I want to talk about language learning, the basics that is.

The basics in a language are important. It is important to speak correctly, it is important to focus on key patterns, key phrases, key ways of saying things, phrases and patterns and structures that come up all the time, it’s just not possible to do it at the beginning. It’s much easier to do it later on. For example, I find that if I get a phrase book which has lots of useful phrases, if I try to start with that I find it very difficult to concentrate and to remember anything and I have tried it.

When I talk about my experience of learning Portuguese and even Russian, I did start with phrase books and I got nowhere. I find it’s better to start with, more or less, meaningful content, little, short dialogues that at least have some kind of a story to them to get into the language, get a feel for the language and, most importantly, to build up your vocabulary, build up your words. Do that for a while without worrying about any structures. 

Sure, you can have a quick review of some of the key issues in the language and not spend much time on it, not expect that you’re going to be able to remember it, but after about six months, depending on the language, then I find it really useful to go back to the basics. This can mean a regular review of some of the grammar rules which now start to make sense or what I think is very useful and I wish there was more of this is sort of concentrated examples of different patterns in the language.

Steve Kaufmann

I found a book like this in Russia, but I didn’t get a CD for it and it had like 53 patterns. So I’m reading through this and it has a pattern, if you do something then something will happen, whatever it might be, although, therefore. You have all these patterns with lots of examples, so now you have enough of a background of the language that when you hear these examples you’re actually kind of focused now, it has some meaning.

I find that listening to and reading sort of concentrations of examples of these different patterns is helpful, then you can zero in on these patterns that you sometimes notice, sometimes don’t notice, have difficulty using, but always after you have had sufficient experience with the language. I’m not suggesting the basics are not important, I’m only suggesting that you’re better off to go at the basics once you have had significant exposure to the language.

A couple of other comments, someone asked about Chinese characters. Yes, you have to learn those and the most frequent characters upfront, otherwise you can’t read, just like you have to learn the alphabet of a language if the alphabet is different from your own. That’s a little different, in my mind, from learning key grammar rules or key vocabulary. These things you can go after at a later date, but the writing system you have to go at right away in order to be able to read. Whereas, to me, the phonics is not an issue because after you’ve heard a lot of the language you can then go and focus in on pronunciation. Personally, I don’t feel any great need to produce the language when I start out.

So not a hedge, but a further explanation about the whole issue of basics, which are important, but they shouldn’t be put like the cart before the horse, they come afterwards. Again, the old Sufi saying, you can only learn what you already know. I think it really applies to language learning.