Confessions in October 2010

Updated October 30, 2010

Flowers at night

October 30, 2010 - Letting a language sink in

A couple mornings ago, I got up, went to the closet, and my first thought was, "Was leg-i hete a?" This simple question, What will I wear today?, is probably my first thought out of the blue in Alsatian. Yes, I've been running through certain stock phrases like "'S esch kalt dusse" - It's cold out - but they have mostly been "translations" from German. When this thought popped into my head, I realized I couldn't come up with the German equivalent. (Before you race for your German dictionary, the verb is tragen.) Of course it's not entirely surprising that this phrase would pop into my head. It was only six or seven hours before that I remembered that I hadn't done my Alsatian lesson for the day yet, so my pre-bedtime reading featured the phrase, "[w]as leg-i mone-morge a?" - [w]hat shall I put on tomorrow morning?

In a sense, the hardest part of learning a language is the waiting. There's a real temptation to see how much learning you can cram in, when you really need to let understanding start to sink in. But even when you're doing intensive study, you need to be careful that your approach to learning is aligned with what you're trying to achieve. When you cram a suitcase full, it's okay because you're going to empty it just as quickly. When you cram for an exam, it's the same effect - you go in, dump all that information you'd crammed into your brain out onto the paper and you're done with it. This is not what you want for a language. Picture the frantic tourist blurting out random phrases from his book. Why do they come flying out at random like that? Because that's how they exist in his head!

In learning a language, it can be a challenge to keep doing enough, everyday. But it can also be a challenge to not do too much, especially when enthusiasm is high. There's a logic to Assimil's approach where you study around half an hour a day (see the October 3rd post below for more about Assimil): It slows you down so that you don't study more material than you can absorb.

Now, my own personal experience says that you can benefit from an immersive learning environment. My French didn't truly take off until I lived in France. But if I think back, I spent a lot of my time sitting on the bus, walking through the streets, waiting to order a pastry, etc, and comparatively little of my time in active communication. The real life immersion experience is not actually immersive. You're not swimming the English Channel, unable to get out till you get to the other side. You're mostly sitting on the edge of the pool, dipping your toes, and occasionally swimming a few laps or splashing around when the sun gets a little too warm. It's a pleasant and relaxing thing where mostly you're around the water, not in it.

To have a real life immersion experience, then, don't line up your textbooks and plan to study all Saturday. Get up, do your regular lesson. Watch some television/movies in your target language, but don't pay too much attention. Listen to some music. When you have lunch, make a production of using the right food names for your target language, but afterwards take a nap or a walk and let something in the language be your background. Let the language come to you with ease, and when you're ready it will flow out of you just as easily.

Nenuphar zebraique

October 16, 2010 - The Value of Not Making Up Lessons

Last week, I wrote about the start of my Assimil Experiment (see below). As I noted, I am tracking this experiment on a language log here. This log includes notes on what I've done and my experiences. It's meant to provide a long term record of how this works out. For the short term though, I've already extracted one lesson. There is real value in avoiding the idea of the make-up lesson.

When I started this Assimil Experiment, one of the rules I made for myself is that I would not make up lessons. My reasoning at the time was that I was trying to keep this simple and make sure learning didn't become a chore. But I think there's a second, more valuable element. Make-up lessons make it seem like missing a daily lesson isn't that big a deal. But it is. The more times you skip a lesson with the intention of making it up the next day, the easier it becomes to rationalize skipping a lesson. Even if you do in fact make up the hours, once you fall into this pattern the language you are studying is no longer part of your daily routine. It's something you fit in.

When your studies cease to become just part of the routine, you run into three new problems: 1) You spend more time figuring out just what you were doing last time and where you go from there. 2) Starting with the handicap of having to figure out where you left off, you then have to go further within a given 24 hour period, which means you need to take in more information without a break to really let things gel. 3) This sets you up for working in fits and starts - burning out and dropping out till you've been away long enough for motivation to overcome your memory of what your last study session was like.

I think there's one other nice element to the no make-up rule: being honest with yourself. I already alluded to this above, but having looked a little bit at why falling out of your study routine is a bad idea, I think it's important to come back to it: Sticking to a regular program can be hard. Having an easy out - I'll catch up tomorrow - makes it harder. In real life, there will be times when you really can't squeeze in today's lesson, and that's fine. When that happens, you need to let it go and move on, knowing that you set the priorities you set. But that word "priorities" is key here. Saying "I'll make it up tomorrow" isn't about setting priorities, at least not deliberately. It's about pretending you don't have to. If you're going to skip a day, you should know that that day is gone, and that the reason you're letting it go is worth it.

I think that what I've found here applies not just to daily programs like Assimil, but to all language learning efforts. If you've got a routine, stick to it. If you're taking a class show up. If you're working with a study partner, meet. That procrastination is a bad idea is nothing new, but with something like languages it's a really big problem because you need to stay in touch with the language to keep its patterns fresh in your mind. So if you're consistently having trouble sticking to your language learning schedule, steer clear of the idea you just need an extra lesson or a few hours Saturday to make up for lost time. Accept the time as lost and look for something that you can stick to. That way, your studies will be part of your life, not something you fit in, and your language will become something you live, not something you're trying to find more time for.

Catch-up, not make-up

One final thought: For self-study, I think the no-make-up rule is a good one. But if you're taking a class you can't hold others back while you go through your process. Even with self-study, you may have a limited time horizon in which to learn. In some cases, you will need to do things outside your regular schedule because you weren't able to stick to that regular schedule. When this happens, be sure to think of it as catch-up, not make-up. Think of sprinting to get where you need to be to fall back in the routine - it's going to take an extra burst of energy and when you do catch up, you might find yourself a little bit off as you try to find the proper pace again. It sounds like semantics, but this is reality: steady progress requires steady work. So you want to make sure you have a mindset that views sticking to your schedule or showing up for your class as the easy way, and trying to make up for time that is lost as a hard alternative for special circumstances, not just a different approach to reaching the same goal.

Agua encantada 1

October 9, 2010 - An Assimil Experiment: Learning with ease?

When you visit language blogs and forums, you run across some pretty dedicated people. Some of them have sworn off music other than in the language they're studying. Some have given up television, except for language exposure, and are putting in four or five days of passive exposure in addition to their study. Some can tell you, without checking, how many cards are in their computer flashcard program and how many of those they've mastered. When you look at it, your first thought may be that it's impressive. The second thought, though, may be where do they find the time? Let's face it, sometimes the encouraging advice you find can be downright discouraging.

Hardcore language students sometimes scoff at programs like "... in 10 minutes a day" and Berlitz' Five-Minute series, destined to teach you a little bit every day, but maybe there's something to be said for them. The grandaddy of the "a little bit every day" methods is Assimil, which started as short lessons published in calendar form before the books came out. The promise of the books is simple: If you invest around 30 minutes a day, in 15-20 weeks you'll have a good grasp of the language. Some of the books claim to take you to B2 on the CEFR scale. That isn't, of course, C2, near-native fluency. But it's pretty darn good. And what's really something is that you're supposed to assimilate the language - hence the name - with minimal deliberate study. By reading aloud, and using notes and translations, you're supposed to get a feel for the language as opposed to memorizing forms and tables.

I've used Assimil in the past. Using French was my bible when I lived in Bretagne. I squeezed in a lesson wherever I could, tried it out at the next conversational opportunity and got a lot out of it. But as a language addict, I've often rushed to learn as much as I could as fast as I could before burning out, rather than taking things at a measured pace. That happens with a lot of aspiring polyglots and what differentiates the successful (other people) from the meandering (like me) is in many ways a matter of bloody-minded obsessiveness. But with Assimil, this is silly. A key part of the Assimil Method is doing a little bit every day so that it can sink in.

Reading about Assimil in the forums, reflecting on others' use of it, my own use of it and the realization that my most productive use of Assimil has generally been when I was in the passive phase and following the instructions, if only by chance, I fell upon a novel idea: I would try to learn a language in 20-30 minutes a day without any effort to do more or learn faster. I realize that the concept of following directions shouldn't seem like such an inspired idea! But we do live in a culture where doing more, better, faster and with intensity is certainly sold as the high ideal. So accepting a language program where you putter along, slowly but surely toward your destination, can be a bit discomfiting. The temptation is to try to force things.

I have taken Assimil's L'Alsacien sans peine (Alsatian) for my experiment because 1) I own it and 2) I have no pressing need or desire to use the language, just idle curiosity (and a sense that it will put me back in touch with German without my having to return to German). In the past, I've written about motivation, being in touch with your target language and culture, etc. But maybe there's another way. Maybe what you really need is to just keep plugging along (I've said that before too). Maybe the way to keep going, though, is not to maintain motivation, but to minimize required effort so that less motivation is needed. It will be fun to see how this comes out.

Just to keep myself honest, I've set up a language learning log at HTLAL to lay out the terms of the experiment and track my progress. My study program and first update are posted so far. You can find the thread here.

What I'm doing is, of course, a little bit silly. Learning a language just to test a method is the kind of thing only a language addict would do. But with all the advice out there about maintaining the motivation to study 3 hours a day and turn your life over to a new language, I'd like to try to establish that if there's a language out there that would add something to your life, you don't have to be a language addict to make it happen.

Boat on the horizon

October 3, 2010 - Memory and Language Learning

When it comes to learning a language, one of the biggest challenges is learning the vocabulary. A second is keeping track of grammar rules. In both cases, it sounds like it would be great to have an excellent memory. And of course it doesn't hurt. But as I've noted before, language isn't something you know, it's something you do.

In the past, I've written about memory systems like Anki (here) and Iversen lists (here). And recently, on HTLAL, there have been threads like this one popping up on memory. There's also a thread called "The Schliemann experiment" with an interesting origin: Heinrich Schliemannn was the discoverer of the ruins of Troy. He was also a first rate polyglot who claimed to learn languages by, among other things, memorizing the entirety of a book in the language. The link takes you to a journal by someone following the process.

I've fussed around a bit with the memorization idea. I memorized the first six dialogs from Assimil's Le Latin sans peine. I looked up and made sure I properly remembered a shloka from the Rig Veda. And I memorized some vocabulary from the made-up language Toki Pona. And I thought back on other things I've done to remember language in the past. You're welcome to try memory games like this for yourself and see what you think. My own sense is that it's not the memorization, but the work that goes into memorizing and reconstructing the memory that makes the difference.

When we learn "things" - points of data - they only stay with us if they mean something to us. They have to be a part of our experience, either because we've made use of them, because we've connected them with something else we knew or because our experience of acquiring the information was memorable. Memory systems serve to make it easier to remember things, but perhaps what we really need is a deeper understanding that allows things to be more memorable in earnest. At any rate, my shloka in Sanksrit remains a jumble of partially understood syllables - my Sanskrit is pretty weak. My Toki Pona wordlist is back to the 60 or so words that were easy - the remaining 60 or so I still need to think about (the language only has 120 or so core words). But the Latin came easily. I'd read these dialogs before, and most importantly I understood them. Since they use a few unusual verbs forms, knowing them is a handy way to remember those forms.

In the end, it comes back to Michel Thomas - "What you understand, you know and what you know you do not forget." My memory experiment, short and unscientific, tells me that for my purposes at least that what I understand I do not forget, or, more accurately, I know well enough that I can reconstruct it. This, I think, is the most valuable thing if you're going to bring memorization into the language learning process: Rote memorization is problematic, but going through the process of learning something well enough that you'll be able to reconstruct it sets you on the road to mixing and matching the elements you've learned so that you can create new language out of them. It becomes a way of living the language in your own mind so that you have the experience of it. And that's what you're really aiming for.