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.”


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.”


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


Less useful: No review 

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


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


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


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


No matter what 

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

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 ( ). 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) 

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.