I have studied Chinese full-time for more than two years now, and before that I have spent a decent amount of time learning English and French. In this article, I’m going to describe my general learning strategy. Here are the core concepts, which I will elaborate on in due time:
– Knowing lots of words superficially beats knowing few words in detail
– Expanding passive vocabulary is extremely important
– This large amount of words will enable you to learn a lot faster
– Listening and reading is the key for everyone but the true beginner
– Practice is important, but far less so that most people think
This method differs in some important ways from traditional language learning:
– It does not focus on detailed knowledge of words
– It does not focus on studying lots of grammar
– It does not focus on getting everything right the first time
Learning a language is a huge task and given the varying properties of the language, the student and the environment, there are naturally a number of ways of striving towards some kind of proficiency goal.
Because of the huge number of variables, it’s really hard to show any hard evidence of what works and what doesn’t, but what seems certain is that people who are aware of and care about how they learn, tend to learn faster than those who don’t really think about it too much and just follow the herd. This post is based mostly on personal experience, but I have read quite a lot of relevant material, both from other learners and from people who have done research in the field of language learning.
Still, it should be noted that this is the way I learn. I don’t mean to say that it’s the best way for you, perhaps it isn’t even good, but it’s proved to quite successful for me, both in learning English and, more recently, Chinese.
My method can be divided into three parts, but before I even define these different areas, I’d like to make it very clear that these are not separated in time (meaning that they should be done simultaneously). Focusing on just one of these parts or neglecting one of them would probably be catastrophic for the end result.
The first part is vocabulary building, which strives towards learning as many words as possible as fast as possible, without thinking too much about grammar, how the words are used or any deeper understanding of differences between near-synonyms, etc.
The second part is immersion, meaning listening and reading as much as possible, again without caring too much about deeper understanding; yet again quantity is king.
The third part I call practising and it’s the only one in which quality is really important. Here, I try to make use of the things I’ve learnt in the previous two parts and I also adjust or highlight things that might have been unclear before.
Part 1 – Vocabulary
When it comes to vocabulary, quantity is king. If you have a well developed vocabulary, you can understand a lot of what’s going on around you and most of the time you can make yourself understood, although you need more than vocabulary if you’re going to speak or write fluently and correctly. The goal is to be able to understand as much as possible and thus reinforce part two, which probably is the most important one.
Going for quality (i.e. trying to remember everything or spending lots of time to understand all aspects and usages of a piece of vocabulary) is not only a bad idea, I think it will actively keep you from progressing at a decent rate. The idea is that you learn how to use things from seeing or hearing the words in a natural context, not by reading in a text book how they are supposed to be used, but more about that in part two.
There are many ways of expanding vocabulary, but I strongly suggest using some kind of software to help you reviewing, because after a while, this will be a major problem. It’s true that you want to cover as much material as possible as quickly as possible, but if you forget most of it, it won’t do you any good and the effort will be wasted.
Part 2- Immersion
How do we learn our native language? By listening a lot and then trying out what we hear and receiving feedback from our environment. Learning a foreign language as a foreigner comes with some advantages, such as having an adult brain which is far superior to any child’s when it comes to organising and understanding abstract concepts.
The idea in part two is to immerse yourself as much as possible in the language you’re trying to learn, the more you read and listen, the better. This might be obvious and I think most people agree on this, but this is the cornerstone of my learning strategy, not merely an important tool.
If quantity was king when discussing vocabulary, when it comes to listening and reading, quantity is the God Emperor of the Universe. The amount of time needed to absorb the necessary amounts of material is staggering, but the payoff is amazing. I learnt English through reading and listening to many hundreds of books; I did not reach my current level because of diligent studying of textbooks and grammar.
The problem with immersion is that if you can’t find something truly entertaining, it will never work. I didn’t read those hundreds of books because I thought it would be good for part two of my language learning strategy, I did it because I enjoyed reading the books! Perhaps there are people who can force themselves to invest thousands of hours into something truly boring, but I’m not one of them and I think most people are with me here.
So, the main task here is to find entertaining ways of listening and reading as much as possible. This includes chatting with friends, watching movies, reading books, listening to music or whatever happens to suit your personal taste.
So why is a large vocabulary necessary here?
- If you know lots of words, you will be able to piece together what you read or hear, even if you don’t fully understand the details.
- Since you know so many words, every time you read or listen, it will be a repetition and a learning opportunity, and you will think “ah, so that’s how it’s used”, adding to your mental database of knowledge.
Compare this to the situation which would occur if you focused all your time in learning few words, but in detail and with grammar. Then you probably wouldn’t even understand what was being said at all and so the opportunity would be missed completely.
In other words, a large vocabulary vastly expands your opportunities to absorb knowledge from what you hear or read.
When you look for material to immerse yourself in, you should strive to find language which isn’t too hard. If you don’t understand what’s going on without the help of a dictionary, it’s too difficult. The goal here is to reinforce, adjust and expand words you’ve already studied (and of course add new words to your vocabulary; these are parallel processes, remember).
This might be tricky for a beginner (try using more than one textbook on the same level), but once you get through the basics, you can start looking for children’s books and advance from there.
The ultimate goal of immersion is building a feeling for what’s correct language usage and grammar. When your vocabulary is big enough and when you’ve heard those words used many times, you will start to feel if they make sense in a particular context or if you need to find another word.
This level is hard to attain, especially in truly foreign languages such as Chinese for me as a native speaker of Swedish. It requires extreme amounts of reading/listening, but if you manage to find a way which is both fun and educating at the same time, this shouldn’t be too daunting, even though it will of course take many, many years to attain something close to a native speaker’s ability.
Part 3 – Practice
Following the principles above, it would probably be possible to attain really high levels of reading and listening comprehension, but if complete fluency is the goal, that won’t be enough. Practice serves four purposes.
- It helps you correct errors in your vocabulary, grammar and intuition. Most errors occur in the immersion part as well, because you will notice words that don’t fit your mental picture, but actually receiving feedback on spoken or written language is far more effective.
- It enables you to sort out complex or difficult parts of a language that are hard to untangle passively by reading and listening. Up to this point, quantity has been king, but now quality starts to play a significant role. Complex grammar would be a good example here.
- It takes a lot of practice to get good at piecing together various words in your head to create meaningful and correct sentences, so it should be obvious why it’s important.
- If fluency is the goal, lots of practice is needed to decrease the time you need to think when constructing sentences. You might know all the words and the grammar, but if you can’t do it quickly enough, your language won’t be fluent enough.
The third part isn’t very different from the way most people learn languages and it is in this area that almost all class time is focused (grammar drills, questions from the teacher, tests, questions, and so on), so I won’t discuss it in more detail.
Make sure you expose your language (written or spoken) to native speakers and make sure that you get feedback. This will enable you to find errors or misunderstandings, as well as identifying areas that really need specific attention (such as complicated grammar or the use of tricky words).
As I said at the outset, these three are parallel process in how I learn languages and they need to be integrated to make sense. Traditional teaching focus a little bit on part one, almost nothing (or at least not enough for it to count) on part two and quite a lot on part three. I advocate a focus on the first two parts, especcially the second.
However, it’s essential that you actively strive to integrate these processes, because a two-legged tripod (think War of the Worlds) won’t be able to move very well. For instance, this can be done by actively using words you’ve just learnt in conversations, by noting difficult or confusing parts and ask questions about them or, when listening, actively noticing and repeating to yourself various useful phrases or use of prepositions.
It goes without saying that this article is not complete in anyway. It’s also a given that this method isn’t perfect, but it has proved to work very well for me, especially when learning Chinese. I hope to be able to update this article later with new insight and perhaps also with more references to actual research.
For the time being, however, I feel that I’ve accomplished the goal of explaining the overall strategy I use for language learning. As usual, comments about what I’ve written, suggestions for further reading, personal opinions or experiences are all more than welcome!