Stories and Science for Better Foreign Language Learning

Habitual Learning: The Key to Foreign Language Acquisition

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It’s impossible to learn a foreign language unless you are able to maintain some level of motivation to learn over a certain period. Unfortunately we lose motivation from time to time.

Even better than using the up’s and down’s of motivation to drive your language learning, the end goal should be to build a habit or routine. Create a habit where your studies are just something you do daily like brushing your teeth, having lunch or getting dressed in the morning.

While we are big fans of using short language learning sprints to attack foreign language acquisition, these “language hacks” won’t work unless you stick to it. You gotta hit the “gym” everyday. You gotta do your rep’s to strengthen your memories. You gotta consume the best materials to expose yourself to the most important stuff you want to learn. You gotta get good sleep too.

Ideally you should aim to study everyday or at least every few days. On Day 1, you start building a chain and you should aim to keep building that learning chain with each additional day. Eventually that chain of days spent studying your new foreign language will get so long that you’ll have a pang of regret if you miss or nearly miss a day of study.

Frankly, once you get going, you won’t want to break that chain so you’ll keep studying.

Languages Lost and Found: What to Do With ‘Old’ Languages I’ve Stopped Actively Studying?

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Almost miraculously I managed to speak basic Burmese. After having spent several weeks “hacking Burmese,” I got through quite a few basic conversations during my travels in Myanmar at the end of Dec 2013. I can’t claim any high level fluency but equipped with 150 words and phrases, I could bumble my way through situational dialogues. It also made my trip to Burma wicked funny-interesting at time too!

So, what to do now with my Burmese?

I’m no longer in Burma, have no Burmese friends and am not planning to travel there. This arguably is not a great situation to motivate me to maintain or continue learning Burmese.

At the same time, it’s painful, after a study hiatus, to feel the loss of memories, to know that you once knew how to say something but now it is simply a blank.

Even worse are those times when someone asks you what you can say in that language and you don’t remember much of anything.

Hackable and Hackability When Considering Learning a Foreign Language

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Over the last 5 or 6 months, I’ve attempted to “hack” four Asian languages, namely Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese and, most recently, Korean. Obviously in that span of time, one can’t master a language, but in my case that was never the main objective.

My main goal was to “hack” said-language in order to achieve certain liveable language fluency or just attempt to “spark” the vocabulary acquisition part. In turn, this initial hack would allow me to jump start latter, deeper learning.

My secondary goal in learning these four and eventually five languages (I started on Malay too!) was to understand more about language learning process in general. Long-term, this understanding of language learning will help me as a technologist build some cool tools to help language learners like myself. (Hopefully more on this in an upcoming post!)

During this process, I’ve also come to become very aware of the fact that some languages are by their very nature (and lack of relationship to one’s native tongue) much less easily hacked than others. Tonal languages like Thai and Vietnamese are tough to accurately pronounce even after weeks of study. Some languages are more “hackable” than others in the sense that you can get up and running in the language much faster.

At the same time, even the hardest languages are hackable, since well… all language are hackable in the sense that you can improve how you learn in order to improve your learning efficiency and time to acquire mastery of vocabulary, skills, etc.

Two of the most important things I’ve learned from these hacking language challenges is that:

  1. Not all languages are as hackable as others
  2. All languages are hackable

Let’s look at these two points.

The Spark of Stories and Science for Better Foreign Language Learning

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It’s time to talk more about how we can better improve language learning. There are a lot bad advice and some good advice out there on what it takes to learn a foreign language. There is a lot of misconceptions and confusions on how to learn better.

It’s time to put the science and data on our side and make language learning better and more efficient. We need to share stories and use science.

This is my “hello world” post for

I’m Mark Koester and you can find my presence scattered about the web including on Twitter.

I’m passionate about language learning and improving language learning. I’ve been “experimenting” with language learning myself for the past several years. I consider myself fluent in French, Spanish and Chinese, though there is some room for improvement in Spanish and Chinese.

I’ve also been “experimenting” with education-related technologies and websites. There are number of great sites and apps out there for improving language learning. I even built my own a few years ago at, while, while no longer active, taught me a lot. Personally, I think are still great technologies and communities to be built for the improvement of language learning.

Recently, on my personal blog, I’ve been writing quite a bit about “Hacking Language”. While primarily story-telling about my process learning Korean, Burmese and other languages, I’ve also shared quite a few pointers about the best way to learn a foreign language in general. I’ve also made a point to track my learning time to help establish some parameters to answer the eternal language learning question: How long does it take to learn X language?

Unfortunately, I think the science, data and reasoning behind many of the best language learning and learning technologies remains rather obscured. I want to dispel the myths and help establish the facts and stats on how to learn the various foreign languages out there.

I’m also a technologist at heart, so I’m also in the process of building a new tool to help the language learner but tracking what you are learning, how long you spent studying and hopefully eventually guide each and every learner towards an optimal learning path.

We need to share these stories. We also need to make it clearer exactly what it takes to learn a foreign tongue.

Language learning is a bit like climbing a mountain. My goal is to help be your guide; to make sure you are climbing the right mountain and staying on target to reach the top.

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