Language learning blunders

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.)

Listening? Later.

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?

Returning from a hiatus

The past 3 or 4 weeks have been hectic for me, with “real life” (that is, not language stuff, alas) throwing some curve balls at me. I’d love to say that I’ve diligently carried on with my language learning endeavors, but I can’t. I’ve not picked up a grammar book or dictionary for weeks, nor have I even read much in foreign languages. My German deck in Anki has over 500 cards due!

While that’s certainly not a good thing, some good has come from it, and that is this: I’ve been reminded once again that one is allowed to set aside language learning for a while, and the world won’t come crashing down. That may sound silly, but for many months now, language learning had become a major part of my daily routine, and at times, I let it slide from “extremely enjoyable hobby” to “work.” On some days, instead of thinking “I want to work on Russian now,” I’d instead think “I need to / must work on Russian sometime today.” Particularly when tackling a number of languages all at once, such thinking quickly leads to feeling down about not meeting all of your obligations – real or imagined. Russian didn’t really care if I met with it on Tuesday or Wednesday, but in my mind, Russian did care, in a bizarre way. Russian felt neglected.

Thankfully, languages are much more forgiving than people are. Shelve them for a week or four, and they’ll wait around for you. Furthermore, while I do regret having been away from my languages for so many weeks, the break is proving to have been helpful, as I’ve been able to see that what I’ve learned so far won’t disappear if I miss a few weeks. For a long while, I was quite in the mindset that if I missed a day or two, what I’d learned would drain out of my head like water out of a sink. That hasn’t been the case at all. This past weekend I was out of town for a few days, with none of my Russian materials; I hadn’t studied any Russian for weeks. Yet I was still able to think a bit in the language, bringing to mind words, sentences, and bits of grammar that I honestly expected to have completely forgotten.

I’ve written a few posts like this now, I think, but I do think it’s a point worth stressing: don’t turn your hobbies into work, or you’ll learn to hate your hobbies. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to many people, but I know it applies to me. I tend to be serious about most things I do, which has its ups and downs. It’s good to work diligently at things; it’s another thing altogether to let those “things” dominate your life. When you’re regularly feeling guilty for not paying enough attention to “your languages”, it might be time to reconsider how you’re doing things. 🙂

Has anyone else had similar positive experiences with taking a decent sized break from language learning? Before answering that in the comments, though, let me make it clear: you’re not going to learn any language by ignoring it all the time. But breaks can be beneficial, I think.

Tip of the day: Ignore everyone, do what you want

It’s easy to forget your overall goal sometimes, and language learning is no exception. It’s easy to get caught up in learning about learning languages, as opposed to learning languages. I certainly find myself suffering from this sometimes. Instead of learning more vocabulary, I’ll find myself poking around at the forums. Instead of studying a grammar point that’s giving me trouble, I’ll read (and write) blog posts about “the debate” – whether or not one should study grammar.

There’s nothing wrong with learning about methods, but there is a problem when the amount of time you’re spending on learning about learning languages rivals (or even surpasses) the amount of time you’re actually spending on learning languages. All the wonderful methods of the world won’t teach you a language if you don’t put the time in.

So, today’s tip: ignore everyone, and go do what you want. Just make sure it’s language learning, not learning about language learning. For today, we’ll set aside the grammar debates, the vocabulary debates (context vs. no context), and all of that. Today, just do something, even if someone somewhere on the internet (even me!) tells you it’s wrong. Go do SRS reps, or make some word lists, or study grammar, or translate, or something. For today, no more learning about language learning.

(And yes, this post is at least partially written to myself.)

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.

Using Google As A Teacher

Jim Stroud from wrote an interesting document about using Google as an aid to language learning. Many of his tips involve using Google’s vast text index to compare a search to what Google has on hand, for example:

3. Is there a word missing?

By using an asterix in a sentence, Google will assume that a word is missing and search for phrases that it thinks fills in that blank. For example…

By searching, How are you * today?

Google returns search results that includes:
*   “How are you doing today?”

*   “How are you feeling today?”

*   “How are you guys today?”

*   “How are you coping today?”

Click here to see for yourself and pay attention to the phrases that are bolded.

I really like his ideas, as they help language learners (learning English or anything else) to compare what they think is right, to what is right. If you run a search on what you think is right and get 5 results, it’s probably wrong. If you get 150,000 results, you’re probably onto something. 🙂

You can read Jim’s post here, or download the full guide here.

Language Geek New Year Intentions

I know, I know – you expected to see “resolutions” in the title. I decided to copy Geoff’s lead, by using intentions rather than resolutions. Every New Year resolution I’ve ever made, I’ve failed miserably at; and as Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The empirical evidence I have on hand (that is, my memory of years gone by) says that if I make a language resolution, it’ll fail, so I’m going to avoid stepping into the quicksand altogether, and just not make any resolutions. It’s intentions this year.

So, the intentions:

  • In general, I intend to continue working on my three current languages, German, French, and Russian. This may seem silly, but I think it’s important to have that base intention. I suppose giving up language learning altogether would be a possibility, so…
  • For German, I intend to continue increasing my vocabulary, and reading native materials. I also intend to work more intensively using Hammer’s German Grammar and the associated Exercise book; I’ve neglected them too long.
  • For French, I intend to finish up working with Assimil’s New French with Ease, and start on Assimil’s Using French. I also intend to continue getting a basic vocabulary under my belt, using Mastering French Vocabulary as my primary source. While I’m not going to do so just yet, as I don’t think I’m far enough along, I intend on getting a French language exchange partner sometime during 2009.
  • For Russian, I have two specific intentions: finish working through New Penguin’s Russian Course, and finish working through Assimil’s Russisch ohne Mühe. I’d like to make it through at least one of them by mid-2009, and both of them by the end of the year. Even with regular university courses and my other language pursuits, I think this should be achievable, with a bit of focus on my part.
  • And finally, I intend to display my utter madness, by perhaps starting a new language in 2009. I won’t be doing it right now, as with Russian, I still feel like I’m floating in a vast, turbulent sea, with no life jacket. Once I feel like I’m in said ocean with a sad little boat, then I may start a new language. If I do start a new language this year, it will be Spanish.

What are your language learning intentions / resolutions / plans for the year?

And of course – happy new year! I hope you all had nice holidays.


Jaered from Lang-8 sent me an email a few days ago, asking me to check out the Lang-8 site, and perhaps blog about it. So, what is Lang-8? It’s a bit like many other language exchange sites – you sign up, you can search profiles, etc. – but with one major difference. The main pull behind Lang-8 is that you can post directly to the site and receive corrections from native speakers of your target language. When you click on a journal entry, each sentence is linked, so that you can click on it and correct it, using buttons for red and blue text, as well as bold and crossout.

It seems like a pretty good idea to me, being able to post and get corrections from any native speaker who comes along. I love language exchanges, and I’ve made many good friends via them; but being able to just post something and get corrections without going through the ordeal of finding a partner, doing the introductions, figuring out how we’re going to correct, etc… that’s quite nice.

The site seems to be dominated by those who are learning East Asian languages (particularly Japanese), but there are European speakers floating around in the mass. I think the correction interface is a little clunky and could use some work, but it’s still usable; the site as a whole could use some decluttering, as it seems awfully busy. Overall, though, I’m quite fond of the overall idea. Do check it out.

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?