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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 9 of 12
15 September 2009 at 12:35am | IP Logged 
Activating languages

In the thread What do you mean by "Intermediate"...? I wrote the 21 June 2009:

I have a couple of personal guidelines:

I call a language intermediate when I can keep on thinking in the language. If I'm travelling with a language on this level I can ask for things in shop or make short comments, but I couldn't manage a extended discussion

I speak it about basic fluency when I can go to a country where the language is spoken and stay there for several days without using other languages, not even when I'm having longer discussions with the local people - but I can't avoid making errors

I speak about advanced fluency when I am confident (or I'm told by a competent source) that I speak almost correctly, - but not necessarily without an accent

But these definitions only concern one skill, namely speaking the languages (because that's my poorest discipline in each and every language). In fact you should indicate a level for both the active skills: thinking, writing, speaking, and the passive ones: reading, understanding speech. You can in principle be able to read read even the weirdest poems in a language and still be unable to ask for an ice cream.
(end of quote)

There are also some more official evaluation systems, such as the one used by the EU:

The Common European Framework divides learners into three broad divisions which can be divided into six levels:

A Basic User:
. A1 Breakthrough
. A2 Waystage
B Independent User
. B1 Threshold
. B2 Vantage
C Proficient User
. C1 Effective Operational Proficiency
. C2 Mastery


The CEFR describes what a learner is supposed to be able to do in reading, listening, speaking and writing at each level.
(end of quote)

On this forum a member's languages are divided into those that are spoken and those that are studied, and each of these are subdivided once again, so that the complete system from the highest to lowest becomes Native, Advanced fluency, Basic fluency, Intermediate level, Beginner.

But every system of this kind suffers from the defect that it attaches just one level of skill to a person for a given language, but the reality is that you probably are much better at some activities than at others, - for instance my speaking ability will always be the lowest, while writing abilities are more problematic for others (including native speakers). Passive skills will almost always be better than active skills.

(from How Krashen will delay your fluency, 31 July 2009)

If you have learnt a passive language to a high level you need to have a steady stream of input to keep the language alive. In the case of Latin it means reading Latin on a daily basis - the only active thing you can do with a totally passive language is memorizing poems and things like that (which I don't do). So no input, no activity. This reduces your chances of keeping the language alive during a dry spell. Learning a language as an active thing simply makes it more robust because you always can think in an active language wherever you are.

The activation of passive languages is precisely the thing I described with my Latin as an example. All the grammar and the words I had learnt in the 70s had in fact hibernated, and when I started to relearn my Latin I didn't have to hammer through everything again from scratch, I just needed some repetition rounds, and then I was ready to start thinking and writing in Latin. The only catch was that I wanted to think about things that didn't exist while Latin was still alive, - for instance this forum, my computer, trains, modern townplanning and nuclear physics. So I have been busy modernizing my conception of Latin. But everything I learned about Latin as a passive language have come to good use now where my goal is broader.   (…)

In retrospect, my first period with Latin was so lopsided because the teaching - as most teaching of Latin - followed an ancient and venerable method called grammar-translation, i.e. an outdated theory where the main goal was to be able to read certain venerable classical authors, but not to be able to use the language. Now I battle against other theories that dismiss explicit learning of grammar and vocabulary, such as the methods of Krashen and other protagonists of socalled natural learning.
(end of quote)

My current position is that you always should try to develop active skills, even in dead or 'undead' languages like Latin, but of course the consequences of having a 'bad' accent are less obvious if younever have to speak to anybody. With a language like Latin this implies that you should try to find dictionaries and homepages and other sources which try to update Latin. My preferred source for reading in NeoLatin is the web-newspaper Ephemeris, and I have found wordlists and dictionaries that make suggestions about words that cover contemporary phenomena. Not only will it be more amusing to spend time on Latin when you see it as a living thing, but all aspects of your Latin knowledge will be more robust.

Languages or dialects that you can understand because you know something that ressembles them falls in another category because it isn't an immense, but fragile skeleton of grammatical rules and passive vocabulary that keeps them accessible for you, but something which you actually use. However there is a difference between understanding and actually being able to use such a language or dialect - and the consequences of disregarding this distinction can be quite unbearable.

If you want to make a passive language/dialect of this kind active then my advice would be: do the same things as you would do with an unknown language - i.e. supplement your listening and reading with explicit grammar studies, vocabulary acquisition et cetera. The good news is that each phase will last for a much shorter time.


Edited by Iversen on 15 September 2009 at 3:12pm

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Iversen
Super Polyglot
Moderator
Denmark
berejst.dk
Joined 5620 days ago

9078 posts - 16472 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
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 Message 10 of 12
15 September 2009 at 2:01pm | IP Logged 
About the later stages of learning a language

Until you have learnt the at least the fundamentals of your target language you will have few possibilities to work extensively unless you use the LR method or other translation-based methods. But when you have reached an advanced state of fluency the situation is the opposite: you will rarely have to work intensively with a text to understand it – except if you are dealing with the interpretation of difficult poetic, philosophical or juridical texts. So in general terms you will start with a situation where intensive interpretation of texts dominate to one where it is almost absent.

Several people have wrote fine posts about ways to move from basic to advanced fluency and beyond (see for instance FrancescoP's checklist in this thread). However most of the advice in those threads dealt with types of texts and situations where you can add to your linguistic AND cultural skills. To this I would like to at that the thing that really can slow down your progress is complacency – and this also happens at much lower competence levels. To counteract this the most important point – in my mind – is sometimes to tell yourself to stop reading or listening for content, and instead to concentrate on HOW things are formulated. And you should also continue doing some of the things that originally brought you to the advanced level, such as active working with grammar and doing wordlists or flascards or whatever, else those skills may actually deteriorate. The new thing is that these activities now should be supplemented with studies in the more elusive stilistical and cultural elements of language, but not to the exclusion of the study of more 'basic' elelements.

And of course living in a land where your target language is actually spoken will be the best possible background for perfecting any language. The better you are, the more profitable such a stay will be (said by someone who has no intention about emigrating).




Edited by Iversen on 26 October 2009 at 11:05am

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Iversen
Super Polyglot
Moderator
Denmark
berejst.dk
Joined 5620 days ago

9078 posts - 16472 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
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 Message 11 of 12
24 June 2010 at 11:22am | IP Logged 
Total and less than total immersion

I have been reading an old thread about the idea of total immersion. The title "Total Immersion is a Crock!" gives away the opinion of the topic starter (TerryW), and basically I agree with his warnings. I found that a couple of my own contributions to that thread fit seemlessly into this guide, so I have repeated them below. However total immersion may be relevant for advanced learners, and partial immersion is valuable for everyone.

(from "Total Immersion is a Crock", July 2 2007)

It all boils down to the notion of comprehensible input. For a total 100% novice nothing is comprehensible, so either you 'cheat' by offering a few words with translations in the beginning or you indicate the meaning by non-linguistic cues. In my opinion there is nothing gained by avoiding the translations.

After that there comes a stage where you can learn new words or expressions if they come in a context where their meaning is clear. For a 95% novice this means that you only can use special prepared texts, graded very carefully, or contexts where there are sufficiently clear non-linguistic clues ("this is a..." pointing to an object). Even at this stage I find that that it is unnecessary masochism to avoid two-way dictionaries and other external sources of information. Besides I don't trust guessing, especially not the guesses of a novice - Kikenyoy's example with the soccer player pinpoints the problem (Pelé thought that "pelato" was the name of a player). Besides I personally abhor the situation where I depend on a teacher or textbook for providing meaningful input, and every trick that can bring me out of that situation as fast as possible is permissible.

For a person who already is fairly advanced it is less harmful to rely on monolinguistical settings because you already have some idea about which guesses are credible, and you are capable of processing much larger quantities of input. Nonetheless I still trust a good dictionary or grammar more than my own judgment even at this stage.

So basically I don't see the advantages of a 100% monolingual setting for vocabulary or grammar learning. Where it does have a role to play is in training fluency (=fluent language production). It is much easier to think in a foreign language and maybe even utter a few sentences here and there when you are immersed in a monolingual setting, for instance when you visit another country. Besides it is a perfect setting for training how to pronounce the language, especially if everybody around you are native speakers.

I would like to add a little history from my own school days: when I was 15-17 years old and studied at the local 'gymnasium' (grammar school, high school, lyceum) I also had classes in French. Our teacher was a firm believer in the immersion method, but the class was following the mathematical line - so they were not very motivated to learn languages.

For two and a half year this teacher - one of the most brillant teachers I have ever met - tried to teach this class French by the total immersion method, and he used all the tricks in the book plus a couple more. But he failed. So just half a year before the final exam he blew us all off our feet by suddenly speaking Danish to us for the first time ever. He told us that quite frankly most of us had learnt close to nothing until that point, and almost all of us were going to fail miserably unless he did something drastic.... so from now on he would do a strictly traditional course. No more modern antics, just old-fashioned black schooling with translations, grammars, dictionary and all that stuff that he otherwise tried to avoid.

The very same teacher succeded in teaching this miserable bunch of half-boiled mathematicians enough French to pull most of us through the final exam just three or four months later. We learnt more in the last short period than we had learnt through 2½ years of entertaining, but fruitless immersion.

My belief in pure immersion has never been the same since then.
(end of quotes)

It is however quite another matter with partial immersion. Again the point is the need to learn from comprehensible input, so the better you are the higher the proportion of native materials can be. And at the bottom of the ladder I cringe at the antics you have to live with in order to avoid using your knowledge of other languages, including your own. The idea of letting newbies guess the idea of drawings or situations and (presumably) learning foreign words and idioms while solving riddles is based on a false premise, namey that the learner doesn't involve his/her own language in the guessing process. Is the brain of a newbie a vacuum with just a few foreign words floating around in the pitchblack emptiness? Of course not, it is full of expressions from your native and other languages, and you can't avoid that these are used as models for your guesswork. So the whole circus of trying to make a purely 'foreign' experience for a newbie is silly. In fact giving the newbie a translation may involve a shorter involvement with his/her native language than letting him/her ponder for a long time in his own language over a problem - and maybe even guessing wrong.

So total immersion is a crock, but partial immersion is a blessing. I personally mostly experience this during my travels, and making an AJATT ('All Japanese all the time") environment isn't feasible when you have to tend to several languages. But there is a big advantage being in a place where all your 'external' input for a time is in your target language, and all input is genuine. When you listen to a native speaker you can trust that this way of speaking is used by at least one 'professional', whereas speaking to your classmates in a classroom or course setting is hampered by your wellfounded distrust of their capabilities. Learning from a native speaker means that you can lower your parades, listening to another mediocre learner means that you have to raise them. And of course that has an effect on the effectiveness of the experience.

The same applies to posters, books, newspapers and menus in a foreign place: if you already have the ability to think in the local language it is fairly easy to exclude disturbances (i.e. messages meant for tourists) and use the written texts around you as prompts for further target-language thinking. Your supply of relevant reading materials, TV programs and potential conversation partners is also bound to be larger than at home, but there is one thing more: you have less reason to drop back into your native language. And that may be the most important of them all.

I normally carry relevant language guides and dictionaries and maybe even grammars with me when I travel, or I buy them in situ. But you can't expect to use these things while you are having a conversation with native persons. So even in a immersion setting I set aside time for studying (five minutes here and there can be enough), and the rest of the time I try to become more and more monolingual in the target language. When I can live for several days thinking, speaking and writing the local language whenever there is a local person around then I know that I have passed a treshold. Just before I can do this, I pass through a stage where I try to think in the local language, and where I silently translate all my conversations. This shouldn't be a habit, but it is better than just speaking your native language (or English).

But even when I can stay monolingual while communicating I still use bilingual dictionaries, not monolingual ones, because a translation mostly is more informative than a monolingual periphrasis. And if the best grammar is written in English then so be it - grammars written for natives rarely focus on the points that are relevant for language learners.



Edited by Iversen on 21 December 2011 at 1:15pm

10 persons have voted this message useful





Iversen
Super Polyglot
Moderator
Denmark
berejst.dk
Joined 5620 days ago

9078 posts - 16472 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
Personal Language Map

 
 Message 12 of 12
20 March 2011 at 6:29pm | IP Logged 
The little gnomon

Quoted from the thread "Automaticity and language learning"

Cainntear wrote:

As an absolute beginner in language (French) I had to think things out -- I relied on conscious knowledge to construct the sentence. After a while, I started to notice that while I was thinking about how to form the correct sentence, there was a fully formed sentence appearing in parallel. It seemed like that voice had been there for a while, but I was just thinking too hard to notice it..


This is a very interesting statement, and one I can recognize from myself. And of course I tend to formulate my own perception of it in terms of learning strategies.

I have written about intensive and extensive strategies and activites again and again, mostly - but not exclusively - in the realm of passive learning. And I have stated that intensive activities are most important in the beginning, whereas the scales tip more and more in the favor of extensive activities the further you progress in your learning process. And the reason that this happens is mainly that more and more of the knowledge you get through intensive activities is covered by automatic and even subconscious mechanisms.

One example of this is that you don't have to run through a conjugation table to find an ending and construct a certain form of a word - you have seen this form so often that this particular form is stored as an individual item. Other examples are the influence of one sound on surrounding sounds, the choice of preposition after a noun or verb and the choice of case after a preposition. But even though these individualized reflexes are the end goal they don't have to be absorbed as single items, which would last forever. Tables and list of rules are there to show you where all those scattered pieces of information belong.

In the beginning of a language study there is basically only one active extensive activity available for you: parroting. You can hear an expression (in a situation where you can guess the meaning), and then you repeat it. Actually you don't even need you left brain with its language centers for this - the right brain can store this kind of unreflected fragments. The intensive language production starts already when you make the first minimal change - you have to know something about the mechanism of the phrase to make that change. And unless you continue along the parrot trail most or your active language production will consist of constructed utterances for a very long time.

But lo and behold, at a certain point you may experience the same thing as Cainntear, namely that some little gnomon in the back of your mind will start making sentences on his/her own, and then you can start your extensive language production career.

The problem is that this is more likely to happen if you do a lot of language production the hard way first. For those of us who rarely speak in foreign languages at home this can partly be solved through silent thinking and (for the more energetic ones) by speaking to yourself - I remember an excellent advice about pretending that you speak into a mobile phone, if you are to shy to walk around speaking to nobody in public. However I personally mostly stick to silent thinking.

Nevertheless I have found one trick that might be worth exploiting for others: I listen to something on TV or on the internet in a language I know fairly well, and then I make a simultaneous translation to a related weak language on the fly. Of course it will be totally rubbish in the beginning, but just having to hammer through something like a translation at the speed of a native speaker will mean that I don't have time to construct anything - and then the little lurking gnomon has the chance to appear without any interference from my internal schoolmaster. And with time the little fellah may even be able to speak in somewhat sounding like the real thing - but only because the systematic part of me constantly feeds him with information about the language in question.

And no, I don't feel like a victim of multiple personality disorder.


END OF THE FIRST PART OF THIS GUIDE


part 2 (about translations)
part 3 (about grammar studies)
part 4 (about wordlists and vocabulary)
part 5 (about understanding speech and strange languages)


Edited by Iversen on 20 March 2011 at 6:32pm



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