A backpacker studying a flip chart

How your engineering skills can help you learn a new language fast

Taking a technical approach to getting to grips with a foreign language can make things a lot simpler, says Benny Lewis.

You're either good at the sciences and maths, or at arts and languages - it seems like common sense; left brain versus right brain strengths emerge and take control, and they become a stamp that lasts for life.

That's what I thought. I excelled at mathematics, began teaching it as a teenager, and studied electronic engineering at University College Dublin.

But it turned out that my engineering degree would lead me in a different direction. Now, over ten years later, I work as a language hacker and speak over a dozen languages, finding work as an engineer and translating engineering documents. I have bridged the gap between right brain and left brain by putting my training and work experience to use in making me a better language learner.

One thing, for instance, that has consistently separated me from other language learners is that I have a 'ship it' mentality. In engineering, whether we are designing a bridge, a refrigerator, a circuit board or an iPhone, we have a target we need to reach. Perfection is impossible in our field - there are heat losses, friction, molecular dispersion, cooling issues, and many other limitations we have to deal with. But we deal with them and ship the end product by the deadline.

This 'imperfectionist' attitude has served me well in learning new languages.

In languages, challenges crop up. There may be particular aspects of learning a language that slow you down, a lack of good study materials, days of low motivation, and so on. To resolve these issues, I take an engineering approach and assign myself a very specific target and a very specific deadline, and I do what it takes to reach my goal.

I allot myself a three-month window to reach B2 upper intermediate level on the European Common Framework scale of reference, which is essentially 'social equivalency' to my native tongue without professional equivalency.

I look at language learning like a system that has a feedback loop constantly informing me of what is missing until I reach my next milestone. Rather than aiming to perfectly master a language, I make the little parts of the language work to meet my needs now, and then I build on upgrading my capability.

Along the same lines, designing a smartphone from scratch seems impossible until you break it up into the individual components involved. Get the touchscreen working to a given degree of accuracy, squeeze the processor into a given space, test the Bluetooth receiver, and continue moving forward. Each one of these is an achievable task when taken one at a time and given focus.

Learning a language with a non-engineering approach means you may go into the project with a vague, non-specific goal such as 'learn Spanish', in which you try to do everything at once. Instead, an engineer will systematically build the foundations, add scaffolding, make a skeleton structure, and then build on that, knowing which component he or she is focused on at every moment. With time, the structure gets closer to a building ready for the real world, but while it evolves can still be used by the builders to have lunch in and do other non-essentials.

The same process occurs in languages. You begin by learning the basic vocabulary and phrases you need to perform your immediate priority functions, such as asking simple questions. Next you expand on that and work towards higher-capability tasks, like holding longer conversations. You work up the evolutionary chain, with a short-term target always in mind.

Put your engineering background to work in learning a language, and you may find that you can 'ship' something in a surprisingly short time.

Benny Lewis is a tech-nomad who finances his itinerant lifestyle with his hugely successful blog, www.fluentin3months.com

He is the author of 'Fluent in 3 Months', published by Collins this month. E&T readers in the UK can get a 30 per cent discount off the £9.99 RRP by using the code FLUENT30ET when ordering at www.collins.co.uk before midnight on 30 April.

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