Language Learning Tip

This will be the beginning of a series, with no definite endpoint, in which I will share things that have helped me learn languages in the past. I can’t promise that everything suggested here will work for everyone — I am a very visual learner, and also a rather strange individual in a number of ways — but hopefully someone will find something useful. At any rate…

One very important part of language learning is making sure you get the material you need to learn — be it vocabulary, morphology, or anything other relevant aspect — in the format that your brain can most easily process, internalize, and recall. For me, this means that I prefer to see new words and expressions written down, since I’m much more likely to remember them that way. If learning the language in a classroom setting, it is extremely helpful if the teacher writes new material down on the board — or just provides it on a handout — so that I can get it in a visual medium without having to be stress out about remembering and trying to write down words that were said once or twice, but that I never actually saw.

In the same vein, I tend to find textbooks and learning materials that expect the student to fill in the definitions for new vocabulary based on classroom discussion rather frustrating. Most of the time, I don’t manage to write down even half of the definitions that were provided, and I end up having to use a dictionary to find them later — why couldn’t the book have just provided a mini-dictionary right there, with the information that I needed to learn the new vocabulary? While there’s definitely something to be said for having to remember and reproduce a new phrase or its definition, there are much better ways of exercising this skill that don’t risk leaving some students in the dark without ever having even seen the material they were supposed to learn (a favorite of mine is simply devoting some classroom time to defining words as a game — but that’s a topic for another post).

If you’re unsure what the most effective way to format new material for your own mind is, it’s worth trying a bunch of different language learning methodologies and keeping track of which ones work and which ones don’t. If, for instance, you’re having trouble recalling vocabulary after staring at each word and picturing the thing is refers to next to it (something that works well for me with words that have relatively concrete meanings), try saying the word and its definition aloud, or making flashcards, or anything else you, your teacher, or your friends can come up with. Eventually, something will work, and then you can switch to that.

In general, if you’re in a class and you feel that some aspect of how the class is being taught is making it harder for you to learn, you should feel free to ask the teacher to try and accommodate you (by, say, writing words on the board). It won’t always be possible, especially if there are a number of students with different learning styles in the same class, but it never hurts to ask. Also, regardless of whether your learning in a classroom setting or solo, make sure that when you’re studying on your own (and you should be doing this even if you’re in a class), you’re putting the material you’re trying to learn into the format that best suits you.

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