Free Language Learning Mini Series – Episode 2 – How to Start Learning a Language
As promised, here’s the second episode of the free language learning mini series. In this episode David Mansaray and I go into detail about the beginning stages of language learning and how to set yourself up for success. We would appreciate your feedback, so please leave your thoughts in the comments once you’re done listening. Enjoy!
David: Hello all and welcome to another episode of this mini-series exclusive for those of you signed up to the newsletter over at the polyglotdream.com My name is David Mansaray and I am here today talking with Luca Lampariello and the topic of today’s discussion is “how to get started with a foreign language? Now for those of you who are students of foreign language you may feel that this is a trivial topic but as you will find out in the next few minutes the process of getting started with a language is one that is is extremely important, it is a delicate stage in the process and Luca and I are going to discuss how you can take advantage of the tools available to you and combine them with different techniques to make sure you are getting the best possible start. So Luca, as you have learned a number of different languages, my first question to you is going to be very very simple and that is: Why is the beginning stage of learning a language so important?
Luca: Well I always say that no matter the process you are facing, one of the most delicate and most important phases is without a doubt the beginning, how to start. Now, why is it delicate? It is delicate because at the beginning when you try to learn a foreign language everything looks foreign, that’s the reason why they call it a “foreign” language. You don’t anything about grammar, you don’t know anything about sounds. Sounds sound strange to you. And above all people have no clue as how to start. “What do I have to do?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions. And also I would say that the reason why a lot of people fail at language learning is because they give up at the beginning, after 2 or 3 weeks. They start with a lot of enthusiasm, they get hold of a lot of books but then they don’t see the point of learning a language. They should do some things even before hitting the books and that is very important.
David: Let’s explore that a little bit. Because I think that most beginning language learners, when they think about getting started with a language, they are going to think “what resources should I be using, what books should I buy, what websites should I be listening to, what websites should I be using, etc etc. But it seems though that there are some things that are more important when we are getting started. It sounds to me that what you are talking about is getting your mindset into the right frame and making sure that you maybe have the right expectations etc. So let’s talk a little about what needs to be in place before you start thinking about materials.
Luca: Ok they are interesting questions. Actually as I said before, one of the most frequently asked question that I get on the internet or on YouTube is “what kind of resources should I use to learn a foreign language, but I think that the first step should be another one. Getting your mindset. The first question that you should ask yourself is “why do I want to learn this language?” There might be a lot of reasons why you just started to learn a given language. A person that you met, a girl, a friend. Or maybe you visited a given country and you found it interesting and you really want to explore its culture. Maybe you read a book that you find particularly interesting and that opened doors to an incredible world that you want to explore. If your motivation and the reason why you are learning a language is strong, everything else is going to be strong. Your language learning process is going to be strong and you are going to want to continue learning. A lot of times people start with a weak motivation because they don’t know what they are doing exactly. For example, let’s suppose that everybody is learning Spanish because it is a very popular language and you tell yourself “I want to learn Spanish” because everybody is learning Spanish. But then if you don’t have a strong motivation or a strong reason, or a goal in mind, you are not going to continue learning. It is about the right mindset, as well as having precise goals: what you want to do with the language etc etc. The combination of goals and motivation is very important. It is a combination of reasons and goals, reasons and goals.
David: And I want to put you on the spot here Luca, because I know that a lot of people who follow you on the Internet you know they see you as “Luca the Polyglot”, the guy who speaks so many languages, he doesn’t have any difficulties and, you know, he is able to pick up any language and learn it. But I know that this is not always the case, I am going to bring up the case – correct me if I am wrong – was it Romanian, a language that you thought was not interesting as you wanted it to be and you were unable to continue. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Did I get the language right?
Luca: Yes you got it right, you always get it right David. This is one glaring example of what you were saying. I started learning Romanian..I don’t really remember exactly why I started learning Romanian and that is also an indication as to the fact that maybe I didn’t have such a strong motivation. Now I think that maybe it was the very first time that it happened, that I started learning a language and I dropped it. Now I wouldn’t say that I totally dropped it, maybe I am going to pick it up again in the future. But as time went by I just realized that I didn’t have enough motivation to continue, I didn’t have a very clear goal in mind. I was learning Japanese as well and for some reason Japanese interested much more. Probably if I just visited Romania, or if I had had the chance of meeting somebody, Romanians – I did meet some Romanians while I was in Paris but I didn’t build a strong relationship with them and to me people are one of the most important reasons as to why one should learn a language. It is not just about the culture of a country. People themselves are vehicles of culture, so I did meet some Romanians but my interest and passion for Romanian waned with time while my passion for Japanese just took off. So, that’s one glaring example that when you don’t have a clear, specific reason as to why you should learn a language, you don’t have contact with native speakers, you don’t visite the country or you are not interested in the culture then everything falls apart. Now I am not saying that everything fell apart insofar as Romanian is concerned, I am just saying that in the course of time, the fact that I didn’t have a strong motivation and a clear objective to keep learning it just brought me to a stop, you know?
David: Ok, fantastic. So we need to make sure that we have the right motivation to move forward in the language, it is very important even before you start thinking about resources. Now, let’s start talking about resources and maybe the best techniques as well. When one is thinking about resources for learning a language, what does this stage involve exactly, how do we beginners the resources that help us learn a language?
Luca: Now, we live in an era where everything is possible, more so than 20 years ago. Yesterday I was just thinking about it, because a friend of mine just asked me “how did you learn languages 20 years ago?” Well, first of all 20 years ago I was too little to learn but I remember that when I was 12 and I wanted to learn English I didn’t have that many resources to learn English, and to learn a language in general. I used to cassettes, the old audio cassettes as well as some books. But now people have, they have the internet. The internet has changed everything. But the internet is a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. So when people ask me “what kind of resources should I use?” Now, the very first thing that one should do, even before choosing anything, is learn how to choose language learning material, this is extremely important. Now there are 2 ways of doing that. One is in normal life, you can simply go to a library and you can buy a book, a language series, and/or you can download things from the Internet or download stuff from language sites that offer all sorts of services. If we talk about paper books, I would say that there are 2 main principles which are extremely important. First don’t buy 300.000 books, because quantity doesn’t mean quality, so I would say that the one thing that you should do is to search on the Internt for good language series. Now I can cite a couple that I really like but that doesn’t mean that they are better than the others, they are better for me. So the fact that I always talk about ASSIMIL doesn’t mean that ASSIMIL is the best language series there is on the market.What I would do if I had to choose something like a book, first I would search on the Internet then I would go to a library and I would leaf through the books to see if you like it visually. If you like something visually, this is some of the very things that you should do, it entices you, it motivates you to use it. Secondly, you have to try to see if the quality is good. How do you do that? Well, you know, there are a lot of famous language series that you can find on the library and people say “oh, they are great, fantastic etc etc” but I think that you should really spend a couple of hours trying to figure out if that books suits your needs and tastes. That is quite important as well. And then another very important thing as I always say, the “what” is important, what kind of books, but also the how is even more important. As I always say, it doesn’t really matter what book you use – I mean it does matter to a certain degree – but what really matters is how you use books, it makes a huge, huge, huge difference. Because if you just buy a book and you consider it as “a book you bought” and don’t use it, you don’t “absorb” its content, it remains just a book and the knowledge that is in that book is not gonna be transferred in your brain, you have to make sure that you get the gist of the book. Now getting the gist of the book doesn’t mean that you have to learn it by heart. Rote memorization is one of the worst things that can happen to you insofar as language learning is concerned. So you have to make sure that you know how to transfer the “know-how” of that book into your brain. This are the 2 most important things. So, to recap, you go to the library, you also you use the Internet if you want – and you to find a book that you like visually and with interesting content, leaf through the book and see if it is organized the way you like it. Some people, you know Robert Bigler, Robert is a friend of ours and he said he doesn’t like ASSIMIL because its bilingual version, you have a language one page and the other on the other side, he doesn’t like it, so some people…to each his own. If you don’t like that book you can go for another book that provides the things that you like. And the second thing is the how. So don’t think about memorizing the content of that book, language learning is not a subject to study, but an ability that you acquire, and you have to not only “grasp” the content, but make sure that the content is transferred into your head so that you can use that content in other situations.
David: So you know, everything you have said here really comes down to one thing: making sure that you are going through the process of exploration in a sense. Discovering what is that works for you as an individual, and I think that this is a very important point to drive home with for the listeners, as we all know on the Internet we have a number of people admired for their language abilities, and you know, looking at the comments and the questions they get, it is always, often along the lines of “I am trying to do what you are doing, doesn’t work for me”, or “should I do this exactly, should I do that exactly”, and people are looking for a step-by-step guide on what they need to do to imitate or reproduce the results of the language learner in question. But it seems like it is the wrong way to go – if I may use that word – and what it really should be done is we can look at people, take them as an example, but at the end of the day, learning a language or learning any ability is a journey that you take by yourself, however you are inspired by others.
Luca: Exactly, and I want to add something else that I forgot to say. I always say that paper books or the Internet, it comes down to the same thing. The Internet is a treasure trove for everything, not just language learning, but you have to make sure that you stumble ..when you stumble upon certain sites you have to make sure that you like them visually, you like the content and the philosophy behind a website. Don’t use 10 different websites. Look at 10 different websites and just choose one or two that you can use over a period of time and then you can move on to another one. This is also another very important principle. For example I particularly like a couple of websites that I always use, and I tend to stick to them when I find myself in a certain phase of language learning, and then I move to something else when that website looks boring and I have moved on, because I can deal with other things, like radio, TV etc etc. So my first piece of advice woudl be, after some exploration in the library or on the Internet, make sure that you find a good book that you like – visually, the content – and then choose a webiste that you like for the same reasons and then use both of them for a period of time and then move on to something else, because language learning is a long road, there are different phases, there is not one thing that you like all the time, there might be some things that you like at the beginning, for example I love translating at the beginning, but I
don’t translate all the time. When I “hit” the new phase I just change my strategy.
David: So, I think it is important for us also to discuss some of the properties of good textbooks and good courses, of course the course is going to be good for us depending on our likes or dislikes, but surely all things are not to be made equal, and there are some things that are better than others. What I mean is that there has to be some sort of principles that good textbooks abide by, peraphs incremental progress, or targeting some aspects of the language. In your experience Luca, what are the properties that make a good textbook or course? Let’s give our listeners something else to go off for, somebody just said to me “pick something that you like”. When I started as a language learner I may have thought that “I want the best, not only the best. Maybe what I like is not the best”. Maybe you can elaborate on that for us please.
Luca: It is another very interesting question that is not easy to adress, it would take hours, but I would say that one good language book provides the following: first, I do believe that pronunciation and intonation are very important aspects of language learning, and I do believe that when a text provides not only the audio, which is necessary, but also a visual help to figure out the phonetic patterns of a language, that is a huge plus. Talking about ASSIMIL for example, it is one of the books that provides stress patterns, every word has some syllables, one or more syllables that are stressed and ASSIMIL adresses that thing. And it also provides phonetic guide of a given language. Almost every language series has a phonetic introduction at the beginning, but a phonetic introduction of consonants and vowels and how they are combined is one thing, but then you have to see how the phonetic patterns evolve and unfold in front of you when you listen and when you look at the text. So this is one of the things that I found in certain language series and not in others. Another very important aspect is grammar, meaning that to me, as I said before, you learn the grammar from language and not the other way around, so one of the things that a good book can provide is grammar notes that are introduced in a progressive way, they don’t burden you with too much grammar that is going to slow you down. The third thing, and I said before, is the visual organization of the whole course, that is also important. A fourth – it is not strictly necessary but to me it is important because I use a specific technique – I really like bilingual content. When you have the possibility of taking a look at both versions..you know, a translation is not just a word-by- word translation, when you want to understand a message, you want to see how that message is conveyed in both languages. I do like a glossary at the end of a lesson, but I prefer seeing how a specific message is conveyed in 2 different languages because I believe that if you can infer the meaning of a word by looking at how a given message is conveyed in both versions, then you are going to retain it in a stronger way. And the fifth thing is that I do believe in spaced-time repetition, meaning that some courses, and once again, ASSIMIL is great for that, they provide the possibility of digesting the information in a certain way, meaning that for example, they introduce exercises where you can recombine the elements that you previously learned in a different context, and it hugely helps to retain information in your long-term memory. Learning a language is not just about collecting pieces of information, it is about being able to put them together in certain way. If you think about a given language we have thousands and thousands of words, and we can forme an infinite amount of sentences. Acquiring a language core is not about learning a specific amount of words, 3000 words for example to have basic conversations, but about to be able to combine a given set of elements to form any sentence, to able to tackle any problem, as I would say. And the courses that offer that kind of “recombination” phase have a plus with respect to other courses.
David: Fantastic. So, you have given us a lot of great tips there. One of the things that I think is worth reiterating is the fact that choosing resources is going to be a personal process, something that
is going to be slightly different for everyone, there are certain principles that you can probably assume that your textbook is going to try to abide by, and you know, while looking for these principles for your text book you are looking for something that is of taste, something that looks good and makes the process interesting enough and you are going to stick to it for a given period of time. Now Luca, we have spoken about how one can go about selecting a course or a language textbook, and now I want to talk a little about the what, what do we do with resources once we get them. Cause I found it interesting, when I went visiting you in Rome last year and I got a step into your language dungeon, and I got to see your books, one of the things that I noticed is the way you sort of modify your books in a way, in a way that..you use them in ways that are different from the way the publisher may have suggested at times. So it became clear to me then that you had figured out a way for you to modify course to get the most out of them, so let’s look a little bit more at how we can get the best out of courses, to “squeeze” these resources
Luca: Vary your activies. Now, we always say that input is very important, listening and reading are very important but you can so many things with one piece of information, you can attack it from so many angles, perspectives. So if you have for example a bilingual text, don’t just listen and read every single day. If you have a dialogue, if you start reading and listening to it one day, and then you do it again, and again, after seven days you are dead bored. Instead of doing that, one day you just listen and read it, one day you just listen to it, one other day you just listen to the target language while you are reading the corresponding text in your own native language or te “crutch language”, whatever it is. And then you can write things down. You can translate in one direction, or into another. If you don’t like translation you can always do something else, so make sure that you vary your activies, because if you do that you are telling your brain that that piece of information is important for it and your brain is going to be more willing to learn.
David: So it sounds like what you are saying is what the listener should do is to make sure they go out there and experiment on the way they are using the material and making sure that they approach language learning in a way that makes things fresh and keep them on their toes and keep them challenged and when things seem a little bit to easy find ways in which we can vary things and this sometimes means that doing things in a different way is recommended from the course, so can you maybe give us one or two examples of the way you “tweak” course that you like to use in order to maximize them?
Luca: Now I always refer to ASSIMIL because it is the language series I have been using the most in the last years, but I also used TEACH YOURSELF. Now ASSIMIL proposes a way of working with it, for example they have two waves. Read and listen to the dialogues until the 50th lesson and then you go back by relistening to the lessons. What I do is a little bit different, I try to absorb the information on the go, meaning that I work on different dialogues at the same, I have a time window, for example I work on 5 different lessons at 5 different stages, so I “tweak” it, it is my way of working. What I do differently from what they say, other then reading and listening, which is obvious, I also write and retranslate. And the timing is very different from the way ASSIMIL does it. Another thing that I do is that I just use the main exercise – they propose a few exercises – and I completely skip the others because I am not interested in them. For example filling the blanks, or whatever, I am not interested in that. You have to select..one of the good things is that they provide a lot of good content and you can decide what to choose. When you consider a single session – 1 main dialogue and 3 exercices – you can decide what to focus on. And sometimes, for example if the lesson is not interesting to me I just skip it. You don’t need to do the whole book. It might make you feel good to complete the whole book because some people might want to read it al but I don’t do that, I just skip the parts that I don’t like. I am totally responsible for my learning process and can decide which part is interesting and which is not. So there are quite a few thingsthat I do differently. The fact that they created the course doesn’t mean that you have to do exactly what they tell you to do, you have be free, you have to learn to be free.
David: And this takes us back to the fundamental law of language learning, languages cannot be taught, they can only be learned, and this means taking control of the learning process. Doing things that are going to hold your interest and that are going to challenge you. If a teacher or a textbook says “this is what you need to do” and you feel it is not appropriate then you know you have the capacity and the ability to say “I don’t want to do this, I want to do something else”.
Luca: Exactly. You have to feel responsible and active. Active and responsible. You have to know, you have to make sure, you have to understand that you are the only one who is really responsible of your language learning, nobody else, not even the guys who just wrote the language course for you.
David: Absolutely. And I think this sorts of brings us to a close here, and I think that all the listeners have learned what needs to be done in order to start learning a language. Before you get started with your selection of resources you need to make sure that you have the “why”, the big why, why you are learning that lanugage, and once you have that reason and it is a solid reason, you can start thinking about the resources that you can choose. When it comes to choosing resources, you have to make sure that it follows certain principles of learning that all textbooks are trying to do, some do it of course better than others, you need have to make sure you find courses that are interesting for you, and when I use the pronoun “you”, it means that I cannot tell you what is going to be, it means that you have to embrace this process of discovery, and it is really important to get into your mindset, that language learning is all about discovering things, because as you move further down the road, going into the forest you have to be more and more indipendent. If you are unable to be independent in choosing your course you really have to figure out what to do when you find yourself in the intermediate advanced stages when there are no, there is no-one telling you what you need to be doing next.
Luca: And that brings us to the next step. When you asked me “what kind of resources do we need to choose to learn”? This is just when we start learning a language, but nobody in this world has ever learned a language with just one textbook. When we talk about resources we are not just talking about books, we are also talking about people is – ok, you select a textbook etc – but I still maintain that people are the “final vectors” of a language, meaning that if you start learning from scratch by using a textbook, a textbook is a great resource, it offers clear explanations on phonetics and grammar patterns etc etc, but I also do believe that if you start immediately or almost immediately talking – I am not saying speaking with people, but if you have contact with native speakers from the very beginning, that is going to change quite a lot. As I said before, when I take a look at the languages that I speak the best, the reason why I speak them well is not because of the textbooks I used, it is not about the bilingual translation, that was very useful to set foot into foreign ground, but what really made a difference in the long run was contact with people, “emotional exposure”, so..make sure that you choose a great language series that suits your needs and tastes etc etc but also make sure that in some way you are surrounded by the language itself, which doesn’t mean that you have to speak it immediately, doesn’t mean that you have to listen to the radio immediately, podcasts or whatever, but just try to come into contact with what interestes you, Wikipedia, search information about a certain country, and then you can also establish a relationship with people, not necessarily speaking in their language immediately, but you establish an emotional bond with them, and possibly in the course of time you are going to start taling. One of the things that changed, and I tried it for the first time one year ago with Polish, for the first time, instead of just using a textbook, I immediately starting talking with my polish tutor, actually I would call him “my polish friend” more than a tutor, so I started having conversations with him and within a year I also made an interview with a polish newspaper and after a year I realized that I could do that. Probably if I had just worked on 1 or 2 textbooks I would not have been able to do that and the reason why I did that is not because I learned every single word or expression, but because I established an emotional bond with the person and with his culture, and I learned how to deal with a conversation, you know so, you have..one more time it is not just one thing that you do, it is a combination of factors and resources that you use, like textbooks and, above all, native speakers.
David: Fantastic. And I think that we’ll allow us to come to a close here because it has been a lot of information and we have gone over the timing that we have set for this mini-series. If you guys have any questions or any suggestions, anything that you think wasn’t clear please do leave a comment in the comment section where you found this podcast and we will do our best to get back to you and it will help us know what we should concentrate on the future. Thank you very much for listening. Thanks Luca!
Luca: Thanks David!