Talent For Language
Apr10

Talent For Language

You hear it all the time and I’m sure you’ve heard it before… The struggling learner with the ‘once a month’ study plan says it. The person that studied Spanish in high school while reading a comic book and not paying attention says it. The ‘average’ L1 English-speaker says it… It’s the monolingual catchphrase:  “I don’t have a talent for languages” Rubbish. Everyone has a ‘talent’ for language… it’s an in-built mechanism. We are human. We have language. But what do they truly mean when they say that they “don’t have a talent”? Well, it’s my professional opinion that they mean they are ‘lazy’. When people are young – i.e. infants – we are surrounded by language and our ‘talent’ allows us to acquire language without knowing what we’re doing. We have to acquire it or we can’t communicate… Simple. And depending on circumstances, some of us acquire just the one language or some of us acquire multiple languages. In any case, as we age and have to actively think about acquiring – or learning – a foreign language this ‘lack of talent’ comes to the fore. The average L1 English speaker uses their ‘lack of talent’ as an excuse for nothing putting in the effort. Ask any of the people that have successfully acquired an additional language post-puberty and they’ll tell you that it didn’t happen overnight. What did happen though, is that they put in the hard yards and grabbed hold of something that they can use for the rest of their life. This ‘talent’ should more realistically be seen as: ‘motivation’ + ‘effort’ = ‘talent’. Without the motivation, you won’t feel the need to learn. Without the effort, your motivation will eventually shrivel and die. Without a combination of the two, your talent will never emerge. How can you keep the motivation alive? Well, take baby steps… There are mini-milestones everyday and when you achieve them your motivation will keep growing. But to reach the mini-milestones, you have to put the effort in. Even if it’s just reading one sentence and figuring out the meaning; at least you’re putting in some effort. And I’m sure, that one you’ve figured out that meaning and gotten past that sticking point, you’ll feel a sense of achievement. A ‘sense of achievement’ typically has the pleasant side-effect of stoking your motivational fire. And in-turn, you’re likely to put in that little bit more effort. A vicious circle is emerging. Simply put, don’t be lazy! To achieve your language goals, you have to put in the effort. But effort is likely to be fruitless if you don’t have the motivation to back it up....

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Academic Vocabulary
May12

Academic Vocabulary

As many of you will know, the study at university in an English speaking country you’re likely to need the right TOEFL or IELTS score. And that’s a lot of work. Speaking to some of my international classmates though, I’ve come to realise something. Even though they have an excellent command of English and the right score, they don’t always have the tools for the academic setting. They sometimes lack the relevant vocabulary. Vocabulary that many of us take for granted. So what do they need to study? Endless wordlists to increase their vocabulary to the 20’000 mark or something absurd? Not exactly it would seem. In reading Thornbury’s How to Teach Vocabulary I came across an interesting piece of information I’ve encountered before. The restricted number of word families in use in academic settings. Thornbury has some interesting notes on vocabulary and the book is well worth a read – the whole series is actually! Anyway, he firstly notes that a core vocabulary numbering 2000 of the most frequent word families will account for circa 90% of words in use in many written texts. Add to these 2000 a meagre 570 more word families that have been written about recently as being frequently used in academic texts and the reader will have a bridge a large gap. The 570 most frequent academic word families (found here) are said to cover 1 in 10 of those in use in academic texts. Which may not seem like a lot, but when added to the core of 2000, you’re bound to be on pretty solid...

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Accents: Native or Not
May10

Accents: Native or Not

Our friend Ultimate Attainment is back again. He’s someone we’re talking about a lot in my seminars lately and unfortunately, certain people do believe the falsehoods about sounding like “native” being the ultimate. It’s also a fundamental aspect of my dissertation (specifically dealing with English in Korea).. but that’s another story. When it comes to accentual perfection, I’m of the opinion that it is possible to sound like a native, but the issue is, is it necessary..and that is a no. It’s a no for several reasons, but one of the biggest is because many people these days have been exposed to others learning their language, so accentual perfection is not needed to be understood. I have met a few people with excellent accents in English (and other languages… if we are to use a native model as being “excellent”), but it’s not the norm and it’s not something that can make or break conversation. So I don’t believe it to all that important. Getting the message across is the key to successful communication, while sounding like a local doesn’t really mean all that much if what you’re saying is gibberish. On top of this, we also need to consider language pride/national identity. There are learners from certain countries that are proud to still be noticed of where they’re from. To generalise… many French English speakers like being recognised as being French, whereas many Arabic English speakers don’t like being recognised as being from that region of the world (generalisations of course, but ancedotal evidence to back that up 😉 So that’s the moral high-ground, but where am I in relation to my own learning? Well… I like to think I have a pretty good ear for accent replication. And I like to think my Korean accent in particular is quite good overall (with the exception of a few sounds that I’ve long been aware of)… but having recorded myself a lot lately I’ve come to realise that after just a year out of the country – and even though I have many Korean friends and a Korean wife – my accent has gone downhill a rather long way. Downhill, not in the sense of failed communication and gibberish, but downhill in the sense that my pronunciation isn’t anything like a native 😉 …Which is where I am right now; going through a lot of remedial pronunciation drills to pick my accent up again. All this is inspite of the fact that I will never pass as a Korean since I’m Caucasian… but alas… c’est la vie And that, my friends, is the dilemna… Even though we know it’s not necessary to sound like a native, nor...

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How long for fluency?

Common question… variable answers. It all depends on what the learner considers fluent, which language they are learning, the environment they are learning in, how motivated they are, how often they study, and so and so forth. Let’s set the ground rules at 2 hours study per day. Not unrealistic if you consider the Borrowing Time post and the Power of the Schedule. Everybody can make at least an hour free everyday, most people can find 2 hours if they try just a little bit…. Stop reading about language study and start studying the language! ha So, 2 hours a day = 14 hours per week = around 60 hours per month (…720 hours per year) Using the CEFR as an overarching statement and taking what’s in the DELF/DALF site into account, along with the FSI language scales, let’s take a closer look: A1 takes 75 hours (6 weeks on our study plan) A2 takes 150 hours (11 weeks) B1, 300 hours (5 months) B2, 450 hours (7.5 months) C1+, 600+ hours (10 months +) These are estimates for what FSI call Category 1 languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, etc)… and are pretty dependent on the variables mentioned above. The most I could personally study per day is 4 hours, so that would mean the time in months would be halved….. hypothetically. There’s also the issue that some people use their time more efficiently than others. Much more efficiently.. and that can come with experience. The above is perhaps for the more inexperienced learner. Looking at my own study methods, what used to take me 2 hours to cover is something I could probably cover in 30 minutes these days. I used to be an inexperienced learner, but now a small investment of time can yield great results. This comes with practice and through refining techniques. For myself, I guess it would take circa 400 hours to reach C1 in a Category 1 language. (I will run an experiment on this so we’ll see how accurate I am… Once my research is finished and I can make a commitment to a new language, which will leave me with Italian, Portuguese or Catalan as the only languages in Category 1 that I have zero experience with. I have a fairly limited exposure to Spanish so that may be the candidate). Keep in mind that the language categories are directed at languages and their relationship with English, so if you know languages vastly different to English, the more difficult categories may actually prove easier. But to keep with the English monolingual theme, lets just say the following: Category 1+ languages (German, Indonesian, Malay,...

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Size Matters: Vocabulary

How many words do you know? Something that in reality, I consider to be, err, a stupid question. I don’t really care how many words I know, and it doesn’t really matter how many words I know. What matters is that I know the words that I need. Anyway, watching your vocabulary grow is a motivational tool, so perhaps the question isn’t that stupid. The following is a way of kind of approximating your vocabulary size. I read it maybe 2-3 years ago, and unfortunately, I don’t remember where. Actually, in contrast to the introductory ramble, this is something that I do about once every 6 months or so… just for fun. What you need: 1x paper dictionary, 1x pen and paper, 1x calculator (optional). Original version that I read was something like this: Pick say 20 pages in the dictionary and see how many words you know per page. Find the average number of words you know per page. Multiply this average by the number of pages in the dictionary. Voila… rough approximation of either active or passive vocabulary) ** If you’re not sure, Active Vocab is L1 > L2 and Passive Vocab is L2 > L1 ** Modified version that I’ve used with Korean (but it will work with any language): Pick two pages in the dictionary for each letter of the alphabet and find the number of words you know. Find the average. Multiply average by number of pages in the dictionary. Obviously, the more pages you randomly select, the more accurate it can be. But also, the more pages you select, the more tedious it becomes. Remember, it’s just for fun and not a means of truly assessing your vocabulary. It does however, actually show an increase in figures as time goes by, and seeing these numbers climb gives you the sense that your study is actually paying off, even if you haven’t been able to practice conversation (or similar)...

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Reflective Learning: Learning Log

A common question is “how long will it take me to learn X”? ..The answer is always “as long as it takes”. Each and every learner is different depending on study time, efficiency of study, motivation, surrounding environment, prior learning of related languages, prior learning of any language, and a list of any other number of variables. The only way to know for sure is to keep a log and use it as a reflective tool. It’s not going to predict how long it will take you to learn, but it will show you how you have learned. But that’s not all it’s good for, it’s kind of a follow-up to the Power of the Schedule article that looks at how to make the most of your time, keeping  a log on the other hand, allows you to keep a history of how your learning techniques develop and adapt to situations. Teachers often use a similar idea when considering their professional practice and use it to refine and develop their lessons. So why shouldn’t learners make use of the same reflective principles to refine and develop their learning methods? A small invest of a few key points about what you did in your study time could save you hours down the line in language learning through just becoming a better learner. What to keep track of? Some people document actual study time and that’s all… others go a little deeper and cover time of day, surroundings,  what was studied (grammar, vocab, listening, reading, etc), materials used, feelings associated with studying for that session, things that worked or failed, things that you want to try next time…. and so on. As with all things, some follow the KISS notion, others go OTT. And that’s fine, because at the end of the day it’s just personal preference that will shape your log. As long as you can build a personal device that helps you learn, that’s all that matters. I have always kept a log… in my head! I didn’t keep a written log when I first started learning. I regret it. I struggled with bad learning  methods for a long time before something finally clicked and told me to look at how things were (or “were NOT”) developing. These days I keep track of time of day, time taken, what materials I cover and if I feel it was successful or not… and other devices such as Anki and LingQ help me keep track of motivational things like the number of words I read or apparently know, while my audio recordings can be added together to give an approximate figure for number of hours of speaking practice (of the speaking...

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