LT – a Website for All Learning Philosophies
Have you ever been part of a website or app that you found useful, but were put off because they kept trying to push their method on you? I have, and although I may find those sites helpful, sometimes I feel a bit oppressed by their overriding philosophies.
What many sites fail to acknowledge is that just about all language learning methods work, and it’s virtually impossible to prove that yours is the best, or even that one is better than another. To be clear, I’m talking about entire methods for learning a language – that means everything you do to learn a language. Methods are large, complicated and unique. You may be able to find a study that indicates superiority of a single technique, such as watching TV with vs. without subtitles, but that is quite different from showing a method is superior.
I don’t want this site to have an overbearing method that makes people feel oppressed. Language Tools is a language learning website with no fixed method to sell. We just want to help you learn languages in any way that you want to. We have a wide variety of tools that I hope will prove useful to many different methods.
That being said, I’m glad to give guidance and I am often asked general questions about learning languages. Those general questions can have many different answers, so I’ve decided to share how I learn languages. This will provide me with something I can link to when asked questions. It will also satisfy those who ask me how I personally learn languages.
I’ve actually described my language learning method hundreds of times, but it changes now and then so it’s a bit of a moving target. I have not used this exact method to learn all my languages, but I have used it for my most recent languages and recommend it for people who want to learn like me.
My method is called Synergy, and it has 3 steps:
1) Research, listening, writing system and pronunciation
2) Study all facets of the language
3) Use the language
You might be wondering why it’s called synergy. I am a big believer in balanced language learning, or learning using all the basic language skills. I didn’t used to be. I’ve studied for long periods of time and learned the hard way that balance is more efficient for me. Why? Because working with all basic skills at the same time produces a combined learning effect which is greater than the sum of their individual effects. This is called synergy, so that’s what I’ve named this method.
I originally encountered a similar method in Barry Farber's How to Learn Any Language which he called the Multiple Track Attack. However, I’ve found that there are some problems with starting everything at the beginning. I was learning Japanese at the time, and I wasn’t able to just dive into reading Japanese newspapers, for example. So I abandoned it, experimented with many other methods, and eventually came back full circle with a fix in the form of the first step. Through trial and error I’ve come up with an order designed to avoid duplication of effort and fossilization of errors as well as prepare me for the next step.
Note: This method is designed for adult learners who'd like to reach an upper intermediate level (B2) or above in their target language. For other learners, this information might be helpful, but it's not designed with them in mind.
Now let’s get into a bit more detail for each step.
I like to start out by researching my target language. In fact, finding out about a language, or best ways to study it, is often one of the things that motivates me to learn it. My research helps me figure out what resources I’m going to use. It also helps me discover things that require special attention; the things that make a language unique may make me modify my learning method. I recommend reading about the language in language learning forums, and asking lots of questions about resources. Wikipedia is also a great source of information. When you finally have some specific resources in mind, I recommend reading descriptions and reviews on sites like Amazon before buying anything.
It’s best to start listening right away, because listening is the skill that will take you the most time to master. In my learning method I follow a principal called LIE, or listening is everything. If I need to choose between a path that benefits listening and any other path, I choose listening. So you want to be listening daily from day one. It’s nice to start with very simple podcasts in L2. In the very beginning you will know nothing and understand nothing, so podcasts that have some explanations in L1 might be necessary. Another option is to watch video with subtitles in L1, turning them off and on to test your understanding. As you progress, try to move onto simple 100% L2 podcasts and such as soon as you feel you are understanding them fairly well. Try to listen to materials at i+1.
The first things you need to be able to pronounce are all the distinct little units of sound, called phonemes, made in a language. When you learn these it will be most efficient to link these sounds to something visual, so the most efficient thing to do is learn orthography, the language’s writing system, at the same time. (Note - this normally doesn't take very long, along the order of 10-20 hours. The goal of this little exercise isn’t comprehension or comfortably reading texts; those things come later.) To do this, find some material that teaches pronunciation, for example, the first chapter of a textbook or an online resource. There must be audio. You need to work with audio from the beginning – never read first and utter before listening; check the audio frequently. Practice listening to and repeating the sounds, then listening to the sounds and writing the text. After you get the hang of it, practice reading and pronouncing the text, and comparing your pronunciation to the audio. Memorize the alphabet and the names of the letters. When you are reading and pronouncing words correctly you’ll know you are done.
All previous items can be done at the same time, but you must be finished learning the alphabet and correct pronunciation of words to learn the pronunciation of sentences. To do this, find a beginner program which includes audio for sentences with a transcript. I strongly recommend Pimsleur for this part. Pimsleur doesn’t publish transcripts, but they now offer read along subtitles on their premium subscriptions which makes it pretty easy to create one. You don't need to create an entire transcript, just jot down the unique vocabulary and sentences. Other options for this include Assimil, Glossika, Learn in Your Car, etc, which all have transcripts. After doing an audio lesson, write out a list of all the unique vocabulary and sentences. Memorize them from L1 to L2 and L2 to L1, reading them out loud with correct pronunciation. Do that in the morning. In the evening, memorize them again. After that, put them in an SRS to be reviewed starting the next day. When you are doing the audio lessons, be sure you pronounce every aspect of the sentence prosody (intonation, rhythm, stress, etc) as the native speaker does. Don't just settle for pronouncing the consonant and vowel sounds correctly; prosody is equally important.
Pimsleur has a way of driving correct pronunciation into your brain. But if you don't use Pimsleur, I recommend you repeat a sentence a few times, then shadow it a few times. Repeating is when you copy a sentence after you hear it. You can hear your own voice very clearly and get really accurate, but it's possible to forget the native audio and stray a bit if the sentence is long. Shadowing is when you talk at the same time as the audio. That way you don't forget the audio, and you can constantly compare your voice with the native speaker. You can't hear your voice very clearly though, so accuracy is best practiced by repeating.