Where on Earth Do I START?

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First of all- welcome all you lovely new followers!  While not British, the only word that comes to mind to describe how I feel about all the attention my last post received is chuffed.  It’s a fine word for it- Martin Freeman would approve.  I hope you continue to find my posts useful or at least entertaining.

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You have decided to learn a new language.  You are committed- you are willing to shell out some financial resources (within reason), you have carved some time into your hectic schedule, you have set a goal and by golly, you achieve your goals.  You are good to go!

That is, until you walk into a bookstore and stare blankly at the rows and rows of language learning materials.  Or you do a Google Search and find a dozen sites and that’s not including the advertised ones.  If this is your first rodeo, you don’t have the first clue what gear and get-up you need.

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Please allow me to be of service.Here are my suggestions.

1.Start simple.

When I first started being interested in languages (and had disposable income), I bought every resource imaginable.  I stored dozens of websites in a folder in my bookmarks list.  I even checked out every library book I could find.  The result?

I was so overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information that I didn’t really absorb any of it.

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If this IS your first rodeo, I suggest you start with ONE good source, maybe 3 at the most.  That doesn’t mean don’t dabble with others- just don’t commit beyond your means and in this case your means are your study time and your brain’s maximum intake.  As you find a rhythm, you’ll learn how to navigate more smoothly between various sources and use resources appropriately.  But in my experience, too many resources at the beginning is similar to too many cooks in the kitchen.  You get frustrated and distracted and before you know it, you’ve burned the sauce.

2. Get the RIGHT resources

I am a public school teacher.  I am someone who learns best in a classroom environment.  Therefore I DO advocate getting a quality textbook.  Why?  GOOD textbooks do the following:

  • Structure learning in a format similar to how the brain takes in linguistic information (i.e. it puts the morphemes and syntax structures in an order that linguists have come to call the “natural order” or the order your brain would learn them in under immersion circumstances.)  This means you are more likely to actually retain the new structures because you’ve learned the ones your brain sees as prerequisites first.
  • Blend vocabulary and grammar together.  New language learners tend to get completely focused on one or the other.  In my opinion, your adult brain needs both.  You don’t need to spend 5 years deducing the grammar from a series of authentic sentences- you can speed it up.  Likewise, learning all the grammar in the world may make you able to explain how a language works, but it won’t get you speaking it.  You need both to optimize your language learning.
  • Offer a variety of practice strategies and activities.  These can be especially useful if you have a language learning partner but aren’t sure where to start with conversational practice.  Trying some of the book exercises and discussing your answers together can help improve your recall and the depth of your comprehension of new content.
  • Make you aware of cultural information.  While not a substitute for authentic material and situations, textbooks often include snippets of real literature, information about famous persons, and notes on cultural quirks and customs that are unique to the area that speaks your new language.  These can be both useful and interesting and may give you ideas on where to look for more information, both on your language and its culture.

What do I mean by a GOOD textbook?  Well, that could be a post all on its own.  Without going off on too much of a tangent, I suggest looking at what textbooks local colleges and high schools are using.  Take note of the copyright- make sure it is within the last decade as linguistic research has radically changed how textbooks are organized now.  Current textbooks, such as Avancemos for Spanish, are much more skill-based and culture rich than their predecessors.  You can often find used copies of books online.  They may be a bit pricey, so do your research first.  However, a great textbook is well worth a few extra dollars.

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(I highly recommend Japanese in Mangaland and  corresponding workbook.  It is fun and well-structured.) (For any language, I am not a big fan of the For Dummies or Everything About series.  Both tend to put too much grammar into one chapter and do not provide enough opportunities to reinforce the material.  But to each their own.)

 

 

You will also eventually need a good dictionary.  This could be in the form of an app with today’s technology, though I admit to still being a fan of my old hardback copy.  (I’ll explain why in another post.)  There is a lot of controversy over whether one should use a target language to native language dictionary or a dictionary IN the target language (i.e. Webster’s but with Spanish definitions).  Personally I think both have their uses and especially if you are going the digital route and can find such resources for free or cheap, I suggest getting both.

3.Use social media wisely

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Social media can be a great way for you to get a daily dose of your language, even when life throws you a curveball and you can’t study.  I set my Facebook into either Spanish or Japanese at all times.  (Word to the wise- take a mental note of how many lines down the “Account Settings” button is before you do this.  It will help if there is a vital reason you need to change it back.)  My cellphone is also in Spanish.  This means every SINGLE day (heck let’s face it, almost every hour), I am confronted by some foreign text.  The great thing?  My brain quickly STOPS thinking about it as foreign text.  It starts seeing a puzzle to solve and eventually recognizes words without me even realizing I learned them.

Twitter and Tumblr are two other great sources.  Follow 1 or 2 people that are either native speakers of your L2 or who offer something in it.  There is a great tumblr blog called Spanish-quotes that takes popular English quotes and translates them.  That can be a great positive start to your day and your learning.  On Twitter I follow musicians, sports stars, news sites, and so forth to get a daily dose of language.  The news sites can be especially useful in your growth in language, as they often link to actual articles so that as your vocabulary improves you can start increasing your reading exposure.  Don’t sell those celeb tweets short however; many of those can teach you about modern slang and “texting” type writing skills you WON’T find in any textbook.

4.Balance your materials

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I said it earlier in my pro-textbook rant but I’ll repeat.  You NEED to balance grammar and vocabulary.  Having both WILL increase your efficiency in language learning.  It is important to note however that YOUR balance and MY balance may look different.  I am a very grammar driven person and so my balance is probably 60-40, with grammar leading the way.  I have friends who hate language rules and their balance looks more like a 30-70 split with vocabulary clearly winning.  I stress that you tweak your program until you find the balance that feels right for YOU.

You also need to balance your skills.  Try to get yourself using all 4- listening, speaking, reading, and writing- as soon as possible.  A good book will likely promote this, but if you find yourself struggling, check out italki or a similar site for ideas to work each skill.  Youtube is filled with listening opportunities, PalTalk and Skype are filled with native speakers to connect with, and there are e-pal matching websites all over the web.  Reading material is a news or Wikipedia search away. (Or check out LingQ which has tons of reading and listening material.)  Use your tools- but don’t let them use you.   Find one or two you like, make your habits, and keep it simple until you are ready to add more.

Don’t become paralyzed by the sheer abundance- recognize that banquets are great, but you don’t have to stuff yourself to the brim.  Take what you want now- the rest will still be there later for you to partake.

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5.Follow your OWN gut

This is easily the most important on the list.

You may be reading this thinking “But I freaking HATE textbooks.  I like mess, I like jumping from one thing to the next.  I have lots of native input available to me and that is where I want to start.”  You want to know how I respond to that?

More power to you.

The MOST important thing you must do as a language learner is to take charge of your own learning.  You have to be intrinsically motivated for this- it’s a lifelong process and while external factors may help light the fire, only you can stoke the coals.

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This means you have to know yourself well.  Know how you learn and how you need to organize your time and materials.  Do you need to schedule study sessions or assign yourself tasks?  Do you need lots of grammar and slow and steady increase of vocabulary?  Or do you prefer to flood yourself with words and reference grammar as you go to help parse it all out?  Do you need to keep a binder of your notes, with tabs for vocabulary sections and grammar concepts and skills input practice?  Do you even NEED to take notes?

For me personally, I need about 60% grammar at the beginning and 40% vocabulary in terms of my direct instruction.  I need simple skills practice spread out over a reasonable length of time.  I challenge myself to do ONE thing with my languages daily but I don’t assign a time or specifics to which thing I do what day.   I keep a notebook and my materials together and do often use highlighters and tabs to color code my work.  If I can, I attend a class.  At minimum, I find a language partner.  THIS is what works for me.  BUT it’s not what works for everyone.  My friend who I’ve often mentioned before is a much more solitary learner.  He is not one for taking notes or book instruction.  He is one for diving into authentic material head-on.  He is, paradoxically to some people, also a HUGE grammar nut.  He is a big fan of processes like shadowing and constant audio input.  He had successfully taught himself Japanese BECAUSE he KNOWS what works for him.

I give you my advice from my own experiences both as a learner and a teacher of languages.  But I would be amiss to not request that you use them only as you yourself see fit.  I hope this gives a bit of clarity to anyone lost in the overwhelming sea of “where do I begin?”  Here, my friend, have a life preserver.

And then?  Just keep swimming. 😉

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/31/14.