“To have another language to possess a second soul.”
NOTE: I took many classes described below long ago, and I am sure that the schools have changed significantly since my attendance there. This post focuses more on my experiences with different learning methods and approaches than at any school.
Top 10 Ways to Study a Foreign Language
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 (USD) in Guadalajara and Macalester College until I got a Minor in Spanish. (The courses at USD and Macalester heavily emphasized reading and grammar. My last three classes at Macalester 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 took short classes (1 to 3 weeks) at private language schools throughout Latin America and 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 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 private language classes were taught in Spanish and talked about different aspects of life in the Spanish-speaking world, including Mexican traditional medicine (no longer available). Mexican culture and society, LGBT Issues in Mexico, Life in Tepoztlan, 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 an intermediate/advanced 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 (though I took 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 the Language School of Canada (LSC) in Montreal. The course at Cuesta College and 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 course at Cuesta but did not like the one at LSC. It was too rigid, and I felt like it jumped around too much. (This is why I changed to one-on-one tutoring after three weeks of classes).
- 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, and I liked them very much. The class in Fontevraud was the most enjoyable class I have ever taken. However, it was well worth the cost. The gite (bed and breakfast) is beautiful. Sylvie, the teacher, and the host is delightful. She spent a lot of the class showing me around her region and teaching me about French history and culture. I will use her classes as an inspiration for my Fifty Plus Nomad school in the future.
- Overall, I learned French from Claudette, my girlfriend in Montreal, more than anything else. I lived with her for eight summers and spent two years in her house. She was my host family when I started studying French at LSC. She was patient with me and 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 many more Spanish classes that involved writing, reading, and listening exercises. I can understand French movies and 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 intricate for me to reproduce correctly. (People learning English also have problems with pronunciation, which is rarely a problem in Spanish. One of the best things about Spanish is the pronunciation follows the 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 practical 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 number of classroom hours involved. I taught a version of this class in Spanish as a volunteer twice to friends, and they also enjoyed the course and made satisfactory progress.
- At Saint Petersburg State University, I took a ten-week, small group (3 students) Russian Language class. For the first four weeks, the teacher 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, I began to appreciate the class when I spent an extra two hours a day learning everyday vocabulary. The poems helped me learn more vocabulary and grammar than I expected, and the rote grammar learning gave me a basic comprehension of Russian’s complex grammar.
- For 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 almost daily.
- Like French, my best Russian teacher was my girlfriend (who eventually became my wife) and her family. Since I rarely 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 the year, I could communicate in Russian and understand most of what was happening. My pronunciation also became pretty good. I never really mastered Russian grammar, and my Russian became very fossilized. (I kept making the same mistakes repeatedly)
- My Russian remained relatively strong for the first couple of years after my wife and I arrived in the USA. However, after a couple of years, her English exceeded my Russian, and we talked mainly in English. In addition, we divorced after seven years, and I have not had many opportunities to use Russian for twenty years. I can still understand quite a bit of Russian, but I cannot speak it very well. The few times I have had to use it for more than a couple of hours, I could see that if I used it for a week or two, my Russian would return.
- 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 remarkably 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 in this post, you’ll see a list of negative features of the natural approach. The school had all the negative and a few 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 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 I spent my days touring the city instead of attending class in the last two weeks.
- I tried to speak Italian not long ago, but it did not come out well. I have not used the language for five years. However, in the past, I could quickly recapture my Italian when I returned to Italy after a long absence. I suspect it will come back soon the 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 guests 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 before. (Written Portuguese and Spanish are almost the same). I got into the course, and I understood only Bom Dia (Good morning). 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.
Egyptian Colloquial Arabic
When I was in college in 1984, I decided to spend a year at the American University in Cairo to fill a requirement for my Degree in International Studies.
I decided to go to Egypt, even though I had much more previous academic and life experience in Asia and Latin America, because I wanted to be exposed to various cultures worldwide. I also enjoyed learning about new languages and cultures rather than exploring one region more in-depth.
I was excited about learning Arabic. However, I soon discovered I did not enjoy how American University in Cairo taught Arabic. It seemed too nit-picky and grammatical, and I quickly thought there must be a better way,
I gave up on studying Arabic in their classes. I thought I could find a better way to learn, but instead, I simply give up learning Egyptian Arabic. After a while, I began to feel the same about learning about Egypt and the Middle East.
The classes were demanding and over-emphasized memorization, and I stopped trying to learn because finding a way to study that felt comfortable to me was hard. I also decided to return home after a semester, received the lowest grades of any part of my academic career, and developed a general disdain for the whole experience.
To this day, one of the greatest regrets of my academic career is my semester at AUC. I should have just tried to find a way to adapt and succeed in the American University of Cairo’s classes and stayed for the whole academic year. I was given an amazing opportunity to uncover a whole different way of life. I honestly got almost nothing out of my next semester in the US except frustration.
A couple of months after I quit my Colloquial Egyptian Course, I went with a fellow student on a trip to a Coptic monastery near Cairo. My fellow student could already communicate fairly effectively in Arabic and loved his classes. He considered them a challenge and just tried a bit harder to succeed. I realized when I returned home I should have just followed his example. We both had the same intelligence and skills at learning; he simply kept going. As I should have.
I regret to this day that I don’t know enough Arabic to have a conversation and that the only thing that kept me from learning enough Arabic to get more out of my study abroad experience was my own intransigence.
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 never “got the picture” of Thai sentences. The most exciting 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 (one of my 50+ favorite travel memoirs), I sincerely desired 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 signed up for an introductory Mandarin course at Laney College (a community college in Oakland, California).
When I showed up for the first day, eighty students were in the class. 80% of the students spoke Cantonese and wanted to learn Mandarin. 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 would both look up words and expressions that we wanted to say 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.
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. Some teachers still use a mixture of the Classic and Grammar-Translation methods, which involves learning grammar and vocabulary by translating m from the target language and your native language. The combination of the classical and grammar-translation method occurs 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 the grammar-translation 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 exact translation in a foreign language but mean slightly different things. (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 exact 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 passe compose in French (using the verb ¨have¨(avoir) plus a participle) appears the same as the present perfect tense in English (also formed by the verb’ have¨¨plus a participle).
However, in French, the passe compose indicates completed past actions. (Je l’ài fait¨ means ¨I did it¨ in English. The action is completed).
In English, the perfect tense indicates continuing past action. (The sentence ¨I have studied Spanish for five years¨ infers that you studied Spanish in the past and are still studying Spanish).
In my experience, students don’t like the structural approach. It often requires rote memorization, drills, and exercises. And many people roll their eyes when they hear the dreaded word grammar.
It works best when the teacher presents new grammar and other language building blocks (syntax and context) concepts in the student’s native language. For example, it is difficult for me to understand foreign grammar concepts in English, let alone another language.
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 usage rules, 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 in 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 and was not fond of it. 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 more complicated than French for most English speakers to learn, I liked German. I am not sure why, in retrospect. My high school eliminated German in eleventh grade, and I took Spanish instead. I love Spanish and found it relatively easy to learn. 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 enjoyed 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.
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 tedious, 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). Today, I seldom forget a verb conjugation because they were drilled in my head so much.
The Natural Method
- The natural method is currently the most widely accepted language methodology. It works best when you start it without any language background and continue taking 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 lesson 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, I show students videos featuring English with different 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 know 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 from the natural approach than any other methodology. While I do not believe in using just one method, it would be the natural method if I had to choose just one.
- I find it hard to understand when teachers explain grammar or other complex topics in anything other than English.
- The natural method disperses specific topics, like the past tense, over several months of classes. Yet, you cannot wait three months until you talk about something that happened in the past in the real world.
- Since the natural method uses only the target language, starting a class is often very upsetting 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 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 exciting conversation about the fashion industry or designers in Milan. My inner teacher spent most of the exercise imagining a dozen more exciting activities. If I had not been in a large group, I would have tried to steer the conversation differently.
- It is hard to enter a new “natural method” class if you have some languages under your belt, especially if you learned them using a different methodology. Usually, one day you study something too advanced, and the next day something you have 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 the class. I am not too fond of this because other students model mistakes that can help fossilize these errors. In addition, most schools offer students the opportunity to live with locals, which 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. You know a lot of vocabulary and gradually find ways to string the words together so that people understand. Generally, you learn just enough grammar vicariously so that people can know what you are saying most of the time. 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 French and Russian with the “sink or swim” method. I could not communicate 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 know with the ¨sink or swim¨ method than most people. I had some classes beforehand and had a lot of experience 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 strategy for their students (or students’) needs, interests, and capabilities.
Fifty Plus Nomad’s Polyglot Method comes from the eclectic approach. I have seen how each method functions firsthand and used bits and pieces of each technique when tutoring students. I will add, however, a lot of discussion of the cultural context of communication that is not part of most language classes. It is valuable for students to learn a bit about the history and culture of countries that speak the language. (Often, you can say a sentence in a foreign language and then find out the listeners heard something else because they are not as direct as or more explicit than in English).
Do you want me to help you learn Spanish or English using the polyglot (eclectic) approach? Check out, my language classes.