2010-09-05

Foreign languages: four ways to avoid learning vocabulary

Learning a foreign language is hard. The main tedium is to learn the vocabulary and the grammar. This blog post explains how to largely avoid these two steps. The methods for doing so are based on two observations. First, children manage to learn new languages really well. Second, songs in a foreign language can be seen as a lesson in that language. And one that you remember well, in contrast to many textbook lessons. Let’s use these observations to first dispel three myths about language learning and then develop four methods for more efficient learning.

Three myths about language learning
  1. Myth: You need to test to activate your knowledge. Instead, there is evidence that beginners fare much better if they can remain passive. Otherwise, they would be asked to build on something that they don’t understand and that decreases confidence. I admit that this one is a bit counter-intuitive, but if you think about how long children stay relatively mute and mainly observe, it makes more sense.
  2. Myth: You need to learn vocabulary. Instead, it’s best to learn words in context. Learning individual words is hard, learning words in context is easier. The best example is how much text one remembers from songs in a foreign language. One “learns” the song as a whole and not the words, but one remembers their meaning, too, as a byproduct. Context and (less painful) repetition seem to help with recall.
  3. Myth: You need to learn grammar. Instead, it’s best to learn building blocks. If you know a language well, you don’t apply grammar rules, you use pieces you know. If something is grammatically incorrect, it “sounds wrong”, finding out why is much more complicated. That is, you have an intuitive feeling instead of explicit knowledge of the grammar. Backpedaling a little, I do think you should learn grammar (e.g., I find conjugation tables helpful), but its role is to support the building blocks and not the other way around.
It boils down to whether you can push the knowledge down to your subconscious, whether you can automate it. And for that process, the intellect is often in the way. If you do tests, you strengthen uncertainty and thus the intellect. Later on, if you are already proficient, tests can be fun, but early on they often do more harm than good.
Four methods for more efficient language learning
  1. Bilingual text: Take a short text in the foreign language and read it aloud many times. Most traditional textbooks contain this kind of text. Before you start reading, make sure that you understand the text. You should also listen to it being read by a native speaker. If a word is difficult, you write the translation above it (this is where the text becomes bilingual). The translation should be word by word, even if there is a better (non-literal) translation. This makes sure that you stay in the foreign language as much as possible. The repetition leads to the sentences being memorized and saying it aloud is speaking practice (without any uncertainties). [I’ve used this method for years, but have also later encountered it in the great German book “Sprachen lernen leicht gemacht” by Vera F. Birkenbihl.]
  2. Audio immersion: Download an MP3 in the foreign language and listen to it without actively trying to understand it. This is a complementary measure to other ways of learning a language and makes the sound of the language more familiar to you. It is best to start when you already understand a little. Repeating the same material several times is also beneficial. Thankfully, the internet now provides us with all kinds of MP3 material: news, podcasts, etc.
  3. Bilingual audio: It was just the other day that I’ve heard about a new auditory method for learning a language that is called “No-Work Spanish”. You listen to an audio book where each sentence in Spanish is followed by the translation in English. This method is the auditory analog of (1) and could obviously be adapted to other foreign and native languages.
    • Pimsleur also provides auditory language courses.
  4. Learning with pictures: This is my abbreviated name for the Rosetta Stone language course series. It is obviously a simplification and you should read their web pages for an accurate description. Rosetta Stone (RS) simulates a child’s experience of adults pointing at things. It does so via a computer program that shows and names pictures with things, activities etc. You have a choice between ordering a CD with the program or of running the program online. In both cases it is the same program (a web application, including Flash technology). RS also employs voice recognition to check your pronunciation. All of RS is technically really well done: You can click on almost anything to hear it spoken; there is an alphabet with example words that is always accessible (I tested it with Russian); etc. Alas, it wasn’t for me. The words that I learned with RS did not stick, whereas I have no such problems when using method (1). But I’ve always found that I needed to see a word in writing if I wanted to remember it (RS is not all about pictures, but enough so that I prefer method (1)). So if you have a different learning style, this might well be the perfect solution for you. To find out if it is, you can check out the free test drive at their web site. You also have to see if you can afford it (=it is not cheap). As an aside, it would be nice to see their technology (such as clicking on a word to hear its pronunciation) applied to method (1).

    Another visual way of learning new words are picture dictionaries. Googling for “picture dictionary” turns up great resources, many of them free.

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