Monday, January 31, 2011

Pacifiers and Rattles - To Learn Languages, Start Off as a Kid

I really enjoy reading Cal Newport's blog Study Hacks. He writes on effective strategies that high school, college and graduate students can use to improve their academic performance and stand out in the deepening sea of competition today. I went back through his older posts, and found out that he had compiled an entry on studying foreign languages.

The tips that Cal highlight are more applicable for students in academic institutions taking semester or year-long courses, but some are broad enough for any language enthusiast to employ. The second tip - "expose yourself everyday" - is a no-brainer. It doesn't just mean cracking open your old textbook and rememorizing set conversations - it can mean watching a movie or television show in the native language, or listening to a music through Youtube or Grooveshark.

I believe in mastering languages according to one's linguistic age. What do I mean by that? Take, for example, a 40-year-old man learning Italian by reading formal conversations and newspaper clippings. The man will pick up phrases and vocabulary words here and there, and one day use them in a talk to give the listener a sense of his fluency. But this is superficial. If he really wanted to master Italian, he should start from scratch - I mean from children's books and short stories. Of course, you can accelerate through works that befit younger audiences to material more appropriate for your real age, but I think one important part of speaking a new language is to construct arguments and narratives as native speakers do. There is a difference between speaking fluently and talking intelligently - you can convey your intelligence by using foreign vocabulary too big for your mouth, but you can convey fluency by engaging native listeners with the imagination that they have created through exposure to local cultural media.

Assume that when you start a new language, you are a child. What would native speakers of the language read in their infancy?

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