The battle plan, phase one

As I previously said, I want to find a theory on how to acquire (and teach, but that’s not in focus right now) languages easily and effectively, and I want it to be adaptable to different environments – learning alone, 1:1 with a teacher, in a small group or in a big one or any other combination. As the only predictable thing about life is that it’s usually unpredictable, I’m guessing most people will not learn a foreign language in just one of the mentioned environments: you might start out on your own, find a teacher after a few months, join a group that’s learning the language a year later, stay with them for some time, ‘till it breaks up for this or that reason, or you simply decide to go back to studying on your own because you hate people – anything can happen, and thus the theory should have enough flexible, practical tools which will help you no matter where you find yourself.

With this in mind, I want to:

  1. Choose the methods and techniques I’m going to use for languages I want to learn
  2. Devise a method to monitor my progress on a regular basis
  3. Assess my proficiency and learning history in the languages I’m currently learning
  4. After a certain period (6, 12 or more months) I would assess the techniques used and improve the language learning theory

Correct me (pleeeease) if I’m wrong, but most people with language learning success stories can usually tell you only the general outline of how they learned a language, without really going into details. A few kinder souls will go to great lengths to share their learning methods systematically, motivate you and caution you how to deal with issues like burn out – Khatzumoto being the most extremely positive and positively extreme example, of those I’ve found (and a very honorable mention goes to the Antimoon guys and Tae Kim). However, I believe that one thing which is really lacking is a regular, at-least-basically systematic progress report of a learner’s journey from a total beginner to a fluent speaker of a foreign language.

This is the format I sort of had in mind:

– Daily reports: these would be simple enough that they can be filled out in 5 minutes, but would contain enough data which can be used long-term to study the learning progress. One type of questions I had in mind would be along the lines of “How many hours did you spend learning _______ language?” with spaces for listening, reading, speaking, total etc. and an approximate number should be put. This immediately raises the issue of measuring that time, and I’m still tinkering with ideas how to make it accurate enough to be useful, without making it deter the learning process itself, so your ideas here would be really helpful. Also, there should be a tick-the-box list for the methods I’ve used during that day (did I use only monolingual dictionaries or look up translations in bilingual ones, watched movies with or without subtitles, did some SRSing, talked with a native etc.) and a small space for reflections in narrative form, such as “Today I felt really motivated”, “I didn’t really feel like listening to the news”, “I was frustrated for not understanding the movie” “I confused the cashier by spontaneously saying a Thank you in the language when I was shopping” etc. Again, they should be very brief, with only the stronger impressions of the day noted in the narrative.

– Weekly or bi-weekly reports: They should be a bit more narrative. They should sum up my thoughts and feelings on the previous one or two weeks and answer some of these questions: How motivated I was, what I felt was the most useful technique, my (feeling of) progress in understanding certain news excerpts/dialogue from movies etc.

– Monthly assessment: I want to show my progress in the language I’m learning by using the language itself, in a very concrete way. My task would be something relatively simple, but which still offers an opportunity to be creative, such as “Write in 300 words what you did and thought about yesterday“. I would not be allowed to use dictionaries, spellchecking or similar – it will be written by hand and then scanned and maybe also transcribed. Also, while I will of course put some effort into it, I don’t want it to be a herculean endeavor, with half an hour spent pondering whether the spelling of a certain word is correct, because that would mean I’m focusing way more on the form of the form, so to speak, rather than just on form and content, as I would in my native language.

The purpose of this essay is to faithfully represent my current level of skill in my target language. It will be full of mistakes, of course, but hey, that’s part of language learning and, I guess, ego taming. I believe it’s very important to step up and say “Look, look how much I suck! Look at that awful choice of vocabulary, that impossible sentence structure, the unbelievable number of spelling mistakes for those so obviously simple words. Such sucking has not been on shameless public display since ‘N SYNC broke up. Yes, I know that there is many a gnashing of teeth and wincing of native speakers at the sentences on display here, in all their ‘orrible incorrectness and I just don’t care, for you see, I am completely aware of my suckiness. However: while I consciously accept and embrace this fact that I am currently full of the Suck, I know that I am also in the progress of expunging it. I will become better and you will see me becoming better, day in and day out. As time goes by I will remove the major bits of Suck and will slowly prune all the smidgens that remain. Maybe during all this time I will be supporting and be supported by many other people on a similar road of getting rid of their own language sucking, sharing our experiences and ideas. Or maybe I’ll be all alone, with just one or two friends wishing me good luck. Whatever it turns out to be, I will, in the end, prevail.”

Yes, ok, I got a bit carried away. However, I think I did touch on an important issue, which is that of attitude. In language learning, a lot of people are constantly in a special form of fear, particularly in the beginning stages, which is the fear of making a mistake, of seeming stupid. This is in direct opposition with the fact that it is pretty much inevitable to make mistakes when learning a foreign language or, in fact, learning pretty much anything. Embracing this fact, especially by showing your current level, in all its incorrect glory, for all to see, is probably the critical step in neutralizing that fear.

The advantages of these reports are, I believe, manifold. First of all, they help you get into the no-fear state of mind which is so important for (language) learning. Second, they give you very tangible evidence of your constant progress; imagine looking back at the first report some 2 years later and smiling not at how bad you were then, as that was inevitable, but how much you’ve progressed from then. Practically every month when you write a report, you can glance quickly at your previous one and see a small, but noticeable improvement. Thirdly, the data which you compile will give you (and everyone else) extremely useful information on what learning techniques work good and which don’t, what gave you the most trouble in learning that language, how did your motivation levels change depending on your progress and other circumstances, all of which will go into improving the language learning theory (for some reason I refrain from calling it my language learning theory. I dunno, I guess it sounds a bit selfish to me, as devising it has been influenced by a lot of people and it will involve a lot more people).

I will spend the next couple of weeks defining the monitoring system and the techniques I will apply to my language learning. During this period all of your input is much appreciated and extremely needed – comment, disprove, make fun of my thoughts if you wish, just please be as constructive as possible.

Randomly listed are the things that need some thinking:

– The progress reports: their form, is measuring time spent with the language necessary, if yes, how precise should it be and how to make it as precise as possible without hindering the learning process itself, is the daily/weekly-bi-weekly/monthly format good, what questions should be inside, should the monthly assessment be also in oral form… I think a good question to ask yourself is “What would I want to know 2 or 3 or more years from now about how I learned my secondary language?” and go from there.

– The techniques: anything that you can think of – reading books, watching movies, listening to music/movies/news on your mp3, to name some of the basic ones for solo learning, but do write about 1:1 and group learning techniques too. Go as esoteric as you want, just give a reason why you think it’s a good technique.

– The outlook: maybe your techniques are part of a language learning philosophy. Tell me about that philosophy. I’m currently defining mine and will post it in the following days (you can find a hint in the Dragons and Justice post), but I would very much love to hear your thoughts on this issue. How do you see and approach your language learning?

– Previous experiences: Tell me how good you are in your second language and how you learned it. Obviously, if your second language is English (or Serbian) you don’t have to explicitly tell me how good you are, I’ll conclude from the way you write (again, I am not an expert and I’m not here to judge you in a teacherly way or anything or feel smug because my English is maybe better, and in any case after having read way too many comments on Youtube for my own good, you can’t possibly surprise me with anything worse than what’s there)

Also, here is my should-have-already-read list of topics I want to read about in the next week or so. Since ordering books over the internet is quite an endeavor in Serbia, I’ll have to settle for good ole internet for finding this information, which is cool anyway, as I couldn’t possibly read all the required books in any short period of time. Let’s say that I want to get a general overview of these fields and draw some inspiration from wherever I find it: how babies learn languages, bilingualism, multilingualism, language learning theories, language learning progress monitoring (yeah, I’m feeling lucky, I know), pronunciation acquisition theories, how polyglots learn and how their brain works, famous language learners, why the today’s prevalent grammar-lovin’ theory is so bloody prevalent… I’ll google these topics, but I’ll be very grateful for any good link you might know of.

So, that’s it I guess. Once again, comment or write (sagefromrage at gmail dot you know) to me with any and all suggestions, questions or ideas you might have, and I’ll be more than happy to reply.

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