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 how-to-learn-any-language.com 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 how-to-learn-any-language.com 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.