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Guide to Learning Languages, part 1

 Language Learning Forum : Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies (Topic Closed Topic Closed) Post Reply
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Iversen
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 Message 1 of 12
14 September 2009 at 11:43pm | IP Logged 
Introduction:

This is the first of a series of threads where I summarize my ideas about language learning. Of course they won't be useful for everybody, and they may not even represent the ultimately best strategies for me, given that I can't get the materials that would ultimately the best (such as scientific programs with subtitles in the original language AND a printout with a suitable translation). Besides I basically hate to be taught and only want to teach myself, but objectively seen some way of getting feedback is necessary, and people with other personality types and other surroundings may have found better solutions to those problems than those that I can accept. So the following proposals should be seen as just that: proposals for ways to speed up your languages learning.

The present guide (no. 1) is mostly about the structure of a language learning process: i.e. when to become active, working intensively or extensively etc. and the requirements of different learner types.

I will deal with the different ways you can use translations in the Guide no. 2 – how to use them and when to avoid them.   

My stance on grammar is that it should be studied actively, using real grammars instead of relying on the mostly insufficient and chaotic fragments in most text books or – even worse – your own guesswork. I have described some methods to do this efficiently in Guide no. 3, which deals with grammar studies.

Following that, I have written in Guide no. 4 about ways to extend your vocabulary. This of course includes wordlists (but only in conjunction with as much exposure to genuine stuff as you can manage).

Finally I have written a Guide no. 5 about things like pronunciation and getting to understand the spoken language.

------------------

Update: I have written a new version of this guide. You can find it at http://forum.language-learners.org/viewtopic.php?t=2036.


Edited by Iversen on 12 February 2016 at 3:15pm

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Iversen
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 Message 2 of 12
14 September 2009 at 11:46pm | IP Logged 
Language learner types:

There are several systems on the market for describing differences between language learners (and learners in general). The one described in the thread Learning styles follows principles that are described in this article, and its main parameters are the following:

ACTIVE versus REFLECTIVE LEARNERS
SENSING
versus INTUITIVE LEARNERS
VISUAL
versus VERBAL LEARNERS
SEQUENTIAL
versus GLOBAL LEARNERS

There is another system at http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/Visual_Spatial_Learner/vsl. htm that separates
AUDITORY-SEQUENTIAL from VISUAL-SPATIAL LEARNERS

This article ("Understanding Student Differences") can be used as a quick overview over some of the theories, with hints of some empirical work.

And Wikipedia has as usual a useful listing of different systems, and there is a useful links list at fod.msu.edu. If you want something substantial then try this report (but don't say I didn't warn you!).

Finally I would like to mention a splendid book on the internet with examples of different learning styles exemplified in real people: Success with Foreign Languages - it can be downloaded for free!

As you can see there is no dearth of theories and writings about learning styles, - the problem is that it is based more on empirical work and simple logic than on scientific studies. But we have to learn languages now, so we cannot wait for science to catch up.

Personally I prefer learning languages globally rather than sequentally, i.e. I prefer amassing squattered words, grammatical knowledge and useful expressions from all over a given language, and with some training I expect one day to wake up and be able to read, understand, write and maybe even speak it. But most teachers prefer a sequential method where you learn one expression, then the next etc. while making sure that you can at every stage use those expressions correctly which you already have learnt. For me it isn't important whether there are errors in your first utterances, - the important thing is to 'get the machine rolling', and then you can weed out the errors later.

My methods are also to a high degree based on written materials, whereas actual communication with others is relegated to a stage where I already know the language fairly well. Most language learners would however prefer to speak to somebody from the start while they are learning a language, and some would in fact loose every shred of motivation without a social context, - for them my wordlists and hyperliteral translations will probably not be very tempting.

Furthermore I like to put up grammatical tables to get an overview over them, even though I don't learn all forms from the start. Getting 'the big picture' from the start is very important for me, but most text books are based on the opposite principle: giving informations in tiny little pieces in order not to scare the pupils. That one good reason not to use them as intended, but at most as sources for ultra-easy texts and things like that.

In general I think that pure self study along the lines I sketch out here will be difficult for newbees, - they don't have the experience in sorting out a wealth of grammatical and phonetical material on their own. So for your first foreign language pure selfstudy may be too tough. But even those that follow a regular course with a teacher should supplement this with self-organized home work, - and if you don't like a certain method used by your teacher then it may be your teacher that is a fool and not you. My personal hate object no.1 is silly dialogues with people who speak the target language even worse than yourself...   

Edited by Iversen on 25 June 2010 at 3:57pm

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Iversen
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 Message 3 of 12
14 September 2009 at 11:50pm | IP Logged 
How to attack a new language:

The following is borrowed from the thread How to study, 17 June 2007:

Let assume that you have just decided to learn a new language. You main problem is that you don't understand anything. OK, there are two ways of tackling that problem. The 'natural' way and the 'tools' way (or in practice a combination that can be closer to one or the other alternative). 'Tools' are dictionaries, grammars and other books or homepages ABOUT language.

If you choose the natural method then you have to find something that is so simple that you can almost understand it without any tools. You cannot totally avoid help, - if your teacher suggests the meaning of a word by gesturing it is formally equivalent to a peek in a dictionary. It IS a tool. But basically you progress through the study of written or spoken material, guesssing the meaning and function of obscure passages along the way. However you can only do this with material that is almost comprehensible to you, - so you or your teacher or your text book must feed you with carefully graded texts, otherwise you can't understand them well enough to infer the meaning of those obscure passages. Immersion is not substantially different: you just put yourself in a situation where you are presented with so much genuine material that you can pick and choose something that hopefully is at the right level for you. You still need to find comprehensible input though - that has not changed.

The 'tools' methods is different. Here you assume that if you just know enough words and grammar then ordinary texts will suddenly become transparent to you. Of course it would be stupid to start out with something far too difficult, so in practice you do search for more or less comprehensible input. The main difference is that as a tool-seeker you don't need the fine-tuning of the texts, - you can use dictionaries and grammars as preparation for material that really is a good deal too difficult for you at the present stage, - suddenly you have collected enough words and stuff to understand those texts, and kapoum! the meaning is crystal clear to you (aka epiphany moment). The important thing from that point on is to incorporate some elements of natural studying. The reason is that even the best dictionaries and grammars won't learn you to use the language in a congenial way, - they are tools, but very efficient tools, and my belief is that you can 'crack' a language easier if you use them than if you don't.

(end of quote)

The methods I describe in the thread about translations are basically attempts to making otherwise incomprehensible texts comprehensible so that you can learn from them. On a more global basis this also applies to wordlists et cetera, because acquiring a large vocabulary is also a way of making texts comprehensible.

For another formulation of the same idea, see my contribution to the thread Listening and understanding nothing from 25 August 2008

By the way, the use a grammar and a dictionary as preparation for intensive work on a an easy text reminds me of the method of the English explorer and polyglot Richard Burton, quoted from the thread bearing his name:

I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart. ... I never worked more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness. After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy book-work and underlined every word that I wished to recollect. ... Having finished my volume, I then carefully worked up the grammar minutiae, and I then chose some other book whose subject most interested me. The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid. If I came across a new sound, like the Arabic Ghayn, I trained my tongue to it by repeating it so many thousand times a day. When I read, I invariably read out loud, so that the ear might aid memory. I was delighted with the most difficult characters, Chinese and Cuneiform, because I felt that they impressed themselves more strongly upon the eye than the eternal Roman letters
(end of quote)


Edited by Iversen on 06 October 2009 at 1:04pm

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Iversen
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 Message 4 of 12
14 September 2009 at 11:51pm | IP Logged 
Why focus on writing:

The following is quoted almost verbatim from my profile thread and dates back to 14 November 2008:

There are roughly two kinds of language learners: those that primarily learn through their ears and those who learn through their eyes. I belong in the latter category, and what I write now may not be relevant for those who belong to the first category.

My first objective isn't to learn to speak a certain language, but to be able to read it and think it, and after that to be able to write it. We have a thread somewhere about silent periods, and I wrote there that I don't want to speak a language before I can do so fairly fluently. However if I have to opportunity to visit a place where one of my target languages is spoken I will of course drop my all my principles and use every single opportunity to try to speak that language. For instance when I visited Minsk, Moscow and Vladimir 2009 I tried my best to ask for sewing kits, prices, directions, tickets and everything else in Russian, even though my spoken Russian is nothing to write home about. But I still had to switch to English for more complicated matters.    

To be able to read and even more to think in a language you must of course study the pronunciation first. For some of my languages I have a solid foundation from my school years: English, German and (somewhat later) French and Latin. When I however started to learn Italian and Spanish through selfstudy as a schoolkid I didn't have any choice than to read about the pronunciation and then frantically try adjust my pronunciation whenever I had the chance to hear the real thing. This is essentially also what I do today, except that I now have the blessing of the internet where I can get radiotransmissions and podcast in just about any language I might ever wish to learn.

In the beginning you normally can't understand anything, but you may be able to distinguish certain words and use the pronunciation of these to catch the 'sound' of the language. After reading about the listening-reading method of Siomotteikiru I have become convinced that the ideal way to initiate this part of your study would be to listen to an audio source while trying to follow it first in a translation, then while reading a transcript. The problem of course is to find suitable parallel materials for this, so you may have to settle for less. The paradox of this phase is that you have to listen very carefully without understanding the meaning, but this shouldn't be seen as a problem - it is the pronunciation that is important at this stage, forget about the meaning.

To build my vocabulary and grammatical knowledge I copy original texts by hand and translate them, I read about grammar, I make word lists, I try to get some modicum of fluency in my reading and last, but not least: I start combining words in my head until they form nice, more or less correct, but at least complete sentences. At this point it is important not to be too fuzzy about errors in vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation, - I'm convinced that it is easier to correct those errors later when you have enough reserves of skill and confidence than it is to deal with them while you are still struggling.

As a result of this toil and labour I expect some day to wake up and suddenly be able to understand the target language in its spoken form (a so called epiphany moment - see below). This may may sound like a joke, but it isn't. The main reason that you don't understand ordinary clear speech at this stage normally isn't you can't follow the words (after all those listening sessions), but that you stumble over unknown words or constructions all the time and then start thinking or - even worse - translating in your head. And then you are stuck. Instead you should just try to follow the babble word for word, syllable after syllable, letting the meanings that pop up pass by without caring too much about them, otherwise you would miss the next sentences. Then some bright day you have in all silence passed the treshold where you know enough to push on with your listening in spite of unknown words and other petty hindrances, and then you suddenly understand just about everything without really making a coinscious effort, just as you do with your native language - at least I have experienced this with most of my languages, and it is pretty clear to you when it happens.

When you can understand genuine spoken stuff you finally have the ideal chance to focus on your pronunciation. True, there are too many sad cases where people have learnt a language just well enough to understand simple conversations and to say something that sometimes can be understood by natives, and then they never progress from that point. Instead this should be seen as the time where you finally can try to get rid of all the grammatical and lexical errors and bad pronunciation, and that can't happen without making too much of an effort.

This also the best time for immersion. I know from experience that my pronunciation and fluency gets much better after just a few days in a place where everybody speaks my target language and the streets are full of written messages in that language. Immersion at an earlier point is valuable, but not nearly as efficient.

My final remark in this post should be that I have stayed for weeks in suitable countries speaking only the local languages, and I have rarely had any indications that people me didn't understand me - on the contrary, they normally speak as fast to me as they speak to each other, which I have to take to be a good sign. I can also feel how the local dialect creeps into my language when I'm in an immersion situation, so after a week I normally feel quite at home and just babble away. On the contrary when I'm at home in Denmark I am acutely aware that speaking is my weakest skill (after reading, writing, listening and thinking), and I never quite trust my orals skills in any language after months of silence. But if I then accidentally meet some natives representing one of my rarer languages I normally find that I can discuss with them without big problems, so maybe I'm just too pessimistic. It is not something that can cause me sleepless nights.


Edited by Iversen on 15 September 2009 at 12:31am

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Iversen
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 Message 5 of 12
14 September 2009 at 11:52pm | IP Logged 
Silent period, but thinking actively:

The following is a quote from the thread Getting from passive to active from 05 October 2008:

When I went to school many years ago all language teachers (except those who taught Latin) wanted us to say something, and for obvious reasons it had to be silly small sentences, and there were heavy restrictions on what our teachers expected us to say. But even then I felt it as an irritating pressure that I had to say something before I felt that I was ready. On the other hand our Latin teacher didn't expect us to learn to speak Latin, and so we didn't. This illustrates the two errors you can make: you can force people to speak too early /i.e. before they know what to say, and then they will use mechanisms like 1) looking stupid and saying nothing, 2) learning sentences by heart to please the teacher. OR you can wait for too long, and then you may never learn to use the language. My solutions to this problem has been to start thinking at an early stage and then postpone writing and speaking. In other words: I try to built a solid passive basis, which I then fairly easily can convert to active but 'silent' skills, which then can be converted to active language in the sense that it can be used for travelling and other activites.

It is clear that this way of studying can't easily be combined with ordinary sequential learning where you go through a number of lessons from nr. 1 to the last one under the supervision of a teacher, who controls that you have learnt lesson 1 before you proceed to number two. However I do understand that teachers like the sequential method, because with people like me who prefer learning the stuff before it is made public there is no control whatsoever of your progress.    

To illustrate what I mean by thinking I will quote myself from a recent pm:

"My use of thinking as opposed to speaking is not very scientific: I see a tree, and I think the foreign word for tree: "Tree". Or "Green tree" if I also remember the word for 'green'. Or "This is a XYXYXYXYX tree" if I don't remember the word for 'green', but I can construct the rest of the sentence. At some point I'll look up the word for 'green', or I may just notice it while I read (and I notice it because I felt the need to know it in a concrete situation).

Later on it is just a matter of coupling longer and longer constructions until you can deliberately choose to think about things in your daily life or culture or science in another language. It may be helpful to listen to a lot of talk in that language just to get the other language buzzing in your head before you try to switch, but in my experience you have to be able to understand at least a word here and there before you see an effect. Otherwise reading something may be better.

And you should of course avoid to think complete sentences in your own language and then translate them. Translating is also a valuable skill, but you don't have time to translate when you think or speak.

These are all commonplace observations which I'm sure everybody would accept. It is probably more controversial to say that it doesn't matter whether you think in correct sentences or not. I know that some people are scared of uttering anything faulty because they believe that all errors they commit will stick forever, but this is nonsense. On the contrary you should make the language productive as soon as possible - simply because it is much easier to correct your errors if you don't have to fight like a madman to construct even the most simple sentence.

And why not speak instead? If I had been speaking - especially in a classroom setting - I would have second thoughts about uttering incomplete and malformed sentences, and I might even hesitate to say them while I'm alone, but my thoughts are totally my own and I don't lose face thinking nonsense. But of course you also have to train speaking - achieving the correct mouth positions can be a daunting task in itself. People who spend their lives speaking 24x7 may not have a problem with speaking instead of thinking silently - but we are all different. "


Edited by Iversen on 26 October 2009 at 10:59am

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 Message 6 of 12
14 September 2009 at 11:54pm | IP Logged 
About intensive and extensive reading/listening:

If you take a piece of written text or a recording and spend the time and effort of understand just about everything, looking up words, checking endings and maybe even syntax, in short doing anything to suck every drop of information from it then it is in every meaning of the word an intensive process. If it is a long text or recording then you don't have time for that so you will try to form an intuitive impression of the meaning based on whatever words or expressions you recognize, combined with circumstancial evidence. This is an extensive process.

The following passage from 15 November 2007 is copied from a thread simply called Reading:

There are two kinds of reading. One is the intensive (or active) reading where you try to understand more or less everything (though pondering for hours over an especially contrived construction may not be worth your precious time). This means that you have to look up as many words as you need, you probably have to use a grammar and you may well advised to write a complete ultra-literal translation (with comments) between the lines - at least in the beginning. A bilingual text is a blessing at this stage, but ideally you should only use it for control purposes.

Besides intensive reading it is worthwhile also to get aquainted with the grammar, and it is a logical step also to use the words you note down during the reading for wordlists or flashcards. You can do this kind of reading almost from the beginning, preferably with very easy texts. It certainly is a very slow and laborious process, especially in the beginning, but - depending on the languages - you will soon discover that you can dispense with the complete translation and just jot down the unknown words and the more interesting idioms and constructions.

The other kind of reading is the extensive reading. Here the goal is not to understand everything, but to acquire a kind of momentum while reading, and to get through as much genuine stuff as possible. If you are a total novice and the language is far from anything you know this kind of reading is only possible when you have acquired enough vocabulary and grammar through intensive reading and other activities. But it is bound to take up more and more of the time you spend reading, simply because it is so much more pleasing

(end of quote)


This should be seen in the light of another important notion, that of comprehensible input. If you are a total newbee then you have to find very easy texts AND to work hard to understand them, but soon you find yourself in a situation where you can introduce extensive reading/listening to the same very easy texts. Or alternatively you can choose more difficult texts, which you then have to take to pieces in a very intensive process. Both strategies are relevant and useful (and should be pursued), but it seems that it is even more profitable to combine the two extremes and choose relatively difficult texts, which you make comprehensible through the use of translations.

The ultimate version of this strategy is the Listening-Reading method (LR method), which was proposed by Siomotteikiru June 26, 2007. I won't repeat the details here, but to execute all the steps you need a long recorded text, a transcript and a translation, and it is difficult to get hold of all this – especially if you aren't too fond of fictional literature. The method is extensive by nature: you are supposed to listen for hours on end to the recording plus either the transcript or the translation, and it is not planned that you should look words up or read grammars. The impressive thing is that you can actually get something out of listening to a text in an unknown language while listening to a translation, but it is actually working – I have tried myself on a (short) Persian text. But as I said it can be a trouble to find all the necessary elements, and you must be very interested in the content to listening for the long periods foreseen with this method.

Instead I have chosen to use moderately difficult original texts with translations, and then listening for content must wait until I can understand for instance a news broadcast with subtitles or without any external help.



Edited by Iversen on 25 June 2010 at 3:58pm

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Iversen
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 Message 7 of 12
14 September 2009 at 11:55pm | IP Logged 
More about thinking:

This time a quote from the thread Foreign language thinking pattern from 30 April 2009:

Can you explain what it is to think in your native language? It's just the same thing to think in a foreign language, you are just not as good at it..

Now, I'm sure you can't use that answer to anything, so let me take it from another angle: how do you achieve it?

First you have to get some building blocks: words, morphology, syntax - no thinking without those. When you learnt your first language you couldn't use translations because you didn't know any other language. Instead you learnt it by having parents and others point to things and actions and give them names, or from explanations that used words you already knew.

However now the situation is different: if you are learning a second language it is logical to use translations to teach you the meanings of words: "cheval" in French is normally the same as "horse" in English. Sometimes it isn't, but it is good enough to give you the first approximation, and then you can learn the details later. No reason to make small drawings of horses, unless of course you remember pictures better than words (some people do).

So when you think "horse" in English do you then see an image of a horse? Or do you see someone running around when you think "run"? Maybe, maybe not, but the point is that you don't need to use visual imagery, you have the meaning stored somewhere in your brain in a form that isn't tied to the way you learnt the word in the first place. It is exactly the same thing with language nr. 2: when you are fluent you have a lot of words and phrases and constructions and whatever stored in some circuitry in your brain, and that circuitry doesn't depend on how you first learned those things. In other words, you may have learnt the foreign words by looking them up in a dictionary (in other words: from translations), but when they have become engrained in your mind you don't need the translation any more - you just use the foreign word as if it had been in your native language.

On a more practical level: to 'turn on' thinking in another language you may have to start with single words. You see a tree, - OK, think "arbre" (the French word for tree, - it could of course have been any other language). If you know the word for 'green' you see one more tree and think "arbre vert". From there you proceed to still more complicated phrases, until you can form whole sentences in your mind. Of course you have to use the words and constructions you already know so this process could in principle come to a screeching halt very soon. But just be persistent and think along even if you make errors: just think "arbre vert est" and be happy, - next time you read in your text book you may stumble over the sentence "l'arbre est grand". Because you already have to tried to think or say something similar you will immediately know that you have made several errors: you need the article le, and the verb should be somewhere in the middle. So when you see the third tree you will think "l'arbre est vert". From there the sky is the limit.

(end of quote)



Edited by Iversen on 15 September 2009 at 12:35am

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 Message 8 of 12
15 September 2009 at 12:16am | IP Logged 
Epiphany moments:

Wikipedia lists several meanings of the word Epiphany, but the most relevant here is this one:

An epiphany (from the ancient Greek "επιφάνεια", epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance”) is the sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something. The term is used in either a philosophical or literal sense to signify that the claimant has "found the last piece of the puzzle and now sees the whole picture," or has new information or experience, often insignificant by itself, that illuminates a deeper or numinous foundational frame of reference
(end of quote)

The following quote comes from my profile thread, 29 December 2008:

As I have written in the thread about ephiphany moments I think that they mostly occur for people who mainly are global learners, as opposed to mainly sequential learners. A sequential learner starts in one corner of the language and then adds new elements until more or less the whole thing is covered. This is the way you work when you use a text book and goes from chapter one to the last chapter in the prescribed order. A global learner takes little pieces from all over the language and tries to make them fit. In the beginning this isn't possible, but when you accumulate enough of those isolated pieces you pass a treshold somewhere where things suddenly seem to snap into place.

This reminds me of the two types of JPG-images: if you have a slow internet connection and a large image file of the 'normal' type the picture emerges from the top and downwards. But there are also 'interlaced' JPG's around where the whole picture is shown from the beginning, but in a very coarse version which however becomes clearer and clearer until a certain point. The language skills of a global learner are organized like an interlaced JPG image file.

For me learning - or rather conquering - the written version of a language is a slow and gradual process, and I typically don't care much about the spoken version of a language before I already can read most written sources more or less fluently. This means that the process of learning to understand the spoken language typically is a much more accelerated process, and therefore MY chance of experiencing an epiphany moment is much larger with audio sources. In the case of Dutch it was really a case of not understandign anything one day and then understanding more or less the whole thing the next. And the speed with which it happened proves that it wasn't a question of learning something more, but more about reorganizing the things I already had learn through my occupation with the written language.
(end of quote)


The following autobiographical rant comes from the thread Does fluency involve an "epiphany moment"?, 12 March 2007:

I had my 'epiphany moment' with Portuguese when I went to Cape Verde at the end of November last year. There I had some of the popular non-fiction channels on the TV in my hotel rooms (including the Portuguese version of Discovery Channel). There I laid down on my bed and concentrated on the words that came out of the speakers. And lo and behold, I understood almost instantly everything that they said. One month earlier I didn't understand anything.

The key is simply that I had spent the month before my travel learning as many Portuguese words as possible (which was quite easy because I already knew Spanish, Catalan and other related languages), and I had worked my way through a couple of grammars and listened to TV Beira, TV Sciência and other congenial internet sources. So when I was lying there on the bed in my hotel room in Mindelo on São Vicente listening to a travel program in Portuguese, I just had to totally stop translating in my mind, totally stop listening to the outside word and instead closely follow the stream of words, parsing it into words and phrases almost as if it had been written on a sheet of paper. And because I now knew the words and their meanings and most of the grammar, the meaning of what was being said just automatically popped up in my head. This did not happen through magic, but through a regular method that can be systematized and used by others: 1) learn the language (yes, - I mean it!)2) stop translating when you listen, 3) follow the words like a bloodhound follows a trail. Then the meaning will pop up automatically in your head.

With a weak and 'new' language you haven't got the robust listening skills that you have with your mother tongue or with a wellrehearsed secondary language, so you have to concentrate more and avoid outside noises, but listening in the way I described above is in all other respects the same thing as you do when you listen to speech in your native language.

And it is truly a bliss (or epiphany or grok) when it happens for the first time in a new language. It is just a pity that you can't experience it for the first time more than once per language.
(end of quote)




Edited by Iversen on 15 September 2009 at 9:33am



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