Language Learning

Some opinions and observations

There are methods of teaching that are in general more effective than others, and there are methods of learning that are in general more effective than others.  But more important than the general is the specific: What is most effective for you?  For this reason, if you are serious about language learning, I highly recommend reading Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them, by Earl W. Stevick. (The link is to a free PDF copy.)

If you have a teacher, you might not have the luxury of having that teacher use the methods that are best for you, and so you may wish to supplement the instruction on your own.  After Stevick’s book has helped you think about your own learning style, read this short blurb about HB 2.0.

Some resources to consider

  • Anki is a free computer program that helps memorize facts, words, etc. using “spaced repetition.”  Decades before I ever heard the term “spaced repetition,” I came up with the idea independently.  Using it, my younger brother and I learned all 75 nautical signal flags in the deck, and though I never used them, I still remembered most ten years later.  Now, I do not think memorizing words is of great value in learning to communicate but it has some value and Anki is a good tool for it.  For what “spaced repetition” means, read the explanation on the Anki website.  If you want to use the method without a computer, see the “Leitner system.”
  • The Everyday Language Learner (TELL) is a blog offering ideas, encouragement, and a free coaching system (if you ask for it): a weekly idea packed e-mail for ten weeks.  He also has a very interesting .
  • Fluent in Three Months is another source of lots of ideas and encouragment.  A lot more sales than TELL, but a lot that’s free also.
  • Learning With Texts is a tool that allows you to use text for learning in a free multi-user system.  If you would like your own single-user version, see instead the Languageholic description.  Or read both, then decide.
  • LinguaLinks is a collection of resources from Wycliffe/SIL.  Most of the software will only run on Windows, but the rest is platform independent.  The Language Learning Bookshelf part of it is also on-line for no charge.
  • Peter Pikkert offers free books on Language Acquisition and Phonetics.
  • PLANTS is a two-week course.  Much of it comes from Peter Pikkert’s two books, but there are also some psychological evaluations to help you better determine your learning style, and sessions with language helpers to practice the techniques.
  • and YouVersion are computer/smartphone apps offering the Bible and other items in many languages, some audio, some text, some both.  I think there are other similar apps.
  • Olive Tree is a smartphone app you can buy for reading the bible and other texts.  With this, the text is loaded into your device, so you don’t have to be online.  I’m sure Olive Tree has competitors, too.
  • OmniGlot has general info about a lot of languages, including lists of useful phrases with audio.

What does Wes do?

I would not dare to say that what I do would work for everyone, but …

I am only 2+ or 3 on the ILR scale in Spanish, but I can say that two weeks as an unofficial interpreter did more for my ability than five years in junior high and high school.

One of the things I do is listen to the Bible in the language a lot, using MP3 files on my iPad or the app mentioned above.  Since I am familiar with so much of the bible, it is a good source of copmrehensible input.  Sometimes, I follow along in the text while listening, to gain familiarity with the spelling.  But I also listen to it a lot, even while busy with other things.  My unproven hypothesis is that it helps my brain get better accustomed to the sounds.

Sometimes I find text in the target language on-line and paste into Google Translate. Although the output of Google Translate is usually pretty bad (and sometimes completely WRONG), I can learn by comparing the good text in the target language with the lousy translation in English.  An even better way is to compare good text in English with a good translation.  My way of doing that is to put the two side-by-side with the Olive Tree app mentioned above.  I also follow along in the target language when the Bible is read in church.

I do a little bit of Learning With Texts, and a little bit of vocabulary building with Anki, both mentioned above.  I do not use Anki the way most people use flashcards, a written English word on one side and a written Neebish¹ word on the other.  I make my own cards, so one side has the word or phrase written or spoken in the target language, and the other an image with English below it in small print.  Often I also have links to a discussion of the meaning in online sources.

As soon as I can, I try to read a book in the language.  I may only understand about one-third of it, but in fiction, that is enough to get enough of the plot to enjoy it.  Sometimes I look up new words, but mostly, I just guess them from the context.

If I can, I find a church or other place where the language is spoken and listen.  And speak if possible!  If I am in a country where it is spoken, I get out and try to use the language.