Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thank You For The Music

Are you an audial person or a visual? Do you know your dominant perception channel? When I was a student, psychologists liked to play with the hypothesis that each person has a dominant sense and thus learns better when using it. In brief, the hypothesis states that some people are better in perceiving visual information, others prefer listening over watching, and a large amount of people notice they understand and memorize new information better when it is supported by some specific scents or touches. The idea of the dominant channel of perception was very popular back then, but later, scientists proved it wrong and suggested to involve all possible senses in the learning and teaching process.

I have noticed that I memorize new words and expressions better when listening to songs or sounds of human speech. I still consider myself an audio-oriented learner, though I don't believe in the theory of the dominant sense any more. First, I'm myopic and since my childhood I learned not to rely on my eyes solely. Second, I love music. It is a very important part of my life. Music can easily modify my mood (some songs make me enthusiastic and others almost put me into depression), it inspires me, and once it even pushed me to learn English. My older sister was collecting vinyl records of Western rock musicians, and, when I became a teenager, I started listening to rock music, from the Beatles to Bon Jovi. It is not typical for my generation to love this kind of music. Many of my idols were already dead by the time I became their fan; nevertheless, I started hunting for lyrics (it was a pre-Google epoch), and translating everything I could find. When I was 12, I spent the whole summer vacation translating the Beatles' songs. This is how I made the major breakthrough in my second language acquisition.

My husband, who is a native Russian speaker, is fluent in English too. His success story is absolutely identical to mine. Our tastes differed slightly – he mostly listened to hard rock and heavy metal when he was a teenager, but everything else is alike: love of rock music, burning curiosity, hunger for learning more about the subject of your dreams. I know a few more people whose way to fluency in a second language arose through their passion to music.

When I started teaching Russian, the question whether my personal learning experience is reproducible arose immediately. It happens that my most successful students, the ones who have reached a high level of proficiency in Russian, have a passion for music. Their tastes are different, for example, one likes female pop singers, and another prefers brutal Russian rock bands. Yet, those students have been learning Russian with songs. They don't force themselves into studies, they enjoy music. While listening to their favorite songs, they expand their vocabulary, train their ear, and improve their pronunciation.

Recently, I've incorporated what I've learned from my language acquisition experience into my teaching technique. I've made audio materials like songs the basis of the learning process. First, I make sure that a student prefers audio materials over visual ones. Yes, I know that the hypothesis of the dominant sense may be questionable, but it worked for me. Then I explore the student's music tastes, and pick something for him or her that would match them. The first results of systematically applying this approach exceeded my most daring expectations. Not only does music help students to learn more words and phrases, it helps them to overcome a language barrier.

Have you ever had the similar experience of acquiring a new language with the help of music? Please share your experience with me!


Photo by Lars Lehmann

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Why Etymology Matters

The question of why some words look suspiciously similar in Russian and English first arose when I started learning English at the age of 11. I was so puzzled by this fact that I asked our Russian teacher to explain the mystery to me, and she told me that many centuries ago, there was a common ancestor, the grandfather of many modern languages. Her answer brought me to even more questions, and, perhaps, at that moment my destiny to become a linguist was decided.

Looking back to my first linguistic insights, I can see how helpful the curiosity about origins of different words was. I started checking the etymology (history of words, their origins) of different words in different languages, and I started seeing lots of new connections. Here are some benefits etymology brings to language learners:

1. Deeper understanding of a meaning of a word. When you track back the chain of a word's predecessors, you start seeing the changes the meaning of the word has gone through. Like a private investigator, you trace the modern word to its roots, and suddenly you see the word in the new light. The history of a word tells you a story and describes the evolution of that concept.

2. You memorize new words easier. You might have noticed that when you were a child, you could memorize poems and new words mechanically, by repeating them many times. With age, this type of memory becomes weaker, while memorizing by building logical connections improves. When you learn a word's origin, you build logical connections between a new word and, perhaps, the words that you already know, or between a new word and words from your native language that have the same roots. The more connections you build, the easier a new word will transfer to your long-term memory. Each time I struggle to memorize a new word (you know how it happens: you have a word that looks or sounds like another word, and you confuse them all the time), I check the word's etymology – and voilĂ , the word lays down to its cell, surrounded by its relatives and connected correctly to other words I know in other languages.

3. You expand your vocabulary faster. While doing a little research of one particular word's origin, you inevitably come to a bunch of related words. So instead of learning a separate word, you learn the whole nest of words that came from the same root and/or have the same ancestors.

4. You feed your curiosity and make language learning intellectually engaging (i.e. fun). Boredom kills. When you are stuck within a learning routine, you can not progress and you don't make the most out of what you really can do, which is sad. Instead of repeating meaningless lists of unconnected words and getting bored after 15 minutes, you can open an etymological dictionary and learn about the history of the words you are learning. You'll learn much more, and memorize new words better, for a longer time.

I believe many of my readers have set some language learning goals as their New Year's resolutions. I hope these tips will help you to achieve your goals!

Here are two etymological dictionaries you can buy on Amazon: Russian Etymological Dictionary by Terence L.B. Wade and Russian Etymological Dictionary by Vladimir Orel.