Tag Archives: language learning

Language Roulette

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I like to study. It’s just that I like knowing the things that you can only learn through studying. Since speaking a new language is one of those things that require constant study and practice, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make the language learning process more efficient and fun.

My latest experiment involves cutting the material down to even more digestible chunks. Since I need to practice more than one language at a time, it simply isn’t realistic for me to work through an entire chapter for each language every day. After all, each sentence has to be broken down into several useful phrases each to be repeated many times. So I practice one page of one language three times before moving on to the next language.

This week it’s Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. The texts I use have beautiful grammar sections complete with translated sentences that I practice for total fluency. When I’ve completed one page of Italian, I move on to Japanese, and then to Spanish. It’s a sort of language roulette. It’s quick, effective, and fun. Any book with translated sentences will do. There are some great books of idioms in many languages that are quite useful for this purpose.

Let’s look at an example. If you’re learning English, your page may have five to ten translated sentences you need to practice. Let’s say the first sentence is: If I practice English this way, I’ll be fluent in no time. This sentence divides nicely into four useful phrases. Read the first phrase while looking at the text: If I practice English. Now say it without looking at the text: If I practice English. Imagine you’re saying it to someone you know; you’ll remember it better that way. Now read it again while looking at the text: If I practice English.

Now, apply this technique to the next phrase: this way. That’s a short, easy one, but very, very useful. Then with I’ll be fluent. And finally: in no time. Each one of these phrases can be used in an infinite variety of contexts. That’s why this method of language practice is the best. You never need to memorize an entire sentence, unless the sentence itself is a short, useful phrase.

When you’ve completed the first sentence, continue through the rest of them until you’ve worked through all the sentences on that page. Now do the entire page the same way two more times, for a total of three repetitions. Depending on how many sentences there are on the page, this can take anywhere from around five to twenty minutes. You can continue through as many pages as you want in one language, or switch off to another language. It’s entirely up to you. If three repetitions of the page take too long, do two, but no fewer. The brain loves repetition; humor it.

by John DePonte

Beginner’s Luck

I used to think that learning a new language was a matter of finding a good course book presented in three volumes: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Once you’ve mastered the material in these three volumes, you were fluent in the language. Of course, experience has once again taught me humility.

Don’t misunderstand. I’ve found some superb books, usually in two volumes that certainly lay the foundation for becoming fluent in a new language. However, after working so hard to establish that foundation I still found myself unable to understand the native spoken language. Naturally, I had to ask myself: “What did I miss?”

Well, I made the same mistake I made when, as an aspiring musician I assumed that once you learned to play the piano, you were a pianist, period. A gunslinger in the old west would never make it to his final ride off into the sunset with that attitude. If he, or she, did not practice his skills every day, and I mean every single day, it wouldn’t be long before someone younger and faster made him regret his sloth. Of course, unless it’s possible to actually die from embarrassment, the pianist and the language learner would probably be spared such a fate. The lesson here is that you never acquire a skill, “period.” You acquire a skill, “comma,” and then you practice.

Now I know that the gunslinger, the pianist, and the language learner all have to practice all the time in order or their skills to prove useful. The two questions for gunslinger, the pianist, and the language learner are, “What do I practice?” and “How do I practice it?” I can imagine what the gunslinger has to practice, and I know what the pianist has to practice. But I’m not writing this article to send you back to the OK Corral or to off to Carnegie Hall. I want to share one of my most entertaining and effective language learning techniques with you. I call it, “Beginner’s Luck.”

Most beginner language books cover pretty much the same grammatical material. Where they tend to differ is in the vocabulary. While the topics covered in these volumes will not vary wildly, they will be different enough to offer an extensive, useful daily vocabulary if you work through enough of them. I find it both effective and fun to work through several beginner books in one language over and over again. “Over and over again” is just a way of saying, “practice.”

Practicing through multiple beginner books in one language, even before moving on the intermediate level, has some surprising effects. In addition to developing an impressive vocabulary of high frequency words, the grammar of the language becomes etched in the brain in a way that is far more permanent and practical than memorizing rules. Also, the work in each book supports and simplifies the work in all the other books. This makes the process of acquiring the language easier and a lot more fun. Finally, but far from least, practicing regularly through at least three beginner books leads not only leads to fluency, it gives you an easy way to maintain it, period.

by John DePonte

Chopping Ice

It’s winter in New York and the freezer is on the fritz. We’re chopping ice inside, and we’re chopping ice outside. It’s painstaking work, but it’s necessary. If we don’t chop the ice in the freezer, we lose all the food that’s buried underneath it. If we don’t chop the ice outside, we can’t use the car, we’ll get fined for leaving the ice on our sidewalk and stairs, or worse, someone might slip and get hurt.

As I’m working through my book of Japanese idioms, I’m noticing the similarities between working through unfamiliar language and chopping ice. You don’t always feel like you’re making progress, but you know you have to carry on. You may have to make several passes through the task before you reach your goal. Once you do reach your goal, there’s always maintenance, or “salting the sidewalk.”

What’s at once fascinating and difficult about my book of Japanese idioms is its sample sentences. Sure the explanations of the idioms are interesting. Most of them are from long ago in Japan and China, and the stories behind them can be charming or mortifying. But what interests me is the employment of these idioms in sentences that use the colloquial language of the Japan of today.

While most language books teach the “text book” language that you would learn in the classroom, good books that offer ample coverage of the idiomatic language of daily life are far and few between. No, I’m not talking about those ugly little volumes that purport to teach you the language that “you never learned in the classroom,” in other words, profanity. I’m talking about comprehensive coverage of the non-standard way that native speakers of any language combine their words, phrases, and ideas. This natural linguistic process is essential to the understanding and use of any language.

All speakers shorten their native language in ways that would be incomprehensible to a learner of that language who had only studied the “standard” language. Finding good books that teach this natural way of speaking can be challenging, but they do exist. Once you find one, start chopping ice. I like to work through the entire book, making sure I understand all that I can during the first pass. Will I understand everything the first time through? Probably not. It doesn’t matter; I know I’m going to be working through this book many times, so I just keep going.

The second time through the book, I choose those phrases that I think will be most useful and I practice them for fluency. The other phrases I just work through again as I did the first time. Then I repeat this process, adding new phrases to the fluency practice process each subsequent time through the book. If I find a phrase that doesn’t seem to be useful, I ignore it. You don’t have to do something just because the author included it in her book. Finally, I salt the sidewalk by reading through the book either until I don’t need to any more, or for the rest of my life.

by John DePonte

Language Cycling

This is one of my favorite ways to practice my languages. Language cycling is my method of going through several books simultaneously in order to keep my languages alive and well. There’s national cycling and international cycling.

National cycling involves reviewing one language through at least three books at once. There are many techniques for doing this. You might do the Speakening method of phrase practice for one chapter in the first book (See my blog: What is the Speakening Method of Language Learning). Then proceed to do the same thing in the other books. Or you might do fly-by reading in each book (See my blog: Fly-by Reading). You can even mix techniques, doing phrase practice in one book, fly-by reading in another, and fast-talk reading in the third (See my blog: Fast-talk Reading).

International cycling is employing the same technique, but each book is in a different language. This is really fun. You can do phrase practice in Italian, Japanese, and Spanish over and over in one day. The next day, you can do it in Chinese, French, and Portuguese. Now you start to feel like a U.N. translator. Of course you can also mix techniques, but I prefer to do the same technique for each language in one day, changing the techniques on subsequent cycles through the books.

The essential feature of cycling is to spend a minimal amount of time on each book, cycling through all the books several times in one day. Spend five minutes on the first chapter of each of three books. Then repeat the process for the second chapter in each, proceeding through the third chapter, etc. Do as many cycles through the books as you have time for. At least do one cycle per day.

The benefits of cycling are numerous. First of all, your skill in all your languages will be constantly improving. Next, your confidence in using the languages will increase since they will remain fresh in your mind all the time. And last, but in my opinion most important, the benefit to the brain receives is incalculable.

After playing the piano or guitar etc., learning and practicing multiple languages as an adult is probably the best exercise available for the brain. Although adult language learning presents many more difficulties than learning your first language or a second language in early childhood, those very difficulties offer us the opportunity to exercise our brains in ways that first language learning does not. In other words, it’s not good news that you didn’t learn your second language as a child. It’s great news!

by John DePonte

Fly-By Reading

Fly-by Reading

How can I remain fluent in a language that I do not have the opportunity to use every day? That is the question. If you aspire to speak more than two languages, you need to find a way to imitate the environment in which you must use those languages in your daily life in order to maintain your skills in those languages. The problem is that we sleep for eight hours a day (at least the very luckiest of us do), we work eight hours a day, and we have responsibilities beyond work that keep us busy for most of the remaining eight hours. How can we fit our languages into our day?

I have played with many techniques for solving this problem, and one of the most promising methods I’ve developed is what I call “fly-by reading.” Anyone familiar with the Speakening method of language learning is already familiar with the core practice of dividing sentences into digestible, useful phrases and repeating those phrases for understanding and fluency. There is nothing more productive a language learner can do. However, after achieving fluency in a language, this technique can be reserved for new and unfamiliar phrases only.

Fly-by reading allows us to review vast amounts of language in a much shorter time than the essential phrase-by-phrase method. However, it is only appropriate for those languages we have already acquired. Choose an advanced text in the target language that offers several translated examples of all the grammatical structures and sentence patterns commonly found in that language. Read through these examples at a comfortable pace without stopping to repeat phrases unless you really don’t understand a particular phrase. Don’t worry too much about pronunciation; this should only be taking place in your head, not in your mouth. The faster you can do this, the better.

I have a beautiful Italian language book that offers the ideal text for fly-by reading. I took the book to one of my favorite coffee shops, bought my coffee (rent for the table), put in my headphones to listen to some of my favorite music (not really recommended for best studying practice), and started my first attempt at fly-by reading. It was 10:00 A.M. I only looked up whenever I realized that someone was talking to me, then immediately resumed my reading. When I finished the grammar sections of the twenty chapters in the book, I checked the time. It was 1:30 PM! Way too long!

I immediately knew what had gone wrong. I had automatically spent too much time practicing phrases instead of fly-by reading. When I got home, I did it with my Japanese text and it went much faster. Of course the Japanese text does not have nearly so much content as the Italian text. So, I had to try it again in Italian. Success! I was able to fly by the Italian book in less than two hours.

Now, you don’t have to do the whole book in one day. One week would be fast enough. At that rate, fly-by reading can take you through several languages in a short enough time to keep your skills fresh and growing.

 

By John DePonte

 

 

 

 

Fast Talk Reading

When I was first learning Spanish, I was standing next to a Spanish speaking family on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry. The little girl tried to kick her father in the shin. I smiled at the father and said, “Una patada,” or “A kick.” The father and mother smiled and Dad let out a stream of Spanish of which I understood not one word. I smiled and nodded in order to avoid embarrassment, rather than admit I didn’t understand. Evidently, my reaction was inappropriate because the mother and father looked at each other, raised their eyebrows, shrugged their shoulders, and looked away. Whatever Dad said required a response that was quite different from what I did.

We’ve all pretended to hear something that we didn’t hear an nodded our heads as if we had, and most of the time no harm, no foul. Sometimes, though, we are expected to give an answer and when we nod our heads, we betray ourselves. Our esteemed listener realizes that we haven’t been listening, we didn’t understand, or we simply didn’t hear. If they believe we did, they might even be hurt because our non-verbal response actually makes sense, but it’s offensive. We’re innocent of this offense because we never heard them in the first place, but they don’t know that. The moral of the story: It is always better to admit you didn’t hear or understand than it is to pretend.

Of course, it is always better to understand in the first place. I’ve said it before, and I will continue saying it: learning to understand the speech of a native speaker in a new language is the most difficult part of the language acquisition process. When a student encounters a difficulty, his/her job becomes to make it as easy as possible. There is one thing that language learners can do that will not only help them to understand native speakers, but will make them fluent speakers themselves. I call it “fast talk reading.”

Whether you’re working through a textbook, a conversation manual, a newspaper, whatever, divide the sentences into small phrases of two or three words each. Practice these phrases aloud as fast as possible. This technique has a twofold effect: the muscles of the speaking apparatus receive training in the pronunciation of the new language at fluent speed, and the ear receives training in hearing the language at fluent speed. Even if your fastest speaking speed is not yet fluent, keep practicing. It will be. There is no need to put these phrases together into complete sentences. The brain automatically knows what to do with them.

After you’ve worked through your text using the “fast talk reading” technique, “fast read” through it without talking. Try not to physically sub-vocalize, i.e. don’t move your mouth or tongue while you’re reading. Make it all happen in the head. This is not so easy as it sounds, but if you keep it in mind, it will eventually become natural. You will find that your “fast reading” can become as fast as the speech a native speaker, and this will be your crowning achievement.

 

by John DePonte

Word for Word

There are language courses that warn their readers never to translate word for word. The reasoning is that since languages don’t always translate word for word, you would not be learning your new language properly. So, when an English-speaking student sees the Japanese sentence, “Watashi wa amerikajin desu,” he or she should translate it as, “I am an American.” After all, that is what it means.

Unfortunately, there are three reasons that make it absolutely necessary to learn a language word for word. First, we learn vocabulary within the contexts of phrases and sentences. That means we must know what each word or lexical unit in a sentence means if we are to use those same units in other contexts. If I don’t translate “Watashi wa amerikajin desu” word for word, I will assume that “Watashi” means “I,” “wa” means “am,” “amerikajin” means “an,” and “desu” means “American.” In fact, “Watashi” does mean “I,” but that’s the only one I got right. I need to know much more than the mere meaning of the sentence in my native language.

I need to know that “wa” is a topic marker that is not translated into English, but means something like “As for.” “Watashi wa” means “As for me” (literally: I/ as for). It’s pretty clear that “amerikajin” is the word here that refers to the English word “American,” but it actually refers to an American person, i.e. “an American.” “Amerika” means “America” and “jin” adds the meaning of person. “Desu” is the Japanese equivalent of “is,” “am,” or “are.” So our literal translation is: I / as for / an American / am. It would be translated: “As for me, I am an American.” The final, idiomatic translation would be: “I am an American,” “I am American,” or “I’m American.”

The second reason that we always need word for word translations is that they provide us with insight into how the native speakers of a language think about the world we share and how they express their ideas about it. When I speak any language other than my native English, I don’t first think of the English sentence, then translate. I think of the words in the order that a native speaker would use to construct the sentence. It’s even helpful to think of the words you would use in your native language in the word order of the language you’re learning. This will help you develop a feel for putting sentences together naturally and easily in your new language. Ultimately, I say what I have to say without recourse to my native language. In other words, I think in the other language. In fact, I develop a different speaking “personality” for each language so I can commit to speaking that language like a native speaker.

The third reason that word for word translation is essential is that it is simply impossible to actually acquire a language without it. Remember, when we say we “acquire” a language, we mean we gain the ability to speak it like a native. The native speaker of any language can tell you what virtually every word in his or her sentences means. This is not a coincidence. Word for word translation, i.e. knowing what every single word means, is an indispensable feature of the language acquisition process whether we are studying a second language, or learning our mother tongue.

by John DePonte

Language Mastery: The Pincer Maneuver

The term “pincer maneuver” is derived from tools that are used to grasp things from two sides. Tweezers and tongs are examples of pincers. The pincer maneuver is a military tactic that involves attacking the enemy from opposite sides. So, what on earth does the Pincer Maneuver have to do with language mastery? Well, I’ll tell you.

Once I have reached an advanced level in a new language, the most challenging part of the language acquisition process still lies ahead: becoming fluent. After achieving fluency, you still have to work to maintain the ability to speak the language. Use it or lose it. One of the most effective techniques I have found for these purposes is what I refer to as the Pincer Maneuver. It simply means practicing with two different books at the same time: one basic, the other advanced.

The Pincer Maneuver approaches the language from two opposite sides: beginner and advanced. Each side complements, supports, and improves the other. Most good language books will have readings, conversations, and grammar explanations. I prefer to work through the readings and conversations without referring to the grammar. After completing both books in this manner, I like to work through the examples in the grammar sections of both books. Occasionally, it helps to read through some of the grammar explanations too.

Start your Pincer Maneuver process with the two best books you can find: basic and advanced. Work through these books in the way I have described above several times. You can use these books as the basis of your language maintenance for the rest of your life. Other books can be added for constantly increasing your vocabulary, but your two “pincer” books will have already provided you with a formidable vocabulary along with most of the grammar you will ever need. Don’t worry. Most real-life conversations do not involve complex vocabulary or complicated sentence structures. Just think of the daily conversations you have in your native language.

You will find that the Pincer Maneuver is not only highly effective, but a heck of a lot of fun. The advanced material will make the basic and intermediate levels seem so simple that they become automatic. That is, you will start to become truly fluent. In addition, the advanced level will become clearer and clearer. Perhaps the most important result of using the Pincer Maneuver is that your confidence in using the language will rise to a level that will have you fearlessly conversing with native speakers.

by John DePonte

Literary English: Simile vs. Metaphor

High school and university students are often required to analyze literature by explaining the authors’ use of literary elements and techniques. English language learners are often daunted by this task for obvious reasons. How would you like to land in China today and be asked to analyze a work of Chinese literature tomorrow? Don’t laugh, this kind of thing happens several times a year in New York City high schools.

To combat this inequity in the New York State educational system, I would arm my students with a few literary elements and techniques that were sure to apply to whatever passage they might have tackle. Two these weapons are similes and metaphors. Both of these devices are comparisons.

A simile is a comparison that includes the word “as” or the word “like.”

Simile1: “Lenny is as strong as an ox.”

Simile2: “Lenny is like an ox.” or “Lenny is built like an ox.”

A simile usually exaggerates the comparison. A simple comparison like, Debra is as smart as Ray,” is not a simile; it’s a simple comparison. “Debra is as smart as a computer,” is a simile. Debra is not really as smart as a computer. But, before you assume that the computer is smarter, remember there are many things that the human brain does better than the best computer. Learning the grammar of one’s mother tongue is one of them.

A metaphor is a more poetic comparison than a simile. It does not use the word “as” or the word “like.”

Metaphor: “Lenny is an ox.”

Because a metaphor usually does not express the quality being compared, e.g. strong, the reader has to infer the meaning. This metaphor could mean that Lenny is strong, stupid, big, slow, etc. The context of the metaphor is necessary to make the author’s intention clear. For ┬áthe same reason, a simile like “Lenny is like an ox” also needs context.

The best way for an English language learner to remember the difference between a simile and a metaphor is to memorize one of each. The more mnemonic cues in the examples, the easier they will be to remember. For instance, the simile can begin with a word that begins with the letter “S” and the metaphor can begin with the letter “M.”

Simile: “Similes are as simple as Simon Says.”

Metaphor: “Metaphors are monsters.”

The simile speaks for itself. The metaphor, “Metaphors are monsters,” could mean that metaphors are scary or difficult, or both.

by John DePonte

Shanghai in New York

I landed in Shanghai with very little Mandarin under my belt. I had studied on my own during the New York school year as I concluded teaching my high school ESL classes. No harm though. Almost everyone in the Shanghai town I stayed in didn’t speak Mandarin. They spoke Shanghainese. It’s considered a dialect but, like most Chinese dialects, it’s far, far from Mandarin.

For the first time, I was in the same position in which many of my New York students find themselves; I couldn’t understand the locals, nor make myself understood in many situations. If I spoke Mandarin, some appreciated the effort, others not so much. When I asked one shop worker for “cha” (tea), she pretended she didn’t understand and told me the correct word was “ta.” It isn’t

Of course it didn’t help that, at the time, China and Japan were experiencing a conflict over a fishing island in which the U.S. supported its ally, Japan. This didn’t earn me any points with my neighbors. At one deli, a woman asked where I was from. When I answered, Meiguo (America), she turned and walked away in disgust. Another women stuck her tongue out at me on line at a supermarket. This made my Chinese friends uncomfortable, but I took it as a tremendous learning experience.

When I caught a cab driver running up my fare, I said, “Shensheng, zhe ge tai gui” (Sir, this is too expensive). He flipped, started screaming, and turned off the meter. They are very afraid of being reported. I overpaid him anyway and did not report him. The tuition for a lesson well learned. This was also happening to my Chinese friends when the cabbies thought they were from out of town. Sound familiar New Yorkers?

The one word that most aptly describes the experience of not being able to communicate with anyone when you need to is “frustrating.” This may seem obvious, but it is not easily understood. I felt it most acutely when I had to leave all my purchases with a security guard in order to go buy a bag in which to carry them. When I couldn’t find my way back to the guard, I was utterly lost. I couldn’t ask anyone, I couldn’t mime, and even though I had seen the English word “Information” written on a sign hanging over the Information desk (somewhere in this gigantic store), no one could understand the spoken word. It took an eternity to find my way.

Fortunately for most immigrants in New York City, there’s a community that speaks their language. Nevertheless, I am now more keenly aware of how many people are experiencing Shanghai in New York. And heaven help the cabbie or shop worker I catch being “unhelpful” to someone who doesn’t understand English.

by John DePonte