Learning a language is kind of like a video game.
I mean kind of, not exactly the same,
but let me explain.
[tranquil piano music]
I’m not a big gamer.
I’ve played my fair share of Super Smash Brothers,
but that was like when I was a teenager.
But lately, I’m getting back into it.
We got a Nintendo Switch.
I’ve been playing it with my boys.
Zelda, this cool game called Cardo
has to do with maps, good times.
Another thing I’ve been doing during quarantine
is not traveling.
Last fall when I started realizing
that COVID wasn’t going away,
I would not be traveling anytime soon.
I decided to get my travel buzz
by learning a new language, Italian.
The language that is spoken in my favorite region on Earth
right up here.
Four months ago, I didn’t speak a word of Italian
and today, (speaking foreign language).
So I’ve been driving back from work
and speaking to myself in Italian.
I am feeling my head.
There’s like a physical buzzing that happens.
(speaking foreign language)
For the past three months,
I’ve been studying Italian in the morning
and playing video games with my kids at night.
I recently started to realize how some of the major lessons
from video games can be applied to learning a new language
and to do so in a much more efficient way
than was taught to us in school.
By the end of this video, I want to explain this concept
of video games and language learning
and I want to give you my best takeaways
on teaching yourself a new language.
So back to video games.
My favorite video games are ones with maps.
You’d be surprised,
“he’s a big map guy. He loves maps”
I know, I’m like a walking cliche.
I just like maps.
So if learning a language is sort of like a video game,
here’s the map of the video game.
This is the learning language journey.
You start here knowing nothing about your new language
and your goal is to beat the final boss–
this elusive idea of fluency.
In other words, when you start your Link
and you just woke up from 100 year nap
and you have three hearts and no weapons and no stamina
你有三颗心 没有武器 没有耐力
and no skills and no powers
and you don’t speak the language,
where you want to be is like this.
Having lots of skills and tools to navigate a conversation
with precision and skill and beat the game.
细致的谈话 掌握技巧 然后通关
In other words, to become fluent.
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.
This is a moment, this is a thing I need to distinguish,
a distinction we need to make.
What is fluency?
What does that even mean?
I’ll turn the question on you gamers out there.
What does it mean to beat a video game?
One person will tell you that beating a video game
means just beating the main storyline,
beating the main boss, Ganon, Bowser, whatever.
打败大boss 卡农 库巴 或者其他
I can already feel some of you shaking your heads
because there are lots of you out there that say no, no, no,
beating a video game means beating everything.
All of the challenges, all of the little things
like beating the shrines and getting all the Korok seeds
and all the other things that have nothing to do
with the main storyline.
“You have to beat them all or you haven’t beaten the game.”
So here’s where the connection between language learning
and the video game concept comes together.
When you’re learning a language in language school
or most formal programs, the map looks like this.
You start here knowing nothing
and the journey to beat the game to become fluent
is a long windy path with lots of gates
and trials and gatekeepers.
There are soldiers who are standing guard,
making sure that you beat them
before you go on to the next step.
You can’t progress along this path
until you’ve memorized how to conjugate
the present imperative tense including the irregular forms.
So you study them, you study, study, study
所以你不断学习 学习 学习
just to make it pass this first gatekeeper.
You don’t even really know what present imperative means
but you look at the book, you memorize it
and you do what you need to do to show up
and pass the test so that you can move on
to the next thing that they’re teaching you
in this school formal environment.
So then you move on and you get to the next gatekeeper
in the trial, which is you can’t move on
until you’ve memorized the subjunctive conjugations.
And you’re like what does subjunctive mean?
And it’s just like I don’t know,
but you need to go memorize it.
Oh, and memorize this random list
of 20 words that we think are important.
It’s the only way to fluency.
If you want to be fluent, you have to get through this gate.
“I’ll memorize the subjunctive.”
You keep going on your journey, passing the gatekeepers,
memorizing the concepts that are in the book
that the teacher is telling you
and the idea here is that if you beat
all of these gatekeepers and you memorize all these rules,
you make it to the final level
and you beat the final boss and then you are fluent.
The problem is this isn’t a fun video game.
It’s actually a grueling process
of memorizing abstract ideas.
So people don’t actually beat the video game very often.
They usually give up around here and they say F it
and they throw in the towel
and they feel like language learning is just not for them.
Meanwhile, some of us beat the game.
Like I actually beat the game in college.
I got a minor in French, like a minor.
Like I studied French through all of the levels
in college to get a minor.
I beat this game and I finally beat the final boss
and got here to the end of the map
and I had all the conjugations, the direct object pronouns,
the past conditional and auxiliary verbs and all of it.
过去式 助动词 学了所有知识点
And then I go to Paris and I go to order a baguette
and I realized that I literally don’t know
how to order a baguette in Paris
even though I have a minor in French.
There is nothing more disappointing than that, it’s sad.
Luckily, there’s a happy ending to this video,
this story that I’m telling you,
but right now, it’s just sad to think about getting a minor
但现在 很抱歉告诉你 上法语课
in French and then not actually being able to speak it.
I need a little bit of a change of pace,
I’m gonna crack open a bottle of wine.
Which begins the next segment
which is thanking today’s sponsor
who sent me a giant box full of literal wine.
Look at this.
Whoops, check this out.
This box arrived at my door two days ago.
Inside of the box, there are some really cool things.
So Bright Cellars who sponsored today’s video
sent me this box.
They had me take a quiz before on things that I like,
the type of food and the types of personality traits
I have like all this whole quiz.
And then they used the information from that quiz
to send me this box of wine.
What I like about this is because when I go to buy wine
at a store, I have no guidance,
like there’s no guidance for me.
I’m not super well-versed in all of the different variables
that make good wine.
I’d like to be, but it’s big and complicated
and for someone to automate that and to present it
in a way that’s fun
and like sort of empowering with information,
that’s actually my favorite part about the whole thing
is they will send me these cards for each bottle of wine
that has a little infographic on it.
I like infographics, that’s like my thing.
There’s maps and there is origins
and there’s a story about like where this came from.
There’s flavor notes if you’re into the flavor notes game.
For me, ritualistic things like cheese and wine
and all of it is way more enjoyable
if there’s a story associated with it.
Bright Cellars is giving 50% off,
which is half off for anyone who clicked the link
in my description for your first six bottles.
So you could sign up for this sweet thing,
get six bottles for 50% off and it’s a really good deal.
And again, the convenience, the information,
the experience of this is really cool.
I’m excited, I’m excited to explore this
and have some knowledge and story associated with it.
So thank you Bright Cellars for sponsoring this video.
Let’s get back to the story
of learning Italian through a video game map.
I beat the game.
I got here and realized that this version of fluency
was one where I had a deep understanding of French grammar.
I even had an understanding of its history,
I could read literature in French,
I could write properly,
I knew where all the accents went,
I even had a decent pronunciation
but I couldn’t speak the damn language.
When I traveled to France, wasn’t that the whole point?
For all you Zelda people out here,
let’s just say I had gathered all the Korok seeds
and beat all the shrines
but still hadn’t beat a single divine beast.
The thing that actually mattered to me,
the thing I wanted to do,
what if I decided that this
isn’t where I wanted to go at all?
This version of fluency wasn’t important.
This isn’t the game I want to play.
What if we decided to take a different approach,
a different path, a much simpler goal.
And what if that goal were as simple
as I want to be able to travel to a foreign country?
And be able to speak to the locals
and have them understand me
and be understood when they speak to me.
Is that revolutionary like no mastery of grammar,
no perfect pronunciation,
no ability to read and write with any elegance,
no literature or cultural history of the language,
just the ability to use words to communicate
and then to understand the response.
Nothing else, no (squeaky toy sound) Korok seeds.
I can already hear the comments.
“But you’re learning a language.
You have to know the grammar or you won’t be fluent.”
Or in other words,
if you don’t gather all the Korok seeds,
you didn’t beat the game.”
Listen, if my definition isn’t fluency for you,
I don’t want your fluency, I don’t need it.
I just want to be able to go on a trip
and speak to the locals and ask for directions
and have a conversation with a taxi driver and order food.
That is all I want.
I’m being a little snarky here
because the language learning community on the internet
has some very strong opinions and expectations
about what real language learning looks like.
You may see them in the comments telling me
that my Italian actually isn’t valid
because I don’t understand the past conditional tense.
Not sure how to respond to that,
but I reject your objection.
So a few months ago, I set out to test this out
to see what this destination looks like.
Not this, but this.
I learned a lot and ended up
making an entire course about it
with my friend Nathaniel Drew,
but I want to summarize the major things I learned
and share them with you.
[speaking foreign language]
Before I dive in and give you exactly the things I learned
in this process, let me do a few disclaimers
that might be helpful to some of you
who actually want to take away some value from this video.
Number one is that this is my experience.
It’s my experience,
it applies to me and my unique situation.
It worked well and it may work for you
and it may not work for you,
but don’t see this as like a plug and chug formula,
that is not what this is.
This is my perspective and my experience.
Number two, I want it to be clear
that I spoke literally zero Italian
in like October of last year.
I am fluent in Spanish, which is a romance language,
which is like a cousin to Italian and I did study French
in college as I’ve mentioned 57 times.
So I had some advantage
but the reality is I knew zero Italian.
I could say things like ciao and like that was it.
我可以说些类似于 你好 的话
That’s what matters, that’s what I care about.
I rejected this and I think there’s a better way.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy,
it means that it’s just more direct.
There are still trials,
they’re just the most efficient trials you need
and here they are.
Number one, not all words are created equal.
The first thing I did was to assess what are the most common
and useful 1,000 words in a language
and solely focus on those,
completely blocking out all others.
This isn’t a new concept.
Scholarly research shows that this is very useful
and history does too.
I last year was reading a lot
about American imperialism for obvious reasons
and I stumbled upon this wild story.
After World War II, the British
and Americans who had just won the war
wanted to spread the English language
throughout the whole world.
So they adopted a stripped down version
that they called basic.
They were carefully selected words.
There were the most frequently used
and most useful 850 words in the language.
By the way, English has like over 150,000 words.
And this language created by a linguist of English
was only 850 words
and they use this to go promulgate English around the world.
They’re like anyone in the world
can learn English very quickly
if they just have to learn these 850 words.
The inventor of the language once said quote
it takes 400 words of basic to run a battleship.
And with 850 words, you can run the planet.
He literally said that like this is an extreme version
of what I’m talking about here.
Some words are more important than others.
And if you just memorize those words,
those words that you actually are gonna use,
then you can like supercharge
your language learning process.
Now this is where my friend Nathaniel Drew
comes into the story.
Nathaniel is a guy who loves languages like I do
and he also believes in this more direct path.
So he’s challenged himself to learn as much
of a new language as quickly as he possibly can on his own.
By the way,
much to the chagrin of language learning internet communities
who love to say that people are learning languages the wrong way,
because it doesn’t fit their model.
In doing so, Nathaniel realized the same thing
that British and American governments realized in like the 40’s
that if you just prioritize the most vital words,
the ones that you actually use,
you can rapidly acquire a language
if you block out all of the words and only focus
on the most important.
Nathaniel had made a list
of what he deemed to be some of the most important words
for his life and for just everyday communication.
He gave me that list and I added to it.
I did a bunch of research on the data
of most frequently used words
and I put it together into a list of 1,000 words
that I think are the startup kit,
the most important words you need to memorize.
The ingredients, the building blocks of language.
This is the first step.
Before you do anything else,
memorize the most important words of a language.
How do you memorize all these words?
I’m not gonna go into it right now.
I have this box that I use that has all my words
and in the course that we made,
I go into exactly how this thing works.
It’s based on all the psychology that forces these words
into your long-term memory.
The point is memorize the most vital
frequently used words first,
and your life will be a lot easier
in learning this language.
I saw this just recently, like I went from knowing
zero words in Italian to within the first week
knowing 200 words of Italian.
You can’t speak super well
with just 200 words and no grammar,
but you can certainly start to express yourself.
[speaking foreign language]
I kept memorizing and soon I had like 500 words
and you won’t believe what 500 words
can do for your ability to communicate.
This gets to the second trial on our video game adventure,
which is start talking early.
Language isn’t math.
In math, there are laws.
If you break those laws, your equation won’t work.
You literally get the wrong answer.
There are wrong answers and right answers in math.
If my four year old son says two plus two equals 22,
I will say no, son, that’s wrong.
我会告诉他 不 不对噢
Two plus two equals four.
But if my son says yesterday, I eated a apple.
I wouldn’t say no son, yesterday you ate an apple.
我不会说 不对 昨天你吃了一个苹果
Get it right next time.
No, I wouldn’t say that.
The kid said words, I understood them
and it worked, that’s language, it isn’t math.
It’s an expressive part of our human experience
that is very intuitive and very flexible and messy
like human culture and relationships.
It is not math.
When we approach language like this,
we make language feel like math.
Like if we don’t get the conjugations correct,
it’ll be like we’re saying two plus two equals 22
and you’ll be totally wrong and no one will understand you.
And all that does is make you nervous and averse
to actually speaking in real time.
But watch this.
I’m about to show you me speaking Italian
a month and a half, six weeks after studying it,
going from zero words to a few 100 words
and trying to speak it.
Speaking with a native in Italy over Skype
and spoiler alert for those Italian speakers,
my grammar is horrible.
[speaking foreign language]
But guess what, she understood me.
I was communicating in a different language with somebody.
It’s not pretty,
it’s not linguistically correct, but it’s communication.
What I’m proposing is that this is the alternative path,
this is the goal, not getting the mathematical equations
of grammar and syntax correct.
As you memorize loads of words,
the next most important step is to get yourself speaking
as soon as possible.
You’ll have to do this eventually
if you want to speak the language
and it’s awkward and painful.
And so you should start early right away on week one
of learning the language and you should get on
one of these services
and start communicating with a native speaker.
And now I’m about to say something that actually pains me
which is after two months of this,
just memorizing tons of words
and having weekly Skype conversations with a native Italian,
I was speaking better Italian
more fluently than I was French.
I eclipsed my French capabilities from a verbal standpoint,
not from a grammar standpoint,
but from a verbal expressive standpoint
after two months, compared to four years of work.
I’m not saying it was fluent after two months,
I’m just saying that my experience after two months
was stronger than my four years of college French.
That’s like actually sad for me in some ways
because there’s so much time of me learning French
and there’s a better way.
In the course that I mentioned,
we go into a deep dive on all the types of activities
that I do in one of these sessions
with a native speaker that helps make it useful,
but I’m not gonna go into that right now.
Gate number three, you got to make this fun.
Another major thing missing from this model is fun.
Positive association is how it’s called
in behavioral psychology.
The idea that your brain wants to do something
if last time they did it, it was sort of fun.
Language learning is hard,
it requires many months and years.
How do you keep it up?
You make it interesting and fun.
Grammar drills and memorization are not fun
so you have to find ways to make it a positive experience.
For me, that is reading an Italian cookbook
that has Italian language that I can translate
and think about Italian cuisine, which is something I love.
I also started listening to Harry Potter in Italian
which I didn’t understand a single word at first
but then I got the Kindle version
and I sort of followed along digitally
and translated some words while I was listening
and now I can like understand probably 80 to 90%
of Harry Potter cause I love Harry Potter.
Don’t love JK Rowling though, love Harry Potter.
So make it fun.
The last and final gate in this more direct journey
to be able to speak a language is the one
that people who have learned other languages
have been waiting for me to say
and they’re angrily being like dude,
you got to mention this
and I’m gonna say it, which is yes.
Eventually, you have to learn the rules.
You have to learn grammar.
You have to learn pronunciation and you have to refine it
through drills and through a lot of practice.
Intentionally, I’m putting this last
because I think you should too.
The previous concepts are way more important.
Get your first 500 or 1,000 words memorized
in your long-term memory.
Start speaking every week with a native speaker,
make the journey fun, and then start to think about grammar
and start to think about all of the rules and the irregulars
and the syntax and the direct object pronouns
and the past participles.
You can do that after maybe two, three months
of like being in the trenches.
The best part about this is that by that time,
you’ll be in a place where you can communicate basic ideas
so that when you do look at the grammar,
it actually fits into the context
that you’ve intuitively developed of expression.
It won’t just be like in a vacuum
of memorizing arbitrary rules,
it’ll actually apply to something.
And that makes it way more interesting to actually memorize.
I didn’t start really going into grammar
until just recently,
three months into the process of learning Italian.
And it makes a lot more sense.
So that is what I’ve learned
about learning another language, it’s like a video game.
You don’t need to gather all the Korok seeds
to beat the game.
You don’t, some people think you do.
I’m not gonna listen to those people.
For me, to beat the game,
you just need to be able to talk and be understood.
This is my experience, this is my version of it.
And again, in the course,
I go deeper into exactly how this goes down.
The course that me and Nathaniel did
is like three and a half hours
of like nitty gritty techniques and all of this stuff,
but the message is what I’ve told you here,
which is that there’s a better way to learn languages
than the way we learned it in school.
I will be studying Italian for years,
but the beautiful thing is next time I go to Italy,
which who knows when that’s gonna be,
but at some point I’ll go to Italy, I’ll show up to a cafe
and I’ll be able to speak.
I’ll be able to talk and be understood
and that’s what matters to me.
So I hope that’s what matters to you too.
Thanks for watching.
[speaking foreign language]
Learning a language is kind of like a video game.