Answering the "How" Question

QuestionI recently participated as a panelist in an online discussion for the Guardian on how best to learn a language. I left the discussion feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the level of specificity in the dialogue, so I thought I would expound on some of my answers here on our own blog.

The typical answer to the "how to learn a language" question is unidimensional. Nowadays, it is often the name of a resource: "Rosetta Stone", "Duolingo", "Memrise", etc. Since when can a "how" question be answered with a "what"?

The how question can only be answered by a clearly defined process. In order to define this process, you first have to start with the learner's objective. Why do you want to learn this language? Do you want to? Do you need to? Do you need to use it for a specific purpose? The why is only part of an objective, which should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based). Here are possible objectives for language learning

  • I would like to be able to read a young adult novel in Russian in 6 months' time without the use of a dictionary.
  • I need to be able to understand an oil rig manual in German in 3 months' time, but I don't need to speak the language at all.
  • I need full daily competence in a language, including greetings, household activities, sport, social interactions, bank, dining, travel, television, and cultural references in 9 months' time.

Each of these is specific and therefore also measurable. By defining types of interactions or uses for language, we can actually track our progress. Just saying "get by" or "fluent" does not help us at all. These objectives are also time-based.

Once we know the objective — whatever it is — we can work backward from there to determine the content necessary for performing the functions that make up successful completion of the target. Then and only then can you start looking at what resources to use and how much to use each one.

With the content determined, the next step is to figure out how best to learn and internalize that content. The first stage in this process is gaining a conceptual understanding of what you have to learn and seeing where the boundaries of that knowledge lie. Then, with a deadline looming on the horizon, you can set milestones and determine the process by which you will tackle each component of the language you need to learn to meet the objective.

The resources you use will depend on your objective. For those who are looking to get some familiarity with a language, do it as a hobby, or learn some basics in advance of an upcoming trip, resources like Duolingo, Memrise, and Rosetta Stone can be useful tools within a process to develop some basics and a "feel" for the language. None of these resources is going to take you to fluency, but if that is not your objective, there's no problem. These are not bread-and-butter resources that give you the main patterns and structures of a language, but they can nonetheless serve as enrichment resources and supplements to more robust programs.

If you are looking to develop proficiency in a language quickly, to a high level, or for professional use, Linguisticator's systematic distillation of language will be a solution for you, in particular since we address process in our programs (what to do when and how to advance). The truth is that in order to reach a high level of fluency, you will need to learn the grammatical structure, complex constructions, and a large vocabulary. There's no way around that, so the more systematically you go about that, the more efficiently you'll reach your objective.

How to "learn" a language depends on what you actually want to do in the language. The key here is to be honest with yourself. If you want to be "fluent" you will have to put in some serious time and commitment. Fact of life. If you want to play with the language and simply enjoy the sounds and slowly picking up greater familiarity, but not necessarily active competence, there are several great resources you can use to do this. There's no shame in this, either. If you're not sure if you want to make the commitment, I'd suggest starting out with the free apps and tools online, make a trip to the public library to check out some books and CDs and then see if the language is for you. If you're just sussing things out, be careful to separate the "language" from the "language process." In other words, do you still really want to learn Farsi, but just feel demoralized and bored after using that particular resource? If you don't like a resource, it doesn't mean you won't like the language or the language learning process.

What's your language-learning objective?

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