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The Language Learning Tripod: Noticing

I’m going to talk about the third in my series which I call the language learning tripod. The first one was to have the right attitude. That’s key and I went into some detail about the kind of attitude you need to have. The second was to spend enough time, but even if you spend enough time and if you are motivated you have to learn to notice. I think that is what distinguished not so successful language learners from successful language learners. We have to notice.

Now, speaking of noticing, someone said, what is that map on the back wall there, so I’ll tell you. It’s a map of le nouveau France (Canada) sometime in the 17th century. What do we have here? [speaking French] and it’s by _ [speaking French] . Okay, there you have it. It shows what is Quebec, the Great Lakes, parts of New England, somewhere in the 17th century. So that’s for the person who noticed the map.

Noticing – When we start a new language everything is a blur. We don’t notice much. The words seem to flow together. Everything is strange. How do we get to the point where we convert this into something that’s meaningful for us? We obviously need to develop that capability in the brain to treat this as a language, much as the brain already treats our native language or other languages we know as something that is converted easily into meaning. 

I think this is going to be individual for different people, so I can only talk about what works for me. The most important thing that enables me to start noticing the language is simply lots of exposure. If I can guarantee myself that I listen a lot and read a lot, I will gradually start to notice more and more because the language just becomes more and more familiar to me. Now, people say how can you listen to something you don’t understand? Well, I’ve explained many times. I start with short things. I start with things where I either have a translation or I actually prefer to do it as we do it at LingQ, not surprisingly, and that is to look up the individual words. 

Personally, I find the translation or the bilingual text distracting, but other people love doing it that way. So this is not this is good, this is bad, it’s a matter of what works for you individually. It’s much like at LingQ. When we start a new language, all the words are highlighted in blue. As I go through and pick out the words that I need to learn, they convert to yellow. Then I can get rid of all the other blue words in that text and convert them to white. Once a word is converted to yellow or white, whenever that word appears again it will be yellow or white. Then I can focus more and more on the words that I don’t know. 

Once I have saved a word, then I can review it in flashcards. I don’t do a lot of flash carding, but when I do I’m looking to train my brain to the relationships between words, the components that reappear in different words. So very often when I do flashcards I have the foreign word, the English translation and the phrase we capture all on the front. I’m just looking at them. I’m going through quickly. I don’t want to challenge my brain to try to remember it. Personally, I don’t find that that works for me. What works for me is exposure, so I review them quickly and try to see if I can train my brain to see the connections between different words. 

When I read at LingQ because the words that I’ve previously saved are highlighted to yellow, I find that that helps to remind me that I’ve looked it up and, of course, I can see the meaning. So it’s just this constant exposure and all of a sudden, low and behold, words that I couldn’t remember and couldn’t remember, I see them in more and more different contexts, I start to notice them. Language learning is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. The more of the pieces you have in place, the more new things that used to just go flying by you that you didn’t notice now you start to notice. 

Another thing that helps you notice, obviously, is to read some description of the frequently-occurring patterns in the language or a grammatical explanation. I’ve also found that a grammatical explanation I read at an early stage doesn’t have much impact on me, but at a later stage, once I have already kind of seen that pattern, then if I read the grammatical explanation it helps me notice it again. Words that I have tried to remember or that I’ve worked on my flashcards on or I know are important words for me when I hear them, then I try to make a mental note that I’ve heard them. I always like to listen to whatever I read and read whatever I listen to because I find that reinforcing also helps me notice things. 

With regard to pronunciation, we have to be very careful not to allow our native language, particularly the writing system in our native language, to influence what we hear. If we are, say a Spanish speaker, the alphabet is very phonetic and so every word always has the same sound in Spanish. So if we come to English and we see a word like ‘word’ w-o-r-d, ‘bird’ b-i-r-d, ‘heard’ h-e-a-r-d, we have to start noticing that it doesn’t matter how those words are written. In fact, they’re all pronounced the same. 

We need that deliberate attempt to start noticing these kinds of things and so you train yourself to notice. You get better the more you’re into the language and, of course, the more languages you know, the easier it is to notice. Because you are already familiar with similar patterns in other languages, particularly if they are related languages, it’s easier to notice how they might differ in the new language or how they might be the same.

There’s this old adage, this Sufis adage, I often mention this, you can only learn what you already know. But really what that means is once you notice something or maybe it’s pointed out to you, you have a better chance of noticing it the next time and the more you notice things, the more likely it is to eventually stick. So, to me, language learning is a matter of noticing, frequently noticing, and that in this way, eventually, things stick in the brain, much more so than deliberately trying to memorize something, which I have found not so effective.

Mistakes, here’s another one. When you speak or write when you are corrected. To me, if I am corrected or if I correct someone else, I don’t expect that the person I’ve corrected or the person who corrected me will enable me to get it right the next time. Correction is not about getting it right the next time. Correction is about making you start to notice. So by pointing it out I’m oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, but I’ll still get it wrong the next time. If it’s pointed out again and maybe I start to notice when I’m listening, slowly there’s a chance that my brain will start to pick up on this because the brain is trying to create rules and establish patterns so that it can deal with this new experience which is a new language. So there are these things that you can do to help the brain. 

So there you have it. It’s individual. It’s the key learning skill – noticing – because you have to condition your brain to the new language. Once you have these words in you they’re part of that system, then to actually develop the skill of speaking, writing and understanding is going to flow from that. If you’ve noticed all these things, you’ve built up the vocabulary, you’ve noticed these different structures and you’ve noticed the pronunciation, they become, really, a part of how you use the language. It’s starting to fall into place. Now if you want to develop the skill to speak better, you have all the elements in place.

So my advice is to focus on deliberately noticing, be concerned about your ability to notice, don’t get upset if you read a grammar rule and forget it, if you are corrected and make the same mistake again, if you study a list of words and can’t remember them, if you’re reading and the same places are still difficult to understand. None of that matters because the sheer fact of doing those things is unmistakably going to enable your brain to start noticing these things. Your task is to expose the brain to enough stimuli, both in the form of a language and some of these other activities, that it starts to notice. Once it starts to notice, it will build for you a whole control center for the new language.

Just to summarize the three here, you’ve got to be positive about the language. You have to like the language. I think your emotional relationship to the language is extremely important to learning it. You’ve got to be confident about your own ability. You’ve got to like the task. You don’t want to get frustrated at yourself. All of these attitude factors are extremely important. 

The second thing was time. It takes time. The brain learns all the time, but the brain learns slowly. So if you are serious about learning the language, you have to put in the time and put the time in enjoyably and efficiently in whatever activities you find enjoyable and efficient for you. 

Then the third issue was developing the ability to notice, initially through just a lot of exposure, a lot of listening, reading and speaking and then taking advantage of when a mistake is pointed out or you’re skimming through a grammar book or you’re flipping through some flashcards. Realize that these things are helping you to notice and be a little bit deliberate in that you want to notice. When you’re listening oh, yeah, there was that or when you’re reading. I’ll often underline a phrase because I know I consistently get it wrong. All of this is sending signals to your brain that’s going to help your brain notice not only the details of the language, but put together sort of a comprehensive control center for the language.

So there you have it. I think that language learning is, essentially, quite a simple concept. Those are the three elements, your attitude, the ability to enjoy, your commitment, your connection to the language, the time you put in and then developing this ability to notice.

So I look forward to any questions, bye for now.

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