Tag Archives: language learning

Tools for language learning: lexical chunking

So clearly I am no expert on second language acquisition. I have however found it helpful in my studying to make Anki cards for not just vocabulary, but also for full sentences or phrases. I’ve been reading book 1 of Harry Potter in French, which means I have an easily comparable English version, and although the paragraph structure is the same, it’s not a word for word translation. And (duh) the French version sounds, well, more French than it would if you just translated it word for word. (Side note: the translators put a lot of thought into translating proper names, as indicated, so that some of J.K. Rowling’s puns or at least the flavor of the English version would get carried through. Hogwarts becomes “Poudlard”; Diagon Alley becomes “Le Chemin de Travers”.) I’ve also been memorizing pieces of the dialogues in Colloquial French 2.

This approach has a name: lexical chunking. Basically it means that you focus on how language fits together, instead of grammar, which is the usual emphasis of a language course. This helpful guide points out that, you’ll still be understood if you don’t know the different between I go and I will go, but you will not be if you don’t know the different between tomorrow and yesterday.

How to implement it? I think a big part is just having authentic sources to listen to. It might be dialogues in a course, or music, or novels, or movies or TV in the target language. Having a transcript is key–and then learning chunks. For example, “Can you please pass the green beans?”, and then substituting in different food items.

Of course there are criticisms of this approach as well, and the NY Times column details them. Obviously at least some grammar is important. But chunking can be a valuable approach to gaining fluency by getting a built-in set of phrases for many common situations–interactions that follow a script, as it were.


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More on why French is pretty useful, actually


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The New Republic trashes French language learning

…or at least, dismisses it in favor of Spanish or “Chinese”. (Side note: if you write about learning Chinese, as opposed to, say, Mandarin, you should not be writing about language learning.)

The article goes on to say how we learn French as an affectation, to be more European in taste, rather than to be useful in any way, and that, barring an affinity for French literature, we should be using supposedly more practical languages. Because it’s just not useful, apparently.

Look, I get that Spanish has more speakers (500 million vs 300 million for French, per Wikipedia). And it’s not that I’m opposed to people learning Spanish. But while Spanish opens up Latin America, French has much of Africa, various island nations and French possessions, as well as Belgium, Switzerland, etc. French expands your world at least as much as Spanish does.

In general, I think that people should learn the language they want to, for the reasons they want. Want to learn Korean because you like k-pop? Fine. Japanese because you like anime? Also fine. Feynman had this story about how he really wanted to take a Portuguese class because he saw a cute girl taking it, but made himself take Spanish because it was more practical. Then he ended up going on sabbatical to Brazil and his Spanish was useless. Learning a language opens up a new way to see the world. And especially for a language like French, that includes so much more than learning it for some elitist reason. The parents who enroll their kids in French immersion can see that–too bad the writer can’t.

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From zero to fluency, quickly

Some interesting tidbits from Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching, a paper describing the Foreign Service language school’s experience in preparing novices to use a new language professionally:

  • Unlike adult language learning in other contexts, where students’ motivations might vary from interest to travel to relocation, the FSI language school is training people for a fairly uniform purpose, and gets feedback from its graduates about the particular areas in which they feel underprepared–so the school has a constant iterative model.
  • The goal for language learning should not be to use the language exactly like a native speaker, but to be able to use it to get stuff done: “proficiency”.
  • In some ways, adults are better at learning languages than kids due to increased efficiency. A 10-month Russian course gets its graduates to be able to use the language near fluently in just over 1000 hours, versus 12-15,000 that children spend learning their native language.
  • Immersion seems to be most helpful at *higher* levels of proficiency. In other words, not being able to pick up and move to a country where the language is spoken is no excuse.
  • Some languages just take longer for English speakers to learn than others.
  • To develop a feel for trickier aspects of the language–grammar points, tones–you have to know they exist, so you can pay attention to them.
  • Conversation is actually one of the hardest pieces to learn!

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How to learn a language

Well, how I would approach learning a new foreign language, knowing what I do now:

  1. Most adults who are learning a language that’s not needed in their day-to-day lives are going to encounter it through travel, so start with the basics of what you would need for a trip abroad: airport, trains, customs, taking a taxi, asking directions, checking into a hotel, ordering a meal at a restaurant, courtesies. Yes, many people in these industries speak fluent English, since it’s now the de facto second language for much of the world, but not always, and even if they do, they’ll usually humor you speaking in your target language until you get stuck. Plus, for whatever reason, these areas make me feel especially embarrassed when I fall short, even though they’re not always covered that well in language classes.
  2. Learn whatever specialized vocabulary you might need for your personal situation: for example, if you are moving abroad, learning how to rent an apartment; if you need the language for work, learn how to handle routine situations.
  3. Learn to make the small talk you would need to converse with a native speaker in your own town, which might be asking about how they came to wherever they are, and why you’re learning their language. (This makes things feel less awkward so you practice instead of blush when put on the spot.)
  4. Learn to describe your life at home: the rooms and furniture and appliances and possessions in your house, your morning and evening routines and chores, your family, the weather, time. Practice as you go through the day: as you fold laundry, say the words for each article of clothing; as you do dishes, name them.

While you are getting comfortable with the above, you can start on a self-immersion, less structured way of expanding your vocabulary and fluency:

  1. Start listening to the news and learn vocabulary to describe current events. For example, for French, RFI has a podcast of the day’s news in simple French.
  2. Watch movies and TV in your target language. If this language happens to be Spanish or French, you likely already own DVDs with an audiotrack dubbed in that language. Especially when you know the plot, this helps get you up to speed with listening comprehension – people speaking to you directly tend to unconsciously slow down and speak clearly, which is obviously helpful but less helpful for understanding the language spoken at full blast.
  3. Follow what interests you: go to an international newstand to get some materials, and read celeb gossip mags or the sports pages. Indulge your guilty pleasures!
  4. Read whatever you want. For me right now in French, that’s 1. Harry Potter, and 2. a travel guide to California, where I lived for several years. Why do I find it so entertaining to read the French perspective on CA? Beats me. BUT, I do.
  5. Browse the internet, watch youtube cat videos, read blogs…whatever you do to procrastinate in English.

The point of all this is to lower your resistance to encountering the language by letting yourself consume whatever media you want. Do NOT under any circumstances try to read “literature” in your target language unless that’s how you spend your free time in English.

Finally, speak the language! italki and verbling are both great ways to find native speakers via skype. I’m not sure I agree with the “speak from day 1” philosophy – some of us are too shy for that – but once you have the active vocabulary to cover your daily life, it’s way easier and less frightening to practice.

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