Why and how I use paper flashcards

For vocabulary to use in conversation, I primarily learn new words by using them in conversation

Some language learners rely heavily on memorization to acquire new vocabulary (such as Jan van der Aa and Olly Richards) while others don’t (such as Steve Kaufmann). I use flashcards, but not as my primary means for learning vocabulary. 

For vocabulary to use in conversation, I primarily learn new words by using them in conversation or while thinking aloud (talking to myself). I combine two approaches: (1.) I prepare for conversation practice by selecting a topic well in advance, looking for useful words in topical vocabulary books (especially those by Andrey Taranov and Barron’s), writing questions and answers on the topic in my target language, talking to myself on the topic for practice while looking up words in a dictionary as I need them, and then practicing conversation with tutors on Skype. (See my blog post “How I use italki” for details.) (2.) During our conversation sessions, the tutors type new words and error corrections for me. When I invest the time to study those new words between sessions (and I’m not consistent about doing this), I can use them during the next session. If I use a word a few times in conversation, I tend to remember it after that. 

For vocabulary in reading, I reread the same passages, read more novels by the same authors, or read more non-fiction on the same topic (such as several news articles on one topic). After I’ve read a word enough times, I eventually remember it for future reading. Sometimes I only have to read it a couple of times—sometimes many, many times—but it eventually becomes part of my known vocabulary. 

How can I learn words even more effectively using these methods (reading and conversation)? And how do I handle the difficulty of 2000-3000 Chinese characters encountered while reading Japanese? By supplementing my learning with paper flashcards. 

Since I learn words by using them (in reading or conversation), I don’t usually need to use mnemonics, Spaced Repetition Systems (such as Anki), memory palaces, the Goldlist Method, or other means. In fact, these approaches are too slow for my purposes. For example, Anki only reviews a word once a day, once every few days, or even once every few weeks. It won’t help me with the article or novel I’m reading now. I need something quicker. Also, with Anki, sometimes I skip a few days, and I eventually get tired of Anki and can’t bring myself to use it anymore. Both of these problems work against the SRS system of Anki. 

Paper flashcards come to the rescue. I can study them several times a day if I want, easily add and remove cards, have few decks or a lot, combine decks when they get small, and feel a sense of accomplishment as each deck gets smaller. If I’m distracted away from that language for a few days and don’t review my cards, I don’t feel guilty or penalized. Also, making my own cards helps me to learn them, and writing them by hand helps me to learn them. From the moment I write a card, I begin to learn it. 

I use half-size index cards or smaller. I either buy them at an office products store (or online–Oxford 10009 or similar, look it up) or I cut a regular index card into halves or thirds with scissors. They don’t need to be clean and neat because they’re only for my personal use. Remember, perfectionism is an enemy to language learners. 

When I started learning my first language independently (Spanish, when I was 17 years old), I cut up envelopes into small rectangles to make flashcards. If you’re a poor student, look for junk mail envelopes and other junk paper from the recycle bin with blank areas that you can cut up to make flashcards. If you must use an app instead of paper, look for an app that will let you have control, rather than an app like Anki that gives you limited control (such as the option to review a deck a second time in one day), but which isn’t designed for quick memorization. 

For my purposes, I actually memorize individual words out of context rather than memorizing sentences which contain the new words. If I used flashcards as my primary means of memorizing new words, I should definitely memorize whole sentences (or at least phrases)! I remember when I lived in South Korea and tried to learn Korean, after a while the Korean words started sounding alike and I couldn’t memorize them via flashcards anymore. Besides, the mind learns best in context. However, I already learn in context (through reading and conversation), so I don’t have to worry about that. I save time by memorizing individual words. 

My plan is to dash through many cards quickly and immediately use them rather than trying to learn them via flashcards. In fact, if I don’t use them within 48 hours after I remove them from my decks, I forget them. But since I am using them (and not just memorizing random lists of words from a textbook), there’s no problem. 

If I’m using the cards to help my reading (primarily to help me recognize new characters in Japanese which I encounter in my reading), I put the target language (Japanese) words on the blank side of the card and my native language (English) words on the lined side. The blank side is the front and the lined side is the back. I flip cards over from the bottom rather than left-to-right because that’s easier on the wrist. In other words, the words on the back are actually upside down. But after I flip the card, they’re right-side up again. The English side can be messy, with scribbled-out letters or extremely messy handwriting, but I try to make the Japanese side as clean and neat as I can. If I make a mistake while creating a card, I tear it in half and throw it on the floor or the desk, then later I put the pieces in the paper recycling box where the junk mail goes. 

If I’m using the cards for speaking, the lined side (with the English) becomes the front of the card and the blank side (with the target language, for example Korean) becomes the back. I still flip the card up from the bottom rather than left-to-right to preserve my wrist. The difference is, in this case, I try to make both sides somewhat clean and neat (without cross-outs)–but not perfect. The front should be clean-looking because it’s the clue I use for memorization. If I crossed out a wrong letter, the smudge of ink could become a mental clue to help me remember the word, and I don’t want that. Meanwhile, if there are smudges on the Korean side, the word won’t fix itself into my memory as easily. 

My cards are not there for completely learning words. They exist only to help me recognize them faster when I read or recall them faster when I speak. Therefore, as soon as a word seems easy to remember, I remove it from my deck. I either throw it into my recycling box or I put it in an index card storage box. The difference is, if I recycle it, I don’t plan to review it again ever but simply continue learning the word by using it. If I store it, I can review it again if I feel it’s necessary. For example, I stopped reading Japanese for a month, and when I returned to it, I had forgotten too many words. So I opened up the storage box and reviewed all those words, then put them back into storage. 

How do I know if I remember a word well enough to remove it? If I review a list of words without the flashcards and I still remember them, I don’t need those cards anymore. If I use one while speaking, I don’t need it anymore. Or if I read it with comprehension, I don’t need it anymore. Finally, if I recall it quickly and easily while studying the cards, it can remove it (but I’d better use it within 48 hours!). 

In Japan, they also use paper flashcards while learning languages. In fact, Japanese stores sell expensive, tiny, unlined flashcard decks on metal rings. I’ve also seen larger, lined card decks like small spiral notebooks where each card can optionally be removed via perforation. There are problems with this approach. First, if all of the cards are in a particular order, you can memorize them because of the order instead of the word on the front of the card. Second, it’s harder to remove cards when you’ve finished with them. 

I shuffle the cards as I study them. I actually use my pant thighs (or two piles on a table) to sort them. When I study a word and don’t remember it or get it wrong, I move it to the back of my deck. When I remember a word easily, I remove it from the deck. But when I remember it with difficulty or had to study the same card two or more times before I could remember it, I put it on my lap. The first word I remember goes on my left thigh, the second on my right, the third on my left, etc. When I finish studying the deck, I combine the piles and put the rubber band on them. Then, the next time I study that deck, the cards are in a different order than last time. It helps if I have a few small decks rather than one large one. Otherwise, the piles on my thighs get too thick and fall on the floor. Small decks also mean less delay before I see a word again, if I fail to remember it. 

In summary, I use flashcards to speed up my recognition or recall of words, not to learn words. Reading and conversation are my primary means of learning these same words. I only select words I want to use in conversation or words I encounter in my reading. Thus, it’s unusual for me to memorize a word and never use it. And when I get sick of flashcards for a few weeks, I can continue speaking and reading and learning words without guilt or penalty–other than the frustration of my recall being slower. 

Templates and Innovation in Language Learning

Now I had a template (French) which I could use to eventually bring other languages up to B2.

Generally speaking, the first language you learn on your own (not from a class or teacher) is one of the hardest because you don’t know what works for you yet. You need to experiment until you find materials and methods that you can sustain and persevere through (and preferably enjoy, at least a little). You also need to learn how to adapt the way you learn as you become more advanced in the language: What you listen to and read at the intermediate level is different than what you listened to and read as a beginner. And you need to learn how to manage your motivation and habits through a roller coaster of emotions until you achieve the proficiency level you want. But once you’ve been through it, you can use your first foreign language as a template for languages you learn afterward. 

In my case, I studied French and a little Spanish, Japanese, and Russian in high school and college. I was going to teach French, but then I changed my mind. I didn’t study French for over 20 years after that, but then I suddenly had a strong motivation to learn it. I had a Bachelor’s degree in French on my resume, but I had forgotten it and couldn’t use it. (Unfortunately, my teacher said I was only “moderately fluent” when I graduated: I could carry on basic conversations, but my vocabulary was still too small and I didn’t like to speak it because I thought my pronunciation was bad, especially the letter “r.”) My plan was not only to revive my French, but bring it up to a fairly high level, so that my resume could properly reflect my skills. 

When I returned to French, I was surprised to learn that I still remembered most of the grammar, but only the most basic vocabulary. I had studied a half-dozen languages on my own during those two decades, but only achieved a high-beginner level in them (partly because I kept changing my mind about which languages to learn, partly because I only had books and audio courses to work with—no conversation partners, etc.). My plan was to use reading and listening to build up my vocabulary, which would have the extra benefit of reviewing grammar without effort. I focused on meaning, not form, this time around. I started with graded readers, then graded readers with audio, then LingQ, and finally novels for older children (starting with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and building up to novels for children by French authors). 

Meanwhile, I discovered the online polyglot community and learned what other resources were available to me. I hired italki tutors for Skype conversation practice and took advice from Olly Richards about how to prepare for conversation. I quickly achieved B1 (low-intermediate) conversational proficiency–and eventually, after a lot of reading, B2 (high-intermediate). 

Now I had a template (French) which I could use to eventually bring other languages up to B2. And once I reach C1 (low-advanced/academic-level) in French, it will serve as a template for bringing other languages up to C1. 

My successful template for French was to work on form (grammar and pronunciation) first, then switch to meaning (reading, listening, and conversation practice). I used courses such as Michel Thomas to help me with the grammar. My goal as a beginner is not to make my grammar perfect, but to learn enough to express my ideas in conversation. Over the past two years, I brought my Spanish, Japanese, and (briefly) Russian up to B1–and Korean will likely reach B1 by the end of this year. Meanwhile, I’m slowly building my Japanese up to B2. Japanese is more difficult than French because of the complex writing system and different grammar, so it’s taking longer. 

What if the template is hard to apply? Then I innovate. I use trial-and-error, but eventually I sometimes have to create my own materials and find my own way to make them work. This was the case with Korean. I tried a wide variety of beginner materials (Pimsleur, FSI, textbooks, etc.) but couldn’t find anything I enjoyed enough to continue studying for very long. In fact, courses that were relaxing and fun in other languages were stressful to me in Korean. Finally, I discarded them all. 

Now I skim through textbooks and grammar reference books, looking for grammar which I’m likely to use frequently in conversation. I write grammatical constructions in notebooks and create my own sentences aloud in Korean. I skim through topical vocabulary books and create paper flashcards for words I think I’ll use frequently, then talk to myself in Korean. Meanwhile, I read just the dialogs in beginner textbooks and listen to the audio recordings of those dialogs over and over until I understand them easily. I prefer textbooks whose audio is recorded at native or near-native speed. 

This innovation has been working well for me in Korean. And lo and behold: Korean has become a second template which I can use for other languages, especially languages that have few irregularities (few apparent exceptions to the grammatical rules or few additional rules which are needed to account for the variations in word endings). I’ve been using my Korean study methods for  Japanese with a lot of success, and I think I can apply them to other Asian languages I might learn in the future. 

Russian was a source of frustration for me because of its many irregularities, because of the need to match prepositions with cases, and because occasionally a different case is used than I expect. I studied 13 or 14 Michel Thomas CD’s, and these gave me the confidence first to talk to myself and then to practice conversation with tutors. But then the tutors corrected seemingly every other sentence. I tried out many italki tutors and got rid of half of them who corrected me the most or who were not good at conversation. I finally achieved B1 conversational proficiency but was completely demoralized and worn out in the end. Now I don’t know when I’ll ever have the strength to return to Russian, even though I love the way the language sounds. If I do resume it or learn a similar language, I’ll need to use trial-and-error or even innovate in order to master enough grammar so that I will be willing to continue conversation practice again. Then Russian will become a template for other languages with complex, irregular grammars. 

Once I master kanji, I’ll be able to use Japanese (for learning kanji), Korean (for learning grammar), and French (for learning conversation) as templates for Mandarin Chinese, if I choose to learn it. (Yes, Mandarin does have grammar, it just doesn’t have word endings.) 

If you’re working on your first foreign language but plan to learn more, take heart: You can use your current language as a template for future ones, making the next ones easier. If you’ve studied several languages but are now struggling with one that you find too difficult, try different materials and methods and then, if needed, innovate. There’s a lot of frustration in language learning (sometimes with the language, sometimes with the available resources, and sometimes with yourself), but a lot of fun along the way–particularly as you find yourself able to use it in more and more situations. Templates and innovation will allow you to learn a wider and wider variety of languages, if you choose to do so. 

Learning pronunciation through Wikipedia

If you are an aspiring polyglot, I recommend you take the time sooner or later to learn phonetics and phonology.

In the area of language phonetics (i.e. what consonant and vowel sounds exist in a particular language), Wikipedia has become useful and maybe accurate enough for beginners. There can certainly be errors, but that’s true for any source of information. When I consider which language to dabble in next–or when I actually start dabbling–I turn to Wikipedia first. I used to go to About World Languages (AWL), but that website seemed to have been hacked a couple of years ago, so I stopped using it. I checked it again just now and it seems to be working. 

Look up a language on either website and scroll down to the “Phonology” (in Wikipedia) or “Sound system” (in AWL) section of the article. If there is no such section, you might have to look for another article. For example, I looked in Wikipedia for “Hindi language” and found an article, but it didn’t include a Phonology section. So I looked up “Hindustani language” and found a Phonology section there. Actually, it was just a link to another article called “Hindustani phonology.” 

Once you find that section, you should see two tables: one for consonants and one for vowels. They are arranged by the area of the mouth where your tongue is most prominent (relatively speaking). For example, you move your tongue forward (toward your teeth) to pronounce /i/ (as in sing) and back (away from the teeth) to pronounce /u/ (as in rule). Likewise, you move your tongue forward to pronounce /d/ but back to pronounce /g/. 

However, the column and row headings of the table use linguistic jargon. If you’ve studied phonetics or phonology before, you probably find that terminology helpful. If not, it won’t help you at all. (Phonetics studies the sounds themselves, and phonology studies the relationship between those sounds. For example, phonetics teaches how you move your mouth to pronounce an “n” in English, while phonology shows that “n” is usually pronounced “ng” before a “k” in English–as in the word “think.” Phonology courses might teach phonetics also, or might require phonetics as a prerequisite.) 

If you are an aspiring polyglot, I recommend you take the time sooner or later to learn phonetics and phonology. You can start with something simple such as a YouTube video series or a “Dummies” book. Likewise, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) could be a useful tool for you sometimes. The IPA uses one letter of the alphabet (or even a “made-up” letter) to represent each possible sound that the mouth, nasal cavity, and throat can make, since practically all known sounds exist in one language or another. The letter “r,” for instance, is pronounced differently in different languages, so the IPA uses a different letter to represent each of those “r” sounds. Phonetics and phonology can be very dry subjects, but are a good time investment. On the other hand, if you only want to learn one or two foreign languages, you can easily get by without learning phonetics, phonology, or the IPA. 

I studied these subjects years ago while earning my TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificate at Portland State University. Lately, I’ve had to relearn them and expand my knowledge beyond the basics, in order to use Wikipedia for this purpose. Here’s how: If the column or row header includes a word you don’t know or don’t remember (such as “alveolar” or “fricative”) and you can’t figure its meaning out for yourself, just click on the word you don’t know. Chances are that it has been made into a link that will take you to another page that explains its meaning. (A link in AWL will take you to a Wikipedia article.) Sometimes, the IPA symbol inside the table is a live link to an explanation of the sound. 

If not, you can combine the column and row header for the sound, type that phrase in, and look it up–for example, “voiceless labial fricative” (known as /f/ as in fish). You can even type the words out of order. Type them in the Wikipedia search box and it will describe the sound and how it’s made. Try to figure out what you can and ignore the parts that make no sense to you. Then click the audio link on the right side of the article to hear it pronounced. Listen to it many times and repeat after it a few times, until you figure out how to approximate the sound yourself. Voila: You can now pronounce it well enough to get started. 

Eventually, I recommend having your pronunciation checked by a native speaker or a tutor of that language who has studied phonology or linguistics or who specializes in teaching pronunciation or accent reduction. If necessary, schedule additional sessions to improve your pronunciation, if you want to speak it well and be understood by most native speakers in conversation. 

This Wikipedia approach is what I take. I did this for Vietnamese when I dabbled in it last year (but haven’t had my pronunciation checked yet). The b, d, and g letters are pronounced differently in Vietnamese than in any other language I’d studied. 

Good news for dabblers

After a few rounds of dabbling, either the commitment will come or your interest will disappear.

If you have trouble sticking with one language long enough to get good at it, it might not be as bad as it seems. Learning a language until mastery takes a long time–exactly how long depends on the language and other factors–and this requires commitment. The commitment usually isn’t sufficient in the beginning. Thus, it’s easy to find yourself changing languages frequently. This month you’re studying Italian, the next Russian, and the next Japanese. 

There are unusual individuals who can start a long enterprise from scratch and remain committed from day one, for as long as it takes. Others have a motivation so strong that the commitment comes easily. Yet others have outside support (from a school or parent, for example). But most of us don’t fit these descriptions. What do we do? 

If there’s a language you really want to learn but you are having trouble being committed to it, my advice is to dabble in it. Then dabble in other languages. After that, dabble in this language again, and try to stick with it longer. Then dabble in something else. Always return to this language. After a few rounds, either the commitment will come or your interest in it will disappear. Once the commitment finally arrives, make this language a priority and a habit. Make studying it even a little everyday a part of your life, like eating or sleeping. 

Each time you return to this one language, you’ll no doubt want to review what you studied before and then continue the same textbook, course, or app. By all means do that, but also study from a different course or app at the same time. Why? Because you need to make each round of study a new experience rather than trying to repeat an old one. Mere review is demotivating, but experiencing the language in a new way is invigorating. Furthermore, you might learn that you don’t like your previous course or app as much as you thought you did. 

It is my hope that your dabbling in various languages will lead you to fall in love with at least one of them, and then you’ll be on your way toward commitment. Even with a strong interest in a certain language, it might take several rounds of dabbling in it before you find the strength to maintain a habit and persevere until mastery. 

Sentence build-ups

The point of this method is to make difficult things easy.

One of my favorite methods in learning languages is repeating recordings of native speakers, trying to speak as quickly as they do and copying their intonation, rhythm, and other aspects of their pronunciation. I pause after each sentence of a dialog and repeat it at least three times. If the sentence is too long, I pause it after each clause. Another day, I go through the same dialog again. Eventually, the long sentences that were difficult become relatively easy to say.

I believe this method has helped me immensely in my language learning. Not only does it improve my pronunciation–making it easier for native speakers to understand me–but it also improves my listening skills. The rapid speech of native speakers doesn’t bother me as much because I practice speaking quickly via this method. I believe that everybody learning a foreign language should spend part of their study time repeating after recordings–if conversation is one of their goals. It might even improve a person’s reading skills, especially if they’re a beginner.

They don’t even have to be dialogs. They could be individual sentences, such as those used in an audio phrase book such as Book2 or Language/30. Or you could do it with Glossika. Even the example sentences from the grammar section of your textbook will work, if they are also recorded in an audio file or an audio CD. If they aren’t, maybe you can hire a native speaker to record them for you.

Shadowing is a similar method which other people recommend, but which I haven’t tried. Essentially, you’re doing the same thing as I do, except you don’t pause the recording. Instead, you repeat what you heard while the speaker is still saying the sentence. You try to finish the sentence soon after the speaker did. This requires you to listen and speak at the same time. The technique sounds too stressful for me, which is why I pause the recording and repeat three times instead.

Once you have some practice repeating after recordings in your target language, you can even practice with written sentences. That is, you can use example sentences that you find anywhere–in a grammar book, in a textbook that doesn’t include audio, in a phrase book, or in a written article. With this technique, you start with the long words in the sentence and practice saying them until they are easy to say. Then you take short phrases (prepositional phrases, etc.) and repeat them a few times. Then longer phrases and clauses. Eventually, practice the full sentence until it’s easy. Review these same sentences another day. You may or may not need to build them up again.

I often do these steps in reverse order: First, I do sentence build-ups with the written dialog until I can say every sentence somewhat easily (or at least each long clause within the sentence). Then I repeat after the audio, listening for anything I’ve been saying incorrectly and focusing on correcting my errors. However, this way is risky because you can learn to say things incorrectly and then repeat them incorrectly after the audio. Still, it’s much easier (and less stressful!) to do it this way. Stress makes it harder to retain what you’re learning. If you have to adapt a method to reduce your stress, do so.

Don’t try this method for long periods of time. A few minutes here and there through your day will be much easier and give you better results, I think. If it starts becoming too difficult or you start feeling fatigued, stop. Come back later and try again. What’s difficult the first time might be surprisingly easy later or on another day. In fact, that’s one of the mottos I live by: “Everything is hard before it is easy.”–Goethe

The point of the sentence build-up method is to make difficult things easy. This includes speaking quickly, pronouncing long words, sounding more like native speakers so they understand you better, saying complex sentences, and understanding rapid speech.

Adapting an audiolingual course

Don’t feel constrained to learn a course in the way the author intended. That’s what it means to be an independent learner.

In my previous post, I explained the Audiolingual Method and mentioned some courses that use it (most of them being US Foreign Service Institute [FSI] courses whose copyrights have expired). At the end, I wrote, “In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.”

Before I do so, I want to mention a few trends since the Audiolingual Method fell out of favor. First, a handful of teaching professionals hypothesized that languages are not taught and learned so much as acquired through comprehensible input (CI)–in other words, reading and listening to a language until it becomes familiar. Note that the input has to be comprehensible, meaning that learners understand most of what they hear and read, and can guess the meanings of unknown vocabulary and grammar through context. If the input is too hard, they hunt for something easier.

Preferably, the input should also be compelling. Examples include a story which draws the reader or listener in–or a fascinating non-fiction article. As the evidence allegedly accumulates (I can’t verify this because I don’t read scholarly journals), more teachers accept this approach, but it’s still not widely accepted. Also, even Stephen Krashen (its most famous proponent) admits that he doesn’t practice the comprehensible input approach consistently. In a nutshell, people don’t learn languages, they get used to them, as Olly Richards is fond of saying.

A more popular trend (which was very popular when I was earning my post-bac certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language in the early 1990’s) was called Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). In CLT–which I practiced as I taught English in South Korea for two years and Japan for three years–the teacher creates activities for pairs of students, small groups, and sometimes the whole class to do together. These activities require students to speak with each other in their target language. For example, handouts might require two students to take turns asking and answering each other questions. It took me a long time to figure this out, but I eventually realized that many of these controlled speaking activities were essentially Audiolingual grammar drills in disguise.

The language teaching profession and the international polyglot community have independently reached the same conclusion: Different students favor different approaches to learning. Although research has discredited the “learning styles” and “learning strategies” paradigms, eclecticism is still widely favored. In other words, teachers are urged to teach the same material in a variety of ways until most of their students understand or can use new grammar and vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the polyglot community recommends that independent learners try a variety of courses and methods until they find one(s) they’re comfortable with–and these courses/methods vary over time and from language to language. In other words, a method that worked well for you when you were a beginner might not work well for you as an intermediate student. Likewise, a technique that worked well for learning Spanish might not work well for Russian or Japanese. Experiment, watch YouTube videos in order to learn new methods, expand your horizons, leave your comfort zone–and you will become a better language learner.

With this background of knowledge, what are some ways that audiolingual courses can be adapted by independent learners in order to take advantage of these trends? First, don’t feel constrained to learn a course in the way the author intended. You don’t have to do every exercise in each chapter. You don’t have to memorize every word or understand every grammatical point or pronounce everything perfectly before continuing to the next chapter. Experiment. Change up your methods from time to time. Memorize only words that you are likely to use in conversation.

Recently, I studied from John DeFrancis’ Mandarin Chinese textbooks–but in my own way. The textbooks put the dialog first, but I chose to study other parts of the chapter first (vocabulary and sentence build-ups) and then the dialog. The textbooks and audio were meant to be studied together, but I studied the textbooks first before the audio (because the audio is spoken quickly). The textbooks teach a limited vocabulary in each chapter. I didn’t memorize those words, but looked up words in the dictionary that I wanted to know, memorized those words instead, and made my own sentences using the grammar drills in the textbook with the words I looked up in the dictionary. Also, DeFrancis’ textbooks came in pairs: one textbook using the Latin alphabet (pinyin) and an identical textbook using Chinese characters. I alternated between the two textbooks in a way which made sense to me. All of these adaptations made the course easier and more interesting to me.

In the past, I used the Beginning Japanese audiolingual textbook by Jorden and Chaplin. My focus was mostly on repeating after the audio in order to get used to speaking Japanese at native speed. I also used the audio for listening practice (after reading through the chapter). By simply reading and listening to the dialogs and drills, I received a lot of comprehensible input at native speed. Granted, it’s not compelling input, but it is comprehensible for beginners. My point is, it’s not necessary to speak to benefit from audiolingual courses. You can just read and listen, then just listen.

I also studied the FSI German Basic course. But in this case, my focus was on the dialogs rather than the drills. I printed out a chapter’s dialog, kept it on my desk, and occasionally mumbled a sentence or two until they became easy to say. I resumed my work and later studied another sentence or two. I brought the papers with me to the microwave and studied them while my lunch was cooking. I did not try to study whole chapters, but merely practiced sentences from the dialog to improve my speaking fluency (fluidity).

Although I only studied a few chapters of each of these courses–never finishing any of them–they all helped me to learn these languages. The key was to select a strategy for studying each course rather than feeling obligated to do everything as designed. For example, instead of doing a grammar drill, you can just repeat the correct answers. In the process, you’ll encounter the same grammatical form in many sentences, and this will make the grammar easier to learn.

Another thing you can try is studying a course together with another learner or tutor or language exchange partner (even over Skype, if necessary). In this case, you can create communicative (CLT) activities together. For example, you can take turns asking and answering each other’s questions in order to practice the grammar and vocabulary in the audiolingual course.

As an independent learner, you can decide if and how you will adapt each course, and you can quit at any time and use a different course or method. That’s what it means to be independent. Go be independent!

What is the Audiolingual Method?

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful.

The Audiolingual Method of teaching languages was popular in the mid-20th Century in the United States. The most well-known examples today are the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) courses freely available on the Internet (because their copyrights have expired) or available for purchase from Barron’s “Mastering” series, Monolingual Books, and other sources. But some are university textbooks, such as Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al., Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis, and Beginning Japanese: Part 1 by Jorden and Chaplin. Many of these courses are taught using the Latin alphabet rather than the language’s writing system, though separate readers are available to learn to read the language.

When completing a course, learners know a thousand or two thousand words and a lot of grammar. They can’t use the language yet (in conversation, for example), but if they continue their studies independently or in a country where the language is spoken, they can allegedly learn very quickly, having already mastered the grammar. That is, they can focus on meaning–having already mastered the form–instead of having to think about both at the same time. In short, a learner using an audiolingual course starts off learning more slowly than someone using a modern method, but has the potential of surpassing other learners later. The tortoise transforms into a hare–eventually, after completing a long, tedious course. I believe it because I learned French grammar first in high school and college and couldn’t use the language, but later I could master French through reading, listening, and conversation and ignore the grammar because I already knew it.

The method was designed to be used with a teacher, a class of students, a textbook, an audio recording with hundreds of hours of audio, a language lab (because MP3 players and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and these courses were originally recorded on reel-to-reel audio tape) and some homework. Nowadays, some ambitious language learners like myself use them independently, but keep in mind that they were intended to be used with the support and guidance of a teacher.

Here’s the method: Memorize one or more dialogs which include examples of the new vocabulary and grammar taught in the chapter. Memorize it really well before continuing through the chapter! The better you memorize it, the less stressful the grammar drills will be. Also read the dialog’s notes and the chapter’s grammar explanations, but only as much as you find them helpful—that is, they aren’t the primary means of learning grammar. Then do a lot of grammar drills with the teacher and again with the audio recordings, using the textbook sparingly. That is, the drills are mostly audio. Everything is spoken at native speed even from the first or second lesson, so that you can get used to the rhythm, accent, intonation, etc. (prosody) and so that you can understand native speakers sooner. At the end of each chapter, for review, the course may or may not direct you to translate sentences and/or engage in extremely limited conversation activities.

The grammar drills are of various types. In Transformation Drills, the teacher or recording says a list of sentences and asks learners to make them negative, change them into questions, or change them in some other way. In Substitution Drills–the most common type–the teacher says a sentence and then a word. The learners take a word out of the sentence and put the new word in, changing word endings as needed to make the new sentence grammatically correct. In Expansion Drills, the teacher starts with a very short sentence, then keeps adding phrases to make longer and longer sentences.

The method is based on the behaviorist approach to psychology: Repetition and correction were believed to be the way to learn any skill, even grammar. Behaviorism is no longer commonly accepted, but the better audiolingual courses continue to be useful nonetheless. They provide many example sentences to demonstrate each grammatical form and force learners to speak and listen at native speed.

There are exceptions–such as the FSI Korean course because of weaknesses in its design and because Korean grammar has actually changed a little in half-a-century. Since FSI courses were designed for foreign service personnel, they use formal registers of speech–which is not a problem in most languages, but I think it is a problem in Korean. Native Korean speakers say they don’t talk anything like the FSI Korean course teaches.

Also, some FSI courses (notably for Portuguese) use a “programmed” method which involves listening to a lot of short language segments and selecting answers in order to make learners notice features in grammar and pronunciation. Programmed courses can still be helpful for complete beginners but they are designed very differently than the courses I’ve been describing. FSI also has pronunciation courses for French and Arabic, which are freely available for download from websites such as Yojik. I’ve never used them, so I can’t review them.

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful. The Russian grammar I’m the most comfortable with is the grammar I learned from Modern Russian 1. I could understand Japanese native speakers more easily after completing a few chapters of Beginning Japanese: Part 1. And now I’m studying Beginning Chinese because of its use of sentence build-ups to give me practice with very short sentences before I have to learn to pronounce longer ones (and because the course includes optional books which teach Chinese characters gradually with a lot of review).

In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.