Re-evaluate your language learning methods

Is there a wrong or right way to learn a language? Someone asked me this question on Tumblr today and it got me thinking. This is what they said:

My answer is yes. There are definitely methods that are not helpful in your language learning journey, and a lot of this has to do with your mindset, resources and levels of immersion in the language.

Let’s be frank. If you’re just starting out, you might Google “how to learn a language” and the first things you see are Duolingo and Rosetta Stone. While these resources can be helpful in providing beginner learning material, you cannot think that you are going to get fluent just by interacting with these apps. In the long run, you’re gonna need much more than that.

Improving your languages comes from many places: by reading content, by writing journals, by practicing your speaking with natives and more. Just by using one app, you’re not going to get to a level where you want to be at, which is fluent.

A wrong way to learn a language?

If you are dead-set focused just on learning vocabulary and you’re ignoring grammar, you’re not getting a holistic approach to learning. You are not going to improve as fast as you could be. Language learning needs to touch on all aspects to be successful: speaking, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary, listening. We shouldn’t just focus on one of these at a time.

Comprehensible input is language input that can be understood by listeners despite them not understanding all the words and structures in it.

Comprehensible input (CI) getting information in a foreign language that you can understand and apply to your life. Something I do when I’m learning a language is to look up articles in Spanish or Korean about design. I’m a designer and it helps to read content about something relevant to my life. By interacting with articles and podcasts in another language, there are bound to be words that you’ve learnt once or twice that will appear and you’ll think “ah! I’ve heard this!” and then the words will solidify in your memory.

Watching cartoons?

This goes back to the question I got on Tumblr. Is it “dumb” to watch cartoons, like the person who asked’s friend said? Definitely not! They said “I find them entertaining and easy to understand given I’m a complete beginner”.

My friend told me he used to to watch a lot of Norwegian cartoons growing up. I asked him how much of this did he actually understood and whether he watched it with English subtitles. He said no subtitles were available, which prompted the question “but how did you understand it?”. He said that since there are visual aids, and the content is simple enough for kids, it was pretty easy to follow.

How kids learn languages and whether adults should use similar methods is another discussion, but the point is that, to some extent, this is effective. If you’re making visual connections with what you’re seeing and hearing, you’re getting comprehensible input.

Your mindset

Something else I want to touch on is your mindset surrounding language learning. I’ve made a video about this which may be be very helpful for you. A lot of how we succeed in learning a language depends on how we approach thinking about learning it. If you are always scared to make mistakes or afraid to talk to native speakers, you’re going to associate language learning with something that is scary and intimidating. It’s okay; it takes a while for us to get over the hurdle of fear, but once we change our mindset, the way we learn languages is going to improve.

Thinking about success

I don’t remember why it appeared in my YouTube recommendations but I saw a video about a guy’s weight loss process in one year. At the end of the video, he said something like “Since success is a definite, what would you do to reach it?”. It was interesting to see how he viewed success as something definite. Isn’t that a great way to think of our goals? You will succeed if you put in the effort and make use of comprehensible input.

If that means watching cartoons, that’s okay! At least you are hearing the language, and the person who said that it’s a dumb idea is wasting their time telling others it’s a dumb idea… and they’re not spending any time listening to languages. Be consistent, get lots of input, and you do you!

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2 Responses

  1. When I was learning Japanese I got really hung up on using flashcard programs – Anki and Mnemosyne. However I got bored using the programs and they became hard work especially if I missed a day because these programs require daily use. I even wrote my own flash card program in Excel and I am trying it again with Indonesian. I can see how flashcard apps are useful but I prefer hearing and speaking the words to remember vocabulary. I tried Memrise but it took a lot of time to set up and using the app took too much time. Have you ever used flashcard programs or apps?

  2. Your youtube videos have been super helpful for me in my journey to learning Italian. I think the methods you describe in them and the tips are relatable to any language. So thank you so much. I find multiple methods are working better for me. Flashcards are helping tremendously, but as Charles said above, they don’t seem to work for all. Apps like duolingo helped a bit at the start, but I didn’t really progress much with them. I found I was learning vocabulary but not really able to put together sentences. And the vocabulary I was learning was often a bit useless, because it is not stuff I would say in a conversation anyways. I’ve been trying a lot of the immersion techniques, watching netflix in Italian, reading articles, watching vlogs on youtube, listening to music. Even if I don’t quite understand it all. I find it useful to listen to how it is spoken. I think the thing that is helping me at the moment is being more consistent with my learning. Rather than spending my days off learning all day. I am trying to incorporate it into my daily life, even if I can do just 30-60 minutes each day. It is more helpful than doing 4 hours of studying once every few days or every week.

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