Sometimes, even when you’re in a country where everyone speaks the language, it’s just easier to work with a book. The material can be tied to your specific interests, even if nobody wants to chat about them. It’s a great way to build up a lot of vocab. Best of all, the book doesn’t care how many times you have to re-read it or how long it takes you to get a sentence.
Right now I’m reading through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography in isiZulu (a language closely related to his mother tongue of isiXhosa, though the book itself was originally written in English). And I’ve found so far that the best way to do so is to take my time. I read it slowly (and out loud), trying to feel the effect of every grammatical structure. (To an extent – some phrases I do skip over, if my dictionaries are useless and I can get the gist.)
In order to do that, I occasionally pause. I’ll take a word or a phrase, and I’ll start to play with it. Here’s an example: I saw the word “angikawakhohlwa” (“I have not yet forgotten them”). I started repeating the following phrases:
Angikhohlwa (I have not forgotten)
Angiwakhohlwa (I have not forgotten them)
Angikakhohlwa (I have not yet forgotten)
Angikawakhohlwa (I have not yet forgotten them)
Ngiwakhohlwa (I have forgotten them)
… and so on. The point is that I want to get an intuitive sense for every part of the phrase, especially with a big long monster word like that.
Later, when it comes time for flashcards, I don’t just put isolated words in with my flashcards. I take fragments, both of grammar rules and new vocab that I want to remember, and use those for flashcards. That helps me to remember language in context, which helps me to remember better and to be able to speak/write it more quickly.
One thing that helped me more than anything else in learning languages was to just get out there and speak. When I didn’t care whether I looked like an idiot and I chatted people up, I got used to the language. When I clammed up, none of my studying helped me toward fluency (though it did have other benefits).
You might be saying at this point, “But I just started learning the language! I have nothing to say!”. Beginning to converse in your target language is indeed a difficult step, but find ways to do it right away. The very night after I had my first isiZulu lesson, I started chatting with one of the instructors as we walked down the street – and this was possibly one of the best decisions I made in learning the language. Much of the time, this “conversation” consisted of me pointing and saying “what’s that?”, and then repeating what I learned. Later in the walk, I learned to say “yini” for “what” and “usho kanjani ukuthi” for “how do you say” so that I could practice these useful phrases. The point is not to quote Shakespeare in your new language – it is to simply use it.
One technique you can use is to intersperse your native language with target language words. So stop calling trees “trees”; call them, say, “izihlahla” or “árboles” or “ashjaar”. This way, you don’t have to worry much about grammar or your lack of vocabulary. Eventually you should try to push yourself to have a full conversation in the target language, but one thing at a time.
Grammar is much maligned by many language enthusiasts, or so it appears to me. And to a point, they are right. Doing grammar exercises won’t help you to actually use the language, either for speaking or reading.
But that doesn’t mean that it has no place at all. You can learn all sorts of phrases and dialogues; and they will be quite helpful. But what do you do when your conversation partner decides not to follow the texbook pattern? Or if your script has you asking for a hamburger, but you want two slices of pizza?
Grammar is a way of extending the knowledge that you already have. You know how to say a phrase in the singular? Grammar teaches you how to pluralize it. You want to strike up a conversation about the weather yesterday? Grammar gives you the rules to take all those weather related phrases and put them in the past. In a language like isiZulu, there are many different noun classes. So if you want to mix up your pre-packed dialogues a bit on your own, you need to know how the nouns work.
But this use of grammar still requires that you have some stock phrases to change. The two aspects work together, not separately.
The biggest problem with grammar is that it is hard to conjugate verbs, decline nouns, etc. on the fly. If you memorize phrases, by contrast, you just spit them out as a chunk. I can say “cómo se dice” in Spanish, or “usho kanjani ukuthi” in isiZulu, without thinking about what the words mean or how they are conjugated. If I start trying to mix things up, then it takes longer to say stuff. Conversational anxiety goes up and speaking ability goes down.
One thing to do is to simply speak more slowly. Take time to compose a sentence in your mind. People understand that you are not a native speaker. And many times, you don’t come off looking like you don’t know the language; you actually seem thoughtful and well-put together. People will likely overestimate your language skills, not underestimate them.
When you are practicing, you can create games to practice putting words together quickly. When starting to learn isiZulu, I created flashcards – one set with verb stems, another set with different nouns. I would draw one card from each stack and conjugate the verb appropriately, even if the pair didn’t make sense. The goal was to get me brain and my tongue to do whatever I told them to do (side note: make sure you say the answer aloud!). It’s like learning dance or martial arts or an instrument or any other activity of the sort – practice the small steps until they become automatic. As time went on, I added flashcard for objects, for different tenses, for affirmative and negative statements, and so on.
Of course I stumbled every time I added something; the goal is to keep becoming better, not to start off perfect. Just keep practicing, and your language skills will improve.
Since I’m in the middle of South Africa working on immersion isiZulu, I figured that I would share what I’ve learned about language learning here. Topics will include: the place of grammar, the use of dialogues, and the importance of jumping in and using the language from the get-go.
I’m also taking on a second experiment. I tend to focus a lot on reading and grammar in my language learning, since I’m good at it. So I’m going to try to pick up a new language (Portuguese), focusing on listening and phrase-learning. I’m going to use the FSI Portuguese Programmatic course (see the links on the side for the FSI language course page).
Since I’ve recently been force-feeding myself French, I figured that I probably should come back to this blog and jot down some of what I’ve learned. But first, this unfinished series has been bugging me, so I’m going to close it out. So how can reading help your speaking abilities?
Reading is diametrically opposed to speaking. It is on the more passive side, along with listening (as opposed to the active production of language), and it is written and will wait for you. So reading is not going to help your speaking directly. If all you do is read, you may never be able to hold a decent conversation.
But that doesn’t mean that reading is not helpful. It just means that reading needs to be supplemented with other activities. I generally encounter much more new vocabulary in, say, a novel than in speech, and I don’t feel bad about telling the novel to hold up while I write down an unknown word. It is much better for learning vocabulary than wordlists and flashcards, since you see the words in context.
Reading is also good for building up grammar recognition skills. Sometimes it is good to practice skimming. But I would recommend setting aside most of your reading time for detailed analysis. Know what every single word is doing in every single sentence.
Of course this is going to take a while at first. Don’t start off with great literature just because it is more fun; you will get burnt-out unless you have a will of iron. Start with something manageable. Pick up learning-to-read type books if you can find any in your language. I have a book in Mandarin Chinese which has an inane story obviously marketed toward angsty, spoiled high schoolers, but which does the job of giving me easy reading material – unlike my copy of Lord of the Rings in Chinese, in which I took two hours to get through the first line. Work your way up. You should generally be at a level which challenges you but which also gives you frequent opportunity to overcome those challenges. It is wasted effort to keep plugging away at an overly difficult text when accessible ones are available.
As you go along, reading for detail will get easier. You will recognize sentence and word forms more and more easily. At this point, try to read without constantly translating back into your native language. This is actually a rather difficult step. I find that a beer helps significantly to shut off that unnecessary English-noise, for myself. Your patient practice here will make repeating the same steps all the easier when you turn to speaking.
Reading gives you more opportunity to confront grammar then writing, since you have to deal with things that you yourself are not producing. Reading can give you something you don’t already have, just like listening. Same for vocabulary. It gives you phrases and idioms that you would not have thought to look up. This then also helps your speaking ability (though watch out for phrases that are overly literary – what would you think of an English-learner calling you “thou” or yelling “zounds” when stubbing her toe? – actually, I think I might need to start doing the latter).
The most eloquent speakers are often well-read. They have more to pull from. You need to put more work into connecting reading skills with speaking skills (not least in convincing your brain that those squiggles on the page are the same as those soundwaves in your ear), but the work does pay off.
I’ve noticed that certain exercises in language programs are helpful in getting me to think in a language easily and naturally. Vocabulary just takes time to build up along with constant, habituating practice. But what I really need in order to use any of that vocabulary is a basic understanding of the syntax of the language. How do the words go together? And when are the verbs conjugated and nouns declined properly? The more I have that ingrained, the more I can free up brain energy to think in terms of phrases and sentences, which is when real language understanding starts.
But even a good language program just gives you some pre-set exercises, and it’s not always possible to have language partners readily available (even with the internet, it’s not easy meeting up with a busy graduate student who is 7 hours off from you for Skype). I want something more dynamic and customizable to multiple languages easily. So I think I’m going to write a suite of games, perhaps for smartphones. Here’s what I’m working on so far; any thoughts would be much appreciated. Much playtesting will be required before any of these become viable, of course. There are two goals of these games. First, they must train the ability to put sentences together. Second, they must have some element of speed, since the object is to get people doing this quickly and efficiently.
Game 1: Something vaguely Tetris-like. There is a pre-generated sentence on the screen, such as “I see the tree.” New words fall down, such as “rock.” You have to maneuver it to a proper place in the sentence. If it falls on top of “tree,” for example, the sentence still makes sense, so it will replace “tree.” If it falls on top of “the,” that doesn’t work, so you lose points. You can also put words to the side for later use in phrases – so if “chops” falls, you can’t use that yet (since “I chops the tree” doesn’t work). But once “She” falls, you could combine them into the phrase “She chops” which will replace “I see” (for extra points, of course.) Speed and sentence complexity will increase with the level.
Game 2: Something which will test recognition of well-formed and poorly-formed sentences. You will need to find “I chop the tree” and avoid “I chops the tree,” for example. I’m thinking some sort of classic flight/spaceship type game, where you have to collect good sentences and shoot bad ones while the screen forces you forward.
Game 3: A game which actively tests ones ability to conjugate verbs, etc., within the context of sentences (not memorizing long lists, but actually using the properly-formed words). This one is the hardest as far as design goes, I think – I want the focus to be on language learning, but I still want it to be kinda fun at least. I’m having trouble working on game mechanics which aren’t too complex.
Sometime in the past (really, almost yesterday when you think about it on a geological scale), I had written about some strategies for speaking a language. I had covered strategies specifically for speaking, the point of drills, and the relation between listening and speaking. Next come the relations between speaking, on the one hand, and reading and writing, on the other. Today, writing.
Writing and speaking are similar in that they are both active processes. While listening and reading require a passive competence about the language, writing and speaking require active performance. You don’t need to know as much – most people use a lot of stock phrases – but you need to know it better. This is why I have said that if you learn vocab through flashcards, you should learn the words in both directions (for example, from English to Arabic and from Arabic to English).
However, speaking makes you think faster and on your feet. Writing lets you sit down and take your time. So you need to exercise both sets of linguistic muscles. If you only study how to speak, you will get into more of a rut in using your target language. For example, it becomes rather easy to say “good” as the word is quite broadly applicable. Food is good, a class is good, a person is good, and so on. You keep saying “good” instead of more descriptive words such as “delicious,” “stimulating,” and “kind.” Also, you can make yourself understood with poor grammar and while fudging sounds (if you don’t know the vowel, just mumble that syllable), which will create problems in the long run.
Writing allows you time to stop and think, to go over the language slowly and carefully. You can (and should!) check to make sure that you are using the language correctly. You can also stop and use resources (a dictionary, or Google Translate, for example) to increase your vocabulary, or make sure that you are trying to use words that you’ve been picking up recently. Also, show your writing to a native speaker, if possible, to know where you sound funny. Writing is where you can learn the movements and make them precise, and also pick up new movements.
Of course, learning writing without ever practicing speaking won’t help your speaking one bit. I studied Arabic through reading for two years and was utterly at a loss when called upon to converse in it. But if you are also practicing speaking, writing is an invaluable tool to help you along.