I’ve been waiting to start this blog until I became comfortable with my level in French. Until then, I felt I didn’t have as much credibility to shake my linguistoclastic fists at the language-learning establishment because I couldn’t prove that my method to learning languages is any better than theirs. You see, whereas many people practice sports, play music, or cook in their free time, I learn languages—for fun. My current language mission is French—I live in Paris, and I’ve been learning the language since the beginning of September. I’ll go into a bit more detail about my French mission below, but first I’ll start with some background and my general thoughts on language learning.
My Fight Against “Big Language”
By “Big Language” I mean the language-learning establishment, which is a veritable gendarmerie, replete with its own exacting standards regarding how languages should be taught, learned, spoken, etc. These standards that are, by-and-large, completely misguided. I’ve come to feel strongly about this because I’d consider myself somewhat of a language-learning expert. (Note that I don’t call myself a “language-speaking expert,” merely a “language-learning expert.”) French is now the fifth language I’ve made an attempt to learn after having spent time studying Spanish, Italian, Czech, and Turkish. Of those, I can only speak French and Spanish; Italian, Czech, and Turkish have since left me, though I am interested in picking them back up at some point.
I learned Spanish in school for seven years, starting when I was ten years old. You would think that, come year seven, I would have been completely fluent in Spanish, that I would have known every one of its nooks and crannies. Well, no—that simply wasn’t the case, though I sincerely wish it had been. The very first time I ever attempted to convey meaning to a native speaker by stringing words together into coherent sentences was during the month I lived in Barcelona with a Spanish family. I was sixteen. I remember all of the vocabulary and grammar—accrued while idling through countless hours of exercise upon exercise—rushing forth. Suddenly, I realized, I could speak. Not well, but I could speak! Within a few weeks I was thinking in Spanish and dreaming in Spanish, and it was fun! I returned to school that fall excited, for the first time in six years, for my Spanish class, but before long my Spanish speaking ability regressed and I muddled my way through my last year of high school Spanish. I would make another attempt to speak it until six years later. Why did my Spanish deteriorate while taking that class? Shouldn’t the class have only helped my Spanish? As I’ve come to realize years later, the answer is, plainly, “no.”
The problem with language learning education is that it means relatively little without a commensurate effort to actually use the language. Many people falsely believe—perhaps because Big Language has promulgated this myth so completely—that by taking a class or lessons, you will automatically be able to speak the language you’re learning. Time and time again, I watch people become discouraged and disengaged, and time and time again, I hear people say things like, “I took high school Spanish, but…” or “I took a French course once, but…” The “but” in those sentences usually precedes a declaration to the effect of, “I can’t speak a word of it.” Okay, I understand, and I’m with you, but I’m starting this blog to change that. Starting now.
Put Your Language-Learning on a Diet
When I think back to my early Spanish classes, the thing I find most interesting is how much of what I learned actually stuck with me. To this day, I remember words like bufanda (“scarf”), despite the fact I think I’ve only ever used bufanda a handful of times in conversation. I remember the tables of verbs—verbs like maquillarse (“to put on makeup”), peiñarse (“to comb”), and patinar (“to skate”)—we had to memorize and all of their corresponding pictures. The problem, then, wasn’t that I don’t remember anything; it’s that I was made to memorize the wrong stuff.
The method I’ve developed focuses like a laser-beam on learning the grammar and vocabulary that I’m most likely to encounter on a day-to-day basis while actually using the language I’m trying to learn. I first applied it while learning Turkish, and I’ve been using it most recently to learn French. It’s simple: I start by thinking about what I would learn about in a beginner’s class, and then I do the opposite. Much of the vocabulary I’ve learned in my language courses—colors, household objects and appliances, family members, sports, activities, animals, etc—is junk. Absolutely crap. There’s no need to spend a second of your time actively learning it unless you absolutely must.
What do I prioritize, then? I start by taking a 360-degree view of the language and how it’s structured and where words go. It’s important to know where it employs a subject-verb-object structure, like English or the romance languages, or some other structure. Does word order even matter at all? In some languages, like Czech, it doesn’t. Are there articles? If so, where do the articles go and what grammatical information do they convey? Do adjectives come before or after nouns, and do they reflect the gender and number of the nouns they modify? Do nouns even have gender? In my opinion, all of this is essential to know before you even utter your first word in the language, though none of the courses I’ve taken have spent time explaining all of this to me in a clear, concise way. My mantra can be summed up thus: Learn the structures first, and then fill in the rest with vocabulary as you go along.
When it comes time to start learning vocabulary, I prefer to be as efficient as possible. Take a moment and think about which words you use most in English. Studies show that speakers of different languages use language, by and large, for the same purposes, to express the same things. It’s also been shown that though languages consist of millions of words, native speakers usually only use a discrete set of a couple thousand to interact on a daily basis. Therefore, learning the most commonly used words in a language will help you progress much further, and much faster, than simply memorizing boiler-plate vocabulary, like patinar. (Sorry, no offense patinar—really. You’re a great word, and I’m sure someone will use you well, but you’re just not all that useful.)
My Method: “The Triage Method”
Okay, I know I’m throwing a lot at you, so below, as concisely as I can possibly organize it, are the five aspects that comprise my language learning method:
- Commit the most commonly used words to memory. Frequency-lists are your friends and are nearly ubiquitous on the Internet.
- Learn the grammatical structures in which vocabulary is used, including word order, verbal tenses, moods, inflection of nouns, etc. Dive on in. It’s really not that scary—I promise. I find that learning grammar rules helps me make sense of the phrases I hear everyday. You know you’re onto something when you begin to have those “ah-ah!” moments.
- Memorize phrases, expressions, and filler speech. Doing so will aid the fluency of your speech and allow you to continue a conversation while formulating news thoughts, just as you do in your native language. Have you ever thought about how often you use words and phrases like “I see,” “I understand,” “well, actually,” or “not quite?” They come to mind so automatically and fit so naturally into your speech that you probably haven’t. You need to learn the filler speech of your target language to buy yourself time to think and to convey basic understanding.
- Assimilate words, phrases, and expressions used by native speakers into your own speech. Let’s face it, you take as many classes as you’d like, but you will never, ever sound like a native unless you take the time to speak with natives and learn how they use the language on a day-to-day basis. Having an arsenal of colloquial phrases will no doubt boost your fluency level.
- Listen to your target language as spoken by native speakers. Movies and music are the best—and most enjoyable—tools for doing this in your spare time, especially if you’re not actually living in a country in which your target language is spoken. You must, though, make an effort to find native speakers wherever you are.
So in which order are you supposed to do all of these things? Well, now here’s the real secret about my method: it’s not actually a method at all. These, I believe, are the five essential aspects to learning a new language, but the order in which you do them and how much time you invest in each depends on you. I suppose the simple answer is that they should happen all at once, and you should continue with each until you reach what you would consider to be fluency and beyond. I call it the triage method because what I focus on depends entirely on what I feel are my weak points in spoken conversation. In other words, I’m constantly in the process of “triaging” my skills.
In the broadest of terms, that is how I learn languages. This blog will be dedicated to expounding on my triage method and sharing other miscellaneous linguistic tidbits because, well, language is my passion. If it’s yours too, or if you’re simply looking for some practical tips, check back every once in a while for an update.