Sunday, May 20, 2007

What can I throw my money at?

So I get this question all the time: What book/CD/online service can I use to boost my language learning?

The smart answer is this: All of them, if that's what gives you confidence. The easiest and best way to learn a language is to use it daily in real communication, let your language instinct kick in. The second best way is to get a tutor and/or take a class. It's a distant second, but it's been known to work occasionally, when both teacher and student emphasize daily practice and real communication.

In general, all the other stuff is a pile of crap; flash cards will get you through a vocab quiz, but that's about it. The vast majority of everything else is basically just glorified flash cards. Berlitz: glorified flash cards. Rosetta Stone: electronic, glorified flash cards, with an added bonus of operant conditioning.

If that helps you, makes you more confident, then by all means throw your money at Rosetta Stone. Seriously. For many people from predominantly monolingual countries, confidence is a big problem, since they associate an inability to express yourself verbally as mental retardation. When I was in Michigan, one insult I often heard was "Uh, she can't even speak ENGLISH." As if knowledge of a certain language was a minimum for intelligence. Well, the people with this attitude tend to have issues when they're in a second language classroom, struggling; that they're stupid for not being able to express themselves. These are the people that should throw money at confidence builders like flash cards and Rosetta Stone.

Otherwise? Save your money!

However, there are three programs that receive my stamp of approval as supplements. They are not meant to be the primary means of language instruction; they are something you can do in addition to being immersed in the target language and/or taking a good class.

Pimsleur. Native speakers speaking at almost normal speed. The student gets a chance to supply the answer before it's given. Caveats: you have to do a half an hour a day, every day, repeating lessons until you master them. You have to answer out loud and hear yourself; you can't just *think* your answers. Borrow the CDs from the library; don't buy them at Barnes & Noble. Limitations: it's all oral. You won't learn how to read or write. If you have a bad ear for foreign sounds, it won't stop and help you.

Bilingual Book's 10 Minutes a Day series. They make books, audio materials, etc. to help jumpstart your language study. My Chinese in 10 Minutes a Day came with sticky vocab labels, flash cards, a menu guide, and a take-along Pocket Pal. It was written in a way that is not totally useless as a language learning supplement, like some of the other programs on the language learning bookshelf. One annoying thing is that they provide gringo-spelling approximations for target language words.

Finally, has nice bite-sized, functionally realistic dialog analysis. It's not going to help your spoken Mandarin, but do it enough and it might help you with your listening and reading comprehension. Aspiring Polyglot reviews chinesepod's sister podcast, which doesn't look bad. Remember, this might help you with listening and reading comprehension, but it won't necessarily raise your Spanish grade.

One very annoying thing about both chinesepod and spanish sense is that in the beginner levels, the dialogues are super artifical: words are read slowly and haltingly, with ridiculous artificial inflection.

Listen to me: slow input does NOT help you learn language. No! NO NO NO. At best, slow input helps you learn SLOW LANGUAGE. (Ken, I was just being facetious!) Whenever you get mad at someone for "talking too fast," you need to remind yourself that you don't speak that language, and no amount of SLOW is going to help you understand.

Counter-intuitive? Remember when you learned to ride a bike, and you found that it was easier to balance when you had a little speed? Remember when you first learned to drive, and you realized you had more control with a little speed?

Same with language. Slow speech doesn't help your memory. You don't need every word in a sentence in sequence in order to understand what someone is saying.

Besides, that's not how your brain listens to your own native language, anyway. Your brain listens for semantic landmarks and then fills in the information in between. You need to learn to do that in your second language. Slow speech levels semantic landmarks, and over-emphasizes the non-content words that hold sentences together.

So don't bother with slow speech. Negotiate with the speaker. Make the speaker say less, maybe pause for a second. Ask the speaker to repeat. Ask the speaker to explain. Ask the speaker to write. Ask the speaker to show you. Anything, ANYTHING but slow speech.

So chinesepod and spanishsense? You can listen to the crazy slow speech if you want. The good stuff is in the intermediate and advanced levels, when people start talking normal speed.

Update: Ken from just found this post and linked to it! He called me wholly misguided. I guess it's the wrong time to tell him I'm his secret admirer. So now that serious language learners might be reading, I should clarify....

No, I don't actually think that slow input begets slow output. What I think is that slow input, while catering to the emotional needs of many target language learners, doesn't necessarily help comprehension in the wild.

And the reason I created this hypothesis? Because I fucking HATE it when people slow talk me. Language learning is my passion, teaching language is my profession, and I only ever use slow talk (rarely!) for clarification, never NEVER for input.

For the record, I do use every day, I know that slowtalk is what customers want and expect from a beginner level, I know that those elementary dialogs are not "language in the wild" situations, and yes, I do have a slight man-crush on Ken. Is that so wrong?

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