Saturday, April 25, 2009

Shadowing and other ideas

Josh has a post up about Professor Arguelles' shadowing technique. I've written about Arguelles before, but coming across Josh's post made me think back to the idea, especially because I've needed to do something to practice my Uzbek (I'm just just running into native Uzbek speakers on every corner). So I took some audio and made a sort of audio phrasebook, only with each item repeated four times in Uzbek (using Audacity and saving to MP3). I figure this way I'll have ample opportunity to say each phrase correctly, even if I miss the first time.

One thing that struck me was Professor Arguelles' explanation for why you need to walk around, namely that you ought to get some exercise and if you sit at your desk you'll get distracted by other things. I think there's one other potential benefit: Usually, when you're talking you're either walking with a person or sitting with them or standing around with them. You're not just sitting and concentrating on talking. Where Arguelles sees a freedom from distractions, I see something of the opposite: Forcing the body to do something while you're talking is good preparation for real life talking where you can't put everything else on hold.

I've never tried shadowing with the intensity Arguelles describes, but I have done self talk and more recently I've just been going through the phrases I'm working on mastering while talking to myself when walking to lunch or whatever. What I've found is that what I've only studied while sitting and studying really only comes back when I sit and concentrate. On the other hand, phrases that I've rehearsed while walking come back and fluidly as I call them up in my memory. I think there's a strong tie-in here with how easily you recall techniques or processes that you've physically worked through - walking and talking makes the talking real. It makes you wonder what kids could learn if they weren't slumping in school desks all day.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Best Way to Learn a Language?

I've been reading The Principle of the Path and it makes an interesting point:
Wouldn't it be great if there were a yellow brick road that led to wherever it is you want to go in life? [snip] If that were the case, you would stop looking for solutions to problems, and you would start looking for the right path.
The author is writing about life choices in general, but it really applies to language learning. On these blogs, some of us (like me) spend a lot of time looking for language solutions - the fastest way to learn, the easiest way to learn, etc. But language learning is a journey whose desired destination, fluency, we only near if we apply our efforts in the right direction over time.

There are two central points here:
1) Even the best language "solution" is actually a "roadmap" for following a path that will lead you toward fluency.

2) When you're talking to an experienced learner, that learner's knowledge arises not just from the great method that he or she is using now and you really ought to try - it also comes from all the mistakes, blind alleys and detours where that person learned things the hard way before finding this great system. Your results may be better for trying this person's system, or worse, but unless you've followed the same language learning journey all the way through your results won't be quite the same.

So when you sit down to study, be aware that the ideas here, there and elsewhere are well worth trying out if they feel right for where you're trying to get with your language learning. But remember that you're on a path of your own. If you feel you're getting somewhere, keep at it. If you're not, though, don't look for a "solution" to better learning now, look for a path to fluency that fits with your goals and with the rest of your life.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Great Advice Whether You're Lazy, Busy or Burned Out

Steve posts five tips for Lazy Language Learners. The idea, in a nutshell, is to approach a limited amount of content in a number of ways. But there's a way to do it and he's laid it out nicely. The best thing though is that you don't have to be lazy to use these tips. If you're busy at work, or just worn out on studying, they should work just as well.

I've been reading through and listening to the phrases for the Field Support Guide for Uzbek and find, suddenly, that where Anki, BYKI, do it yourself lists and more had me making marginal progress, I'm learning 10 or 15 words a day with almost no effort by skimming the phrasebook at lunch and listening to the ones I'm having trouble with at night. And when I listen to Uzbek music, I'm picking out more and more words and phrases. Granted, my Uzbek is still pathetic for the amount of time I've been studying, but the combination of casual study and built up knowledge suddenly has me talking to myself and feeling much more in touch with the language. So, if you're not making a lot of progress right now, why not do it the easy way? Go check out Steve's tips.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Language Learning Tip of the Week

This week from Josh. Back to my Uzbek.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

More Grammar? Why not?

Here's Vincent of Street-Smart Language Learning, expanding on my thoughts about the spiral syllabus:
what really dances in my language-learning dreams are frequency grammars, or grammars that introduce rules based on how likely you are to encounter them. In your first pass around the grammar spiral, you'd cover rules that represent, say, 50% of the rules you'd typically encounter. This'll take you through much of the language, just as frequency lists do, but you'd still have quite a ways to go.

Once you're at 50%, you'd click a button (these would need to be electronic, of course) and then the grammar would suddenly cover, say, 70% of the rules you'd typically encounter. The additional 20% would show up in a different color so when you go through the grammar again, you'd know exactly what has been added since your last passthrough.
The only thing I know of that even comes close to doing anything like this is maybe working through old Transparent Language stories according to the level they were graded at. But that's not really the same thing, just a hit-or-miss shot at accomplishing what the frequency grammar would do, and we've found lots of hit-or-miss approaches - it's what self-instruction (and classroom instruction, for that matter) often seems to boil down to.

One comment: I don't think this would need to be electronic. Yes, to have the parts you've done light up, etc, it would be. But it's possible to create a well-structured book that does what Vincent's talking about. All you have to do is use the planning that goes into any textbook for a course with a spiral syllabus. The problem with spiral syllabus textbooks is not that they can't introduce content progressively. The problem is that the content is ordered from what is easiest to learn to what is hardest to learn, rather than from what is most common to what is least common. As a result, after one year you've got enough for some very basic communication and after two years you've got a pretty good overview. But, and it's an important but: After 3 weeks you may know how to say (drawing on my French experience) The apple is red. / The apples are red. / I speak French. / You don't speak French but you lack the grammar necessary to make a polite request for the bathroom or a clean fork. This becomes clear to any first year student upon opening a phrasebook and discovering that while he's getting As and Bs (good to average grades, for non-U.S. readers) he has only a vague idea what all those "Pourriez-vous" and "Je voudrais" are all about.

What we need, then, as Vincent says, is a frequency grammar. That is, first of all we need a picture of what comes up the most, and then we need some way - lots of ways might be found - to pass the information along. I think this would go hand-in-glove with a frequency dictionary, by the way. One of the things that irritates me with the word-frequency lists, after all, is that they're full of words like "the" and "a" and "if" which means that if as a language shortcut you seek to memorize, say, the first 100 most frequent words, what you've got is 40 useful words and 60 grammar words that you don't actually know how to use. Combining a word-frequency table with a grammar frequency table, you would have the tools to design a reader with explanations that really worked.

Vincent says this post is first in a series. I'll be curious to see what comes next. Until then, go read the whole thing and if you've got any bright ideas about an easy way to get the ball rolling on these, leave it in the comments (note that I check my comment moderation page every two to three days).