, some of which applies directly to language learning. Piaget coined three terms of three different processes used by the brain to learn/acquire new information. They are: accommodation, assimilation, and association. They are part of what Piaget calls his “Schema Theory”.

Firstly, let’s deal with accommodation. Accommodation is how the brain acquires new information that cannot be categorized nor ‘attached’ to existing information. It can ONLY be learned by repetition. Neurologists have taught us that repetition strengthens the connections between neurons in the brain and establishes certain neural pathways, that we call “long-term memory”. Behavioural Psychologists have taught us that it takes 100 times of doing something for it to become a habit. Well, that is what speaking is! It’s a habit. Infants must use the method of accommodation for learning practically everything that they learn, because they are born with relatively no “schema” or memories. Once a child has developed a certain amount of “schema” or memories, the child can then use the process of ‘assimilation’.

Now, let’s deal with assimilation. To put simply, assimilation is the process of categorizing information. Let me explain how assimilation works by anecdote. When a little child is learning his mother tongue, Mum will point to a dog and say, “That’s a dog.” The child firstly accommodates that information by the use of repetition, and it may take up to 100 times hearing the word “dog” before the child is able to remember and say the word from memory. Then, the child sees a cat. He points and says, “Dog!” Mum replies, “No, that’s a cat.” The child’s brain then has to make a new category for cats in his brain. That’s not assimilation. Assimilation assumes that the categories already exist; so, it is more like accommodation. At that point, the child may be a bit confused. Why is one animal called a dog, while another animal is called a cat? So, the next time the child sees a cat of a different colour, he points and looks at mum questioningly, as if to ask, “Mum, is that a cat or a dog?” Mum replies, “That’s a cat.” Assimilation is when the child puts the cat of a different colour into the category of “cats”. Over time, the child learns that cats have certain similar features, and colour is not one of them. Assimilation is a bit easier and faster than accommodation, but it still requires a lot of practice. The child will make mistakes, and mum will correct the child. The child may make hundreds of mistakes, calling pigs, cows and horses “dogs,” or “cats,” until the assimilation process is complete.

Now, let’s deal with association. Association is the process of “attaching” new information to existing information, already categorized and hard-wired into the brain. For example, the child might go to the zoo and see a tiger, saying, “Look, mum, there’s a big cat.” Mum laughs and says, “Yes, that’s a big cat, but we call it a tiger.” The child looks confused and says, “Why?” The mum, being creative and clever, says, “Because it’s like a bunch of cats TI-ed to-G-eth-ER. Get it? “Tied” “together” can be shortened to TI-GER.” Of course that is not true, but it helps the child to associate the new word with existing words in his vocabulary. It is instantly memorized, because the new information can be “attached” to existing neural pathways in the brain. The child does not have to create a new neural pathway, which takes copious and sometimes tedious repetition.
Then, the child sees a lion at the zoo and says, “Look, mum! A tiger!” Mum laughs again and says, “No, that’s a lion.” The child looks confused again, and says, “Why?” The mum, being creative and clever, says, “Because it always LI-es ON the rock. Get it? LI-es ON can be shortened to LI-ON.” The child instantly remembers the new word because it is attached to existing words in the brain.

The technique that Piaget calls ‘association’ is a form of “mnemonics”. It is a memory technique.


Whether you are learning English or any language, you can use the same memory technique. It’s much faster than writing the word and the definition 100 times; and, you are less likely to forget.

So, what does the “M” stand for in my new formula? It stands for mnemonics. The equation again is: BA = L + M, or Better Acquisition (of a language) equals Listening + Mnemonics. It is the balm of language learning.

Photo by Maialisa (Pixabay)

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