Featured Post


I wrote a contrafactum to rhythm changes today. Or I should say that one just occurred to the fingers of my right hand as I was playing, aft...

Friday, February 17, 2017

How to Learn a Language

How do you learn a language?  I will tell the first thing I did was to learn the pronunciation rules in Spanish. You know how to pronounce a word simply by seeing it written, once you know those rules.  It is a good idea to read aloud from texts for hours at a time in order to practice. I may not have always had a perfect accent, but I never said hambre for hombre, because I knew that the o never has the sound of ah.... You should at least pronounce the phonemes correctly that you have in your own damn language, right?

My students even at the senior level still say dificil instead of difícil.

You need to listen to the language a lot.  Fortunately there is the Youtube.  There are free lectures in Spanish at the Fundación Juan March, that you can download, many of them an hour long or longer.  As with reading, you need to just listen and not worry if you understand.  Eventually, you will start understanding more and more, and you will also get the intonation in your head.

You need to exaggerate the intonation, which is usually ignored in teaching. Pretend you are mocking the speaker of the language by using the exact pitch pattern she uses.   If you cannot hear it then try to sing or chant it. Speak English with a cartoon-French accent.  That is actually what you want to get... in French.

Learn the grammar thoroughly. Just learn it so it has virtually no mistakes in it when you write it. You can communicate fine in bad grammar (sometimes!), but if you just communicate and never learn the grammar, you will be creating an artificial limit for yourself on how well you know the language after your fluency increases.  Grammar will not make you fluent, but you should enjoy it for its own sake, for its ability to express nuance. Learning grammar is not the same as acquiring it.  You can learn it and still flub up when you try to speak, because humans make mistakes when learning new skills.

Another thing is reading. Reading alone will never teach you to speak the language, but it enlarges the vocabulary immensely, and it is the only way to do this rapidly.  I recommend not looking up words in the dictionary, because that will slow you down.  Only if you keep seeing a word and have a burning curiosity about it.  You might look up words and then still not remember them. That is because you need repetition for memory, not a one-off look up of a wordl  Without extensive reading, your vocabulary will always be artificially limited, because the vocabulary in most everyday interactions you have a traveler will never match the actual vocabulary as a literate speaker of the language. Once again, you can be ok and get by as a traveler without having ever read a book in the language, but you are missing out on a lot.

Also, it might seem obvious, but reading reinforces what you already know as well.  You will be pounding in, constantly, the most common words of the language, because they will be present on every page. Also, the most frequent combinations of words, a sense of what is idiomatic in a language.

What to read?  Novels.  You can follow the plot without understanding every word.  You can just fill in the blanks with your own imagination. Novels have more and different kinds of words than academic articles about literature.

Pronunciation, listeninggrammar, reading for a bigger lexicon.  Those are parts of the language base.  To actually speak it, you must use it in real life, non-classroom settings. The classroom is part of the base, but is not sufficient.

One thing I find myself doing is to prepare for situations in advance.  So if I am going to the cell phone store in France, I am going to think of what I'm going to say before. When I'm constantly doing that, then I'm generating sentences in my head all the time, not merely when I'm actually in a conversational situation. Then you will be thinking in the language. Even after reading Italian for an hour I find myself thinking in my miserable Italian.

If you are at a college (or wherever) you need to find speakers of the language and befriend them, always speaking to them.  If you are in the country whose language you want to learn, you are going to want to avoid speakers of your own language.  The reason is that a conversation will often default to the easier language, which will be the language you already know.  

Apps like duolingua are fine.  They won't give you everything, but you can learn vocabulary and some grammar and pronunciation. Don't pay for expensive language-learning programs like Rosetta stone.

Don't expect someone to teach you a language: you have to take ownership and learn it. A good teacher is wonderful, but a highly motivated student is even better than wonderful.


1 comment:

Leslie said...

Great post, I will use in class