Wednesday, November 7, 2007

How to Learn Languages (in your spare time?)

Last week, I replaced my Russian teacher with a (“less-qualified”) Russian language "helper." I want to explain the difference between the two, and give some general advice on learning languages.

When most Americans think about learning language, they think about sitting in a classroom with a textbook open. That’s only one (very weak) aspect of learning (you probably don’t remember much of your high school French, do you)?

I used to work for a missions agency that was over-the-top serious when it came to learning language. They equipped us with seminars, workshops, evaluations, materials, etc. to train us how to learn languages. From that experience in learning Azerbaijani, to teaching English to foreigners, and studying Russian in various settings, here’s my advice on how to learn a language:

1. You have to want to learn. It’s not just enough to see it’s necessary. My dad has seen the value of learning Spanish for 20 years, has bought some books and software but has never actually learned it. It takes time, stress, and pain. If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not doing it right. Everyone can learn, it just takes some people longer than others.

2. (easy one) Expect how many hours it will take you to learn. Our government’s translation service lists their expectations for language students to attain General Professional Proficiency (meaning you can converse on the street on basically any topic and some work topics).

French, Spanish, Romanian take 600 hours.
Turkish, Russian, Greek, Hebrew take 1,100 hours.
Chinese, Korean, Lezgi, etc. take 2,200 hours.

Consider this a bare minimum, as those numbers are generally for those already learning their 3rd or 4th languages. If you can only devote 10 intensive hours a week to learning Spanish, then expect to be studying Spanish for at least 60 weeks.

3. Organize your language-learning hours as follows:
25% with a textbook/teacher format.
25% with a language helper.
25% on your own (homework!)
25% in the culture.

1. Textbook/teacher- Find someone who is qualified and knows proper grammar. Either let that person teach you using their method, or have them teach you via the textbook/curriculum of your choice. Strive to ONLY use the foreign language with this person,

[true, if they speak English they can explain certain things to you. The danger is that too much of your lesson will be in English. I prefer to use a textbook in English for the explanations, and the teacher to reinforce the principles with his/her own curriculum].

2. Language Helper- This is when you pay someone to sit down and practice what you’re learning with the teacher/textbook. This person can be anyone in the culture who speaks fluently. This is the person you ask “How do you say ______.” Record these conversations and practice listening and pronouncing with them. This is one resource I use with my language helper that is a HUGE help.

I replaced my Russian teacher because she was qualified for #1 (and wanted money like she was qualified), but what I really need is more #2. I have worked through a host of textbooks and can explain to you just about any point of Russian grammar. What I need is conversation practice and to learn how people really say things, instead of just a textbook way. Helpers are pretty cheap, flexible, and easily replaceable.

3. Homework- Flashcards (preferably in software format), grammar exercises from the textbook, journaling, reading, memorizing. This is where the rubber (#1 and #2) meets the road.

4. Immersion- Shopping at the market, riding the bus, going to church, listening to the radio, music, watching TV, movies, fun stuff! Just making the language a part of your day.

All 4 of these are essential to learning. In high school you probably only had #1, which is why you don’t remember your French. Eventually, you can even drop #1 and divide time among the other 3.

There are 2 quotes that I think about every day. One is on the bulletin board in the office and is written: «Кто не хочетищет причины. Кто хочетищет возможности Translation: The person who doesn’t want to do something looks for excuses. The person who wants to do something looks for opportunities.

The other comes from Steve Prefontaine: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

Of course, the fastest way to get your 2,200 hours is to spend 40 hours a week at it, like a full-time job. Unfortunately, only spies and missionaries get paid to spend that much time on a language. However, I find that I need at least 20 a week to keep moving forward and not forget things, and that’s a big commitment for most of us.

Other advice:

Monitor your “iceberg.” Your iceberg is how many words you know. Some of those words are above the surface and easy to access, other are buried under the surface—words you’ve learned but forgotten, usually because you don’t use them much. The more of your iceberg is above the surface (through practice and immersion) the better you are.

I use flashcard software to keep track of how many verbs I’m memorizing, and the software keeps track of what I know well and not-so-well.

Use Total Physical Response (TPR) learning whenever possible. Learn the basic actions of your day as you do them. I wake up, I eat breakfast, I shower, I brush my teeth... all of these are good for use with your helper.

Keep a notebook handy to write everything down. When you come across a new word somewhere, write it down immediately. Look up the definition and consider adding it to your flashcard list. I’ve filled up tons of notebooks with words, phrases, quick-reference grammar points, etc.

DON’T GIVE UP. 99% of people will say “I don’t have ______.” Do what you can with what you do have, and do your best to find a way to fill that ______.

Hope this helps someone somewhere!


John said...

OK... that's cool... using a quote from an old runner! Probably America's best distance runner ever! Language learning is like distance running... only harder.

Charity said...

good stuff! i appreciate how you summarized concisely and hit the big points of lang. learning. it's also a good reminder as i teach esl! thanks!