Crowd Wisdom: How Study Hacks Readers Suggest You Study Foreign LanguagesJanuary 11th, 2008 · 12 comments
I Asked, You Responded
Last weekend a reader wrote me with a question about studying foreign languages. I realized that this spotlighted a gap in my study tactics arsenal; neither my own experience nor my extensive interviewing of students had touched much on this particular subject matter.
So I asked for your help: What worked for you and what didn’t? You were quick to respond with an insightful collection of comments and e-mails, proving, once again, that I have some of the smartest blog readers in the world!
I have now processed this information, and extracted a collection of five stand out tips. What follows is your advice for conquering high-level foreign language study.
Tip #1: Read interesting things in the language you study.
“My advice,” says Julian, “is reading, reading reading.”
To master a language you must encounter it in a real world context. An easy way to accomplish this is by reading as much as you can. Not all reading, however, is made equal. Choose something that interests you and you’re more likely to focus and build new connections.
“I personally love to read children’s books,” recalls Naomi. “So the first books I read in a language are for 2nd-4th grade, depending on my level. There is now so much text on the Internet, just look up a few words in the language related to your hobby/interest and read a bit every day. “
Tip #2: Expose yourself every day.
“The single thing that helps me the most is speaking and writing daily in that language,” says Kelly.
Your mind is resistant to the idea of integrating a new language. It knows perfectly well how to understand and describe the world in English, and it doesn’t appreciate your attempts to inject a brand new scheme into the mix. Overcome this internal resistance through daily work. Every day — even if just a little — do some thinking in your new language.
As Kathleen advises: “Even if you don’t have class on a certain day, find some music or watch a movie in the language you are studying…keep your mind used to actively working with the language. “
Tip #3: Have regular integration conversations.
“Start talking in [the new language] to your friends in everyday conversation to get yourself thinking conversationally in the language,” suggests Maricor. “Then try to incorporate new vocab and grammar structure into the chat.”
Daily work on the language is crucial. But not all practice is equally effective. Find a group of friends to work on your conversation. During these conversations, try to integrate the latest words and grammar you learned. By putting the material into immediate, practical use, you are much more likely to retain it in a usable state.
Tip #4: Don’t neglect vocabulary.
“Concentrating on vocabulary: this is the hardest part of reaching proficiency,” says Jirka. “You need to [eventually] learn 15,000 to 20,000 words.”
It may seem more tractable to focus on conjugation patterns and grammar structures, but the real meat of foreign language learning is the vocab. If you can’t think of the word you need in a conversation then the conversation cannot proceed. Acknowledge this reality by working on your vocabulary — a lot. Make quick flashcard drills at habit throughout the day.
As Alyce notes: “Repeated use of flashcards is great for vocabulary.”
Her suggestion? Use the Mac program Genius. (Which also happens to be free.) Index cards work too. But you’ll need a decent organization system to keep up with the sheer volume of cards advanced language study will generate.
Tip #5: Study phrases, not just words.
“Learning phrases and sentences,” says Jirka. “Not just isolated words.”
Think about your last conversation in English. How much of it consisted of novel sentences you constructed from scratch, and how much was an almost ritualized exchange of well-worn phrases with just a few minor modifications? In most cases, the latter dominates. The same, of course, holds true for foreign languages. Work with common phrases and sentences. Get them at the tip of your tongue. Be able to deploy them fluidly.
As Colleen puts it, you need daily work on: “Normal, real-life exchanges — buying food, taking public transport.”
Keep the Discussion Alive
Do you have more advice? A technique that works particularly well? Something above that you don’t agree with? Keep the conversation alive by commenting on this post. I speak for all Study Hacks readers when I say we really appreciate learning from your experience and expertise.