Sunday, December 6, 2020

Organic Language Acquisition Guidelines

Guidelines for learning-without-studying approach to language acquisition


  1. Pick only organic, relevant content! Discard irrelevant, miscalibrated content.
  2. Focus on quantity, not quality
  3. You do NOT need be a perfectionist
  4. You do NOT need to judge yourself
  5. Allow your subconscious mind to work for you
  6. Give up the idea of control
  7. Abandon the idea of importance
  8. Focus on the incoming flow
  9. Always learn words in context
  10. Don't rush to speak
  11. Avoid complicated words
  12. Use a monolingual dictionary
  • Take only what is relevant to you — miscalibration is the biggest obstacle in language learning. Miscalibration can occur in many forms - input that’s too easy or too difficult, mismatched interests, moods, attitudes, values, methods, cultural and social backgrounds, psychological profiles and interaction models. Identify what’s relevant to you and discard the rest. Too much miscalibrated input can create a toxic environment that slows down your progress and triggers an urge to quit. You will still learn in a miscalibrated environment but at a much higher cost, and much slower pace than you otherwise could. Small challenges that push you outside your comfort zone can be refreshing and stimulating, but not having a comfort zone at all will quickly drain your energy and lead to burnout.
  • Focus on quantity over quality avoid getting stuck in details - aim for a general understanding of new material. Keep moving through as much ‘language traffic’ as possible. Especially when at the beginner level, allow yourself to lower your standards and settle for the mediocre goal of simply getting the general idea of a text, speech, or video you encounter. Don't spend too much time on clarifying every possible detail.
  • DON'T be a perfectionist! - Understanding everything in great detail isn’t necessary. Keep going and don’t get stuck on things with little relevance. The key is to keep moving forward comfortably. If you get the rough idea - that will do just fine. Fine-grained understanding will come gradually over time without you having to make a conscious effort. Just continue what you are doing. It's not about results and marks, but about being able to continue your journey without getting stuck.
  • DON'T judge yourself! — unlike children, we often self-invalidate and label ourselves as “not good with languages” when we don’t see immediate results. This mindset can ruin your learning process and lead to quitting. Don’t fall into the trap of compulsively expecting positive reinforcement. It’s a side-effect of our results-oriented education system that makes us addicted to praise and good grades. "I must succeed or otherwise I'm a failure...", "I must win and be a champion or otherwise I'm a loser.... Let go of the need to succeed or win at all costs. It’s stressful and can cause constant tension. Instead, allow yourself the luxury of not needing a reason or motivation. Enjoy the journey without expecting immediate results. Recommended reading: Why You Won’t Learn Like a Child
  • Allow your subconscious mind to work for you even if you don't fully understand how exactly it is happening; all you need to do at the conscious level is to:
  • Give up the idea of control over the learning process and adopt a playful attitude towards the game of learning - you don't need to be in control, and you don't need to be serious. All you need to do is enjoy the process and allow yourself to keep going so that you spend at least half an hour every day, but don't torture yourself if you skip your 'language hour' for a day or two.
  • Abandon the idea of importance - no matter how pressing it is for you to acquire the language, get rid of any idea of importance. Attaching importance to anything kills the fun and excitement that you could have had otherwise. By attaching importance to a process you make the area heavier, less approachable, less spontaneous, less inventive, less playful and, most importantly, you rob yourself of the excitement of discovery.
  • Focus on the incoming flow and develop your ability to capture ideas, meanings, and your individual needs. Don't expect to be able to use the words and expressions immediately. All the linguistic input you receive is stored as passive vocabulary. When you will build sufficient passive vocabulary the transfer to active vocabulary will happen automatically, and you will not even notice how you will start to use the language yourself.
  • Learn words in context, and avoid focusing on single isolated words except when you are dealing with 'super-words' which require special attention. Focus on concrete ideas, needs, situations, phrases, contexts. The words are the last in terms of priority and importance. Verbs and all verb forms are useless on their own. If they are not associated with specific ideas, emotions, contexts, situations, usage patterns or needs, then don't spend time trying to remember them. If you still decide you need to focus on single words or verb forms, then put them into real life context and find useful usage scenarios for them.
  • Speaking should start much later than it is usually expected on language courses. As a child you listened a lot for at least a year before you started speaking. Allow yourself the luxury of not speaking until you feel comfortable. Instead, focus on the incoming flow and passive accumulation. When you have accumulated enough, speaking will come out naturally and without effort. It will burst out under the pressure of the incoming flow.
  • Avoid words whose meaning you don't fully understand. Replace complex words with the simplest possible words or use descriptive words if you are dealing with a complex idea. If you cannot find a simple word or give a descriptive definition, then make it clear to the other person that you are not sure of the exact meaning of the word you are using, and ask them to confirm or correct your usage.
  • Use a monolingual dictionary rather than a bilingual one. Prefer dictionaries designed for language learners rather than for native speakers. While Google Translate can be useful, remember that it is not a substitute for a good dictionary. For most languages the requirement to be able to use a monolingual learner's dictionary is around 1500-3000 of the most common words, so as soon as you reach this mark switch from a bilingual to a monolingual dictionary. Switch as soon as possible. If you find a specific monolingual dictionary too difficult, find another one that is easier. Otherwise, fallback temporarily to a bilingual dictionary.
  • Make sure your dictionaries are easily available and have a search function. It's best to have them on your smartphone, tablet, or something that you always carry with you.
  • This is so important that it bears repeating: AVOID USING BILINGUAL DICTIONARIES if you possibly can. Using bilingual dictionaries after you already know the most common 1500-2000 words is very likely to incorrectly map semantic spaces in your brain, and the only way to avoid this is to switch to a good monolingual dictionary as early as possible. If you already have the minimum vocabulary base, the only case where it makes sense to use a bilingual dictionary is for words that have a fixed one-to-one translation, i.e. names of plants, animals, foods, utensils, etc., but even with these words you will find exceptions. Most other words occupy different semantic spaces and DON'T HAVE A ONE-TO-ONE SEMANTIC MAPPING. You have been warned!

Friday, October 2, 2020

Learning Spanish with Podcasts and Internet Resources

Most people think that in order to speak and understand a foreign language you need to work hard and spend lots of time studying, but this is not necessarily true.

Children never 'study' their first language. They acquire it. And the method they use does not require exceptional memory, linguistic abilities, or discipline.

It is true that at a certain age most children will typically have to study the grammar and rules of their native language, but this always happens well after they can already speak and understand it.

Learning a language can and should be fun. A frequent question people have is Where do I start? It does not really matter, as long as your enjoy the process, and as long as you do not force it on yourself. You can start absolutely from any point, from anything that you think would align with your idea of having fun. But, of course, if you are a serious type of person, then you better start with something solid, important and impressive, something which you feel will work well for you.

The kind of materials you use also does not really matter. The only thing that matters is the number of minutes per day you spend in contact with the language - listening, talking, reading, writing, thinking, imagining and using it. It is crucial that you enjoy the process, that it enriches your life, and that you do not force yourself to do things which you do not like.

You will be surprised, but with today's technology time is not really a concern. All you need is the ability to download files from the Internet and an MP3 player with enough storage capacity. Some kind of device to watch video files might be helpful but is not necessary.

A portable audio player is the best, as it can be used everywhere including the workplace. Watching video, on the other hand, is a luxury which requires extra time, attention and an adequate setting.

If you are an iTunes user, you could search and subscribe to the podcasts listed below directly from iTunes; iTunes will also sync your audio files to your MP3 player. I recommend using gPodder for managing, downloading and syncing the podcasts. There are versions for windows, linux or mac.

Below is a list of resources I have used for learning Spanish - podcasts, videos, and live radio and video streams.


Beginner Level

BBC - Mi Vida Loca | Interactive video quest from BBC (requires FlashPlayer)
An interactive online video quest with English translation, exercises and quizzes. Highly absorbing and entertaining.

Coffee Break Spanish | RSS Subscribe |iTunesView Site
Probably the best freely available podcast for absolute beginners. During the shows Mark, the host, and his student Kara go through the most common Spanish words and phrases and also cover some grammar. Some people apparently complain about their Scottish accent being difficult to understand but I personally have found it to be fun.
Spanish Pod  | SpanishPod
Entertaining and relatively short episodes with detailed explanations of grammar points and cultural background. They have episodes for all levels but only some are free.

Intermediate Level

Show Time Spanish | RSS Subscribe | View Site
An intermediate level podcast from the creators of Coffee Break Spanish.
A soap opera targeted at Spanish learners made of 52 episodes. Covers the essential vocabulary and grammar patterns.


The official site of Radio Nacional de España hosts a great variety of podcasts on lots of different topics. Click the link above to browse them. I am only listing the ones I like and listen to regularly.

Lingus.TV | View Site
An entertaining way to learn Spanish through videos freely available on the site.
Live Streaming Radio
These live radio streams can be accessed from Radio Nacional de España:
Downloadable MP3 files for most radio shows are available at The streams are also available for listening directly in the browser at

Live streaming TV

This 'method' is not meant to substitute a classic language course, and should be considered as a supplement to an existing learning process. Nonetheless, there might be cases when the approach can be effective on its own, for example, when you already know a language that is similar to Spanish, or when you need to refresh the knowledge you already have.