Three ways to language hack your brain

A few months ago, we stumbled upon an amazing video on the Science of Memory by Gabriel Wyner, an American opera singer who learned French in 5 months. In the video, Wyner provides an interesting account of how and why we memorize words and concepts. In August, he released “Fluent Forever”, a book in which he explains not only memorization, but also how to “language hack your brain”. It is one of the most accessible, practical and entertaining books about language learning we have had the pleasure to read.


If you want to learn the language (or any language for that matter), this book is a must read. Not only is the book written in everyday language, it is also full of tips and tricks. Here are key things from the book we found that can help you hack your brain to learn a language.

Learn in context
Most people think that the challenge in language learning is being able to remember new words. According to Wyner, the trick is that you don’t actually try to memorize the word. The book provides an interesting account that highlights how our memory doesn’t work in isolation but requires a boost in making sure things, like words, stick. Usually, you might see a word you would like to remember and might repeat it several times in your head to memorize it. Instead, Wyner says that words are more likely to stick if used or heard in a specific context or environment. Such a learning happens when the context is memorable, the author gives the example of testing and remembering the word “Moktor”, a viscous, foul, green drink in a bar somewhere in Scandinavia instead of learning it in the classroom.

Focus on High-Frequency Words
While our brain’s capacity may have limitless potential, in reality our ability to memorize and recognize words in a language has its limits. Determining which words are most useful to remember can help to increase the process of learning a language. For instance, in your mother tongue and in any new language, there are certain words that are used much more frequently than others. Obviously, these words should be the first ones to focus on. Once these words come to you with ease, you can continue building on your vocabulary.

Students learning French often ask us how many words they should learn. This usually depends on what level they want to reach and how they intend on applying the language. Wyner found that when learning the top thousand words of a language such as French, people will understand nearly 85% of the words heard and 75% of the words read. Learning the next top thousand words will give a 5% boost to reading and listening. In order to reach total comprehension of a language, you can either keep learning more and more words or to specialize and focus on a few words at a time and build up your capacity to progress in the language.

Make use of the new technology
We often believe that as we grow older, the ability to learn quickly slows down partially due to our brain’s development. Yet, like Wyner, we believe that we’re in an age where we can continue this learning with new technology such as language apps, automated repetition systems and online language exchange sites. As adults we can make use of free online resources, such as duolinguo, a game-like environment for language learning and where you can track your progress, Anki, an automated repetition system that allows you to create and review your own flashcards, or Italki, a platform where you can find language partners for free anywhere in the world.

Set realistic goals and tasks
People learning French often tell us that they want to become fluent in the language. While this is a definite goal to strive for when learning any language, language learners also have to play an active part in their own language journey. This means defining, from the start, what does fluency mean? Does it mean speaking and understanding at a conversational level, doing business, watching a TV show or film, writing a letter or giving a presentation at a university?

Language learning goals should also take into consideration the languages you already know, the language you are learning, daily constraints, time available to learn, and willingness to speak to other people (other than your teacher). Taking active steps can significantly improve learning time. For Wyner this includes creating your own learning material, such as flash cards, which incorporates images, words, sounds and personal memories to every word or phrase you learn. He believes that when you embrace learning by creating something, it becomes a part of you – each word needs to become your word, each grammar rule your grammar rule.

Language learning takes time, patience, a bit of innovation. It’s not just about reading and memorizing. Take a break from the books, apply your new language skills to your own experience, get out and interact with people and the environment around you. You’ll be a language hacker in no time.

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