2 may. 2011

How to Learn a Language

Here's how I would learn a language.

(1) Exposure to vast amounts of authentic speech. I would listen to hours and hours of oral input. Not (only) language tapes, but authentic material, newscasts, podcasts, anything I could find. I would do that for maybe a month first, without even trying to understand a word of it. I would continue to expose myself to vast amounts of speech during subsequent stages of the process.

(2) Next, I would learn the correspondence between writing and pronunciation. I would learn how to produce the sounds of the language based on the writing system. I would practice reading the language aloud, with a native speaker there in the room to correct me. This gives me the ability to read aloud, even from texts i do not yet understand.

(3) Now I am ready to learn the basic vocabulary, the 300-500 most commonly used words, and to look a bit at the grammar.

(4) Now my approach would be to speak the language with anybody that I could, as much as I could, and to read the easiest books that I could find. Translations of stupid self-help manuals, or of The Harry Potter series. Easy books reinforce the basic vocabulary, the words that are found on every page, while exposing the reader to many unfamiliar words as well.

Since I am naturally very good at grammar, I wouldn't need to emphasize it at an early stage. I would maximize my written and spoken input as much as possible, and emphasize prosody and phonology. Once I could read fairly fluently and had a feel for the grammar, I would go back and learn it more formally. It would be important to learn intonation and phonology before I started reading, so that when I read I would be hearing the language correctly in my head. I'm amazed by advanced level students who can't read Spanish aloud in a comprehensible way.


My approach is not backed up by very much specific SLA research that I know about, since I don't really know this field. Nevertheless, i am a successful language learner. I never took a language class in college in which I did not earn an A, and that includes French, German, Latin, Greek, and Spanish. I can also read Italian, Catalan, and Portuguese. My colleague who is a second-language acquisition specialist agrees with me that a lot of input can never be a bad thing. I know little babies learn prosody before any other aspect of a language.

3 comentarios:

Vance Maverick dijo...

The language I badly need to learn, or to have learned, is Chinese, which unfortunately derails the train at step #2. Pinyin is easy but not often encountered in the wild.

Dame Eleanor Hull dijo...

What would you do with dead languages, like Latin, classical Greek, or medieval versions of modern languages?

Jonathan dijo...

What I did with Latin and Greek was to take an intensive course over the summer at UC Berkeley. Since I didn't have to worry about phonology or oral production as much, I just memorized the damn verb forms and then started reading as quickly as possible. I am an impatient person so intensive courses work well for me.