Essentials For Language Learners, Part 1: Essentials 1-5

Recently we posted ten language program Essentials from the perspective of a teacher, department, school, or curriculum developer. Since Indwelling Language is a service for both teachers and learners, we want to provide some learner-specific thoughts on the Essentials.  (Teachers, these comments are still worth your consideration, whether or not you consider yourself a language learner: you might find a helpful perspective on the learners you work with or even something specific you can share with them.)

Learners, it’s still true that, in terms of the subject matter of the materials you use, “whatever” works. Make sure you’re getting your hands on stuff that interests you enough to want to keep coming back to it.  To get the most out of the content, though, consider these questions:

1. Communication

Are you treating your materials as communicating non-linguistic information to you?  Treating, say, a news article as a language-learning exercise can sometimes be helpful, but what you really want is to treat it as a way of understanding whatever the article is trying to communicate, just as you would with an article in your native language.  Communication is the core function of language, so you want to engage in it as much as possible. But remember that communication does not always mean that you are speaking or writing: enjoying a novel, watching a cartoon, and checking a Twitter feed are all ways of participating in communication. The ability to speak and write is a result of understanding messages intended as actual communication, not of seeing examples of how a language works or of “practicing.” (For more on this, see Mental Representation and Skill.) When you yourself speak or write in a language you are learning, do you do it as a mere exercise or as to communicate with others in the language?

2. Comprehension

Communication doesn’t happen without understanding.  Are your materials comprehensible to you without much effort?  The following may be counter-intuitive, but, if your materials are incomprehensible to you, the best thing you can do is usually to find something easier, rather than “fighting through it.”  Not only is comprehension satisfying and encouraging, but it is also the chief way you acquire linguistic competence.  If you do choose to “fight through it”—by looking up lots of words, studying flashcards, or doing grammar exercises, for instance—know that these tasks are not what will cause you to acquire the language.  The only way such fighting can help you acquire the language is if you promptly use the fighting to make a piece of content comprehensible and then consume the same content again (ideally, many times) without fighting, just comprehending.  This last step, the comprehending itself, not the flashcards or exercises, is what actually leads to your acquiring the language.

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3. Joy

Do you enjoy whatever you are doing to learn a language?  What do you enjoy about it?  Do more of that!  What do you not enjoy about it?  You should probably do less of that, not just because it’s not fun not to have fun, but because the unenjoyable things you are doing probably aren’t helping you much, anyway.  First, the brain learns better in a state of joy; second, odds are that the source of your non-joy is not compelling, comprehensible content, which is the best thing for your growing fluency.

4. Variety

Your brain craves novelty, not just for the sake of juicy news, but also because the brain builds up a tolerance for what it has met a lot.  So, do you use a good combination of trusted activities or materials, that you enjoy and that provide security and consistency, and activities or materials that are fresh?

5. Trust

If you have a teacher, do you trust both her linguistic competence and her understanding and implementation of sound teaching practices?  Why or why not?  If you are an autodidact, you probably have a diverse set of sources and materials you have scraped together.  Do you trust their accuracy and effectivness?  Why or why not?

If you have questions about any of these—either about the general ideas or about how to follow up on your reflections on them—please comment below or use the Contact Form!

Next time, we’ll consider Essentials 6-10, Personalization, Differentiation, Ownership, Community, and Sustainability.  Happy indwelling!

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