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1.1. Four cute language learning principles you won't forget


We often see requests for information which go something like "I want to start learning language X. Can someone please recommend a good textbook?" Or "Does anyone know if there are courses in language X taught in my area?"

1.1.1 Communing
1.1.2 Understanding
1.1.3 Talking
1.1.4 Evolving

1.1.1 Communing

A language is not an academic subject. A language is something that happens between people in flesh and blood. That is where it is. That is what it is. No more. No less. Individuals experience the world individually. That is called perception. Communities experience the world together. That is called language. Thus the first cute principle is Communing. And here is a golden rule to go with it:

Golden Rule C ( for "communing": Join with people around experience using language.

For example. If you are a beginner in Language X, and someone points to various objects in the room, and says what they are called, then you are joining with that person around experience using language. This is sometimes called here and now language. Or suppose you are more advanced in language X, and are showing someone a photo of your father's store. You attempt to describe parts of it to your friend. She has trouble understanding you and tries to help you clarify what you are saying. But you then need her to clarify what she said in her attempt to help you clarify. Back and forth you go, until she has figured out what you are trying to say. Or perhaps she has the photo and you go back and forth figuring out what she is trying to say. Same difference. It is sometimes called negotiating meaning.In negotiating meaning around the photo you are joining with people around experience using language. Or suppose you are more advanced yet, and someone is telling you a lot that you didn't know about events in your new community during the previous ten years. That is the experience of the community. Communities have lots of experience that is only shared largely indirectly by means of language. Person A has the experience. Person B shares in it only because person A told him about it. And person C, who has never even met person A, shares in this experience too, because person B told her about it. Now you are getting people to share the community's experience and knowledge with you. You are still joining with people around experience using language. From beginning to end, progress comes as you join with people around experience using language.

Come back to all those people who say, "I want to learn language X; where can I find a textbook?" What would be a better first question for them to ask? Try "I want to learn language X; where can I find some speakers of language X?" How rarely people ask that. How odd.

1.1.2 Understanding

The second cute principle is the principle of understanding. You need to understand things that people say in language X. And that gives us the second golden rule.

Golden Rule U (for 'understanding:): Pay attention to alrge doses of things that people say which you can understand.

Now you may be thinking, how can you understand a language that you haven't learned yet? Piece of cake. We'll see later that you can set up activities which will get people to say lots of things to you that you can understand. And we'll just suggest a few simple activities.

Can you see why this golden rule is important? You want to learn to speak Language X in a manner similar to the way that its current speakers speak it. Well then, you have to hear what they are saying. No language could ever be captured in a textbook. If you go on and on in this language, eventually you'll have understood people speaking it for many thousands of hours. You will "pick up" an awareness of the kinds of things people say. Even quite early you'll often be saying to yourself, consciously or unconsciously, "Oh, so that's how they say that." If you haven't started yet you might find that hard to imagine. But let us get you there.

You may notice we haven't said anything about memorizing words and sentences. Memorizing is a great activity for certain purposes. But for most people it is time consuming, and time spent on memorizing is time taken away from communing and understanding. You can progress more quickly if you skip the memorizing and get on with the communing and understanding.

1.1.3 Talking

The third cute principle is the principle of talking. There are various ways the third golden rule can be formulated. How about this?

Golden Rule T(for talking): To become good at speaking you need to speak a lot, putting your own ideas into your own words.

There is an additional step to get from being able to understand something to being able to come up with it when you need to say it. If you do things right, then your language ability will be something like the following diagram, at least for the first few years:

Figure 1:

Now language learning doesn't always work this way. If this same learner, instead of communing, understanding, and talking, had chosen to memorize "useful expressions" and vocabulary and "model sentences" and rules, and subsequently to talk, and then commune, and then understand, then her abilities might be better expressed by the following diagram:

Figure 2:

Now we can't prove that this is true, but that is what some of our language learning felt like, and we know plenty of others who describe their experience in similar terms. (There are exceptional people who do really weU this way, but we told them to stop reading after the first paragraph or two.)

1.1.4 Evolving

The final cute principle is evolving. By this we mean that your ability to use the language changes over time, and along with it, you will want to change your approach to communing, understanding and talking. Thus the final golden rule is as follows:

Golden Rule E (for "evolving"): Adapt your language learning activities to your current level of language ability.

Which brings us to the topic of what are the few simple things to do to learn a language.

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Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 3.5, published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 1999. [Ordering information.]

Page content last modified: 21 March 1999

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