Recent Thoughts on Language Learning


For obvious reasons, it's a pretty important life skill for me to be able to speak Italian, and to improve my Chinese for that matter. It's something I've struggled a bit with though. Although my Chinese is decent enough to have a conversation, it's not fluent, and a part of me has a nagging doubt about my capacity to get the point where I am fluent.

At this point that's less important for Chinese, but it's important for my day-to-day existence in Italy. So I'm making a concerted effort at the moment to overcome this unconscious assumption that I can't get to the point of fluency.

It's always difficult when you've never done a particular big, difficult thing, to do it for the first time. This is how I used to feel about starting a business and many other things throughout my life. In the past few days I've recognised that that's where I am with language learning as well. And for the first time it's simply become a challenge. A type of challenge that I've overcome before, and one that I'm now fairly confident I can get past.

Recently, information I've found on the internet has made the whole task feel a lot more achievable. I should note that before launching in here that these are just ideas I'm moving forward with at the moment — in no way have I proven them to myself.

I think a lot of the discouragement that many people feel about learning languages stems from the simple fact that they don't put an awful lot of thought into how they're learning.

In order to be successful with language learning, it seems you need to put some active strategising into how you're going about it.

There's a tendency to think "ah I'll just do a bit of Duolingo and I'll get there", but what proportion of people who have started a language on Duolingo have ended up going on to being able to speak it?

This idea ties into the fact that it seems like you've really got to be extremely motivated to learn a language. Precisely because it takes so much energy to plan and is so opaque, it seems like you really got to want it. You've almost got to dedicated a part of your identity to it.

I watched this video about polyglots and what they do differently, and the gist of it was that polyglots aren't exceptional in any way. They just really want to learn languages. And I'd bet that the reason for that, with many of them, is that when they were growing up they got heavily praised for their language learning, or got the bug when they realised how much praise you get when you say you speak X number of languages.

"OMG you speak how many languages?!"

Concretely I think we can use this to our advantage as we learn. It is very cool to be able to bust out a language in front of people. And this can be very motivating.

It's strange. In my case I should really have been very motivated to learn Italian a long time ago. My wife, who I've been in a relationship with for almost 9 years, is Italian. Whenever I visited her in Italy I found it extremely awkward, and often boring and even unpleasant to be the only person who didn't speak the language. If there's a party of 10 people, they'll be forced to speak English even though they're all Italian natives and many are very uncomfortable speaking English. By the way, it's not me forcing people to speak English, the group typically disciplines itself to do so because it feels bad for me.

As awkward as this experience is for me, somehow it hasn't been enough to motivate me to learn. So strange.

And don't get me wrong — I've been through many sessions of trying to learn. But I just never really hit a groove where I really get into it and I make significant progress, and where I'm willing to take the hits of being embarrassed making mistakes.

So I think this idea of visualising that cool moment where you impress someone, either a native speaker or somebody who doesn't speak the language, can really provide the motivation to break the inertia and build up momentum.

There are a few other really, really interesting ideas which are reiterated on the contemporary internet about how to learn languages.

One is very related to the stuff I just mentioned above, which is enjoyment. And the other one is the importance of comprehension, and the idea of i+1.

I'll start with the latter because it takes us in a slightly different direction, then I'll finish up with the importance of enjoyment.

There's this guy called Stephen Krashen who talks a lot about, maybe invented, the idea of Comprehensible Input. Comprehensible Input is basically the idea that we learn first and foremost by receiving communication that we understand. And the idea is that that's all that matters for acquiring language. Error correction, over-emphasis on speaking, learning grammar — as counter-intuitive as it seems, none of these things are very effective.

Krashen argues that to learn a target language, you must expose yourself to listening, watching and reading material that you can understand. It's interesting because now that I've heard this idea, I can actually notice moments when I'm understanding things in Italian, and it really does feel like all of a sudden I've acquired that bit of language, and that it's something I won't forget.

This, I think, is why all the Scandinavian nations are so much better at English than the Western Europeans. Scandinavian children grow up watching English language TV whereas Western Europeans tend to dub everything. Watching TV is an absolutely fantastic way to learn if you assume the Comprehensible Input lens, because everything you're watching is being backed up by understandable activity.

This idea is solidified further, maybe by Krashen, with the idea of i+1. This non-informatively named idea suggest that we should search for material that is 95% comprehensible to us. Only 5% should be new. And then that 5% automatically gets absorbed in because it's just really easily framed in the context of what we already know.

So I've taken this idea pretty seriously and I signed up for Italian Netflix this even to exploit it. Netflix is pretty great because it has all the big Disney films, Friends, and stuff like Blue Planet in Italian, with Italian subtitles. Note that I read a study somewhere else that says that the optimal combination for learning is the target language sound and the target language in subtitles. Much better than either the target language sound with English subtitles or English sound with target language subtitles. And I think that makes sense in the context of Comprehensible Input — the subtitles help back up what you're listening to and what you're seeing, to give you that click where you understand the language.

The last thing I'm trying to take seriously is enjoyment. Polyglots really seem to emphasise that they need to enjoy their method. And this makes sense too — if you're enjoying the technique you'll spend more time doing it — more time exposed to it. I don't have time to drill all the way into this point right now, but I'm experimenting with it.

My goal at the moment is to spend at least 30 minutes on Comprehensible Input every day. Listening to stuff that I enjoy. And I also intend to spend a bit of time at the beginning reminding myself about why I want to learn the language, and reminding myself to find a way to enjoy it.

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