Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them

I came across a freely available book some time ago, but forgot to post about it here. The book is titled “Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them,” and is available for free from this page. You can get the PDF of it directly here. Here’s a summary:

This book contains Earl Stevick’s analysis of the strategies used by seven successful language learners and the implications for becoming a more successful language learner yourself. There are extensive excerpts from taped interviews with the seven learners, with Stevick’s comments on the strategies and beliefs of the various learners. The book ends with Stevick’s summary of what we can learn from the experiences of these learners. This book shows the diversity of approaches and beliefs that can be held by successful language learners and can provide suggestions for strategies that may work for you.

While we all have our own ideas about language learning, and we often feel strongly about them, I think a book like this is wonderful in highlighting the fact that many methods work. Even if a particular method doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean it’s a useless method. If serious language learners could keep this in mind when talking with one another, I think there would be much more productive discussion and far less bickering. While I still like them, the forums at are sadly a fine example of this; there’s almost always at least one thread going on that is mostly two or three people arguing the same points over and over. “No, my way is better!” “No, mine is.” “No, yours doesn’t work at all!” Perhaps all of your methods work, but just not for each other?

I really liked a quote from Geoff’s latest post at Confessions of a Language Addict:

Indeed, it sometimes seems like some people make a fetish of not learning or teaching grammar, as though how you learn a language is more important than whether you learn it.

Exactly. Keep the goal in mind; as long as you’re learning and not hating the process, you’re doing something right.

More “Traditional” Language Learning Methods

As of late, I’ve found myself gravitating increasingly towards more “traditional” language learning methods – studying grammar tables, copying out texts by hand and annotating my copies, learning words by writing them (using Iversen’s word list method).

That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t do other things. I still listen to my current languages a lot, and read in the more typical way (i.e., not writing out the text). I also am still using Anki, typically feeding the words I learn with my word lists into it after a few days of review. But I think part of my reasoning for using the more traditional approaches is that my former ways have been too passive, tarnished with too much of a mindset of, “if I just putz around in this language long enough, listening to lots of material, I’ll just ‘get’ the grammar and all of the vocabulary.” I know there are those who believe in such an approach, and perhaps it may work for them; but I don’t think it will work for me.

Russian is a prime example of this. If you were to believe many modern, trendy language programs, why, all you’d have to do is listen to recordings and repeat after them, and in a matter of 3 hours, you’d be fluent! Exaggeration on my part, I admit, but I grow tired of this vast lie that the market has made that language learning is easy and fast; it’s not. But my point is, even ignoring my exaggeration, most of these courses promise something which is nigh impossible for the foreign learner: to learn Russian well without really digging into the grammar. I suppose it could be done, but not in any fashion that’s even marginally time efficient. I’d much rather study grammar tables and “cram” isolated words into my vocabulary than spend who knows how many hours listening to the same stuff over and over, wondering, “What’s with the words changing so much?”

The modern language learning program industry has gone too far, I think, in trying to make things “friendly” – they’ve dumbed things down too much. Yes, I know children learn languages without studying grammar, without doing word lists, without writing out declension and conjugation tables; but if we, as adults, have the ability to study these things, and in turn speed up our acquisition of a language, we should use that ability to its fullest. Despite what some language program publishers would have us believe, grammar isn’t a bad thing, and learning words out of context isn’t one of the seven deadly sins. Yesterday I learned a number of German words “out of context”, including seekrank, Seekrankheit, and Seekarte (I was just pulling words right out of one of my dictionaries to learn, another sin, I’m sure). While I’m aware that you need some context when learning some words, I think that for most words, you don’t. I need no context for those words, because seasick, seasickness, and nautical chart, are most likely used in a similar fashion as to how they’re used in English.

My apologies for this slightly ranting post, but I’ve just had it with courses that promise to teach me a language easily and without any difficulty, without any memorizing, without looking at (gasp!) grammar tables. Maybe some of us want grammar tables, because we see them as useful.

Keeping a Language Learning Log

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been keeping a language log at the forums. I’ve found it to be a wonderful help, both in keeping myself motivated, and in (obviously) keeping track of what exactly I’m doing in my language studies.

It helps my motivation, as it’s a nice feeling to sit down and document what I’ve done throughout the day. It makes my little study sessions of 15 or 20 minutes seem more substantial, when I’m able to line them all up together, and see that I’ve put in 2 or more hours in throughout the day. While this isn’t always the case – sometimes I’m doing good to total half an hour! – often, it is the case, and when it happens, I’m happy to see it.

And, as the more obvious benefit of keeping a language learning log, it helps me keep track of what I’m doing and stay on track. Particularly when you’re tackling multiple languages simultaneously, it’s easy to get lost as to what you’ve done, and what you still need to do. Did I review chapter 4 of my Russian textbook? When was the last time I reviewed that French Assimil lesson? Have I covered this tense at all, or do I need to hit the grammar book?

As an extended benefit, the log has helped me focus on consistently hitting new material for my languages. In the past, I’ve fallen into the trap of sticking to one thing for too long, aiming for complete mastery before moving along. While some people are capable of doing this, I’ve found that I prefer to learn a lot of new material, and then consolidate the knowledge as I go along. Staring for days on end at one tense or declension generally just bores me to tears, which hinders learning.

If you’ve not kept a language log before, do try it; it might help you. Geoff has also written about keeping a language journal, so if you’re thinking of keeping one, you should certainly check out his method as well.

Getting Started with Shadowing

I read about Dr. Arguelles’ shadowing method long ago on the forums at, but I recently “rediscovered” the method when Geoff linked to Dr. Arguelles’ relatively new site.

Here’s a description of shadowing from Dr. Arguelles’ language study page:

This video [on the page linked above] demonstrates the proper form for using my technique of shadowing or listening to and simultaneously echoing a recording of a foreign language.

In order to shadow most effectively, it is important to observe three points:

1. Walk outdoors as swiftly as possible.
2. Maintain perfectly upright posture.
3. Articulate thoroughly in a loud, clear voice.

I’ve tried doing this with a few Assimil French lessons, and I was surprised by what I found. I did it with lessons I did quite some time ago, lessons which I felt I knew quite well. Simply reading the lessons out loud without shadowing, it felt easy. However, when I tried shadowing them, I discovered that it was far more difficult. I’d practically trip over my own tongue trying to keep up with the native speakers, struggling to say things that I thought I could say quite well.

I like the idea behind shadowing, which, if I understand Dr. Arguelles correctly, works a bit like learning to sing a song. As you listen to the audio and echo it, as long as you’re not tone deaf, you’ll automatically correct your pronunciation to match your speech with what you’re hearing. I’m well acquainted with this idea when it comes to music, as when I sing along with a song in which the singer has an accent, I copy that accent without really meaning to. Trying to force myself to sing without their accent actually feels rather weird, and I can’t do it for very long.

I’m going to keep trying the technique and see if it helps me any. Have you tried shadowing before, and if so, what were your experiences with it?

If you’re interested in the method, you might want to also check out a couple of threads at, in which Dr. Arguelles answers many questions about the method:

Another Attempt with Word Lists

I’ve written in the past about my attempt at using word lists, and if you’ve kept up with those posts, after reading this one, you’ll probably think I suffer from split personality syndrome. But, I can at least say I’m being honest here. 🙂

I’ve gone back to Using German Vocabulary and am adding words – lots of them – to Anki. No sentences; indeed, I’ve added no extra context unless it was needed with a particularly ambiguous word. The result? It’s working extremely well. I’ve added nearly the whole first chapter, which, while I can’t give an exact number, probably hovers around a total of 500-600 words. The vast majority of them are sticking in my memory quite well. Some words, particularly those that have a few siblings which are similar in form and nearly identical in meaning, have given me some headaches (Bettbezug, Bettzeug, I’m looking at you!). Overall, though, most of the words I’ve been able to memorize after a few appearances in Anki.

So, what’s different? I said before that I kept forgetting word pairs that I added to Anki, right?

Well, the difference is, I did something I should have been doing from the start: I enabled Recognition and Production cards in Anki. Previously, with all of the material I added to Anki, I was doing Recognition only – see the foreign word, think of the (often rough) equivalent in English. I’m not sure where I got the idea of leaving out production cards – I think it might have been All Japanese All The Time (but don’t quote me on that).

I’ve found this time around though, that the production stage is where you really get to prove your mettle. It’s far easier to look at a foreign word and say “yeah, I understand that perfectly!” than it is to be given a word in your native tongue and to produce a foreign equivalent.

But Why?

I used to think that learning vocabulary in context was the way to go – that is, the only way to go. I still view it in a good light, and it still makes up a large part of my language learning regimen. However, as I’ve used Using German Vocabulary, even just adding all of the words from the first chapter – out of 20! – I’ve realized just how many words in English I take for granted. You can see what I mean by skimming through the English-to-Whatever-Language-You’re-Learning section of your dictionary. I never realized how many English words I knew until I looked at how many German equivalents I needed to learn to have a decent command of the language. And by decent, I mean knowing simple words like broom and kitchen sink, words which I didn’t know until I started going through the vocabulary book.

It’s words like those that lead me to be hesitant to vouching solely for contextual vocabulary learning. I’ve read a lot of articles in German, but unless I’m reading about housecleaning or home renovation, how often am I going to see der Besen or das Spülbecken? Probably not that often at all. And yet these are words that we all pretty much take for granted – every native speaker of English knows broom and kitchen sink.

So, for me, the reason to go through the (at times boring, I’ll admit!) process of adding huge numbers of word pairs to Anki is simple efficiency. I can learn more words in an hour with this method than I’d learn in three or more hours with reading articles or books. Taking the “brute force” approach lets me cover a lot of different ground, covering all sorts of everyday words that I need to know. With most of them, with a few key words added, I can make sure I don’t get things confused due to a lack of context. For example, I recently added die Umgehungsstraßebypass to Anki. While the Recognition portion would be easy, simply seeing bypass could be troublesome – what kind of bypass? Are we talking about heart surgery here? By simply changing it to bypass (think cars!), I avoid any stupid word confusion.

Furthermore, by using large thematic lists from a book, I avoid the issue I mentioned above: if you rely solely on articles and other reading for vocabulary, if the word doesn’t show up in something you read, you don’t know it. Period.

While I’m not going to set anything in stone at this point, if my luck with this process using the above-mentioned book continues, I may make “word hoarding” one of the first steps in approaching a new language. Inadequate vocabulary has been my number one problem with German, and I think a systematic approach like this may be the solution to said problem.

Why you probably shouldn’t buy Schau ins Land

There’s a company called Champs-Elysees, which makes four different audio magazines for language learners: Champs-Elysees, Puerta del Sol, Acquerello italiano, and Schau ins Land. Each issue of the audio magazines comes with a CD or cassette tape (around an hour long), along with a small magazine. In the magazine, there is a complete transcript of the audio on the left page, with vocabulary words in bold; on the right page are the vocabulary words and definitions. Throughout the text there are endnote numbers, which refer to the back of the magazine, where lots of cultural / news information is given in English.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? They are pretty nice, I’ll admit. I had a subscription to Schau ins Land at one point (which, at the time, amounted to 5 issues per year), and quite enjoyed them.

The problem, however, is the price. For 6 issues of Schau ins Land, you’ll be paying a hefty $129. If you want the study supplements for each issue, add on another $30. Assuming you don’t want the latter, you’re still paying $129 for 6 hours of audio, along with the transcripts, the select translations, and the cultural information in the back. Considering the aim of the magazines – to help learners improve their German – while the cultural stuff in the back can be interesting, it doesn’t really add much language learning value to the package. So, one could argue that, at least in regards to language learning, you’re paying $129 for 6 hours of audio, transcripts, and translations of the trickier words.

This may have been a decent deal years ago, but in my opinion, it’s rather steep now, considering how many free, high-quality resources are online. I’ve mentioned it before, but I’d argue that Deutsche Welle‘s offerings trump Schau ins Land, and Deutsche Welle is all free. They have four podcasts which all have studio-quality audio (they are, after all, made in a studio 😉 ), complete with transcripts and, in the case of one, vocabulary lists:

The Top Thema mit Vokabeln podcasts usually come out a couple times a week; they’re 2-3 minutes long each, and the archive for them goes back to April 2004. With some very rough math – an average 2.5 minutes per episode, with episodes coming out twice a week – it comes out to about 21 hours of audio. I can’t give the rough amount of time that the others total up to, as the archive pages for them are done alphabetically instead of based on date. Sprachbar and Stichwort episodes all hover around 4 minutes each; Alltagsdeutsch comes in at around 15 minutes apiece. Suffice to say, add it all up, and there is a lot of material here.

It’s really hard for me to recommend Schau ins Land to anyone when such a comparison is done. To be fair, I do think that the translations in Schau ins Land are a little better than provided with Top Thema, because they’re in English, and generally speaking, Schau ins Land provides a higher number of word translations per paragraph of text. But, I’m no stranger to looking up words in a dictionary, just as anyone else who’s understanding of German is good enough to use Schau ins Land. So for me, I suppose it comes down to: is having the transcript in a pretty little magazine with copious endnotes in the back worth $129 per year for 6 episodes?

I’m afraid I’ll have to say Nein, danke to that.

Stick To It!

I read a post from Geoff today, The Language Habit, and I thought his point was worth repeating:

… [T]here is one old and earthshaking secret too often forgotten about all aspects of our lives: If you work at doing something as well as you can and consistently, you are on the way to excellence. So whatever your method or technique for learning language these days, stick to it. If it fits with what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll soon be on your way.

This is great advice. I’ve found that with language learning, often, what is lacking is not the “perfect” method, but simply enough time invested. With regular study, even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes, you can see improvement in your understanding. I’ve been extremely busy with college classwork, and so my language learning time has been pretty slim. However, I’ve been able to squeeze in 10-15 minutes a day for both French and Russian; German, as my primary language target, usually gets half an hour to an hour. While I certainly won’t win any language learning races by studying an hour and a half a day, luckily, I’m not in a race; I just want to continue learning, which I’ve been doing successfully. A drop here and there will eventually fill a glass, then a bath tub, and then an ocean. I suppose language learning is similar.

So, as Geoff said: stick to it. Even if it may feel like you’re not making much progress, you probably are. Just keep adding drops to the container.