When you start out in a language you face a straightforward dilemma. You've been told that if you want to get good at a language, “you need to read a lot, listen to the radio, watch loads of movies, etc.” Well, OK. The problem, of course, is that as a beginner you don't understand anything yet!
Poor language learning advice
It's the stock language learning advice given by people that haven't really thought about it, let alone been through it themselves.
It's a bit like telling a novice chef: “Just cook every day and you'll get great at cooking!” I can tell you from bitter experience that time spent in the kitchen does not necessarily result in great food! And if, by chance, it does (like my tofu creation this lunchtime), it's probably more down to luck than judgement.
…or is it?
But, hang on! Is the advice to read books and watch movies actually bad (there isn't, after all, such a thing as wrong advice)? In fact, it's great advice. It's all I do these days in my stronger languages. But not for beginners. The point is, you can't go straight from zero to hero. Diving straight into material that's too hard for you and you don't understand will result in one thing and one thing only: frustration. And then you'll give up.
The language dilemma
So, in a nutshell, to get really good at a language you do need to read and listen a lot to authentic language. But you can't do that before you know enough words to understand it all. Therefore, as a beginner, an 80/20 analysis tells you that you need to prioritise one thing: vocabulary.
This leads to five questions:
- How do I choose what vocabulary to learn?
- How do I learn it?
- Won't I get bored if I'm just learning vocabulary?
- Can't I just let it sink in over time and isn't that more natural anyway?
- At what point should I start reading, listening, watch movies etc.?
1. How do I choose what vocabulary to learn?
- Beginners' resources – whatever you like and fits well into your routine: Teach Yourself/Assimil books, podcast series, online resources.
- A language partner. This is not a teacher or a native speaker friend. It should be someone you sit down and speak with for a period of time, whose job it is to be a sympathetic listener and to offer suggestions for making your speaking more natural. To oversimplify slightly, by constantly asking your language partner “How do I say xyz?”, you will learn a lot of new, highly relevant words and phrases for conversation.
- Your surroundings. If you live in a foreign language environment, you should quickly learn the names of things around you – station/road names, road signs, metro station vocabulary, etc. The reason is that it's high-frequency for you, so by encountering it everyday you will learn it quickly, even if it's “difficult” language. More on that here.
2. How do I learn it?
Remember that whatever your chosen language learning book/podcast/etc. is, I'm suggesting that you can largely ignore their suggested practice method (“do this exercise now, followed by exercise 4b, then listen to track 34.”), in favour of sitting down and doing whatever it takes to memorise as much of the new vocabulary from the dialogues/texts as possible. You can use an SRS programme to help you with memorising your chosen vocabulary. In this post I talk in detail about your options and give you eight great tips for learning vocabulary.
3. Won't I get bored if I'm just learning vocabulary?
It is a risk, especially if you doggedly plough through one single book. For this reason, I recommend you use a combination of all ideas for resources mentioned above. For example, as I talk about in this video, I am using a combination of book, audio course, website and language partner to study Cantonese. This way, there's always variety. When it comes to actually memorising the vocabulary, having a routine and studying in short bursts makes it more manageable. I do 5-10 minutes of flashcards when I wake up and before bed. It's sometimes a drag, but it's manageable, which means it's more likely to get done. Don't forget it is possible to do 1 hour's study in only 5 minutes!
4. Can't I just let it sink in over time and isn't that more natural anyway?
Yes, and probably. But how long have you got??? Some people may tell you that children learn in a “natural” way, therefore so should you. But you have something which children don't: study skills. Use them. I also doubt that you have 16 years (the length of childhood?) to get it together.
5. At what point should I start reading, listening, watch movies etc.?
The answer is as soon as possible, but probably not yet! If you can manage to enjoy reading or listening to things in your new language without understanding, then fantastic. I wish I could – but I can't. So by all means start reading or watching movies, but treat it as down time. Don't let that replace your core study time, because you'll get nothing more than broad exposure from it. You need to press ahead with the vocabulary learning. You will reach a tipping point, where you've got so used to the language and know enough vocabulary that things just start to make sense. That tipping point may take time to come, but trust me, it will come. When it does, that's the time to hit the reading and listening as hard as you can.
Some people might disagree with such a strong focus on vocabulary learning and speaking from the start. Here are some possible objections, together with my responses.
1) You shouldn't speak from the start – it's hard/stressful/damaging/unproductive
Fine. Don't. I do it because I enjoy it, therefore it motivates me. By looking inside yourself you can probably tell whether the idea of speaking early on appeals to you or not. If it doesn't, don't worry. You can wait until you feel ready before you start speaking.
2) Rote learning is old-school
Perhaps, but it works, especially with the marriage of SRS (spaced repetition systems) and modern portable smartphone technology.
3) You need natural language in context to learn a language
Absolutely, but it comes back to the chicken-or-egg dilemma at the top of the article. Authentic material (newspapers, books etc.) are inappropriate for beginners because the level of challenge is too high. Graded material is the best solution in the early stages until you've built up your critical mass of vocabulary. As soon as you are able, start to consume as much ‘real' language as you can, ideally based on your interests. Depending on the language (and your language background), you should be able to start to access authentic material after 3-6 months of proper study along the lines I've laid out above.
What do you think? Would this method work for you? Let me know your thoughts with a comment below!