languages learning skill development

How to Hack Languages

November 21, 2017

Anyone aspiring to live a polymathic lifestyle should be able to speak a foreign language. Far from being a skill limited to young children as some people still believe, there is nothing stopping adults from learning languages. There are even those who claim that there are actually advantages to learning languages as an adult as you are more likely to understand grammar rules and sentence construction accelerating language acquisition.

Learning a foreign language has numerous benefits alongside allowing you to discover different cultures and new ways of thinking. Research has demonstrated there are a variety of cognitive benefits to language learning helping to prevent the onset of neurodegenerative diseases.

Personally, I’ve never found language learning easy and have often struggled with motivating myself to make progress. I’ve found the best way of combating this lack of progress was to find unconventional tools and methods to help me to get to grips with them. These are some of the methods I’ve found helpful in my language learning journey as well as specific resources in tools I’ve used or heard good things about.

Speak First

Ultimately languages are about communication. The problem is that when you’re learning a language through a course or textbook is that often you are doing the exact opposite. Language learning is frequently antisocial when socializing is the primary motivation for learning it in the first place.
It’s very unlikely that you’re trying to learn a language because you like practicing grammar. When you start by learning grammar it’s very difficult to keep up motivation and as a result, many people give up at this stage before they’ve even communicated a word. In fact, you don’t even need grammar to begin to communicate with someone in a language. Just by using simple phrases without any tenses or conjugation you can often make yourself understood. You can then worry about making progress on grammar later when you have more context and have already begun speaking your target language.

Even if you don’t have anyone to talk to at any given moment, you can still benefit from speaking to yourself in the language. This will help you to practice improvising when constructing sentences as well as reviewing the vocabulary and grammar you use.

When you are speaking try to constantly practice using new grammar constructions or words. I found it helpful to make a habit out of attempting to use a newly learned word in sentences throughout that day to strengthen the neural connections in my brain facilitating memorization.

Be smart about memorization

The most common approach to memorizing material has often been route memorization. This requires constantly reviewing new material until eventually, it sticks in your brain.

This approach to memorization is highly inefficient and requires significant time and effort before it’ll allow something to stick in your mind.

By spending some time learning about how your mind remembers material best you can significantly increase how much new vocabulary you are able to retain while reducing the time spent learning it.

You can do this by experimenting with memory techniques such as attaching funny images and stories to memories.

This is particularly easy with Chinese as demonstrated by the book Chineseasy which transforms Chinese characters into memorable pictures. You can also do this with Spanish and other languages creating memorable stories. A great tool to manage these associations is Memrise.


Build habits to ensure that you’re making regular progress

Maintaining motivation is one of the key skills you’ll need to live a polymathic lifestyle. This is no exception when it comes to language learning where a daily practice is essential. Communicating in another language is not at all conducive to cramming, and instead, requires you to commit.

For this reason, it’s important that you discipline yourself. Furthermore, Benny Lewis who founded the popular language learning blog Fluent in 3 Months and author of the book of the same name suggests not starting another language until reaching at least B2 level in order to prevent confusion and ensuring you don’t forget what you learned.

Try and set aside a certain amount of time every day you plan to devote to your language learning practices. Be sure to try and focus on different areas of learning whether that be speaking, grammar (which eventually you will have to do), listening skills or learning new vocabulary.

Try not to use translations

Using monolingual dictionaries allows you to learn words organically without having to translate the word in your head to English to understand it. You can also get this effect with learning from native speakers. When hiking in the mountains with Chinese friends I noticed them shouting “mógu” whenever a patch of mushrooms appeared. This way of learning is how we learn as children and while it can be counter-productive trying to learn skills such as grammar like this an adult, it can be helpful with vocabulary.

Harness the Pareto Principle

The best language learners know that they don’t need to learn many words when starting out with a new language. The Pareto Principle states that 20% of the input leads to 80% of the outcome. This is particularly clear with language learning in terms of the number of words required to get to grips with conversation.

In Spanish for example, learning the 1,000 most frequently used words (and word-lists for these are available online) will be enough to cover a massive 87.8% of oral speech. If you focus your learning on these frequent words you will rapidly be able to communicate as opposed to learning without such precision.


Best Tools

There are many language learning tools and resources available which can make it easier to follow these tips on how to learn best. One trap, however, that a language learner will often fall into is always switching between new tools and resources in a search for the best possible tool. The short answer to this search is that there is no magic bullet to language learning and the best way to make progress requires regular, disciplined work regardless of the tool that you are using.

Anki is one of our favorite applications for learning anything, and it is particularly good for memorizing vocabulary and simple phrases. It’s free to use on Android, Desktop, and Web (you have to pay for the iOS app) and in very basic terms, it is smart flashcards application. The tool utilizes the principle of spaced interval repetition to test you on material just as you’re about to forget it to ensure that you are able to memorize information in the most time-efficient way. There are Anki decks for many subjects and languages available online, although you’re probably best off creating your own which in itself is a good way to expose yourself to the content you want to master.

Duolingo which allows you to learn a variety of different languages for free including most European languages as well as others like Turkish and Vietnamese. Many people have found it much more useful than expensive paid options like Rosetta Stone and it’s definitely worth trying out if they offer your desired language before shelling out for an expensive alternative. They have just launched Chinese, although I’m yet to try using it.

Memrise is a useful tool for learning vocabulary. It’s based on the idea of creating memorable stories or images around a new piece of information you want to learn. It was founded by a world memory champion who was also featured in the book Moonwalking with Einstein which is one of our top recommended books.


Lang8 is a platform that allows you to submit text that you’ve written in your target language and receive corrections by native speakers on what you did wrong.

iTalki is the best tool I’ve found for finding language teachers online. I’ve used it for finding tutors in both Spanish and Chinese to intensively practice conversational and listening skills. Even living in Beijing I found that often conversations in the real world covered many of the same areas when I might want to practice talking about a more obscure and potentially boring subject. Additionally getting my Chinese friends to ruthless correct every mistake I made was often an impossible task thanks to a combination of politeness and apathy on their part.

There are also a few language-specific tools I’ve found helpful in my personal language learning journey which I’d also like to recommend. I’ve only made serious attempts at learning Spanish and Chinese so, for now, my suggestions are limited to these.



  • Free online dictionary letting you see example sentences and hear the pronunciation of words.


  • Unlimited tutoring in Spanish for the set price of $129 a month. If you study intensively you could save yourself a fortune on teachers.
  • Although I haven’t personally used BaseLing, I plan to definitely give it a try in the future to try and take my Spanish to the next level.
  • They offer an impressive money-back guarantee where they’ll not only give you a full refund but also $20 if you’re not satisfied.

CoffeeBreak Spanish

  • Free audio course teaching Spanish assuming no previous knowledge. It’s a great way to practice speaking and listening as long as you don’t mind sounding like you’re talking to yourself when you’re listening on the bus.



  • The best Chinese dictionary app available for iOS and Android. The basic version is free but you can also upgrade to a version with more functionality including the ability to scan characters using your camera and a more advanced flashcard studying tool.


  • Tool for studying Chinese characters which allows you to draw the characters either with your cursor or your finger with the iOS and Android apps.
  • Monthly subscription for $14.99


  • Practice your Chinese listening skills with short audio episodes allowing you to learn new words and grammar.
  • Monthly subscriptions start at $14


  • Free tool for looking up the components that make-up characters. Very useful in helping to memorize a character and creating a memorable story around it.

The Chairmans Bao

  • App and online platform containing thousands of news articles in Chinese graded according to HSK levels.
  • Allows you to test your comprehension skills with short tests after articles to improve your reading ability.
  • Monthly subscriptions start at $10



Polymath Show

We explore how to become a polymath in the modern age, using experimentation, accelerated learning and smart tools to get good at everything. Join us to in our mission to embrace generalization and generate more innovative ideas.


Recent Posts