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Response to reader’s question “How long until I understand the language I am learning when spoken?”


''Note that in this diagram, sensory memory is...

Yet another diagram from the net about long-term memory that kind of misses the point and can even be dangerously misleading (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m grateful for this question. It surely affects most learners at some stage – especially when learning a language for the first time, or doing it on your own for the first time/taking it seriously for the first time, as opposed to school learning.

It’s not really a question of time but of the presence of certain ingredients in your brain. If you have done at some stage a Pimsleur or some audio course so that you know what the words and phrases you are goldlisting are supposed to sound like in a pretty standard version of the language you are learning, and you have goldlisted about 10,000 words or more and taken them through to the end of silver if not gold levels, then you can do the following activity with a much higher assurance of success.

You need to get hold of an audio book for a book you can read in that language, and where there is a translation in English. The best place for this is Audible, where the app allows you also graded speeds of listening to the same material – and you can start off with a slower speed and build up. Listen to the same piece of 10 minutes long with short, ten minute breaks about three times over. This is not a long-term memory exercise it is an ear exercise and so you are perfectly OK using short-term memory techniques for this, they are quite appropriate. This is not the point at which you learn the words, you should have learned most of them before. This is where you push your ear and get it to go “aha”.

Once you have done this, you are likely to find that some parts of the spoken text have become a tad clearer and some still baffle you. You then open the book and read the text, which you should not have done before this point.

Having read the text, if there are any words that you do not know, please mark them and find them in the English text, please also make sure that anything you get from the English text which you didn’t get from the original – work out if that’s the fault of your lack of nuancing or too much freedom on the part of the translator. Add any missing knowledge back into your headlist and put it through the Goldlist system in due course.

You then should read the text while listening to it at normal speed. You can do this a couple of times if you feel it needed.

You should be able to speak along with the recording now, while reading the text. If this is hard at first, use the pause button and precede each recorded sentence with your own attempt.

Then finally you can go back to just listening but use higher speeds, like 1,25 or 1,5* normal.

You then move on to the next chunk of text, rinse and repeat.

But every so often you go back and listen to what you heard before.

Not only will this improve listening comprehension, but also accent.

Nevertheless, it is not a way of learning to the long term memory, it’s an aural fitness routine. You therefore, like I said at the beginning, should only start to do this once you are really nearing your goldlist target.

It is a way of getting to speaking fluency as well around the “listening” route described in my articles here on my Four Function Diagram.

This activity will increase the time to fluency but you need to vary the voices you hear. In due course listening to DVDs in the language which have subtitles will be useful, and then gradually listening to news reports. Start with TV ones, and then move out to radio ones where you do not have the crutch of the image.

Many thanks again for the question.

Initial Thoughts on the Four Functions Diagram


I would like to give you today some initial thoughts on the diagram, and to do that I’m going back to a simplified form of the diagram without the flows included as yet.

langfunc2

This is just to get a clearer image of the base ideas before we get onto the various conclusions that can be drawn from it, when we will go back to the diagram including the arrows and boxes showing the auditory and the visual routes of progressing from reading to speaking.

For today I would like to offer for your consideration that whatever we do, whatever applications we use language for, for instance counting, swearing, singing, praying, shopping, skyping, reciting poems, selecting food from menus, asking the waiter what he recommends or chatting up Paul Pimsleur‘s native speaker female on the bus (the way all his courses seem to start), all these various applications and whatever others you can think of, are all based on one or more of the above gerunds: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Therefore every linguistic activity can be reduced to these four functions or skills, and the mastering of each of these skills is essential for a full ability to apply the language in all possible situations.

When we talk about “language”, we refer of course to the tongue – the words language and tongue are connected, and people tend to consider that speaking is the gold standard. “How many languages do you speak?” is the question we hear. Only people who are a bit more thoughtful ask how many languages do you read, write, listen well in and speak, however there are CV formats which do ask precisely that format. If you want to  submit a CV in World Bank format, for instance (this is one of the industrial standards when tendering for public sector work, in case any readers haven’t come across it) you are supposed to make mention of reading, writing and speaking, not necessarily listening.  If you use the Europass format you’ll see from the CV templates available here, that you are expected to give yourself a grade from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which defines what you’re supposed to be able to do to be an A1, an A2, a B1 or a B2, or in the end a C1 or C2. But you have to grade yourself on “Understanding” which covers both reading and listening, on “Speaking” which is divided into spoken interaction and production, but whichever way you look at that it’s still speaking, and finally on writing, which isn’t broken down further, but of course could be when it comes to languages like Chinese and Japanese – whether a person can only write pinyin or kana or if they can go the whole way and know the characters and word combinations which would be known at a certain level of education in the school curricula of the countries involved.

With the above I hope to have introduced the idea that these basic four functions are common to whatever we do with language and underlie everything we do, even though people commonly talk about “speaking” a language.

What are the relations between these four? We already saw above that the EU’s great minds grouped reading and listening together as “Understanding”. Obviously that’s true, but I don’t prefer to regard it that way. One needs understanding in order to speak and write also, so more strictly the distinction should be drawn that when I listen or read I am the passive recipient of language and when I speak or write I am the active generator of the language, unless I am simply copying what I have just read or heard.

Clearly it is easier to be the passive recipient of language that to generate it actively. If you do not have passive knowledge then even reading or listening with understanding will not be possible, but you don’t need to be in a particularly active state to do it. Also some degree of uncertainty as to which registers of words to use or the grammatical niceties may not necessarily block understanding, as context can be the guide and for listening intonation will guide – in the case of face-to-face listening body language also provides a lot of guidance and still as for reading you have context. Listening despite all that can be harder than just reading since you don’t control the speed of input. Not unless you have a recording with a pause button and privacy to listen (maybe with headphones or alone) so that you can repeat or slow down a listening piece all you need. In this case the degree of difficulty between listening and reading is more blurred. Listening presents issues if you have a speaker with an unusual accent or a speech impediment, just as reading presents difficulties when reading the work of someone partially illiterate, but for the purposes of our discussion here let us consider that all the material we would be dealing with is standard language of an adequate quality.

In a sense then we can look at reading as the passive partner of writing, writing being understood as either handwriting or on a keyboard, or on any of the input methods on a mobile device – maybe even voice recognition which blurs the distinction between speaking and writing, but I would class it for our purposes as writing rather than speaking.

Likewise speaking and listening are an active/passive pairing. They have in common that they don’t involve the written word, and that someone with no literacy who is a native speaker of the language could also take part. Normally conversations take place in which people take turns in speaking and listening, or in chatrooms in reading and writing. The very term “chatroom” shows how readily we can transfer the idea of speaking and listening to writing and reading respectively. We think of ourselves as “chatting” to people when not a decibel is heard in terms of auditory noise beyond the clicking of the keys on our keyboards. It’s also not uncommon given today’s technology to find one’sself in conversations with people who are sorting out their microphones where one side is talking and the other writing. This is not unusual in conventional settings either if someone is mute or has lost their voice, but can hear. People proficient in all four skills can naturally feel reading coming in as an automatic substitute for listening and writing for speaking, where the sound-based pair are not available. These days, when someone in an online exchange tells us some bad or good news, we might naturally say “I am sorry/glad to hear that”, even though we only read it, and if the other person were to even raise an eyebrow it would be either taken as an attempt at humour or as an excess of pedantry.

Allow me to bring in one spiritual dimension just for one paragraph – those not liking it can skip to the next one.  The Bible (Romans 10:17) says “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” –  this clearly shows that the hearing is something that is read. So the Bible itself puts hearing and reading on a parity. When we consider the phrase “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5 v 7) the fact that reading does involve sight rather than the sense of hearing is not conflicting, because the act of reading is like listening or hearing but by using our eyes. The “sight” which the Bible places in apposition to faith in many places is the “seeing” of experimenting. Instead of taking a promise from the Divine revelation on trust needing to probe it and see if it the case by means of experimentation. That’s not the same as testing one scripture against other scriptures, which is generally shown in the Bible itself to be the correct way to understand scriptures.

So we have two active/passive pairs, one involving an aural/oral convention and the other eyes and hands with symbols. However, these things are heavily interconnected, and can cross over. A person reading in a foreign language on their own will usually “hear” what they are saying with a kind of “inner ear” – when we are young we start out by reading aloud and are led gradually to “read in our heads” at which point we are invited to allow our voice to continue in the head, but unuttered by the organs of speech. In due course this may become a voice doing accents or having a quality that we cannot even imitate with our own voice, as we imagine the voice of the speaker.  However in the main one is limited to the voices which one might be able to make a fair attempt at imitating oneself, those of us who are at all inclined to do imitations.

In this way, the act of reading and the development of that inner voice can directly influence speaking, although on my diagram I have not drawn or even allowed for a direct route between reading and speaking, as one will never develop this inner voice from reading alone without the opportunity to listen, and I have come more and more to the view that  the more one “front loads”the listening aspects in a language learning programme, the better this effect works. That’s one of the reasons I now recommend doing audio-only, listening based courses prior to any of the reading and writing required by the Goldlist method. There may be only 10% of the material you need, but it makes perfect sense to do this part right at the start, and that’s also consistent with the way we learn the first language – we have heard it all before we ever try to write it or read it.

That’s all I’ve prepared for today’s article, but I have more to say and we’ll get onto that  during the week. In the meantime your comments are as ever most welcome.

The Four Basic Linguistic Functions Analysed


langfunc3

Today, I am just uploading this for your perusal. I will start commenting on it and explaining it and drawing conclusions from it during the week, and hopefully what I will have to say will be quite useful for language learners. For today however I just wanted to let you take a look at the picture and you are welcome to give your initial thoughts in the comments.

There is actually so much that I could have to say from this simple diagram that I don’t worry that discussion before I have started to show what it is all about could “steal my thunder”. On the contrary it would be interesting to see what interpretations people would place on the diagram as it stands.

Should you first master your own language before learning another?


English: Belarusian as native language among u...

English: Belarusian as native language among urban population in Belarus according to the 2009 census Українська: Білоруська мова, як рідна серед міського населення Білорусі за даними перепису 2009 року. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning on Facebook someone cleverly asked the question whether one should first master one’s native language before learning another. The person asking the question later in the thread comes out in favour of the answer no, one does not have to first master one’s native language before starting another. Quite right too, but I was negatively surprised to see a number of people siding with the proposition. Do they think that they can even measure what it is to “master” one’s native tongue?

I think it is even actually impossible to master one’s own language without learning another. It is impossible to be properly analytic about one’s own native language without stepping out of it. A common denominator among people who use their native language particularly poorly is that they have never undertaken serious study of a second one.

I had a friend from Australia once who was completely ignorant of whether he was using a word in English as a noun or an adjective or an adverb – in English words don’t necessarily change their form to show you what they are. As a result his reading comprehension was a hoot, he made incorrect inferences the whole time from what people wrote to him. You could see that his whole world view was hemmed in by the fact that he didn’t even have a proper grasp of how his tool for thought, ie language, actually worked. It was not until he started learning other languages that his eyes began to open. This is before we even get to the deepening of thought and the opening of the mind that comes ones we are able to understand word origins better, or start to think in the other language or begin experiencing the world through the linguistic apparatus of another people. Read the rest of this entry

Goldlisting may or may not be from the very beginning of learning a language, but it’ll take you on as far as you like!


1st edition (publ. Hodder & Stoughton)

1st edition (publ. Hodder & Stoughton) (Photo credit: Wikipedia) –  But will Hodder and Stoughton manage to make Michel Thomas’ method everlasting?

Neworldgirl78 wrote on my Goldlist lecture in Moscow film the following question:

I am learning Russian and have been using a variety of means such as Pimsleur, various apps, and your you tube videos of course. Should I narrow my studying to this method or add it to my current methods? Thanks, and love your videos :)

Many thanks!

I started to answer this in the comments section but I thought that it needs more space than the comments section there allows.

Here’s the full answer:

I use Michel Thomas and Pimsleur myself, audio only as they are, at the beginning of learning a new language, but they eventually come to an end. You might for example work through MT first and even a very long course with all the available levels in still is only less than 20 hours of material, add on a full Pimsleur course with another 30 hours of material (much of it overlapping with the MT) that gives you 50 hours.

This 50 hours – the maximum currently available of quality audio-only beginners courses – when listened to a few times gives you 150 hours of audio time at the max, and if you use the pause button properly you could stretch that to 250. It’s great to do this at the beginning – use MT first as that method gives you the deep structures of the language and doesn’t shy away from grammatical explanations (which Pimsleur does to the point that it becomes misleading at times) and it gives you a good accent, but that 250 hours of work will only take you so far.

And let’s be clear that for many of the less popular languages there’s still no MT course – Hodder and Stoughton didn’t make much on the ones available so far as the activities of internauts were too impactful on the sales of the material, and so it may well be down to hobbyists rather than businesspeople to take Michel Thomas’ legacy to its full conclusion. So it the best case, something like Russian, you might be lucky and find 250 hours of useful work to do on audio only. If you were looking at Bulgarian you’d be hard pressed to find any – I found some in bookshops in Sofia, from an unknown method and author which I didn’t even start yet, but nothing on Amazon or the net.

So once you have finished with the audio only, or earlier if you are not an auditory learner and feel that you aren’t progressing so well with the audio only methods, you need to progress onto reading and writing. Read the rest of this entry

Huliganov.TV goes over 100,000 views!


Many thanks to those of you who have subscribed and who come again and again to my humble abode. This milestone is hopefully only the beginning, although in fact I have now been doing this since November 2009, that is three years, and a few days on top. In three years’ time where I’d really like to be is over a million views – that’ll need a lot of work to do pulling over from other places all the resources and creativity that I’ve been doing in different parts of the web and making this the unified place where it’s all easy to find in one place with the various categories and subcategories, and the ability to search by words within this space, as well as the ability to have discussions not hampered by word limits, in which you can thread them properly and include links and media to your hearts’ content – unlike in YT where most of my material currently is and where most of my hits currently occur – in total well over 4 million there so hopefully a million here by the end of a similar six years (the time I’ve been on YT is now closer seven than six) is not too much to hope for.

In the end it depends on you, the viewer. Every bit of interactivity that you do here, discussing with me or with other commentors if you feel the urge, every subscription, every use of the share buttons I’ve put under the articles, it all helps me along, it all encourages me to produce more in the future.

Not everyone will like the blog, or the films and other internet “assets” (sometimes “internet contingent liabilities” might be a better phrase), but for some of you I know it has been and will be a source of interesting ideas and an experience of language learning, travel and other subjects such as faith, politics and others from time to time, and I hope that it will continue to be a place that you subscribe to, that you like to come to from time to time, and that you recommend to like-minded people. Read the rest of this entry

A question on the Goldlist Method


Français : A small list of common Louisiana Fr...

Français : A small list of common Louisiana French words different from normative French. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nice to see there are still all the time more and more people discovering the method online and finding out about it. One viewer asked me today:

Hello, in the last few days I’ve spent a few hours watching Your videos about the Goldlist Method. They have answered most of my questions, but one. Which is; as You’ve said, it is not a language course, or language learning method, but a way of learning vocabulary, so to learn a language the student also needs a book about the language. But how to use the course, if I’m using the Goldlist method? I mean, to make sure that the words I’ve learnt, I remember with the long term memory, I should not have contact with them for at least two weeks, but I would have if I were to use the course. Should I actually use the course (the way it’s meant to be used) after I learn all/most of the vocabulary contained in it? That would mean spending quite a few months learning the vocabulary, and not being able to really say anything in the target language. Or should I read enough about the target language’s grammar before? Though, that would mean spending some time learning the grammar, without knowing too much vocabulary to practice it with.

When I choose a language course, I try and find one that has vocabulary given in each lesson (as well as an index at the back, and graded grammatical explanations in each lesson. So I copy over the voicabulary items as single line items, and I copy over the grammatical paradigms as well as the explanations in summarised form as line items, just like noting things out of the book. I don’t need to write out all the dialogues and I don’t then usually need to do the exercises.

The fact that common words will inevitably be met again while I’m working further on the course is not an issue. These are the words which are so common of course you are going to learn them if you learn also the uncommon words, but in fact you shouldn’t panic unduly about seeing the words again, you just shouldn’t revise them again, but press on forward.

Even if you end up writing a word or grammar point more than once because you forgot you met it already, and only discover this on a later distillation, it’s really no big deal. Goldlist is quite a long project even though it’s probably the quickest way to learn in terms of total time spent, and these small inaccuracies will all come out in the wash.

Hope that helps.

Grammar and the Goldlist


English: Greek: Present Active Indicative, Imp...

Image via Wikipedia

I am often asked (or, for hypersticklers, ‘it is often being asked unto me’) “Is the Goldlist only for vocabulary or is it also for grammar, and other things?”.

It is a good question. The answer is that I personally use it for everything involving writing which is involved in the learning of a language, and I prefer to keep a language within a single Goldlist system if it’s feasible. ‘

There are sometimes cases to be made for doing multiple goldlists around a single language. If we are talking about, for instance, and understanding of the grammar points in Japanese or Chinese, it may be easier for some people to deal with these and get them out of the way in PinYin or Roomaji (there are pluses and minuses to that approach, as hiragana is used in Japanese for most of what would be considered grammar, and getting used to the look of that grammar in hiragana is essential, but you can get to it later once you’ve grasped what’s actually going on using Roomaji) A separate goldlist book can be used for that, and that would enable a person to use their main goldlist to keep track of pure vocabulary as it grows.

Likewise phrases, proverbs, lines of songs in the language that you want to remember – if you don’t want them getting in the way of the pure vocab count, stick them in a separate goldlist. It doesn’t bother me much in my case, I know anyway what the composition of a given headlist is and where I got the material to be memorised from.

Whether you have a separate grammar Goldlist or a mixed one, when it comes to grammar and the goldlist there are certain things which need to be borne in mind.

- In most languages it is possible to talk about regular grammar, the basic rules, regular verb conjugations, noun declensions, etc, and then there will be irregularities. The regular parts are learned as tables, and the use of the grammar as well as syntax is driven home by typical practice sentences. All of these things can be included as line items in the gold list once over, and not any more for those words which follow the regular paradigms.

- the irregular verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc, all the words which don’t follow the tables which have been memorised as deafult tables should have their irregularities learned at the same time as you learn the word. In the headlist you might spread the word over different lines for all the parts in which it is irregular, and then combine them in later distillations or leave them out once you remember them.

If you are talking about Spanish, for instance, (a language whose nouns are strightforward in the main but the verbs can be a nightmare) it is possible to determine from three or four of the “persons” of a verb in any declension how the other positions will look. Therefore even in the Headlist when looking at the present definite of an irregular verb, it will show only four rather than six positions. If you prefer to write all six in H (notation for the Headlist) just to get a better feel for them, then that’s up to you. If you do that, it will be possible to take the verb to four lines in D1 (notation for first distillation) and in D2 you might get those four verb forms all on one line, writing the part of the root that doesn’t change, a concatenation mark and then the parts of the verb which change with commas after them. If you are aware that you are writing the yo, el, nosostros and ellos part of the verb each time, then you don’t need to add those pronouns. By D2 you’ve probably droppoed the infinitive anyway, so as you see the rate of distillation of grammar done that way is faster than for normal vocab. After D2 you’ll probably be unable to do any more compaction, so dropping lines is a function of already being comfortable with all the irregularities.

If we were doing Japanese verbs, the Goldlist for them would look quite different. On almost all verbs it would be possible to get to one line quite quickly. The exceptions here are things like modestive verbs and aspects like the potentive form of suru is dekimasu. Most other unusual aspects can be derived from the rules by which connexive forms are made from different stems of the basic form, and that rule can be condensed to fit on one line anyway, plus general rules about phonology that you learned when you did the katakana tables and hiragana tables anyway. It’s no surprise that ‘matsu’ becomes ‘machimasu’, that isn’t even an irregularity, but I can envisage a person wanting to include it in H anyway just by way of getting used to it.

Tables of the regular paradigms can be included in the Goldlist. Some of my Czech goldlist contains pure tables and the numbering at the side is broken so as to include the number of lines in the tables, but sometimes the tables can be manipulated and this actually aids learning. For instance the adjective endings table includes at one stage of distillation M, F, N and the two plurals going across the top and seven cases going down – that’s a seven line deep table. One trick for further compaction, possible only if you are just looking at the endings and not the stem, is to turn the table on its pivot and have it presented in the less usual way of  M F N Pl (with the masc animate and the others separate using “/” signs just for the nominative and accusative where they differ going down and the seven cases going across. That turns a 7 liner into a 4 liner.

In these cases I skip a line number where the table headers are. Sometimes it’s also nice to use colours on the grammar tables to highlight areas which are identical.

I haven’t yet learned a language whose grammar would be the biggest task. I can’t think of any language, even Spanish with its irregular verbs taken at a very gradual pace, where the grammar has been the big deal. In a challenge to gain a 15,000 word vocabulary and all the grammar, the Goldlist parts needed to learn pure grammar will be something between 5 and 15% of the total.

I hope this has been useful, and either clears up people’s questions about the use of Goldlist for grammar, or corroborates what they do naturally with the Goldlist or gives them some new ideas.

Newsflash: Soon I will start a new goldlist for Indonesian and this time it’s my intention to use it as a model goldlist that will illustrate the forthcoming book. I am going to start off by doing the Pimsleur before I even look at a written word, therefore dealing with the first issue of phonics, intonation and accent which is in my view the weakest area of the Goldlist method. I will then do a particularly careful Goldlist which will be linked to the TY book, and therefore anyone wishing to follow the whole logic can get hold of the same materials, and see if they like how their application of the method differs from mine. Which doesn’t mean mine is necessarily better, but we can all compare notes that way. If anyone is interested in joining in that project, please let me know.

Goldlist thoughts by Cyderspace


The gender of countries in the French language...

Sometimes maps and charts can help the remembering of gender names for countries, as this one for French, for example. You can do similar things for months of the year, etc. There's no reason why drawing a map on one double page of a Goldlist book and retracing it shouldn't be a nice break from the usual modalities of Goldlisting.

An excellent comment appeared in the Goldlist page, which I thought deserved to be elevated here as a main article together with my answers. So here goes:

I just thought I’d write a bit about your Goldlist method while I’ve got a few spare minutes. I have just started using it and wonder what your thoughts are on a few issues I have.

First a little background:

I had, by chance really, happened upon my own method of learning vocab but without really thinking much about the function or structure . Like yourself I had an instant aversion to the standard mnemonic memory tricks, thinking that I just didn’t need all of that extra baggage to learn simple words. I also didn’t get on with flashcards very well. Since I was getting all of my vocab from reading literature I was looking up a lot of words in order to simply follow the story. This was time consuming and I would frequently realise that I had already looked up a certain word, sometimes several times already, only at the point of once again looking it up.

This all changed when I purchased a brilliant dictionary for my Iphone which had a ‘favourites’ folder where you could bookmark words for learning later. However I found that I didn’t ‘learn them later’- I simply looked them up again and again. It was much quicker to type half a word than search through the pages of a dictionary and it would also tell me if I had that word already in my favourites list. After about a month or so, I would go through the list of favourites and delete the ones I definitely knew. So, depending on how common the word was, I was, by default almost, using a spaced repetition system, though I knew nothing of this type of system at that time. I found that I was learning the words without trying, just by reading them. And it won’t surprise you to learn that some words would ‘stick’ first time and others took many ‘passes’. There are obviously problems with this rather disorganised method , for instance the slow rate of vocabulary acquisition and the limited source of the vocabulary to name but two.

So when I found out about your goldlist system I immediately thought of the similarities to what I was doing and thought that it could definitely be an improvement. I agree with you about our relationship with the subconscious long-term memory and that explains why words can simply ’appear’ into my vocabulary without me remembering even remembering having heard them – if that makes sense. My subconscious has ‘sampled’ them from a radio program or somewhere without me realising. I also see the same process occurring with my kids who can grab the strangest words and phrases from seemingly nowhere.

I have only been using the goldlist for a month or so and so have only done a hand-full of distillations but I was wandering what you thought about a couple of issues I have come across so far:

If I still get most of my vocabulary from reading literature then I cannot avoid coming across a certain amount of the words again, by accident, before its time to distil, simply by looking them up whilst trying to follow the story.

I would be inclined not to worry about that unduly. These are probably the words which are coming up so often that in the grander scheme of things you won’t get too far in the language without automatically knowing them very well anyway.

I sometimes find that I am very familiar with the word itself but have trouble remembering the translation. This can be exacerbated when I look again at the headlist and remember the word itself very well but not necessarily the meaning. I have ‘sampled’ the word but not the meaning.

You could find it useful just briefly to think about the object or activity or idea of the word while saying it aloud, but don’t repeat it or drill it or construct contrived mnemonics. Just the way you woul have done it for yourself as a child when you met a new word you had some kind of image in your head that it got associated with, and that has stood you in good stead till today even though it might have been a very childish image or a very idiosyncratic, personalised image.

I don’t yet find it easy to remember the genders of words using this method.

The genders of nouns (which are the words carrying implicit genders, not all words do so) can be learned best by applying general rules to them. For most languages that have gender, there are rules that enable you to predict the gender of most words. A clear example are languages like Italian, Russian, Czech, Spanish, where if a noun ends in “-” then by default it’s feminine unless there’s a reason.  Beyond that there is what you might call ‘natural gender‘ - nouns talking about men are usually masculine even if they have an ending that looks feminine. The next thing is etymological gender. In Spanish you will find that a lot of words ending in -ma are el and not la because Castillian likes to reflect the classic origin of its vocabulary, and in Greek nouns like sistema and problema were neuter and so they are subsumed as in most of the vulgar Latin fall-out languages into the masculine.

If you look carefully at most languages with genders, rules giving the gender from the structure of the noun cover from 30 to 90% of cases. If you are learning a language with 90% then you are nearly home and dry, but for 30% ones you have to rely more on the natural gender clues and the etymology. They are least will help you make sense of it. Taking for an example three feminine nouns in German, Leidenschaft, Mutter and Jugend, we have an example of each kind I am talking about. Leidenschaft you learn as feminine because there is a rule that any book worth its salt should be telling you and that is that all the words ending in -schaft, heit, taet, keit and several others are feminine. So that is structural gender. Die Mutter has no structural gender, it ends in -er like Vater but it has a clear natural gender. You would automatically say “she” for mother in English. Maedchen (girl) you would say ‘she’ for in English too, but in German it remains “es” because the structural gender of -chen is stronger than natural gender, and neutral gender in German doesn’t carry to quite the extent as in English the dehumanizing effect when applied to people. It simply carries a desexualising effect. But why “die Jugend”? It doesn’t look like a feminine word, there is no real reason why youth should be seen as feminine, but it is down to the etymology.  Assuming we don’t want to look at OHG and Gothic and try to reconstruct a version of “jugend” in which the gender is more visible, we can simply learn “die Jugend” as an exception and always Goldlist it with the appropriate der/die/das form (which you wouldn’t have to with more obvious cases), but it we do start to scratch the matter using Wiktionary or some other etymological sources we see that it goes back to “jugunth” in West Germanic and “geogiuth” (pronounced “yoyouth”, becoming later “youth”) in Anglo-Saxon. How does this help, you may well ask. Well, consider a common ancestor of ‘geogiuth’ and ‘jugunth’ and you might see something that could also be related to the French “jeunesse” which is structurally feminine. So going down the etymological road can help!

Simply asking yourself “why might this word be the gender it is” can do a lot to help you remember, even if all you do is speculate for two seconds. Glossing over it entirely as you Goldlist may not be as helpful, but trying to rote learn genders by senseless on the spot repetition is even less helpful. 

My active vocabulary can only be increased by ‘needing’ to say a word and I still may need to look it up to do this. Therefore, have I really learned the word if I can only recognise it whilst reading?

In fact yes, as you will always slip back into not having words on the tip of your tongue and the reactivation perio is three days of immersion only, whereas language learners waste time on this Holy Grail of imagined fluency and it prevents them building up a larger vocabulary base in the language. There is nothing wrong with being able to follow a written text and spoken text without losing the drift. If you can do this then you are fluent and the difference between this latent fluency and active fluency is being there in an immersed situation for three days. The brain by that time switches on the whole synapse set you need to be finding the words you actually know at speech speed, and the fact you understand them when someone else says them – and would know if they were using those words wrongly or saying them wrongly if it were for example another learner – means you do know the word and ought to relax on that score.

Language schools make a lot of money by the way out of cultivating the learner’s expectation that they will be  able to do the performing seal act in a language at the drop of a hat. That’s how they pad out a small amount of course material in class over a longer time, and take years and years of your money to do what can be done on your own and in months not years.

Still, some people just enjoy going to language lessons. Some enjoy the social setting. Fine, it’s their money…

I don’t see these questions as problems as such since my goal is increasing the speed of my vocabulary acquisition and that is already working. It was just to find out what you think.

Well, the above is what I think. What do you think of what I think?

Also as a separate question: How would you define being fluent in a language.? At what level do you consider yourself fluent? Or is this question relevant at all anyway. I only ask this last question because it’s one I am asked a lot and cannot usually give people a satisfactory answer. I feel it’s a distraction at best. It’s easy to tell when someone is fluent and just as easy to say when someone isn’t. As for the in between?

I think that ‘fluency’ is a funny concept when you really get down to it. Let’s imagine someone who likes to say very little even in his own language, but reads a lot and listens a lot. He understands everything but like the wise old owl in the nursery rhyme, “the more he heard, the less he spoke”. Someone else , let’s say his brother, talks nineteen to the dozen and can speak about 200 words a minute and will if you let him, but doesn’t actually know half the words or understand half the concepts of his silent brother.

Who in this case is the more “fluent”? Why, according to the standard definitions of fluency, it is the one who can talk and not let anyone else get a word in edgeways. He is so fluent he is superfluent, and one might even say effluent! But who has the more useful knowledge of language? Who can use the language to get at deeper concepts? Who, when it comes to sitting back and writing three lines that express perfectly what they mean, will prove the more competent in their language?

And there are many mileposts. For the missionary, he is not fluent until he can pray in the language of the people to whom he is sent. The accountant working in a foreign country is not fluent until he has mastered the technical terms, but may still prefer to address God in his native tongue, that is, that of the learner, as we don’t know for sure if even Adam spoke the Divine language, if there is one. The mileposts should be set as individual KPIs for the individual learner, and one of them is the individual learner’s definition of fluency. We shouldn’t set “fluency” in a language as meaning to be able to talk for half an hour for somebody who like the taciturn brother above has no inclination to sound off like that even in his native language.  For the other brother, who wants to be able to talk like that, then for him the definition of fluency might well be that he can get the same points over and with the same style and persuasion, or lack of it, as he has in his native language. Their individual definitions of fluency are determined by their individual need profiles and the applications of language that they are likely to encounter.

Given the above, decide what fluency is for you, you’re welcome to share that here, and for you that becomes the goal, if fluency is your goal. Don’t call fluency in German being able to do the Frankfurter Allgemeiner crossword in ten minutes if you can’t do your own paper’s crossword in ten minutes, though, because that is asking for more than equivalent functionality in the new language than you used in the native one, and that’s not a fair definition of fluency in language. That doesn’t make it an invalid goal, it is just something other than pure language acquisition. And please don’t confuse the performing seal act you tend to see done by YouTube polyglots as necessarily genuine linguistic fluency. You don’t know if they’ve memorised a text or not.

 Many thanks for some excellent considerations!

Answering Victor Berrjod


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Victor asked to see some of the goldlisting of the Heisig book recently described in practice. I picked a relatively early point in the book to show – this is the 10% mark – and please note in this particular book the headlist is on the right and the first distillation on the left.  No frames were actually distilled out on this page but you can see the stories getting shorter.

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