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.

Learning to talk in a foreign language

Many language learners have difficulty with even putting a sentence together.

Many independent language learners–following the approach typically taught in schools–get good at grammar and/or vocabulary, but when it’s time to converse, they have difficulty with even putting a sentence together. There are a number of ways to resolve this problem.

Conversation involves at least two components: understanding what the other person is communicating and then somehow communicating your own thoughts. Understanding combines listening, paying attention to non-verbals such as facial expressions and gestures, and some background knowledge of the situation and culture. Speaking ideally should also include non-verbals and background knowledge (because it’s easy to assume that the other person knows what you’re talking about, but maybe they don’t). However, in this article, I’m only going to talk about forming sentences aloud, which is a major component of conversation.

 

Translating in your head? No problem

Thinking in your native language is often blamed for problems with forming sentences quickly, but that’s not necessarily the cause. It’s possible to get quick at thinking in your language, translating in your head, and still forming sentences aloud in a reasonable time. And with practice, you’ll find yourself translating less and less. Eventually, you’ll only translate when you try to say a sentence using a grammar form that you don’t know well.

Also, avoiding translation in the beginning is difficult for most people who learn languages on their own. Very few beginner courses are free of translation, plus translation is an excellent method for learning another language. In short, don’t concern yourself about whether you’re translating or not: Just pick a robust method of learning the language, practice often, persevere, and trust the process.

 

Many options available

All methods require a lot of time. Immersion by itself is known to work in the long run, but can be too slow, frustrating, and/or boring for many adult beginners to start with. Nonetheless, it’s certainly an option for those who want to use it. At the intermediate and advanced levels, some sort of partial or full immersion (i.e. a lot of listening and speaking) are mandatory for advancement, and certainly some listening practice is needed at all levels to make your speech sound less strange and foreign. Furthermore, technology is making it easier to read and listen more at an earlier stage in your learning. Just don’t feel obligated to get only or mostly input in the beginning if you don’t want to. This is just one approach to solve the problem.

Writing is another approach that some learners report has helped them greatly with their speaking. Whether you do the exercises in a grammar workbook, do creative writing in your target language, participate in text chats on the internet in that language, or keep a daily journal where you write only in that language, writing a lot can get you used to the grammar, vocabulary, and sentence formation in general. All of these will make it easier to speak later–but not necessarily easy. If you tend to avoid conversations in your native language, expect even more difficulty in another language–but writing a lot for a few months could make other approaches easier later on.

A specific form of writing that makes conversation a lot easier for me personally is to select a topic, then write some deep questions in the target language that might be asked in conversation, each followed by a one-paragraph answer of how I personally would answer it. Even if those specific questions don’t come up in conversation, I find I’m more prepared and can converse a lot more easily. (I write about this method more in depth in other articles on my blog.) A related method taught by Benny Lewis in his Language Hacking textbook series is to script a paragraph where you describe an aspect of your life (your family, a hobby, your favorite music, etc.) and then memorize that script so it’s always available whenever you converse in that language. Similarly, you can write and memorize quick answers that you can give to common questions such as whether you’re married or how long you’ve been learning that language.

A translation method could make it easier to understand how sentences are formed so that you can start forming your own sentences in conversation. Luca Lampariello, an Italian who has brought at least his Russian and English to very high levels of proficiency and who does public speaking in both languages, starts every language with a translation approach. He reports that it hasn’t worked as well for him for Japanese, but for European languages (not just languages similar to Italian), he reports very positive results. Bidirectional translation (Luca’s and Assimil’s method) involves translating a short text from your target language into your native language or English or another language you know well, comparing it to an existing translation, then translating it back into your target language, and checking it again. Innovative Language podcasts (such as FrenchPod101) are potentially good sources of texts (dialogs) that have both the target language text and the English translation on their downloadable PDF’s. Assimil textbooks are specifically designed for this method.

Audiolingual courses (such as the old FSI courses that are in the public domain–in other words, legally free for download) have been criticized and are therefore underutilized as an option. In my personal experience, they make a good supplement to other methods and resources, and have certainly helped me in the area of speaking and forming sentences. Specifically, the Russian grammatical forms that I feel most comfortable using in conversation are the ones I learned in an audiolingual course (Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al.). This particular textbook is not in the public domain, but Indiana University has made the audio freely available to the public. These courses are all very dry and tedious and won’t appeal to the average language learner, however.

Mass memorization of sentences, phrases, or dialogs is another method which requires a lot of patience but can make your speech a lot smoother-sounding and probably easier. But “mass” is the keyword here in that just memorizing a few dialogs or a few hundred sentences might not be enough to make speaking easier. However, it could be enough to immediately improve your pronunciation and especially your prosody (accent, rhythm, and intonation). You don’t even have to memorize anything completely, just repeat them many times over a period of days or weeks. Also, as I found out when I dabbled in Tagalog, it can be difficult for a complete beginner to start at the sentence or phrase level instead of with individual words–plus it’s a lot harder for me to memorize anything as a middle-aged adult. Book2 and Glossika both use this approach, and they provide thousands of sentences for you. In both cases, you can even select a source language that isn’t English: for example, you can learn Spanish from French or Vietnamese from German.

Sentence mining can be combined with mass memorization. Sentence mining means that you select sentences (or, if you prefer, 2-5 word phrases) yourself from your reading or listening. Combining mining with memorizing means that you can be sure that your speech will sound more natural and comfortable to any native speaker of that dialect that you converse with later. The disadvantage is that it’s difficult to collect both the audio and text of a sentence together. If you only copy the written sentence and memorize it, how do you know if you’re pronouncing it correctly? You can always pay a native speaker to record the sentences for you, but that’s not always possible or convenient.

Finally, you can just converse a lot in your target language–preferably with a paid tutor if you can afford one–even as a beginner. This is the “speak from day one” approach popularized by Benny Lewis. It can be the most painful and difficult way at first–but like almost everything in life, it will get easier with a lot of practice. A good tutor will be patient with you and can help you a lot along the way, but you might have to try several tutors before you find one that you can work well with. Of course, practicing conversation is the only way to get good at it, but this approach starts a lot sooner than most people are comfortable with. It can be combined with any approach above for best results, using other methods on the days when you don’t have a session with your tutor.

 

My own path

As for me, I like to start with some listening to get used to the way a language sounds, then follow an audio course that specifically trains learners to create sentences aloud (my favorite of which is Michel Thomas–except for Mandarin Chinese). If no such course is available, I write the grammar I want to learn in a notebook and make a lot of my own sentences aloud (which works really well for me with Japanese and Korean, but which I find harder to apply to Russian)–and I also have to do more reading and/or listening, if I have to do it this way. Eventually I start spontaneously talking to myself in the language a little bit. From that point on, I purposely practice talking to myself with the help of a dictionary and/or topical vocabulary book. It’s hard at first but eventually becomes fairly easy. Then, I do a lot more listening practice to dialogs for beginners for a few months, then hire italki tutors for conversation practice via Skype for a few months. This approach works really well for me, but of course not for everyone. I explain each of these steps at length in other blog articles.

 

No one-size-fits-all

Don’t believe anyone who claims that everyone should learn a language in a particular way, especially if they downplay all other methods. Every successful foreign language learner has their own path of learning that works well for them. There is no method that works for everyone. Likewise, there is no method that doesn’t work for anyone. I’ve just summarized many different approaches–any of which, when followed for a long time, will make forming sentences in conversation a lot easier.

An exception is if some kind of mental or emotional illness (such as a social phobia) prevents you from conversing even in your native language. In that case, an input approach (mostly listening but with some reading) can at least allow you to understand what the other person is saying, even if you can only give brief answers yourself. Add writing if you enjoy it.

Try any of these methods and persevere with it if you enjoy it, or try another method if you don’t. They work best in combination: For example, I discovered that I improve in a language faster and retain it longer if I work on grammar, conversation, and listening every week.

Keep changing your approach, or your languages will plateau

Every time I discover that I have a new skill or that something is starting to get easy, I change my approach.

People speak often of being stuck at an intermediate plateau. I’ve even heard of a beginner plateau. And many of us wonder if we’ll ever get beyond C1 to reach C2 in any of our languages. The plateaus have various causes, but one of the most common causes is that we each stick with a method that worked for us before but it’s not working for us anymore and we don’t realize it.

 

Luca Lampariello first drew my attention to this problem. He said in a video that you’ll have to do something different to reach the advanced level than what you did to reach the intermediate level. (Here’s a link to the video. https://youtu.be/NySKjOTbHsU)

 

To give a personal example, I went from B1 (low intermediate) to B2 (high intermediate) in French primarily by reading graded readers and then novels, and by listening to similar material. But I was stuck at B2 and made no further progress until I started reading and listening to the news. I’m still at B2 but noticeably closer to C1, at least in reading and listening comprehension. My next steps will probably be to read schoolbooks or textbooks in French, write essays, give speeches and participate in debates, learn slang and a lot of idioms, and listen to a lot of You Tube vloggers in order to attain C1. Once I reach C1, my next steps will probably be to take free university courses (MOOCs) in French and to create documentary-style YouTube videos in French.

 

Here’s my path–now make your own

Here’s my path from absolute beginner to a B1 conversational level, which I follow for each language I learn. Yours is undoubtably different, but notice how I change my method of study a few times along the way. If you feel stuck at whatever level you’re at, hopefully my example will motivate you to experiment with different methods or materials in order to advance to the next step in your learning. Once you do this successfully with one language, write down the various methods you used and when, and this can be your template for the next few languages you learn. (For more information, read my article, “Templates and Innovation in Language Learning.” https://oregonpolyglot.com/2018/03/22/templates-and-innovation-in-language-learning/)

 

First, I play with the new language, I dabble, I listen to people speaking it on YouTube. I call this the “honeymoon phase” and Shannon Kennedy calls it the “discovery phase” (or something like that). In languages where I skipped this step, I developed motivational problems later. The goal of this first step is to start falling in love with my new language. For me, it means falling in love with the way the language sounds or its grammar–some aesthetic quality of the language itself. For other people, it could mean falling in love with the culture or with the people who speak it, with its literature or music, with a country where it’s spoken, or something else associated with the language. (I also work on my pronunciation a little at this stage and at every stage hereafter.)

 

I’ve always had a bad habit of talking to myself (i.e. thinking aloud), but now I use it to my advantage to practice speaking foreign languages. I’m introverted and quickly become tired even while conversing in my native language, so talking to myself is how I prepare for conversation practice in each of my foreign languages. I speak almost from day one, but I don’t converse from day one. Logically, if I can’t even talk to myself, how can I expect to be able to talk to anyone else?

 

However, after my honeymoon phase, I know very little vocabulary or grammar, so even talking to myself is impossible. My approach as a beginner is to create as many sentences aloud as I can, with each new vocabulary word or grammatical form that I learn. This approach is more effective for me personally than memorization or grammar exercises. If I have access to a course that uses this approach (like Michel Thomas), I’ll use it. If not, I skim through textbooks and grammar books for grammar forms and vocabulary I think I can use in conversation, write it in a pocket notebook, and make sentences aloud based on my notes in my notebook. I sometimes use paper flashcards for a couple of days, then throw them away and practice making sentences with the words on the cards. Making new sentences is one of the building blocks of conversation anyway.

 

At some point, I spontaneously start talking to myself in my new language unintentionally. This happened to me in Russian after about 10 Michel Thomas CD’s and in German during the fifth CD. There was no Michel Thomas or similar course for Korean, so I used my notebook method, and it took a lot longer to reach this stage–but I persevered and got there eventually. Even using the notebook method, I supplement it with whatever audio courses I can find (such as Pimsleur).

 

I sense growth, now change up my method

Once I start spontaneously talking to myself, I add something new to my routine. I continue learning grammar and vocabulary by making sentences, but I also do deliberate speaking practice. I take walks and talk to myself (think aloud) in my target language as much as I can, using a bilingual dictionary on my phone to look up words I don’t know as I need them. At first, it’s really difficult. But it gets easier and easier and eventually I get into the flow of speaking. Then it’s time to make another change.

 

I continue learning grammar and vocabulary a little bit, and I continue talking to myself sometimes, but now I spend most of my time listening to the language and building up my listening comprehension. After all, how can I have a conversation with a native speaker if I can’t understand what they’re saying? For German, I’m using the free Deutsche Welle podcasts for beginners. For most other languages, I use Innovative Language podcasts. For Korean and Japanese, I read dialogs from textbooks and then listen to the same dialogs. (I prefer beginner textbooks where the audio is quickly spoken.)

 

From time to time, I go to the italki website and listen to its teachers’ self-introduction videos. After a few months of listening practice, I can start to understand at least some of the things they’re saying in their videos. Once again, I sense that I can do something that I couldn’t do before, and that’s my cue to change up my methods again.

 

What’s next? Conversation practice

Now I hire a lot of italki tutors (the cheapest ones I find that I’m interested in talking with) for 30-minute conversation practice sessions. I select topics in advance and prepare them, then I talk with one tutor after another about the same group of topics. When they start getting easy, I switch to the next group of topics. (See my blog article for more details. https://oregonpolyglot.com/2019/02/02/my-order-of-a2-b1-conversation-topics/)

 

Once I can talk on a dozen or so topics, I’ve typically reached the B1 (low intermediate) conversational level. That’s my cue to change my approach again. Now I start reading a lot of interesting material in order to build up my vocabulary as my first step from B1 to B2 (high intermediate). I gradually add listening back into the mix, then more conversation practice with deeper conversations on one topic.

 

What this means for you

In summary, every time I discover that I have a new skill or that something is starting to get easy, I change up my approach. At the very least, I change the material that I’m reading and listening to. Gradually, I work my way up from beginner materials to materials for native speakers. This is how I overcome plateaus and make progress in each of my languages.

 

No two people learn foreign languages in exactly the same way from beginning to “end.” We each follow our own path. Even if two learners start out learning in exactly the same way, they’ll diverge at some point along the way. If you interview a bunch of people who learned a language to the high intermediate (B2) level or above, each will have a unique story to tell. In this article, when I describe my own path, it’s by way of example. You can try my and other people’s ideas, but in the end, you’ll end up with your own path.

 

As you make your own path for learning languages, remember to keep changing your direction from time to time. Otherwise, you’ll realize that you aren’t getting anywhere.

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.

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.

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)

 

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.