Break it Down: How to Hone Your Language Skills Fast

“Gritty people train at the edge of their comfort zone. They zero in on one narrow aspect of their performance and set a stretch goal to improve it.”

Angela Duckworth

Read Time: 2.5 minutes

These principles are adapted from a book by Daniel Coyle called “The Talent Code,” check it out here.

Do you find yourself studying your target language for hours on end without making any progress? Using portioning and repeating can fix that. 

Portioning means taking the skill you want to learn and break it into smaller pieces. Instead of going through a giant stack of flashcards aimlessly, choose a particular topic or skill you want to work on. 

This could include practicing things like: 

  • essential colors
  • 15-20 business-related vocabulary items
  • high-frequency phrases
  • using correct tones when reading your favorite Confucius analect in Chinese.
  • a can-do statement, which can be found here

Here is a great video about portioning (note in the video they use the word “chunking” instead of portioning):

Chunking: Learning Technique for Better Memory and Understanding

After you portion it up, use repetition. This means practicing a small portion until you have complete mastery over it. The key to making repetition effective is by finding your “sweet spot.” 

The “sweet spot” is the pace you can learn something in a manageable way while still pushing you to the edge of your ability. Going through 15-20 flashcards may be effective at first to learn some vocabulary, but it’ll get monotonous after a while. 

Perhaps to push yourself, you could: 

  • Search online how each vocab is used in context, perhaps in newspapers or online articles, looking up the meaning of surrounding words you don’t know. 
  • Practice putting high-frequency phrases into sentences, and then have a native speaker review them for accuracy.
  • If you’re struggling to remember a specific vocabulary word, try writing a short paragraph or story about it. 

If you feel that your portion is too easy, you can expand it a little bit or find a “deeper” way to practice it. If you’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, break down your portion even more, i.e., go from trying to master 30 phrases to 10. 

If you make mistakes, don’t worry–it’s part of the learning process! As you work on overcoming mistakes through repetition, your brain will turn those mistakes into hardened skills.

Overall, this process of polishing individual skills is like placing bricks one by one until one day you have a magnificent castle, each piece brick playing an integral part in that castle. 

Here is Sean’s experience with portioning and repeating: 

When I studied German in high school, I tried so many different ways to learn the language. Usually, my study would consist of very long flashcard sets (100-200 words) that I would find on the internet. Spending hours relentlessly memorizing these flashcard sets didn’t seem to be yielding any results, so I had to try something different. I decided every couple of days I would find a German song that had vocabulary and phrases in it that I didn’t know, but not too much to overwhelm me, the perfect portion. I would listen to the songs multiple times and write down the vocabulary and phrases I didn’t know. By learning the vocab and phrases through song lyrics, you can also learn better how to use them more naturally and in context. All those words I studied from the flashcards now are nowhere to be found, but the ones I have picked up from the song lyrics seem to have stuck around the longest.

Try it out!

Time Required: 10-15 minutes

Pick a topic that you want to improve in your target language, then find a digestible portion of this topic to practice for 10-15 minutes.  This could be as simple as creating a flashcard set of high-frequency phrases or could even mean listening to 30 seconds of a podcast on that topic in your target language and breaking down the pieces you are unfamiliar with.