Myths about language learning

Steve Kaufmann   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 03:30 GMT
I like the no-nonsense approach of the much of the advice on this website. It is a refreshing change from what one sees in most books on the subject of language teaching. I am a businessman, not a teacher.

I want to comment on some of the myths debunked here. I agree that a classroom is an inefficient place to learn a language. I agree that just speaking a foreign language does not guarantee improvement, nor does visiting the country where that language is spoken. However, each of these three actions can be motivating. All can provide feedback on how one is doing. To that extent they can be useful.

The secret is that language learning (acquisition of the words and phrases of the language) has to be done on one's own. Listening, reading and the systematic study of words and phrases is the key. I call this the "language learning engine". And the content should be interesting.

I am against the idea that one has to be correct all the time. I speak nine languages fluently, do business in all of them, have appeared on television in many of them and make many mistakes. You will always be imperfect in a second language. (Note that I am very fluent in the languages I speak, but not perfect).

Pronunciation is important but should not be overemphasized any more than perfection in grammar. Communication is the main thing.

Efficiency in the study methods is key. It creates intensity. So forget the dictionary. Study material with word lists or read on the computer where you can access instant dictionaries, in order to gain new vocabulary. Then do not bother looking up words when you read a book or a newspaper. Get fluent, get confident, enjoy yourself !
Paul M   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 07:52 GMT
Great advice if i may say so. :)
May I ask what are the names of the languages you can speak?
Tom   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 13:29 GMT

Thanks for posting.
I completely agree that classes, speaking, and visiting a foreign country can be very important motivating factors for a language learner.

I also agree that it is a good idea to pick up phrases from input that you chose yourself, rather than artificial input your teacher gave you. The reason is that it's easy to convince yourself that you really need a phrase that you came across in a book you're reading, while phrases selected by your teacher are often perceived as "imposed from above".

You write that you speak nine languages fluently and make many mistakes. You haven't specified how many mistakes you make, but if it's more than, say, one mistake per five sentences, I wouldn't call you "fluent". For me, fluency has two components: correctness and ease of speaking.

You also have to keep in mind that the standards for English are much higher than what is required of foreign speakers of other languages, due to the worldwide status and popularity of English. You're allowed to make more mistakes in a language like German, because there aren't that many people who speak German as a foreign language. In English, competition from other speakers is more intense. As a result, you have to meet much higher requirements, and you have to be more careful to avoid mistakes.

You write "So forget the dictionary. Study material with word lists or read on the computer where you can access instant dictionaries, in order to gain new vocabulary."

- If I study only material with word lists, then my choice of material will be severely limited. I will not be reading what I find interesting -- I'll be reading what someone has prepared for me.
- Reading on the computer is much more tiring than reading print material. I find I can read a book for much longer than I can read things online. Obviously, if you read more, you learn more.
- Not sure why you wrote "forget the dictionary" and then suggested using online dictionaries.
garans   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 15:12 GMT

I study English about 13 years.
In 3 years I learnt to read without a dictionary (I learnt more than 10 000 words).

Then there were so many troubles with spoken Engliah.
So many illusions while listening!

Now I can get about 80% in movies and songs. But I need to listen to them regulary, otherwise I lose this skill.

I tried to understand the English phonetics varieties, but it seems that it is a random process and spoken skills develop subconsciously.
Steve Kaufmann   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 17:21 GMT
As a first time participant on this forum I am delighted at the high quality of the replies to my post and the sympathy of views. In answer to some of the questions:
Paul M
1) I speak (in declining order of proficiency) English, French, Japanese, Mandarin,(all close to native speaker) Spanish, Swedish, German, Italian, Cantonese( quite fluent), and now can carry on a conversation with difficulty in Korean and Portuguese.
2) I agree it is important to select your own content as much as possible. When you first start to learn a language this is difficult to do but you should strive to do so as soon as possible. It keeps you motivated and it makes it more tolerable to listen to and read the same content over and over again, which is so necessary. What is more, it is part of cultivating a spirit of self-directed discovery and initiative in learning a langauge, rather than sitting back and being taught at.
3) All examples of words and phrases must come from your listening and reading. Any examples from dictionaries, or books with "useful words or phrases" are difficult to remember.
4) As to how many mistakes I make I do not know. I know that native speakers find me very fluent, and in my best 4 languages often do not know at first, on the phone, that I am foreign. Yet I know that my ability to express myself is more limited than that of the native speaker, and I know that things like gender as well as verb and case agreement can go astray.
I do not disagree that accuracy should be a goal of language learning.I think that this most easily controlled in writing and having writing corrected. Working on natural phrasing is an imortant way to become more accurate, naturally. However,when speaking, you should concentrate on communicating and not feel too inhibited. I know fluent speakers of English who regularly commit grammar errors that are typical of German or French of Japanese. They are still fluent to me. On the other hand standards for writing need to be higher.
5) Standards for English may be higher than for other languages, especially if you work for an international company. However, many people need to be encouraged to reach a more or less fluent yet imperfect level of English. Demanding perfection does not help these people.
6) I agree that text-books with word lists are limiting in terms of choice of content. That is the old way. It is still preferrable to the dictionary approach because dictionary use is so time consuming, and the meaning you just looked up is so quickly forgotten. Yes, the computer is tiring and less pleasant than reading a book. However the computer has several great advantages.
A great deal of content is available in e-book format. Often audio content for the same material can be found. Any word or phrases search via a computer dictionary can then be linked to the sentence where it was found and to all other sentences in your personal content library which contain that word or phrase. Lists of these words and phrases (with all the meaningful examples from your reading and listening attached) can then be automatically generated for review. These lists can be customized in many ways and printed. This creates a very efficient way to review new words and phrases , in conjunction with reading (on paper if you like) and listening to the content from whence these words and phrases came. There are even more useful functions possible by using the computer. You can still spend most of your time listening on an MP3 player or CD player or reading on paper, but a small investment of time on the computer will ensure a steady and measurable increase in vocabulary.
Most errors in speaking and writing by non-native speakers of English relate to the correct choice of words, the use of prepositions and articles and verb agreement. All of these are most easily corrected by learning appropriate phrases and better control of vocabulary, rather than theoretical grammar explanations. The computer can even link the learning of new words of phrases with their (correct or incorrect)use in writing when writing samples are corrected and analyzed on the computer.Such a system does exist.
Watch movies and listen to songs for fun. To improve your language, however, listen to the same content over and over. Get an audio book you are interested in and the same book in print. Listen to and read the same material over and over until you cannot take it anymore. Note down key words and phrases that you want to be able to use. Wait for them when you listen.
Practice pronouncing by reading English. Record yourself and listen to yourself and compare to the native speaker. Get used to the way the language is written and pronounced in all its inconsistencies. Forget your native language and what the letters mean in your language. Avoid phonetic script. The language itself is the great teacher.
Although I run a lumber trading company I have written a book on language learning (my passion) but I guess I am not allowed to mention it here.
Boy   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 17:50 GMT
why not! you def can write a thorough review on your book.
Someone   Saturday, July 31, 2004, 23:24 GMT
Wow. You didn't have to write an essay.
Juan   Sunday, August 01, 2004, 03:54 GMT
Steve Kaufmann,

I am in agreement with most of what you have to say. Don't worry about the length of your posts either, no one is holding a gun to someone's head to read it. If you don't like it, DON'T READ IT.
Tom   Sunday, August 01, 2004, 12:52 GMT
"Any examples from dictionaries, or books with "useful words or phrases" are difficult to remember."

-- I'm inclined to agree. But the advantage of such examples is that they often do a better job of demonstrating the usage than examples you would encounter in books (because they are either engineered or carefully selected by lexicographers).

"However,when speaking, you should concentrate on communicating and not feel too inhibited."

-- Well, I think that, when learning English, you should concentrate on learning English the right way, not on communicating. Too much output and too little input results in fossilization.

"However, many people need to be encouraged to reach a more or less fluent yet imperfect level of English. Demanding perfection does not help these people."

-- Perhaps every English learner should be asked to choose one of the following goals:
1) Speaking easily with mistakes that will be very hard to eliminate.
2) Speaking easily and correctly.

If they choose (1), they can talk and ignore their mistakes, as long as they're understandable. If they choose (2), they must be very careful to speak correctly from the very beginning.

"It is still preferrable to the dictionary approach because dictionary use is so time consuming, and the meaning you just looked up is so quickly forgotten."

-- Two answers to this one: software dictionaries (hardly time-consuming to look up a word) and SuperMemo (forget about forgetting).

"Avoid phonetic script. The language itself is the great teacher."
-- I strongly disagree. This may be true of languages other than English, in which the pronunciation matches the spelling.

In addition to the reasons given in the article above, I would add that learning phonetic symbols is useful because it lets you form separate "boxes" in your head for individual sounds and prevents you from mixing them up.
garans   Sunday, August 01, 2004, 13:49 GMT
I think there is a practical truth in the Steve proposition.

There are lots of rules, words, phrases and idioms in every English. But the popular stuff is not such a big one. In real communication we learn only phrases and words that are used frequently.

Plus we learn to be confidant when we don't know a word or a phrase - we just guess possible meanings.

On the other hand guessing is not a good thing, especially in spoken English. If you dont know the accent you wont understand a speaker.

Then as a basis of a language, communicative spoken tonque is an effective and good thing. But to get proficiency we need to know 3-5 times more.

The trouble is - there is not a good book on communicative spoken English with a lot of examples. At least I don't know it. But communicating on American or British forums may be a good practice too.
Steve K.   Sunday, August 01, 2004, 15:17 GMT
I mostly agree with your ideas but differ a little on the points you have raised. I guess not everyone learns the same way.

Yes input should be 75% of your study time. Here I refer to a systematic combination of listening, reading and reviewing words and phrases always based on the same interesting authentic content. My learning system offers this. Just speaking will not do it! But when you speak, do not be a perfectionist or you will not enjoy yourself. Just pick a few areas where you had problems and take them back to your input work. Just a few at a time! This way you will improve and still enjoy yourself. Perfectionism is bad for language learning and for golf.

When using an online dictionary(the only kind I use) I need translation, not just explanation in the language I am learning. That starts my acquaintance with the new word. If I meet the word a few more times I will understand it and soon be able to use it. I cannot remember from dictionary examples that are not part of meaningful content I am learning from.

On phonetic script, many foreign learners who know phonetic script have awful pronunciation because they still pronounce English the way it is written (based on their own language). People can be trained to read English based on English and then they will pronounce most words correctly. There will always be new words that they do not pronounce correctly. Someone will correct them if it matters.

Supermemo is a great concept. Something similar is incorporated into our system where the learner selects words and phrases from content he or she has chosen, and then is regularly tested on these words and phrases They appear less and less frequently until they are considered known. This system also collects sentences where these words and phrases are used. These can then be reviewed and lists printed for use in writing etc.
mike   Tuesday, August 03, 2004, 16:05 GMT
I'm afraid there's no one fixed and best method of learning a foreign language. I have already 'invented' a number of different methods that I would use over some time but to date none of them proved to be flawless. Learning a language is not an easy thing because the problem is that you are always at a different stage of the learning process. The methods you use at the beggining of language acquisitition turn out to be useless once you've reached a certain level. You just have to watch your progress and adapt to new realities.