[Editor's Note: This guest post was written by Brian Kwong, who is currently developing a language learning app, Genius+]
Living in a foreign country does not mean that you will magically speak a new language.
I am a living proof of this, since my wife Julia and I moved to Austria almost two years ago.
I couldn’t speak any German because I resisted to learn German while living in Austria.
Until Julia, my father-in-law (Papa), and I went on an epic 8-day, 96-mile hike, climbing 9,186 feet through the Austrian Alps (at right).
Since Papa cannot speak a word of English, Julia was doing all the translation during the entire hiking trip. I just thought that it was not very cool on my part.
Even though Papa took me to a torture museum the first time I met him 8 years ago, he had accepted me, a Chinese American, into his traditional Austrian family with open arms.
So by the end of our hiking trip, I decided that it was finally time for me to learn German.
After I came home from the trip, I started doing research on what is the best and fastest way to learn a new language.
Fortunately, I saw Tim Ferriss’ tweet:
Below are the five hacks that I discovered throughout my challenge and how you can apply them to your language learning, too.
1. The “P&F Stakes” Hack
“Julia, why don’t you tell your dad to pretend to put me in a head lock and then you take a picture? It would be fun and it will motivate me to learn German.”
I said to Julia as we were waiting for the train to get back home after our hiking trip. Julia spoke some German, then Papa got this big grin on his face.
Before I knew it, his giant arm was wrapped around my neck and at the same time, I heard a “pop” sound coming from my neck as he tighten his grip.
My veins were popping out on my face, Papa wasn’t fooling around!
I thought, either Julia did not translate the word “pretend” or Papa completely ignored it because it didn’t feel very nice, but at least he had a good time.
After I decided to take on the Learn German in 3 Months Challenge, to make it even more fun and interesting, I told Papa about it. I said that on Day 91, I will have a 15 minute conversation with him in German.
At the end of the conversation, Papa, his wife Gabi, and Julia will judge if I passed the challenge or not. If I did not, I will have to live with Papa and do house work like cleaning the toilet and shoveling snow for a week!
They immediately burst into laughter and kept nodding their heads after Julia’s translation.
Little did I know, creating a big enough stake with some pain and fun (P & F) became the driving force and the motivation for me to grind through the ups and downs of learning a new language during my 3 month challenge.
“A goal without real consequences is wishful thinking. Good follow-through doesn’t depend on the right intentions. It depends on the right incentives.”
-Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Chef
In the Meta Learning section of Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Chef, “stake” is one of the foundations of his four-part formula on how to become world-class in just about anything in six months or less. (We are just adding some P & F sauce on it!)
2. The “Self Diagnostic” Hack
Three months is a very short time to learn a new language from scratch, so everything I do around language learning has to be effective and consistent. About halfway through my challenge, I noticed that I was very consistent with certain tasks but not so consistent with others.
For example, I was consistently showing up on time to meet with my language partners to practice speaking German, but I was not consistently memorizing 30 German phrases a day.
Since learning new phrases and vocabulary is a huge part of learning a new language, I had to figure out how I can get myself to nail 30 phrases every day. I already know that I have amazing Mac software called Genius that works simply and effectively (and recommended by Maneesh), so the tool is not the problem.
Instead of beating myself up, asking “Why am I such a lazy ass and not doing the work?”
I asked, “Why am I consistently showing up and meeting with my language partners?”
After some self reflection, I figured out why…because at the end of every meeting, my language partner and I will set up a time for the next meeting. Since I had agreed on a time to meet with my language partner and he is expecting me to be there, I consistently show up and do the work.
The key is, a meeting involves someone else at a specific time, where as memorizing and learning phrases alone on my computer does not. I can do it whenever I want, which usually translates to “later”, meaning “No work gets done.”
Once you self diagnose why you do something consistently without fail, you can then apply this to whatever is not working.
3. The “Ride What Works” Hack
Why I consistently show up to meet my language partners without fail is because:
- “Someone expects me to be there at a specific time”
- “I don’t want to let my friends down”
I have more reasons, but these are the biggest two why I show up on time and do the work. So now I needed to find a way to incorporate this diagnostic in my daily memorization routine:
“What fun ways can I come up with, applying these two elements, so I can get my ass to learn and memorize 30 German phrases every day?”
An idea came to mind and I put it into action right away:
I shared what I realized in Hack #2 at 1 min 27 sec. I announced that I will learn and memorize 30 German phrases a day with Genius and broad-cast it LIVE to the public at 9 am everyday.
Here is the first day of me doing this:
(Memorizing starts at 9 min 49 sec)
I was fully aware that the chance of someone watching me to struggle and memorize 30 phrases was very slim, but by putting myself in this position, people expected me to do it.
And who knows, someone may come and check on me at any minute! (1-5 people watched me when I was memorizing and learning everyday!) This is the same psychology as, if you have to perform to an audience who came just to see you everyday, would you show up and do the work? Of course you would!
I started this 22 days before my conversation with Papa in German and I did it 20 out of 22 days, including Saturday and Sunday…which was a hell of a lot more consistent than the previous 2 months and imagine if I did this from Day 1!
So whatever hacks got you to do the work without fail, be creative and ride it like there is no tomorrow.
4. The “Team Sport” Hack
Relationship is a team sport.
Business is a team sport.
And learning a language is definitely a team sport.
Here is what I mean:
Being married to a German-speaking wife definitely helps but early on in the challenge, I realized that I cannot rely on practicing German only with Julia.
It was very hard to switch from English to German, because we have been speaking English together for more than 7 years, and listening to a variety of German accents will help me to understand better.
So I jumped on Mixxer (again recommended by Maneesh!), a free website for language exchanges via Skype on Day 9. After using Mixxer for 5 minutes, I found a language partner from Germany and we started practicing right away!
Below is a step by step video of how I did that:
Practicing speaking German was a big part of the plan and I definitely would not get have gotten very far without my awesome language partners.
Monika is a friend who is a German teacher living close by us in Austria. She watched our video about why I took on the Learn German in 3 Months Challenge and she was so stoked about it, she made EVERY SINGLE ONE of her students watch my video in class. (Poor students!)
12 of her students then created a project to teach me German twice a week in the last month of my challenge to help me accomplish my goal of speaking with Papa on Day 91.
Benny Lewis created this awesome site called Fluent In 3 Months on unconventional methods of language learning and a really great forum where people around the world can post and update their progress on their language challenge (He calls it “Language Mission”).
Baron Jon Johnson started the Zero to Fluent in 90 Days Challenge in Chinese at about the same time as me. Even though I never met him in person, I felt like we climbed a mountain together as a team.
Finally, I wouldn’t have started this challenge if I didn’t see Tim Ferriss’ tweet, which led me to Zenhabits and the “How to Learn a Language in 90 days” post written by Maneesh.
Everyone who I mentioned here contributed to my language challenge and were part of my team even if they didn’t know it. Yes, maybe I could have completed the challenge all alone, but there is no doubt that it would have taken way more work, my learning would not have been as effective and definitely A LOT more boring if I learned a language all by myself.
Who do you really need on your team? For me, two language partners and one teacher to show you how the grammar works.
At the end of the day, our end goal is to use a new language to connect with new people, so involving people in your language learning journey will do nothing but wonders for you.
5. The Sh*t Happens Hack
Well, this is not really a hack, it’s more like a fact. During the 3 months in my challenge:
Our beloved dog died. Had to fire our programmer. Hired a new programmer. Had an awesome road trip to Germany, met my language partners in person. Got a new puppy in Germany (a lot more work than I thought to raise a puppy!). Didn’t feel like learning German on many occasions.
Ups and downs are going to happen no matter what you do during your language challenge or in life, but it’s all about setting a goal that is worth your time pursuing. Have tons of fun and enjoy the “highs” on your way to your goal.
And when sh*t hits the fan, use the hacks in this post to help you figure out how to get yourself back on track and continue to turn your worthwhile goal into reality one step at a time.
Before my challenge, I could not speak ANY German. I resisted for 1.5 years while living in a German-speaking country.
On Day 91, I had a fun conversation with Papa and I connected with my father in law for the first time ever.
If I can do this with a language I had no passion for, I have no doubt that you can learn to speak a language you have always wanted to speak in 90 days too =)
Now Over To You!
How will you apply what you learned in this post in your language learning or in your life in 2013? Let us know in the comments below!
About Brian and Julia
Brian and Julia are developing Genius+, an iOS app based on Genius, the Mac software which helped Brian to memorize German phrases in his 3 months challenge. If you would like to help Brian and Julia beta test Genius+ and get updates on language learning tips, you can sign up here.
The Best Way to Learn a Language in 3 Months (video version of “How to Learn a Language in 90 Days” plus Julia slapping me in the video)
How to Learn a Language in 90 Days on Zenhabits
How to Get the Most Out of Your Language Partner – Maneesh’s awesome Video Series (Optin in required) *Do you want to use your Zenhabit optin page?*
Genius – SRS memorization app for Mac
Genius+ – SRS memorization app for iPad and iPhone (in development but you can sign up for beta)
Fluent In 3 Months by Benny Lewis – unconventional ways of language learning
Fluent In 3 Months Forum – A great forum where you can get inspiration and support
Mixxer – a free website for language exchanges via skype
Zero to Fluent in 90 days – Just another regular guy like me who took on a 90 days language challenge in Chinese, if we can do it, you can too =)