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.

When Foreign Becomes Natural

I’ve noticed something that has happened with my language learning, and I’m wondering if it’s happened to any other learners:

I’ve been learning German much, much longer than French. That being the case, I know a great deal more of German. The language has become increasingly transparent to me, and most of what I work on now is listening skills and vocabulary acquisition. In the case of many of the words I learn, I have a good idea of what they mean before I look them up, quite often due to them being related to words I already know. In other words, the more German I’ve learned, the less exotic it’s become.

French, on the other hand, while I’m becoming increasingly more familiar with it via Assimil, is still quite exotic. There’s so much about the grammar that I don’t know; there’s so many basic words I don’t know. I’ve definitely left the shore, but I’ve not yet explored much of the ocean, so to say. I’m not implying that I’ve explored all of the German ocean – that would be absurd – but I’ve charted a great deal of it. With the “French ocean”, I’ve explored very little, relatively speaking.

The result of this is that I find myself clamoring to spend more time in the French ocean than in the German. I like to devote a bit of time each day to both languages, but I get more of a thrill (for lack of a better word) during my French studies. My German studies have become mundane, in a way; not boring, by any means, but different than they used to be. For example, reading a German news article, while such an act used to feel like “language learning”, now generally feels like I’m just reading the news. I note the words I don’t know and look them up, but other than that, I don’t even really have to think about it. I read the news in German like I would in English.

Has anyone else experienced this? Have you had a language lose a bit of its initial charms after having learned a lot of it?

Language Learning Update: French and German

I’ve not posted lately, so I figured I’d write a short entry to document where I’m at learning wise:


I’m now on lesson 88 of Assimil’s New French with Ease. If you remember my last post about this, it’s clear I’m not doing the recommended one lesson per day. I know, I know – I’m supposed to. But in these later lessons, I’ve found that I prefer to spend more time with them, as what’s being covered in lesson 85, for example, is much more complicated than what was covered in lesson 30. I’ve also been going back and doing the active wave, mostly as the program recommends.

For the active wave, I first listen to the audio two or three times. I then read the French text as I listen to it again. Then I cover up the French and try to translate from the English back to the target language. When I stumble during this step (and I almost always do), I refer to the text again. I then recite the sentence without looking at the text. After I’ve done this with all of the lesson, I sometimes will translate from English to French again, but instead of speaking it, I’ll write it out and then check my translation against the French in the book.

This obviously takes a bit longer than what Assimil recommends for the active wave, but I’ve found that by really engaging myself with the material, rather than just doing a cursory run-by, I learn far more. I noted that in lesson 50, when the course instructed me to begin the active wave, it was stated that the active wave would “only add about 5 minutes to my daily studying.” My way takes more like 15 or 20, but, like I said – it seems more effective.

When I’m done with French with Ease, I have Using French on my shelf, waiting for me. Once I finish with French with Ease, though, I’m also going to start systematically enlarging my vocabulary. Perhaps I’ll check out Using French Vocabulary, the sister title to Using German Vocabulary, which I’ve been using for a while now.


There’s not a great deal to report in regards to my German learning. I’m still plugging away at Using German Vocabulary. I’m still using Anki, but I’ve also started experimenting with Iversen’s word list method. When I first read about the method in the How To Learn Any Language forums, I thought it sounded pretty awful. But after trying it, I must say – it seems to work. I’ve talked with Iversen via the forum, and I think he’s right – waiting until you “know” 5-7 words before you write the translations seems more effective than learning 1 word, writing it, learning another word, etc. I may start learning words initially with the word list method to get them into my memory, and then move them over to Anki.

I’ve largely seen success in adding word pairs to Anki, minus a few cards here and there, most of which I get wrong because they’re so similar. I’ve added context to troublesome cards, which amounts to maybe 15 or 20 cards. Considering I’ve added close to 1500 words from Using German Vocabulary, 15 or 20 troublemakers doesn’t seem too bad. 🙂