Learn a Language Like a Child: Repeat the Same Text Again and Again

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.

Want to know how old I am? When I was a young language student, I had to use one of these. I practically wore out the “pause” and “rewind” buttons.
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The Kids

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.

Hipster Ariel knows what’s up.

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.

Wrapping Up

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.

  • Brian

    Hey Ron,I just found your blog via the “Ways to Get the Most
    Out of Duolingo” post, and I’m captivated so far! I majored in Latin
    after studying it for nine years between high school and university, and
    I’ve always loved languages. I’m studying Italian right now with
    Duolingo. My wife and I are huge (*huge*) Harry Potter fans, so I got a
    copy of the Italian version of Philosopher’s Stone, and it is my goal to
    read it cover to cover. Every few days, after I’ve completed a few more
    lessons on DL, I pick it up and start from the beginning. It really
    helps that I know the story very well, though even still there are
    occasional large portions of the text that I can’t quite understand.
    It’s good to see you say that rereading and rereading is a good method
    to use. Thank you!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Brian, thanks for the note! I think you’ll be breezing through Philosopher’s Stone in no time. I read it in Arabic (pretty easy, since I was well-versed in Arabic) and German (pretty hard, since my German is “up and coming”). But even if you can’t make out every word, I know that you get benefits if you’re able to follow along at all, and you know how I feel about re-reading.

      Majoring in Latin is hardcore, by the way. I imagine your background is helping with the Italian?

      (Side note: I live in Orlando, so I have to plug the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal. Definitely recommend it if you haven’t had a chance to make it out yet.)

      • Brian

        The Latin background helps immensely, though sometimes I try to overcomplicate things. I want Italian to have more noun cases! The prepositions always give me trouble with Italian, but I feel like it’d be so much easier if they just had datives and ablatives!

        And actually my wife and I were just in Orlando earlier this year and went to the Wizarding World! It was incredible! I could have spent all day in just that area of the park! Ollivander helped me pick out a wand and the Butterbeer was out of this world!

        Thank you for the encouragement!

  • Sara

    As you know, I am trying to learn French via Duolingo. I am find myself repeating lessons because either I forgot a word’s translation or I didn’t fully understand it the first time. I really like that you can repeat lessons on Duolingo.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Sara, are we friends on Duolingo? I’m going to check. If not, I’m blaming NG.

      I like that about Duolingo too. In fact, you’re encouraged to repeat old lessons or else they slowly expire. How’s the French going all in all?

      • Sara

        No, my username is “sarastrum”. I didn’t connect my Duolingo to my FB like you did. LOL

        The French is going OK. There are a lot of silent letters in French, which makes it a little confusing for me when I try to pronounce things.

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          LOL, I cleaned up all those Facebook posts.

          I can see how that can be tough. In addition to Duolingo, add in fifteen to thirty minutes of watching Pocoyo or Dora the Explorer in French. It’ll help a LOT.

        • joker159

          frenchy here :)
          comment ça se passe pour l’apprentissage du Français ? t’en ai ou ?

          • anna

            ” T’en es où ? ” Désolée, c’est plus fort que moi, je devais corriger ça :)

          • joker159

            merci anna :)

  • http://blog.fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

    I definitely agree with the post! Back when I was a beginner in Russian as a first-year undergraduate, I obsessively watched and re-watched Dmitry Medvedev’s video blog entries. (Medvedev was then president of Russia and he likes incorporating new technology into his work.) I like politics a lot, so I enjoyed his discussions about Russia. Plus, I picked up something new every time!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      That’s pretty hardcore. It’s also cool that as an undergraduate student new in the language, you went from knowing no Russian to being able to understand Dmitry Medvedev’s vlogs. You got to get a hint of what was to come right away.

  • http://borovinskih.net Alexey Borovinskih

    “How to live on 24 hours a day” was that “fairy tale” for me when I learned English. When I first listened to it I got only gist of it and some chapters were totally obscure. Since it is very short, only an hour and half, I could listen to it several times a day and I did. I’ve listened to it several dozens times in total. I’ve hardly ever opened a dictionary to look up a word from it. Yet I ended up understanding almost every single word. It was crucial part of my learning of English and language learning in general. So I subscribe under every word of this article, even under “mook” 😉

  • Marina Vuletic

    Hi!:) I’m 19 and from Serbia. I remember, back when wi was little I used
    to watch 101 dalmatians(dubbed to Serbian) and I was really obsessed
    with it. Perhaps that was the part of my learning my native tongue емотикон smile.
    Also, I’ve been watching Spanish soaps since I was like 7 and now I
    understand almost everything I hear in Spanish. My sister claims to have
    watched a lot as well but we do not seem to share the same
    ”knowledge” of Spanish. I consider a talent, an innate aptitude for
    something extremely valuable too. That passionate, instinctive feeling,
    you know? Anyway, I am incredibly fortunate to be studying English and
    Spanish on faculty(college). It’s all I ever wanted. It’s a dream come
    true. Gotta love languages. They are everything, they are life

  • Piet Malherbe

    Hi, Ron. A belated comment. I’ve just discovered your site while researching Duolingo. Great reviews. One blip in this one, though. I think you should call the Narnia Chronicles in English ‘the English original’ rather than ‘the English translation’!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Good eye, Piet! I’ll make the change. Thanks!