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. 

A verb drill method to die for

With practice, you’ll remember verb forms quickly.

One challenge many people have in learning to speak a language fluently is having to pause and remember the correct verb forms. Beginners following the “speak from day one” approach can avoid the problem temporarily by talking like Tarzan (as suggested by Benny Lewis). But most people (myself included) prefer to delay speaking practice–and, in any case, we would like to be good at grammar eventually so we can speak at a high proficiency. Furthermore, many people are in classroom settings and have to take tests which emphasize grammar. 

There are many solutions: lots of writing practice (for example, a daily journal written in your target language), the sentence-forming-aloud method that I use (similar to Michel Thomas’ method), grammar exercises, Audiolingual drills (sometimes masked as communicative activities), sentence copying, memorizing by rote or with flashcards, and probably others that I’ve never heard of. 

One that intrigues me is verb drills. French Today publishes audio verb drills for French that interest me. After I improve my French pronunciation, I’d like to buy them and give them a try–though I’m strong in French grammar already and probably don’t need them. But I’d like to duplicate the same approach in other languages. This gave me a dilemma: What can replace audio verb drills?

Dice came to the rescue. Many board games come with 6-sided dice. There are 6 forms in a typical verb table. Perfect! 

For example, the Spanish verb “ser” (to be) in the present tense has these six forms (though not all forms are used in all Spanish-speaking countries): soy (I am), eres (you are–singular), él/ella es (he/she/it is), somos (we are), sois (you are–plural), son (they are). This is almost always the order you see them in tables (if all six forms are included): I, you–singular, he/she/it, we, you–plural, they. In Spanish, the “es” and “son” forms can also be used for “you are,” but that’s not true for most languages. 

Do you see where I’m going with this? On a die (singular: die; plural: dice–like mouse and mice), the number 1 can represent I, 2 you–singular, 3 he/she/it, 4 we, 5 you–plural, 6–they. Try it out for yourself. If you don’t have a 6-sided die handy, you can use a dice app instead, or use Uno cards or something. Feel free to be creative. 

Pick a language you’re studying that has these forms (Japanese doesn’t), then choose a tense you’re struggling with, and finally select a verb to practice. Look up its verb table online. For example, you can do a web search for Spanish verbs. Or, just to try out the method, use the example above: “ser” (to be) in Spanish. You might want to do the drill with just pronouns the first few times: 

1 – I 

2 – you–singular 

3 – he/she/it 

4 – we 

5 – you–plural 

6 – they 

(I can even do this while I work. I roll a die a few times, go back to work, roll the die a few times a little while later, etc.) 

See if your verbs get easier. 

And if you have to memorize case tables (for a language like Russian or Ancient Greek), there are 8-sided, 10-sided, and 12-sided dice you can use. They are sold in board game/roll playing game stores and online–and are probably in dice apps, too. 

This kind of drill is hard work mentally (which is why it can only be done for a few minutes at a time), but it might remind you of a game more than other kinds of grammar drills. And with practice, you’ll recall the verb forms quickly. Are you struggling with verbs in any of your languages? Give the method a try. 

Three chapters at a time

I study textbooks and readers in groups of three chapters.

I’ve studied textbooks and readers that range from 9 to 25 or more chapters long. Unfortunately, I often don’t finish them. If I’m on chapter 5 and have 20 more chapters to go, the end of the book can feel like it’s a long way off. And if I keep studying and reviewing the same chapter, I can quickly get bored and stop studying it altogether. There are several solutions to these problems. Here is mine. 

Instead of studying one chapter until I know it well and then continuing to the next chapter, I study the book in groups of three chapters. I try to get through the first chapter relatively quickly and don’t care how well I remember the material, then quickly study the second and then the third. By the time I finish the third chapter, I’ve started forgetting the first and I start over. Each time through, I focus on something different: The first pass, I focus on vocabulary. This is when I use my paper flashcards, if needed. (I don’t need them for Spanish or German, but I need them for Japanese.) The second pass, grammar. The third pass, how well do I understand the reading passages without peeking at the glossary or grammar section of the textbook? Then, I move on to the next three chapters. I don’t do any grammar drills or exercises. 

If the text includes listening material, I can study the audio for chapters 1-3 while I’m studying the book for chapters 4-6. In this way, I know the written material well before I start the audio. (I like to separate listening from reading. When I listen, I don’t read, and when I read, I don’t listen. I think this heightens my listening skill, forcing me to pay more attention. In conversation, after all, I don’t have any transcript to help me to understand what the other person is saying.) The delay in listening practice also prevents me from staying too long in the first three chapters. It can be done at different times and places using an MP3 player and headphones, like when I’m in bed with the lights out. When my car stereo worked properly, I used to listen while driving. 

Three chapters is the number I settled on because if I wait until I’ve studied four or more chapters before I go back to the first, I’ve started to forget the vocabulary I’ve memorized. However, if you try this approach, you can experiment with different numbers of chapters to see what works well for you and what you want to focus on each time through. 

My goal this year is to complete three intermediate Japanese textbooks, and this is exactly the approach I’m taking. 

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.