January is a time of starting new projects like learning something new and it can be tempting to jump right in and start learning. However, it does help to pause a bit, because everything worth doing that lasts more than two days is also worth planning, as I learned through project management. If you are familiar with accelerated learning, this is the research bit. I am using an easy example of learning a new language as that is what I am currently doing. I am actually learning a few languages, but we can get to that little bit of insanity later on.
Let’s first look at language learning and partition that a bit into more doable actions. The way I see it, language is comprised of grammar and vocabulary. Skills in any given language are those of understanding, being understood and using the language through listening, reading, talking, and writing. So basically learning a language can be divided into:
- understanding a language in its written form
- understanding a language in its spoken form
- being able to talk in a language and be understood
- being able to write in a language and be understood
- being able to talk correctly in a language
- being able to write correctly in a language
The first two of these require mostly vocabulary. The first needs practice reading a language first through repeating words and soon repeating sentences. The second also needs the sounds but the process is the same. Here’s, by the way, what most online and language learning apps, such as Duolingo, Memrise, and Worddive are good at. They are good at this repetition that helps in building the basic vocabulary so it is easily understood in its written and spoken form. They can also help lighten the monotony of this practice through gamification. So if all we need is to be able to understand a language, then all we need is an app or two and some time practicing with them. Reading books written in the desired language is also a very good way of learning to understand and growing a basic vocabulary. In Kindle you can buy a dictionary, so looking up words you are not familiar with is very easy and convenient. Here’s where also Netflix can help as some movies have the soundtrack or subtitles in different languages. Youtube has videos and songs in a variety of languages for this type of practice.
The third skill needs the actual practice of talking in that language. Through conversations with someone speaking that language, preferably a native speaker, our brains becomes accustomed to speaking in that language. If this is a skill we want to have then we need to find someone to talk with. The wider our vocabulary and greater our command of grammar, the easier it is to be understood and understand, but it is far better to start as soon as one knows even a few words than to wait until we understand very well. These are slightly different processes.
The fourth requires writing in that language. One easy way to practice this is to keep a little journal in that language in which one can write a few sentences every night about one’s day or job.
The last two require more than just vocabulary and a little bit of grammar. They need a lot of grammar and a lot of practice doing those very skills one wants to master. They are also, for me, not what I am going for.
So, let’s set a goal: What I want to learn is first understanding both written and spoken language. Secondly I want to be able to talk in that language and thirdly I want to be able to write in that language. I am not aiming for perfection as that was the process in school through which I learned that I cannot learn Swedish. Since then I realised that nothing could be further from the truth. Still, for me it is enough that I can understand and be understood.
So, by partitioning a skill I want to have, and by being as clear as possible about what I want, it is easy to make a plan on what I need to do to learn the languages I want to learn to the level I want to be at. Last year I learned Swedish vocabulary and basic grammar, read a few books in Swedish and conversed with a couple of people in Swedish. I focused on that in the Spring and Summer. Late in the Autumn I started to study French. In French I am still just building basic vocabulary and very basic grammar through Duolingo and Memrise and talking as much as I am able. This still is quite ok. Then was the insanity bit I promised at the beginning. I started to learn Mandarin Chinese, which, by the way, is way harder, but I am getting somewhere. And to add to this insanity, I am also learning a bit of Italian in preparation for the summer.
The third part is the plan: My plan is to continue using Duolingo for French and Memrise for Swedish, French, Chinese and Italian. I will keep reading and listening in Swedish through Youtube, Netflix and Kindle. When I have enough of a vocabulary in French, I plan on using the same resources for them as well. For Chinese, we’ll have to see how far I can go. For Italian, I just need the basic vocabulary of a tourist, so I probably won’t do much more than those apps at this time. It is so easy to start learning a new language from the comfort of my own home and couch. Mastering them is a whole different game, but luckily I have time and I am reaching for levels 3-4.
So, researching a bit about the skill or knowledge you want to have is a good idea. That way you can partition that skill or knowledge so that it is not a big chunk of vague stuff but a clear set of doable steps. Then defining your goals helps you see the steps you need to to take to achieve it. It can also give pointers on how to test yourself to see if you are there yet. Then it is easy to make a plan of attack, so to speak, to conquer the skill. The plan can be as vague as this is or far clearer. What ever works.