How to Learn a New Language

The Secret to “Speedy” Learning of a New Language

Ever thought about learning a second language? Which way is the best way? Which way is the fastest? Is the best way the fastest way? When I first became a foreign language teacher, I used to tell people that there is no short-cut to learning a language. Now, I know better. There is a secret way to speed up learning–based upon sound understanding of cognitive psychology.

The BALM of Second Language Acquisition: Mnemonics


What if I told you that one could learn English as a Foreign Language (or any foreign language) in 1/100th the time it normally would take you? Would you believe me? I believe I have found such a way. It is called mnemonics. Whether you are Mongolian wanting to learn English or a foreigner wanting to learn Mongolian, this article may change the way you learn a foreign language forever and save you time. What used to take 100 minutes, will now take you 1 minute to learn, and make your language teachers elated with your progress.

In the past, it has normally taken a lot of time and effort to learn a language. When people asked me for the best way to learn English, I used to reply, “There are no short-cuts.” In fact, my formula for language learning was: A = T * E, or “ATE”, which stands for: “Acquisition (of the language) equals Time multiplied by Effort.” Effort included learning by rote methods, repeating over and over again, in order to establish new neural pathways and innervate the muscles in the tongue.

A New Paradigm

I have recently discovered that we can speed up the process of learning/acquiring a new language. In order to effectively convey the concept, I have made a formula: BA = L + M, or “BALM”. In the “BALM” formula, “BA” stands for “Better Acquisition”, “L” stands for listening, and “M” stands for Mnemonics. The BALM formula will reduce one’s time in learning new words by a factor of 100.

Please be aware that the BALM formula is not an end-all panacea for language learning. Learning a language is a complex task that requires many kinds of input and practice. The postulate behind the BALM formula is that language is basically composed of words (lexis). It is aligned to the Lexis-based approach of language acquisition.

Mnemonics vs. Mneumonic Device

Mnemonics is not a new science, actually. Mnemonics is the science of memory and it goes back to ancient Greek times. Furthermore, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term “mnemonic device” was first used in 1858. It is particularly the “mnemonic device” that this article is about. A mnemonic device is a verbal instrument used to help one remember something. While I am not inventing anything new, my attempt to integrate mnemonics into the acquisition of language may be completely novel.

How Does It Work?

Perhaps the best way to explain is by giving several examples of how mnemonics can be used to learn new lexis. Ever since coming to Mongolia in 2010, my son and I have been attempting to acquire the Mongolian language. I would learn the words first and then teach my son. Take, for instance, the Mongolia word for tree: mod /mud/. My son asked, “Dad, how can I remember that?” I thought for a few seconds and then replied, “Think of mud. Trees grow in the mud.” Since then, he has never forgotten the Mongolian word for tree.

Then, we started to learn the colour words. I taught my son that the Mongolian word for black is khar /har/. Again my son asked me, “How can I remember that?” I replied, “What color is Mongolian hair?” He answered, “Black.” I continued, “That’s right. Think of ‘hair’. Hair sounds like khar.” Since then, he has never forgotten the Mongolian word for black.

After that, we moved to the Mongolian word for yellow, which is shar. My son asked, “How can I remember that?” I responded, “This time you think of a way to remember shar.” He thought for a minute, then said, “I’ve got it! Shar sounds like shore and the shore is yellow.” I lauded, “Great job, buddy!”

Why does it Work?

Firstly, one must understand how the brain works. The French Cognitive Psychologist Piaget has provided amazing insight into how the brain works in cognitive development, some of which applies directly to language learning. Piaget coined three terms of three different processes used by the brain to learn/acquire new information. They are: accommodation, assimilation, and association. They are part of what Piaget calls his “Schema Theory”.


Firstly, let’s deal with accommodation. Accommodation is how the brain acquires new information that cannot be categorized nor ‘attached’ to existing information. It can ONLY be learned by repetition. Neurologists have taught us that repetition strengthens the connections between neurons in the brain and establishes certain neural pathways, that we call “long-term memory”. Behavioural Psychologists have taught us that it takes 100 times of doing something for it to become a habit. Well, that is what speaking is! It’s a habit. Infants must use the method of accommodation for learning practically everything that they learn, because they are born with relatively no “schema” or memories. Once a child has developed a certain amount of “schema” or memories, the child can then use the process of ‘assimilation’.


Now, let’s deal with assimilation. To put simply, assimilation is the process of categorizing information. Let me explain how assimilation works by anecdote. When a little child is learning his mother tongue, Mum will point to a dog and say, “That’s a dog.” The child firstly accommodates that information by the use of repetition, and it may take up to 100 times hearing the word “dog” before the child is able to remember and say the word from memory.

Then, the child sees a cat. He points and says, “Dog!” Mum replies, “No, that’s a cat.” The child’s brain then has to make a new category for cats in his brain. That’s not assimilation. Assimilation assumes that the categories already exist; so, it is more like accommodation. At that point, the child may be a bit confused. Why is one animal called a dog, while another animal is called a cat? So, the next time the child sees a cat of a different color, he points and looks at mum questioningly, as if to ask, “Mum, is that a cat or a dog?” Mum replies, “That’s a cat.” Assimilation is when the child puts the cat of a different color into the category of “cats”. Over time, the child learns that cats have certain similar features, and color is not one of them.

Assimilation is a bit easier and faster than accommodation, but it still requires a lot of practice. The child will make mistakes, and mum will correct the child. The child may make hundreds of mistakes, calling pigs, cows and horses “dogs,” or “cats,” until the assimilation process is complete.


Now, let’s deal with association. Association is the process of “attaching” new information to existing information, already categorized and hard-wired into the brain.

For example, the child might go to the zoo and see a tiger, saying, “Look, mum, there’s a big cat.” Mum laughs and says, “Yes, that’s a big cat, but we call it a tiger.” The child looks confused and says, “Why?” The mum, being creative and clever, says, “Because it’s like a bunch of cats TI-ed to-G-eth-ER. Get it? “Tied” “together” can be shortened to TI-GER.” Of course that is not true, but it helps the child to associate the new word with existing words in his vocabulary. It is instantly memorized, because the new information can be “attached” to existing neural pathways in the brain. The child does not have to create a new neural pathway, which takes copious and sometimes tedious repetition.

Then, the child sees a lion at the zoo and says, “Look, mum! A tiger!” Mum laughs again and says, “No, that’s a lion.” The child looks confused again, and says, “Why?” The mum, being creative and clever, says, “Because it always LI-es ON the rock. Get it? LI-es ON can be shortened to LI-ON.” The child instantly remembers the new word because it is attached to existing words in the brain.
The technique that Piaget calls ‘association’ is a form of “mnemonics”. It is a memory technique.


Whether you are learning English or any language, you can use the same memory technique. It’s much faster than writing the word and the definition 100 times; and, you are less likely to forget.

So, what does the “M” stand for in my new formula? It stands for mnemonics. The equation again is: BA = L + M, or Better Acquisition (of a language) equals Listening + Mnemonics. It is the balm of language learning.


This post is provided by Leon H. Przybyla, III. Leon has over 20 years teaching English as a foreign language: 10 years in Korea, 5 years in Mongolia and another 5 years in Poland, Turkey, and Vietnam. He has taught at multination language schools and as a private tutor, he has also taught general education for over 5 years in the USA. He has an education degree from Brigham Young University with a TESOL certificate.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Emmersion.

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4 thoughts on “How to Learn a New Language

  1. It is a praiseworthy objective to find a way to learn a language in 1/100th the time it normally would take you. The value of research depends on assumptions made by the author. If the primary assumptions are wrong, the results of the research would be misleading. So, let’s check David’s assumptions before we can conclude that his BALM formula is effective. David’s formula for success is aligned with the word-based approach of language acquisition. It is a wrong statement. According to Dr. Stephen Krashen, the author of acquisition theory, skill acquisition is the natural way of subconscious picking up a language.

    Studying a foreign language using a word-based approach has historically shown a very low success rate because language is not content to be memorized; it is a skill to be subconsciously trained.

    Mnemonic is a great tool to remember something. For a medical student or a young attorney who is preparing for a bar examination, mnemonics will save a lot of time in remembering a vast amount of information. But it can’t be successfully applied for learning a foreign language. Here is why.

    Thanks to the work of the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and others, we now increasingly view our cognitive processes as being divided into two systems. We think slowly and fast because our cognitive capacity involves two different systems. System one operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

    System two allocates attention to the effortful mental activity and therefore is slow. For example, conscious learning of a foreign language belongs to System two, whereas the expression of our feelings and thoughts (i.e., speech) belongs to System one.

    The better acquisition should be based on subconscious training and not on better memorization with mnemonics. Subconscious training is defined as the activity in which all skills – reading, listening, and speaking – are learned simultaneously; it is in sharp contrast with learning English as information to be remembered.

    Subconscious training helps adult learners to automatically form the direct wiring between English words and the images or symbols, they describe. Learners create active vocabulary; they acquire intuitive grammar and the ability to speak fluently without cross-translation. Learners start thinking in English from the first lesson.

    1. @Arkady – Love your comment and I think you’re right on target. Perhaps the title of the blog is misleading because I don’t think we disagree. The title might better be represented, “One method that will aid you in language learning.” In my experience in language learning, (and as a marketing professor) I cringe every time I hear a company claim, “Our software is the BEST way to learn a language.” I think we can all agree, the best way is to plop someone down in the middle of the country and immerse them in the language and culture. That’s how I did it, with only 2 months of Spanish, I was shipped off to a remote part of Mexico and lived there for 2 years.

      I would like to argue that Mnemocis (while maybe not the “best” way) can definitely help. Numerous examples, including that from Arthur Benjamin, show the power of mnemonics in memory improvement; and memory improvement clearly will help with language acquisition. Obviously, we have pronunciation, fluency, comprehension that comes with more of the type of acquisition learning that Kahneman is just cutting the surface of; however, if I can land in a country with a solid set of the most commonly used words memorized, I will have a significant head start on the other key areas of language learning.

      Studies show that (on average) learning the 1,000 most common words of a language will enable you to know 88% of the spoken language. 2,000 gives you 93% (only a 5% increase). If I can use Mnemonics to speed up the acquisition of the spoken language, that seems like a good plan.

      So, I think we agree, Mnemonics is not going to get me to language proficiency, but it will get me there faster.

  2. @David – Thank you for your positive response. You are definitely an excellent teacher who is trying to improve the traditional methods of teaching.

    Your statement that learning the 1,000 most common words of a language will enable you to know 88% of the spoken language is inaccurate. When you learn words of a foreign language you continue thinking in the native language and therefore you remember these words as translations into your native language. This is a typical example of passive vocabulary that you can use when reading or writing but it is useless for spoken language. Speech is a subconscious process and is always created in automatic mode. We first think – it is a conscious process, and then we verbalize our thoughts using speech in subconscious mode.

    To speak fluently in a foreign language, you should think in the target language and create an active vocabulary that you can use in speech automatically without remembering. Passive vocabulary could be used in reading and writing but it could not be used in conversation because remembering words is a very slow process. In a natural speech, you should create about two words per second; there is no time for translation in your head before you can produce a sentence or understand the spoken language.

    You are right that there is no best method of teaching a foreign language. However, I believe that we should create the best method. Let’s open the discussion about a technical specification for the best method of teaching EFL. After this kind of technical specification is finalized, we may open competition among the teaching methods, which one best meets the new specification.

    Read the first article in this list and add your suggestions or comments to the draft of specification for the best methodology of learning a foreign language.

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