Saturday, May 11, 2013

Language Learning in Class and on Your Own

At present I am practicing 20 languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Haitian Creole, Guadaloupan Creole,
Papiamentu, Catalán, Italian, German, Quechua, English Creole, Pennsylvania German, Chinese, Korean, Basque (aka Euskara), Gallego, Sicilian, Japanese and Guaraní. I list them more or less in the order that I know them, with everything starting with Quechua at a very basic level. I had started with Spanish, which I learned in the conventional way in school and then had the good fortune to study in Mexico and Colombia. Afterwards, I dabbled in Portuguese and French with cassettes and books. However, I had an "aha" moment about five years ago when I realized that, after listening to Dutch tapes in the car for two months, I knew that I had made progress. Then I figured out that with just a little time each day, I could do several languages as long as I was consistent. As I have a busy work schedule, I knew that I didn't have time to take classes and would have to do this on my own. 

However, if you do have time to take a class, it's definitely a good idea. Even if you do take classes, there are things you can do on your own to supplement the classroom practice. Here I present what I have learned about my own quest in learning languages; it's in rough form now but I hope to edit it in the coming weeks and months into a "philosophy of language learning." These are principles that you can apply to your own language study, though you may find that certain things don't work for you and may have to adapt them to your own learning style. If you Google "language learning," you can find several websites and blogs on the subject. There is also a book by Barry Farber called "How To Learn Any Language," which still has good tips though it was written before the Internet really took off and made language information a lot easier to find.

Language Learning Principles:

Best advice from others:
Talk to oneself in target language. Soliloquies in the long run become repetitive; it's best to get in a situation to respond to recordings as if one were having a dialogue with the speaker.
Listen to normal speech in the language even if you don't understand it, so that your ear will get accustomed to it. However, it's not a substitute for the slower grammar and vocabulary building exercises.

Use several methods (collectively they cover more vocabulary)

Things I have discovered useful:
Practice speech and writing with dictionary in front of me; write initial thoughts in English or Spanish if I'm really stuck and then
Repeat phrases to build vocabulary
After listening to text for which I have a transcript, schedule regular times to review
Create dialogues when speaking to myself
Put transcript close to where I listen; if it's buried in text, make photocopy that's easier to read
Integrate the language info into my daily routine; one tape player in the kitchen, another where I do my exercises, etc.
Listen in the car at least 5 minutes/day/language, ideally with myself speaking and responding to the recording

In speaking or writing to others: Act like I'm walking a tightrope without looking down. Assume that anything is possible. Be fearless or at least control fear. (However, I do like to wait until I feel prepared before diving in completely to speaking or writing to others. Writing is a good start because one has a chance to correct some errors before sending.)

Mixing languages in the beginning is not a crime, as vocabulary gaps are natural.
Wrong guesses aren't bad either. As a matter of fact, mixing languages in speech, normally taboo, is not so bad as long as I continue to build vocabulary that will gradually allow me to wean myself off the other languages. Fluidity in speech is preferable to stopping because I can't think of a word. Fluidity builds confidence, and practice in fluidity, with feedback when possible, gradually strips away the rough spots in one's speech.

No matter how many times I listen to something, when I go to create my own phrases I will need to draw on vocabulary that is not part of the scope of the method (book, tape, CD, computer software).

Pimsleur's principle of "graduated interval recall" is good, but a lot of methods are not structured that way, particularly vocabulary building lists. Repeating the same method will approximate graduated interval recall to a certain extent.

Studying similar languages at the same time reinforces some of the vocabulary of both languages. E.g. French "fromage" reinforces the Italian "formaggio" (cheese), Catalan "vuit" reinforces the French "huit" (eight). Confusion with similar languages happens, but not as often as I thought it would.

Mark down your accomplishments, such as if you successfully wrote an e-mail in the language you're trying to learn; this builds confidence and provides a mental payback.

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