I’m pleased that this blog received its 20,000th view on March 14, 2014. That means that on 20,000 occasions people have plugged into the greatest love of my life: languages and connecting with others. I have learned so much from writing this blog, and from the challenging comments I’ve received from commentors here and on Twitter.
Language is humans’ principle means to connect to each other, to come out of ourselves. I hope to continue to advocate for language love in every way I can, and to serve my readers in bringing us all together under the umbrella of language-love. In modern culture, languages are looked at narrowly–if at all. I want to provide my readers and my culture every reason and means to study languages as I possibly can.
“Like” or share so we can spread more language-love to even more people!
Perfectionism leads to shame because perfectionists can never live up to their own standards. Not trying and rationalising lack of action cause less pain than trying and failing. When people start learning languages they often think of their current level of their native language as the level they should be at. The task seems so daunting to many that they don’t start. Yet some still start. Naturally, after many months and years, they still do not reach the level of their native language.
Often they feel bad about not knowing a language fluently. They might feel lazy, they might feel stupid–in other words, they feel shame. In spite of earning a reputation for monolingualism, most Americans I know have learned another language in some capacity, whether Hebrew at synagogue or Spanish on “Sesame Street.” But they feel shame, they hate themselves because they’re bad at the language. Excuses begin.
I can help you. I think you probably know a little of a language, and that’s great. People often rationalise the reason why they don’t know more. I’ve included in this post three of the most common rationalisations I’ve heard–and cures for them. Enjoying what you know and taking yourself a little less seriously will help cure your language perfectionism.
I only know a little–not very much
“All I can say is ‘uno, dos, tres.'” “I can pronounce the words, but I don’t know what I’m saying.” “I learned a little in school, but that was a long time ago.” Phrases like these belie underlying shame for not being good enough at a language. The one who says it feels like they should know a language better, but just never got around to learning it better.
People seem to think that their “limited” exposure does not measure up to what it should be. Fluency or nothing seems to lie at the core. Since they can’t communicate everything they want in the language, they won’t bother. The language is to have conversations; without that ability, their language knowledge may as well not exist.
Language serves a lot of purposes besides full conversations, namely, to connect people. If I only know “¿Cómo estás?” then I can use it when I run into a Spanish-speaking person at work. (If the person answers in Spanish, refer to the next point, below.) If you say you can only read Hebrew or Arabic and not understand, look again–you probably understand a smattering of words that you can use. Two words are better than nothing. A friend of mine went to China with a coworker, and they only learned “hello” and “handsome man.” They broke the ice in a lot of situations by bringing smiles to people’s faces. A handful of words won’t carry a whole conversation, but can bring people together.
I can’t understand when people respond
I’ve heard the story many times: I really hunkered down and studied my language. I took classes, I bought Rosetta Stone, I listened to my language on-line. Finally, I got the chance to go to the country. When I took my Coke to the cashier, the lady spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand a single word. I asked her to repeat, so she said it louder, and I still didn’t get it. I smiled, showed her my money, and she picked out the right amount. Humiliated, I realized I am no good at languages and I will no longer try.
Language-learners resemble children in adult bodies. They look like adults, but you have to talk to them like they’re little kids. They can’t understand the simplest things! The tension is unavoidable. You know what you want to say, and you want to be respected like an adult. Now it sounds like the adult you’re talking to in your language is yelling at you, scolding you.
I think we can revel in this disconnect. Rather than feel the shame of a naughty child, we can laugh at the funny man-child (or woman-child) we have suddenly become. My friend told me about his friend–I’ll call him Jack–in France. Jack came to France to look for work, but his French was barely existent. He kept his chin up in this difficult reality. When he saw quizzical responses on people’s faces, when he couldn’t make out the answer to his request, he laughed. Because of Jack’s great attitude, he could have a whole boulangerie in stitches when he went to order a croissant; everyone had a good time. Rather than feel shame for his French, Jack drew attention to his inability to speak “well” and everyone loved him because of it.
I really want to get good at this language before I start another one
A long time ago I was on a message board with folks who love languages. One person was lamenting that she wanted to learn Russian and Greek, but she didn’t want to start yet because she wanted to get good at Spanish first.
The person held some unrealistic expectations that were holding her back. First, the point at which one is “good” at a language eludes us–if it actually exists. As a result, we are tempted to put off the starting point for Russian, Greek, etc, forever, since we can always convince ourselves that we are not yet “good” at Spanish. Second, the need to wait exposes our tendencies towards perfectionism. We need to be good first because people might think we’re no good at Spanish or we can’t finish what we’ve started. Maybe we’ll lose the little Spanish we gained once we start Russian, and then we’ll sound more dumb than we were!
My response was: embrace your inner debutante! Learn a little bit of Russian while you learn your Spanish. Find a Spanish textbook on how to learn Greek. Memorize “hello” and “good-bye” and “I love your language!” in Russian, and then go back to Spanish. Listen to Greek radio on-line while you memorize your Spanish words. No chef perfects beef before moving on to chicken–he does both. He doesn’t have to be the best at both, but he can still learn how to adapt. Learning is always good.
Perfection is not attainable
Perfectionism lies at the root of our language shame. We don’t speak enough, we don’t understand others, we shouldn’t start being imperfect at another language–all come from perfectionism. When we don’t attain that perfection, we feel guilty.
Laughter is the best medicine, and it can cure perfectionism. Trot out your three words of Spanish, smile when you don’t understand, and love learning a few phrases of a language you’re not focusing on right now. Any language you can learn will help you–and will help the one you are speaking to. When our attitude shifts away from our shame towards love and connection, speaking languages will continually bring us–and everyone around–delight.
To succeed at learning languages on your own, you must balance interactive and solo exercises. I define “interactive” exercises as those that include another person, especially conversing with a native speaker, and “solo” exercises that do not include another person. If we keep a balance between these two, we will progress quickly as each method builds up the other.
Compare learning a language to training for a sport, where you practice and you scrimmage. In practice, you work on the fundamentals to ensure that they come naturally. You train your reflexes to react in a particular way in a given situation. Practice includes drills. They can be boring sometimes, but the greats become so because of drills, like Michael Jordan‘s hundreds of free-throws after practice. When you’re practicing drills, you don’t know how well you’ve mastered skills until you put them to the test, however.
Scrimmages test your skills. By entering a real-life game situation, you see how your body remembers and applies the skills learned in drilling. Scrimmages bring constant unexpected elements. For example, you may have drilled jump-shots, but what about when a guy taller than you keeps getting in your way? Only by bringing in unknown variables will you see how good your skills actually are. Moreover, scrimmages bring up situations that reveal weaknesses you may have neglected. If scrimmage reveals that you never got to take a jump shot because your dribbling was lousy, you know what to practice next time.
Greatness at language-learning requires solo preparation through drills, as well as constant interactions with others. You have to learn the fundamentals through drills. The most important aspect is learning vocabulary, but spending time on grammar helps, too. But you need to enter into conversations; those are our scrimmages. Just like in basketball, it puts your knowledge to the test in “real time” and reveals weaknesses so you can practice during your solo time.
Instant message with a native speaker (eg, Skype or italki);
Video chat with a native speaker (eg, Skype);
Meet up locally with speakers of your language;
Daily interactions in the country of the language.
Interactive exercises determine success. Language-learning usually trains you to speak with native speakers (unless you’re learning a language just to read it), and interactive exercises are the closest to the real thing–if not actually the real thing. While you need interactive exercises, you can learn languages without solo exercises. Bilingual people have been learning languages exclusively through person-to-person interaction for millennia. North Africans learned Arabic without solo exercise when the Arabs arrived; Phoenicians learned Greek without grammar exercises. We should note, though, that scholars in ancient Babylonia (ca. 2000 BCE) were writing and referring to bilingual dictionaries so they could read Sumerian texts. Acquiring a high level in a language will likely include solo work, but progress requires interactive work.
Recently, some standard language-learning software includes interactive exercises, but I count interactivity as useful only when it brings in the randomness that scrimmages do. For example, Rosetta Stone has included classes with an on-line teacher in its language package. However, the curriculum follows the software fairly closely, so the learner does not encounter the randomness of actual conversation. In contrast, italki offers the choice to learn from either untrained native speakers or trained teachers. With the italki service, you can enjoy the controlled environment of a teacher who helps you practice your skills and the random environment of an average native speaker. Teachers use as much as possible constructions that you know in order not to overwhelm you; native speakers employ the structures that come to mind first and most naturally to him or her. Both are helpful, but the untrained speaker provides the true test.
I’ve found that I learn the most when my solo work undergirds my interactive study, and my interactive study feeds my solo work. I study grammar and vocabulary on my own. Then I have an easier time in conversation. As I talk, I write down new words and phrases in context. Then I study those during my solo time. Soon I master my favorite and most common topics of conversation. If I do solo work without interaction, I don’t know if I’m progressing. If I interact without solo work, I progress, but slowly. With both, I make constant, quick progress.
What are good interactive exercises have you used, my dear readers? How do you balance solo and interactive exercises?
Around July 1 I passed the six-month mark for my study of Farsi. I wanted to write about my experiences so far in this task. Some methods didn’t help, others I outgrew, but talking to native speakers and learning vocabulary keep me learning.
I began with a strict schedule that I was not able to keep up. The plan included
on-line work with Livemocha,
listening to Pimsleur,
working through a grammar book,
and meeting native speakers.
The most helpful tasks—and the ones that lasted to the present—were Pimsleur (I finished them), vocabulary, and blogging. The next most helpful were Livemocha and the grammar book. I stopped them a while ago. I never found more than a few native speakers, and I only bumped into them for a moment; I didn’t form any helpful, lasting relationships. I tried Rosetta Stone for a little while, but couldn’t take more introductory material. The software wasn’t offering me anything I didn’t already get from Pimsleur and my grammar book.
Currently, my study includes listening to Farsi, a little reading, and vocabulary. I have probably 80% of the grammar; Farsi is mercifully Indo-European in its grammar. Now I listen to podcasts, mostly of news. (If anyone knows of non-news podcasts in Farsi, please let me know. Age zahmat nist, man mikham bishtar-e farsi-ye podcast gush konam ke khabar nist.) I also read a little of the news. When I learn new words, I write them down on 3×5 cards and memorize them. I’m making good progress on the long slog of vocabulary, always my downfall in learning languages.
My lack of connections with native speakers severely limits my ability to learn. Conversing cements in my vocabulary and corrects my wonky grammar. If I had used Livemocha more—and I may do so in the near future—I could meet scads of on-line people who want to help me; I met a few without even trying. Skype and Google Chat will certainly lie in my future. Every time I spoke with a native speaker—at the pool, at my kids’ concert, etc.—I always left with new vocabulary. I’m hoping to find soon a face-to-face language exchange partner who wants to work on his English.
Learning a language on my own has been surprisingly simple: a little grammar and a lot of vocabulary. Once I learned the basics (3-4 months), I worked on vocabulary and comprehension. I will need to work on vocabulary and production. The common element between these two tasks stands out: vocabulary. Memorizing vocabulary stands at the crux between success and failure: am I working on vocabulary constantly? If I’m progressing on vocabulary, I’m progressing in my language. So I’ll keep working on vocabulary—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I’ve been looking for materials to help intermediate language-learning. Maybe I made it too complicated.
My experience with kids learning language reflects this lesson, too. Kids constantly learn words. They use the wrong word, they ask what words mean, they aggravate us with new slang. The grammar is worked out early on, and glitches are corrected along the way (e.g., irregular verbs made regular like “swimmed”). For example, I was at a family reunion with many nieces and nephews. I observed the following: At age two, they repeat words back; at age three, they form simple phrases; at age four, they form full sentences; from five on, they talk like little adults. From age four, the main task seems to be vocabulary building. (I adore seeing my niece and—previously—my own kids work on figuring out family-relation terms. My 11-year-old loves to talk about meeting her first cousin, three times removed [my grandfather’s cousin], as much as I loved learning about old Russian terms for different uncles and various in-laws.)
What ways have you found to learn vocabulary? What do you focus on in your intermediate language-learning?