Sunday, 2 January 2011

Things that worked (for learning another language)

After spending around three years trying to learn Brazilian Portuguese before noticing any real improvement, I worked out what doesn't work (watching Mulher Melancia videos, tragically) and what does work (for me). So, I thought I'd use the same, key techniques for learning French in four months:

Frequency dictionaries

Alphabetical order is like, so, last year. Frequency dictionaries give you words based on how often they appear in speech or writing. So, in my French frequency dictionary (Routledge's A Frequency Dictionary Of French), the first word in the dictionary is the up town, top ranking "the" (le), while limping in at number 5,000 is that massive loser "to collapse" (écrouler). Now, what makes these frequency dictionaries so powerful is that around 80% of everyday speech is made up of only 1,000 words.[2] So, with only a month or two of dedicated study, you can become familiar with the majority of words you'll ever encounter.
Now, you've got a list of words, what's the best way of cramming them into your eager little brainlet? One mistake I made with Portuguese was trying to learn words individually. And it's really hard. They're just like little meaningless noise-blobs. What makes them stick, as well as giving you extra grammar practice, is learning the words within whole sentences. What's great about the frequency dictionaries from Routledge is that they have example sentences in English and the language you're learning. But how do you actually learn these sentences, dammit?

Electronic flashcards of L1/L2 sentences

A card. Question on one side, answer on the other. Flashcards have been around since people have been trying to learn things, but technology has given electronic flashcards several advantages over their papery cousins:
  1. You can carry them around in your smartphone
  2. They don't get dogeared and grubby and fall out of your pocket and leave you trying to play 52-card pickup on the tube whilst some coffee-eyed, stress cadet commuter treads all over où est le bureau de poste, madame?.
  3. Most use spaced-repetition software.
Now, it's the spaced-repetition software (SRS), that makes electronic flashcards so badass. Spaced repetition means that there's a space between each time you look at a card. And these gaps increase depending on how well you remembered what it is that you're trying to remember.
And it really works. (Based on the scientific facts that 1) I'm not the sharpest egg in the being-able-to-remember-stuff basket and 2) I can remember loads of stuff if I use an SRS.) Seriously, no matter how bad you think your memory is, if you use an SRS, you won't have a choice but to remember everything. It literally won't let you forget.
So, by putting all the example sentences from your frequency dictionary into your SRS cards, you'll be combining two awesome methods of learning into one puta madre language-acquisition WMD.

Which SRS should I use, then?

Anki. It's free; it's well-designed; and you can sync the version on your computer to the mobile one on your phone.

Learning the grammar

You know, it's ironic. "I hate grammar. It's too hard.", people say. In grammatically perfect, textbook sentences. If you can speak a language, you know grammar. What you might not know is its terminology. And it does sound intimidating (OMG, he said "first-person imperfect"!). But it's not. And if you can handle learning a new word for "dog" (chien) you can handle a new word for "I, you, he, she, it, we and they" (personal subject pronoun).
The easiest and quickest way to get a grip on the structure of a language is to understand its grammar explicitly. Not doing this, and avoiding learning grammar, is like buying something, not reading the manual and then whinnying that you don't know how to use it properly. RTFM, already.
OK, OK, OK, I've stopped being a massive wussbaby and I'm going to buy a book about French grammar. But which one?
I admit: some of the books on grammar out there are pretty hardcore. But rather than blowing your mind with lists of rules and table after table of verb conjugations, I'd recommend using a book like Living French. It covers pretty much all the grammar you'll need, with plenty of examples (although all the fill-in-the-blank exercises can get a bit job-application-formesque after a while).


More spaced repetition, but this time it's audio. You listen to a phrase, repeat it, a bit later, you repeat it again. For 90 30-minute lessons. The way it asks you to imagine scenes in France and how you'd respond is almost like being hypnotized: "you're in bar, ask the women next to you..." And the constant (spaced, of course) repetition drills the sentences deeply into your subconscious. This ends up being somewhere between making-you-want-to-headbutt-the-wallingly boring and whale-song-listeningly relaxing...
Now, because they usually introduce a new word syllable by syllable, you end up with a fairly good, understandable accent. And the endless loops of repetition enable you to respond without translating, or working out answers in your head, which is great for increasing your speaking speed.
The subject matter is standard holiday-maker stuff (directions, tickets, cats on tables), with an amusing, but slightly seedy emphasis on meeting women in bars and asking them out for lunch. (The only LOL moment in Pimsleur French so far has been in Part 1, lesson 14, when the female character screams NON in exasperation after being asked whether she can go for a meal at six heures?, oh, OK, maybe sept heures?, no, really? Ummm, huit heures, please? Please? (While Pimsleur is great for learning languages, it's certainly not good for learning how to pick up "beautiful laydeez".))
Pimsleur's only downside is that the price is quite, um, "big boned". Actually, I'm lying. Pimsleur has a fat price tag. Its price does indeed look big in that tag. It is REALLY expensive. And because the vocabulary is pretty limited (I've read claims that you'll only learn 500 separate words after 90 lessons) the £-to-word ratio is pretty bad. Despite all that, I actually think that for what it gives you: an understandable accent, the ability to respond to questions in your new language without translating in your head and the ability to effortlessly conjugate some key verbs (like "to be", "to go", "to arrive") in several tenses, it's worth it. But it's certainly not credit-crunch friendly...

[1] L1/L2 isn't an annoying bleepy robot, it's linguistics jargon: L1 = your native language, L2 = the language you're learning.
[2] from Nation, Paul.(2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Things that sucked (for learning another language)

I tried to learn to speak Portuguese once. So even though this is a blog about learning French, I'm going to be spending a bit of time looking back on my Portuguese-learning endeavours. You know, some of the things I spent my time doing sucked. And by "sucked" I mean: "didn't help me learn Portuguese"...

Going to Portuguese classes at a college
Apart from not having to worry about being wedgied and the teacher not constantly unleashing sarcastic put-downs *, this was just like GCSE French. A total waste of time. Horrific comedy-English 'Allo 'Allo-esque accents that made me not ever want to say the word "cerveja" again (sir-vay-ja? got any sir-vay-jas, mate? Lovely). Mind-numbing, blank-filling, paper-wasting conjugation "exercises". And students with the mentality that the teacher was somehow going to magically beam the language into their eager little minds whilst they sat there slack-jawed and dreaming of buying a muffin in the tea-break. Never again.

Michel Thomas Portuguese
Unlike most language learning books and CDs, these are recordings of real (supposedly) language lessons using the Michel Thomas method. His method is meant to be super-amazing and get you to ninja-level language skills in like, four hours. Unfortunately, the two students on the CD are some of the most punchable people ever recorded (him: smug and perky, her: producer of the most unbearably cat-on-heat-like nasal vowels hearable). I never got past the second CD. Amazingly, I actually got the Michel Thomas French course. I was that sucked in by the claims of insta-ninja megaskills. The French course features the real Michel Thomas. Unfortunately, it was even worse than the Portuguese one. You know... if I wanted to hear a grumpy old man shouting at idiots, I'd go and visit my Granddad.

Trying to learn individual words
Without context, words don't really get recognized by your brain (well, mine), as anything useful. And while you can jam them into your short-term memory like so many soggy Bermuda shorts in an overstuffed, sandy suitcase, as soon as you encounter them in the wild, you're just left with the uncomfortable haven't-we-met-somewhere-before-actually-maybe-not-sorry feeling of passive recognition without understanding. Luckily, things got better after reading some blog posts about learning languages through sentences...

OK, that's enough negativity for one post. In the next one, I'll bring the love and talk about what actually works when trying to learn a new language. And what I'm going to be doing to become fluent in French!

* "You know, you lot do sound a lot like real French kids. Shame it's the ones on the Special Needs bus." (and that's a real, genuine, secondary-school-in-Devon-in-the-early-90s-teacher quote, folks)

the great worked/ sucked divide

Four years ago I started learning Portuguese. And now I'm pretty OK. I can speak to people, read emails, books, and sometimes make jokes that are slightly amusing. Looking back, I realise that I spent a lot of time doing things I thought were teaching me the language, which were just teaching me about the language. And a lot of things that were so boring and annoying they were counter-productive.

So, here's a list of everything I did, divided into two groups. Things that worked. And things that sucked.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

damn, I only know two French words

Well, I haven't started learning French completely from scratch. Oh no. I have an academic qualification. In French! A grade "C" GCSE. For seriously.

Unfortunately, the only thing I can remember from studying French for two years is how to request that someone does something impolite to their mother and how to say "potato". Now that's great if I want to start fights with root vegetables, but not really useful in the real, actual world.

So, where has everything I learned gone? Is it still in my brain, in some mummified form, waiting to be resurrected into an unstoppable French-speaking force of nature, like a linguistic Mumm-Ra? Or has it been replaced with all that vital (but English) adult knowledge of spreadsheets and pin numbers?

Well, all today I listened to French hip hop on my mp3 player. Hoping that some words would pop back. Hoping that it would trigger the French DNA dormant in my brain stem to create new French cells (um, I also got a "C" in Science). But nothing. Not a single "where is the post office?". I don't know how to say "post office". I used to. And now I don't. How did that happen?

Well, after racking my brain I asked the internet about French words that exist in English, hoping that I could add some to my list. Unfortunately, I only knew about 30. And while some of those words are pretty sweet, for instance, "agent provocateur", "coup de grâce", "coup d'état", they're not really taking me past the whole potato-provoking sweary stage.

So, what am I going to do, to go from 32ish words to fluency in four months? Simple: I'm not going to do any of the things that suck when learning foreign languages.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

un assisté, moi?

I have to learn French in four months! And this is my blog about it...

So, why do I need to learn French and why do I need to learn it in four months? Well, I have a new French girlfriend, who's invited me to a chic Parisian wedding next April. There's €500 bowls on the wedding list. Sophisticated cousins. Rich uncles. "So, would you like to go?", she asks. "Hell, yeah," I answered. "Well, you better learn French, then. I don't want you being an assisté". 

I didn't know what an assisté was. And the fact that I didn't know, made me think I probably was one.

And I was right. An assisté is a variety of loser, specifically, one who needs assistance. All the time. There's no way I wanted to be one of those. So, I decided, right away, I was going to learn French. To fluency. In four months...

Let's see how it goes.