the once-over method & workbooks

I was reading another interesting post over at
Confessions of a Language Addict. gbarto discusses the phenomenon of people learning the “Na’vi” language from the movie Avatar, and how there’s a nice little workbook to help people learn, complete with little word games and stuff. He also mentions that it is suggested that people go through the workbook once quickly, to get a foundation, and then back through it a second time to solidify things. I was just writing a comment to respond, but it quickly grew and I decided to post it here.

Have we been going about language learning all wrong? We know that with Iverson lists, SRSs and Pimsleur’s Graduated Interval Recall, learning, forgetting and relearning is key. What if the answer is not to find the perfect course, but to find a good enough course, rush through it to get the main idea and do it again?

Ya, I can see what you’re saying here, I think. If you haven’t heard of him already, I’ll mention Moses McCormick, who does something like this, IIRC. He finds a book or three on his new target language, typically something like the Teach Yourself series (some of which have crosswords and whatnot), and then he goes through it once quickly to get an overview, and then goes back through it again to solidify. I may be missing several of the details, but I think that’s his general pattern, at least for the start. He then goes on to practice on chat rooms and skype, etc.

Personally, I do something related. When I start from scratch, I get whatever books I can that start from basics, and I whiz through as fast as I can (because those books tend to bore me, content-wise). Once I’ve gone through it and have an overview, instead of going back to do it a second time (*shudder*), I move to native materials.

For Swedish, I started with “Swedish: an essential grammar”, which contained almost everything I needed to know in order to understand how Swedish generally operated. I spent two days just flipping through that, trying to understand as many of the example sentences in there as I could. The problem with this sort of thing as an overall “method” is that I don’t think you’ll really learn tons this way. You could get the basics probably, if you’re dedicated to really studying that source material, but I view it more as a bootstrapping method to get you ready to dive into some native materials.

Once you have these sorts of basic concepts floating around in your head (not even “solidified”, for whatever that might mean), then you can easily make sense of a lot of native things like song lyrics and books (making liberal use of google translate, at least for me). There are many different strategies that go into learning a language, and they need to be things that you can continue doing for many months in a row, so they need to be fun.

I can’t see myself working over the same workbook over and over again until I know it perfectly. In fact, I never really go over anything until it’s perfect…I usually get whatever impressions I can get from each thing, and trust that it’s all slowly seeping into my head. For a while, I told myself that I’d go back and watch Star Trek: Deep Space 9 again after I was awesome at German, so that I could understand a bunch of the lines that I missed in the early episodes that I watched when I sucked. But really, I don’t need to. Sure, I haven’t extracted every little bit of valuable language information from all those hundreds of episodes, but is it worth it? Only if it’s fun or if I feel like that’s something I personally want to do, but not out of some sense of obligation to completeness.

Lately, I think I’m gradually becoming convinced by Khatsumoto’s idea that we needn’t read books front-to-back, but just bounce around and read whatever whenever. Don’t get too caught up about “completeness” or “thoroughness”, they just make you feel regret or guilt where you don’t need to. Instead, just get exposure to the language in whatever way you can, as often as you can.

In this sense, why go back and do the same workbook a second time? If you really want to, then go nuts. If you don’t then it’s fine, just move onto whatever else you have. Maybe that first once-over that gave you a whole bunch of “unsolidified” impressions was actually enough to help you continue with other things. No need to milk it for every last drop of language-learning goodness.

As I review this post, it seems to me that I really agree with most of that last sentence I quoted from gbarto: What if the answer is not to find the perfect course, but to find a good enough course, rush through it to get the main idea . Rather than searching for the optimal perfect method or material, just gather your sense of confidence and independence, and then go through your available materials quickly without worrying about completeness or perfection. Get whatever impressions you can, focus on things that are interesting, ignore the rest.

We’ve been trained too much by a memorization focus from formal schooling, where there’s some important test at the end. This kills our creativity and ability to absorb things naturally. In real life, there is no memorization test. Just enjoy things and soak them up like a sponge.


6 Responses to the once-over method & workbooks

  1. Neil Barker says:

    Good point. I used to figure I had to struggle my way through language books. I taught myself basic Japanese a few months ago using a combination of methods frohm AJATT, LingQ, and Benny from Fluent in 3 Months. Had a lot more fun and stuck with stuff I was interested in — and just applied it to Japanese.

    • doviende says:

      Ya, somehow that’s become a lot of peoples’ impression about “learning”. Front-to-back, study hard, learn every available fact, there’ll be a test at the end, and someone has to force you to do it. There’s a whole world of knowledge out there waiting to be discovered, but no one will force you and there’s usually no definitive book that you can do front-to-back and there’s no test at the end. School has trained many of us to actually be useless at learning.

  2. I did that with Spanish. I read through “Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish” quickly (I read the example sentences out loud). I really found it useful.

    It helps to know where you are going so that you know which road to take to get there.

  3. This implicates a point made in an earlier post on my blog (partially inspired by an earlier post on your blog): whether you can use the method you describe above depends on whether you want to get the target language up to 90% proficiency or 99% efficiency. This method could work well for 90% efficiency, but if you need to get to 99% proficiency—e.g., like I need to do in order to be able to read contracts in Japanese and other languages—I don’t think this method is sufficient.

  4. *or 99% proficiency

    My bad.

  5. Max says:

    You know how I learned this lesson? Computer role playing games 😀
    When I’d play a game, and wouldn’t be intimiately familiar with it, the skills of my characters, and so on, I’d naturally make some wrong decisions – I’d put skill points in dexterity which, I’d later find out, is absolutely useless for wizards, I’d max my fireballs out, because they look so cool, and it turns out they’re totally useless later in the game, and so on.
    So every now and then, I would start a new character, and “this time, I’d do it all right! Oh yeah, in the end my character will KICK ASS!” 🙂 Problem was, doing all the levels again, just focusing on ‘perfection’ totally took away my motivation to play, and I’d never make it further than the first few levels.
    Lesson learned: If I just wing it, I’ll see it through the end, however imperfect the process, but if I focus on methodological perfection, I can’t keep the whole project up.
    This wisdom has served me well ever since. Ha, and people think of playing games as a waste of time! 🙂

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