A quick one today, as I’m supposed to be in an online conference…
Wednesday’s article included Language-Learning Tip #01, which was: ‘Apps and courses aren’t written for you personally. Nor necessarily well.’ If you missed it, you can read it here.
The gist of it was that language courses are rarely put together to match the needs of a specific student, or if they are, that’s not done very well. So you shouldn’t be too suprised if your app, or class, or self-study book includes too much of one thing and not enough of another.
In an actual language school, it’s quite common for conflicting needs and wants to surface in a group class, for example if students of one nationality or age group are reluctant to speak at all until they have studied and mastered as much of the grammar as possible, while their classmates of another nationality or age group feel that lots of speaking and interaction would be a more enjoyable and productive way to spend classroom time than boring grammar exercises.
If you buy a group course, you’d be naive not to expect to have to compromise with others in your class who may have different views of what constitutes effective language-learning, though it’s reasonable to hope that a skilled and experienced teacher will at least try to meet everyone’s needs, in part if not completely.
Wednesday’s Language-Learning Tip was to make you aware that, outside of a taught class (so if you’re using an app, course book or whatever), it’s up to you to make intelligent decisions about what is and is not relevant to your own learning.
That said, with certain popular apps, you’ve not given much choice – you have to complete the stages, like it or not, relevant or not, before progressing. For some people that’s fine. For others it might be a deal-breaker.
Anyway, if you’re supposed to be making intelligent decisions on what’s relevant to your own learning path, you’ll need to have something to base that on, right?
Language-Learning Tip #02 How to define your learning goals
If your first thought is something like ‘I want to study all the grammar, and as much vocabulary as possible, and then maybe, when I feel confident, practice speaking’, you should read on, because you have this arse over tip.
I often link to the incredibly useful CEFR self-assessment grid. If you’re not familiar with it, you should be. It’s both state of the art and free!
The column on the left is divided into three: Understanding, Speaking, and Writing.
The first two of those are further subdivided:
Understanding = Listening / Reading
Speaking = Spoken Interaction / Spoken Production
Writing = Writing
So that gives us five areas from which we can choose our learning goals.
Where’s the grammar? That’s not a category, and neither is vocabulary, nor pronunciation, or a dozen other things. These days, languages are taught, and importantly, tested, on the basis of what you can DO with them. Not on your theoretical knowledge of one tense or another, or not exclusively that, anyway.
Scroll from left to right across the CEFR self-assessment grid and you’ll see the six level bands, from the lowest A1 (which is not ‘beginner’, but the first milestone to aim for) to the highest C2 (native or bilingual proficiency), and in each column, for each category, there’s a summary of what you should be able to DO.
B1 is a good goal for an adult learner – the Listening section begins with “I can understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters…”, which seems like a reasonable goal, don’t you think? Perhaps you’re there already, or better? In which case look at the B2 descriptor “I can understand extended speech and lectures and follow even complex lines of argument…” and so on.
Setting your learning goals is a two-step process: 1.) For each of the five categories, use the grid to work out where you are now; and 2.) Look at the next box to the right for each category – that’s what you would be aiming at IF you decided that this particular skill area was your priority.
For example, my Turkish. I’m pretty good at speaking and listening, but can barely read at all, or at least not to the level I can do with the other languages I’m learning (even Spanish, which I only began recently.) That’s because reading Turkish is hard, and I never put the work in to learn.
I haven’t tested my Turkish reading, but based on the grid, I’d say it’s A2: “I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.”
More or less, anyway. The B1 descriptor is “I can understand texts that consist mainly of high frequency everyday or job-related language. I can understand the description of events, feelings and wishes in personal letters.” Ish…
So that puts me somewhere near the beginning of the B1 band, with the reasonable expectation that, were I to make this a priority, I could at some point meet the requirements of B1 (maybe verify that with some reading test material at B1 level), then move on to something more demanding at B2 and above.
IF I chose to make improving my Turkish reading a learning goal, now I know that I should search for A2, B1 and eventually B2 reading practice materials as a starting point, organise some sort of regular schedule of reading practice, and only then, not before, deal with any grammar or vocabulary issues that may turn up.
Other ‘Learning Tips’ will cover this point in more detail, but I want to emphasis: putting the cart before the horse is self-sabotage, especially with the skills, so speaking, listening, reading and writing.
Whatever your priorities are, that’s what you have to DO. Whatever you can’t yet manage to DO, that’s what you have to work on DOING.
It’s not the case that if you study all the grammar, or learn a million words, or get a platinum medal on your app, then you will somehow, magically, acquire the ability to understand others when they talk to you, and respond appropriately and without hesitation. I repeat – it’s not the case. Improvement in your skills is not a direct result, and in fact may not result at all from, grammar or vocabulary study. Though of course, there are overlaps – reading is certainly easier, the more words you know, for example.
However, if you’re not DOING the skills practice – perhaps because you got distracted by a shiny new tense, or are spending your days memorising conjugations, or are unable to let an unknown word pass without looking it up in the dictionary – then the cart is before the horse, which is not good.
Your learning goals can be whatever you want them to be. I’m not telling you that you have to prioritise speaking, listening, or reading. If you want to learn all the grammar, fine, go ahead and do just that.
But if you want to understand normal-speed, spoken Italian, then the obvious way to go about it is to 1.) figure out your current level; 2.) find suitable listening practice materials; 3.) put in the hours; and 4.) monitor your progress with test material, or the above linked-to grid.
Ditto with speaking, ditto with reading.
This isn’t rocket science, you know.
Here’s a final reminder about this week’s half-price ‘eBook of the Week’ promotion, Rosa la cuoca disastrosa. The level is A1 (elementary) and until Sunday night it will cost you just £3.99, rather than the usual easy reader ebook price of £7.99.
A1 means that this text is INTENTIONALLY VERY SHORT AND EASY.
Students with little or no experience of reading in Italian should be able to progress through its eight chapters rapidly, easily complete it, and so gain some confidence doing something they may not have done before.
Buy Rosa la cuoca disastrosa, just £3.99 | Free sample chapter (.pdf) | Catalog
N.b. For anyone who’s studying another European language as well as Italian, we have half-price versions of this story in German, Spanish and French, too.
Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is FREE to read and listen to.
That’s because EasyItalianNews.com is funded by donations from people who recognise that the thrice-weekly bulletins will help their language learning.
Read/listen to each 8-10 minute bulletin, for six months or so (they’re free, remember?), then come back and tell me your Italian reading and listening skills aren’t better, I challenge you!
Ciao Daniel, for what it’s worth I think the description you give in language learning tip 2 is brilliant! It’s sort of so obvious, but sometimes that is just what we need. I’ve never been one to learn grammar or vocabulary because it just doesn’t stay in my brain so it’s wasted time, but I do find gradually learning to understand how the grammar works can be useful. For example I have a rule to only read novels in Italian, now that I can, but when I started I was doing lots of guessing (and some looking up) and eventually found that a quick review of il Passato Remoto saved a lot of guessing – never thought I’d bother with it, but books use it everywhere. In my humble and not ‘experienced teacher’ view, learning a little grammar when it comes up in your reading, writing, listening, speaking practise is helpful, but not grammar for the sake of grammar. My current biggest challenge is writing or saying something in Italian as the Italians would, not trying to saying it as a translation from English. I need to develop an Italian side to my brain! Hopefully the listening and conversation lessons will help. Please keep up the tips Daniel, what is so obvious to you is not always discernible to a language learner like me. 🤗 Grazie tantissimo! (and happy St.Georges day).
It’s hard to let go of trying to perfect grammar and increasing vocabulary but once you find someone to have conversations with, your comprehension and speaking skills really pick up. But you have to let go, as Daniel keeps nagging us to do. Also there’s some great tv programs in Italian like Giovanne Montalbano ad the very charming Sicilian family in The Mafia Only Kills in Summer. After a few minutes you start to understand and get involved
Gillian King says
For me, enjoyment has to be at the centre of my language learning. I quickly stop doing things when they’re hard work, even though I’m quite prepared to work hard on some things.
One thing I enjoy is language structure and grammar, so my weekly lessons with Serena involve quite a bit of conversation about that.
I like to write, so I write something for her every week, and we go through it. Sometimes she suggests topics “Il Borgo dei Borghi” now has me watching various Kilimangiaro programs, and sometimes I write about my life or Australian topics.
I have come to appreciate your emails, and this one was excellent. I know enough grammar, vocab etc, that I can now focus on reading, writing, listening, speaking. Easy Italian News isn’t *such* hard work now, so I read/listen to most of them, becoming a donor.
While you would say that the early grammar-centred classes were an inefficient use of time, I don’t regret them. I enjoyed them. And I just kept going, moving forward. At the moment, I am intrigued by all the little words, and odd (to an English ear) sentence structures. I’m sure I’ll never write or speak like an Italian, but I am getting better at understanding a lot of it.