I’ve been thinking about how I’ve approached language learning over the years since I first became interested in it. I’ve made a staggering numbering of mistakes, and thought it would be interesting (at least for me, and potentially for others) if I listed some of them out. A few of the major ones:
Fluent in 12 weeks!
I underestimated, by far, the amount of time and effort required to learn a language. The first language course I ever bought was Teach Yourself Gaelic, when I was (I believe) 16. I remember calling up my nephew and asking him excitedly if he wanted to learn Gaelic with me. His response was more or less, “Um, what? No thanks…”
Anyway, I naively thought that with such a course, why, I would be fluent in 3 or 4 months. At the time, if I remember correctly, I thought that all one had to do was learn the equivalent words, and then you were golden. Word order, grammar intricacies, different ways of expressing the same thing… none of these were an issue in my young, ignorant mind. Oh, how quickly this fantasy was torn down. (As an aside, being wholly ignorant of how to approach a foreign language, Gaelic bested me rather quickly. I still have the book for “later”, though.)
When I first started tackling German, I went months without really listening to anything in the language. I had the curious notion that if I simply became competent with the written language through reading and writing, I would be able to magically start listening and understanding anything that came my way. This was obviously a very bad idea. Because of doing that, I’ve struggled for a long time to get my listening skills caught up with my reading ability. Knowing the words and being able to process them quickly are quite different things.
Whenever I start a new language now, I more or less require that I find some sort of audio with transcripts, whether it’s online news, in a course, or an audiobook.
No native content yet
For a long time, I had the mindset that before I could approach any native materials, I had to have done so much formal learning. I had to be ready, in other words, before really diving in. I had to prepare by finishing this course, and that course, and studying this grammar book and doing these exercises.
I’ve come to see that this is just throwing up fake barriers for oneself, barriers which, if you were to stick to them, you would never touch native materials, because you’re never really ready. Courses are great, as are grammars, and I use both a lot. But at some point, you have to take off the training wheels, at least some of the time (and eventually all the time). I, at least, found it very easy to slip into a pattern of just sticking to the courses – Assimil, grammar exercises, vocabulary books – and never making use of other things. This was a very bad mistake. It was also rather disheartening because, when I did turn to native materials, I quickly saw that I had simply chipped a bit off the top of the iceberg. Better to recognize that fact earlier and continue chipping away, rather than staying on your bubble and thinking you know more than you really do.
What are some blunders you have made?
I’m curious as to how much listening others do, specifically, listening to material that you have no transcript for. For a while, I was listening to all sorts of stuff; I used Global Maverick’s guide to organizing foreign language listening material with iTunes, synced it with my iPod Touch, and had ear buds stuffed in my ears for hours on end. I’m not sure of how helpful it really is.
I’m certainly not arguing against listening to your target language, but I’m not overly confident that one learns a great deal when listening in this fashion. That is to say, sure, hearing something I already know reinforces it. But all of the words and structures I don’t know tend to just fly by me, lost. If it’s something new, whether a word or a grammatical structure, hearing it a dozen times isn’t going to teach me the meaning of it; on listen #12, it’s going to be a big question mark for me, just as it was on listen #1. I suppose one could argue that you could write down unknown things, but that’s going to involve a lot of rewinding, and considering that there’s practically infinite written material for the major languages, it makes more sense to just learn new words from reading.
Obviously, having a transcript of what you’re listening to alleviates this problem; listen to the item in question, then read the transcript and look up unknown words (or vice versa). Then proceed to listening to it until you’re bored of it.
In getting back to my language learning, I’ve been changing a few things. Perhaps the most drastic step I’ve taken is to stop using my old German deck in Anki, which has around 5000 cards in it.
I stopped using it because it simply wasn’t much fun to review. I’m coming around to Khatzmuto’s idea of only entering sentences into your SRS program. I’ve said before that I don’t think you need context for many words, usually nouns, and I still believe this. But I also know that, efficient or not, going through two or three hundred repetitions of mostly single word cards (das Haus – house, die Blume – flower) can become dreadfully boring. So, I’ve started a new German deck in which I’m going to only enter sentences. Any sentences that were in the old deck are (slowly) being moved over.
I’m also going to follow Steve Kaufman’s advice to just let the words overflow. I mentioned before that I’m pretty bad about feeling compelled to “catch” every single unknown word I come across, and I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that it’s just not feasible. The words I really need to know, I’ll run into over and over. With that in mind, I’m giving myself “permission” to run across an unknown word, look it up to understand what I’m reading, and forget it.