Tag: learning

Finding your way through language learning

There are a lot of methods to choose from, and a lot of prominent proponents of different methods – many of whom have impressive track records in learning languages and so seem thoroughly believable. The advice is there to be listened to, and you should listen to it, but when it comes down to your own study your regime (regimented or not) is going to be a lot more haphazard.

Different people, different languages, different experiences, and different content all demand different approaches – I have never learnt any two languages in the same way, beyond a basic reliance on a lot of input. For example:

  • Maybe you’re a person who used post it notes for objects in French, but now you’re learning Spanish and you’d rather just get on with speaking
  • Maybe your course says you should be learning to use the dative case but you are actually more interested in this weird instrumental case right now
  • Maybe you keep coming across a word ending you don’t understand so you look it up
  • Maybe you read a lot in one language but mostly talk with a friend in another
  • Maybe you are learning Persian, for which there is no Google Translate audio, so you have to find another way to match what you are reading with what is spoken
  • Maybe you’ve found some Russian radio stations that are the perfect balance of good Russian music and interesting Russian chat, but now you are trying out a new language and all of the stations just play English songs
  • Maybe you used Memrise a bunch for one language but are bored of it and need a change
  • Maybe you love the cinematic offerings of one country but are mostly bored by another

This is a quick post just to let you know that you will find your way through, and that that sort of a haphazard approach is a lot of what learning is. You don’t have to learn in a straight line and you can really pick and choose methods. That includes the methods I don’t mention much on this site – I don’t ever use things like the Gold List method, for example (though I do find some kinds of lists useful when I have the right sort of motivation), but if you enjoy that sort of an approach then go for it!

My posts are generally aimed at people who don’t find a sort of course and test model very rewarding, either because they don’t stick with it or just because they don’t find it satisfying, but there are lots of people who love the motivation they get from clear goals and you are welcome to be one – and to be haphazard too!

Beginner language materials are boring, you don’t need to rely on them

I will preface all of this with the caveat that this is the advice I have found useful for myself and my own learning style – you may find the beginner materials much more rewarding than I do, especially at the very beginning, and I don’t want to discourage you if that is the case! For me, though, especially in my more recent languages, I have relied on them less and less. OK, on with the show…

As an absolute beginner in a language it can be very frustrating to discover that the majority of learning materials directed at you are either boring, or are games (which, in general, I find pretty boring). The moments of excitement that come with understanding somebody speaking naturally, even when you are only catching a few words, are difficult to find when you are relying on one lesson format or another. If you are learning your first second language, it is not necessarily obvious to you that Duolingo, textbooks, and videos/podcasts for absolute beginners (often children) aren’t THE ways of doing things.

They aren’t, though. I have given some suggestions for language learning methods and resources here, but the key is to know that, especially with new technologies, you don’t have to be using material that feels boring and/or childish. You’re learning a language! You want to understand what people are saying! You don’t necessarily want to be learning rules or passing tests.

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When I started learning Hindi and when I started learning Russian I didn’t have textbooks in those languages, and I certainly didn’t have Duolingo. Mostly I watched movies and looked up things on the school computers when I was stuck or curious. I bought some textbooks later, and as reference materials they were extremely helpful, and saved me printer money, but they have never formed the basis of my learning. To be clear, I am definitely not saying that these resources are bad or aren’t useful, but if you want to enjoy language learning and feel like you are really understanding native speakers, even as an absolute beginner it is good to base your learning around immersion. That means listening to and reading interesting materials in your target language – with subtitles or translations first, and perhaps later without (more on how to do this later). Textbooks and google searches are valuable support for that – I’m sure it would have taken me a while to work out the differences between gender and case endings without them and that is obviously an important piece of information – but hearing them used by native speakers in a context not aimed at me was what really helped me to learn.

My Hindi textbook was useful for me in part because I actually really enjoyed the content on offer. It had a story that had an arc across the whole book, and because of that I was motivated to learn the grammatical points that supported the context. Without the fun of interesting content I wouldn’t learn. I would go so far as to describe the textbook as a valuable support to my learning. That is all a textbook can be, and probably all it is trying to be, but as a beginner it can seem like it is the language itself, the test to be passed before you’re allowed to do the fun bits. Interspersing your exposure to a language with grammar study can be great, but just studying grammar rarely is.

It is through the fun of so many movies, TV shows, websites and podcasts that I have learnt most of my vocabulary. They are also how I learnt how to actually care about and use the grammatical points, which I occasionally look up when the content has made me curious. Recognising and imitating a flow of words is, for me, a far more effective way of deepening my use of grammatical constructs than actively trying to learn and remember them. And interesting videos and texts are available to you as a beginner, you don’t need to wait until you have passed a certain number of tests. If you are lost in a piece of audio, just recognising the patterns of sounds and slowly starting to match them with subtitles, then great! You are doing it, and besides, the show is good!

Finding interesting (and useful) content

It seems as though there is rarely an opportunity, as a beginner, to feel as though you are engaging with the interests and materials of native speakers, which is very likely what motivated you to start learning in the first place. But there are ways, and those ways are getting better! I have written about beginner methods in more detail here, but the relevant points are below

  • Videos – if you are an absolute beginner (or if you aren’t) videos with subtitles are a great way to go. Listen, pay attention, see what you can learn. Then, if you enjoyed something, watch it again – and again, and again. The key is to enjoy yourself, so if you don’t like this repetition – which I’m not suggesting you have to do all in a row -you can skip it. However, I have found it very useful for really starting to hear through the blur of fast dialogue and thick plot. If you are inclined to, repeat the things you really enjoy – perhaps, when you are ready and know the video well, repeat without subtitles.
  • Reading – with LingQ or the opensource but slightly clunkier equivalent Learning With Texts. If reading material is more up your street, LingQ and LWT provide audio for each word through Google Translate. LingQ also has separate recordings for a lot of its user-provided materials, many of which are transcribed podcasts and news broadcasts. If you find your own material for LingQ (and I think that is where the fun comes) you can upload associated audio. There are also, significantly, translations for each word to help you through a piece even as an absolute beginner. When you have learnt each word you can mark it as known, until then you can select a word to see translations. I learnt the Russian alphabet using LingQ by playing each word of a book aloud until I knew all the letters. If you use my referral link to LingQ you get some free LingQs (words you mark as recognised) as a referral benefit, and I get a small commission if you upgrade. I have found this site, especially with texts displayed in classic mode, so much easier to operate than LWT that I have been very happy recommending it above LWT on this site even before I discovered the referral benefits. It really has been the bedrock of my Russian study, more than any other resource – though shout out to masterrussian.com for having the answers to the questions I came up with while reading. The major advantage that LWT has is the greater range of languages available – usually if you can find them on Google Translate, you can find them on LWT.
  • Podcasts – I will throw in a quick note in favour of a type of podcast that I find too difficult to find, but is perfect for me as a beginner who doesn’t want to explicitly learn grammar or repeat every syllable slowly. That is, I love podcasts that take sentences on a theme and say them once in English (or your best language) and twice in your target language, as they are neither patronising nor needlessly slow. They provide a good opportunity to hear how related words work in context. Certainly check out the other podcast offerings for your language, though – you might not be as impatient as me and sometimes you have to commute!

Especially when you have subtitles and/or translation software, you don’t need to restrict yourself to reading/watching/listening to material that is at or only a little above your level – you absolutely can if you feel you are getting something out of it, but I habitually work with (enjoy) content that is significantly above my own level because it is what is interesting to me. As I have said, I didn’t know the alphabet when I started reading a book in Russian. I tend to avoid particularly descriptive texts with vocabulary that I will rarely use, but that is a personal preference – again, do what feels best for you! If you have subtitles, LingQ, or LWT to support you you should be able to make your way through difficult material anyway, and have a good time along the way. When you find the material that is really interesting, it is valuable even if it is hard.

Oh no there are so many languages where should I start???

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There really are a lot of languages, and if you don’t have an obvious reason to be learning one it can be difficult to know where to start. Sometimes I want to start everything at once. Sometimes I spend a week putting off actual work learning the basics of everything at once (Swahili, Persian, Malay, Tamil, etc.). So what follows are some more or less arbitrary reasons to learn a language:

  1. Because you heard someone speak it and needed to know more. I am constantly trying to decode the patterns around me and sometimes it requires a follow up.
  2. Because a lot of people speak it – the first language I started learning (when language learning was no longer obligatory) was Hindi. I chose it for two reasons. It was one of the most common languages in the world, and…
  3. Because it has a different alphabet. The fun of suddenly being able to turn weird shapes into weird sounds is a real treat.
  4. Because you spotted a course for it and figured yeah, why not? (I bought this and this entirely on a whim.)
  5. Because nobody you know is learning it and it’s easier to show off that way. It’s not great for practice but sometimes you need your people to be vaguely supportive but ultimately ignorant just to get started – you can find actual speakers later!
  6. Because someone you know speaks or is learning it and you want to hang out. (Side note: go in with low expectations of your conversation partner. Don’t learn for them, learn for you with their conversation as a bonus!)

Do these sound like silly reasons to learn a language? I’m not sure there is a silly reason to learn. If you are drawn to a particular language for a reason – you love Hindi movies or are interested in Russian politics – then great! If not, picking anything will quickly give you reasons to have an interest. I started learning Russian and then discovered a community of people to speak it with. I started learning Persian and then discovered Iranian films and music. If you need to get kick started there is no shame in watching or reading something you know well in English in your target language – once you have the basics you will quickly find new people or media to love. The more context you gain the more you will find to keep you going, as long as you are letting yourself have fun. (But don’t beat yourself up if you withdraw! It’s all good, don’t worry about it. On to the next one.)

Some people start learning a language because they really love the idea of a particular culture. I’m not going to blindly support cultural fetishism, but for people with a real willingness to listen learning any language will help to nurture in you an idea of its speakers as complex people and communities, rather than collections of cultural tropes.

There is a real sense of discipline and utilitarianism in the conversations around language learning that runs against the grain for a lot of us who are learning because we love learning, and because we get the feeling it helps us understand our worlds and other people’s worlds with a little more nuance. I don’t think it matters all that much where your openness and enthusiasm come from. Just let yourself move in the directions that feel good or important to you and you are more likely to keep it up.

 

It’s way more fun to be bad at a language than not to speak it at all

Hey! I use affiliate links on this site. If you click it and go on to buy something I will get a small commission, at no extra cost to yourself. You can also support me on Ko-fi!

The title of this post means two things. It means that if you you don’t think you have time for learning a language, you are imagining that you have to have finished a language for it to be rewarding, and underestimating all of the enjoyment that come from understanding even small bits and pieces. And it means that if treating language learning too much like study is stopping you from learning it at all, then you can and should let yourself reduce efficiency and increase the frequency of those rewarding experiences. It is a post for people like me, who sometimes need to trick themselves into learning and who suspect that it doesn’t need to be work.

People often wonder if they have time to learn a language. Then they read that it takes thousands of hours and decide it’s too much work. But there is so much fun in languages even at the earliest stages – just the transition from hearing nonsense to hearing separable words is exciting. Starting to understand feels like a massive change in the way you experience the world around you, often full of small instances of your target language. I am perfectly happy to put a lot of time into learning – but into a single language? I’m not so sure. Why speak one well when I can speak five poorly? Each new language opens up new ways of being and I’d rather get a glimpse than not. As long as you are enjoying yourself and engaging with ideas that excite you, fluency doesn’t need to be the goal – especially with translation software to help you along the way.

Once you stop learning to prove something you can start to have fun. That doesn’t mean gamifying your language learning with sites like duolingo. I find that quickly feels hollow and is only really a good alternative to other games. For my own enjoyment, and I accept that you may not work like me, high input is the name of the game. I want to be reading, watching TV (try this Russian Sherlock Holmes series), listening, enjoying, even before I really understand. I find the best tool for that is LingQ or its opensource equivalent Learning With Texts, which allows even a beginner to absorb complex content – it isn’t what they recommend, but as someone who learnt the Russian alphabet by reading Гордость и предубеждение (Pride and Prejudice) on lingq it is certainly my recommendation. My scores on the site betray some inefficiency in my method, but also far more persistence and enjoyment than I would have achieved sitting down with a course or repeating a small set of vocabulary and grammatical points until I had learnt them. Not only is that frustrating at times, but it also doesn’t really give me a feeling of understanding a language. I love to dive in at the deep end, and even with the huge blind spots my unsystematic approach leaves me I understand much more as a result. Then if I need to know something basic – or, better, if I am excited about something (what are all these verbs ending in “сь” or “ся”???) – I just look it up! Because I want to! Because it is fun! Because I am invested in understanding what I am reading or hearing.

The question of whether or not you have time to learn a language only makes sense if you think you can’t use and enjoy a language until you have finished it. That is unless you are so truly overwhelmed by other obligations that you have no spare time to have fun in another language, in which case why are you wasting your precious free moments with me! But you don’t need to be a completionist! Just do what’s fun, for most people it really doesn’t need to be work.

As a final note, I will add that my own personal version of this approach to learning languages has proved far more immediately successful for languages with good text-to-speech resources available. There are so many Persian films and writings available freely on the internet, but without Google translate helpfully reading aloud to me I have struggled to get off the ground with reading. I will have to do some more studious groundwork to get to the point at which I can really dig in and enjoy myself, but I trust that it is worth it because every language I have studied before has been. I am confident that, with the right approach for you, forgiving yourself any inefficiencies necessary to your enjoyment, your next language will be worth it for you as well.

If you are interested in learning Russian and want a book as a guide, here is an affiliate link to the book I use! 

Bumping into languages

I have never been the world’s most methodical learner, and the drive to finish a language as soon as possible has tended to me to seem not only suspicious but also a little too much like hard work. If, like me, you like to hang out with languages for fun, rather than diligently mark off goal posts, then you are welcome to hang out with me too for a while!