I learnt a new word this morning, while proof-reading and listening to the latest installment in our free, thirty-part series of articles with audio, ‘La storia di Roma.’
If you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s an explanation at the start of Episodio 8. Il sincretismo culturale tra Grecia e Roma.
Though you can probably guess from the context. Context, and guessing, are both very important in language-learning.
I have made this argument a million times, and it bounces off most of you like water off a duck’s back.
There are so MANY new words, I explain, that you can’t learn them all IN ADVANCE, that is to say BEFORE you begin conversing or reading or whatever you intend to do with the foreign language you’re learning.
But I LIKE learning new words, you reply, and it helps me understand better.
Well it MIGHT, I argue, but the problem is that, without context, without developing a corpus of experience of actually listening, reading, speaking, and so on, you CAN’T know in advance which new words will be essential elements of your linguistic toolkit, to be used each and every day, and which ones, in contrast you may see one time (il sincretismo?) but never again in your life.
Patiently, or perhaps not, I will go over my arguments one more time: reading and listening BEFORE you have ‘finished’ learning a language, so AS you learn, as an integral part of your learning not an afterthought, will give you vital information about the ‘frequency’ of both words and grammar structures.
The ones which are common will clearly need to be mastered and assimilated, but BECAUSE they are common, that should be relatively easy. You’ll be bombarded with examples, after all.
IF you learn to hypothesise meaning from context (il sincretismo), if you read/listen/converse enough so you have plenty of opportunities to do so, then the actual language-learning will be a by-product of your interactions with your new language and should, in theory, be a piece of cake.
Keep this in mind: the stuff you’re learning, by hypothesising, by guessing, will be the useful parts of the language (to you, at least).
If you only see or hear something once, you’ll have little chance of picking it up, but that’s fine, because it wouldn’t offer a good return on the energy invested in learning it in any case.
Whereas if it comes back again and again, sooner or later it’ll become familiar.
But why can’t I look up the words I don’t understand in a dictionary, you protest?
Well, of course you absolutely CAN.
But then you won’t be learning the alternative, better way of learning – the one that naturally provides you with information about frequency and usage, the way our brains are SUPPOSED to do language-learning.
Want to become be dictionary-dependent, and so unable to function properly as a ‘learning machine’ without your prop? Then go right ahead.
But people learnt languages before dictionaries existed, remember. And plenty of people have failed to learn languages since then, despite dictionaries.
Someone wrote to me the other day to say that ‘La storia di Roma‘ is very interesting, but much too difficult. Could he please have an English translation??
An hour from now I have my second ever, online French lesson.
Guess what I’ve been doing since the first one, a week last Wednesday?
Not studying! You guessed right.
But I have been reading articles from ‘Le Monde’. And listening to rolling news on ‘FranceInfo’. Both are apps on my smartphone.
By reading and listening in odd moments, while exercising, for example, I’ve probably done four or five hours of French since my first lesson (we started last Wednesday with ‘Bonjour!’)
At a cost of precisely zero.
Grammar and words I knew from school, thirty-seven years ago, have come flooding back. Which is, of course, exactly why I am prioritising ‘input’ over study. Or at least it’s one of the reasons. Another is so that I have topical vocabulary to use when I speak (chomage, chaleur).
Listening and reading will hopefully also help my brain distinguish its schoolboy French from the more recent scrapings of Spanish and the ample reserves of Italian.
Gotta go prepare some more.