The Best Way to Learn a New Language
Good language learners are made, not born. Anyone can become a good language learner, or a better language learner. Our ability to learn a language is influenced by our attitude and the time we put in, but what separates good language learners from less successful ones is the way we notice different aspects of a new language.
Let’s start by reviewing the three keys to language learning:
You have to be motivated, to like the language and to think you can succeed. Without a positive attitude towards the language, the process and your own ability to succeed, you probably won’t succeed. If you are positive, you are more likely to put in the time needed to succeed. You will also eagerly take in the language without resisting it.
You have to put in at least an hour a day. For me this consists mostly of listening to mp3 files when I have the time, while doing other tasks, so it is really quite easy to fit in. I also read and focus on words and phrases in my reading for another 30 minutes or so most days.
It can be done. No excuses. You also have to accept that it will take months and maybe years to become fluent, depending on how much time you put in every day. You have to be realistic. It is a long road, so settle in and be prepared to enjoy it.
To learn a language we need to notice what is happening in the language. We can’t learn what we don’t notice. However, to notice phenomena we need to experience them, over and over. What we don’t notice at first, we will eventually notice, under the right circumstances.
As the Sufi saying goes, “you can only learn what you already know”. You need to experience a language through lots of exposure before you can hope to learn it. At one time I thought that noticing was a skill that needed to be developed. I no longer believe that. Noticing is something we do naturally, if we get enough exposure and if we want to notice.
Starting To Notice
All languages have their unique difficulties with regard to pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. It takes a while to get the gender of nouns right in the Romance languages, the cases in German or Slavic languages, the tones in Chinese, or the use of articles in English. English spelling doesn’t always reflect how words are pronounced. In many languages like Russian, French, English or European Portuguese, vowel sounds change or disappear depending on the stress within a word or phrase.
When we start in a new language, we don’t notice much. Even if aspects of the pronunciation or grammar are explained to us, we don’t notice these very clearly when we first listen and read. Then, slowly, some of the more obvious things start to attract our attention.
It might be pronunciation, how the writing system differs from our own language, gender, the way certain words change or word order. If we notice these things, we become a little curious about them. We may even go to a grammar source for an explanation. We start to get used to seeing them and hearing them as we read and listen. Once we are used to certain things, we start to notice other things.
We don’t remember consciously noticing much when we acquired our first language. We had so much exposure that our brains just naturally picked up the patterns from our surroundings. The noticing process is a little more conscious in acquiring a second language, only because we are more deliberate about it. We acquired our first language without really wanting to. It just happened.
Noticing happens when we get a lot of exposure to a language. It can’t help but happen. The brain is programmed to notice things and create patterns, as Manfred Spitzer points out in his book Learning: The Human Brain and the School of Life. Spitzer also makes it clear that we learn best when we have repetition and novelty.
Let’s see how this works. Imagine a forest with many paths and different kinds of trees and plants. The first time you walk through the forest you are just concerned about not getting lost and don’t notice the different trees and plants very clearly. The more you walk in the forest, the more comfortable you are there, the more things you notice. If you take different entries to the forest, and walk the paths in different directions, you will notice more different plants and trees.
Now imagine someone explained to you beforehand what you were going to see in the forest, what kind of trees and plants. Would you remember much of that on your first walk? Unlikely. Would these explanations be more useful after you had spent a few hours in the forest? Almost certainly. Would it help if you were actually trying to notice the forest instead of just worrying about finding your way out of the forest. Certainly.
However, you have to want to visit the forest, and you have to want to enjoy the trees and plants in the forest. The experience of walking through the forest needs to be meaningful. It is the same way with our exposure to language. It needs to be in a meaningful context. Meaningful means that the content is of interest and somewhat comprehensible. As Stephen Krashen has pointed out, language learning takes place when we receive messages that are meaningful to us.
Ideally we start with content that is easy to understand, where vocabulary is introduced gradually, and hopefully in short segments. It takes a lot of repeated exposure for us to notice things. We can walk past a small flower tens of times and simply not see it. Eventually though, as we become more familiar with other things in the forest, we may notice the little flower, or we may never. But the more often we walk by it, the more likely we are to notice it.
In learning a language it is the same way. We need to cover the same vocabulary and grammatical patterns over and over. And we need new stories or we will only have repetition, without novelty, and we will get bored. Most language books do not provide enough repetition. The writers of these books assume that explanations and exercises are more important than repeated exposure. However, in my experience, it is the repetition that enables us to learn. It is through repetition that we notice.
This has been my experience in learning Greek, using primarily the new mini-stories that we now have in our library at LingQ. I have never learned a language as fast as Greek, even though Greek is quite different from any language I already know.
These stories are effective for two reasons. First, they are quite interesting and deal with daily life. Second, the stories include two parallel and yet slightly different versions of the same story. The stories are then followed by easy to answer questions, which we don’t have to answer. We can just listen or read the answer.
Each story is 3–5 minutes long, consists of audio and text and is made up of three sections, with the vocabulary and patterns repeated in each section. I don’t stay on one story until I master it. I move on to the next story, which I am actually curious to read and listen to. I am getting repetition and novelty.
With this combination of repetition and novelty, I find myself noticing things and then forgetting them and noticing them again. I mostly listen while doing other tasks. I needn’t be focused the whole time. I just pick up things, different things, as my focus waxes and wanes. I essentially know the stories when I listen for the tenth time, but I find enjoyment in noticing words and patterns that I hadn’t noticed before, or which I had already forgotten. Through learning and forgetting, we learn as Robert Bjork teaches us.
It is satisfying to notice that I understand what I am reading or listening to. I understand content that was incomprehensible, or at least very unclear to me, just weeks earlier.
Enhancing Our Ability to Notice
Our brains are conditioned to notice and to find patterns in what we see and hear. The most important task is to continue feeding comprehensible, or almost comprehensible input, to our brain for processing, via listening and reading. This cannot be overstated. For this the three part mini-story is ideal. There are, however, things we can do to increase our ability to notice. We are in a little more of a hurry than the child learning his or her first language. We also are not getting quite as much exposure as the child gets.
What I do is save words and phrases when I read these mini-stories in LingQ. Then I review these immediately after reading and listening, using LingQ’s random review activities. There are four different activities that come at the learner randomly: flashcards, dictation, multiple choice, and fill in the blanks. The random nature of these review activities makes them entertaining, almost fun, to do. We are getting repetition with novelty.
When I save a word or phrase from the text, I am noticing it. When I am confronted with the same terms in the review activities, I notice them again. I may then forget them, but more than likely, when I listen or read again, I will notice some of these terms again. It may not be the next time I listen or read, but eventually I will notice them.
I find it useful to change the words and phrases that I want to review. As I read these stories over and over, I move some words and phrases to “known” in our LingQ system, and then save new phrases. These new phrases contain patterns that I am still not comfortable with, that still seem strange to me. I then get another chance to review them, as part of my repeated exposure to these stories.
Whenever I save a word or phrase in LingQ I hear the text to speech pronunciation. I can turn this off if I don’t want to disturb people around me. However, when I have it on, my ability to notice, especially the sounds of phrases, is enhanced.
Noticing is not a one time action. We notice certain aspects of a language and then forget that we ever noticed them. Then we notice them again. It is the reinforcement of the same words and patterns in these stories, the chance to notice them again, that finally moves them into the area of acquired language.
Noticing Our Gaps
Some things we just notice naturally through exposure. Other things may escape our attention unless we are interested in noticing. We have to want to notice wildflowers in the forest, or we just pass them buy. We have to enjoy the language, and be interested in discovering more and more about how the language works.
Sometimes we need help to notice. That is where frequent reference to grammar resources can help. The more exposure we have to a new language, the more meaningful and useful grammar explanations become. I find it useful to have a small grammar book, or to find some useful grammar resources online. These can give us an initial overview, which is quickly forgotten. It is, however, useful to review aspects of grammar when you are curious about patterns in the language that continue to give you difficulty. I regularly review grammar rules, not in the hope that I will remember or be able to apply the rules, but because it helps me to notice things when I listen and read.
A teacher or conversation partner can help you notice things that you might otherwise not notice. The mere act of speaking or writing in the language helps you to notice where your gaps are, the words you are missing or the patterns you can’t use correctly.
Speaking and writing are valuable activities that help us notice, regardless of whether we are corrected or not. More than corrections, it is the act of speaking or writing that help us notice, in my experience. Corrections can also help us notice, but they are not necessary. I find that corrections while speaking are quickly forgotten, and are just a distraction from the conversation. If I have an online discussion with a tutor, I do enjoy getting a report with a list of the words and phrases that I had trouble with. I import this into LingQ as part of my ongoing efforts at noticing more and more of the language.
Authentic Content and Noticing
To become fluent in the language requires a large vocabulary. In the early stages, we have to read and listen to the same content many times in order to ingrain new habits, and to get a feel for the patterns of the new language. We try to stay with content that doesn’t have too many new words. However, in order to achieve fluency we need to acquire a vocabulary large enough so that we can read books, newspaper articles, understand movies and engage in meaningful conversations with the speakers.
This means that we have to engage with authentic content. We need to read and listen to lots of such content, and that means we no longer have the luxury of repetitive listening and reading. At least we do it less and less, as we are driven more by our interest in the content, than a conscious effort to acquire new words and phrases. We end up acquiring them just the same, but we acquire them almost incidentally.
I try to engage with authentic content as soon as possible, using LingQ of course. I am able to import newspaper articles, songs, even books, into LingQ and use the vocabulary learning tools there to work through these texts, which at first are very difficult. LingQ also offers a newsfeed, so that if I don’t want to search online for these sources to import, they are delivered to me daily at my LingQ account.
When I buy ebooks, I look for the companion audiobook. Some magazines offer sound as well texts of their articles. There are subscription services for audio and text material in a variety of languages. All of this interesting material now becomes my main language learning material. I start to leave the learner material behind, or almost.
I don’t just abandon easier content, like the mini-stories. Variety is important. I also find that going back to the mini-stories helps to secure my grasp of basic patterns and helps me improve my speaking and writing skills.
Usually, as I continue to enjoy authentic content, there are fewer and fewer unknown words. I can enjoy reading more away from my iPad or computer, or watching movies without subtitles. However, I am so used to creating LingQs and seeing highlighted words and phrases in my reading, I now have the urge to mark up books and newspapers when reading away from the computer. Even if I do this with my finger, and don’t mark up the text, the action of focusing on words, phrases, word endings, etc. helps me notice. I try also to focus on certain words or patterns when listening to any content in the target language.
There will always be patterns or words that we don’t use correctly, so it is useful to maintain this habit of noticing, regardless of our level in the new language. With enough noticing, the brain forms new patterns and our ability to use the language improves, naturally, almost without us noticing it.
Beyond all of this, however, remember that the most important thing in learning a new language is to start!