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.

15 thoughts on “More “Traditional” Language Learning Methods”

  1. Good that you’re thinking about how we learn language as a kid, but I’m a bit dissapointed as you say cramming grammar and words will speed up your learning process. This is simply not the case.

    In the long run, you’ll perfectly know why something works like it works, but won’t be as fluent as you could be. I’m not saying that diving into the grammar isn’t beneficial, but in the beginning until an advanced stage it’s simply not necessary. I think you’ll be amazed by how much you still need to do after all the cramming, as you still need input to become fluent. If you’re unlucky, it will even last longer to become fluent because you’re used to thinking about everything before producing it.

    Over-analysing (and this happens really fast) kills fluency.

    Example: English isn’t my native tongue, I never studied its rules and I still can write this comment with ease…

  2. I’ll agree with Ramses that you need lots of input to become fluent. You also need lots of output if you want to speak with any fluency. The thing is, input and output aren’t enough. The input has to be comprehensible and the output has to be meaningful.

    If you plan to learn a language by mastering the grammar and vocabulary and putting them together, yeah, you’re going to make a mess of things. But if you’re combining traditional methods with newer methods and with content in the language, then what traditional grammar study does is to make a lot of input comprehensible that wouldn’t otherwise be. It’s all a question of whether traditional approaches serve as the sole basis for learning or furnish a shortcut for processing what you’re learning in a more immersive manner. I think the important thing is to avoid fetishizing either grammar or its lack and find what helps you make the language meaningful to you the fastest.

  3. Oh, dear. Geoff, your comment makes it clear to me that I failed in getting my point across. I’m all for lots of input and output. I’m not at all saying to abandon reading and listening to genuine materials in favor of staring at tables. I am, however, in favor of using lots of grammar study in conjunction with lots of reading / listening / writing / speaking. This pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter:

    But if you’re combining traditional methods with newer methods and with content in the language, then what traditional grammar study does is to make a lot of input comprehensible that wouldn’t otherwise be.

  4. I rather agree with you, especially when russian is concerned. russian is a structured, rich language – by shrugging off grammar you lose much of its depth. I am a native speaker of polish, a language in many aspects simmilar to russian, and without adequate grammar background I fail to make sense while speaking russian, because I embark on false similarities.

    On the other hand I also agree that some modern, passive methods are indispensable. Also because they’re more fun and less effort, and one simply cannot study charts for 4 hours straight.

  5. I’ve always felt people fall into two groups on language learning. Some like to learn the grammar and then plug in the words, and some like to learn the vocabulary and then add on the grammar. I tend to fall in the former category but know that lots of people are in the other.

    I’m studying Polish and my tutor is the type that teaches the grammar from the start. The thing with Polish, and Russian as well, is that there is so much conjugation and declension that it is hard to get very far without it. Polish isn’t like Chinese, which I also studied, where you can learn some basic ordering principles and start talking. In most cases you can’t put a noun after the verb without doing some sort of declension, and memorizing the declensions is more efficient for me than trying to get them by osmosis or by constant correction.

  6. @Beirne;
    Research shows that adults can learn a second language like they learned their first language as kids. All it takes is immersion, after which you can study the grammar to make things clear for yourself.

    The problem with most people is that they want to produce way too soon. Did you try to speak right away as a kid? No, you got input and after a while you wanted to speak, so you spoke.

    Really, even if a language has tons of declensions and such, immersion can help. Did people in the past have grammar books and other language learning materials? No. Still, they were able to learn a language by mixing with natives and getting input.

  7. @Ramses,

    I agree that immersion would be better, but it isn’t practical in many cases. I’d happily go to Poland to learn Polish there, but since I can’t I have to make do with less pleasant methods like grammar study.

  8. @Beirne;
    Do you really think you have to go to the country to learn the language? Come on! Because of the internet, DVDs, music, etc. you can immerse yourself at home!

  9. @Ramses,

    Listening to Internet radio, music, and the like isn’t very good immersion because you don’t get any feedback. I consider immersion being in the country away from speakers of your own language, or at least going to a class where all you speak is the language. Listening to Polish is just practice to see if I hear words I already know. It isn’t a very efficient way to learn new words.

  10. @Breine;
    Ever heard of internet calls, language exchanges, etc.? How come people get fluent without ever going to the country of their target language? Also, going to the target country won’t get you fluent for sure. Remember all the immigrants that speak English really bad?

  11. @Ramses,

    Sure I’ve heard of internet calls and language exchanges. That’s not what you referred to, though. I’m not sure very many people get fluent in the language by self-study. In any case, are you saying that I’ll learn the language better by study over the Internet than if I go to the country and get myself in an immersion situation?

  12. Hi,

    I grew up bilingual in both English and Russian. I spent a year in Russia as a child and picked it up quickly and speak to my family in it. However, I never went through the grammar properly and even I am having problems sometimes not knowing which case to use! I think I would benefit from doing some intense grammar, even though I am a relatively “native speaker”.
    I agree with you about the language courses on the market. What they are really saying is “Learn to say HELLO and HOW ARE YOU in 3 months!” If someone wants to learn a language, s/he has to have willpower and interest, otherwise s/he will not get past the first chapter.
    Language experts also say “learn every day, even if it’s 20 mins”. I agree. It’s important to keep momentum.
    I think grammar IS important, and you will only learn a language well if you cover all aspects of a language. Various inputs are vital (listening, reading, speaking, writing). Learning a language is indeed a great effort, but in my opinion 100% fun! And in this day and age we have access to materials like never before!

    There are some useful clips in Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/user/ProfASAr
    http://www.youtube.com/user/lingosteve

    Both with different approaches. Professor Arguelles is an academic, so of course his approach is rather traditional, and Steve Kaufmann’s approach is less grammar orientated and more “natural acquisition”. I would say a good mix of the two approaches is useful!

  13. This has been such a fab article and discussion to read. Thank you for posting it, Josh! It’s interesting – as a language tutor I obviously go about teaching people the method that works well for me, which is list making, hand writing, sounding things out and getting to know every rule I can find. I start throwing the words “participle” or “indirect object” at them relatively soon, but I do find that sometimes I have to take out the rules and give a student more practice, just to make them feel like it’s all going somewhere as well. I know that I am not a patient person, and so the immersion strategy advocated by Ramses frustrates me – I start getting a headache from trying to understand everything!

    The traditional language learning methods have good advantages – would be fun to see a list of “old-school” vs “newfangled”.

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