¨To have another language to possess a second soul.¨
My Language Learning History
NOTE: I took many of the classes described below a long time ago. I am sure that the schools have changed a lot since my attendance there. This post is about my experiences with different learning methods and approaches more than with any school.
Here is a list of my experiences studying foreign languages:
- I started learning Spanish when I was sixteen in High School using the Audiolingual Method (Heavy on grammar, dialogues, and repetition) for two years. I continued studying Spanish in a summer class at the University of San Diego in Guadalajara and at Macalester College until I got a Minor in Spanish. (These classes heavily emphasized reading and grammar. My last three classes were about Spanish Literature. I disliked these three classes so much that I changed my degree from Spanish to Geography in my Senior year).
- Twenty years later, I started to take short classes (1 to 3 weeks) at private language schools throughout Latin America and in Spain. In total, I have taken about five months (250 hours) of these classes, most of them small (3 students or less), in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Oaxaca, Mexico (school is now closed), Cuzco, Peru and Granada, Nicaragua. These schools used a mixture of the structural and reading approach. (The structural approach teaches grammar, syntax, and other parts of speech in an exact order). that usually served me reasonably well; however, I prefer a less rigid approach. That said, most of the teachers were particularly good.
- The other half of the classes were taught in Spanish and talked about different aspect of life in the Spanish speaking world including Mexican traditional medicine (no longer available). Mexican culture and society, LGBT Issues in Mexico, and Life in Tepztlan, Mexico; Modern Spanish Art; and Argentinian films and literature (no longer available). I loved these courses and highly encourage anyone with an intermediate or above level to take similar courses. Unfortunately, these classes are hard to sell and often appear and disappear quickly. What a shame!
- Today, I consider myself at an advanced level in reading and writing Spanish and at an intermediate/advance level in speaking Spanish. I learned a lot of Spanish informally by living with Spanish speaking families as part of my studies in private language schools. (I lived with families for a total of five months). I reached a plateau in speaking Spanish that would take so much time and effort to surmount that I lost interest. (Reaching plateaus is a natural part of language learning).
- I began studying French in earnest when I was 46 years old (though I did take one year of High School French). I started by taking one semester of French at Cuesta College (a community college in San Luis Obispo, California). Then, I took three weeks of group and eight weeks of one-on-one classes at Language School of Canada (LSC) in Montreal. Both the class at Cuesta College and at LSC used the natural method (direct approach) (little grammar, a lot of listening, all classes are totally in the target language, in this case French). I liked the class at Cuesta but did not like the one at LSC. (This is why I changed to one-on-one tutoring after three weeks of classes). It was too rigid, and I felt like it jumped around too much.
- I also received fifty hours of one-on-one private tutoring in French in Montreal and attended the Parfum de France school in Fontevraud, France. Both classes (and the one-on-one class at LSC) used the eclectic approach which I liked very much. The class in Fontevraud was the most enjoyable classes I have ever taken. The gite (bed and breakfast) was beautiful. Sylvie, the teacher, and host, is delightful. She spent a lot of the class showing me around her region and teaching about French history and culture along the way. I will use her classes as an inspiration for my Fifty-Plus Nomad school in the future.
- That said, overall, more than anything else I learned French from Claudette, my girlfriend in Montreal. I lived with her for eight summers and spent a total of two years in her house. She was my host family when I started studying French at LSC. She was patient with me, and she spoke with a standard French accent but used some Quebecois idioms and expressions. (She is from Haiti and learned French at school). She spoke little English, so I had little choice but to learn French. She also was able to explain my errors in French conversation clearly.
- Today, I can speak French and Spanish at about the same level, however, I write, read, and understand Spanish better than French because I had a lot more Spanish classes that involved writing, reading, and listening exercises. I can understand French movies and some TV shows if I know a bit about the plot beforehand. (Spanish is also easier for me to understand than French. Spanish speakers pronounce all the sounds in the word. French speakers do not. As a result, it can be hard to tell when one word stops, and another begins)
- Sometimes, French people cannot understand my accent because some sounds in French are difficult for me to reproduce correctly. (People learning English also have problems with pronunciation. This, thankfully, is rarely a problem in Spanish. One of the best things about Spanish is the pronunciation follows rules and Spanish is one of the most WYSIWYG-what you see is what you get- languages).
- My first course was Basic Russian for Travelers through the University of California, Riverside (UCR) Extension Program. The teacher was a young, enthusiastic, and creative recent immigrant from Saint Petersburg. Once a week for three hours she taught us basic expressions, the Cyrillic alphabet, a little basic grammar, and useful, everyday vocabulary. She also helped us with our pronunciation. I have never seen a discussion of what type of methodology she employed in the class; but I learned a lot considering the small amount of classroom hours involved. I taught a version of this class in Spanish as a volunteer twice to friends and they also enjoyed the class and make satisfactory progress. My Survival Basic Spanish (and English) for Travelers and Expats class is based in part on these classes.
- At Saint Petersburg State University I took a ten-week, small group (3 students) Russian Language class. The teacher for the first four weeks was a classic Soviet-era babushka (grandma), strict on the outside but sweet on the inside. She taught using a mixture of the Classical Method and Structural Approach. The very first assignment was reading a poem by Tolstoy. In most of the other lessons, we studied a lot of grammar and poems. At first, I thought the class was a complete waste. However, when I spent an extra two hours a day on my own learning everyday vocabulary, I began to appreciate the class. The poems helped me to learn more vocabulary and grammar than I expected, and the rote grammar learning gave me a basic comprehension of Russian’s complex grammar.
- The next six weeks, I had a young teacher who used the eclectic method and I lived with a Russian family. The combination of the two styles served me surprisingly well when I lived in Kaliningrad and had to use Russian every day, almost all the time.
- That said, like French, my best Russian teacher was my girlfriend (who eventually became by wife) and her family. Since I almost never used English when I lived with her and her family or in the school’s dormitory, I had no choice but to learn Russian as fast as possible. By the end of a year, I could communicate a lot in Russian and understand most of what was going on around me. My pronunciation also became fairly good. I never really mastered Russian grammar and my Russian became very fossilized. (I kept making the same mistakes repeatedly)
- For the first couple of years after my wife and I arrived in the USA, my Russian remained fairly strong. However, after a couple of years her English exceeded my Russian and we talked mostly in English. In addition, we got divorced after seven years and I have not had many opportunities to use Russian for twenty years. That said, today I can still understand quite a bit of Russian, but I cannot speak it very well. The few times I have had to use for more than a couple of hours, I could see that if I used it for a week or two, my Russian would come back.
- I took three, two-week Italian classes in Salerno, Venice, and Siena. All three used the eclectic approach (with a slight preference for the structural approach) that served me well. I learned Italian quickly until I got to an intermediate level, partly because the classes were: 1) all excellent (the one in Siena was the best group class I`ve ever taken) and 2) Italian is extremely like Spanish (pronunciation, vocabulary) and French (structure).
- I took three weeks of Italian group classes in Milan. The school taught using the natural approach. (Later on in this post you´ll see a list of negative features of the natural approach. The school had all the negative and few of the positives on this list).
- Every other school I attended in Italy had a welcoming, family-like feel and I loved the instructors and instruction. The school in Milan felt I was going to a factory. Even though I did learn some Italian, the school could never quite figure out what to do with me. (I could speak better than most students because I knew French and Spanish. However, they felt my other languages hindered me rather than helped me). I also lived with the only host family (out of 12 during my life) that I couldn`t find a way to like. I was signed up for a five-week course and dreaded going to school so much that in the last two weeks I spent my days touring the city instead of going to class.
- Not long ago, I tried to speak Italian, but it did not come out that well. I have not used the language for five years. However, in the past, I was able to quickly recapture my Italian when I returned to Italy after a long absemce. I suspect it will come back quickly next time I visit Italy.
- I took a two-week class in Portuguese in Lisbon. The class used the structural approach exclusively. I never got an opportunity to practice Portuguese either in the course or with the host family (who were not very friendly). In addition, everyone I met in Lisbon spoke fluent English. When I went to Brazil, I tried to remember my little bit of Portuguese but couldn´t. I wish I had known Portuguese in Brazil, because the Brazilians had one of the lowest levels of English proficiency of all the places I have traveled. (This is not a criticism. We are guest in their country, and they should not have to know English in their own country). Someday, I would love to go to Brazil and take an intensive Portuguese class in Brazil.
- Oddly, I took a written entrance exam in Portuguese and was placed into an intermediate-level class even though I had never studied Portuguese a day in my life. I got into the class and the only thing I understood was Bom Dia (Good morning. (Written Portuguese and Spanish are almost the same). In fact, when the Intermediate level teacher tried to talk to me, she immediately asked me¨¿Hablas Español? (Do you speak Spanish? in Spanish) and when I responded, ¨si¨(yes)¨she nodded her head and told me to go to the beginner’s classroom.
I took about 10 hours of Thai at AUA in Chiang Mai. I learned around 100 words and could entertain and surprise Thais with my funny efforts (occasionally successful) to say something in Thai. I never understood the grammar at all. The teacher kept saying Thai sentences are like pictures, but I literally never ¨got the picture¨ of Thai sentences. The most interesting thing the teacher told me is that Thai does not have words that are critical of other people. According to the teacher, Thais do not believe that another person deserves criticism because no one is bad. by nature.
After reading the book River Town (on the list of my 50+ favorite travel memoirs), I developed a fervent desire to teach English to China. (Something I would still like to do someday). For about six months, I read many books about China and bought some Mandarin learning materials. Then, I decided to sign up for a basic Mandarin course at Laney College (a community college in Oakland, California).
When I showed up for the first day, there were eighty or so students in the class. 80% of the students spoke Cantonese and wanted to learn Mandarin as well. The teacher asked me to say something in Mandarin, I tried (not easy) to say what she asked, but the accent was all wrong., The other students snickered, and one nearby student told me that in Cantonese, I said something like, ¨The horse pisses upstream¨. The next day, I canceled the course.
When I was an exchange student in Japan, no one in my host family except my host brother could speak much English, and I did not know any Japanese. My host mother and I often talked, however. We both would look up words and expressions that we wanted to say ahead of time in a dictionary or phrasebook and use them in our conversation. We also did a lot of pantomiming and pointing at things. I was amazed at how we could communicate.
I have several other stories about my language learning efforts and teaching classes in Kaliningrad in my post: 10 of My Favorite Travel Stories From Around the World.
The Pros and Cons of the Different Foreign Language Methodology
The following are my observations of the strengths and weaknesses of the methods used in my foreign language classes:
The classical approach involved learning a language through reading poems and classic literature. Very few people use the approach anymore. When it is used today, it is normally accompanied by the Grammar-Translation Method. This involves learning grammar and vocabulary by translating them from the target language and your native language. The combination of the classical and grammar-translation method is still used in many schools where the students need to read another language but do not need to speak it very often (academics and some professional careers, like medicine and engineering). I have met several people worldwide who need English for professional development but do not have much reason to speak it. (Generally, they speak it better than they think).
I use this method in teaching sparingly. (I have never experienced this method in a foreign language class because very few of my teachers could speak English well enough).
In my experience, it helps students to learn a more sophisticated vocabulary. Many languages (English especially) have many words that have the same translation in a foreign language but mean slightly different things in that language. (For example, English has many words related to how we look at someone or something- squint, glare, stare, gaze, etc. These words mean something different to English speakers, but if you look them up in many foreign language dictionaries, they have the same translation in that language).
In addition, it can help explain some grammatical structures. The grammar-translation method makes it easy to show when structures formed the same way in two languages have different meanings in reality. For example, the way that the passe compose is formed in French (using the verb ¨have¨(avoir) plus a participle) makes it appear the same as the present perfect tense in English (also formed by the verb´ have¨¨plus a participle).
However, in French, the passe compose is used for a past action that has been completed (As an example, ¨je l’ài fait¨ means ¨I did it¨ in English. The action is completed). In English, the perfect tense refers to an action that happened in the past but is continuing (or has some relevance) now. (For example, the sentence ¨I have studied Spanish for five years¨ infers that you studied Spanish in the past and are still studying Spanish now).
In my experience, students don`t like the structural approach. It often requires rote memorization, drills, and exercises. And many people roll their eyes the moment they hear the dreaded word grammar.
It works best when the teacher presents new grammar and other language building blocks (like syntax and context) concepts in their native language. It is difficult enough, for me, for example, to understand foreign language grammar concepts in English.
The structural approach worked better for me in Spanish classes than in French. Spanish verbs are complicated in their conjugations and use, and if you do not know the basic rules of usage, it is easy to misunderstand what people are saying.
French, verbs require a lot of memorization of verbs that do not follow a pattern (i.e., learning all the irregular auxiliary verbs that go with the passe compose) but do not have as complicated usage rules for conjugations as Spanish. (I almost screamed with joy when I learned that the verb to be in French has only one verb (like English): ëtre. In Spanish, two verbs mean to be: estar and ser. Learning when to use which verb is the bane of beginning students’ Spanish classes).
The Audio-Lingual Method
I did well under this approach because I have a good command of English grammar and vocabulary. I noticed that students with these skills excelled, those without failed miserably when I was in High School.
I started to use the method to study French in seventh grade. I was not fond of it very much and was an average student. In ninth grade, I decided to take German instead. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it much more and was a better student. I was already used to the method, and though it is harder than French for most English speakers to learn, I liked German. I am not sure why, in retrospect. In eleventh grade, my high school eliminated German, and I took Spanish instead. I love Spanish and found it quite easy to learn. I think after using the ALM method for so long, I was used to it.
While it was boring to most people (including me at first), I liked the language labs. After a while, I began to enjoy the challenge of trying to mimic the native speaker´s accent on the tape. I also like having to say the correct verb conjugations quickly.
Today, I seldom forget a verb conjugation because they were drilled in my head so much. When I learned French using the natural method, I got my friend Claudette to drill me on some of the verbs because I realized that the drills, while boring, did help me to remember the conjugations easily. (The natural method called this practice ¨drill and kill¨ and actively discouraged teachers from using it in the classroom).
The Natural Method
- The natural method is currently the most widely accepted of all the language methodologies. It works best when you start it without any background in the language and continue to take the entire series of classes (typically six to eight months, two to three hours every weekday). It is also the best way to teach a class when the students have different native languages.
- The natural method encourages students to understand different accents and learn slang and idioms. Many other methods assume that students must learn only the most formal and ¨proper¨language, usually from just one country. (For example, when I was in Russia in 1995, most English teachers believed that only British English should be taught to students and that North American and Australian English were slang. Even though I am an American and know that most students in Mexico are more likely to interact with Americans than other English speakers, I show them videos featuring English with people with other accents and teach students the vocabulary used in Britain, Australia, etc. Students should also hear people with different American accents and learn slang and idioms. These are not ¨bad¨English, and students need to learn them because they are used frequently in everyday conversations.
- Most of the best YouTube videos and websites use the natural approach and adapt it to a particular topic. (Many use clips from TV shows with commentaries and exercises, for example). I use more materials that come from the natural approach than any other methodology. While I do not believe in using just one method, if I had to chose just one, it would be the natural method.
- I find it hard to understand when teachers explain grammar or other complex topics in anything other than English.
- The natural method disperses certain topics, like the past tense, over several months of classes. Yet, in the real world, you cannot wait three months until you talk about something that happened in the past.
- Since the natural method uses only the target language, starting a class is often very disconcerting to students who have been out of school for a long time and/or have fears about learning another language.
- While it is good that the natural method encourages conversation, many of the exercises feel forced, awkward, and unnatural. I took an Italian class in Milan and they had us talk about Princess Kate’s wedding dress. Everyone in my group looked at each other, trying to figure out what to say. None of us could think of anything. I could not help thinking that since right out the window was one of the world’s foremost capitals of fashion, we could have an interesting conversation about the fashion industry or designers in Milan. My inner teacher spent most of the exercise imagining a dozen more interesting exercises. If I had not been in a large group, I would have tried to steer the conversation in a different direction.
- It is hard to enter a new ¨natural method¨ class if you have some of the language under your belt, especially if you learned it using a different methodology. Usually, one day you study something too advanced, and the next day something you already mastered. (The structural approach is better in this case because there is a natural progression of grammar topics, and it is easy to place people in an appropriate class).
- In the natural approach, students are criticized if they talk to other students in anything other than the target language, even outside of the class. I am not too fond of this because other students model mistakes that can help fossilized these errors. In addition, most schools offer students the opportunity to live with locals. This is a much better way to practice your language than speaking to other students in forced conversations.
Sink or Swim Method
I made up the name ¨the sink or swim¨ method for people who learn a language independently without the benefit of classes.
It does work. Generally, you learn just enough grammar vicariously so that people can understand what you are saying most of the time. You learn a lot of vocabulary and gradually find ways to string the words together so that people understand. Most people learn a foreign language this way. (In fact, creole languages developed because many people from different countries had to figure out how to communicate somehow).
I learned most of my French and Russian with the ¨sink or swim¨ method. I could not have communicated with Nina and her family in English, so I learned Russian. Nor could I have talked to Claudette unless I learned French. (Note: It was easier for me to learn with the ¨sink or swim¨ method than most people. I had some classes beforehand, and I also had a lot of experiences learning languages before I met Nina and Claudette):
My Final Thoughts
The best method for most students (and me, too) is the eclectic approach. The eclectic approach mixes these methodologies (though it relies more on the natural approach than any other method).
The best teachers know all the methods and use the optimum method for their students’ (or students’) needs, interests, and capabilities.
I have been blessed to see how each of these methods functions firsthand. I have also used bits and pieces of each method when I have tutored students. My polyglot method is based on the eclectic approach. I will add, however, a lot of discussion of the cultural context of communication that is not typically covered in a language class. (Often, you can say a sentence perfectly in a foreign language and then find out the listeners heard something else because they are not as direct as or are more direct than in English). It is valuable for students to learn a bit about the history and culture of countries that speak the language.
Want me to help you learn Spanish or English using the polyglot (eclectic) approach? Check out my language classes.
Other Language Learning Related Posts
- Introducing The New Fifty-Plus Nomad Blog: The Perfect Place to Begin Your Long-Term Living and Traveling Abroad Adventures Over 50Visit the all-new Fifty-Plus Nomad blog and learn all my tips for long-term travel and living abroad gathered from my 16 years of first-hand experience.
- My Complex Language Learning History: How I Learned 4 Foreign Languages Without Going CrazyI have learned Spanish, French, Italian, and Russian using a wide variety of methods. Some were more successful than others. I believe the most effective way is to combine several methods like I do with my exclusive polyglot method.
- Check Out My One-on-One Spanish and English Classes in Merida, Mexico: I Can Help Anyone Learn Using My Exclusive Polyglot Method (Coming Soon)Introducing Fifty-Plus Nomad Spanish and English classes in my home in Merida, Mexico. Come learn Spanish or English using the same techniques used by polyglots to become fully conversational in multiple foreign languages
- What a Difference a Year Makes: How I Found Contentment with Friends and a Dog in Merida Despite CoronavirusWhile I haven’t written any posts, the last year (Summer 2020-Summer 2021) has been very eventful. I have developed some essential friendships, improved my health, and really settled down into my new life as an expat in Merida.
- Learning Vacations and Volunteering: The Most Overlooked Travel OptionsMy favorite type of group travel is volunteering and learning vacations. No aspect of group travel has so influenced who I am as a person and how I view the world.