Thursday, January 3, 2013

Three Keys To Successful Language Acquisition

During the last few days of 2012, after all the necessary New Year preparations had been done, I reviewed some Russian grammar books written by both native and non-native speakers. I have no idea how people can actually start speaking Russian after reading a book that gives you 26 different verb conjugation paradigms and expects you to memorize which verb belongs to which paradigm with all the subsequent changes in verb stems and endings. No one is able to memorize all these endless conjugation tables. If I, being a native Russian speaker, ever thought about what paradigm I should use for each and every verb, I would be silent, may be the most silent speaker on Earth. Yet, many non-native speakers, including my dear students, speak Russian fluently. How did they manage to succeed? Three years of tutoring, as well as my own experience of learning English, allow me to define the three major factors that help to improve language acquisition. Here they are:

1. Speak, don't learn

Language is a mean of communication, not a target. Imagine that learning languages is like cooking. What if instead of just following a recipe you start reading tons of books about food chemistry, physics and the physiology of digestion? Would those books help you to become a better chef? Probably yes, but the one who practices cooking would succeed much sooner. Just try to use your new language from the very beginning – and you'll progress. Read, write, listen, and speak. And, when necessary, use your grammar books and vocabulary lists as a reference.

2. Find what is really interesting to you

Boredom kills. Our brains refuse to work when we try to focus on irrelevant topics, and we should respect that.

I took EILTS exam twice. The first time, during the speaking section, an examiner asked me to talk about ageism. Just the night before the exam, I had read an article in a magazine about this topic. The problem was new to me, I found it pretty controversial, so we had a nice discussion about whether there were any professional occupations where age is a disadvantage. I got 7.5 for speaking (with 9 as a native-like level). The next time, I had to talk about sports in elementary school. It would be hard to find a topic that was more irrelevant to me. I had no kids, I hated sports when I was in school, and, frankly, I couldn't care less about both sports activities and elementary school. I got 6.5. Oops.

I told you my story just to illustrate how important it is to find topics that are of actual interest to you. You have to be intellectually and emotionally involved in what you read (in your second language), you have to like the songs that you listen to, enjoy the movies you watch, etc. This is why I always choose what to talk about with my students very carefully. I find it stupid and humiliating to start with “simple” words and topics - “my day”, “my home” - with a student that holds a PhD in Anthropology and Political Science (unless he/she wants to). Don't be afraid of advanced vocabulary. If you are a scientists, why not to start with words and concepts that you are working on? Try to transfer your “content”, your personality, into a new language environment. Say what you usually say, but in a new language.

3. Build your own language environment

In order to acquire a language naturally, you have to surround yourself with the language. Find blogs, news sites, online forums and communities (in the language you are learning) that are so interesting to you that you'll to check them for updates frequently. Follow tweets from native speakers that share interesting information, like pages on Facebook that are relevant to your job and hobbies. We live in a world without borders.It's a matter of your personal curiosity to find the right information channels. And, hey, it's more fun learning a new language this way than memorizing abstract grammar rules.

Good luck and happy language learning in 2013!

elephant talk
Elephant Talk by Gina

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