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Studying languages

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


Most people who have studied a foreign language in a classroom situation (which should be most of us, I think) have depended on a series of textbooks, or a number of them, since different institutions and different levels might use different textbooks. The only situations I know of where textbooks aren’t used at all in a classroom are when the students have very special needs (no text book is applicable) or the students are too advanced. In these cases, the teacher might decide that the class is better off using a freer form of teaching. What I’m going to discuss here, mostly from a learner’s perspective, but also from a teacher’s, is the value of using additional textbooks as a resource for more comprehensive language learning.

Before even beginning to discuss the various benefits that using additional textbooks entails, it’s necessary to take a closer look at what a textbook can do in the first place. I’m convinced that textbooks are useful, but used alone, they will never lead to mastery of a language. Textbooks are good for a number of reasons. First, the authors have chosen vocabulary that they think is suitable for students. These lists are valuable, because the authors’ guesses are a lot better than yours and they also know not to use overly complicated language that might be a waste of time at a student’s particular level. Second, textbooks explain the language, which is crucial for some learners (myself included). I cannot simply learn a language efficiently only by everyday conversations, I need a top-down approach for some elements, including but not limited to grammar. That being said, there are of course lots of things textbooks can’t teach, but that’s not the subject of this article. Also, I should mention that I prefer as challenging environments as possible for my main courses, but that’s something completely different from what I’m talking about here.

Let us look closer at vocabulary for a moment, the essence of language learning. Repeating what I explained above, a textbook can be said to be the your guide in an unfamiliar landscape after having parachuted from the sky. It indicates a direction and leads you along a path of ever increasing difficulty as the topics gradually becomes more difficult as the starting point vanishes beyond the horizon behind you. However, you mustn’t fool yourself into thinking that being able to walk a distance in one direction means that you can do the same in another. A new language is a huge landscape and even the easier parts are vast. Approaching more difficult challenges doesn’t mean that the easier ones are all mastered. This is where additional textbooks come in, but before I explain how, I shall illustrate with an example.

Consider my Chinese studies. As textbooks, I’ve primarily used the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese (although I did use Short-term Spoken Chinese for my first year). This means than when I landed in alien territory, those books took me around a carefully guided tour, introducing various subjects and topics. Perhaps this guide also resulted in a false sense of security, because even though my vocabulary and grammar is now pretty advanced in some fields, I can fail very basic vocabulary tests for areas I simply haven’t visited yet (this is true for English as well, please don’t ask me about word for cooking or cars!).

So, how might additional textbooks be used here? The thing is that they constitute new and different guided tours through the landscape, which by now should be at least partly familiar. The vocabulary is chosen by different authors with slightly different perspectives, leading to another set of words somebody thinks you really should know. Of course, no author can include all words they want, so they have to choose, but if you choose more than one author, you can learn an enormous amount of extremely useful words (this also applies to grammar, but let’s continue using vocabulary as an example). The alternative would be to choose words that you encounter in everyday life, but they might be very far from universal or not even common at all; deciding which to learn and which to ignore is almost impossible. Since you can select textbooks already at your level or below, you can expand vocabulary and strengthen fundamental grammar in quite a relaxed manner.

Again returning to studying Chinese, I’ve recently started looking into a second series of text books called Far Eastern Everyday Chinese, which is the other major textbook series used in Taiwan, and I have also used Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course (this was what gave the impetus that resulted in this article). All the chapters studied in these books can be said to be below my level of Chinese, but that’s the whole point. Studying these chapters, I found that I knew about two thirds of the words and most grammar, but the elements I didn’t know were truly interesting. The topics chosen in these books do of course differed from the ones in Practical Audio-Visual Chinese, so some specialised vocabulary were new (one book might have a chapter on going to the swimming pool, another about playing football, for instance). Some of these I could safely ignore, but I always found lots of words I didn’t realise I was lacking before I saw them, or expressions that are genuinely useful although I had never thought of them. Continuously reading more and more challenging texts is a very inefficient way of mastering basic language skills and doesn’t ensure a complete map of the most essential parts of a foreign language.

By way of conclusion, I would like to recommend people to use more than one textbook. You don’t necessarily need to study it carefully, but do at least make sure you know the grammar and the relevant words (ignore those that are too specific in areas you have no interest in). It’s an efficient way of strengthening basic language skills and makes sure that you cover as much of the truly essential language as possible. Which textbooks to use is of course impossible to give general advice about, but for Chinese, the Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course is an excellent choice. Good luck!

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Even though Taiwan is not Babel, my staying here has still made me think a lot about all the languages that exist in the world and what it means to study a few of them. The essential question here is what negative and positive aspects are there to take into consideration when learning foreign languages? The most important issue is the extraordinary amount of time it takes to become proficient in a foreign language (let’s use my English as a reference). In spite of knowing what it takes, I started studying Chinese and I even though I don’t intend to go to Dubai for real, I’m convinced that I will learn more languages in the future. I think most people would spontaneously answer yes to the question whether it’s good or not to learn a foreign language, so to counter this, I will start with discussing the various negative aspects involved.

The biggest problem by far is the amount of time required to learn a language. I’m not quite sure that people realise this, or rather, that they realise how much time we’re talking about. If we compare educations, for instance, learning a language to a certain level (see above) is probably as time consuming as undergoing a complete university education in Sweden for any subject. Still, I’m convinced that this is not the way most people view language skills. Of course, they know that it’s difficult to learn French, but if they haven’t tried, they don’t know difficult or to what extent. Most of the time, I don’t consider this a problem; if I did, I would never be able to motivate spending most of my time studying Chinese, but this is a question that keeps surfacing in my mind  Occasionally, it also interferes with my studying, which is the primary reason for writing this text in the first place. As is the case with most things that take up a lot of time, it isn’t the activities themselves that are the problem, but rather the things one could have done instead.

So, if  I wouldn’t have spent (at least) two years studying Chinese, what would I have done instead? Studying languages I already know would be the obvious answer for me. If I had invented that amount of time in studying English, perhaps I would feel a lot more confident writing fiction in English, or if invested in Swedish, I could have come farther down the road to becoming an author. Since time isn’t unlimited, this is a question about priorities and it sometimes feels like a difficult choice to make. Regardless of how diligent or talented the student is, focusing on many things instead of a few will always mean that the highest level is lower than it would have been otherwise. Unfortunately, if I want to become an author, it doesn’t really count that I’m proficient several other languages.

But here I am, studying Chinese, a language I knew only a few words in when I set out in August 2007. Why? The simplest reason is that I enjoy it immensely, I feel the need to learn more, to understand this language and to master it. I want to take my Chinese to a level where it’s genuinely useful, where I can read books, newspapers, discuss whatever topics that come up. I like the learning itself, and perhaps most importantly, I like the challenge. Needless to say, there is a challenge in improving my Swedish or English as well, but the challenge is of a different kind. Of course, knowing a few languages will always come in handy, but you all know that already (if nothing else, it tells people what kind of person you are), so I’m not going to expand on that at all.

At the end of the day, I’ll still spread my focus over several languages, although I know that this question will keep resurfacing now and then, regardless of this attempt to bury it for good. I might be hesitant to start studying yet another language, but if I know myself to any extent, I know that is not a promise I can keep. Still, I’d rather be very proficient in the languages I already know to some extent (Swedish, English, French and Chinese), which will assuredly keep me occupied for a while yet!

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