Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Courses & Writing

I have been thinking quite a lot lately about language courses. Some learners seem to stick to courses all the way through, they are always working on some course; beginner, intermediate, advanced… Perhaps this is the way to go, perhaps it's the fastest way - I have no idea, I have never completed a course in my life and I am not the fastest of learners. But I do find courses extremely dull. This is not necessarily because of the content; Assimil for example has enough odd lessons to keep it varied (or misogynic --> the Hungarian course), whereas TY with "Buying Tickets", "Buying Sausages", "Saying hello to Inga's mom and dad" etc. just makes me want to forget about the whole language learning thing altogether. Courses are unnatural and "dead". To me, that is. It is not language at its best use, it is not something someone wrote because they really had to or wanted to (fiction) or because they wanted to talk about something else they were passionate about (non-fiction): it is constructed bits of language with a goal other than that of existing for its own sake. When the words in themselves are of no interest to me, then why should I bother? Fine, if I have no alternative that's what I have to work with, but for anyone who can use Google these days (although those people do seem to be strangely rare) or who has a friend who can use Google, it shouldn't be that hard. Unless, of course, you like courses.

Without some sort of course to start out with you can easily get lost, especially if you do not already know how to teach yourself things such as languages. Someone starting out with their first language probably will need a bit of direction in order to know what to do. When you get to your fourth, fifth, tenth, usually you know what you need yourself. I only use courses as long as it is absolutely necessary. I don't even remember doing a whole lot of lessons for Russian. 16 Assimil lessons was as far as I got before boredom struck. I managed rather good on my own though, in my opinion. I believe that what you need (or can use) to learn a language is:

  • A reference grammar (a grammar with exercises is also great)
  • Native material of varying difficulty (Easy Readers, articles, books)
  • ANKI (or similar)
  • Audio input (radio, audio books)
  • A platform for writing (, pen pals)
Some people argue that grammars are also unnecessary, but then I would like to see them try to write something in a grammar heavy language, something that is not just a collection of memorized sentences. Unless you don't always try to read and write things that are slightly beyond you, you are never going to learn much. I often get the impression among learners of languages that writing is kind of left out. Lots of focus on speaking, on listening, whereas writing is perhaps seen as… too easy? Or perhaps people just think you can't learn anything from writing? (That which you of course do when you search for ways of saying things, when you study the mistakes you made, etc.) Just think about how much time you spent at school writing in your native language; just because you can speak a language it doesn't mean you can automatically write it well.

Writing takes practice (and IRC or MSN is not the same thing, it's merely pseudo-writing, unstructured and spontaneous). When speaking French or Hungarian you can miss every other accent acute or perhaps mix up ü and ű and people will either not notice much or write it off as being your accent. When you write, and all of a sudden you show that you have no clue as to how to spell the French verb conjugations cause you learnt all your French from Pimsleur and MT, it will all of a sudden be a much bigger deal. Also, when you are writing things that are of concern to YOU, you become aware of what words and grammatical structures you frequently need. It isn't necessarily the same bunch of phrases TY teaches you.

Any thoughts?

I plan to try my own plan for Hungarian this summer. I have completed 44 Assimil lessons so far, and while I want to try to complete the course (as an experiment) I am going to try to use literature an LR rather intensively (Jane Eyre is first up!).

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