I’m currently learning a language using the Say Something In series. Apart from finding the series remarkably effective, what I’m particularly delighted by are the additional tips and tricks the course provides to help you become a better language learner.
The study of any subject, be it history, biology or a language, requires developing good study habits. This is something which is often overlooked in today’s education, as most schools and institutions have to focus on the transfer of knowledge and high-stakes assessment.
In most learning establishments, teaching is seen as a universal trait: what is good teaching for one subject is good for another. However, I think the approach to effective teaching should vary from subject to subject, particularly between diverse topics such as history, calculus and grammar.
To learn a foreign language you need effective teaching techniques as well as effective learning techniques. So what makes for good learning habits when studying a language? Keep reading to find out…
Short Term Memory
As Daisy Christodoulou points out in her seminal tome Seven Myths about Education, short term memory plays a crucial role in the Learning Process. You first have to place new words and phrases into your short term memory and practise recalling them regularly before they will move into your long term memory. Recalling items from your short term memory can be hard work, especially since it can only hold around 3 to 5 items at a time. So if you’ve just learnt to say in a foreign language I’d like, coffee, please, with, milk, cold, and hot in a foreign language, then stringing together the sentence I’d like a coffee with cold milk please requires you to hold around four lexical items in your short term memory, and that’s besides thinking about their pronunciation and any grammatical features. However, this becomes easier once these have been automated.
Trying to recall words, phrases and grammatical structures from your short term memory can be hard work, but it’s simplified with a process in language learning known as Automation. As Thornbury (Online) points out in his blog post, automation is the ability to “draw on” memorised chunks of language without having “to assemble each utterance from scratch” or “word by word” and with no “expense” to fluency. But how do you reach automation? First and foremost, through regular practice! You have to move what you’re learning into your short term memory, then your long term memory and then become efficient in recalling it without even thinking. This process is not quick and it will be take time. It also involves practice in the form of focused manipulation i.e. sitting down and trying to recall discrete items of language, as well as attempts to recall language when communicating a message in real life.
During A Task
As language is a school subject, we’re often taught to set aside dedicated study time. This is because other school subjects, such as history and mathematics, often require you to sit down and process a wealth of information. However, the predominant function of language is communication: we use language to encode and decode spoken and written messages. That means we use language as a mere tool when carrying out other tasks, such as explaining an idea, reading the newspaper or catching up with a friend. It shouldn’t come then as too much of a surprise to be told that it’s beneficial to learn a language while doing something else. After all, that’s when you’d use it in real life, right? So if you’re using an audio-based series, such as the Say Something In series, then why not listen to the lessons while running, driving to work or cleaning the house?
So there you have it, three key things to take into consideration when learning a foreign language. Have you considered any of these during your own language learning? If you’re a teacher, what about with your learners – do you recommend any of these tips or others when helping them to become better learners? If you do, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Christodoulou, D. (2014) Seven myths about education. Abingdon: Routledge.
Thornbury, S. (Online) “A is for authenticity” An A-Z of ELT Blog. Available at: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/a-is-for-automaticity/