How to hack your brain and switch to a new language


I found an interesting article recently about the “switch” in the brain that occurs when you achieve fluency in another language. Everybody’s brain can train itself to the point of achieving this “switch”, which allows you to start thinking in the target language, allowing you to achieve fluency faster.

The trick, as with any other skill, is practice – and a lot of it. The article talks about learning Irish Gaelic and Icelandic – two languages with relatively few speakers – but the same rules and techniques hold true for any language that you want to learn.

From the article:

The language switch is not built, it is trained. As Vince Lombardi said, Perfect practice makes perfect. Keep on drilling standard phrases. For example, something I usually do is saying to myself Komdu sæll og blessaður! when I pass a man by the street and komdu sæl og blessuð! when I pass a woman. These are two common greetings in Icelandic, and you need to get used to the correct form for men and women. The best way to make it part of you is just to drill it in some funny way like this, until it is as natural as saying Hello!

You can also use old business cards (or here in Spain train tickets, which are credit card sized) to practise verb conjugation. Write in the blank side of one the conjugation of ‘to be’ (in Icelandic, að vera, in Irish ) and put it in your pocket. Whenever you have a few spare seconds, like waiting in queue to pay at the store or waiting for the street light to turn green (as a pedestrian), take a look at it and repeat them to yourself. You will be amazed how easily this hard-wires constructs into your brain.

You can extend these “cheap ‘n easy” drilling techniques to harder stuff like conditional forms, future, colors, numbers and whatever just by sheer persistence and a constant playful spirit. Throw a few dices and say the number they spell. Count your pocket money in Irish. Plan your weekend in Icelandic. Be creative! If what you really want is being able to communicate, being playful is a must.

As my Chinese teacher so often tells me, “interesting is the best teacher”. If you make your language learning as fun and interesting as you can, with plenty of regular practice anybody can achieve fluency. It’s certainly a daunting prospect, but it’s certainly the best way of going about the task at hand.