A recent debate between two language bloggers got me thinking about the methods we all use to learn, and what works best for each of us, and I made a surprising realization!
A recent debate
I had to do housework while I listened to Vince and Steve debating the usefulness of grammar study, because I find "debates" to be insufferable and distracting. I could have just ignored it, but I also find Vince's blog rather insightful, and I wanted to see his take on the "debate."
I'm glad I did, because listening to two polyglots, each steadfastly arguing for something with which the other does not agree, led me to a realization. In retrospect, it seems an obvious observation, but for whatever reason, it never occurred to me before.
You see, the positions being defended in the debate were manufactured and irrelevant. In fact, the topic was only useful to one side, as Steve admittedly has no interest or intention of changing his mind or his language strategy.
But what was useful were the undertones and sidebars of the discussion, because as each person discussed his habits, his hobbies, his goals, I noticed that they were in line with that person's method of learning.
Steve's method of learning works best for Steve, not because it is superior in any way, but because it gets him doing what he wants to do faster. He likes to read, and (no surprise) his method of learning is to read a lot!
I know less about Vince's hobbies, but what I do know about him are two important facts: one, he's a lawyer in Japan; and two, he's a young father. These are two demanding, time-consuming things to be! And it comes as no surprise to me that he is interested in the most efficient ways of learning a language. Also, I find it unsurprising that a lawyer would be concerned with grammar.
And it's not just true for these two. For another example, look at Benny. He's a young, fun, social Irishman. He loves nothing more than talking to people and making new friend. So is anyone surprised that his Language Hacking Guide is filled with instructions to get you "speaking on day one"?
What about me?
If I have established any sort of an identity with this blog, it is probably in relation to my desire to travel. In fact, even as I write this, I am currently out of town in a place I've never been before. So how has an interest in travel influenced my own language strategy?
Travelers are minimalists. We want to pack the most information into the smallest package. That is why my favorite tools are my pocket phrasebook, my iPad, and my iPhone.
Travelers rarely get into high-minded, philosophical conversations, but they spend a lot of time asking directions, haggling prices, etc., so they don't need enormous vocabularies, but they need to have rock-solid understanding of basic concepts.
I also have a twist on travel, since I like to make new friends in the places I visit, so I need to also understand a language well enough to do that. Again, we're not likely to discuss complicated subjects, but I will want to ask about their culture, and they will certainly ask me about life in America, so good conversational skills are necessary beyond the stuff in phrasebooks. And that's why I love social networks - both for learning conversational language, and for finding new friends!
So to point is, the methods you use to learn a language don't have to match exactly with what Steve says in his videos, or what Benny says in his eBook, or what I say in my blog. In fact, they definitely should not! If you do it my way, you only become me.
Think about who you are, and what you want out of your language study, and construct your own learning strategy to get you there. If you want to impress that Columbian girl you met, learn Spanish from poetry books! If you do business with China, study Mandarin with business journals! But if you plan on moving somewhere, expect to learn from everything.
Just don't fool yourself by saying "I just like languages". We all do. If you're reading this blog right now, we already know you like at least one foreign language. That's not good enough. Figure out what you plan to do with the language. After that, figuring out how to learn will be easy!
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