Audio courses and review

I find a certain method of review a great foundation for conversation.

Audio courses vary considerably in how (or whether) they review what they’ve already taught. I group them into three general categories based on how useful I’ve found their review methods. I find a certain method of review a great foundation for conversation.

 

The most useful: Review by creating new sentences 

Some courses teach new material by asking users to create sentences in their target language by translating sentences from English. For example, such a course might teach that hablo means “I speak” in Spanish and español means “Spanish” (the language). “How do you say, ‘I speak Spanish?’” I pause the audio and answer, “Hablo español.” The teacher or better yet a native speaker says the correct sentence, and I repeat.

The course goes on to teach other material and then comes back and reviews the word hablo by asking me to make a new sentence. “Francés means the French language. How do you say, ‘I speak French’?” Answer: Hablo francés. Now I’ve reviewed the word hablo and created a new (for me) sentence in Spanish. After an hour, I’ve said a lot of new sentences aloud, and after 10-12 hours, I find myself starting to talk to myself spontaneously in my target language. That’s a tremendous foundation for conversation. 

 

Courses in this category include Michel Thomas, Language Transfer, and Boostcamp (by Language Transfer)–the same courses I mentioned in my recent blog article, “Creating new sentences aloud, part one.” https://oregonpolyglot.com/2018/11/12/creating-new-sentences-aloud-part-one/

 

Audiolingual Method courses (such as the old FSI courses available for free on the Yojik website) fall under this category as well. Learners are encouraged to memorize the dialogs at the beginning of each lesson. Then, in the grammar drills section, certain sentences from the dialog are used as model sentences for the drills. Following cues, learners create new sentences by substituting words or somehow altering the model sentences (e.g. making them negative, changing them into questions, etc.). They then hear and repeat the correct answers. They’re supposed to do the drills with the book closed. It’s possible, however, to listen to and/or read the drills with the correct answers once or twice first, then do the drills one or more times with the book closed. No matter how it’s done, they review by generating new sentences in their target language or learning 6-12 sentences that exemplify a grammatical point instead of just 1-2 sentences. 

 

Many people claim that Paul Noble is similar to Michel Thomas, but when it comes to review, it’s not. 

 

Somewhat useful: Review by recalling already-learned sentences 

Audio courses in this category start off the same way–teaching one or two sentences that exemplify a grammatical point or a useful expression–but review by asking users to recall the sentences they learned earlier. For example, the word hablo is taught with the sentence Hablo español and reviewed with the same sentence, Hablo español.” After an hour, I’ve said Hablo español” several (or many) times. After 10-12 hours, I’ve learned a fair amount of useful example sentences, but I don’t spontaneously start talking to myself in my target language. (Other people have reported that they do, but that hasn’t been my experience personally.) 

 

There’s a way I get around this shortcoming: After a lesson, I review some of the sentences on my own, and then create new sentences by substituting words from one sentence into another (and hope that I don’t make grammatical errors in the process, since I have no one to check my work). I talked about this in my blog article, “Creating new sentences aloud, part two.” https://oregonpolyglot.com/2019/01/25/creating-new-sentences-aloud-part-two/

 

Courses in this category include Pimsleur, Paul Noble, Rocket Languages, and Glossika. They’re all fine courses. I use them and recommend them to others; I just have to work harder to supplement them in order to get the same results as the courses in the first category. 

 

Less useful: No review 

Next you have many courses that include no review whatsoever, but they at least provide a lot of example sentences. I have to split my time between continuing with new lessons and reviewing old lessons. (Granted, even in the first category, I might study a lesson twice, if the material is completely new and difficult for me–but twice is sufficient.) Here, spaced repetition might be useful. Hypothetically, I could review a lesson after a day, a few days, a week, etc. In addition to review, it’s also helpful for me to create new sentences on my own after reviewing the lesson, though I have no way to verify whether I create the new sentences correctly. (This will be the topic of my third installment which I haven’t written yet, “Creating new sentences aloud, part three.”) 

 

Courses in this category are basically audio phrase books, like the old cassette Language/30 courses (some available now for download at eStories). A good contemporary example is Book2 (also called 50 Languages), which is free of charge. I like these courses, too, but they aren’t my first choice. 

 

Some audio courses are primarily lists of words to be repeated. They’re still far better than learning just from a book without audio, but pedagogically they’re far inferior to everything I talked about above. Review means replaying the audio many times, and if I make my own sentences, they’ll probably be both grammatically incorrect and unnatural to native speakers’ ears. I would consider these courses last resorts or mere supplements. 

 

Examples include the Behind the Wheel series and Vocabulearn. Actually, a surprising number of courses aimed at tourists and inexperienced language learners fall under this category. I tend to lose interest after 10 minutes and am not motivated to review them, personally. 

 

No matter what 

My approach as a beginner is to create new sentences and to use mostly audio courses whenever possible. A textbook with a lot of audio (e.g. Dos Mundos) or dialogs with transcripts (Olly Richards’ Conversations series or Innovative Language podcasts) are helpful for reading and listening practice and can grow my vocabulary, but I tend to minimize written material as a beginner if I can. While dabbling in Tagalog this winter, I didn’t have that luxury, but in Swahili, I do. 

My order of A2-B1 conversation topics

I group topics that go together, such as travel and climates.

When I start practicing conversation with italki tutors (in 30-minute sessions), I practice the same group of topics with several tutors so that I can get good at them. After that, I move on to the second group of topics, and so forth. In this article, I make the list of topics available to my readers, in case anyone finds them helpful.

 

Background

I can already speak and listen at the A2 level and I already know a lot of grammar before I hire tutors for conversation practice. My preferred path as a beginner is to learn basic grammar and vocabulary through Michel Thomas or a similar audio course, which also gets me speaking the language immediately by translating lots and lots of sentences aloud. After 15 hours, I find myself automatically and unintentionally starting to talk to myself (think aloud) in my target language. Then I purposely talk to myself as I take walks, using a pocket or electronic dictionary to look up words I don’t know. With a lot of practice, my speaking proficiency eventually reaches A2 (high beginner). Next, I listen to dialogs on Innovative Languages podcasts to bring my listening up to A2. Once I can start understanding some of what italki tutors are saying in their self-intro videos, I start hiring tutors for conversation practice. (If you would like more information, please read my article, “Ready for conversation practice”. https://oregonpolyglot.com/2017/08/17/ready-for-conversation-practice/ )

 

I hire at least three (and hopefully many more) tutors for the first round of topics. In the second round, I choose not to rehire the tutors who have poor conversation skills or are otherwise unsuitable for conversation practice. By the third round, I generally keep about half of the tutors I started out with. After four rounds, my conversation skills have hopefully reached B1 (low-intermediate). It worked for French, Spanish, and Japanese, but I fell short in Russian because the grammar is so complex and because tutors overcorrected me so much that I lost confidence.

 

Topic selection

How did I select topics? I started by brainstorming the topics that interest me and yet are general enough to interest most tutors. (I avoid geology because it interests me but not many tutors.) Then I tried to imagine how much vocabulary I would need to have even a basic conversation on each topic, and ordered the topics from easy-to-difficult. Finally, I grouped the topics that go together. For the first round, I selected travel–but when talking about travel, people usually talk about climates and weather, too, so I grouped them together. As a polyglot, I also group travel with language. One of my motivations for travel abroad used to be in order to get more exposure to a particular language (before the internet made it possible to immerse myself in a foreign language in my own home). This made the first round of topics clear: travel, climate, and languages.

 

When I schedule my first round of sessions with several tutors, I tell them that I’ve prepared the following topics and that they can choose one or more of them to talk about from this list: Travel, climate, and languages. I don’t go in-depth into these topics (such as carry-on baggage size), but instead ask and answer questions like “Where have you travelled?”, “Where would you like to travel?”, etc. (In my article “How I use italki”, I go into more detail. https://oregonpolyglot.com/2017/08/24/how-i-use-italki/ )

 

Tutors can select any one or more of the topics I gave them. One tutor spent the entire half-hour on languages, while another covered all three topics in our session. Even within the same topic, tutors asked me different questions and I had varied questions for them as well. Every session was unique. It never got too repetitive or dull, no matter how many tutors I had (unless a particular tutor had poor conversation skills).

 

My list of topics

Here is my full list. Each round is much more difficult than the previous one:

  1. Travel, climate, languages
  2. Leisure (TV, movies, sports, music, hobbies, etc.)
  3. Lifestyle (daily and weekly routine), work, food, health and fitness
  4. Childhood, School and past careers

 

Strategies for success

I start with 30-minute sessions mainly because I get mentally fatigued quickly. However, by the fourth round, I’m usually less fatigued and start scheduling 45-minute sessions. When I approach B2 (high intermediate), I can start handling 1-hour sessions. An outgoing person could probably handle longer sessions much sooner. Of course, longer sessions are more expensive, but I also have fewer tutors by then.

 

Good tutors ask me a lot of questions so that I do most (or at least half) of the talking. In order for me to get the most out of each session, I need to give long answers to almost every question, volunteering more information than was asked for. (I write about this in my article, “Ask longer questions”–in my opinion, the most important article I’ve written so far. https://oregonpolyglot.com/2017/10/22/give-longer-answers/ )

 

Every topic required a lot of preparation. On the topic of leisure, I spent time beforehand preparing to describe my hobbies. For example, some of my tutors had never heard of the sport of orienteering (which is my favorite sport to play), so I had an example map ready to show them as well as enough vocabulary to explain how the sport is played. Likewise, I had to think about my life experiences and be ready to use the past tense(s) in order to talk about my childhood, school, and past careers (round 4).

 

Then what?

Usually, once I’ve completed these four rounds with multiple tutors, I want to take a long break from conversation practice and start reading in my target language in order to build up my vocabulary toward B2 proficiency. After a lot of reading and listening, I’m then ready for more challenging conversations. At that time, I go into depth in one topic for several sessions. I’ll talk about that in a future article.

Creating new sentences aloud, part two

From a list of sentences, substitute words to make new sentences

As I said in Part One, “Creating new sentences aloud is my main approach to learning languages as a beginner.” If a course already exists which helps me to do that (such as Michel Thomas), I’ll use it. If not, I need to create my own course in some way.

 

One way I sometimes do that is to take a long list of example sentences with audio (such as Glossika or Book2), learn some sentences by repeating a lot after the audio, deduce some grammatical rules from the sentences, and then substitute a word from one sentence into another to make a new sentence.

 

Here is an example from the old Glossika Indonesian course. This course is no longer for sale. Glossika now uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate sentences for each individual learner. But I bought the old course and used it for a while. Of course, I could still use this approach with the new course or with a different source of sentences, such as Book2. Here are a few sentences from the old Glossika Indonesian course:

  • Lihat, temanku di sana. – Look, there’s my friend.
  • Ibunya di rumah. Dia di sekolah. – His mother’s at home. He’s at school.
  • Anak-anaknya di sekolah. – Her children are at school.
  • Saya seorang supir taksi. – I’m a taxi driver.
  • Adikku seorang suster. – My sister’s a nurse.

 

This doesn’t give much to go on, but after 50 sentences, I noticed patterns and started deducing the grammar. Actually, for the first 10 sentences, I had to look up each word and find out what it meant. After that, I was able to start figuring out which English word or phrase matches which Indonesian word or phrase. (Note that it’s not always a 1-to-1 relationship. For example, the Spanish word “hablo” means “I speak.” Here, two English words equal one Spanish word.)

 

For example, I realized that the English word “my” is expressed in Indonesian with the suffix “-ku” attached to the end of a noun. Likewise, “his” or “her” is the suffix “-nya.” In the sentences above:

  • temanku – my friend
  • adikku – my sister
  • ibunya – his mother
  • anak-anaknya – her children

 

From this knowledge, I can create new word combinations, such as “taksiku” (my taxi) or “taksinya” (his/her taxi). If “ibunya” is his mother, then “ibuku” should be my mother:

  • temannya – his/her friend
  • adiknya – his/her sister
  • ibuku – my mother
  • anak-anakku – my children

 

After each sentence study session, I stop the audio and try to recall as many sentences as I can from today’s session from memory. I then pick some sentences and start substituting words from other sentences to make new sentences. For example, I can make these sentences out of the first sentence just by borrowing words from other sentences:

  • Lihat, adikku di sana. – Look, there’s my sister.
  • Lihat, taksi di sana. – Look, there’s a taxi.
  • Lihat, sekolah di sana. – Look, there’s a school.

 

And from the second sentence:

  • Dia di rumah. – He’s at home.
  • Saya di rumah. – I’m at home.
  • Anak-anaknya di rumah. – Her children are at home.

 

I can coin new words such as “taksiku” (my taxi) and create even more new sentences:

  • Lihat, taksiku di sana. – Look, there’s my taxi.
  • Lihat, sekolahku di sana. – Look, there’s my school.

 

This method works best with languages that don’t have a complicated system of verb endings or case endings. It works well with Asian languages such as Indonesian and Mandarin Chinese, and might work well for someone learning English as a foreign language. Even so, it’s best to meet with a tutor after each 50-100 sentences to correct errors in your source of sentences or in your deductions about the grammar (as well as your pronunciation errors). My italki Indonesian tutor only made a couple of corrections when I read off Glossika’s first 50 sentences with their English translations.

 

I wouldn’t use this exact method to learn Arabic, Russian, or Turkish from scratch. I could, but I would make a lot more errors along the way and it would be more painful to correct them. However, after learning a lot of grammar, it could certainly be done. This is why Glossika was intended for high beginners, not total beginners.

 

The sentence-creating approach has weaknesses which you, the reader, are probably already thinking of. I’ll address one or two of them in my third and final installment.

 

(continues)

 

2018 Introductions

Lesser-known polyglots from around the world on YouTube

I like discovering lesser-known polyglots and aspiring polyglots (language learners) from around the world, and introducing them to the global polyglot community on Twitter. Here are the ones I introduced on Twitter in 2018. Let my efforts help in a small way to eliminate the stereotype that most polyglots are white, male, native English speakers. 

 

Hyunjung Kim is a Korean woman who runs a clothing shop with her husband, and who speaks English, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese. https://t.co/SdQD981mtH 

 

Marlon Ramos is a teen polyglot in the Philippines. He speaks 18 languages at different levels of proficiency, but as yet almost nobody has heard of him. https://youtu.be/lWKtIg_6jX8  

 

Shota is from Japan and speaks English, Italian, Spanish, and French. He teaches the Japanese language and culture on his channel, with an emphasis on the correct use and meaning of common words and expressions. https://youtu.be/LJZpb-DVOto  

 

Shahidah Foster (Language Bae) is a black, American woman who speaks German, French, and Spanish and uses German in her career. She posts a lot of language tips, such as how to prepare for a job interview in a foreign language. https://youtu.be/BUlpx_uFhsI  

 

I only started doing this late in the year, so I’ve only introduced four YouTubers so far. 

 

Of course, I recommend all kinds of polyglots and aspiring polyglots on Twitter. This kind of introduction is just meant to overcome stereotypes and introduce YouTubers that you are less likely to encounter elsewhere. I hope to discover and introduce many more this year. If this interests you, feel free to follow me on Twitter. https://twitter.com/and_e_r  

Social media

If you like my blog, follow me elsewhere.

If you wish to follow me on social media, here are the links to do so. 

 

  • On Instagram, I post short videos of myself speaking other languages (just Japanese so far), post samples of my language notebooks, show you what books I read and study, and even post photos of my other favorite hobbies: orienteering and hiking. https://www.instagram.com/and_e_r/  

 

  • On YouTube, I post a variety of videos that follow no pattern: speaking Russian, dabbling in Swahili, giving a tour of my bookshelf, and sharing my perspectives on language learning. In addition, I have links to other YouTube channels I follow and a playlist of other people’s tips about learning languages. https://www.youtube.com/user/akr2006  

 

  • Twitter is where I’m most active: I introduce upcoming polyglots from around the world, announce new posts on my blog and social media, share other people’s blog articles, and even write an occasional pun. If you want to know what I’m up to in my languages, follow me on Twitter. https://twitter.com/and_e_r  

 

  • On Facebook, the only language-related activity I do is to participate in polyglot groups. However, I do that less and less. I rarely accept new friends on Facebook, so I won’t post my Facebook link here. 

 

If you like what you read on my blog and want to follow me on Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter, please click on the links above and then click the appropriate Follow button. Maybe I’ll follow you as well. 

Creating new sentences aloud, part one

This approach saved my Japanese and Korean

Creating new sentences aloud is my main approach to learning languages as a beginner. 

 

It prepares me for conversation (because when you speak, you’re always creating unique sentences–and if you can’t speak, it’s probably because you haven’t mastered that skill yet in the language you’re learning). It teaches me grammar without drills or exercises. It teaches me vocabulary with less memorization and less reliance on memory techniques such as mnemonics, memory palaces, or spaced repetition. It helps me to review and remember what my courses teach me, and makes the courses themselves less tedious and boring. It allows me to practice my languages anywhere, even in bed with the lights out or while taking walks. And it boosts my confidence and my motivation. For me, it makes learning more fun. 

 

There are other polyglots that use this technique regularly: Jan van der Aa and Lucas Bighetti. They created a business that sells a course series called Boostcamp which follows this approach. I’m taking their German and Russian courses now. Their company is called Language Boost. I’ve heard of other language learners creating written sentences to practice new grammar, but I rarely hear of this technique being done with spoken sentences. 

 

There are several ways I go about this. First, if a course of this sort has already been created, I’ll use it. The ones I know about so far are Michel Thomas, Language Transfer, and Boostcamp. (I don’t count Pimsleur and Paul Noble because they tend to review the same sentences over and over again. I need to create as many new sentences as I can in order for this method to work.) These three courses all teach one word or a very small grammar point at a time, and then give sentences in English for learners to translate into the target language. After pausing the recording and translating the sentence aloud, I resume the recording, hear the correct answer, and then repeat that. By the end of each hour of the course, I’ve created many new sentences in the target language and immediately had my errors corrected. 

 

If a course doesn’t exist, one thing I often do is find a course that has a lot of example sentences or dialogs in audio recordings, such as Glossika, Book2, or an Audiolingual Method course. I generate new sentences based on the sentences in the audio. But my method in this case will require a little time to explain (I think), so I’ll save that explanation for the second part of this blog post. 

 

Another option is to find a list of high frequency words that are often used in conversation and add some words I look up in a dictionary (because there are words which I use frequently but other people don’t, such as hobby jargon). Currently, I’m using the Vocabooster Indonesian course (also by Language Boost) which is a list of 500 words and expressions used frequently in conversation along with an example sentence for each and a casual language variant of the example sentence. I use whatever tools I can to help me with that list, such as Forvo (for pronunciation). If example sentences aren’t provided with the list, Tatoeba or Reverso Context are good tools to provide example sentences showing how those words are used in sentences–however, I haven’t used those websites much yet, though I feel that I should. 

 

The last option is to create my own materials by skimming through a grammar reference book or textbook for grammatical constructions that I want to use in conversation, writing brief notes and/or example sentences in a pocket notebook, and then using the notebook to practice creating my own sentences while I go hiking or take walks (somewhere where not many people can see me). I often have a second notebook for vocabulary I want to learn, or I use a pocket-sized topical vocabulary book (such as the series by Barron’s). 

 

The human mind seems to be inefficient when it comes to memorization. When we try to memorize grammar or vocabulary, we often end up with huge lists of words to review (even with the help of spaced repetition software) and then we still forget the words when we want to use them. I believe that using vocabulary is the best approach to remembering it–and the same goes for grammar. If we want to read well, we need to encounter the grammar and vocabulary a lot in our reading. If we want to speak well, we need to use the grammar and vocabulary a lot in our speaking (in context–that is, in sentences, monologs, or conversations). But as you can imagine, there are weaknesses to this approach, and those will be the topic of the third part of this blog article. 

 

What I can say is that this approach saved my Japanese and Korean. I couldn’t find courses I liked for Korean. Even the courses I liked for other languages weren’t as good in Korean. With this approach, I created my own study materials and kept learning the language. As for Japanese, I had studied it for years but still had no ability to converse in it, and this approach prepared me for conversation by helping me to learn a lot of grammar so that I could express a wide variety of thoughts and ideas when I speak. You can see the results in my Instagram account ( https://www.instagram.com/and_e_r/ ). I achieved B1 conversational skill a year or two ago (but only practiced reading since then, so now I’m working my way back to conversational B1 and beyond). 

 

(to be continued) 

How I became an auditory learner

I hope my example will show you that it’s possible to train yourself to switch modes of learning.

Like most people, I started out preferring to learn languages primarily visually, from textbooks and the like. Audio input was also important, but it was meant to support the written textbook and certainly not to stand alone. As a result, I tended to know spelling better than pronunciation, and reading was a lot easier than listening. 

Fortunately, one of the first foreign language courses I bought (after completing Spanish Now, Level 1, a self-study textbook with audio found in many US bookstores) was Just Listen ‘n Learn Spanish published by Passport Books. It was a textbook with 3 audio cassettes (yes, this was a long time ago), but the book was intended to support the audio rather than the other way around. The course (now way out of print) was centered around short dialogs between a couple of hosts and native speakers. If they weren’t speaking at native speed, they at least spoke fast enough to maintain their natural intonation and rhythm. To me, as a beginner, it felt like they were speaking native speed. I get the impression that the host or hostess would guide the conversation, but that they couldn’t control what the native speaker would say–except in the listening exercises at the end of each section, which were totally scripted and slowly-spoken. I loved that course. It was also my first introduction to a primarily input-based approach to language learning. 

I also bought and started studying Practice and Improve Your French (also on cassettes with books to support them), which was even more listening-based than the Just Listen ‘n Learn series–but targeted to low-intermediate or high-beginner learners. The dialogs were scripted, but read by enthusiastic voice actors which made it entertaining. 

I struggled a lot in Japan and South Korea because I still preferred to learn visually, and because I’m a reclusive introvert. Even though one of my goals for living in Japan was to master the language, I spent most of my spare time doing reading practice and never learned conversation until years after I returned to the US. 

Then I started delivering pizzas and driving hour-long commutes to various IT temp jobs. This gave me a lot of potential study time in my car but little time in front of a desk (which was–and is–usually too messy to study at anyway). This situation forced me to change my study tactics. 

I either had to use completely-audio materials (such as podcasts intended to teach a foreign language to beginners) or primarily-audio materials (Audiolingual Method courses, which included a textbook but which were intended primarily to be studied by audio). Over time, I discovered Pimsleur (which I studied for a long time but then got sick of) and then Michel Thomas (which I still love). More recently, I discovered Glossika (which I like) and Language Transfer (which I like even more). I’ve spent a lot of time listening to podcasts by Innovative Language (which I like) and Deutsche Welle (which I love). 

When there is an accompanying textbook or PDF, I either listen to the audio first before reading the text (e.g. podcasts), or I read the textbook first and then put it away and use only the audio (as in the case with Audiolingual courses). 

Over the past few years, I’ve grown accustomed to learning primarily via audio. I no longer study in my car (because of concerns of distracted driving, and also because of problems with my car stereo). However, I study more and more in bed with the lights out. I try to study every morning when I wake up, working on making it a habit. Less regularly, I often study either when I go to bed (listening to dialogs until I get sleepy) or when I wake up in the middle of the night (making it easier to get back to sleep). 

If there are transcripts of the dialogs to read, I do so during my lunch break at work, and only after hearing the dialogs a few times. 

All of this listening and speaking makes it much easier for me to speak the language. Good listening comprehension takes a very long time to learn even with a mostly-audio approach, but it still comes easier now than it did when I used a primarily visual approach to learning. Now I often discover myself talking to myself in this or that language, spontaneously and unintentionally. That didn’t happen when I learned from primarily visual materials. 

Eventually I practice conversation with tutors via italki, but I’ve already written blog posts about that. Note that resources like italki and Skype didn’t exist when I started learning languages, and I only discovered them a few years ago. 

I hope my example will show you that it’s possible to train yourself to switch modes of learning. If you want to master conversation and listening eventually, try to rely less on written resources for learning languages. Find a balance that works for you, but it might take you a long way out of your comfort zone and even be frustrating sometimes. That’s normal: It doesn’t mean you’re stuck forever in a visual mode of learning. It just means you need more practice with audio resources.