A Guide to Learning a Language – In Theory

A Guide to Learning a Language – In Theory

Tour_de_babelYou may have heard of Ted Talks – you maybe an avid follower of new speakers or it’s something we are introducing to you, in essence TED talks help spread brilliant ideas, findings, knowledge. For us this talk was of particular interest as well as 9.6 million other viewers:


If you don’t have time to watch it on YouTube, then don’t worry we’ve summarised it for you.The speaker Chris Lonsdale gave some specifics on the Theories and Principles of Learning a Language – any language.

Four Words – explain as the learning process, four interconnected ‘mental paths’;

  1. Attention
  2. Meaning
  3. Relevance
  4. Memory

In order to learn, you must attend a teachable moment, you must pay attention and notice what it is you are to learn.  You will only learn if it’s relevant to your wants or needs.  If it’s relevant then you will remember it (memory).


As well as the process, Lonsdale says that our learning journey is underpinned by 5 principles;

  1. Relevant – Focus on language content that is relevant to you. Language is a tool and we master tools by using them in ways that benefit us. A typist uses a keyboard to type text quickly and accurately, a MOBA player uses a mouse and keyboard to deploy game troops and tactics.
  1. Use it – Use the new language as a tool for communicating from Day One. Use it and keep using what you have. This not only helps you learn but it opens you up to richer interactions that will accelerate your learning.
  1. Comprehension – When you first understand the message you will unconsciously acquire the language. Make an effort to communicate, you might not have the language skills to communicate linguistically but facial expressions, pantomime, hand waving can get the job done. The comprehension of the message will install the language in your brain.
  1. Input – Your brain filters for things it understands. If you haven’t worked to listen and hear (or see) the language you will be deaf to it. Languages.are.not.spoken.with.distinct.gaps.between.words. Without working to hear the language you will not be able to make out the words or sounds let alone reproduce them.
  1. State – Manage your learning state. When you are learning you will do better to learn in a state that promotes learning.


So we have the process and the principles, now we need a little action, in fact Lonsdale summarises 7 actions we can take to learn a language.

1.Immerse Yourself in the Language

Let is wash over you, let it flow through your mind. Absorb its patterns, sounds and nuances.Recognise it and let your brain familiarise itself to it.

2.Get the Meaning First

Get the meaning first, even before you get the words. If you get the meaning first you can then learn the language. Immerse yourself in the language

3.Start Mixing

Use the words you learn to say new things. Mix them in new ways, be creative and experiment. It doesn’t matter if it’s “correct” just so long as it gets the job done. Who knows, natives might think you’re a street poet.

Every day communication uses fewer words than is often assumed. Well, a few thousand, but in language terms it’s really not a lot. Focus on the core words and leave stuff like disestablishmentarian for later. Much, much later.

4.Get a Language Parent.

This can be a tricky step. Uses words the learner knows a Language Parent understands you and gets your mistakes. They work to understand you. They do not correct mistakes instead will feedback by confirming their understanding then using the correct language.

5.Get in the Right State

The final principle is state. Psycho-physiological state. 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.

Also 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 just like the rest of the human race – you’re not perfect. If you’re comfortable with just getting some understanding, and just paying attention to what you do understand, you’re going to be fine, you’ll be relaxed and you’ll be learning quickly.

6.Copy the Faces and the Body Language

Imitate the facial expressions used in the language. All languages rely on facial expressions to very large degree and on body language to some degree. Sign languages needless to say absolutely depend on expressions and body language carrying tone as well as meaning.

See and hear how the language feels. Feel how the language looks / sounds. Watch how the language moves the speakers body. Train to feel, hear and see the language. Other languages often use sounds, mouth shapes and body language that you never would, and in some cases are not even aware of.

Pronunciation and accents are a big part of this. Often a person barely even hears the difference between what they say and what they are hearing. When they do comprehend the new, unfamiliar sounds they can’t reproduce them because they are not used to the mouth patterns required. In sign language the movement, flow and degree of your movements can distinctly mark you out as a native or taught signer.

In general your need is to be understood, passing off as a native is a very long term goal. Good use of face and body language will provide a lot of communication and context.

7.Connect the language to your ideas.

Don’t connect or apply the new language to your own language. This may sound odd but sound can be the problem. When we see, hear, feel or experience something the idea or understanding of it blossoms in our minds unbidden. We don’t look at something then say or sign the words in our minds and then comprehend what it is. When we hear or see language the recognise sound of language (in our minds), process it and experience its connection to meaning and memory.

Translating a language sound to another language sound is certainly doable. In the case of sign language taking the meaning and reforming the visual input in our minds to produce the language sound is also doable but hardly efficient or simple. This path slows our learning process down and worst of all leaves you thinking in the manner and style of your own language. This is going to ruin your understanding and mastery of the new language.


So that’s it, in a nutshell – a 4-step process with  5 clear simple principles and 7 positive actions.

You are now ready to start learning a language and if British Sign Language or Deaf Blind Communication takes your fancy you could try our courses;

Level 1 Deaf Blind Awareness– March

Level 2 Deaf Blind Communication  – April

Level 3 Deaf Blind Communication – June

Level 1 British Sign Language – September

Level 2 British Sign Language – September

Level 3 British Sign Language – September

Level 4 British Sign Language – October

Level 6 British Sign language   – May & September

Level 6 Interpreting Dev Part 1 – May & September

Level 6 Interpreting Dev Part 2  – May & September

We wish you success with learning your next language.


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