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.
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 listening 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.
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!
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
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
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
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!
- Introduction to nouns ការណែនាំអំពីនាម (rckbook.wordpress.com)
- What is meant by gender in nouns (wiki.answers.com)
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.