August 12, 2009

How I study foreign languages

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 4:32 pm

August 6, 2009

I’ve spent the last several weeks talking about various parts of language learning, and I wanted to tie them all together and talk about how I normally study. Like the disclaimer in this post, I want to emphasize that this is just what works for me, and your mileage may well vary, perhaps significantly.

A three-legged stool

My study is divided roughly into three parts — active reading, passive reading, and passive listening. Though the latter two consume the majority of my language study time, the former is probably the most critical.

Active reading

Active reading is what I call reading with the express purpose of gaining new vocabulary and increased understanding of grammatical structures. This is reading that I do not necessarily for fun (though I still do it with interesting material), but for the purpose of being able to learn how to talk about the subject in question.

Here’s the general workflow:

  1. Pick a topic. Sometimes I’ll go to Wikipedia and look up a topic that I’m interested in, and then switch languages using the language list on the lower left to a language I’m studying and read about it in that language. Other times I’ll go to newspapers and just read about current events. Depending on your interests, other online periodicals and newspapers will probably fit the bill. I strongly recommend using electronic media, as it makes the following steps a lot less painful.
  2. Read with an eye for the unknown. When I talked about how to read in a foreign language previously, I was primarily talking about passive reading, which I’ll get to in a minute. For active reading, though, I do the opposite — I specifically hunt down things I don’t know and look them up. Any sentence that contains a word that I don’t know, or a structure that I’m not familiar with or would like to use more myself, gets carried into the next step.
  3. Move material into Anki. All of those funky, unfamiliar words find their way onto new cards in Anki. Generally I just copy the sentence as the question part of the card, and then definitions for words that I don’t know as the answer. If it’s a particularly interesting word I’ll look up other examples of it per the steps I outlined here.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

I aim for 50-60 new sentences per day. As I mentioned here, my current new material setting for Anki is 50 cards per day, and I find this to be a comfortable if slightly challenging pace. Collecting 60 sentences generally takes me about an hour per day, though I find that once I start I tend to keep going for longer than an hour.

Passive reading

Passive reading is the “pleasure reading” that I do. I’ve already talked about how I read. The majority of this reading I do while on the move — my commutes are never bookless, and I read a number of foreign language newspapers and blogs via my iPhone while traveling. While I’m not actively trying to retain material while passively reading, I know it is reinforcing things that I’ve already learned.

Passive listening

I’ve talked previously about how I have built a foreign language listening environment and how I maintain it using iTunes. Passive listening also includes TV and movies. Again, I don’t try to learn anything specific (though if I hear a word over and over that I don’t know I might look it up), but rather just try to get used to the sounds of the language, and improve my ability to distinguish sounds.

What about actual communication?!

Maybe you’ve noticed that I haven’t included “talking to people” as part of my studying. In a way, I find that talking (or writing) isn’t something that helps me improve, but rather is something that I can do because I’ve improved. Though talking certainly helps my mouth become accustomed to making the right sounds, but in terms of improving my language skills it is, at best, as good as passive listening. Not that I in any way discourage communication — that is, of course, the entire point of learning a foreign language — but I wouldn’t personally expect it in itself to do very much for my ability to communicate in that language.


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