I’m writing this with a strict time limit, as I have my fifth thirty-minute Spanish conversation lesson in less than two hours and I haven’t done any preparation for it. Obviously, it’s good practice to read through any notes the teacher makes, and ideally listen again to the audio recording of the lesson, if there is one. I haven’t yet done either…
Let’s talk about that. The things you ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do in language learning.
Lately, with the corona virus crisis, I’ve been spending way, way too much time reading (though not listening, never listening!) to English-language media.
Temporarily, I hope, my ‘rule’ that I should get my news by reading in Swedish, French or one of the other languages I’m learning, has gone by the wayside. I feel bad about it, I really do!
I AM reading lots of Italian, which I don’t usually do, but only to monitor developments regarding the pandemic (that officially isn’t one, yet.) So that’s not much compensation.
All language-learners have their own ‘rules’, such as the above, and I suppose feel bad when they break them, or good when they stick to them.
I was reminded of that by a comment on Wednesday’s article. Coren, who is already reading an Italian book (way to go, Coren!), wrote:
…for every page I have read, I have 2 pages of vocabulary, so it’s taking a while!
From which we can assume that it’s her rule to look up all the words she doesn’t know. Lots of people do that (though not me. If you want to know why, read the various comments. And add your own, why not?)
I’m working through Duolingo Spanish right now, and another ‘rule’ I have is not to rush ahead (this time – I’ve done so in the past with other languages..). Instead, I’m trying to consolidate the basics before, for example, pushing on to the extremely useful past tense, and so to conversational glory!
Yet another rule (also blown away by the coronavirus, which has meant I’ve been teaching more) is to listen to all three simplified Swedish news broadcasts, three times each, every weekday. That was always time-consuming, but now it’s become impossible to manage. Which is frustrating.
I could make a list of my personal ‘do’s and don’ts’ for language-learning (and for life – watch out Jordan Peterson). But the interesting thing is that they would be different from language to language, and over time.
In part, the way I approach each language depends on what resources are available (lots for Swedish, none for Turkish), on my level and on what I find easy or difficult about it, and not least, on my years of experience as a language teacher, basically making decisions for other people about how things should be done.
I have, I hope, a reasonable understanding of what works well and what might be less productive, or a complete waste of time.
You may know as much or more about language-learning as I do, but approach things differently. Or you may know little or nothing, and so rely on what you remember from school (tenses! dictionaries!) or on what you read, for example here.
But my point today is that things change: sometimes you have to trash your rules!
What works, for example when you’re a beginner, may be inappropriate when you know a language better.
Listening to ‘simplified’ texts multiple times makes sense. Trying to listen multiple times to authentic, and especially to real-time, texts (radio or films, for example) doesn’t really.
Logically you might want to consolidate the present tense and learn to conjugate all those really important verbs that you’ll use every day. But sometimes it might actually make more sense to jump ahead and study something you need right now, even if it’s a level up.
Why not study the past tense first? That way, you’ll recognise it when you hear it, plus you’ll be able to have conversations about something other than your likes and dislikes and your daily routine.
Why not? Perhaps because it feels like cheating..
But with language-learning, basically, there are no rules – just approaches and opportunities – and those will vary according to your situation and to the choices you make. You might choose to follow a more-structured course of study, for example. Or you may prefer (or be forced) to learn by reading and listening.
What you do and how you do it will depend on the situation you find yourself in, what options you have available, what your preferences are, and the decisions you’ve made previously.
Each approach will have its own logic. If you’re following a very structured course such as Duolingo, it makes sense to try and learn all the words that come up, even if they’re stupid ones, because they’ll likely be recycled again and again in endless examples.
If, on the other hand, you’re learning Swedish by listening to the radio and reading about the corona virus, as I am, then trying to learn all the new words you see each day would be distracting, demoralising, and probably rather pointless.
Your approach, if you understand WHY you are doing what you’re doing, will ‘suggest’ rules to follow, and the ‘rules’ will help you regulate your behaviour so as to optimise the outcomes, which is what you want.
But importantly, we should recognise that the decisions we make may not always be the best ones, that there may be more effective alternatives, or that what once worked well is now less challenging or relevant and needs to be retired in favor of another activity, something that will push us more or work better.
There’s a book entitled ‘What got you here won’t get you there’, not that I’m recommending it, but the title more or less sums up what I’m trying to say about learning-languages. Unless you have language-learning super-powers, there are probably better choices you could be making.
And if not, even if you have things optimised close to perfect right now, then things will at some point change, necessitating different decisions at some future moment.
Here’s a simple example: you attend an Italian evening class, your teacher is great and gives you homework that stimulates you and doubles the value of the actual lessons. You make extra effort with it, initially out of courtesy, then out of recognition of how much it’s teaching you. The next semester arrives, and with it a different teacher. Perhaps the homework she gives is much less useful. Should you still spend time on it? Or perhaps she gives no homework at all but suggests you read/listen more. Should you follow her advice?
The rule was to make time for the homework, to do your utmost. And then one day, the rule became invalid, or less valid, which means you need to find a new one.
Life is like that, don’t you think?
Here’s your final reminder about this week’s new easy reader, ‘Dante, un’altra marachella‘, which is 25% Off at just £5.99 but only until Sunday night.
Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news includes an article about how Italian language schools are faring in the corona virus crisis (in short, very badly, like the rest of the tourism sector.) To find out more, read and listen now. It’s free!