Learning a Language from Scratch

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Steve and Jill have a discussion about how to begin learning a language when you have no prior knowledge of that language.

Steve: Hi Jill.

Jill: Hi Steve.

Steve: How are you this afternoon?

Jill: I’m alright, how are you?

Steve: Not too bad.

What shall we talk about today?

Jill: Well, I’m not sure; I think you have some ideas.

Steve: Well yeah, we were talking a little earlier.

You know, one of the subjects that comes up, actually, there’s two that are, perhaps, in a way related.

One is, you know, how do you learn a language from scratch?

That’s the English expression “from scratch”, in other words, starting from zero.

And can LingQ be used as a method of learning from scratch?

I know that you’ve been studying some Spanish, a little bit of Spanish, a little French, with LingQ.

I’ve been doing Russian, but neither of us, I think… Well, we weren’t starting from scratch.

Jill: No, no.

Steve: Recently, I’ve been doing some Portuguese and I find that with a language like Portuguese, where I understand most of it because it’s so similar to Spanish, I end up using LingQ in a different way.

I save more phrases, because I know the words, but I just want to save some phrases that are going to help me along.

But, have you tried, Jill, doing a language from scratch with LingQ?

Jill: No, no, I haven’t.

Steve: Well, perhaps sometime between now and when you have your baby, would you please learn Russian using LingQ?

Jill: No problem.

Steve: Would you do that please?

Then maybe you can report back.

Jill: Between now and three months from now.

Sure, I’ll get right on it.

Steve: Okay.

Although, you know with Russian, I did start Russian from scratch.

I didn’t start it with LingQ from scratch, because I started before we had Russian on LingQ.

But I would say after about two months of using some of the material, some books and CDs that I found in a bookstore — there’s the Teach Yourself Series and then there is the Colloquial Series and they’re $30.00 a book and a CD — and I just listen to the CD over and over again.

A lot of that content is similar to the beginner content that we have at LingQ, but then I went to The Power of The Linguist.

Our Programmer Mike who is from Russia and, of course, his wife Anna is from Russia, they kindly translated The Power of The Linguist and they also recorded it.

I listened to that 50 times.

I can even remember where I was when I was listening to it, I was on holiday.

I listened to it jogging.

I listened to it doing the dishes.

And, of course, in The Power of The Linguist the first five episodes are very easy.

The next one is a little more difficult and I think in all there are 26 or 27 episodes and it gets progressively more difficult.

Because I knew the text in English I was able to understand it and listen over and over again, so that worked for me.

Jill: And so if you hadn’t known the text in English, what would have been the result?

Would it have been harder, obviously?

Steve: I think so.

And if I look at what happens when I buy a book in the bookstore it has the English.

It has the text in English there in the book and it also has a list of the words and it has some explanation.

In LingQ we don’t provide the translation, except for The Power of The Linguist and a few other items where the text exists in English and Spanish and German and in other languages, in French, in Japanese and whatever.

Jill: So you could just change your language and go get it in your native language and study it and understand it and then study it in the language you want to learn.

Steve: Exactly and that’s what I did with Russian.

I even experimented with taking a sentence of Russian and then putting a sentence of English underneath it.

I stopped doing that because I found it distracting, but different people, you know, might like doing it different ways.

I just found that once I had read it in English – an episode, which is only 30 seconds long – I kind of understood what was there.

Then I did it in Russian.

I looked up the words that I needed to learn.

I then was able to study these words.

The structure is not very complicated, but if it were complicated I could ask the tutor, you know, why is this?

It may be that for an absolute beginner it might still be a good idea to invest in a book, you know, a beginner book or to borrow a beginner book from the library just to get you started.

Jill: Yeah, I was just going to ask you that.

If, for example, we didn’t have The Power of The Linguist…and I don’t think it’s translated into all languages that we have on the site…or, for example, you were a native French speaker and you wanted to learn Japanese, which has totally different characters and everything and if you’ve never had any exposure to them whatsoever, would you need to start with something before LingQ?

Steve: Well, you know again, LingQ can’t be the only thing that people do in their language learning and LingQ can’t deal with every language in exactly the same way.

If you’re going to learn a language which has a different writing system, if that writing system is an alphabet like the Cyrillic alphabet for Russian, well you have to go somewhere to learn that.

If the writing system contains, you know, characters like the Chinese or if it has a syllabary like Japanese – again, the Korean writing system is an alphabet much like the Russian alphabet except it’s more different from our western alphabet – you have to go and look those things up.

You have to get other resources.

You may need a dictionary.

I mean there are a variety of things that people are going to do.

I don’t expect that people would only work with LingQ.

I think for a beginner some people will be comfortable just starting with our material, just listening over and over again.

I believe that’s effective, but some people might be more comfortable getting a book which helps them a little bit more.

These books, typically, are available at libraries or they can be bought.

I think it almost doesn’t matter what you do, once you get past that first little hurdle then I think the fundamental activity remains the same and that is a lot of listening and reading using material that you have chosen and where it gets progressively more and more difficult.

Jill: Right, okay, yeah.

Steve: And I think one of things that I found with LingQ was that once I got over the beginner’s stage, which was, basically, The Power of The Linguist…I mean I was on that for three months.

There are 26 episodes.

It took me a long time to get used to the different expressions and so forth.

From that I was able, fairly quickly, to move into authentic material.

Because with LingQ, because you have the audio, because you can listen over and over, because you can look up every word you don’t understand, because you can ask a tutor, it’s possible to access quite difficult material earlier than would otherwise be the case.

I could deal with content that had 40-50 percent unknown words and it didn’t bother me.

Whereas, if I picked up a newspaper with 40 percent, 50 percent, unknown words I would be lost.

If I went to a reader, you know, your traditional sort of language reader, if every second, third, word I had to look up the word list, you know, I’d forget them all.

It just wouldn’t work.

What I found with LingQ is that A) I could spend a lot of time listening, 20-30-40-50 times, to the same content in that initial period.

Then once I’d been through that stage I found that I could go after authentic content which was directed at native speakers – podcasts, news articles, literature – and I could work my way through this more difficult content using LingQ.

I guess in summary, I say at the beginning… It depends on your taste.

You may want to get a traditional starter-type book.

I would say, don’t use books where all they give you is disconnected phrases.

Make sure the books have actual dialogues or contents.

A context…

Jill: A context, yes.

Steve: We need a context.

We need to contextualize.

We can’t learn things in isolation.

Jill: Otherwise, you’re just trying to memorize and it’s too hard.

Steve: It’s too hard and so, unfortunately, all of this content for the beginner is going to be a little bit artificial.

It’s going to be about the mythical Mrs. Jones and Mr. Smith and they meet over coffee and it’s not real.

You have to go through that stage, to some extent.

With The Power of The Linguist what we tried to do…and there are others too, you know, going out for dinner.

There’s a bunch of them, some of which have been translated.

We try to create some continuity, so there are 26 episodes gradually getting, you know, more and more difficult.

There’s some incentive to go to the next chapter because there’s some mystery as to what’s going to happen and so forth.

We try to make it a little bit better.

Jill: Try to peak people’s curiosity a little bit so that…

Steve: So, yeah, I think so.

I think the simple answer is that yes, you can do it from scratch with LingQ where we have content that exists in a language that you’re familiar with other than the one you’re trying to learn.

Where that is not the case or even where that is the case, you might still want to get a beginner book.

Take the CD, you know, listen to it over and over again.

If it’s possible to import, if the text exists in electronic text, then you can import it into LingQ, which is even better and then move quickly over to our beginner material and then you’re on you way.

Jill: And I think, too, what you said about when you’re an absolute beginner having to spend a lot of time on the same content item.

You can’t just look at something once or twice and move on.

I think a lot of people don’t spend enough time on each item.

They read something once, listen to something once and that’s it and they maybe are board or think they’ll be bored if they listen over and over, but that’s really the only way it’s going to sort of stick.

Steve: I mean, I think that’s a very good point and the way I visualize it in my brain is that, you know, I picture my brain and there are lots of neurons there and there are sort of two phases.

One phase is the phase where I am trying to connect neurons.

I’m trying to break a path, to create a path, from one neuron to the next.

That’s when I’m struggling.

I’m struggling to understand.

I’m struggling to hear, to differentiate sounds, to remember phrases and I still don’t remember and it’s a struggle and that’s where I’m, basically, making new roads and new connections.

The second phase is once I’ve made that connection I’ve got to go over that path many, many, times, just like, you know, a cart creating a rut in a field or something.

You’ve got to groove; you’ve got to groove that connection that you’ve made.

My test is if I’m still having trouble understanding something, that’s good; basically, then I have to keep on going over it.

I don’t have to get to the point where I understand 100 percent, but I have to get to the point where I understand most of it then I can move on.

Jill: Right.

Steve: But when I’m more advanced and I understand it the first time I hear it I don’t need to hear it the second time.

Jill: Right.

Steve: There’s less benefit, there’s less return, on hearing it the second or the third time.

That’s where, you know, you gradually start listening less and less frequently, but certainly in the first few months you have to listen 10-20-30-40 times and then you review words and phrases, then you look for them when you are listening and you look for them when you are reading and you observe them more closely, yeah, for sure.

Have we covered that?

Jill: I think so.

Steve: We don’t need to go over it again and again and again?

Alright then, thank you very much Jill.

Jill: Bye, bye.

Steve: Bye.

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