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Learning Languages
Learning Languages

This part of the Guide deals more specifically with language learning. What has been presented elsewhere as the right method to approach your studies is applied here to learning a foreign language.

Gradual Approach and Regular Practice

All that was said about the importance of a well-thought schedule is central to language learning. Think of children: the way they learn their native language is gradual, repetitive, and multi-sensorial. You should approach your language studies in a similar way. If you are learning a foreign language for the first time, start from the basics. Learn small 'chunks' in order: the easiest, more elementary first; the more complex later. Practice as much as you can: repeat, review, 're-hear,' 're-read,' 're-write,' 're-tell.' Use multimedia material to be as involved as possible in the practice. For instance, you should hear the language as well as read it and write it, see an image, or perform an action. The more interactive the material you use, the more memorable the practice.

Be prepared to devote enough time to the task: you need to practice extensively to understand how the language works and master its use. You should practice everyday, if possible. Short and frequent sessions are better than longer ones far apart. Even just a few minutes everyday are important to go over points you may tend to forget, review words or rules you find difficult, or test yourself. If you go through the material often, you can keep it fresh in your mind and check whether you are learning well.

Set yourself realistic goals so that you can stick to the schedule and keep motivated. You may try to skip the easy bits in the hope of developing great communication skills faster. This is not going to help, though. Contain your enthusiasm a little, if necessary, and go step by step. If your schedule is planned well, you will soon start getting results that will reward your patience and perseverance. You will achieve one goal after the other, which in turn will keep you motivated. You will learn more and better.

Think of the difference between 'recognition' and 'recall' [more ...] or 'passive knowledge' and 'active knowledge.' [more ...] With foreign languages, many fail to notice the gap between the two. Most of us recognize common foreign words: the French 'bonjour,' the Italian 'bambina,' or the Spanish 'hola.' Foreign words like 'voilà' (French: here it is/here they are) or 'poltergeist' (German: polter = to make noise + Geist = spirit) have been incorporated into the English vocabulary. You can have a passive knowledge of these words and recognize them when you see or hear them. You can understand their meaning even if you have never studied the language from which they derive. Yet, this does not mean that you can speak that language. You may be familiar with quite a few more words than these or you may have even studied a foreign language at some point in school, but if you can only recognize the language by reading it, you still have a passive knowledge of it. Whether you want to become fluent or just get by in a foreign language, you have to aim at an active knowledge. If you have an active knowledge of the language, you understand it, can recall it whenever you need it, and are able to use it correctly. You don't just recognize words when you come across them, but you can produce those words without clues and speak them spontaneously. The way you practice and the time you devote to it are paramount in transforming 'recognition' into 'recall' and give you an active knowledge of the language you learn.

Considerations and Techniques

An interactive method is fundamental in language learning. It should teach all language skills and involve your senses (hearing, sight, etc.) as much as possible.

You should learn to speak and understand a foreign language by listening to it. You should also learn to read and write the language. Ideally, you should practice all four language skills together using multimedia material that includes sounds, texts, pictures, and interactive drills. This makes learning more active, more memorable, and therefore more effective.

- Listen and Speak
If you want to speak a foreign language, you have to speak it aloud. It seems obvious enough, but in reality this simple principle is often neglected. In school there may be too many students attending the course and too little time to have conversational classes. If you are studying on your own, you may not be able to hear the language and consequently do not try to speak it either. Or you 'feel funny' speaking to yourself and prefer not to talk aloud, which is a sure way to develop a passive knowledge instead of an active one.
Listening and repeating are crucial. Do try to use audio resources and use them actively. A native speaker who can teach the language and practice it with you is an ideal choice. If you don't have access to a tutor or friend, use material that includes sounds (audio courses). Make an effort to repeat aloud as much as possible. At first, get used to repeat aloud what you hear as you hear it. Then practice retelling what you hear in different ways. Initially, this ability will be limited, but as you expand your vocabulary and master more grammar, you can have repetition with variations. Retell in your own words while paying attention to the correct rules. Try to generalize whenever possible: use typical patterns with new or different words so that you can get both more practice and more control over the language.
You can also use media, but what you can expect to achieve with them vary according to your level. As a beginner, it is hard to progress using songs or movies in the target language (the one you want to learn), but they are useful to 'get a feeling' for the language and practice listening to the pronunciation. Once you have a certain knowledge of the basics, you can make more use of this kind of material to enlarge your vocabulary and improve your listening comprehension. At an advanced level, they can be very effective to refine your communication skills and reinforce your knowledge.

- Read and Write
Reading and writing are usually more practiced in school. You should not overlook these skills if you are studying on your own because they provide effective ways to work on the language.
Reading is an obvious way to learn how the words are used to convey meaning. It is also an activity that provides plenty of opportunities to enlarge your vocabulary. Graded reading material can be very enjoyable once you have reached a certain level. Do not fall prey to the 'dictionary obsession.' Instead of looking up every new word you come across, try to grasp its meaning by the context in which it is used. Good graded texts reuse common words throughout the story and make it easier to follow the plot. Read books that explain more unusual or complex words in the target language without references or translations into your own language. This way you can see how the words are used in the target language without the 'interference' of your own language.
While many learners tend not to pay attention to accurate spelling, to know how to write a foreign language is important to communicate effectively. Writing is an excellent way to expand and reinforce your language skills. The task can be particularly challenging because some languages use a different writing system (e.g. Arabic or Chinese) or alphabet (e.g. Russian). Even languages that use the same basic set of letters as English may have additional letters or particular marks (e.g. German or Spanish). Also, there may be a difference between the way the language is spoken and the way it is written. These are all good reasons to learn how to write a foreign language! Besides, writing is a powerful way to practice. If you memorize visually or by movement, writing the language by hand or using a word processor is a great exercise to commit to memory and review.

- Good Practice
The most effective way to learn the language is to learn it in context. In this sense, songs, radio and television programs, movies, readers, and other texts are good material, if they are appropriate to your level. It is easier to understand the meaning as well as the rules that govern the use of a language when words are part of a sentence, passage, speech, dialog, etc. Rather than isolated words, therefore, you should learn specific examples such as sentences that follow common patterns and use everyday vocabulary.
If you have to learn single words out of context, try to make these more memorable by 'doing things' with them. For instance, you can separate nouns according to their gender in languages that divide words in masculine, feminine, and eventually neuter. You can write lists of frequent or difficult terms, synonyms and opposites, or 'families' of related words. Remember the 'small is beautiful' rule: if a list gets long, divide it up into shorter sub-lists. Additionally, you can create flashcards for the most important words or grammatical. You can choose a mnemonic that helps you memorize particular terms. You could even prepare small notes and arrange them around the house: write not only the names of the objects you stick the note on, but also actions that are commonly associated with the objects. Write a complete sentence instead of the word alone, and read aloud the notes as often as you can.


Language and Vocabulary

Occasional learners of foreign languages are often focused only on vocabulary. Learning a language becomes restricted to learning words. A language is more than the sum of its words, however. If you want to become proficient in a foreign language, you must understand how words are put together to express meaningful ideas. You need to learn how the language is used in different contexts and you should practice all language skills.

Analyses of Western European languages indicate that a 'basic' vocabulary comprises a few thousands words. For example, the first 1000 English words represent about 84% of the words used in conversation and the next 1000 words cover an additional 6%. In theory, you can understand about 90% of everyday conversation if you know the core 2000 words of the English language. In German, the first 2000 words account for about 80% of general conversation and texts, while the next 2000 words cover an additional 5% to 10%. Consequently, you should understand about 90% of oral and written communications if you have a vocabulary of 4000 words.

What statistics do not do is to distinguish between active and passive knowledge of vocabulary. You may well recognize words when you hear them or see them written, but can you use them? If you want to speak a language with ease, recognition is not enough: you must be able to recall the correct words spontaneously.
Besides, words are not isolated either in conversation or writing. A living language changes and grammar is not eternal. Yet, at any given moment there are certain rules that dictate which words can be used together, in which order they should be placed, how sentences are formed, and so on. To be able to convey meaning, you need to learn and practice how to communicate in an organic, structured way. Words are like bricks, but languages are complete buildings. You need more than bricks to build a solid house!



An active approach and a well-designed schedule make learning a foreign language easier and more effective.

Cover all language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to learn thoroughly, and try to use multimedia material to make your studies more memorable.

Practice makes perfect. Find a congenial way to practice, and practice as much as you can. Practice constantly, regularly, frequently, exhaustively!


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