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.


  1. Top tips Stuart - spanks. I've been using Pimsleur Portuguese which I borrowed from the library so no fat price tag... Frequency dictionaries are the shit by the sounds of things and it seems I must get my flashcard freak on too...I'm still goin to chek out Mulher Melancia though - I'm curious...

  2. Hey, this is fantastic! Although, I can't access the aforementioned links to frequency dictionaries. Could you possibly re-up them on your site? Thank you so much.

  3. Thanks! Fixed the link issue...

  4. I'd like to follow in your footsteps. But I'm not exactly sure as how to obtain such frequency dictionaries, living in the U.S.

    I can see the logic and the flow of your method, and I must say that I'll follow it once I obtain the materials!