Notes from a Linguist

For the the last two decades I’ve worked face to face with thousands of students of all ages, helping them learn Spanish survival skills within the setting of their new culture. Since many of my students are adults, they have some fears about what their age means to learning a new language. But the hardest part of my work is NOT teaching the scary verb or gender concepts . . . it’s getting my students to see what they need to do to be successful and getting them to the point of truly believing that they actually totally really possibly can. Even though none of this is rocket science, language myths and misnomers are so prevalent they make it easy to lose sight of what is really required to learn a language.

Do Language Apps Really Work?

First, I’d like to get this one out of the way: Do apps really work? My answer: yes and no. If it were that easy everyone would already be doing it. I’ve developed an interactive Spanish language program specifically for people already living in second language, so of course I believe that an insightfully written program is an important tool. But, I’m going to tell you something you probably don’t want to hear: nothing beats being engaged in the second language and the learning process itself. This means being able to think about new information within the wider context of language, and how the system works.

If your goal is just being able to say a few ingratiating phrases and wish someone well, any app by will probably do. Learning apps are fun, but they’re most likely a topical solution. If you’re interested really learning a new language and reaping the cognitive benefits of speaking a second language, you’ve got to do more. Deeper focus on the language system and keen awareness of your own learning process are long term investments that lead to proficiency and fluency.

Reflections to help you stay focused on what’s important

  1. Your willingness to get outside of your own comfort level is way more important than any program you use. Studying language with great tools can make a big difference, but the truth is that the program matters less than the learner. You can start speaking in three weeks, and you should try to speak as soon as possible, even if only a few words. Your willingness to try to speak and use the words you know in real life is much more important than any other aspect of learning. It’s just my opinion, but I’d rather you be able to speak 300 words well than read 1,000.
  2. Language is as grand and unwieldy as the ocean. Please don’t try to conquer it, go with it. More than 400 million people speak Spanish today, which makes language hard to control. Would you go out sailing or surfing and try to control the sea? No! You wouldn’t because you would drown! So let’s just focus on NOT drowning in the giant sea of words within this language, rather than being in control. Yes, Mr.& Ms. Exbigboss, I am talking to you. Getting outside of your comfort level and the part where you are not in control will improve your shot at success. Go out, do whatever you do to relax, and give communication a shot. Go with it and don’t beat yourself up if you make mistakes.
  3. “I just want to learn conversational Spanish.” Please do not say this sentence out loud because it means next to nothing. Conversation and communication are always the goal, never grammar, so no one really has to say that. (Sigh.) A little structure just helps you get there. No one is going to make you diagram a sentence. Promise. My adult students are generally incredibly successful, bold people who have sold everything, made radical changes in their lives, and are on an adventure in a foreign, developing country. This takes guts, right? I often giggle because some of these same courageous people cower when I mention the uncomfortable word, grammar. But, grammar itself is not the issue, people freaking out about that scary little word is the problem. Grammar actually gives some go to rules about what works (yes, control!), so let’s love it! Let’s rebrand grammar and give it a nice name, the architecture of the language or linguistic design, a name for which you don’t carry 40 years of 7th grade baggage. Problem solved.
  4. Which language program/app is best to use? People often ask me this face to face. Um… uh, well, I spent five years writing and testing an interactive multilevel three-year program, so I think the best answer is mine (eyeroll)! But seriously, let’s talk about the role of apps and programs because no matter which one you use, they have value if your expectations are right. Apps gamefy the memory processes, help track progress, and provide some external motivation. For adults, not feeling like they’re making progress is probably the #1 reason for quitting. So, I say go for the apps that appeal to you, but don’t depend on them or expect to earn fluency in a digital vacuum. If you are just looking to improve your main verbs or vocabulary, I advise downloading a freebie Quizlet™ app on your phone or device, searching the topic you want, and setting up an account to track your personal progress. This app is one that teachers pay to program and is totally free and safe for you to use. Personally, I love it and my students appreciate that I program the relevant vocab for each unit. The free version allows students to program their own vocabulary lists and practice at their leisure.
  5. So you decided on an app and you are doing well. Cool! BUT PLEASE don’t fall a victim to the app trap. Apps are designed for ease, simplicity, and learner comfort, but the world is not created by this same design. I’ve had students who have scored a huge % of “fluency” in the language according to their app, yet when they come to class they couldn’t even make a basic sentence. They have to start over and it’s disappointing for all. This is most likely the result of being too worried about the game, and not so concerned about the wider focus required for communication and language learning. One online language guru calls this “being an app junky,” — a term I understand because I have students who really trust the app or Google $#&*@ Translate more than the living language that’s all around them. So, if you’re going to pay for a monthly app, then do yourself the favor of getting the notes supplement or a decent text, and try to understand the architecture of some of those beautiful sentences. Try to see the patterns the app presents to you, and try to re-apply those concepts to new vocabulary.
  6. “Why do they say it like that? It’s very tempting to get stuck here, and I’ve done so myself, but the less you try to make the L2 like yours, the more time you are going to spend actually learning the foreign language. Understanding how languages differ is great, but focusing all your energy on that takes away from learning the new system. Celebrate the fact that the world is divided, organized, and expressed differently in foreign languages. Meanings often shift and word-for-word is not really word-for-word. Lexical differences are poetic differences of meaning inside the words themselves. In Spanish the noun generally comes before any adjectives or modifiers. . . at first that is strange for English speakers, but if I think about it logically I think maybe it’s a good idea to say what you’re talking about before you start describing it! Accept the differences, even if the concept seems a bit crazy to your brain’s reasoning. It just is.
  7. Don’t just focus on saying what you think, feel, want, or mean. ASK a question back immediately, and just listen. This means learning at very least two persons of the verb (the I form vs. the you form, for example). And that bit of grammar is highly beneficial in a few different ways. First, when beginners answer a question and get to the point of asking a question back, they have a moment to quiet, relax, and input language, rather than just focusing on self. You can’t input if you’re always focusing on your verbal output. Ask the people you trust or those with patience to repeat and why they say something a certain way. This will allow you to take in the language and be mindful of grammar and new words, and see how that information contributes to overall meaning. In other words, listening is what gives you feeling for the language. Go ahead and watch that soap opera or movie in your second language and turn on the subtitles on in the language.
  8. Reflect. Keep voice memos. Reward yourself for what went right, rather than focusing too much on what went wrong. If you’re someone who says, “I understand a lot more than I can speak,” this is a method for you to spring into language production mode. If you can put your smartphone on to record simple interactions, set it to speech to text in the target language and do it! Then you can see what the person said for memory’s sake, and ask why later. Each experience will help build proficiency in various situations, so understanding what went right and what didn’t go so easily will help. As a teacher I love to get a little insight to what people do when they are out on their own, where they make mistakes, and coach them into a place of understanding the tones and sounds. Even though my students don’t usually like doing this, they are often surprised to realize how much they did right!
  9. Be a B+ student in foreign language. You can get everything perfect on paper. I did, but when it came to the moment of truth and communication, my years of perfect grades didn’t transfer immediately to language production. The conundrum is that until you let go of constant perfection, you won’t achieve perfection. Making mistakes will help you remember and stay engaged, if you can accept and learn from mistakes. Getting to the stuck point, and getting through it will show you that communication is not only about words. You’ll be shocked how well you can get your meaning across even when words are missing. But getting your meaning across is altogether impossible if you’re so afraid of making a mistake that you don’t actually try. Emotion and experience make you more likely to retain the lessons of the second language in long term memory, so those moments are steps to fluency, not setbacks. If you’re a perfectionist, read this paragraph 2 more times!
  10. Be engaged in conversation. Tire yourself, take a break, and get back to it. Learning a language parallels practicing a sport or hobby. You have to learn the rules to play the game. Watching the sport on t.v. is fun, but practicing and playing are essential. Muscle memory (experience), feeling for the play (grammar!), and the ability to use what you know to get through the moment (choosing from your wider set of experiences) are all key. For you social learners out there, this is the fun part because the game is talking, listening to jokes, and enjoying what others have to say. You’ll get fatigued from brain overload at times, your facial muscles might get sore, and you might feel silly or lost, but you’ll be able to do it all again the next day and keep improving.

Lastly, redundantly, and still most importantly. . .

There’s the prevalent idea that if you pay enough money to the guru, or if you practice enough before you step out of your safe haven, you’ll never have to weather failures, mistakes, shame, or embarrassment. I think I am pretty good at what I do, and I have some amazing colleagues who do the same, but all we can do is teach you how to do it right, and rip off the emotional bandage and get you back out there trying again when things don’t.
The greatest indicator of success is being able to try, make mistakes, laugh at yourself, and move on. Anyone who has really focused on learning a second language has a handful of stories about funny mistakes they made and if asked, they would tell you what they learned and they’ll talk about the moments they froze up. This is unavoidable, and these moments of difficulty should be revered as moments of success — you got through it!

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