Florian Lackner

Florian Lackner

Things I learned picking up a new language as an adult

Reflections on language learning with the background of me moving to France six months ago.

Things I learned picking up a new language as an adult

Since I came to France six months ago, I have made a lot of progress with the French language. What started as nearly incomprehensible stuttering are now full phrases with rich vocabulary and even one little joke here and there. I've made picking up French my personal project, and it brings a lot of joy in my life. Understanding people in more and more contexts is enriching and helps with the struggles every expat experiences being far from home.

I recently stumbled across a talk by Chris Lonsdale from nearly ten years ago, where he talks about his experience learning languages. I highly recommend watching it if you haven't already. It resonated so well with me that it inspired me to write this blog post. He claims anybody can be fluent in a new language in six months. It sounds crazy, but having tried that myself, I believe he is right.

In his presentation, Chris claims that there are five basic principles you can apply and seven simple actions you can perform to boost your language skills massively. I will repeat them here and add my own comments.

The five basic principles#

1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you.#

I agree with him here. I still have unpleasant memories of high school times were we were forced to study rather obscure books in French, which included weird vocabulary and uninteresting stories. It was hell. It is so much harder to remember irrelevant information than interesting information that it becomes quickly frustrating.

2. Use your new language as a tool to communicate.#

I guess the key take-away here is to use a language. If you want to convey some meaning, at least in Europe, you can always fall back to English. This is even possible in France, contrary to popular belief.

But you shouldn't use this escape hatch. Using a language takes practice you'll never get if you're not training. All beginnings will be hard, but ultimately you will progress, and that's what counts. Every little piece of information you communicate is a major win and should be treated as such. Feeling insecure about your level in a language is only going to hold you back.

I did a thought experiment one day to deal with this insecurity: I put myself into the other person's position and imagined a situation where I was talking to a person barely able to speak German (my native language). No matter how badly the person speaks, I would never consider their effort anything less than exactly that: a nice effort. In my opinion, it's remarkable if foreigners know your language, be it only so little. I think that the vast majority of people think of it that way. So why was I even embarrassed in the first place?

3. When you first understand the message, you will unconsciously acquire the language.#


In serious terms, you should always focus on the message. The rest follows naturally. Learning grammar is the exact opposite. You focus on the language's syntax by trying to learn and apply logical rules. That's how a computer might try to approach learning a language, but for humans, this is a dead-end.

In fact, have you ever noticed how native speakers of any language do not know grammar rules while applying them correctly 100% of the time? The most extreme example is children. They have never heard of grammar but speak as error-free as their parents. When asking them why they use this or that grammatical construction, they cannot give a better answer than: "Because that's how it is."

I believe that our brain is naturally "optimized" to find and internalize these rules subconsciously. This way, we can apply them with lightning speed and astonishing correctness without even thinking about them.

4. Language learning is physiological training.#

This might be new to many. Chris tells the story of a Taiwanese woman who excelled in English in school but utterly failed to understand English spoken by native speakers once confronted with it. The idea is that our ears, i.e., our brains, need to learn to hear foreign sounds.

My favorite example of this is the four types of "tch" sounds in the Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian language. There are two pairs: č / ć and dž / đ. You can find more information (including hearing samples) here. It is nearly impossible to hear the differences for me, how about you?

The same argument also applies to speaking. It takes muscles to do, and different languages use different movements of these muscles. We can train these movements like athletes do in sports. I witnessed a massive improvement in my ability to say certain French words after a couple of months. Initially, it felt like my tongue was somehow tied to a knot when attempting them. This feeling vanishes more and more every day. And if I think about it in retrospect, it really is similar to the clumsy feeling when picking up a new sport. Or when taking first dance lessons.

5. Psycho-physiological state matters.#

This is a no-brainer on the one hand, but on the other hand, it's easy to forget about. If your brain is busy with other things, you won't learn. Especially important is staying relaxed when you don't understand something. It's normal, and being angry about it is as pointless as it is hindering your learning efforts.

The seven actions#

1. Listen a lot.#

Obvious and still often overlooked. You can basically soak your mind in a language. I think it's not necessary to listen actively all the time. A radio in the background also helps. Your brain will get used to the language this way.

2. Focus on getting the meaning first.#

I wholeheartedly agree. Sometimes, I catch myself obsessing over single words and their meaning. While thinking about it, I lose context and I stop understanding most of what is said.

Another aspect is body language. It is actually different in most countries and conveys so much meaning. This is especially visible in Italy, the capital of expressive body language, in my opinion, but it applies everywhere.

And one last thing: We can use things we already know. For example, French shares a lot of its vocabulary with English. I use this a lot to guess the meaning of new words in French, and it works way better than it should.

3. Start mixing.#

The call to action here is to be creative. Try new combinations of words, try to invent new expressions, etc. Babies, my great role models in language learning, talk like this.

In my experience, the outcome conveys its meaning while also sounding funny to natives. So, you've basically cracked a joke in a foreign language; congratulations. In essence, whatever works is fine and should be used.

4. Focus on the core.#

Chris presents some statistics here. He claims that:

1000 words cover 85% of what you say on a daily basis.

3000 words cover 95% of what you say on a daily basis.

If it is true, this is way less than I thought. Three thousand words does not sound impossible; quite the contrary. And if you can say 95% of what you want to say in your daily life one could argue that you speak the language.

A sub-advice he gives is to focus on your "toolbox" of words. This means phrases like "What is this?" ("Qu'est-ce que c'est ?" in French, believe it or not), "What does this mean?", etc. This gives an excellent foundation and enables you to communicate and learn much quicker because you don't need to leave the language to ask these questions — Big recommendation from me as well.

5. Get yourself a language parent.#

Chris uses the word parent to hint that babies learn languages this way. One could also say a mentor. A mentor should be a person that is genuinely interested in you as a person and somebody who helps you to communicate. The goal is a safe environment where you can speak comfortably. He claims this concept is successful as it is used by billions of parents all over the world, and all of their kids are able to speak in the end — A convincing argument for me.

I totally agree with this one. I had several mentors throughout my French adventure, and it is the biggest boost for language learning, in my opinion. One of my mentors was a good French friend with whom I started speaking only in French from the day I moved there.

It was hard initially, but he did not get tired of helping me out when I was looking for words, and my proficiency in French increased noticeably every week. There are many ways to find these mentors: friends, online dating, sports clubs, work colleagues; you name it.

6. Copy the face.#

This supposedly makes it easier to copy the native accent. I tried this once in high school to fake a British accent, and it really worked. I have yet to do more experiments, but it's an interesting idea I will pursue further.

7. Directly connect to mental images.#

Don't translate from one language into another in your head. Connect the idea, the image, the feeling directly to the word in the new language, like it is connected to the word in your native language.

This is great advice and also one of the many mistakes made by schools over and over. Vocabulary lists are one negative example. They incentivize translating in your head, among other problems they have.

In my experience, it is a habit to translate in the head. The same is true for actively doing the exact opposite. I'm trying to make it a habit to connect the words directly to the ideas they represent, and I'm seeing two benefits:

  1. The respective words started popping into my mind whenever I saw something or thought about an abstract idea.
  2. I started to have a feeling about when which word is appropriate. Many words have very similar meanings, like walking and marching in English. Still, there is a difference; sometimes, you can't use one where you can use the other. I'm sure there is always an explanation / a rule for these cases, but that doesn't help when you're in the middle of saying a sentence. The feeling is instantaneous and almost always right, so go for it.


Chris' talk was eye-opening for me. It put into words better than I ever could many vague feelings I had about language learning in these past couple of months. Of all the tips he gave, I like the one with the mentor best. It has helped me a lot with French while also being very nice from a social perspective. If you take one of the ideas presented here home, make it this one.