This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Active Learning vs Passive Learning…
I’ve been learning languages by myself since I was 13. As an experienced self-learner, I came to the conclusion that there is no one best method, but there are some universal principles one can stick to and which I think should be shared for the benefit of those who really want to learn foreign languages the proper way.
To start off on the wrong foot can lead to disaster, that is, frustration and giving up the pursuit. It is mandatory to know how to get started. The first phase, which can last 6 months to 1 year (depending on the complexity of the target language and your previous experience) is definitely the most delicate one.
Craving for a quick proficiency is dangerous, because it keeps you from concentrating on your studies. It is like a runner who constantly thinks about still having 15 kilometers to go, instead of staying focused on the track, step by step. Thinking that he’s got such a long distance to cover could get him mentally tired from the very beginning.
I’m sure that many of you eager learners have taken a moment off your language studies and had some “reverie” (fantasized) about yourselves being fluent speakers and communicating flawlessly in the language you are learning. I did that numerous times.
When I was learning German I thought “how incredible would that be to speak it fluently”. That thought made me doubt about my future success and I had doubts often around 6-7 months after starting that language. I was a bit frustrated because I wasn’t fluent yet. How could I be fluent after 6 months? At that time I had no real experience at learning languages, and the worry easily frustrated me. I want to explain to you now why it doesn’t disturb me anymore, even when I’m learning difficult languages such Chinese (as I’m doing now).
I’ve come to the conclusion that if you do a quality work, the results will be terrific in the long run. By “long run” I mean that you have to be positive about the fact that there will come a point where the knowledge that you’ve been accumulating will “explode” (in a good sense), take off. According to some unofficial literature, this threshold is called “epiphany point”. After that point, you find yourself speaking much much better than you had done before. You don’t know why, but you’re happy about it. I’m sure some of you know what I mean. This epiphany point, as I told you, is going to happen at some point of your path, and the more quality you put into building a core in your head, the more brilliant this epiphany point will be.
What is quality work? The quality of your work is absolutely essential to learning a language well. Quality work is steady, efficient and not too heavy, and you impose it on yourself according to your schedule. The aim is that of “building a core” in your head. Knowing how to schedule your work keeps you from being a passive learner. I’ve described some of what I do on YouTube, but I want to share with you the reasons why it is so efficient for me.
During the first year, I focus on listening to that language, but I almost immediately start writing and speaking it. I don’t listen to a huge amount of material. I think it is much more efficient to listen to some material very attentively rather than flooding your brain with hours and hours. I start writing that language after a couple of weeks after the very first start (mostly using Microsoft Word). By retranslating the texts into the target language and then confronting what you’ve done with the texts after a week puts your brain in the position of elaborating phrases directly in that language. It is also a very powerful form of auto-correction and helps you to absorb grammar effortlessly.
Somebody says that grammar is not important and that you can learn a language well without a grammar book. In answer to this: grammar IS important. The whole point is not whether grammar is important or not, but HOW one can absorb it without effort, that is, with a study that doesn’t foresee any heavy and horrible grammar book (which I generally try to avoid as much as I can). So with this simple “retranslating” operation your brain fixes the structures of that language and also provides a script that your brain will use when speaking that language.
I have been wondering for a long time why I see (literally) written subtitles in my head when speaking languages, and I found out that this is due to my way of learning. Having a script in your head links sound to letters and words, and it is of great advantage.
After 3 months, I start elaborating phrases in my head and I start doing the most important thing: I talk, even if I don’t have a native speaker. I imagine having one in front of me and try to think of what to say. Introducing yourself, talking about the weather, family and so on.
There are some “language gurus” who enforce the idea that speaking to yourself is not useful at all, cause nobody is there to correct your pronunciation and your grammar mistakes. I think (but this is just my humble opinion), that this is not sound advice to give. Speaking to yourself might not better your pronunciation, but gets you fluent in a language. A language is also a matter of automatism. If kids don’t speak that language, it is simply because they haven’t developed the physical capacity of doing so. But as soon as they do, you can tell that they literally “crave” words (like when they try to utter the word “mama” after a few months).
As adults, we have the advantage of a fully developed apparatus which we are ready to immediately create new sounds with. My advice is: listen to audio material for a couple of months, start writing and translating texts from your language to the target language, and after another month start having conversations, even to yourself. Of course this has to be a progressive work.
After a year (but it can be much less) you are ready to add quantity to your work. At this point your brain is able to absorb and enjoy a huge amount of input (movies, books and newspapers) much more efficiently and even produce outcome better (both oral and written conversations with native speakers).
If you wonder why people immersed in some language (living in-country) get to speak it fast the answer is extremely simple. It’s because they are FORCED to speak that language on a daily basis. Whereas living in your country makes you lazy because you don’t necessarily need to speak it. If you create your own environment where you are immersed in that target language, even if you still live in your own country, you will learn that language very well anyway.
Which leads to the final point. How to create that environment? I’ve been speaking with some Americans who asked me “Luca, how can you speak English like that if you’ve never been to the US before?” For those who praise the mp3 as an incredible learning resource, think one better: Skype is the real deal. Audio-material (although a tapes’ sound quality was much worse) has been around for over 40 years, but skype has been around for much less. Skype is tailor-made for language learning, and with this wonderful software application you’ll have no more excuses for not getting proficient in languages. A conversation with a native is an invaluable asset.