The Four Seasons Of Language Learning

Breaking up big tasks into smaller tasks makes them less daunting and much easier to attack with a confident attitude. Over the last few years as I've made my yearly language missions, I've seen a pattern emerge in my method: I've noticed that I tend to break up my year into four seasons of langauge learning. In years when I've used this strategy, I've had great success, and in the years when I've had less structure and mini-goals, I've had results that were less satisfying.

Winter

Each year with a new language, my skills begin as cold and lifeless as the winter season in which they begin. Much like shoveling a path out of my door, I find this initial phase of language learning to be filled with hard work and very slow progress. In winter I have to concentrate on absolute basics, and lots of them:

  • Alphabet and pronunciation
  • Learn how to read/write
  • Basic useful phrases
  • Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary
  • Core verbs
  • Simple present tense
  • Lots of nouns

Spring

Eventually the cold melts away. Trees and flowers begin to blossom. Spring time is full of life, and this new language begins to spring to life. The spring time is growth, and that means grammar:

  • Verb conjugation in all tenses
  • Noun declension in all cases
  • Proper sentence order
  • Lots of writing exercises
  • Lots of time on Lang-8
  • Lots of google searches in my target language
  • Start reading blogs and tweets in target language

Summer

By summer, I know pretty well how it all works, at least at an academic level. But it doesn't come naturally yet, and there's still a lot I don't know. At this point it's all about language acquisition:

  • Read voraciously.
  • Books, short stories, newspapers, magazine articles.
  • Start watching movies and trying to follow along in target language.
  • Look for email friends, pen pals, chat partners.
  • Start using the language (at a slow pace) for actual conversation.

Autumn

Finally, as autumn arrives and the leaves start to fall from the trees, the language too starts to fall into place. From here out, the mission is fluency:

  • Speak as much as possible.
  • Talk to friends, talk on skype, talk to myself... whatever it takes. Be talking.
  • Listen to everything. Understand what you hear.
  • Find natural ways (in context) to improve vocabulary.
  • Learn some jokes.
  • Learn some tongue twisters.
  • Learn some slang.
  • Get comfortable.
Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Welcome back. This an inspiring blog and a great article. I've been languishing in a Siberian winter of Russian learning for four years! This gives me a road map to warmer days. Спасибо!

  • Indeed, thanks for a template I can guide myself with. I've only started with Duolingo to retrace my steps in Italian since the classes I took in college.

  • Well, according the "rhythm of seasons", my English learning process should be at the very end of the summer.
    I admit that it has been a long cold winter which took me a lot of time. I had the "flu" (read it "demotivated"), but I recovered from it.
    Any advice to deal with Autumn? Cheer, Luke.

  • I would start by finding some movies you like and learning to keep up with the dialog. Vince Vaughn comedies come to my mind as an excellent example of where you could really pick up on some clever phrases and slang. Also, The Office (American version) offers a lot for you to watch and get accustomed to how things are said.I would also recommend picking up some good books in English -- I see a lot of language-learners enjoy Harry Potter as their foreign resource, but there are endless books to choose from. Pick something that you've always wanted to read in its original form.And lastly, this is the time when you need to be making contacts. When your Winter comes, you'll want people to talk to, so throughout your Autumn, you need to start adding friends on web sites, making email friends, and start chatting over Skype or Jabber, etc.Well, that's my advice, anyway. :)

  • I have been watching English movies for a long time, but I still have a lot of difficulties to get the English
    accent and consequently to understand what they say in the movies or TV-series.
    English subtitles help me a lot, and allow me to learn a few new sentences, idioms and words.
    However, they say that it's better avoid to follow the subtitles and only focus on the dialogues in order both to get used to the foreign accent and push yourself to understand what's going on in the movie.
    I sometimes try to do that, but, unless the actors speak clear and slowly I hardly get fews sentences. It's kind of frustrating.I like reading. I often read English articles on The Guardian website, reviews, and books of course. Unfortunately, I haven't got a good memory, and I often find myself struggling to drill into my head some new words I come across.
    Sometimes I have even to look the new words up in a dictionary many times; the same words or verbs that I have just read few pages before :-(The Harry Potter books series seem that they are really becoming the ESL students' favourite books.
    More, many English mother toungue teachers think that it's an excellent choise because children’s writing doesn’t have a lot of slang, and so everything is much clearer and much easier to understand. Unfortunately, I don't like that sort of books so much :-)Yes, you're right. I know I need to talk to boost my English, but I don't still feel comfortable talking in English.
    I have to tackle this my problem as soon as possible.
    Thank you for your advice, Luke

  • Really interesting breakdown of the language learning process Randy. I find that the Spring time, although fragile, can be an exciting time as you see things begin to click a bit. The 'Fall' when you actually arrive at an ability to communicate is a relieving time though as you see how beautiful and powerful knowledge of another language can be.Andy
    BackpackingDiplomacy.com

  • Really this blog is very interesting and valuable. As I want to start learning a new language "mandarin" and here in london near my house an institute "Practical Mandarin" that starting mandarin course in next week. Now I plan to go there to learn my new year language from there.Thank's.

  • I'm doing a kind of reverse order of your suggestion: I became first comfortable with German by learning jokes, tongue twisters, lots of slang and talking it every day with friends through every media possible (Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook) and in person. That worked out because I know a lot of German speakers/natives in town (exchange students, mostly) and I organize a weekly meeting for Portuguese-German language exchange. Now I am able to speak confidently on my everyday life and some subjects of interest. (As a matter of fact, I was able to explain a little of Physics yesterday: how water boils at higher temperatures when under higher pressure, hence pointing out the working principle of the pressure cookers.) I still miss the conjugation of many tenses in some verbs, can't follow a whole movie or read a book either. I still struggle with some newspapers, but's getting better every day. Essentially, I miss a lot of vocabulary, but I hold my ground really well in essential grammar. Noun, article and adjective declension is coming slowly to speech, but coming. Word order in sentences also. I try to post a weekly short essay in lang-8. Nonetheless, learning the ortography and pronunciation of German (its phonetics system) were also my first steps. Als well as acquiring the essential verbs and learning lots of pleasantries and basic useful phrases.

  • I like this strategy. I will try it.

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