Immersion: The Strategy for Beginner Language Learners

Immersion: The Best Strategy for Beginner Language Learners has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  Original video was published on Jan 15, 2018


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I want to talk about being a beginner in learning a language and I want to refer to what I’m doing to learn Arabic. As I’ve said before, because I have learned many languages many of the languages that I have been learning, Greek would be an exception, but certainly if I learn a second or third Slavic language or a second or a third even Asian language or a second or a third romance language, I have an advantage in that I already know a lot of how the grammar kind of works, how the language works. People who are learning another language for the first time don’t have that advantage. Maybe my experience with Arabic is similar to what some beginning language learners experience, so I want to talk about how I’m dealing with Arabic and how I think people should approach being a beginner.


How I immerse myself in a new language

Essentially, as a beginner we should immerse ourselves in the language. In other words, don’t try to master the fine points of grammar upfront. You won’t remember them. It’s going to confuse you. And, again, I always talk from my own perspective, my own experience, my own preferences as a learner. I find that the heavy grammar explanation upfront is intimidating. Because we have no point of reference we don’t know what these grammar explanations are referring to, but immerse yourself. That means don’t spend too much time on absolute beginner text. You know, this is a pen. This is a book. This is a door. This is a car. I find it quite comfortable to jump right in to call it lower, intermediate-type text. It’s not necessarily more difficult and it gives you more context. It gives you something to grab a hold of and so that is very much what I have been doing with Arabic.


I’ll get into more detail, but I realize or I remember now that that’s what happened to me when I started learning Chinese. We were hit right at the very beginning with this book called Chinese Dialogues, Yale in China series book. If I remember correctly because it’s 50 years ago, it was all in the Yale Romanization. So it was all in Romanized, we didn’t have characters. I remember listening to it over and over and over and not understanding. I thought that the people in the dialogues, the audio, were deliberately speaking quickly just to annoy the learner. It was so fast I couldn’t get anything.


That’s kind of where I was in my Arabic and now at least I hear it clearly. I hear the words. Some words I’ve already forgotten so I have to go back in and read it again, but the brain is starting to get used to it. So that’s what happened in Chinese.


I remember that in Russian. How many times did I listen to the same audio book? For example, I got into The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy because it’s the only Tolstoy novel that’s short, everything else is like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and I listened. I can remember standing in line at some airport waiting to go through security and I’m listening and listening and listening and I’m still not getting it, still not getting it, still not getting it. But in both the case of Chinese and the case of Russian, difficult languages for me at the time, eventually I got there and so I know with Arabic I just have to be patient. I will eventually get there.


I have these mini-stories at LingQ and nowadays I have the ability to break these down, so I use Sentence View. In other words, I look at one sentence at a time. This is available on the Web version of LingQ. I’m a tester on the app doing Sentence View and I think within a week or two it will be available to all users. So I do one sentence at a time. I can save words and phrases. With each sentence I can then review these in the activities, including dictation, which forces me to write in Arabic. So I’m kind of mining this sentence and getting somewhat more used to it. I can listen to the text to speech and when I’m done I listen to the whole thing read by a natural human voice. I’ve now gone through 30 of these stories and I have them on a playlist on my iPod Touch and as well on my iPhone and so if I’m working out I listen to it and still I can’t understand it, but I understand it better than I did. So those are 30 stories, I gather another 30 stories are going to be upload.


So I’ve been at my Arabic for a little over a month and let’s say it takes me two months to get used to, not fully understand, but kind of get used to, gradually more and more words slot into place of these stories. That’s two months to do 30 stories. Each story is four, four and a half minutes long, so even in 30 stories there’s three to four hours of material which I’m going over and over. I think the second 30 stories where we’ll have more different tenses it gets a little more complicated, but still those will go more quickly as I start to gain traction. At the end of three months I will have absorbed seven hours of content, but I will have listened to each story 100 times. So seven hours is maybe 700 hours, I don’t know, lots.


Once I’ve gone through that stage, then I can get into more meaningful content. Because I will have been reading all of this my reading ability will have improved and so then I can go to some of the grammatical stuff. This is one site, for example, just in terms of verbs. They have oddball verbs, quadrilateral verbs, hollow verbs, double verbs, defective verbs, assimilated verbs, sound verbs. Now, if I were to try to go through each of these different types of verbs I’d be discouraged and I’d leave. This way, I’m in my stories. She took. He took. He takes. He thinks. He is going. He likes. He doesn’t like. They like. We like. I’d run across these verbs, and the mini-stories tend to use the most frequently used verbs, I’d get used to them. At some point, in three, four or five months, I may look up and discover that this verb is a hollow verb, that verb is a double verb, oddball verb. It doesn’t matter, it comes afterwards. Basically, that’s it.


Immerse yourself in interesting content

Immerse yourself in the language, that’s my advice. Find something. Not scientific treatise. The mini-stories are a good example because there’s so much repetition, but there’s lots of stuff like that out there. Don’t spend forever on this is a dog, this is a bird. Also, I don’t like children’s stories. I don’t like folk tales. The advantage of the mini-stories is, again, it’s about everyday life, having dinners, inviting someone out to dinner, going to the bookstore, going to the shoe store, any of this kind of daily life where you’re taking, putting, giving, wanting, liking, needing and just immerse. Immerse yourself and trust that eventually this way you’ll be a lot further ahead because it does take time. It does take time.


I often look at these little starter books that people put out. You’re going to master this. You’re not going to master anything. You need lots of exposure and so I think that very often as a beginner don’t start at the beginner level, start at the sort of early intermediate level. Start swimming and you may end up at your destination sooner that way. At least that’s my strategy.


I look forward to your comments, bye for now.

1 comment on “Immersion: The Strategy for Beginner Language Learners

Name *Jeff

This question of immersion is an interesting one. Is ‘immersion’ another way of saying throwing yourself in at the deep end and seeing how quickly you learn to swim? About 40 years ago, I went to live in Darfur, in western Sudan. I was a teacher at the local high school and had purposely chosen a relatively remote town precisely because I wanted to learn Arabic (even though I knew that the local Arabic wasn’t exactly standard, it would be close enough). I used to go to a local cafe for breakfast. There was a blackboard with a list of dishes (it could hardly be described as a menu); but I couldn’t read a word, so was dependent upon the waiter reading out what was available. The list of about a dozen items sounded to my still novice ears as a single long blurb of language, from which I was unable to distinguish a single comprehensible word let lone enough for me actually to choose something. So, I would just point to whatever somebody else was having and opt for that. Eventually, however, I was gradually able to distinguish the first and last words of the list; so, for about 6 weeks I had ‘ful’ (beans) and ‘salata hamra’ (tomato salad) … boring but healthy. By the end of the first term — say 10 – 12 weeks or so — I was able to hold a decent, albeit limited, conversation, and was able to order a more varied eating regime. In my experience, language learning runs in thresholds: the first several weeks, you understand nothing, everything is an undistinguishable soup; then you suddenly realise that you do, in fact, know and understand what you’re hearing. Then comes another threshold, when you can use that language as the basis for your own responses when, at long last, you are able to conjure up a conversation with the waiter and with fellow diners at the cafe. The boost in confidence is one of the great pleasures that language learning brings … and there are new thresholds when you are able to talk about rather more than the breakfast menu!
I’m now 76 years of age and have started to learn Mandarin. I don’t have a local cafe or sympathetic waiter, but nowadays there’s a wealth of material on the internet (no internet 40 years ago in Sudan!!). But the process and the breaching of thresholds is no less exciting. Of course, there’s a long way to go — and learning a few characters hasn’t been quite so impossible as I had once feared. My next threshold is to be able to recognise and understand 100 characters regardless of the context within which I come across them. It’s an adventure! Best regards, Jeff Phillips

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