The Seven Deadly Sins – The Secret to Language Learning

language learning

This is my confiteor, my confession, my mea culpa.  I speak 10 languages and I have achieved this result by sinning. What’s more, I have not committed just any old sin. I have indulged in the seven deadly sins.

1. Extravagance

I love showing off my languages. I am learning Russian. If I hear Russian speakers, I will immediately accost them and inflict my grammatically incorrect Russian on them. I even do the same with Korean, which I speak even less well. Don’t even mention the languages that I speak well. If I detect the slightest accent, I attack. I am a shameless show-off. Yet I am totally unconcerned about the accuracy of my language. I do not care if I am full of mistakes. If they do not understand me it is their fault.  I just want to show off. Look at me! I can communicate in your language!  Shameless!

2. Gluttony

I am a glutton, a pig. When I am studying a language I just cannot get enough of it. I download audiobooks, podcasts, whatever I can find. I listen over and over to the same stuff at first. Then I look for more interesting things to listen to and read. I watch movies in the language. I listen when I do the dishes, or even when standing in line at the store. I am like a person obsessed. I cannot get enough. I just stuff myself with the language. Even if my brain is starting to get indigestion, I just cannot help myself. I just gulp down the language.

3. Greed

I am acquisitive. I like to acquire words. I cannot resist increasing my vocabulary. If I learn 100 words, I want to learn 100 more. If my word count is up to 1,000,all I think of is learning the next 1,000. My Russian word count i now up to 50,000 (granted there are so many forms of the words in Russian that this is probably like 10,000 words in English), but I am not satisfied. I want more. My greed has no limits.

4. Sloth

At heart, though, I am lazy. I cannot bring myself to do drills, to study grammar, to do all the exercizes that I find in language books. I won’t attend a language class. I am just too lazy. I just want to stuff myself with the language. I will occasionally leaf through a small grammar book, but only now and then, and in a half-hearted manner. Often,  I no sooner start doing some grammar study, when I just give up and go back to my iPod or my book, and consume more language.

5. Wrath

I get angry easily. When I buy a language book and it is 90% full of explanations and drills, and only 10 % text, I get angry. When I read or hear detailed explanations about aspects of the language, explanations that I do not understand, and will not remember and will not be able to use, I just get angry. When I review a declension table and cannot remember anything, I just throw up my hands. If I see people stuck at the computer with a learning system full of pictures and multiple choice questions, I sneer.  When a language book describes things  about the culture  which do not interest me, I throw the book on the floor. I just want to be allowed to wallow in what interests me, gorging myself on my favourite content.

6. Envy

Often I hear non-native speakers carrying on conversations in Russian or Portuguese, or some other language that I am learning. They speak well, with accurate grammar, rich vocabulary and a natural accent. They speak so much better than I do. How I envy them. It is not a nasty envy. I am not saddened by their success. I am encouraged by it. I gladly tell them that I envy them and that I wish I had their ability. Of course I think I can acquire it, and then their ability will also be mine.

7. Pride

I am proud. I am proud of the way I learn languages. I am so proud that I believe that my way is the only way to learn. I do not believe that some people are just “good at languages”. I do not believe that some people are auditory learners and others visual learners. I think that everyone is a learner, and everyone can learn by listening, by reading and by speaking. Maybe those people who do not succeed in language learning are too prudish, to uptight, maybe too moral. Maybe more learners need to get more sinful in their approach to language learning.

Photo by AJoelle_xo

43 thoughts on “The Seven Deadly Sins – The Secret to Language Learning”

  1. Hi Steve,

    My wife listens to your podcasts all the time!

    I definitely agree with your beliefs on Krashen and apply them to my language program for children as well.

    There is a lot of debate between skills versus comprehension based language learning but like most things in life, balance is key. A skills approach (drills, vocabulary memorization, grammar rules) might be more effective in the beginning but your comprehension based approach is ultimately what keeps you motivated and learning for a longer time.

    Your language learning methodology if 100% spot on!

    1. @John Bardos – JetSetCitizen,

      I find that I do not want the drills, vocabulary memorization and rules even at the beginning, in fact even less at the beginning. The explanations make little sense until I have been exposed to the language, the drills are uninteresting because they are devoid of meaning or context, and the vocab is best learned from exposure in interesting content. A little grammar book, for some simple explanations, can be useful, to consult as a reference from time to time, but not to study or to try to memorize.

      At least that is what works for me.

  2. Interesting how you get angry at all the explanations – that’s the only way I learn a language. If I don’t understand the rules, I can neither speak it nor understand it.

    Being tossed in confuses me and pisses me off, but ultimately it’s the only way to learn the language as I need to actively use it. Classes outside the language region do nothing for me. There’s no way of applying it.

    Different strokes… Then again I only 2 languages and struggle with the second. I had a third language but if I’m not actively using it, it’s gone.

    What do you think of the idea that some people have a higher chance of learning languages than others?

    1. @Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome,

      As someone who has learned languages best by avoiding the rules, I decided to study Russian to see if this approach would also work for a grammar heavy language like Russian. I could not make sense of most of the grammatical explanations, much less remember them or use them. Now after a lot of exposure, I begin to notice the patterns that the rules tried to describe.

      I find that when I learn languages through massive exposure, and the occasional reference to a grammar summary, just to review what I have already experienced, the language sticks, good habits are formed and I do not lose what I have learned.

  3. Hi Steve.

    I must say your tone here is hilariously entertaining. The point in #1 is one of those traits of many who are doing something they sure love to do, as they like to present all that they are achieving, which is actually a great thing because then people will know. If we don’t let people know our skills, they assume we don’t have them.

    Good call on applying the well-known sins to a never-before-connected topic.

  4. Haha Jennifer…

    Steve, 10 languages is pretty crazy though. I think it’s cool though that you are going out and learning new languages. I know 3 languages and it’s kind of cool to be able to hear other people speak and understand them, even when they have no idea that you know what they are talking about.

    Great post!

    1. @Tristan Lee,

      It is a big world, with a lot of languages and cultures. The more languages we know, the more fully we can experience the variety of human thought and creativity.

  5. nice post , i am really amazed !! previously i heard that a human can only speak six languages and after that he gets confused, now you broke the rule

  6. There is no shame in showing off what you love, nor have I ever regarded it a sin. Musicians love to make music, and so they organise concerts expressly to show off! Linguists are more than entitled to do the same! Victims of my language attacks are strawn accross the town…perhaps wishing they had stayed at home that day.

  7. Nice post, I like it! Basically it reflects my thoughts on language learning. I’ve just started learning Spanish with the very same method and I find it really enjoyable. Learning shouldn’t, mustn’t be painful. And learning through colorful, enjoyable materials which are made for natives – simply just entertaining. Or can I say that the comprehension and the knowledge just a “side effect”. :)

  8. Well, I for one love grammar. I wouldn’t be studying Russian if I wasn’t in love with its complex grammar.

    Anywho, I think I really have to take your bit about “Extravagance” to heart. Often I find I’m too shy to practice my languages because I don’t feel I’m good enough yet. You’re right, I need to forget about the mistakes I’m bound to make and just express what I can. Next time I overhear Chinese customers at work, I’m going to come at them with everything I know!

  9. They are great tips for language learners like us. They are all about the passion without which there would be no motive or interest of learning a language.

    Thank you for those tips which, as for me, will keep my interest in English.

    I do agree you on the idea that we should indulge ourselves in the fun of the content we read.
    However, if someone want to improve his or her language, there will be no way other than learning it consciously. But what’s the conscious way? I have no exact answer.

    In addition, can you guess where I come from only by analyzing the language I wrote here?

    1. @Joe,

      I find that that deliberate or conscious study of words or rules is much less effective than listening , reading and noticing. Some conscious study can help, but not too much of it.

  10. Hello Steve, I’m a 24 years old Spanish native speaker, and since I was 16 I became very interested in language learning.

    The first language I started with was English at the age of 10 at school, and I found it was easy for me.

    Certainly Internet was the most important tool that unleashed my interest in languages, so when I was 16 I began with Portuguese, Italian, French and German at the same time. At some point I started with Japanese and Russian but then I stopped for no particular reason, maybe lack of time.

    Since I was 18 I have only studied those four, but mostly Italian and German, I don’t count English because I have almost always used it, in websites, in books at the University (I’m not in anything related to languages though).

    In University I took a course of Latin, but I don’t remember anything now, and Mandarin Chinese for a year. I found almost no difficulties in them. All the other languages I have learned by myself.

    Lately I started learning Dutch and I find that it’s easy because I have some domain of German, which is like five times harder for me.

    Because of this huge interest in languages that I have I want to learn next Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Finnish and also re-take Russian, Chinese and Japanese. I’m sure this will take many years. I’ve seen that the Nordic ones (not Finnish) are somewhat alike and they have some similarities with Dutch and German.

    Now I believe that I can speak English fluently and unterstand written Portuguese, French and Italian, but German not so well. I haven’t had the opportunity to practice these languages speaking though, that’s why I have difficulties when it comes to understanding these languages spoken. In order to improve this I want to travel to many countries to learn them in situ.

    I think that languages are easy for me because I see the logic that all of them have, which allows me to create and create and create sentences. Language learning indeed helps memory. There’s nothing else that I enjoy learning in the same way as I enjoy learning languages.

    I have myself some sort of system to learn, like an order of topic that I follow. Can you tell me how you start learning a language? What do you learn first? What is the most important thing to learn first about a language that you don’t know yet? What is the topic of a language that you emphasize on when you have already achieved some domain?

    1. @Danilo,

      When I start I have to listen to easy beginner content. I listen to the same content over and over. Then I move on, even though I do not understand all of it.I just let the language penetrate and let my brain start to form some new patterns. Of course I look at some simple explanations of how the new language works, without trying to learn it or remember it. Only after much exposure do the grammar rules start to really make sense.

  11. I can´t speak English very well, but… I like much your article. Which are those languages that you know?

    Tengo mucha curiosidad, ¿cuáles son esas diez lenguas que usted conoce?

  12. Thank you for wonderful inspiration. I am in love of languages although I can not find the full time since I am graduate student in something has nothing to do with languages (:
    I do not care about my mistakes as you said. I do mistakes in English (my second language) When I comment sometimes I do mistakes, people misunderstand me. That makes me sad but I try to fix them and do my best
    I want to thank you for your great website. I want to refer it to my classmates who are studying English with me and my friends who are interested in langauges

      1. @Steve Kaufmann,

        My native language is Arabic. I am learning English (in school) and I teach myself French, Japanese and Korean by using some books, podcasts ,,,,, and listen to those languages on Youtube. By the way, I like your videos on Youtube (very helpful) and also other people on Youtube such as Moses and Fleix.
        All of you really inspired me so thank you very much

  13. Why do you use the word “deadly sins” here they are the good ways to learn language? I’m also interested in language learning. When I was a young student, I felt that I could learn language very well but when I went to the countries where those language are spoken, I just found out that my comprehension or speaking skill were very bad. Sometimes, I just think that may be I cannot achieve those skills.
    Anyway, do you think that begining studying new language at older age would not be as effective as begining at younger age? Thank you very much.

  14. These seven deadly sins is something from the Christian religion. I was just using them and applying them to language learning.

    The better your skills are when you go to the country the better you are able to take advantage of being there. That is why I emphasize things that you can do in your own country to build up your skills.

    I am a better language learner today at 64 than I was at 16. I have learned Russian, Cantonese, Portuguese and a bit of Korean since the age of 55, and I have improved in my other languages. Come and visit us at LingQ.

  15. Dear Steve.

    My husband is Hungarian and I am South African. We speak English to each other at home. We live in Taiwan. I am struggling with learning Hungarian. I have looked all over the internet for Hungarian language resources. I find that when we are in Hungary visiting, I pick up the words fast and can remember them. But when we are home I soon forget and with it goes the motivation to keep on learning. I am past the age where I can just sit and learn new vocabulary.

    I think you have a passion for language and therefore absorb new languages much faster. It is harder for us who do not have that same passion. Mine lies in science, biology and physics and I can spend hours learning new things.

    I wish I had the same drive and motivation for Hungarian. Is there any websites you can direct me to that is really good for Hungarian. Can you speak Hungarian….My home language is Afrikaans. Really easy and a very poetic language. I think you might enjoy Afrikaans.


    1. @Marilette,

      We do not have Hungarian at LingQ yet, and I do not know of any resources for Hungarian. You could have your husband record things for you. You could also use LingQ and simply put the Hungarian content into the slot that is used for another language that you are not interested in. Good luck.


    2. @Marilette,
      Hungarian happens to be my native and I have to say that the internet lacks of good Hungarian resources, so if you don’t live in Hungary, I can imagine that this is hard.

      I planned to create Hungarian podcasts and lessons, but I just simply don’t have time for that now, maybe in half a year. Until then you can check this website: this is the best I found. But Steve is right – have your husband record stuff for you! Good luck, and don’t give up! I’ve heard that it is worth it to learn Hungarian. ;)

  16. Thank you guys…the websites look good. And I will definitely have my husband record stuff for me. I didn’t think of that before, and it is such a good idea.

    @Balint: I agree that there is little Hungarian language resources out there. So if you make the lessons and podcasts. That would just be great. Keep us informed on when you will do that. I am sure there are many, many people who would love them too…


  17. Obviously, I stumbled upon this web-site. And Russian is my first language, and English is my third. The language that I learned inbetween – German – is successfully forgotten, because … there are many reasons, of course. I tried to learned French, but I did not spend enough time on it. I do love languages, I must admit. But I find is that “language is only a tool for expression of thoughts” If you have nothing to say, it does not matter how many languages you know for showing your lack of what to say. I came back to being satisfied with two languages and being more concentrated on content. I cannot help it – I love philosophy and looking for deeper meanings. The way you learn a language does not probably matter all that much – there are different ways working for different people.

    If you pay attention to what you say (in any language mind you!) you can have a lot fun. the author says “I just want to be allowed” – but it sounds more like nobody can disallow him anyways, LOL. I am just joking. But I am allowing myself to notice such things. I don’t mean to be critical or disrespectul – I am trying to point out the other aspect of language and words.

    I am really going on a tangent here, but I do believe that words are misleading at best. There is a excerpt of one of the book of my favourite writer Victor Pelevin.

    You might like it or not, I “allow” all a choice, and for those who speak multiple languages you might do an exercise and translate into whatever languages you speak (gotta be hard without knowing the proper rules, though). And for the author who speaks Russian – there are plenty of quotes in Russian.

    I often think of languages as a tool – one nail and 10 hammers to do the job – gets kind of awkward from the practical point of view. But I admire knowledge nonetheless in any form or shape.

  18. GREAT POST >> i just can not stop my self right now >> i envy u and u r abilties will be mine

    i’ll learn 11 languages

    by the way i teach my self franch >> pride

  19. Bernardita Luna

    I am impressed and envious with your strategy in learning different languages. Wow! ten languages that amazing! I can’t even perfected the English languages LOL. It is funny because I bought all these grammar books its just setting in my book shelf accumulating cobwebs. I have been in Canada for several years yet my English grammar and expressing myself in oral conversation has minimal improvement. Perhaps, what I’m missing is your technique. Excellent topic! Cheers:0)

    1. Good luck Bernadita. Forget the grammar books, or at least don’t try to learn them. Just find things you like to do in the language and do them.

  20. Dear Steve,

    I am Greek but i live in the Netherlands and although i have a strong background in English and French, it is very difficult to learn Dutch. A contributing factor is the limited free time because of my work but i really try to study as much as i can.

    The second (and most important) contributing factor is my fear of making mistakes.. when i make a mistake and people understand that i cannot speak properly, i feel humiliated. So in order to avoid that, i do not speak much! It is like a vicious circle…

    I hope there will be a day that i ll be able to speak fluently..But it seems to be soooooo far away….

    I would like to ask you something from your experience: When you want to learn a language, do you study on a regular basis? For example 2-3 hours every day approximately? I know that this is absolutely subjective since people differ, but i really need some advice/tips. Thank you very much in advance.

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