Is it really possible to become a fluent Norwegian speaker in just six months? One linguistics expert says it is.
English and the Scandinavian languages all come from the same root. They share similar structures, and even many words.
So why do native English speakers find it so hard to learn Norwegian when on paper it should be one of the easiest languages to learn?
The answer could lie in the fact that we’re just not doing it right. The way we teach languages in school strips the process of all utility – unless you really do need to give Monsieur Pompidou walking directions to Charles de Gaulle airport!
Anyone can do it
Psychologist and linguistics expert Chris Lonsdale explained in a TEDx talk that anyone can learn any language in just six months if they follow a few simple principles.
Over the course of his 18 minute talk, the New Zealander, who is fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese, goes into a lot of history and detail about how he came to formulate his ideas into this system.
If you don’t have the time to watch the whole thing, I’ll summarise the key principles below.
Schools get in the way
Coming from an interest in speeding up learning, his first main observation was that school often gets in the way of learning. Schools are great for keeping kids occupied all day but they’re certainly not set up for efficient learning.
Via various false starts such as hypnopaedia – where you supposedly learn by listening while you’re asleep – it was when he decided he was going to defy the odds and learn Mandarin within two years that he started to hone his ideas. This was in the early 1980s when Mandarin was considered impenetrable to Westerners.
Having become fluent within six month, and native a little later, he looked around and saw that not only were English speakers struggling with Chinese but Chinese were struggling with English. So the question became
How can you help a normal adult learn a new language quickly, easily and effectively?
From here he worked out, using his background in psychology, that the best thing to do is to see what’s working and apply it to different situations, learning experiences and languages.
He then boiled it down to a core of five principles and seven actions.
Language first and foremost is a communication tool. And like with any tool, you learn to use it best when you need to use it to accomplish something.
So, the first principle for learning a language is focus on language content that is relevant to you. If it’s related to your personal goals then you’re going to pay attention to it, if it’s relevant you’re going to remember it.
Language is a tool
The second principle for learning a language is to use your language as a tool to communicate from day one.
“I had a colleague many years ago who went to night school; Tuesday night, Thursday night, two hours each night, practicing at home, she spent nine months, and she did not learn to type Chinese.”
“One night we had a crisis. We had 48 hours to deliver a training manual in Chinese. And she got the job, and I can guarantee you in 48 hours, she learned to type Chinese because it was relevant, it was meaningful, it was important, she was using a tool to create value.”
The third principle for learning a language is that when you first understand the message, you will acquire the language unconsciously.
“When I first arrived in China I didn’t speak a word of Chinese, and in my second week I spent eight hours sitting in the dining car of an overnight train talking to one of the guards. We chatted all night in Chinese and he was drawing pictures and making movements with his hands and facial expressions and piece by piece by piece I understood more and more.”
“Two weeks later, when people were talking Chinese around me, I was understanding some of this and I hadn’t even made any effort to learn that. What had happened, I’d absorbed it that night on the train.”
Our fourth principle is that if you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you’re not going to learn it.
“A woman I know from Taiwan did great at English at school, she got A grades all the way through, went through college, A grades, went to the US and found she couldn’t understand what people were saying. And people started asking her: ‘Are you deaf?’ And she was. English deaf. Because we have filters in our brain that filter in the sounds that we are familiar with and they filter out the sounds of languages we’re not.”
Our fifth and final principle is to make sure you’re in the right state to learn. If you're sad, angry, worried, upset, you’re not going to learn. Period.
“If you’re happy, relaxed, in an Alpha brain state, curious, you’re going to learn really quickly, and very specifically you need to be tolerant of ambiguity. If you’re one of those people who needs to understand 100% every word you’re hearing, you will go nuts, because you’ll be incredibly upset all the time, because you’re not perfect.”
“If you’re comfortable with getting some, not getting some, just paying attention to what you do understand, you’re going to be fine, you’ll be relaxed and you’ll be learning quickly.”
Seven action steps
So based on those five principles – and remember these apply to learning anything, not just languages – Chris recommends seven actions to take that will help you apply these principles to learn a language.
Listen a lot – Chris calls this ‘Brain Soaking’ and basically it involves just exposing yourself to the language, even without understanding, and listen out for patterns and sounds that repeat. You’ll pick up a lot of information without even knowing it
Get the meaning before the words – This is all about body languages. Humans generally communicate as much with their bodies as with their mouths. Watch intently as people speak and your mind will pick up the sounds that go along with the visual cues that your recognise.
Start mixing – If you’ve got ten verbs, ten nouns and ten adjectives you can say 1000 different things. When babies start to talk they’ll say, for example ‘Me bath now’. So find words that relate to what you want to say.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to be understood. You don’t need to be able to say ‘please bring me a cup of your finest freshly brewed Colombian coffee, my good man’ just to get a coffee. Instead you can say ‘Me One Coffee Please’ and you’ll get what you need.
Start with the tool box – When you start learning a language the first things you need to be able to say are ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Can you repeat that?’ ‘How do you say that?’ ‘I don’t understand.’ etc.
If you can say these in your target language then you can start to build through the simple nouns ‘me’ ‘you’ ‘this’ etc then add the glue of ‘but’ ‘therefore’ and before long you should have simple communication down.
Get yourself a language parent – This is someone who can help you develop your language skills like a parent does their own child. It’s best not to try a spouse or partner for this and they need to abide by four simple rules. Firstly they will work hard to understand what you mean even when you’re way off beat.
Secondly they will never correct your mistakes. Thirdly they will feedback their understanding of what you said so you can respond appropriately and get that feedback. Fourthly, they will use words that you know.
Copy the face – Different languages use different sounds, and different sounds will use different muscles from the ones in your native language.
The two ways to get the muscles working right are to hear how it feels and feel how it sounds to create a feedback loop and the other is to watch how the mouths and faces of native speakers move when they’re speaking so you can work out the best way of not only acquiring the language but also speaking it in the way that will be understood.
Foreign languages spoken in English accents do not work!
Direct connection – Language isn’t a series of words that you simply store in lists in the brain and so learning lists of words over and over again is a really tiresome and inefficient way of trying to learn a language. Everything in the brain is images and feelings.
When you talk about a fire you can feel the heat and smell the smoke. So you need to hook into those images in your brain and link the new words to them, so that feu, fuego and brann all operate on the same emotional level as ‘fire’ in English. This, Chris says, is called ‘same box, different path’.
Apply and learn quickly
These are some very interesting ideas and I know from personal experience that they will help me.
I’ve been trying to learn – not a foreign language but a computer language – for the past 5 years and I’ve failed so far because I’ve not been using it on a real project. Now that I realise where I’ve been falling down most, I can apply these principles and learn faster.
These are all principles and actions that you can apply to learning anything. If you do any of them then you will improve. They’re all things you have under your control so if you apply all of them to learning Norwegian you can be fluent within six months.
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