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.