Phrases, the key to natural learning

Native speakers of any language know naturally which words belong together. They have heard their own language so often and in so many situations that they can naturally put words together in a way that sounds effective. The foreign learner cannot do this.

Unfortunately most language schools teach vocabulary and grammar. Vocabulary is very important. You need words, not only the high frequency words, but also the less frequent words, in order to be able to deal with many situations. But research has shown that you cannot learn them from lists or in groups. You cannot learn by studying the terms for the parts of the body, or what to say at the train station, or the colours, or opposites or words that mean the same thing. This will only confuse you. You need to learn words in context.

The ideal context is the phrase. You can learn a phrase to go with each new word you learn. Soon you will have a variety of phrases with the new words you have learned. Each phrases gives the word a slightly different meaning. Each phrase is a proven way of using the new word in combination with other words.

Every sentence is unique, but phrases repeat themselves often. A phrase is any group of two or more, (usually no more than five) words that naturally belong together and can be used in many situations.

Learn to look for phrases, save them and learn them. One word of caution is necessary, however. The phrases must come from meaningful content that you are listening to and reading. Free examples of sentences and phrases from dictionaries are false friends. You think you are learning but you are not. You need to find your own phrases as you discover the language from interesting content. That is why at The Linguist we let you create your own database of phrases from the real life content that you find in our large library, or from other articles that you find on the Internet.

Why learning grammar is harmful

Many language learners have been conditioned to think that they need to learn grammar to learn a language. This is wrong, wrong, wrong! When I go to learn a new language I avoid explanations of grammar and avoid all questions or exercises based on grammar. Instead I look to the language to teach me.

I listen and read and observe the new language. I take it in small doses. At first it is only 30 seconds or 1 minute at a time. In time the doses can be longer. I repeatedly listen to these small doses and occasionally read them. Of course I need help in having the meaning explained. This help can come from a teacher or can be?? automated as we did on The Linguist system Thereafter it is just me and the new language.

The grammar learner is conditioned to think of rules and ask why? “Why is it said this way? I thought the rule was something else.” Half the time the learner has the rule wrong. Besides, if every time the learner wants say something he/she has to remember a rule, he/she will never speak fluently.

For most languages there is a lack of interesting material to learn from. Most textbook material is just too artificial and boring. The main purpose seems to be to explain points of grammar. So there is a tendency for the learner to lose interest. It is just too tiring and not enjoyable. If the main purpose seems to be to learn grammar it is too difficult to continue after a while.

This need not be a problem for English. At The Linguist we have created a library of interesting audio and text files of real language, not text book language. There a person can learn and enjoy it. One day we will do the same for other languages. We will not teach grammar, but people will learn, the way I do.

Some myths of language learning

Along with the false friends of language learning, there are myths. These also hold people back. Here I will mention just a few.

“You have to have a talent for languages in order to learn.”

Is it likely that this talent for languages exists only with certain nations? Is it likely that the Dutch and Swedes are all born with this talent for languages whereas the English are not? Is it likely that Singaporeans are all talented while the Chinese are not? I do not think so. Instead it is a matter of attitude and exposure to the language.

“I have to go to the country to learn the language.”

This is not so. I grew up in Montreal surrounded by French, but I was not interested in learning French until I reached the age of 17. When I became motivated, I learned. There are many immigrants in Canada who never learn to speak well. Yet I have met people in places like China who were absolutely fluent in English. I learned to become fluent in Mandarin in a city where the language was not spoken, Hong Kong.

Exposure alone will not do it. If you are motivated and know how to create your own interesting language world to learn from, you can learn anywhere. This is the key to effective language learning. I know. I have done it many times.

“You have to have an ear for music to learn languages.”

I lived in Japan for nine years. I often went to karaoke. Most Japanese men at karaoke bars are good singers, and have a good ear for music. Very few of them are good at languages. They either are not motivated or do not have an effective system for learning.

” My teacher is no good.”

It is not the school or teacher that will determine language learning success. It is the learner. The greatest role of the teacher is to stimulate the learner, to help the learner become a truly motivated independent learner. It is still up to the learner to learn.

” Only children can learn languages well.”

Children are uninhibited, encouraged and not corrected, spend a lot of time using a new language with their peers, and do not hide in their own language and culture while resisting a new language as adults do. On the other hand adults know more, have a wider vocabulary and can learn faster. If they can imitate the attitude of the child and take advantage of their own greater knowledge and experience, they will learn faster than any child. They may not be able to achieve accent free pronunciation but that is the only area where they are at a disadvantage. Even there, it is a matter of attitude.

The false friends of language learning

There must be millions if not hundreds of millions of people who study languages. Most of them are frustrated and do not achieve fluency. I believe it is the false friends of language learning that let them down.

These false friends are:

the classroom

text books

grammar explanations

exercises and drills

vocabulary lists and books

conversation class

thick dictionaries

Why are these false friends? Because they are not natural. They do not offer real communication in the language. I am sure that most people who are fluent in a second or third language did not learn from these false friends. They learned by listening, reading and communicating in the language on subjects of interests, in other words, for real. Maybe they learned from friends, from TV, or from movies or from necessity, but the key is that they were motivated to learn. They took over the learning process and did not rely on the false friends. Certainly I was only able to achieve fluency in nine languages by studying on my own.

Anybody out there with some language learning experience to share?

Anyone can be a linguist

When I say linguist I do not mean someone who studies complicated theories about language. I just mean someone who can speak more than one language and who enjoys doing it. Usually the two go hand in hand.

Native speakers of English are at a big disadvantage because there is less incentive for them to learn other languages. This may soon change, however, with Spanish and Chinese looming larger.

The key is to make the learning experience enjoyable and interesting. Most language education destroys the fun by focusing on speaking correctly too soon, or by teaching theoretical grammar explanations.

There is no substitute for lots of exposure through listening and reading. But then you need interesting content and a good system for retaining vocabulary otherwise it is just frustrating. In learning my nine languages I feel I have kind of worked that out. I am interested in hearing the experience of others in language learning.

Oh it is so difficult

I had a chat today with a lady who lives in Vancouver. She was complaining about how difficult it is for adults to learn English in Vancouver. But her problem is that her whole life is caught up with her own ethnic group. She has contacts with English speakers but her heart and soul are wrapped up in her identity and the problems of her national group.

I think that is why she has a tough time learning English. Secretly she does not want to. She does not want to change her personality into someone who is comfortable with people other than her own group. She feels the need to be a flag bearer for her whole tribe. Such people cannot learn languages. They undoubtedly are valuable for other purposes in the scheme of things, but not as language learners.

But I was reassured when I was able to join a voice chat with two of our eager learners. One from Taiwan and one from China. Both spoke excellent English. Both agreed with me that all you needed was the right attitude and an efficient method. Both had unpleasant memories of being forced to do boring exercises in school. Both enjoyed reading, listening and talking in English now.

I speak nine languages and do not feel the world should speak English. I feel that people can learn languages if they just relax and look for ways to enjoy the language. But it is important to establish some independence from one’s native language and culture.