Learning a Language

Updated 28-Jun-2024

Learning a Language

Learning second, foreign, or other language as adult is not uncomplicated. First, we need to review what we actually know about learning languages, and learning them as an adult (as there is a significant difference between how children and adults learn languages).

What we don't know about l;earning a language

First off, we need to clear away the detritus of what we don't actually know (but think we do). There are hundreds, if not thousands of so-called experts who promulgate various products and services to assist in foreign language learning, not to mention the various books and applications both recent and decades old.

  • Immersion is not the key
  • Learning is not acquisition (and we want acquisition)
  • Familiarity of unknown words does not help learn those words
  • Focusing only on vocabulary acquisition is not effective
  • Grammar is learned through vocabulary and not the reverse
  • Speaking immediately is not the key

What we do know about learning a language

  • Hearing different people speak the same words is important
  • Comprehensible input (Krashen) is key (immersion is not, especially at first)
  • Use of spaced repetition flashcards is useful for retention of learning
    • Anki software is a very useful tool
  • There is an order to learning that is more efficient than ad hoc
  • Reading and writing as early as possible is more useful than not
  • Touch typing should be a part of language learning
  • Meaning comes before speaking (as with children, so with adults)
  • Do not focus on literal translation but instead functional translation

Start with sounds first

Each language has different sounds, and even similar sounds are made differently and have different sound-producing styles. For example, French is produced more with the front of the mouth, German is more gutteral, Indonesian has more of a wide smile when forming sounds, etc.

Time spent with sounds in the beginning will help reduce the amount of time needed to spend relearning sounds later, or simply having a fixed foreign accent that doesn't go away. When learning sounds it is important to train the ear and the mouth.

When learning how to hear, one must look at the face of the speaker, and they will look back and help with facial muscle correction. This is important, and is a critical part of how children learn to speak and learn vocabulary. Just having disembodied audio is not going to be effective. The goal is learning to listen and to speak.

Include tones when learning sounds

Second, learn the tone patterns. This is for tonal languages as well as non-tonal languages. For tonal languages (Thai, Vietnamese, etc.), tones are a deep aspect of all sounds, and therefore the tones and the sounds need to be learned together. Learn both sounds and tones as single units for tonal languages. Even when tones are changeable, such as in Thai using tone marks, sounds are never without a tone and therefore need to be learned with the correct tone.

Use a phonics approach to reading and writing

For initial reading (and writing), use a phonics-based approach. That is, discover the discrete sounds of the language and match those up with specific letters and their combinations. Learning this mapping allows for learning how to read.

Some languages can have very complex rules. Thai has four different elements that together determine the tone of a consonant:

  • Consonant class
  • Vowel length
  • Tone mark
  • Final consonant

These rules are difficult to learn and to use when trying to read. This is of course not how children learn the tones. Rather they learn the tones at the same time as they learn the sounds of letters and their combination in a phonics-based approach.

From alphabet to reading

There is a step-by-step approach that children take to learning to read and to write which is still the most efficient for adults

  • Learn the alphabet (names of letter)
  • Learn the sounds of the letters
  • Read out the names and sounds of letters
  • Blend the sounds of letter combinations to make syllables
  • Change the tones of the syllables as appropriate
  • Blend the sounds of the syllables to make the sounds of the words (Thai)

From reading to writing

For writing, construct syllables and words in the same approach. However, sometimes the letters are written in a different order as the phonics approach (vowels written in front of consonants). In some cases vowels disappear based on the use of final consonants or second syllables, therefore learn writing rules that include not writing letters.

Use native language readers and workbooks meant for children

Using native language readers meant for children provides several advantages:

Reduces cognitive overload

Readers meant for children better take into account a limited amount of focus available, and so deals with one thing at a time. The material is as simple as possible, yet complex enough to produce meaningful acquisition. There is a better scaffolding of the language than with non-native or adult-oriented learning material.

Teaches the culture along with the language

Learning the same material that schoolchildren learn helps build up the cultural basics that every native speaker already has.

Has appropriate vocabulary

For fluency, there is a need for both general vocabulary that includes high-frequency words and the root words that are found in word families.

Has images and a focus on visual storytelling

Visual aids and images in general help focus language learning.

When not to use native language readers and workbooks meant for children

For those who need to learn technical language, business, or academic language then obviously children's readers and workbooks should be supplemented by those specific written works and vocabularies. There are lists of common words that can be used for study, and then of course focus on the authentic works that are meant as the focus.