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Crowd Wisdom: How Study Hacks Readers Suggest You Study Foreign Languages

January 11th, 2008 · 12 comments

I Asked, You RespondedLanguage Study

Last weekend a reader wrote me with a question about studying foreign languages. I realized that this spotlighted a gap in my study tactics arsenal; neither my own experience nor my extensive interviewing of students had touched much on this particular subject matter.

So I asked for your help: What worked for you and what didn’t? You were quick to respond with an insightful collection of comments and e-mails, proving, once again, that I have some of the smartest blog readers in the world!

I have now processed this information, and extracted a collection of five stand out tips. What follows is your advice for conquering high-level foreign language study.

Tip #1: Read interesting things in the language you study.

“My advice,” says Julian, “is reading, reading reading.”

To master a language you must encounter it in a real world context. An easy way to accomplish this is by reading as much as you can. Not all reading, however, is made equal. Choose something that interests you and you’re more likely to focus and build new connections.

“I personally love to read children’s books,” recalls Naomi. “So the first books I read in a language are for 2nd-4th grade, depending on my level. There is now so much text on the Internet, just look up a few words in the language related to your hobby/interest and read a bit every day. “

Tip #2: Expose yourself every day.

“The single thing that helps me the most is speaking and writing daily in that language,” says Kelly.

Your mind is resistant to the idea of integrating a new language. It knows perfectly well how to understand and describe the world in English, and it doesn’t appreciate your attempts to inject a brand new scheme into the mix. Overcome this internal resistance through daily work. Every day — even if just a little — do some thinking in your new language.

As Kathleen advises: “Even if you don’t have class on a certain day, find some music or watch a movie in the language you are studying…keep your mind used to actively working with the language. “

Tip #3: Have regular integration conversations.

“Start talking in [the new language] to your friends in everyday conversation to get yourself thinking conversationally in the language,” suggests Maricor. “Then try to incorporate new vocab and grammar structure into the chat.”

Daily work on the language is crucial. But not all practice is equally effective. Find a group of friends to work on your conversation. During these conversations, try to integrate the latest words and grammar you learned. By putting the material into immediate, practical use, you are much more likely to retain it in a usable state.

Tip #4: Don’t neglect vocabulary.

“Concentrating on vocabulary: this is the hardest part of reaching proficiency,” says Jirka. “You need to [eventually] learn 15,000 to 20,000 words.”

It may seem more tractable to focus on conjugation patterns and grammar structures, but the real meat of foreign language learning is the vocab. If you can’t think of the word you need in a conversation then the conversation cannot proceed. Acknowledge this reality by working on your vocabulary — a lot. Make quick flashcard drills at habit throughout the day.

As Alyce notes: “Repeated use of flashcards is great for vocabulary.”

Her suggestion? Use the Mac program Genius. (Which also happens to be free.) Index cards work too. But you’ll need a decent organization system to keep up with the sheer volume of cards advanced language study will generate.

Tip #5: Study phrases, not just words.

“Learning phrases and sentences,” says Jirka. “Not just isolated words.”

Think about your last conversation in English. How much of it consisted of novel sentences you constructed from scratch, and how much was an almost ritualized exchange of well-worn phrases with just a few minor modifications? In most cases, the latter dominates. The same, of course, holds true for foreign languages. Work with common phrases and sentences. Get them at the tip of your tongue. Be able to deploy them fluidly.

As Colleen puts it, you need daily work on: “Normal, real-life exchanges — buying food, taking public transport.”

Keep the Discussion Alive

Do you have more advice? A technique that works particularly well? Something above that you don’t agree with? Keep the conversation alive by commenting on this post. I speak for all Study Hacks readers when I say we really appreciate learning from your experience and expertise.

12 thoughts on “Crowd Wisdom: How Study Hacks Readers Suggest You Study Foreign Languages

  1. Linda Bilak says:

    As a veteran Spanish teacher, I have to include listening to topical podcasts in the target language. Instructional podcasts are fine too, but it you want to hear native speakers and stretch your limits more-go for podcasts made for native speakers and listen over and over gaining more comprehension after repeated listens.I use these in middle school and you would be amazed how much you can pick up with focused listening.

  2. Dan says:

    I appreciate the advice – wish I could have had this when I was back in highschool taking AP Spanish. Yes, flashcards definitely help. Creating lists of words and definitions (one side of the paper for the word, the other for the defenition) and then covering the definition and trying to come up with it worked for me just as fine. You could also go backwards if you wanted.

    Cal, how about doing a blog/piece about how to do well in science laboratory classes? As a science major, I would appreciate it – as I’m sure would others. I read through your most recent book and found that it lacked this information.

  3. Julian says:

    Linda is right, podcasts are amazing. I love to listen e.g. to macbreak video just for the sake of hearing some native speakers (and to hear some mac news of course). But it still has some “perils”. In some podcasts you may here rather slang (e.g. hackcollege tends to this) or at least colloquial language. You need to keep that in mind in my opinion (it’s still great :> )
    But I don’t really like tip #5. Learning phrases is imo something for tourists who want to learn some phrases for the sake of “communicating” in the foreign country (this means to order their food). But as a learner of a foreign language you shouldn’t learn phrases by heart. Language is productive and therefore it’s enough to learn the words (and e.g. their article or preposition). BUT there is one important exception: idioms. Idioms, I think this is clear, MUST be learned by heart. And I they are really important, not knowing them can lead to severe missunderstandings or false friends.

  4. James says:

    As a perpetual language student, there is one utility that I have found more helpful than almost any other: Quizlet. Basically, it is an online, shared, user-driven flashcard program. Incredibly well executed.

  5. Mouyyad Abdulhadi says:

    I would like to ask everyone here what their opinion is of the rosetta stone software? If anyone has tried it please let me know how it turned out.

  6. Jirka Lahvicka says:

    “But as a learner of a foreign language you shouldn’t learn phrases by heart. Language is productive and therefore it’s enough to learn the words (and e.g. their article or preposition).”

    Exactly because language is productive, learning isolated words is not enough (at least not for me) – it is believed that language is stored in “chunks” or “patterns”. Learning phrases and sentences helps internalize the word order and grammar patterns (which may be different from your native language) and stores words with their collocations (other words they frequently appear with). I tried both methods (isolated words / phrases+sentences) and my current progress in Spanish (phrases+sentences) is much faster than my progress in English (isolated words) used to be.

    “I would like to ask everyone here what their opinion is of the rosetta stone software? If anyone has tried it please let me know how it turned out.”

    I used version 2 (the current version is version 3) for Russian and German. In my opinion, it is a nice supplement to your study (it definitely helps connect words/phrases directly to images and enables you to think in the target language), but I would not recommend it as your only (or even main) material (too much stuff is missing and there ARE mistakes and unnatural constructions).

    For a lot more information, check out
    http://www.how-to-learn-any-language.com/

  7. Julian says:

    Exactly because language is productive, learning isolated words is not enough (at least not for me) – it is believed that language is stored in “chunks” or “patterns”. Learning phrases and sentences helps internalize the word order and grammar patterns (which may be different from your native language) and stores words with their collocations (other words they frequently appear with). I tried both methods (isolated words / phrases+sentences) and my current progress in Spanish (phrases+sentences) is much faster than my progress in English (isolated words) used to be.

    I’ve got your point here. And I have to admit that I just considered English (and maybe French and Latin) for my comment (and therefore was a bit narrowminded).
    But I’ll stick to my argument insofar as it works for quite similar languages (e.g. English and German are both Germanic and therefore quite similiar). Because the you don’t really need to learn grammar patterns etc., at least not to that extent and it’s much more important to enhance your vocabulary. As a matter of course grammar can’t be taught due isolated words, but learning a new sentence for each vocab?

    Maybe your approach is superior when it comes to learning languages that are more different. I could imagine that, in this case, learning whole sentences gives far more “grip”.
    And it also depends of the level of learning. Maybe in the beginning and in the intermediate level, sentences are better, but in higher levels, when the patterns are already internalized, this approach is maybe rather redundant.

  8. Michael says:

    My own solution for flashcard management is to use StudyCards, a computer program that can be used to create your own flashcards for many of the Texas Instrument calculators like the TI-83. The advantage over Genius (Mac-only) and Quizlet (Internet-only) is that after making the flashcards and transferring them to your calculator, you can use the flashcards whenever you have your calculator with you. I always have my calc with me, so this is great. Granted, you need a calculator for this, but most students have to buy those for advanced math classes anyway. For me, StudyCards allows me to have the perfect balance of portability and organization.

  9. Emily says:

    listen to foreign music, translate the lyrics yourself, and learn the songs, it helps to make a blog like this
    http://iwanttolearngreek.blogspot.com/

    it helped me learn basic phrases before adding on more complicated words and ideas.

  10. Nina says:

    These study tips are great, I’m sure, for spoken languages. However, I am currently studying American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting. While some of the tips offered above can be converted and then applied to my studies, such as, exposing yourself everyday to the language, having conversations in that language while trying to integrate new vocabulary and structure, some of the tips are just not transferable. For example, the sheer amount of online reading material in spoken languages is just not met by the amount of ASL video available online or in stores. To practice “reading” ASL, YouTube videos of Deaf vlogs are the best bet. However, this does not provide you with learning the culture through literature which is important for understanding how to interpret culturally specific phrases like idioms. This method only works at improving your receptive skills, which is important but doesn’t help you fully understand the language. In order to familiarize yourself with the culture through literature, DVDs of literary performances, storytelling, poetry, comedy, etc., must be found, which is hard to do. Another tip that isn’t transferable to ASL is the vocabulary flash cards. There are flash cards out there for ASL vocabulary, but trying to practice a 3D sign from a 2D notecard and have it be correct is unnecessarily frustrating and rarely successful. Another thought to consider is that most spoken languages taught in college are well researched and come with a wealth of dictionaries and translation guides. ASL is in its research infancy and has neither of these documents in abundance. In fact, finding an ASL dictionary that’s worth its salt requires intense effort and a heavy knowledge of search engines!

    In short, I suppose my question, then, is, what study method and plan is feasible for learning a signed language rather than a spoken one and where can I find it?

  11. Pancen says:

    Although these tips are useful, to get to fluency you need a complete method. The best language-learning method I’ve ever come across is on AllJapaneseAllTheTime.

    The basic idea is intense immersion (lots of listening, watching, and reading) with the help of spaced repetition software (efficient e-flashcards). I’ve been applying this method for half a year now to learn French, and I can say that it delivers.

    I’ve enjoyably read Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother without looking up any words. Recently I followed along an entire podcast from native French radio.

    Although it’s focused on learning Japanese in particular, much of the advice applies to languages in general. For example, its advice on kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese) can be generalized to: learn the writing system. Its advice on kana (Japanese alphabet) can be generalized to: learn the sounds of the language.

    Sorry if this sounds like a plug, but I really do find the site valuable–I refer to it frequently. I would say AllJapaneseAllTheTime is to language-learning as StudyHacks is to studying.

    You’ll notice however that one of its recommendations is to not take any language classes. 😛

  12. Lazaro says:

    I agree with this completely but what tempo need to be employed with this type of education?
    I understand trainers who say hypertrophy coaching like this could
    be 8-12+ reps with an 8-12 2nd slow reps, whats your opinion?

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