Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What's the best language learning method for you?

Maybe there isn't one. Edwin, who can't pull himself away from the How-to-learn-any-language forums (I'm kidding), ran across something interesting the other day. A commenter at HTLAL says:
It’s interesting, because some people think some of this methods are the BEST and some of them think the same methods are useless, boring …or the WORST. Thinking about that, how is it possible such a level of contradictions between people who have succeed learning languages.
Edwin sums up what he sees as the gist of the post:
The creator of the thread proposed that there is no best method in language learning. The most important factor is TIME and LOVE devoted to the target language. He was not talking about different people might have different best methods. He was simply saying that even for the same individual, there is no such thing as ‘best method’ in language learning. Provided he is spending time with the language and keeps himself motivated, no matter what method he uses, he will get there one day.
I think this is about right. Here's the thing: Every individual has a different learning style. And to the extent that our experiences change who we are, we are a different individual every time we come to a new language or a new method. When I was first learning French, I was in a class that meandered between Communicate Language Teaching and Grammar-Translation, but with a strong Grammar-Translation component. I learned a lot about English, as well as French, and benefited enormously from being able to see in sharp relief where English and French did things similarly and where they did them differently. But today, having seriously studied a half-dozen languages and fiddled with lots more, such an approach would be most painful. Some of the languages I study are too far from English - or French - for the approach to be useful. And others are so close to English - and/or French - that it would be wasted time when a note that "here's how you do the comparative; practice!" would do.

When I started Breton, I was baffled and searched high and low for something that would tell me more about what was going on with the grammar. Now, working through the Initiation au Breton sans peine, I'm skimming the grammar explanations - I don't care because I'm following what's going on and, in talking to myself, I'm finding that the structures pop into my head anyway. A moderate bump in confidence and competence showed me that what I thought I needed wasn't what I needed at all.

Regular visitors to this site will notice that it tends to, er, wander a bit. I'll put up a lot of information on an idea for a few weeks, and them I'm off to something new. I think the novelty aspect has a big role to play here: it boosts the enthusiasm, which keeps you giving your learning extra attention for a while. And lo, when you energetically and enthusiastically work at something, you get results!

This is not to say that what I've written in the past should be ignored, that it's not really useful anymore, or whatever. It means that it's not quite right for me where I am right now. But if it sounds new, or different, or useful to you, it might be what you're looking for, at least until you get burned out on it and try something else. The neat thing here - and I've counseled this before - is that language learning isn't about following a method; it's about getting in sync with and enjoying a language.

In this light, the debates about which method is best are silly. But if they keep people talking about new things that others might not have tried yet, they're still useful. Ignore the bombast about who's best, then, and keep reading the forums and blogs. You might just find what you are looking for now in spite of everyone's best efforts to settle what's best left unresolved.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Spaced Repetition Systems

What others are doing with SRS:

Right now, Edwin is making the move to Anki for part of his studies - based on the content he's working on at LingQ. However, he liked the simplicity of JMemorize. Josh at the Language Geek, meanwhile, is back to putting word lists into Anki, with a few tweaks that he hopes will help. Visit his page and you'll find lots about Anki, SRS and ideas for making it work. [Update: And here's a long review of Anki from the Cunning Linguist that I'd missed.]

The other day, though, David at HackYourLife.org had his own thoughts on what's right and wrong with SRSs. Basically, says he, the right algorithm for an SRS probably needs to be a lot more complex than a computer implementation of the Leitner cycle, because the number of cards you're working on and the periodic neglect of your flash cards both present variables that can throw your productivity, enjoyment and continued use of the system out of whack. As he notes, "life happens," and when it does the computer doesn't do the best job of recognizing what you really need to work on. This is especially the case, I'd say, from the enthusiasm angle, never mind the pedagogy angle.

When I was using Anki everyday, I thought it was great. When I missed a few days because life had gotten busy, it just wasn't the same when I got back. At first, I didn't go through all the cards for the session. Then I stopped using it altogether - not a conscious decision; it's just that the spacing between repetitions, as it were, got broader and broader till a couple weeks had passed.

SRS without a computer or flashcards? A makeshift approach:

Lately, I've been working on my own sort of spaced repetition program. It's actually a lot less sophisticated, though. My system is based on the Assimil text I've been using for Breton. Here's what I do:

  • When I get up in the morning, I skim the previous day's lesson and read through the lesson for that day.
  • At lunch, I do the lesson properly, reading the text and all the notes and doing the exercises.
  • Then, at night, I reread the text for the lesson and skim the text for the next day's lesson.

All in all, I'm reading each lesson five times: two preliminary skims, a proper reading, and two confirmatory skims. Because four of the five readings are skims, the content sort of lulls its way into my mind without getting too tedious. The preliminary skims prime me for what's coming up, so for the careful reading I already have a pretty good understanding of what's going on and can concentrate on the elements that are most troublesome. The confirmatory skims assure that I'll remember most of what I've learned, but again without getting hung up on my studying.

Finally, at the end of the week, before I do the review chapter, I skim through the lessons a sixth and last time. In the past, I've really liked Assimil programs, except that I'd find myself going a certain distance, running short on time to truly work through a lesson or two, and then getting off track and having to repeat a week or two.

With this system, I'm spending 5-10 minutes in the morning, 5-10 minutes in the evening and 10-15 minutes at lunch. I'm actually spending more time than I used to with Assimil courses, but because of the way it's broken up, it's less trouble to squeeze it in. Most importantly, the Sunday re-read and review allows me time to review wherever problems crop up on a day when I have more free time. As a result, I can keep moving forward during the week in the knowledge that there's a system in place to catch things I've missed on a regular basis, not when all of a sudden problems start cropping up and I don't remember when I learned a particular point of grammar or series of vocabulary to recuperate it anymore.

All SRS all the time?

Whether spaced, or not, repetition can, of course, get repetitive. Even tedious. In the past, I've talked about the importance of using multiple materials and approaches to keep from getting worn out. And I hold to that. Outside of my Assimil schedule, if I have some free time I listen to music - for fun (see "From Studying to Living a Language"), take or gather material for "Language Walks", work through Breton verse and make sure I've understood trickier points of the language with the more grammar oriented Colloquial Breton. But using my new study routine, I'm finding the same thing that Anki offers at its best - a way of mastering old material and pushing forward into new material without getting bored by the old or (overly) confused by the new.

Do note: What I talk about in this post seems best suited to Assimil. But I think it could work with many Colloquial and Teach Yourself programs. However, with those texts that have 3 or 4 conversations in a chapter, I'd do a conversation a day, not a chapter a day. As always, language learning is all about what works for you. But if you're convinced that you've got a good and thorough textbook, only you're not managing to take advantage of all you think it has to offer, you might want to give this approach a try.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A walk in the woods to live your language

Doing textbook exercises and audio drills has its place in language learning. But if your approach to language learning focuses on packing more and more information into your brain, you're going to get hung up on the language in and of itself, when what you're really looking for is a way of expanding your world and your access to the world as others see it. To truly make a language a part of you, it can't be all about learning. It also has to be about living, and letting the language come naturally.

What you need: Vocabulary for colors, basic description and everyday objects in nature; some grammatical structures for talking about weather and describing things, a place to take a walk.

What you do: Note down your vocabulary, write some sample sentences for describing things you might see on a walk, leave the sheet at home and take your walk.

As you take your walk, when you notice things you can describe in your new language, either from what you've put on the sheet or from your other studies, do so. But don't get too preoccupied about it. The idea here is to create a space where you start to live in your language, but without getting stressed about it. The language should be simple and explanatory:
The trees are tall. The grass is green. The weather is lovely today. There are some birds. The sun is warm. The path is narrow.
The point of the exercise is not to drill yourself on language knowledge, but to live it in a relaxing and rejuvenating manner.

On days when I take my "language walks," I find the evening study sessions go easier, more smoothly, because my last association with the language isn't untangling things I wasn't sure about or learning the chapter vocabulary; it's associated with a state of "just being."

The "language walk" can be applied to other things - staring out the window, listening to music or having a cup of coffee in a café. The main thing is that it be a sort of "mindless" activity - one where you can pull back from acting and content yourself with observing the world around you. In this way, you can let your new language groove its way into your brain, making it a way of understanding your world instead being an independent thing you try to learn and understand.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Michel Thomas Mandarin

Lately, my focus has been on Breton. And I've felt good about how much I'm actually putting into it. But I've felt bad about letting my Mandarin slip. So when I saw that Michel Thomas Mandarin was finally out, I decided to have a look.

The store where I was shopping only had the two disc set and, not knowing how the program would actually be, that was just fine. So far, I've just about finished the first disc.

I've been wary of the Michel Thomas programs made after his death. And the Michel Thomas Italian Vocabulary program, though using something much like the Michel Thomas method, lacked the Michel Thomas style. This could have been a good thing - Thomas was not the most patient man by the time he got around to making the programs. But the Italian program seemed to wander, had the occasional mistake and, worst of all, was relentlessly encouraging in spots. If, as Thomas always said, the responsibility for learning is with the teacher, you don't need to compliment every right answer with "exactly" or "correct" or whatever - you can just move on. Especially since they used native speakers as the "students" to make sure pronunciation was modeled correctly.

The Michel Thomas Mandarin set is taught by Harold Goodman. Goodman isn't Michel Thomas, either, but there's something in his manner that fits this program more into the original mold. His manner is dry, the student responses are followed with the next item,not phatic chatter. And his story about the little old lady who decided Chinese verbs should have only one form, told using a "Chinese person speaking English" accent, leaves you with the impression that Goodman can be every bit as insensitive as Thomas. As with Thomas, I'm not sure I'd like to be in the cabin next to Goodman for a long ocean cruise, but for purposes of getting the nitty gritty of a language and moving on, this is what we're looking for - memorable and to the point.

Goodman is not a native speaker of Mandarin, so the course is co-narrated by Jingtao Deng, who seems nice enough, but also keeps things moving. In addition, the set comes with a card explaining the tones and tricks for remembering them. And the first seven tracks of the first CD are dedicated to understanding what you're getting into with Mandarin and getting a handle on the tones. As a result, the course starts a lot more slowly than the typical Michel Thomas course. But that's okay, because with a language as different from English as Mandarin, getting a firm foundation is important.

In the time I've been studying Mandarin - is it two years already? - I've used Pimsleur, group lessons and a private teacher. In that time, I've picked up a lot. And forgotten a lot. But the tones have always been a horrible problem for me. I won't say that Michel Thomas Mandarin has me speaking fluently and fluidly with perfect tones, but it's given a much better understanding of how to make them and how to keep them straight. I'm at least getting them right in the exercises, if not in real life, and that's a start.

Michel Thomas Mandarin makes use of the building block approach to start putting words and sentences together. While this is mostly review for me, I think it's pretty well sequenced. As with the other courses, if you want to learn conversational phrases and start chatting right away, you're better off with Pimsleur. But for getting a sense how Chinese goes together and how you can start putting it together, the course doesn't look half bad.

If you're brand new to Mandarin and want to learn on your own, I would recomend the Pimsleur Basic set to get started talking and Michel Thomas Mandarin to get a better idea what you're doing and lay the foundations for real communication in Mandarin. If you already know some phrases from travel or talking with friends, but don't have a good sense of the language, Michel Thomas Mandarin is definitely worth trying.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

That irritating intermediate stage

Kelly at DragonFruit is done with her move and getting back into Mandarin. She notes that right now, she's just getting past what she calls "the very irritating ‘intermediate’ stage":
I think every language learner can agree that the ‘intermediate’ stage is by far the most challenging; no matter how much you learn, you still feel like there’s so much more to learn and progress feels minimal at best.
Symptom of the problem: you can read an article on foreign affairs but can't order a pizza. That's sort of where I am with Spanish. The other day in a used bookstore, I picked up a tome on the idea of the hermeneutic code in modern literary criticism. I won't say I understood everything, but I didn't understand any less than I would have if it were in English. (Years in grad school leave me sure of this fact.) Two days later, I was trying to explain to a coworker that while I had been sick I was starting to feel better. I was amazed at how much harder the second task was.

A while back, I met with a client who wondered what it would take to achieve fluency in a language. I said it was really hard to judge. For example, I told her, there was a time when I could easily discuss the theories of Derrida and Barthes in French, but at no point would I have been able to request a monkey wrench. Nor, as I think about it, would I know how to refer to a garage door opener, the float in the toilet or a crack in the sidewalk. And yet, I speak French pretty competently. Really, I do!

When you're starting a language, anything you can manage to say is exciting. When you're fluent, talking is no big deal. The intermediate stage, though, is one big "when am I going to get there, already?"

Kelly asks if others have had the same experience. And how!

Any good ideas for working through it?

Entering the Active Phase of Language Use

The hardest part of developing language skills is starting to use the language for yourself. There's a lot you can learn from study materials and a lot you can soak up from content in the language. But how do you find your own voice for the language you're learning?

You don't. Not exactly, anyway. While each of us is a unique person with unique personality traits, etc, we're also the product of our environment. When I'm going through the sales process with a prospective customer, in everything from my phrasing to my pauses to my steering of the conversation, I can hear my father talking on the phone in his home office when I was growing up. When I grouse about bad customer service or wonder at the beauty of the mountain, there's my maternal grandfather ruminating on the porch. If you listen to yourself talk for a day or two, you will find family, old friends, the teachers you looked up to and the television stars you thought were cool when you were, say, ten or twelve. The way you bring them all together makes you you, but in many ways you're a composite of them. It's the same with a foreign language.

I wouldn't say that I'm a completely different person when I speak French. But the emphases shift. I am who I am, but I learned how to express that in different contexts, from different people, so it comes out a little differently. Because I lack a lifetime of experience in French, my humor isn't as subtle as it is in English, where I sometimes get into trouble because people mistake my deadpan sarcasm for being what I actually think. But it's definitely understated and ironical, rather than effusive, after the fashion of some people who seemed to share my sense of humor when I lived there. The same goes with most other moods and manners. We learn both language and how to live by imitation, and while we are unique, the way we express the unique combinations of thought and personality that make us who we are is largely by selecting from the various presentations of humanity that we have seen before. You can see this in those who are less sure of who they are by their frequent quotations and imitations of favorite movie characters.

How does this tie into language learning? The other day, I noted that if you find a language program or materials that make you feel that you're living the language, not just studying it, you've struck gold. When you're ready to use a language actively, then, it's time to go prospecting. It's easy, when you're studying, to get hung up on understanding the language and making sure you've learned all the components -grammar, vocabulary and syntax - that went into making the phrase come out the way it did. But for active use, what you need to focus on is, Would I say this? How? It may be that the sentence before you is "The car is blue" or "The duck is yellow," in which case you're probably not overly excited about being able to offer it up when talking to a stranger for the first time. But if there's a chance, even a chance, that you'll need this sentence, bring it alive! Picture your kindergarten teacher patiently pointing to the picture and saying the phrase when you were learning colors. If you're looking at the "Problems with your car" section of the phrasebook, furrow your brow and earnestly explain your plight to the mechanic the same way you would if it were actually happening.

While you're bringing the language alive, it's worth looking for and at materials in a new light. It may be that the grammar explanations are poor, or the ordering of the book is nonsensical. But if, in the dialogs, you see people saying the kinds of things that people you know would say, grab it. Don't use it for study, of course, but do read those dialogs out loud, and imagine yourself recounting a conversation you overheard or had with a friend. In short, in your mind you should try to build yourself a world to live in where you get the same kind of exposure to language that you got growing up, instead of just looking for language information.

Right now, I'm learning Breton, as visitors to this site will know. Among my Breton materials I have Colloquial Breton, the Assimil initiation, the two tome Assimil course and kervarker.org. I still need more background to appreciate the full Assimil course, but in it there are a series of dialogs - a man and his wife discussing the weather, old friends talking about the one friend's time living in the city, etc - that so sound like people I have known that it's like I'm in the room listening in. Likewise, at kervarker.org, there are a few dialogs - especially in chapter 3, that are hardly exceptional but which seem so transparently real that they stick. This is what you're looking for. So if that textbook you've got explains the grammar well, and has a great presentation of grammar, great. But if the materials you're using aren't filled with the kind of language that you can hear being said by you or by people you know, look for something to supplement it. You'll be surprised by the difference it makes when you go from learning the language to hanging out with folks who are speaking it.

This post metastasized from a comment at Josh's Language Geek, where Josh was wondering how to get more out of the active phase with Assimil. Have a look for some of his thoughts on passive vs. active learning.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

From studying to living a language...

The other day, I was writing about the key to languages being not to learn them but to live them. Edwin from Tower of Confusion has been doing just that: He's been hanging around some Francophone cities in Canada. He's back and reports having found the language to come more naturally than he'd thought. Part of what he attributes it to: His time with LingQ.

Now, I've never been to Montréal, but I have been to Paris. And it beats the hell out of LingQ - sorry, Steve. But that's not to say that LingQ isn't without its charms. If one of the forms of communicating in a foreign language is to read, taking a speaker's message off the printed page, LingQ can be a handy device for doing so more easily and effectively than the old style - book in one hand, dictionary in the other. (And you can listen to a lot of the stuff too.)

I think that to get a handle on a foreign language, it's a good idea to learn a bit about the grammar, and about how the language works. And it doesn't hurt to encounter some vocabulary in a more orderly fashion before hitting original texts. It's nice to have a head start on knowing what you're deciphering. So I'm not sure that I would start learning a language with LingQ. But as I noted in my earlier post, we shouldn't confuse language learning with becoming a speaker of a language - one focuses on the learning process, the other on living the language. LingQ is good for helping you interact with the language for real, which is a good step toward being a real speaker. So if you're looking for something to read in your language and readers or foreign magazines aren't doing it for you, give the site a visit. It might just be what you've been looking for.

LingQ, of course, isn't the only tool for getting at home with the language you're learning. Some of the Transparent Language programs are also worth a look. And online programs like ChinesePod and SpanishPod also have a lot to offer (though in different ways). Also, surf around to find online music, or YouTube videos in the language you're learning. Try things out and see what works for you. But if you find a program that, for you, makes the language less a thing you study and more a part of you, know that you've found gold and run with it.