Blurred lines in language learning

Distinctions are a lot more blurred than we think.

People often have questions like: What are good methods for learning grammar? For learning vocabulary? What is language learning vs. language maintenance? As I think about the answers given in YouTube videos, podcasts, and blogs, I’m starting to realize that the distinctions we often make are a lot more blurred than we think. 

  

Grammar vs. vocabulary: The best way to learn either vocabulary or grammar is to use it (through conversation, reading, writing, etc.). Vocabulary memorization and grammar exercises help, but the new information isn’t readily available for use until the learner has used it a few times. That’s why some people think they’ve learned a lot of vocabulary through a tool like Anki but then they can’t remember the words when they need to use them. Textbooks often separate the two into grammar exercises and vocabulary lists, but any good method can be used for both. Like Anki? Create an Anki deck of example sentences from your grammar book. Like grammar drills? Make your own using the grammar you’re learning and the vocabulary you’re learning. I create sentences aloud to learn either new grammar or new vocabulary. The more of either I learn, the greater the variety of sentences I can create, and this helps me tremendously when I finally practice conversation. 

  

Input vs. output approach: When most people start learning a new language on their own, they bury themselves in a textbook, app, podcast, or other resource, and only turn to reading, writing, listening, and speaking later. However, greater numbers of independent learners have been jumping into either “speaking from day one” or heavy input through reading and/or listening from the beginning. I discovered last year, however, that at least for me personally, I learn faster and retain the language longer if as a beginner I combine the three: listening and/or reading, speaking practice, and grammar. Language teaching professionals and textbook creators have been aware of it for decades, but we independent learners can be stubborn or slow to figure it out. 

  

Learning vs. maintenance: A lot of people stick to a particular method when they first start learning a language. For example, Assimil courses use the bidirectional translation approach. (For example, a French person learning German would translate a dialog from German into French, check their work, then from French into German, and check their work again.) Later, after they’ve achieved an intermediate level, they start another language using their preferred method and maintain their intermediate and advanced languages by watching movies and television or reading for pleasure in those languages. However, for the more commonly learned languages, plenty of interesting material for reading and listening are available even to high beginners, and technology is bringing native material within their reach, too. Furthermore, some people hold off on deep grammar study until they reach an intermediate or advanced level, so hypothetically that could also be used to maintain a language. 

  

Beginner vs. intermediate vocabulary and grammar: As a complete beginner, I tend to stick to “beginner” vocabulary and grammar (word order, verb conjugations, high-frequency adverbs and adjectives, the most important verbs, etc.). It doesn’t take long, however, before I actually want to talk about something such as my hobbies, interests, and lifestyle–and ask other people about theirs. For this reason, some intermediate-level grammar and vocabulary becomes useful pretty quickly. Furthermore, some people point out that it’s inefficient to spend a lot of time learning high-frequency words that they can easily learn through frequent encounters with them anyway. Start with some intermediate vocabulary from day one and you’ll learn the beginner vocabulary with little effort. Some of my thoughts are easier to express once I’ve learned some intermediate grammar, too. However, I believe that it’s better to pick and choose the grammar I wish to learn rather than try to learn all of it. 

  

Learning for pleasure vs. learning for a practical need: Some people (Olly Richards and Lindsay Williams are examples) started learning languages for pleasure or travel but later found ways to earn a living off of their language-learning skills. I learned two of my earliest languages (French and Japanese) with the intent of using them in careers (teaching and interpretation, respectively). When I changed my mind and didn’t pursue those careers, I continued the languages as hobbies. Lindie Botes mostly learns languages for pleasure, but now she lives overseas and uses at least one language in her daily life and work. It’s unrealistic to consistently put the two into different categories. Some people are brave enough to cross the line or to live in both worlds simultaneously. 

  

Feel free to blur the lines when you learn a foreign language.

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