How do you study a language?

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How do you study a language?

Postby rdearman » Sun Feb 11, 2024 1:39 pm

I am interested in a detailed description of how you study a language. I personally am lazy and it takes years for me to get to the point of me saying that I "speak" a language. I have no certificate so for all I know I could be anywhere between A1 in French and Italian up to C2. I have no stick to measure myself, just that I can have conversations and read stuff.

But I don't study properly. That much I know. I don't sit at a desk for hours and do workbooks, or have a teacher, nor do I do anything consistently. The most consistent thing I ever did was clozemaster in Italian for a year every day. The only real consistent thing I have done is language exchange. I would do a number of them each week, for example I do 3 LE every week with a Korean speaker and try to talk for 15-30 minutes so 45 minutes to an hour and a half per week.

My method (if you can call it that) will eventually get me to the point where I can read and speak Korean, but based to the timescale it took for French and Italian we are looking at probably between 25-50 years.

I am not looking for advice on my crap method but rather wanted to see how others are doing it in hope of stealing some ideas.

Note, I do other things like reading, watching TV, etc. I just don't do it systematically.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby Le Baron » Sun Feb 11, 2024 6:04 pm

rdearman wrote:But I don't study properly. That much I know. I don't sit at a desk for hours and do workbooks, or have a teacher...

You might have said this tongue-in-cheek, but studying doesn't have to be sitting at a desk for hours. If you are putting in the reading hours and the listening hours and putting it into action (as you do with language exchanges), this is work.

I suppose your question (or point) is whether this is the best or most efficient way of learning a language. I find that hard to answer. I would say that it's always good to do some 'tidying up' every now and again after stretches of listening and reading. Straightening out grammar problems and revising a few things. It also allows you to take stock and consider if things are dragging or need altering. E.g. I don't think it's ever worth sticking with some probably difficult book, stopping and starting it until it's almost a hated object. Making these sorts of decisions is also 'learning' with a strategy. Even if it's not all neatly mapped-out on a plan.

As you said in the opening with no yardstick measure or certificates etc, it's harder to gauge how far you are along a road. Sometimes there's a tendency to say 'I'm so rubbish at speaking, I can barely hold a conversation!' but reading is very advanced, or vice-versa. That's an imbalance problem. Or there might not just have been enough opportunity to develop what a person really knows, which could mislead anyone into defaulting to 'I think I'm about A2...', but actually they're better than that and just need some development.

In sum, my learning isn't greatly different to yours, except that I do, weekly or bi-weekly, sit down and go through a list of 'problems' I've noted down from listening and reading. I kill the boredom of rote learning things like Anki and exercises, by only doing them for planned short stretches. I believe in short-term goals, with the long-term one right in the back of my mind.

20-25 to 50 years? I can't see this for myself, but this probably also depends on how a person measures certain levels of achievement. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can get reasonably functional in a language in about 3 years, with varying amounts of effort depending upon circumstances. 20-25+ years is for refinement and the fact that the learning curve only levels off, but doesn't stop.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby iguanamon » Sun Feb 11, 2024 7:32 pm

rdearman wrote:How do you study a language?

I don't.

When I was actively learning, Portuguese, Djudeo Espanyol, and Haitian Creole, I did use textbooks in a systematic way. For Portuguese and Haitian Creole I went through the DLI Basic Courses and Pimsleur at the same time. I also read, listened, spoke with a tutor/conversation partner,. When I felt ready to listen more intensively I worked through several monolingual podcasts/TV series/novelas in Portuguese. With Haitian Creole I had to use the Bible and a half an hour radio podcast Bible study by chapter and book.

It wasn't so difficult. I used hidden moments for listening to Pimsleur/podcasts. I worked through course textbook/audio using a digital copy on my tablet/phone before starting my day. It wasn't difficult. I made it a "habit". In this way I was consistent and persistent.

With Catalan, I didn't do it this way. I jumped straight into reading. Given my background it wasn't as hard as it would have been without it. I also went through a comedy series. Later, I had to clean up Catalan by going through Assimil "Le Catalan". I still need to work through TY Catalan for grammar clean-up.

You were in the USAF, Rick. Why not download DLI Korean and pretend like you re-enlisted. "Swallow the frogs". Do a lesson a week and jump in at whatever volume where you feel comfortable jumping in. Then continue with your watching and reading. See where that takes you.

Having some structure in learning is helpful to me. The listening/reading gives me the synergy that makes the language more "sticky" in my mind. To paraphrase Barry Farber- Get stuck in there with a thorough course and be too lazy to quit. Or, well, you seem to have a system already, as you said...
Last edited by iguanamon on Sun Feb 11, 2024 7:37 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby Khayyam » Sun Feb 11, 2024 7:35 pm

I can't make any general statements about what I do as a total beginner because I've only learned two foreign languages to any significant degree, and I started off in very different ways with them. With German, I freewheeled it just about every step of the way and never used any material for learners other than a few books of stories that were written with learners in mind. With Persian, I started trying to read and listen to the Old Testament (for lack of other materials) when I knew virtually nothing but the alphabet. That was of course slow going, so I used Assimil to get myself over the first hump and then reverted to freewheeling. But with both languages, I operated in pretty much the same way once the hump had been cleared. Essentially, my method is:

1. Acquire a printed text (can't do online--my perverse nature demands a physical copy that I can ruin), preferably a novel but I'll take whatever's available, in the TL, and a well-done narration in the TL to go with it. Whether I also use a written translation in a language I can already read fluently...that depends. With German, I never did. It's a close enough cousin to English that I never felt the need. With Persian, I do, because 1) I'm just printing off each chapter of the Bible one by one, so why not print off an English translation too?, and 2) Persian is so full of idioms that it's practically nothing else (okay, I exaggerate). The fast and smart way to learn them is to refer freely to a translation in a language I already know.

2. Read a chapter of the book, or whatever section I've decided on, in the TL, and mark any words that make me stumble or hesitate at all as I go along. I circle words that seem brand new, I underline words that I've seen before but am at all uncertain about, and I make a squiggly line under proper nouns (not necessary in German, but very helpful in Persian, especially with names like Zaphnathpaaneah). (Some people would use a multicolored pen here, but I won't do that because what I do works well enough, and I want all my attention on the text, not the pen.) If I'm using an English translation, then I refer to it freely whenever I need or want to; the important thing in this step is to maintain the flow, not to test my understanding of the TL. How much attention I give to which translation depends on how tough the text is in the TL. If I can easily read it without referring to the English, then of course I do so and then just quickly glance at the English to verify. If it's a really tough hunk of meat (maybe even somewhat difficult in English), then I'll read it carefully in English and only refer to the TL text to mark words, and to (let's hope) quickly get a sense of how the same idea is expressed in the TL.

3. I go through the section again from the beginning and skim over it very quickly, writing a number over each marked word in order. I sort of read it, but I'm mostly just numbering the words. Then I open a new Word document and (this part is tedious, but it pays off) make a list of translations of all the words I was uncertain about, from one to whatever. (When I did this with the first chapter of Genesis in Persian as a beginner, I had something like 170 words. There's definitely a point where determination becomes stupidity.) I don't include the marked words themselves in this list, only the translations. If the words have many different meanings, and if those meanings are so different from each other that the word is obviously impossible to translate into English (as is often the case with Persian), then I type in up to half a dozen of the translations. Of course they won't all apply in this context, but since my larger goal is to experience the language like a native, not just to understand the text I'm currently working on, I think it's worthwhile to do this.

4. I print off the list and reread (re-reread?) the section again, this time mostly without the English, referring to my list of translations as I go along. I don't try to memorize anything.

5. I listen to the narration while reading along in the TL, pausing the audio if necessary. I refer to the English text and my list as often as I like, but I usually find that I can mostly get along without them by now. I repeat the reading-and-listening until there's no question that I no longer need the English translation or my list. The large number of repetitions isn't as time-consuming as you might think; each one is easier and quicker than the last. If the audio track is ten minutes long, then I can eventually do six repetitions in an hour. I tend to think that even the thickest skull (and mine is far from being the most permeable) could not resist such relentless repetition. At this point, I can be virtually certain that I will understand at least 90% of the new words any time I read or hear them in the future.

6. I take a long walk or hike, preferably at night and in a place where there's virtually no chance of my encountering anybody, and listen to the track over and over again. Sometimes (total honesty here) I get drunk or high or both because I'm no longer laboring, but enjoying the fruits of labor. It's just indescribably satisfying to know that I've learned a bit of a foreign language so well that I can effortlessly understand it--that I can't help but understand it!--even though I'm intoxicated. And having so much fun, and knowing that I'll have more in the future, only increases my motivation. (Once, I went into the woods alone at night while listening to the Adam and Eve story in Persian, and I got high and imagined the two of them as Ned and Maude Flanders, and I put Homer in the role of God, and I laughed so hard it hurt. Stupid, maybe, and definitely weird, but how many people at bars or clubs had a better time than me that night?)

The method I just described (especially the smokin'-weed-in-the-woods part) is essentially all I use to build my word-recognition ability up the point that I can freely read and listen to whatever I want in the TL, which for me is the name of the game. It worked with German, and I can see that it's working with Persian; when I test myself by reading or listening to things I've not already processed with this method, I always find that the number of words and phrases I understand has increased since the last time.

I'm rather proud (okay, smug) because my little self-invented method works so well for me, but I'm always interested to know if anyone has a good argument for doing something else to get better at the receptive side faster (so far, the active is not really my bag). It's tempting to say that what I do works so well that anyone who doesn't try it is doing themselves a disservice when it comes to receptive skills, but of course that'd be making some rash assumptions; it's possible that it only works so well for me because my brain works a certain way. Maybe I'm merely good at understanding myself, and blazing the right trail to suit my own nature. Still, I'd love to know what results others get if they try it.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby jeffers » Sun Feb 11, 2024 8:19 pm

For me, language study is like my desk: organised chaos. Haphazard would be another word. But I do like to centre my study around something specific for a time: whether it's input, a textbook or an audio course. I try to pick that something to do that I plan to do daily (or near enough) and then anything else I find to do with the language revolves around that. So if I have a strategy, it could be summed up as: focus on one thing, and let other stuff happen as time, interest and convenience allow. Organised, chaos.

These days my study has settled around the rhythm of the Super Challenges. During the SC period 90% of what I do is reading, listening and watching. The off months are my extended "tidying up" period. Currently I'm working on Assimil Hindi and Assimil German to get myself ready to tackle them full throated during the Super Challenge. I'm hoping that while reading in these languages in a few months, I will come across structures that I will remember from the Assimil books, and I can turn back to the book to refresh them. So one thing supports the other. Meanwhile, besides working on the Assimil textbooks I have dabbled in other things. My commutes have been taken up with listening and/or shadowing past Assimil lessons. Occasional free time at work has seen me playing a bit with Duolingo and a Memrise deck focusing on German cases. Walking the dog is time to review or preview Assimil audio again. A bit of textbook each day is the non-negotiable centre, other stuff happens as and when.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby Khayyam » Sun Feb 11, 2024 8:46 pm

I wonder if most language learners (I mean people who are passionate about it, not people who learn strictly out of necessity) are at least somewhat disorganized and haphazard in their ways, and are drawn to this over math or science or programming because you can fly by the seat of your pants and still have good results.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby mattmo » Sun Feb 11, 2024 8:56 pm

I believe that there is power in active study and deliberate practice. However, using and being exposed to the language is also very important even more so at the later stages.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby cito » Sun Feb 11, 2024 9:11 pm

Decrease as many obstacles that stand between me and learning the languages: Need to review vocabulary? Use Anki so I don't need to choose when to review what. Want to practice listening and reading? Do both at the same time. etc etc... This is why I use ASSIMIL and Anki combined together.

Get a basis in the language: use Duolingo, classes, etc. Get a foundational understanding of the function of the grammar and the structure of the language.

Use a source like Assimil or Glossika and turn it into a bank of sentences, from which you memorize 10-15 sentences a day until you finish the course.

Listen to/watch videos in the TL for at least 30 mins a day.

After a while, maybe once you finish ASSIMIL or get half way through, start going through Pimsleur or other speaking courses.

Don't be afraid to take a day off.

Think about learning the 1250 most common words as well. Ideally you have 2 Anki decks going: most common words + ASSIMIL. Look up grammar stuff you don't get. Don't be afraid to get a tutor.

Once done with both, go through a TV series line by line, making "i+1" cards of full sentences. Do this until you have around 1000-2000 cards, then shift to reading or youtube videos or whatever interests you. Once you've immersed and studied enough grammar and learned enough words (ideally 5000+), stop using Anki and just enjoy it. Look up a word if you need it, if you really wanna do Anki go ahead, but no pressure.

Whole process should take around 2-5 years based on the difficulty of the language.

This isn't exactly what I do for each language: I'm not dogmatic and each one is unique- this is just what has been working for me at different levels of intensity.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby tastyonions » Sun Feb 11, 2024 9:26 pm

A lot depends on which language I want to study. For a language like Portuguese where I already spoke three related languages, I did a brief introduction (Assimil) and then just jumped into the deep end listening to native podcasts, reading books, and having conversations. For a language more distant from my present knowledge (Greek) I’m spending a bit longer in the “kiddie pool” of learner resources, and also using Anki to beef up my vocabulary more quickly and reliably than would be possible through simply casually reading.
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Re: How do you study a language?

Postby tangleweeds » Sun Feb 11, 2024 10:38 pm

Oooh, I actually had to think about this, because so much depends on my own history with the language interfacing with what resources are available. Also my own goals, which in most cases arise from a fascination with linguistics rather than any love of travel (airplanes require me to be far too close to other humans for far too long). Intellectually I enjoy testing out the degree to which I can develop that intuitive feel for how syntax moves in languages that work very differently from English (though I gotta say, I’m sooo grateful I don’t have to learn English as a second (or n-th) language—what a screwy hybrid mess of a language this is!)

Given my academic bent, it’s perhaps not surprising that I have no difficulties working from textbooks, or sitting down and grinding out a few pages of exercises (or 40 minutes of audiolingual drills—whee!). But my sense is that most textbooks or teach-yourself books contain orders of magnitude too little audio to develop even the first traces of that intuitive feel for how a language moves, so I tend to work from several of them at once.

Basically I consume everything in a course up to the level where my linguistic intuition (compass?) starts going awry, then jump sideways into another resource at slightly lower level, and see how far forward I can go before I can no longer trust my feel for how things should go, then jump sideways/backwards again.

I alternate between first listening and re-(re-re-re-re-re)-listening to the audio until I am no longer translating in my head, but understanding meaning as I hear the words. And when I feel I’ve exhausted my capacity for any more of that, I read up on grammar, usually reading from several different sources to get a clearer sense of how the language flexes, then grinding through some exercises to sort out which parts I don’t actually have such a good feel for yet, despite that slippery illusion of remembering which is actually just recognition. That’s part of why I like textbooks—plenty of grammar, and exercises to test whether I’ve internalized it.

Rinse & repeat until I can trust my inner voice to pronounce things properly when reading, then try graded readers, children’s books, etc. In all honesty, I’ve never gotten beyond the children’s/graded reader “chapter book” level in any of my languages, because of my propensity towards linguistic wanderlust (and loathing of modern air travel conditions).

In my native English I read a lot but literally almost never watch TV or movies (unless some friend makes me), but sometimes I do try to when language learning, mostly to get a sense of how body language differs in a culture very different from my own. News is more palatable to me—I had a parent who was a journalist, and enjoy tracking the slant different outlets put on events. TV news is usually laughably superficial, but in another language, that’s kind of a good thing. And it’s culturally interesting to see what the masses want to be told about the world (or are being conditioned to believe).

Also, personally, I think subtitles are fine, to whatever degree they promote comprehension. I use English subtitles the first time through (auto-generated if necessary), then see how much I can understand in the target language on subsequent viewings. I actually find most TV/video tedious enough that repeating several times is no more tedious than sitting through it in the first place.

I also learn really well from apps, but only to the degree to which they are *not* gamified. I get a sufficient dopamine hit from needing to think but then getting the answer correct, and am negatively conditioned by the delay of waiting for animated fireworks or dancing owls to please go away and let me proceed. I also strongly feel that any negative consequences to getting an answer wrong are detrimental to the process of learning—again, just the disappointment of getting it wrong is sufficient to motivate me to get it right next time.

I now feel I should add a summing up paragraph here but don’t seem to have anything else to say. Apologies for editing in place—I find I still have the reflex to post NOW, while the forum still works!
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