Language learning journey – Tips to prevent learning attrition
[blockquote author=”Nelson Mandela”]If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.[/blockquote]
Foreign language learning can have different meanings for different individuals. For some it is an avenue for better career prospects whereas for others it happens to be one of their bucket lists of New Year resolutions.
Like all resolutions or hobbies the excitement level experiences a plateau or even a decline phase of a sigmoid curve, once the skill starts becoming more daunting. The same can be applied to learning a new language as learning a foreign language is no child’s play.
Most of us lose hope within a year or half, if we are not in a position to flaunt our newly acquired language skills. Somewhere we have the desire that Joey had in the TV serial Friends where he wanted to learn French in one day for an acting audition.
However we forget that Rome was not built overnight and all beautiful things requires patience, persistence and consistency to accelerate one’s language learning pace. Before I chalk down the golden tips, I would like to present the principles of language learning which will help to chalk out your course of action.
Principles of language learning
Chris Lonsdale a psychologist spent many years researching on language learning and the process of accelerating learning. In his TED Talk titled ‘How to learn a new language in six months’ he describes these following principles to learn a new language and become functionally fluent or even expert in six months –
1. Focus on your prime objective of language learning
If you want to master Shakespeare’s plays, then your knowledge of modern English vocabulary won’t be of much help. You not only need to build up your comfort level for archaic English but you should also know technical vocabulary related to drama and stage theatre.
So if you are learning Mandarin to communicate with your business partners then focus on learning words and phrases in Mandarin that are related to business. Similarly if you want to learn French to understand French cook shows, then concentrate on words and phrases that you might hear in shows conducted by the famous culinary arts school ‘Le Cordon Bleu’ rather than waiting to master the language.
2. Master your own mind
You learn best if you are not distracted, sad, angry or disturbed. Your psychological state of mind drives your learning and it is important to master your emotions. You learn as well as remember things when you are happy, relaxed and curious.
For many learners it is frustrating when they fail to understand everything that they listen in the new language. You need to develop your tolerance towards ambiguity and accept the fact that in the beginning you will understand very little when people speak to you in that language.
In the initial stage language learning requires you to become comfortable with failure and to learn from your mistakes.
3. Focus on comprehensible input
Comprehensible input is the phenomenon where learners understand the essence even if they have not understood all the words and structures in it.
According to linguist Stephen Krashen , learners acquire language when they understand messages by exposing them to interesting and understandable listening and reading material. This means instead of trying to understand the words that someone is using to talk to you, try to understand what they are trying to say by deducing meaning from their hand gestures, body language and facial expressions.
The focus should not be on correct usage of grammar but on the meaning. This is how infants learn to speak their mother tongue. When a child says ‘Mamma fish water!’ the parent would likely respond by saying ‘Yes, you are right, there is a fish in the pond’.
4. Use the language as a tool for communication
When I started learning French, I used to have nightmares speaking two sentences with complete confidence. This was also the scene when I appeared for my DELF A1 level exam.
Reading, listening and writing skills of the exam seemed relatively comfortable to deal with as compared to my oral test. The mere fact of speaking in front of an instructor who happens to be a pro in that language gave me enough reasons to relegate into my cocoon of comfort.
But as the complexity increased I realized that I need to mature as a butterfly by coming out of my phobia of not committing mistakes. Slowly I started forcing myself to imagine daily life situations which would require me to communicate with others in French. I started using French as a tool to communicate instead of passively learning it in an academic setting.
5. It is all about physiological training
Language learning is not all about acquiring loads of knowledge. In many ways language learning is nothing but all about working your brain filters and facial muscles.
Our brain has filters that filter in sounds that we are familiar with and filter out sounds that we are not familiar with. That is why it is important to soak your brain by listening to sounds of the language that you are learning in order to train your brain to register and familiarize those sounds.
When I started my B2 level, I started listening audio documentaries for about 45 minutes per day. In the beginning, I hardly understood what was being narrated but over a period of six months, I started recognising patterns and words that repeated or were different.
By listening to the rhythm of the language, I started understanding a lot and even learnt to differentiate between regional accents used in Quebec French, Parisian French and African French.
Similarly talking requires exercising your facial muscles as you have to coordinate 43 muscles present on the face to make sounds that others can understand. Watch people who speak that language and observe how their face muscles move when they speak. Emulate their facial movement to polish your pronunciation.
Tips to practice and pitfalls to avoid
Based on the principles of language learning here is the list of actions as well as precautions one needs to observe in order to learn a language efficiently and in a short period of time.
1. Avoid literal translations
As human beings we have this innate desire for total equivalency which is considering all languages to be translatable word for word. Languages represent a myriad of different cultures, histories, reflections of people and are completely distinct entities.
For example the word belladonna means a beautiful lady in Italian whereas in English it is a deadly poison. Similarly while translating you may use more words in English to describe one word in French and vice – versa. It is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.
Good translation is not about word for word but capturing the meaning of the sentence and reproducing it faithfully in the new language. Hence as a language learner one should avoid word translation syndrome in favor of being dependent on correct meaning.
Having said this and based on my past experience, it is easier said than done especially when you have just started your language learning journey. It is like playing a new game whose rules are not known to you and you try to draw patterns from the ones that you know.
But as you start becoming familiar with the rules of your new language you should make a conscious effort to wean yourself from your mother tongue. Dependence on one’s native language is not completely toxic as it can save a lot of time from the tedious task of finding meanings of unknown words.
Like chemotherapy extreme dose of dependence on mother tongue can be linguistically fatal whereas the same therapy when used in an exact, specific and measured way can be worth the effort. The trick is to know when to stop.
2. Create mental image
An effective way of learning a language without being dependent on one’s native language is to create images of the word in your mind rather than finding the equivalent in your mother tongue.
Children learn their mother tongue by carefully observing their surroundings while they are listening to the word. So if they hear the word, hot, may be the image that forms in their mind would be fire or steam from a cup of tea. The same applies to second language acquisition and it would be more favorable to directly connect to mental images as everything you know or can relate to is nothing but an image in your mind.
So if you talk about fire, you should feel its heat, see its roaring flames and hear its crackling sound in your mind and focus on the image to create a new pathway that leads from this image to the word “fire” in the language that you’re trying to learn.
3. Be creative
Start mixing with whatever words you know to convey what you want to say. In a language if you know ten nouns, ten verbs and ten adjectives, you are in a position to say thousand different things. Start being creative by not restricting yourself to speak grammatically correct sentences. Be comfortable to commit mistakes and learn from them.
Every language has high frequency content. For example, in English, one thousand words can take care of 85% of things that is required to say in daily life. Three thousand words cover almost 98%. The rest happens to be the cherry on the icing. So focus on the core.
4. Get a language pal
It is always good to have a companion who knows the language well to assist you when you are learning to speak or have reached a certain level of independence. Find a guide who can create a safe environment for you and who makes you feel more confident by using words that you know and can communicate with gestures and body language.
More than finding a language pal, you should have the intellectual humility to accept constructive feedback and work upon your mistakes and the hunger to constantly update yourself. Don’t bask in the glory that you have mastered the language if you have qualified all the levels.
Even after attaining expert level by qualifying C1 level in French, I still feel that there is a lot to know in this language and I respect my friends who were native speakers and my ex colleagues of my school’s French department to correct me or help me whenever I falter.
To sum up learning a new language is like meandering one’s way up a steep mountain slope on a moonless night. The linguistic blindness imposed in such a situation can be resolved if we try to hold the reins of our own destiny.
According to Dr. Victor Frankl, a Nazi holocaust survivor, in his book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ , we choose to associate whatever meaning we wish to any situation in our lives.
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor philosopher and a practitioner of Stoicism philosophy, believed that ‘the pain you feel in any situation is not caused by the thing itself, but rather by your opinion of the thing, which you can change anytime you wish.
Change your meaning of language learning from ‘it is difficult and unpleasant’ to ‘it is easy, fun and enlightening process. Keep yourself calm and don’t be afraid to take the road less travelled by after all Sir John Berger once pointed out ‘One can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man.’