Friday, May 14, 2010

Regardless of what component of a language you're looking at, the basics for improving it don't change

Regardless of what part of a language I'm trying to improve in, my fundamental approach to improving my language abilities is always the same, as shown in this chart:

How to Improve Your Language Abilities. Identify an unknown. Figure it out. Set up exposures. Get exposures. Characters: A character. Look it up. Add to your SRS. Do spaced reps. Vocab: A word or phrase. Look it up. Add to your SRS. Do spaced reps. Grammar: A grammar rule. Look it up. Update your outline. Review. Pronunciation: A mispronunciation. Get a recording. Add to a playlist. Listen. Intonation: A misintonation. Get a recording. Add to a playlist. Listen.

This chart is of course a bit simplified, but you can get more details on how this can work for grammar here and how it can work for everything else here.


  1. Why not add a step that customizes the material to be learned, increasing its personal significance to you yourself and thereby making it easier to internalize?

    This is applicable to all parts of language learning, but taking the example of the grammar rule, which is usually accompanied by an example sentence, you might try changing the vocabulary element into something you might encounter in your own daily life. Makes learning it easier, no?


  2. That's not a bad idea, although the downside is the time required to do that. If I were to make example sentences, I'd want to make sure that my example sentences were correct, so I'd probably throw them all into Lang-8 before adding them. I generally prefer to take my examples from context when possible; then it's just cut and paste.

  3. Lang-8 seems like an interesting safeguard to prevent less than perfect language acquisition, but would also seem to create a huge inefficiency in learning the grammar “patterns”. Every language learning method is best suited to a particular point along a learning curve (i.e. I believe that no single method can carry a language student from novice to advanced level), and customizing a grammar pattern requires that you have enough language at your disposal to insert new, meaningful nouns or verbs into the pattern with confidence.

    To illustrate with an example, in my al-Kitaab Arabic book there might be a example sentence “I know someone who does not own a car.” Simple enough, but since I live in Taiwan, I automatically change it into “I know someone who does not own a scooter”, since it’s better suited to life in Taiwan (many more scooters than cars), and it becomes something I can then talk about to my Arab acquaintances. As long as I know the noun for scooters, I don’t need to have any teacher correct it.

    My point is, when it comes to grammar, never just take what you’re given.

    Which brings me to a final question for you and the linguabloggers with the current debate on grammar study (on this site and elsewhere). Why don’t any of you guys ever fully explain point by point, step by step, what exactly you mean when you say “study grammar”? When you “study grammar”, what do you mean by it and how do you approach it?

    I get the feeling that the debate’s keystone has never even been agreed upon and so everyone just continues blogging at cross purposes.

    Anyway, thanks for addressing my initial post—I enjoy your blog.


  4. I would agree that your language-learning strategy has to be modified depending on what level your at, but also depending on what you're getting stuck on in particular. You'll want to shift your time spent on the big four (reading, writing, listening, speaking) based on weak points.

    I'd also agree that that kind of customization is definitely a good thing. It's nowhere near as time consuming as cutting sentences from whole cloth and it still personalizes them for you with little chance of error.

    The reason I haven't gone into the step by step details is that I'm hoping to leave something for the book. The book does go into just the level of detail you describe, with actual examples.