A handy way of categorizing language-learning activities is to separate things into one of two broad boxes, so ‘input’ (grammar explanations, new vocabulary, help with pronunciation, learning advice) and ‘practice’ (everything else, so class or study activities that focus on one or all of listening, reading, writing and speaking, that is to say development or consolidation rather than ‘teaching’ something.)
A traditional teaching/learning approach is to focus first on ‘input’, then aim to cement the new insights with appropriate ‘practice’.
There are limitations to that, of course, not least the fact that you need some sort of road map (syllabus) to know WHAT input should logically come next. The usual way of doing this is to organise the syllabus around grammar, trying to plan out a route beginning with the easy/common forms and ending (a long, long time afterwards) with the more sophisticated/less common structures used mostly in writing, and then perhaps only by a small subset of educated native speakers.
But of course, organising your learning or teaching around a grammatical syllabus is naturally going to put the focus on grammar input, which means care needs to be taken to balance that out with other things – vocabulary, skills practice (speaking etc.), pronunciation work, and so on. GOOD course books, professional courses, do this tolerably well, sometimes extremely well, so what you end up with is a nice blend of interesting material, covering a range of useful stuff, and with a gradually ascending level of difficult, starting from beginner-level, then onwards to the stars!
The intrinsic problem, though, is that such a course, course book, or app, will very likely be aimed at the typical student of the language you’re studying, rather than you personally.
This is very evident with Italian course materials (and apps), which tend to be too difficult for learners who only have English as their native tongue, and way too easy for French/Spanish students, whose mother languages are very similar to Italian. Assuming you’re a native-English speaker with little or no experience learning a language (and so unfamiliar with all the conjugating that goes on in Latin-origin languages like Italian), then you may well feel a little lost, even rather studid, especially if you compare your progress to that of others.
But anyway, today I wanted to touch on an alternative way of organising things, which is what I do with my own learning, and sometimes in my teaching (depending on the students and their needs, sometimes the input/practice approach described above works just fine.)
What I basically do, and if you’re not extremely new around here, you’ll have heard it before, is as much reading and listening as possible (graded and/or authentic materials, depending on how ‘easy’ the language is), combined with speaking practice with a native speaker.
Disclaimer: my company makes money though me writing about, then selling, one-to-one lessons with native-speaker teachers. Also ebooks (the reading and listening components.) So you’ll need to make your own evaluation as to whether my suggestions are driven by our bottom line, or whether, more positively, with thirty-plus years experience of language teaching and learning, I have organised things so I can sell what I know to be effective. That’s your call.
My four lessons a week (one each in French, Swedish, Turkish and Spanish) are, at my insistence, NOT ‘real lessons’ but rather involve ‘just conversation’, which is generally regarded as not being a ‘structured’ way of learning, and so less ‘efficient’ than letting the teacher blast you with their best grammar explanations.
‘Conversation’, when done right, has got to be the most natural and effective way of learning a foreign language (I accept, it may not be the fastest/most efficient.)
If you’ve heard about the ‘learning a foreign language in bed’ method (how I picked up conversational Turkish, by marrying a Turkish girl who didn’t speak any English…), or the effectiveness of moving to the country where the language you’re learning is spoken, and just living there for a few years (many, many years, in my case, to sort-of master Italian), well, that’s basically what people are on about.
BUT, just living in a country, or being married to a native speaker, doesn’t guarantee anything. Not everyone talks much to their spouse, and life can be a lonely business wherever you live. Whereas a THIRTY MINUTE SESSiON EACH WEEK DEDICATED TO SPEAKING, ideally but not necessarily with a native speaker teacher, is going to have a predictably positive effect.
Well, answering that requires an understanding of what ‘conversation’ actually is.
Think about conversations you have regularly, with the same people, in the same places. The content may vary wildly, but there are some ‘norms’.
Let’s use me chatting to the cashiers at my local (Italian) supermarket as an example:
- I have ‘permission’ to speak to these people (so not like if I was trying to talk to them if I met them on the street)
- Both participants agree to engage with each other, even in a limited way
- There’s an expected and agreed duration, which could be just a few seconds
- There are acceptable/unacceptable topics, understood by both parties
- There’s turn-taking. You speak, I speak, you speak, I speak
- The topics are ‘negotiated’ – I remark about the weather, you complain about the air-conditioning, I sympathise
You get the general idea, I’m sure. Think of any conversation you have regularly and you’ll identify those elements, and others I’ve missed for want of time.
Conversation, of course, involves both ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’. Many people underestimate the importance of the latter. Listening is essential, too. No conversation exists if it’s just you speaking – that would be a monologue!
But back to the teaching/learning scenario. As I said, just moving to a country, or marrying a foreigner, doesn’t guarantee learning.
But regular, dedicated sessions with a cooperative partner WHO IS WILLING TO SUPPORT YOUR LEARNING will do.
A lady wrote this week to ask where she could find a conversation partner, rather than a teacher who she would need to pay.
My reply was short: PAY!
Because if your contribution to the interaction is in the form of cash, then you call the shots, and you have a reasonable expectation that the other person, your partner for thiry minutes or an hour, will be cooperative, given that they have to make the rent at the end of the month.
Try to get that for free and you’ll likely get messed around, and/or be messing other people around. Pay a professional (make sure it’s clear you don’t want to be ‘taught’) and you’ll get their full attention.
But WHY ‘just conversation’, rather than input-focused learning? I know! I still haven’t explained that.
It’s simple. Assuming you form some sort of friendly relationship with your conversation partner, then what you will have is a certain familiarity. After a while, you will know about their lives, and they will know about yours (for what else do people talk about?) With me so far?
What you’ll be getting, then, is ‘natural’ and ‘meaningful’ input from your teacher: ‘real’ listening practice, as you hear about the ups and downs of their life, their worries, their triumphs, etc.
While at the same time, in a friendly and supportive atmosphere at least partly-centered on you, you’ll be learning how to say/do the things that make conversations work (Hi, how are you? How was your week? What was the blood test result?) and talk about the topics that interest you personally (still no vaccination, baby cried all night, work’s piled up, etc.)
And yes, of course, if you could ‘study’ the words and grammar you needed to say everything you wanted to say in advance, then it would be easier, and certainly more efficient.
But there’s the rub, who could know what ‘input’ you require to get to the point at which you can chat away confidently and understand what’s said to you, at least some of the time?
No one. A syllabus, a learning ‘road map’ is not about you personally. It’s for everyone.
Whereas in dedicated speaking sessions with a supportive partners, ‘you’ is all there is (don’t forget to take turns, though, or you’ll be missing out!)
Which means that you’ll be ignoring all the banal beginner stuff and fast-tracking just the things that you, as a person, as a communicator, as a language user, want or expect to want to talk about.
I know how to moan about taxes in multiple languages, but am still dodgy with the names of fruit, colors, and so on.
‘Conversation’ is a natural thing, something we all know how to do (with the exception of young children and those on the autistic spectrum).
Doing it, or attempting to, in the language you’re learning might initally be nerve-wracking and/or frustrating, but is the fastest and most obvious way to learn to say the things you actually want to say, when you want to say them. And to react appropriately to native speakers when they talk to you.
It’s obvious really.
Next week we’re having our Spring Sale, which means 20% off the prices of online lessons and ebooks in our online shop.