Want a simple, effective way of improving your language skills?
Here it is: Read the same book or watch the same movie over and over and over again.
It’s such an easy tip that you’re probably skeptical, so let me explain why this works.
Dr. Paul Pimsleur, the namesake of the popular Pimsleur programs, was reportedly fascinated by how his children were learning their mother tongue.
He saw how they went about picking up language without any formal studying, and he wanted to figure out how to help adults do the same with a second language. If you read any of Pimsleur’s writings or pay attention to the methodologies of his programs, you can see how this mindset influenced his research and his work.
Along the same lines, I’ve been observing my son’s language development ever since his first words. Neither his mom nor I correct him when he makes speaking mistakes, yet his language has improved every day. Since he started kindergarten a couple months ago, his speaking has taken on a noticeably more polished quality. But I’m certain that his ability to monitor and improve his speech was only possible due to the solid language base he built organically during his first four years or so of speaking.
(By the way, one of my favorite things I love hearing is him picking up grammatical patterns and getting them wrong. For example, he figured out that the past tense of take is took, and the paste tense of shake is shook. So he deduced that the past tense of make is mook. He’ll go around saying stuff like, “Look at what I mook today.” It gives me a little insight into how people really learn grammar. And it’s pretty dang cute.)
Putting Movies on Repeat
Anyway, my son does something that is borderline clinically insane, but which I’m sure has been vital to his language development: He watches the same movie over and over again.
Because of his viewing habits, I can recite the movie Cars by memory. And Cars 2. And How to Train Your Dragon. And The Little Mermaid.
This is a well-known phenomenon in young children. The satirical newspaper The Onion even has a story titled “5-Year-Old Critics Agree: Movie ‘Cars’ Only Gets Better After 40th Viewing.”
But why do kids do this?
Well, Joan Wenters, a developmental psychologist writing at babycenter.com puts it pretty succinctly:
“In order to learn something well, children this age practice it until they get it right, hence the repeated watching….What is your child practicing by repeatedly watching a video? It depends on the video, of course, but it could be that he doesn’t yet understand the story line. And the more he watches, the better he’s able to understand.”
If you look at this from the perspective of language development, children repeat videos over and over again because they are instinctively turning incomprehensible input into comprehensible input. Each viewing gives them a little bit better understanding of the story. This gives them more contextual cues, such as understanding of the plot and the characters, which in turn helps them figure out the words everybody is saying onscreen. Then their brains are able to acquire language subconsciously and seemingly effortlessly.
Don’t think that this doesn’t apply to you just because you’re not a kid. In my experience, you can get the same benefits that kids do.
Here’s a personal example. I’ve been listening to the Spanish audiobook of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. I’ve listened to chapters 1 through 4 about five times now:
- The first time, I totally got lost and only understood bits and pieces here and there. I’m not really familiar with the story, so the fantastical elements and uncommon medieval-type vocab threw me off.
- The second time, I picked up a little more and had a better idea of what was going on.
- The third time, I picked up more still. (I also read the English translation several hours beforehand.)
- The fourth time, I picked up even more, and was able to follow along with the story, even if I didn’t understand every single word.
- The fifth time, the picture in my head of what was going on in the book had turned from sparse and gray into dense and colorful.
Yeah, I had read the English
translation original during this process, which was vital. I noticed, however, that even after having an idea of what was going on thanks to the English translation, I didn’t understand everything.
It was the repeated passes that really helped me jump forward.
This is pretty basic stuff–so basic, a kid can do it. Simply read the same book, watch the same movie, watch the same episode of a TV show, or listen to the same audiobook over and over and over again.
Your only challenge will be to keep yourself from getting too bored. I don’t really mind it myself. For me, it’s more interesting than sitting through a language lecture or doing grammar drills, both of which are necessary but can also be boring.
Language learners are always trying to find comprehensible input, and it’s a little difficult finding stuff that’s exactly as hard as you need it to be, but not harder.
Well, repeating a text again and again is almost like using a cheat code. With each pass through a text, you’re turning stuff that might be way, way over your head into stuff that you can understand right away.
Have you tried anything like this in your own language learning? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.