Learning German faster

(NOTE: this article is a work in progress, as I try and gather references and evidence for all the claims made in the video.  Please feel free to comment if you have any relevant links)

In this video Chris Lonsdale does a talk about principles and actions that can speed up language learning.  I think it's very interesting, and useful... but I'm always sceptical.  Learning how to learn is important, and this video attempts to share some effective techniques for learning, and the principles behind them.

The arguments used in the video are not referenced to academic standards since it is a very short talk - and not an essay.  However the presentation is convincing, and it does cover a number of pieces of advice I've read in other places.  I'm going to try and provide links to further reading on each of the techniques and pieces of advice listed.

What doesn't work?

He mentions some things that don't work.
  • Talent.
  • Immersion.

Talent is needed.

Citations needed.

He addresses an apparently common myth, that some people don't have a talent for learning languages.  He gives some anecdotal evidence of a woman who tried to learn Dutch in Holland, and was told she had no talent learning the language after failing to learn it after much study.  Then she changed her approach to learning in Brazil learning Portuguese and was able to learn it to a fluent level quite quickly.  If natural talent exists is a widely debated area of discussion... however if you think of talent as a skill, then obviously people can learn skills.  Not everyone can learn every skill they try to, but many can.  He gives another example of learning to draw in 5 days.  He chose this skill, as drawing is another skill that many people struggle with.

There is a good discussion on the topic of talent and language learning here: http://www.lingq.com/forum/4/14429/

In conclusion, I agree that most people can learn another language.  I still need to find references for this claim.

Immersion is needed.

Citations needed.

He argues that being immersed in a country where they speak the language won't necessarily mean you'll learn the language just from this.  He provides anecdotal evidence of people living in Hong Kong for 10 years, but not being able to speak Chinese.  I've seen this myself with a number of people living in expat circles, living in cities with a large percentage of English speakers.  It definitely does help that you can go outside, and strike up a conversation with someone in the language you are going to learn.  However, you can do that with online tools these days too (skype, hangouts etc). However, people can always get by without knowing a language very well.  If you can make enough English speaking friends, and do most things in your life with English, then that doesn't provide you with as much motivation to learn.  But not everyone is content with just getting by, and not being able to talk to people.

The people I know who moved to small villages and learnt a language there, where minimal others knew their language seemed to do better.  One man went to a small Chinese village, and the other went to a small village in Japan.  However, they both put in a lot of effort learning.  Perhaps it was the necessity, or need to learn which helped with their motivation.  I know countless people who live in a larger city but didn't learn the language however.

In conclusion, I agree that immersion can't guarantee good results, but it can be useful.  Just don't rely on it.

Principle #1.  Focus on language content that is relevant to you.

Citations needed.

Any information that is related to your own personal goals and survival has relevance, and you will pay attention to it.

We learn tools the fastest when they are relevant to us.  You have a project due to be complete in a language, then you will try to learn harder in order to complete the project.

He says there is a strong link between these things, and that each of them is related to each other:
  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Attention
  • Memory
From learning other topics and skills, I know this helps me.  But does it work with learning languages? Also, is there evidence to support the claim?

In the Duolingo Effectiveness report (pdf), the authors say
"their motivation;  with people who studied Spanish to travel having the biggest improvement.  People who studied mainly for personal interest and school had more modest improvement."
Which goes some way to backing up this principle with evidence.  However, in their report they say this only applies to learning Spanish.

Principle #2. Use your New Language as a Tool to Communicate... From Day 1.

Citations needed.

As a child does.

Principle #3. When you first understand the message, you will unconsciously Acquire the Language.

Citations needed.

It is called "Comprehensible input".

Here are two links for further reading on this subject.

Principle #4. Physiological training.

Citations needed.

Language learning is not about collecting lots of knowledge.

Hearing the sounds takes training.  Like learning how to hear pitch, and music.

Practising speaking helps with the mouth muscles.

The topic of perceptual learning is an area with a lot of research that relates to this.  Being able to perceive the different sounds is a skill that can be learned.


Principle #5.  Psycho-physiological state matters!

Citations needed.

Happy, relaxed, curious and tolerant of ambiguity.

Action #1. Listen a lot!

More Citations needed.

In order to get the rhythms, to recognise the patterns extensive listening helps.

In the essay Extensive or Repeated Listening? A comparison of their effects on the use of listening strategies the authors claim that listening to things repeatedly was more effective than extensive listening.

Language Learning Tips: Extensive and Repeated Listening suggests methods for doing repeated listening and extensive listening.

In an article called Passing learning, the author shares his experiments with passive listening and how he went in his listening exam.  He did poorly after listening for thousands of hours of radio programs.  He also asks a number of other people about their results with passive listening.

In my own experiences, listening to how people say words is very useful, especially if you need to do something with what they are saying.  Like if you don't understand the announcements of a train delay, you might stand around for an extra hour... so you better try harder to comprehend it!

From these references, I'm fairly convinced that passive listening of extensive amounts of audio will not help you that much.  However, listening(and watching) actual people, and repeated listening will help.  I'm also fairly convinced that actively listening, and doing something with what you hear will help.

Action #2. Focus on getting the meaning first (before the words).

Citations needed.

By using body language you can understand a lot of communication, and then by seeing the words used with the body language you are learning by comprehensible input.

You can use words you already know.  Many languages borrow words from each other.  German and English share a great many words.

So between the body language, the context of the situation, and words you already know, you have a good chance of knowing the meaning.

Action #3. Start Mixing.

Citation needed.

Start creatively mixing the words you know, without worrying too much about correctness.

He says, if you know 10 Verbs X 10 Nouns X 10 Adjectives == you can say 1000 possible phrases.

Action #4. Focus on the core.

Citation needed.

Some words are used more than others.  In English 3000 words gives you 98% of the words used in daily communication.  So if you direct your study to the words used most frequently in areas that you are interested in you will have more coverage.

How do you say?
What is this?
I don't understand.

Simple pronouns, nouns, verbs, adjectives.

Glue words.

Action #5.  Get a language parent.

Citation needed.

A supportive person who you can learn things with in a safe space.

Comprehensible input environment that is safe.

Spouses not very good.

Works hard to know what you mean.
Does not correct mistakes.
Confirms understanding by using correct language.
Uses words the learner knows.

Action #6.  Copy the face.

Citations needed.

Copy people.  Copy the shapes and sounds people make, so you can mimic them.

Say it out loud and hear how it feels, and feel how it sounds.

He gives the advice of watching people speak.  However, I can have trouble seeing what people are doing inside their mouths whilst making sounds.  So, just watching people talk seems limited to me.  Asking how people make the sounds can be more useful.

Action #7. "Direct connect" to mental images.

Citations needed.

Link up sounds and words to the images your already have in your mind.

So far, I'm having trouble finding references or evidence for this.  So, at this moment I'm highly sceptical of this claim.

I'm blogging various techniques I have used to learn German under the German and Deutsch labels.


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