Saturday, January 31, 2009

Do you need to learn that language?

(or do you want to?)

Kelly the Aspiring Polyglot says:
I’ve been giving some thought to re-embarking on my Persian studies, even though I know I should follow my partner’s advice and stay focused on the languages I’m already learning. After all, what would I use Persian for? He may be right. Discipline and willpower are vital allies in the quest to master a language but I’ve also been blessed (or should that be ‘cursed’?) with an almost insatiable curiosity for languages.
Josh the Language Geek, who has recently taken up Spanish, has the answer to this problem:
If I were under some sort of time constraint to learn one or two of [my] languages, certainly, I would limit myself. But seeing as I don’t need to know any of them, I don’t really feel any sense of urgency. If it takes me twice as long or whatever to reach a proficient level, then it takes twice as long. I’m in no rush.
I'd go one step further: Does it matter if you ever become proficient at all? How proficient? Tim Ferris says:
To understand 95% of a language and become conversational fluent may require 3 months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years. There is a point of diminishing returns where, for most people, it makes more sense to acquire more languages (or other skills) vs. add a 1% improvement per 5 years.
When people talk about their language learning, goal-setting is often one of the topics. Too often, however, the goals are oriented toward the learning, and not toward life. We try to find ways to motivate ourselves to become fluent including imagining the life we might have if we were. Maybe the better approach is to envision the life you want and ask yourself how fluent you'd really need to be for the scenario to work.

If you want read and write about literature, you need a good command of the language, and with some pretty specialized vocabulary. If you want to retire to another country and maybe fix up a cottage to live in there, you can get by with some pretty gaping holes in your knowledge of the language, but you'd better know hammer, screwdriver and monkey wrench. And if you just want a more authentic dining experience when you're in the country you might be surprised by how far you can go with a few words. Lastly, there are those of us who are learning for the fun of it.

How much Uzbek do I need? None. How much do I have? Very little, but a fair measure more than none. Should I buckle down to become fluent? Why?

If you're learning a language because something in your life is lacking, or will lack, if you don't, yes you'd better get yourself motivated and stick to it. (It's sad how many people I meet who need to speak better English to get the most out of life but have a mental block about learning to do so.) But if you're learning for fun, try to set realistic expectations about what you can get out of learning a language that you'll only have limited opportunities to use.

Would it be more fun for you to be able to chat a little in a variety of languages? Or do you know that one day you'll be walking down the street in, say, Mobile, Alabama, and the path to your future happiness will be found in your ability to discuss Satre with that handsome/gorgeous stranger you bump into in fluent French? I'm being silly, of course, but in all seriousness if you're learning for fun, it should be fun. If it's not, and the usual motivational tricks aren't working, take a break and do something else. If it's really important to you, taking a break isn't quitting, just setting up the opportunity to come back to it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

When Language Classes Can Work

(and why they often don't)

Tim Ferris has a post up on Why Language Classes Don't Work. Street-Smart Language Learning flagged it the other day and now the Aspiring Polyglot offers her thoughts. Kelly hits the nail on the head here:
I think the success of a language class depends on the teacher and the attitude the teacher has towards language learning. Some teachers are able to inspire their students and while they may not necessarily teach them everything there is to know about the language, they can motivate their students to go out and learn for themselves. Sometimes it helps to have someone to guide you along the path to fluency, though a supportive language partner can also fit this role.
The attitude of the language teacher toward language learning is crucial. Tim notes, "[C]onversation can be learned but not taught." A teacher who presumes to teach language - to directly transfer language knowledge for a student's use - is not going to get too far. But a teacher who focuses on providing comprehensible input to absorb and a good environment in which to try it out can do great things for the sort of students who need a regular schedule and regular feedback to keep moving forward.

Whether you're talking about a class or about teaching yourself, the critical thing is that the learning environment you're in provides engaging, comprehensible input that you'll eventually be able to turn into relatively fluid output. This is certainly what Steve the Linguist has tried to do with Lingq. You can hear it being done on the Pimsleur and Michel Thomas tapes. ChinesePod may be too chatty for some learners, but for a nervous "newbie" it's the very picture of engaging, comprehensible input when friendly hosts break down the language of everyday life into understandable bits. It's also what a lot of younger teachers armed with the latest in pedagogical research are trying to do. The nice bit with Lingq, Pimsleur, Michel Thomas and ChinesePod is that you can have little demo lessons at the links I've provided. But it may be that what makes the language engaging for you is having a fluent speaker there who can really and truly bring the language alive for you.

I want to address one point separately, and that is the question of teaching only in the target language. This is one place where good materials are absolutely crucial. With the right materials and a student who is open to them, a class in the target language only will provide comprehensible input in such a way that the student can learn without mixing the language unnecessarily with his or her native language. With the wrong materials, the student is no better off than if he or she had gone to another country's capital and tried to get a supermarket clerk to teach between customers. If you've got the right mindset, translation and grammar analysis are useful tools for making more language comprehensible faster. If you've got the wrong mindset, you'll mistake the skeleton of the language for the whole thing or think of it as a perverse rendering of your own language. It's not a question of which approach is best, it's a question of which approach works for you. One hint: If you're terrified about working without translations and concrete explanations, you should use them enough to keep your footing but be wary of becoming dependent on them; still, if the choice is between quitting in frustration or getting your answers, by all means get your answers!

Tim Ferriss makes a lot of great points about what's wrong with a lot of language classes. But just as the classroom clearly isn't for him, some of his methods may not be for you. What matters in the end is not what has worked for someone else. What matters is finding something that keeps you engaged in your learning until things start to click naturally. Given that some people, at least, make it through language classes and emerge with the ability to talk, language classes aren't uniformly useless. If you think of taking a class and your heart fills with dread, look into self-study options. But if "going back to school" seems like a reassuring way to get into learning a language, go for it. Just be sure to investigate to make sure you're finding the sort of class that will keep you engaged so you can move forward in your language learning.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Chain of Language Learning

A lot of the time, you'll find flashcards or books that show how to use the same word in a variety of contexts. While this increases your command of discrete words, there's another way to think about things. The memory whiz Harry Lorrayne used to come up with ways of linking a variety of items to memorize a list. But for learning language, you don't need to do anything as artificial as that: Language provides the chain.


C'est un bon restaurant. J'aime le restaurant. Je vais au restaurant souvent. Mais je vais au café rarement. Je n'aime pas les cafés. Mais j'aime un café: le café à côté de la poste. C'est un bon café.

In this little paragraph you have:
restaurant - 3 times
café - 5 times
the structure "C'est" twice
the structure "Je vais" twice
à+le=au twice
the phrase "J'aime" in the affirmative twice and the negative once

For a newbie to French, there's a fair amount of reinforcement of some basic grammar stuff here along with repetition of core vocabulary. And yet it's (slightly) more varied than your standard substitution drill.

The sentences in my little paragraph are not unlike the sort of thing you find in phrasebooks, and that's where I'm going with this: While textbooks are lousy about giving you real world language, the defect of phrasebooks is they don't show you what to do with it. But if you poke your way through the phrases and try to figure out what's going on in them, you can make chains like this so that new phrases build on and reinforce old ones.

Let's take a look a look at some phrases from an Uzbek manual for soldiers:

Kimdir bizga yordam bera oladimi? Can someone assist us? (Who can give get help given to us?)
Biz sizga yordam berish uchun keldik. We are here to help you. (We came for giving you help.)
Yordam yol'da kelayapti. Help is on the way. (Help is coming on the path.)
Sizga yordam kerakmi? Do you need help? (Is help needed for you?)

My parenthetical translations aren't literal or exact, but give something of the flavor of how these are phrased. Things you might note: bermoq (to give) going with yordam (help) and a pronoun+ga (to). You might also see "keldik" (we came) vs. "kelayapti" (it comes). Knowing these four phrases doesn't just teach you "yordam" (help). It also reminds you of "kelmoq" (to come), the use of -ga and the pronouns "biz" and "siz" (we and you). In short, there's a treasure trove of useful information contained within.

So, a thought: If you're trying to figure out how the language goes together, put down the grammar book from time to time and open a phrasebook. Find some phrases using the same elements and see how much you can figure out about how they work by comparing them against what you know. Finally, using that skeleton of knowledge, learn them by memorizing what you don't know and synthesizing it with what you do. You won't always understand every element of what you're saying, but you'll know enough. And then, when you learn a new bit of grammar, instead of wondering how you'll ever remember it, you'll find yourself saying Hey, that's just like the phrase for...!

Friday, January 16, 2009

More Spaced Repetition

I've been going through Assimil Breton again lately and wanted a better way because going through the lessons once a day or twice a day wasn't doing it for me. Then I fell on this formula:

1) Work through the lesson earlier in the day.
2) Listen to the lesson first while reading, then without reading, at night.
3) Note the dialog in a journal.
4) Re-read the dialog the next morning.
5) Read aloud and copy the dialog before doing the next lesson.

That's five encounters with each dialog, which is nice. But what's most important is the time between lessons - time to mull and time to forget so that when I next come back it won't be "this again!" but instead will be something that I'm re-working in my mind. They always say that ten minutes twice a day is better than 3 hours twice a week. The difference is whether you're cramming and relearning or getting into the groove with your learning. So try, as best you can, to make your new language something that pops up in your everyday life, not something you set aside time for as though it's a distraction from what you would normally do.


Or, if you have the time and patience, try out The Yellow Experiment.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Spaced Repetition and Good Intentions

We're just past a week into the new year, so how go the intentions? I've been working at the French and the Spanish, the Italian and the Mandarin not so much. However, when I came across SoYouWantToLearnALanguage, I skimmed to see what all they had and, oops, I stumbled on the Uzbek page. Long time readers will know that I've studied Uzbek off and on. One of the things I found was Field Support Online, which has a lot of language information for exotic languages for military use. Lo and behold, they had tons of Uzbek phrases.

I'm beyond the point for spaced repetition with Uzbek, but there's something to be said for the idea of letting language learning settle in. As I looked at peculiar phrases like:

Qurolingizni pastga qo'ying - Put your weapon down

I was surprised to discover how much of the grammar I remembered. I started flipping through and picked up thirty new phrases (that I'll never ever use!) in short order that give me some new vocabulary and a new hook for reinforcing some grammar structures.

Understand that I'm not advocating taking a year or so off as a way of letting language settle in. But if you've missed a few days or even weeks, don't beat yourself up. Get back to work! You'll be surprised at how much you actually know and remember once you take a little time to reactivate your learning.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

So you want to learn a language...

The other day, via Street-Smart Language Learning, I stumbled upon SoYouWantToLearnALanguage. There's a wealth of stuff linked there and for a variety of languages. If you're learning a language for which it's hard to find materials, have a look. You might be surprised at what you find. Bored with your current materials and looking for some stuff to click through as a passive review? Also worth a look. Just remember not to get too busy surfing and forget about your actual language study!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Years Intentions

It's that time of year again. A new year. A time for new beginnings. Oh joy!

One thing about it, the days really got short this year as we tumbled toward the solstice. Unfortunately, with fog and clouds ever since, the days haven't seemed to have starting getting longer yet. That said, I guess the new year is upon us. And that usually means resolution time.

I read something useful the other day, though, a yoga newsletter about setting intentions instead of resolutions. And then, this morning, I hopped on the net and came across this Althouse post wondering how many people had already broken resolutions. And there's the problem. It's almost like resolutions were made to be broken. A new year comes, you vow to be a better person and after a month or two you say oh well. So this year, we're doing directional resolutions:

I set the intention to regularly use and rebuild my French toward regaining fluency.

I set the intention to regularly study Spanish and build toward conversational competence.

I set the intention to regularly study Italian and rebuild toward basic conversational competence.

I set the intention to rebuild and regain basic skills in spoken Mandarin.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I'm going to give up the language diary or other tools to keep me working on a regular basis toward incremental improvements. But it means that long term goals are to be reached toward through a series of short term goals. You can't do that by setting a resolution that makes sense January 1st but commits you to a program that may make no sense by January 31st.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But you'll only make it if you correct course from time to time and admit that sometimes you need to stop and rest. So don't vow to walk 2 miles a day and quit the first time you only go a mile and a half. Set a more general intention and plan to always be working on a short term goal that takes you in that direction or looking for the next short term goal.

Happy New Year!