January 31, 2005
A different approach to language learning
Yesterday at lunch was my last meeting with my language partner. I’m really sad to see him go. I'm going to really miss our conversations and friendship. Because my language learning motivation has stalled, I haven’t been very productive with him lately. I have learned to do just what is necessary in the language class to get a grade. I realized that doing what it takes to get a grade is what most students do. That is exactly what I thought I would not do. The attitude I approached my classes at the U with was, “I’m on a mission to really learn the language.” Except in the classes they teach a series of grammar lessons in a row. I call it ‘grammar on parade.’ Each lesson comes and goes and the students move on to the next, forgetting about the vocab and grammar from each previous lesson until the final exam, at which time they attempt to cram everything back in. The pressure and volume of homework and quizzes throughout the course prevent really learning the material thoroughly. There is little repetition. I vowed that this semester I am getting back to my original motivation and attitudes. That is to have fun with these languages. I’m a lifelong learner and had planned to learn several languages the rest of my life. But I know it can get really frustrating when taking a class, with all the pressures and demands of it. The burden of learning is still on the student, but the methods of teaching modern language courses sometimes resemble the dark ages and could sap the life out of any learning process until it’s back to rote memorization. That’s what teachers know how to test. And even if they want to break from tradition, they are not capable of developing an individual learning plan for each student. It’s not feasible for most instructors to tailor their learning materials and change or develop whole new curriculum when one is not working. Most curriculums are selected and used but that doesn’t mean they are perfect or well suited to a particular group of students.
As you might know, I’m currently reading a book called “How to think like Leonardo da Vinci.” In the book there is a section on learning a foreign language. This material is not new to me, because I’ve read several books on how to learn foreign languages, but it is a fresh reminder to me about how to bring the joy back into language learning.
Here is the advice the book gives and how I think the University classes contradict these ideas of language learning, mainly to show what is missing and what I need to include in my language learning to not only survive the course, but really learn something (keep in mind that their example is for learning Italian, but substitute any foreign language):
· “Be willing to make lots of mistakes. Bambinos do not worry about looking cool or instantly achieving perfect pronunciation and grammar; they just dive in and speak. Your progress in learning will correlate directly with your willingness to play and to embrace feelings of unfamiliarity and foolishness.” The University classes discourage mistakes and grade harshly for mistakes. The current classroom process intimidates most students. Especially when there are much more fluent speakers taking the same class as beginning students. Playing with the language and not worrying about making a fool out of ourselves is not practiced in the classroom, where grammar lessons are written on the board and students practice completing the sentences using the grammar. Students feverishly write down the examples on the board for self-study later.
· “Have you ever noticed how babies will find a word or phrase and repeat it over and over? Do the same: repetition is the simplest secret of recall.” In the University class, there is the ‘parade of grammar,’ one lesson passing by at a time, until the semester is over. Repetition is minimal. Even during class, new examples and vocab are used with new grammar each class period. So students end up memorizing vocab only for the quiz they face during that class period, then move on and forget previous vocab until the final at which time they cram it all in again, or at least try.
· “If possible, start your learning process with an “immersion course.” Just as a rocket needs most of its energy to launch and fly out of our atmosphere, you will get the most from your learning if you launch your efforts with a concentrated program. Your ‘intensive’ will ‘jump-start’ your brain circuitry to start rewiring for your new language.” The University classes are far from immersion courses. There is little audio and visual instruction, and even though the classes load the students down with intense textbook work, teaching is done primarily in English and students talk to each other primarily in English and directions are written in English and there is no graduated progression into all-immersion. Students are still speaking English with the teacher and other students at the end of the semester. My language partner suggested to me once, that I forget about the University class and come to Korea for a month. He said it would be a better education than 4 semesters at the university. That may be a little harsh, but immersion is motivation to learn faster.
· “If you can’t find a formal immersion course, then create your own by listening to audiocassettes, watching Italian-language movies with subtitles, learning the lyrics of great Italian songs like “Rondini al Nido” and “Santa Lucia,” singing along to Pavarotti recordings, sitting in Italian espresso bars and just listening to people talking, and going to real Italian restaurants and ordering in the native tongue. If you tell the waiter that you are trying to learn the language and ask for help, you will usually get a free Italian lesson, even better service, and sometimes extra antipasto!” When I tried to get help with translating some popular Korean and Russian songs, the teachers told me not to do that at this time, it was too advanced. I say we need to do all of these things regularly because we don’t get it in class. That’s one reason I go to Korean groceries and restaurants. Even if I just practice saying hello and goodbye and thank you, and please give me ...
· “Learn words and phrases related to areas of passionate interest. Many language programs are a bit boring because they focus on necessary but mundane matters such as “Where is the station?” and “Here is my passport.” In addition to these everyday matters, aim to learn the language of romance, sex, poetry, art, fine food, and wine.” That sounds like the classes I’ve taken at the University and other places. I started doing this on my own, but somehow lost my energy for these things.
· “Put Italian translation Post-it notes on everything in your house.” I did this with Russian but not with Korean. I have a picture on my wall in the dining room with two autumn leaves in it and to this day when I see a leaf I now immediately think ‘Leest’ in Russian. I still don’t know that word in Korean.
· “Most important, open yourself to the feeling of the language and culture. When you speak, pretend you are an Italian (I recommend Marcello Mastroianni or Sophia Loren, for starters). Adopt the expressive gestures and facial expressions that go with the language; you will have more fun and learn much faster.” I don’t even know who the famous Koreans are and haven’t been exposed to them enough to imitate them. Our listening comprehension practice in and out of class has been minimal. During class pronunciation and feeling were not emphasized.
· “Build your own lexicon.” Leonardo da Vinci defined over nine thousand words in his notebooks and said, “I possess so many words in my native language that I ought rather to complain of not understanding things than lacking for words to express my thoughts properly.” Even though I made flashcards for learning words each day, I only at the end of my last class started writing down lists of related words and memorizing phrases using each word. This is a great building of a working lexicon that expands our vocabulary at a faster pace.
My goal is to visit Korea next year, in 2006 right after the spring semester is over. I have a lot of work to do to prepare myself for that experience. Using the above guidelines as well as previous ideas I had, like journaling in these languages, and watching news broadcasts online in Korean, I will be ready.
Learning is la bella lingua! The beautiful language!
Posted by carl1236 at January 31, 2005 8:55 PM | Learning
Oh! You're a cyclist *and* a language geek! Score.
I'm gonna do that labelling thing in my house this weekend. I'm on the list for that book at one of my local libraries, too - sounds interesting.
Posted by: Nathan at February 4, 2005 2:41 PM
Nathan, what language are you studying?
Posted by: John at February 4, 2005 11:37 PM
Sorry for the delayed response - you get punished for updating regularly and that just doesn't seem right. I try not to let stuff drop off the bottom at Kinja but then people that update regularly keep moving to the top.
Anyway, "studying" - that's a good one. ;) Spanish.
Posted by: Nathan at February 9, 2005 3:12 PM