Behind the Iron Curtain

I was born and raised in the third-largest city of Hungary, the country where I have lived my whole life. My native language is Hungarian, spoken by approximately 12 million people, and it is the last one on the list of the 100 most-spoken languages in the world.32 Similarly to Japanese, the Hungarian language does not belong to any language families; it is unique. Polyglots love learning Hungarian for an extra challenge as Hungarian grammar is exceptionally complicated. This makes learning a second language difficult for a native Hungarian speaker.

The first time I had the opportunity to study English was in secondary school back in the ’80s, behind the “iron curtain”. We had no chance whatsoever to practice the language and no opportunity to speak with native speakers. Back then, all movies were translated into Hungarian, it wasn’t possible to access English speaking channels on T.V., and the internet was not yet available for public use.

Today, almost 35 years after my first encounter with the language, though I am fluent in English and speak it at work every day, I still struggle. My knowledge is still far from that of a native English speaker, and I must continuously develop my skills.

I believe in lifelong learning; however, virtually every course I am interested in is available only in English. There are very few in Hungarian.

This has been a great challenge for me – still, I know I can overcome the difficulties and unlock every door on the way to the desired knowledge. Rather than putting my learning on hold and waiting for Hungarian translations, I rose to the challenge. Through years of painstaking effort, I have developed frameworks for learning in foreign languages. These strategies and tactics that have enabled me to overcome the impossible, I now give to you.

In this chapter, I want to share my experience and my favorite tried and tested tips that have allowed me to learn new skills in my second language. No matter what language you want to learn in, these tips will be of help to you. 

What level of language knowledge is necessary to learn a course in a foreign language?

A vocabulary of  4,000-10,000 words is considered quite advanced in most languages. In this range, you can operate in a professional setting, use more sophisticated words in regular conversations, and even do pretty well on language tests. 

In English, a vocabulary of 8000-9000 words is sufficient to understand 95-98 % of novels, newspapers, articles, and courses.33,34 You should expect extra challenges if your vocabulary is less than this, as it can have a considerable impact on reading speed and comprehension. Learning will then require more of your time, you will face more difficulties than you probably expected, and yes, it will be frustrating.

There are many ways to measure vocabulary size; I will share the most common and useful method here. I am using English as an example, but similar numbers apply to other languages. Vocabulary is often measured in lemmas, or forms of a word that appears as an entry in a dictionary. The average 20-year old American adult has an English vocabulary of approximately 42,000 lemmas. Within this word inventory a distinction is drawn between passive vocabulary (words understood when presented, but not known by heart), and active vocabulary (words known by heart), which is more limited and estimated to be less than half of the passive word knowledge on average.33,34 To estimate the lemmas in your passive and active vocabulary, visit the vocabulary size tests on my resource page at

Learning in your native language is easier and more accessible because you can understand all the lecturer’s words and phrases, even if they speak faster or in a dialect. When deciding to take a course in a second language, more motivation and perseverance are needed depending on the course, your language skills, and your personality. Learning a new subject in a foreign language presents unique challenges that can overwhelm the best of students.

Instead of getting permanently stuck on the mental block of believing that “I will always be worse than the native speaker students”, I found another driving force: the will to prove turns the disadvantage into an advantage. I had three Polish groupmates at the Medical University. They each had an extra year prior to enrolling at the medical university to learn the Hungarian language. It was in the late 80’s, so there were no online dictionaries. As mentioned above, Hungarian is quite difficult, and they had only one year to learn it from zero. I met them for the first time when we had started our first year of university. They were extremely dedicated. They were not shy and always asked if they had not understood something. And this is one of the keys: ask, ask, and ask. Two of them were in the top 10% of the class. They had never given up despite difficulties. This is not a unique situation. Difficulty produces dedication and ingenuity.  

Native speakers take their language proficiency for granted; they can procrastinate and still succeed. For non-native speakers, procrastination means failure. This weakness forces non-native speakers to be proactive, to take responsibility for their success, and to study smarter, not just harder. By reframing your language weakness in this way, you can turn your disadvantage into an advantage.

Your weakness is your strength. The extra effort you invest in learning will return to you with interest. You will gain more knowledge and experience than native speakers. Though you may progress slower, you will learn more and understand more deeply, all the while developing a “second soul,” or another perspective, through which to learn and see the world. And do not be too hard on yourself! You need to be your greatest fan rather than your worst critic. Reward yourself for every step of progress. Focus on making daily incremental progress; investing 10-20 minutes per day is more fruitful than 60-90 minutes once per week.

Be proud of your patience, endurance, and results. Improve 1% each day, and you will not recognize yourself in a year. And last, but not least, don’t compare yourself to native speakers except to appreciate your superior strategy and work ethic. 

The Two Types of Courses

There are two primary types of courses.

Common: The curriculum can be easily mastered by watching videos or reading text. This is usually not a problem even if the language is not spoken perfectly. 

Specialized: The curriculum is very technical or asks students to listen, read, and actively participate and solve tasks in the language of the course. The disproportionate use of active vocabulary and in-person application presents serious challenges to non-native speakers. 

My tips to decrease your frustration

It is easy to understand that due to the language barrier, you can’t expect the same results in the same amount of time as a native speaker; the competition is not “fair”. You should not blame yourself. You are working much harder. You can’t compare the result of the 400 meters run with the result of 400 meters hurdles. 

How to approach a “Common” course:

  1. Tutorial videos/recordings: decrease the playback speed if necessary. Several software are available that can modify the playback speed of a video even if the video itself does not have this setting (e.g., Video speed controller). This is a useful tool for slowing down the video/recording if you have difficulties understanding it. It works the other way as well. Especially when you are already familiar with its content, then it may help to speed it up to 1.2X or 1.5X depending on your comprehension level. It can save you a great deal of time.
  2. Transcript of the video/recording: check if the video/recording has a written version, or if it is possible to add subtitles. This makes it much easier to identify unknown words and phrases. Even if no transcription is offered, there are many relatively inexpensive transcription services you can use to get your own.
  3. Notes/mindmaps: a summary of the lesson in your native language or the language of the course will remind you of the keywords and concepts. 
  4. Translation into your native language: If you have difficulties understanding, most probably, you need to translate at least part of the course to your native language, but at the prospect of translating every detail causes many students to give up. Ultimately, increasing your vocabulary in the new language will always yield better results than relying on translation. Every new word you learn provides a recurring benefit that lasts a lifetime. 

How to approach a “Specialized” course: 

In addition to the previously listed tools, you might need to go a step further to overcome the challenges presented by the specialized vocabulary. Even a native speaker may not have prior knowledge of the jargon in a technical field. This levels the playing field a little bit and gives the non-native speaker the chance to keep pace with native speakers, at least in terms of learning the technical jargon. For example, the extensive special terminology in medical school will seem foreign even to a native speaker. A couple of advanced learning methods listed below are extremely useful for native and non-native speakers alike. 

  1. Spaced repetition software like ANKI. Intelligent, automated spaced repetition will drastically reduce the amount of time spent learning new vocabulary or reviewing concepts. Cramming will lead to burnout and worse results.
  2. Memory palaces. This is an advanced memory technique. The fine details are outside the scope of this chapter, but every author of this book is well versed in this skill and Superhuman Academy offers many related resources.36
  3. Major Method if you need to memorize numbers. The ability to remember numbers is often undervalued, but it can be extremely useful for mentally organizing information.37

You can find more in-depth resources for all of these tools at


I was a smart kid. I had no problem learning anything; I have never had a problem understanding and recalling information. That said, there was one area which was a real struggle for me: reading. It wasn’t comprehension that was difficult for me, rather my very slow reading speed. When I had to read aloud in elementary school, I would get nervous and make a lot of mistakes. This was not just a struggle of the past; it continues to be difficult for me. Something does not work properly in my head. My mind can read the text, but my mouth is not able to pronounce the words. It seems I have some kind of dyslexia, but it was never diagnosed because I compensated for this disability with good comprehension and fast learning skills. Most probably, my struggles came from the way I was taught to read. I guess the method is similar worldwide. The child is asked to pronounce the word aloud or with an inner voice, which means they need to involve additional organs in the reading. This connection works poorly in my case. Because of this, I hated reading, and as a consequence, my vocabulary developed much slower and still lags behind my other skills. Now, I am an avid learner with experience in a wide variety of disciplines. I love trying my hand at new hobbies and learning new skills that increase productivity and efficiency in all aspects of life. Every day, a new book or article arouses my interest. Keeping up with my constant curiosity and desire for knowledge is not easy, especially with my “dyslexia”. It does not help that the majority of these resources are not in Hungarian. 

I had to find a solution to overcome these difficulties and develop the reading and learning capacity to sustain my desire for knowledge. 

Pre-reading and speed reading have dramatically increased the volume of the information I can read and learn. It was not an easy journey though. To my great surprise, I could kill two birds with one stone. I realized why I had read so slowly; it was because of subvocalization (or inner pronunciation of words), the biggest enemy to reading speed. The highest reading speed with full subvocalization (pronouncing every word) is between 200-250 words per minute. It is hard work to decrease subvocalization and read with only your eyes. Changing decades of reading habits requires perseverance, but it is worth it. You should remind your mind from time to time that you need to read in a new way. 

During the learning process of speed reading, the language barrier steps in again. Reading in your native language and a foreign language is quite different. I was very disappointed when I realized my speed and comprehension in English was far behind my expectations. I started to learn the techniques in English. It was not a good idea. I was struggling, I gave up a couple of times, and I blamed myself. Suddenly, I had a realization: why am I trying to read in English? Why not in Hungarian? I knew the answer: I am reading in English because the books that I want to read are in English. Let’s stop for a moment. Learning a new way of reading in a foreign language is very frustrating. I read better and faster in Hungarian – despite my dyslexia. I should learn the technique in Hungarian.

There are many elements to speed reading. You need to teach your eyes how to move efficiently, reduce subvocalization, and somehow still understand what you are reading. When I realized that I do not need to pronounce the words that I am reading, I could eliminate the part of the reading process that had caused all of my struggles! Changing your reading habit does not happen overnight. Learning the technique takes a lot of attention and energy and can be very stressful for many students. You need to be extremely determined not to give up. It is hard enough in your native language to begin with, so do not add extra difficulties by starting in a foreign language. Once you know the technique, practice a lot and you will reach a good reading speed and comprehension. After that, you can start reading in a foreign language, but the speed and comprehension will most likely not reach the same level as in your native language. The explanation is very simple. Naturally, you know your native language better, it will feel more natural and comfortable than the foreign language, so it is not a surprise that you can read faster. You should not blame yourself at all, just keep swimming!

Comprehension tests are commonly used in the course of learning speed reading. The majority of these tests are in English. Do not compare yourself to native English speakers. Do not be surprised if your results are well behind them.  After all, they have spoken that language since they learned to speak. It is difficult to calculate your real result as it measures your language skill and not purely the comprehension. Do not take your results too seriously; be patient with yourself! You need to count on this extra difficulty and continue to practice.

Try to find comprehension tests in your language as it will measure your reading speed more accurately. 

Learning a new language

There are many approaches to learning languages; unfortunately, the most widely practiced is also the least effective. I am speaking, of course, of translation. Using translation as the primary means to learn a new language creates a counterproductive dependency. Not only does it limit your vocabulary in the new language to your vocabulary in the old one, but it also causes you to understand the words in the context of the old language rather than the new one. There is a better way to bridge the gap, a universal language spoken by every nation on earth: images. This is how you learned your first language! The people around you put into words what you saw and what you experienced.35

The human brain remembers smells and tastes very well, but it is hard to convert concepts into smell and taste. Visual/spatial memory is the second strongest overall, and most useful for most learning applications. It is always easier to remember educational material or a new word (in your native or foreign language) if you transform it into images – vivid, colorful, funny images. I am creating images both in Hungarian and English, as I mix the languages. For example, when I needed to remember the name VAJPAYEE, who was a prime minister in India, I divided the name into two parts: VAJ (meaning butter in Hungarian) and PAYEE (in English). I could then visualize an Indian payee getting paid in butter, which is much easier to remember than a foreign name without meaning to me. In this case, learning in multiple languages becomes a definite advantage compared to those who only speak one! 

Learning in a foreign language can be a struggle, but it can also be a great experience and fun. You can surpass the difficulties with perseverance and even end up having learned more than a native speaker.  If you can understand novels, newspapers and articles in a second language, do not worry about starting learning as this means that you have sufficient language knowledge to complete a common course. If you can overcome the fear and doubt, you can turn your disadvantage into an advantage. The extra effort you invest in learning will return to you with interest as you will gain more knowledge and experience than native speakers.

Get started and enjoy your learning!