On Wednesday, I asked people to write comments outlining their language-learning journeys, and plenty of you did, for which I am grateful.
About twenty people contributed, but I am assuming that many more of you read through what others had written, as that’s the normal pattern. And is, in any case, a good way to get an idea of what other people are doing, and so what you too could try.
I didn’t reply to anyone, because I am a.) sleep deprived, b.) rather busy, and c.) fed up with arguing, at least temporarily. That could be the lack of sleep.
However, if you read the comments, the phrase ‘pinch of salt’ comes to mind. Apply a little common sense as you read people’s suggestions, for some seem to genuinely believe that, in order to SPEAK a language, you first have to study the grammar, so that you will have a reasonably complete knowledge of how the language is structured before you begin to focus on developing the undeniably more useful speaking and listening skills, which are the actual point.
Well! Who am I to argue with you? To each his own, indeed. People like these have the gratifying effect of making me look like an amazingly talented polyglot, having acquired (in just a few years!) the ability to speak and understand multiple foreign languages!
Pleasing as it is to find myself in the top whatever percent of British people, in terms of foreign language competence, in fact my ‘success’ is simply explained by knowing enough, or being sufficienty lazy, to prioritise speaking, listening and reading practice over grammar study and memorising vocabulary.
“But you have to study the grammar before you can understand/communicate!” they insist.
Go on, explain why.
Do the camel drivers who hustle tourists at Egypt’s pyramids?
It’s completely, utterly wrong to prioritise grammar study (though some is helpful – just not ONLY that, and not necessarily that FIRST.)
No professional language course in the world works that way and hasn’t done for at least fifty years; the incredibly popular Duolingo doesn’t work that way, either; an adherence to the ‘grammar-translation’ approach, which was consigned to the trash can of history along with the obligatory study of Latin and Ancient Greek by behaviorist theories of learning nearly a hundred years ago, will cost you dearly, in terms of lost opportunities to build fluency. But you know best. As I said, I’m too sleep-deprived to debate it.
And then there are the people who get so wedded to a particular language-learning app that they spend literally years on it, without wondering how come they still can’t manage to understand spoken Italian when they encounter it, and can’t even begin to express their thoughts in, erm, speech.
Oh, and the one that really gets on my tits?
The utterly wrong belief that older adults are less effective at language-learning than, say, children, teenagers or young adults. The published papers aren’t conclusive, mostly because no one has been bothered to do the research (no money in it…), but anyone who has worked teaching both children and adults for long enough to observe the learning outcomes (I’ve taught three-year olds who are now adults, for example, and junior-high students who are now old enough to have their own kids of the same age), can tell you: a motivated adult will reach a reasonable level of competence in a foreign language in a few years of part-time study (see my own learning journey with Swedish, outlined in the comments section of Wednesday’s article), no special ability required!
Whereas it’s highly unlikely that a child would or could learn as much. Children go from newborns to near-adult-like levels of ability in, what, around sixteen years? Bet I could learn any of the world’s languages, to university level or beyond, in a quarter of that time.
You are not too old to learn to speak and understand a language.
But if you ignore good advice, that will certainly impede and retard any progress you might be capable ot making.
95% of foreign language competences stem from hundreds, ideally, thousands of hours of practice. Reading and listening can be done for free. Speaking practice is worth paying for. Do the practice, in an intelligent way, without wasting time on on things that are clearly unproductive or irrelevant, and you WILL, despite your pickled old brain, improve. And probably rapidly.
Or stick with memorising conjugations and gamified apps, and be forever lamenting that you’re no good at and/or too old for learning languages.
At which point, I will copy and paste one of the final comments on Wednesday’s article, from Chris. I’ve picked this one because Chris ably and succinctly describes his language-learning journey, from not having a clue where to begin to where (I assume from what he writes) he has reached the point at which he is intelligently employing a range of good ideas and reaping the benefits. Bravo Chris!
Dear Daniel, after our honeymoon at Lago di Como years ago, my wife decided to learn Italian to make it less stressful on our next trip to la bella Italia, she later tricked me into starting a beginners course at our local library despite my protestations of being in my sixties, being English and rubbish at languages and not remembering why I walked upstairs. 6 years in now, I’m still doing the class but I have added various attachments… of listening to loads of modern italian music, finding your website and listening to/reading EasyItalianNews 3 times a week, got myself a VPN and like a lady in an earlier comment, I watch programmes like L’Eredita and documentaries and films. Oh, and I have completed Duolingo but now realise that, although it is helpful, it has its limitations. Recently due to your advice I found a local Italian lady who does speaking/conversation lessons (online at the moment) and my progress and speaking confidence has rocketed, I now gazzump your excellent son and read EIN out loud to myself first, scarily recording it, then check his (obv better) pronunciation afterwards. I always read your blogs and love them and your advice. Many thanks, you and your great website have really helped me.
A lunedì, allora.
Here’s a final reminder about this week’s new ‘easy Italian reader’ ebook, an original story set in a village in northern Italy in the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties. The level is C1, meaning it’s suitable for upper-intermediate and advanced students, and UNTIL SUNDAY NIGHT it costs just £5.99, instead of our usual easy reader ebook price of £7.99!
Be warned, this is not a tale for readers who enjoy happy endings…
An original Italian easy reader by Francesca Colombo
Italia, circa sette anni dopo la Prima Guerra Mondiale e la successiva influenza spagnola, che insieme avevano decimato la popolazione giovane e fertile di Villalba, un piccolo paese nel nord d’Italia
Fuori dalla casa di Luigia c’era un gruppetto di persone che si guardava in attesa. Il marito di Luigia, che stava per diventare padre, mostrava tutta la sua preoccupazione.
“Voi credete che sia normale? Tante ore per…”
Il parroco sbottò, quasi fosse offeso: “Certo che è normale, abbi fede nel Signore, che diamine! Le cose ben fatte son lunghe da farsi!”
Marcello chiese scusa, rammaricato per aver messo in dubbio i piani del buon Dio. Ma in quel momento qualcuno gridò: “È nato, è nato!”
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How do I access my ebook?
When your order is ‘completed’ (allow up to 24 hours), a download link will be automatically emailed to you. It’s valid for 7 days and 3 download attempts so please save a copy of the .pdf ebook in a safe place. Other versions of the ebook (.mobi/Kindle-compatible, .epub) cannot be downloaded but will be emailed to people who request them.
‘Il miracolo del paese‘ just £5.99 this week!| Free sample chapter (.pdf) | Catalog
Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is ready for you to read and listen to. I have, and then took the opportunity to chastise the editor for YET AGAIN using the term ‘TAV’ without any explanation as to what it might refer to. THEY WON’T KNOW, I insisted, for the umpeenth time. I FORGOT, she replied, DON’T FORGET AGAIN, IT’S UNPROFESSIONAL, I nagged. Typical small-family-business conversation. Imagine being married to your boss…
Anyway, I suppose you could have Googled TAV, in which case you might have found the Italian Wikipedia page, which may or may not be accurate but is a hell of a lot more convenient than traipsing down to your local library (assuming you are fortunate enough to have a local library and to still be able to traipse), hoping to find the term in a dusty, old encyclopedia.
N.b. While it’s the convention in English to define acronyms, normally the first time you use them, like this – TAV (Treno ad Alta Velocità) – unless of course they are very well known, such as UN (in Italian ONU), Italian newspapers don’t do this. Hence me and my wife constantly bickering about her work editing EasyItalianNews.com. She doesn’t see the need to explain acryonyms, while I think it’s essential.
And by the by, approximately three times more British people read a daily newspaper than Italians (source), which could be because the Italian press is largely incomprehensible to outsiders. Or perhaps it’s because the UK tabloids are full of salacious gossip and self-righteous bigotry. Who knows?
Thank you Daniel for banging on about language learning. I do read you and pay attention, and sometimes I change my language learning behaviour.
I have come to loathe Duolingo – I refuse to muddle around till I deduce the broad pattern. I like grammar, I like understanding the pattern, and seeing how it works, understanding how it’s applied, then having a go at it.
You seem to emphasise EFFICIENT learning, but I want to emphasise ENJOYABLE learning, even it it’s not maximally efficient. I enjoy writing, so I do that. I enjoy communicating with my excellent Skype teacher – I’ll stretch myself to tell her about things that are funny (fell out of the kayak today) or important (Tamil temple dancing), and stretch to understand what she shares with me.
If I enjoy opening a grammar book and going over combined pronouns, that’s OK, because I’m doing something I enjoy. Amazing isn’t it? It seems that the combination of structured exercises along with reading, listening, writing, talking soaks in over time. Now I’m amazed that I can watch some Italian TV programs and understand the broad gist.
So, I’m grateful for your encouragement and the materials you provide. But it’s OK to be less than efficient if you are enjoying yourself. It’s like kayaking – it’s OK to fall out if you’re enjoying yourself.