Since regaining my motivation to learn languages a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been trying out some of the methods from Barry Farber’s text, How to Learn any Language.

There are several components in Farber’s system, but the one that has helped me the most is the use of what he calls “hidden moments”. The idea is nothing new, but I’ve found it incredibly effective. The premise is simple. Forget all of those over hyped language programs claiming that you can learn a language in 20 minutes a day. It’s just not that simple. Learning a language is a gigantic undertaking and it takes time. The trick, is to free up time you didn’t know you had.

My flashcard studyring


I’ve used flashcards many times, for more than one language, and I’ve always had mixed feelings towards them. One one hand, they work. If I had to memorize 30 Chinese characters for a test in 30 minutes, flashcards are definitely the way I’d go. They also served me very well when I did an intensive first year Japanese class over a summer in college. On the other hand, flashcards are about the most boring, decontextualized vocabulary-learning method I can think of. Relying on them over the long run has always been demotivating for me.

The solution is to use flashcards only during the times that you’d be bored anyway. Buy a set of flashcards on a ring, and make sure it’s small enough that you can carry it all the time. Then, rather than using them during a block of time you could be using for something else, use them during all of those brief moments when you have nothing else to do. It used to be that every time I took the subway anywhere, I’d sit down and basically just zone out for five minutes. Now I spend that time to review 30 words on my flashcards. Similarly, when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, that’s another chance to review several cards. If I call a friend on the phone, I usually have time to scan over three or four words while I’m waiting for him or her to pick up the phone.

All throughout the day, there are bits and pieces of time that are perfect for flashcard review. Sure, flipping through flashcards is boring compared to other things I could do at home, but it’s not boring compared to doing nothing while sitting on a subway! In fact, during times that I’d otherwise have nothing to do, looking at my flashcards is fun.

MP3 recordings

Obviously, if one wants to get good at speaking a language, rather than just writing it, listening is an important component to any language study course. For beginners and intermediate level students, target language media isn’t that comprehensible, but there are a number of learner resources available. Most modern textbooks are accompanied by CDs, and there are numerous podcasts and other recordings to download, as long as the target language isn’t too obscure.

I’ve had the opposite problems with listening to recordings as I’ve had with flashcards. As long as I can understand them, they’re fairly interesting, but I just don’t learn that many new words. For the most part, they’re a re-enforcement tool. There are other ways to build up my core language proficiency faster, such as working through a textbook or finding opportunities for a two-way conversation. It’s always felt like a waste.

Fortunately, the prudent use of “hidden moments” solves these problems as well. I recently bought a very cheap MP3 player (about $25US), and I carry it with me all the time. I downloaded 50 Chinese Pod lessons, and 50 Japanese Pod 101 lessons. Whenever there’s nothing better to be doing, I listen to them. In general, I put the flashcards at a higher level of priority than the MP3 recordings. If I’m in a situation when I can look at the flashcards, I do. But when my eyes are occupied, such as while I’m walking to work, I listen to the MP3s. This way, I get the benefits of more listening practice, and it’s all without having to sacrifice any time I could use on more productive activities.

My study materials when I was in Taiwan

Authentic reading materials

Authentic reading materials are hard. Especially if you’re studying a language such as Chinese or Japanese, it takes a long, long time before authentic materials can be read with ease. Until that time, your choice in extensive reading materials will be limited to graded readers designed for language learners. Unfortunately, Chinese learners don’t have anything even remotely like the selection that exists for English learners. That leaves a more intensive approach.

Reading material that’s too hard is frustrating. However, by supporting it with the above flashcard method, it becomes much more palatable, and even motivational. For this exercise, I bought a copy of the 國語日報. I’m not a big fan of the contents of the paper, since it’s always crammed full of articles about various new regulations the Ministry of education is implementing, but there are a few interesting stories. More importantly, zhùyīn is printed next to every single Chinese character. That makes looking them up a breeze compared to the nightmare it would be to look up every character I didn’t know by radical and stroke number.

Putting it all together

After buying a paper, I take it home and try to read an article. Anytime I see a word that I don’t know I highlight it. If I think I know what it means but I’m not completely sure, I still highlight it. Then after reading a paragraph or two, I quickly look up the words and make flash cards. I write the first word at the top of the card, flip it end over end (the long way), write the English translation at the top of the back of the card, flip it back over, write the second word beneath the first, and so on. I usually put about five words on a card. If there’s one that I can’t find in the dictionary, such as “資優” in article in the photo above, I just write it down and leave a space on the back for when I find out what it means. This whole process took me about 20 minutes the first time I did it, but it’s much faster now.

After marking up the first paragraph and making flashcards, I stop working on the article and move onto other things. The next day, when I come back to the article and try reading the first paragraph again, it’s much, much easier. Why? Well, it’s because I’ve made flashcards of every word I didn’t and I always carry those flashcards with me. I’ve probably reviewed them ten times each, and done all the review during time I otherwise would have wasted. So with what feels like zero effort, I can suddenly read a paragraph that was difficult just one day earlier!

After the first paragraph is done, I go on to the second paragraph and then the rest of the article. The rest of the article is always easier. Some of those words I had to look up in the first paragraph inevitably appear in later parts of the article. As you can see from the photo above, the beginning of the article (the upper right-hand side) is highlighted all over the place, and the highlighted sections decrease throughout the article, until the bottom, where it’s mostly un-marked. That in itself is very motivating. Better still, each time I buy a paper, the first paragraph I take a stab at is easier and easier.


I like Farber’s suggestions. I suddenly feel like I’m making more progress than I have in ages, and I’m doing the majority of it during time that I would just be wasting otherwise.

Jeremy Ginsburg shared some techniques related to this when in our Lingsprout interview