Foreign Languages

Foreign Languages

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Language Learning in General

Learning a foreign language is easy and fun, but it takes time. How much time? Depends on how good you want to be, but let’s say 1000 hours spread over three years, to achieve a solid competency at reading and conversation.

How can that be true, since most foreign language students can hardly read or converse at all, after years of study? Because the standard method of teaching languages in school doesn’t work.

We can find out what works by studying successful language learners. Fortunately there are billions of them, including you. Almost everyone succeeds at learning his native language. How do they do it? By massive exposure to the language – not just hearing it, but using it to send and receive messages. That’s what language is for, and that’s what motivates you to learn it: because you need to know what other people are saying, and you have things you need to say to them.

When you study a foreign language, it is harder to get that massive exposure and that need to send and receive messages. You’re probably hearing, reading, and speaking your first language all day, unless you’re in a foreign country or you’re dedicating your life to foreign language study. You send and receive all the important messages in your native language, while the foreign language is an intellectual curiosity that doesn’t serve any important purpose here and now. These are real obstacles to learning that take some effort to overcome.

On the other hand, you have big advantages over small children learning their first language. You can read, use a dictionary, and find interesting lessons and content in the foreign language. You already know your own language, so when you learn a foreign word you can usually connect it with a word you already know. With these advantages, you can get through the beginner stage much faster than a little child can.

The fatal error of most foreign language classes is their focus on grammar. Let’s say there are 100 grammar rules you need to know in order to form proper sentences. If you set out to memorize those, it’s kind of like memorizing the periodic table, or the state capitals: you know it’s meaningful information, and you’d be happy to know it if it served some useful purpose, but right now you might as well be memorizing all the cities in France or in Indonesia. The only use you have it for is to get good grades in your class. And even if you like to memorize grammar, and you’re good at it, the sad truth is that your time and effort are mostly wasted; you are not developing any practical skills such as reading or conversation.

The right approach is to make a foreign language serve a real purpose: to send and receive messages. If those messages are interesting or important, they become the focus of your language learning activity, making it interesting or compelling as well. To focus on vocabulary and grammar in isolation is tedious and ineffective for most people, but if the focus is on the message itself, the human mind picks up a whole lot of vocabulary and grammar without a conscious effort, or at least without feeling like it’s hard work. And that’s the whole secret to language learning.

There really is no other way, given that a serviceable vocabulary is something like 20,000 words. Perhaps you can memorize 100 grammar rules if you really try, but nobody is going to develop an adequate vocabulary by memorizing vocab lists. It’s just not possible. But it’s very possible to do it by massive exposure, the way everyone learns his native language.

If you develop grammar and vocabulary naturally, from real exposure to the language, the result is far better than you could get from memorizing vocab lists and grammar rules. You develop an ear for what sounds right, and it sounds right because the grammar is right. After that, it’s easy to learn grammar rules because they fit with your experience; you say to yourself, “I knew that rule, I just hadn’t put it into words.”

Attitude and Motivation

It’s a mental challenge to push through the beginner and intermediate levels when you’re learning a language. It’s easy to get discouraged because it seems like fluency is so far off, and your progress is hardly perceptible, and you’re putting in a lot of time.

The solution is to accept that it’s a long process, and to trust that your mind is putting things together although you can’t see it happen. The human mind was created to learn language; it has a natural aptitude for it.

Try to approach your language study like a child. There is an exciting new world of language to discover. The goal is communication, not grammatical correctness; that can come much later. Think how pleased you would be if you could communicate as well as a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old native speaker – yet they make a lot of grammatical errors and it doesn’t matter! They get their point across, and as time passes they clean up the grammar little by little. You can do the same – in fact, you must, because there is no other way. To jump straight to an advanced level is no more possible in language than in music, or sports, or anything else.

The best way to sustain your motivation and positive attitude is to find content that really interests you. One way is to look for translations of your favorite books written in English. Don’t settle for sub-par content; if you find yourself thinking that a book is not very interesting, put it aside and look for something else. There are plenty of books out there that you will like, many of which also teach you something worth knowing, or inspire and elevate your mind with a beautiful story.

If you are putting in consistent time with the language, you may not see that you’re better this week than last week, but it should be clear that you’re better than you were three months ago. Congratulate yourself on your progress and be happy about it, just like you would praise a child learning his first language and the child would be happy about it.

You may run into problems with motivation if your expectations are too high. If you are so driven that you study for five hours a day, it’s easy to get discouraged when you aren’t fluent in six months. There is a certain amount of calendar time that your mind needs in order to assimilate the input. Better to do 30-60 minutes of solid work every day, with ordinary effort and attention, than to make an intense effort that is unsustainable, crowds out your other work, and leaves you feeling disappointed.

LingQ Software

LingQ.com is a web and mobile application for language learning. It lets you read the text, hear the audio, look up words with one click, and save your new vocabulary words for later review. LingQ is free to use with limited functionality, or you can pay for unlimited saved vocab and the ability to import your own content. If you use my referral link, you get 100 extra saved vocab words with your free account.

I’ve been using LingQ to study Spanish and to begin learning French, and I’m very pleased with it. The great benefit is that with LingQ you can tackle content that is above your level, because it’s so quick and easy to look up a word and even to translate a whole sentence. That means I can read what I want to read, instead of endless beginner content, and I can learn much more vocabulary than would be practical if I were using a paper dictionary.

As you experiment with LingQ, be sure to try Sentence Mode. You can listen to the sentence repeatedly, even if the course doesn’t have audio – it will instead use a text-to-speech engine. Also you can click “show translation,” and it gives a machine translation of the whole sentence.

The founder of LingQ is Steve Kaufmann; he speaks over 15 languages, and he learned most of them after age 50. He has an excellent YouTube channel with extensive info on language learning. If you want to learn how to do something, listen to someone who has been massively successful at it! You can start here, with his introductory series on the LingQ method.

Choosing a Foreign Language

You should pick a foreign language that you want to study, and that you can use for a practical purpose. If you know people who speak a particular language, you could learn it because you’ll have someone to converse with. Or you could learn a language that you can use for work or travel. Or if you want to pray the Divine Office and read theological books, you could learn Latin. If your native language is English and you don’t favor any foreign language in particular, I recommend you study Spanish.

Books / Audios / Videos

As a beginner, you need to read and hear the language, so that you get on the right track with pronunciation from the beginning. LingQ is great for synchronous reading and listening.

At any level, reading is the best way to learn new words. You can move at your own pace. When you encounter a new word, you see how it is spelled and you can look up its definition, both of which are pretty much essential for me to learn it. If you’re only listening and you come across a new word, you can’t do any of that, so you probably don’t learn it.

Listening is great for content that you have already read or can understand quite well. It builds your familiarity with vocab, grammar, and pronunciation, without feeling laborious. It’s practical; you can listen while driving, making dinner, doing laundry, etc. You can benefit from listening although your attention drifts in and out, which doesn’t really work with reading.

Here is a good plan at the beginner and intermediate levels: Read once, look up the new words. Listen two or three times, then move to the next lesson. When you’ve gotten through five or ten lessons, go back and review them all, reading first and then listening.

It’s very helpful to revisit the same material, because you notice things the second or third time that you didn’t notice the first time, plus all the vocabulary and grammar gets reinforced. If you’re using content that you really like, it shouldn’t feel unpleasant to read or hear it several times. Once you get to the intermediate level, you should have a good-sized collection of content that you’d be happy to review now and then, every six months or whenever it strikes your fancy.

Videos are a mixed bag. There’s a sense of accomplishment to be able to watch a video in a foreign language; it feels like you’re doing something real with the language. But the downsides are (1) there’s a lot of time in videos when nobody is talking, (2) there’s not as much new vocabulary as in books, (3) it’s hard to learn new vocabulary from a video. You can use foreign language videos for recreation, but I don’t think they qualify as study material for language learning. Now if the format is more like a podcast with video, that’s a different story; what I mean is that movies made for TV and theater are not great for language learning.

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