Steve and Alex – Starting From Scratch (Part 2)

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Steve and Alex talk about good ways to start learning a language from scratch and share their experiences.

Steve: The other thing too, of course, that I’m looking forward to with my Czech is that when we loaded up the beta languages we didn’t, for whatever reason, enable the text-to-speech function on our flashcards.

I really enjoy going through our flashcards with text-to-speech because seeing it and then hearing it helps to reinforce it.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Hopefully this week that will be up on the site, so I’ll get even more out of the flashcards.

Alex: Yeah, I think what’s great too is that an interesting thing for me in Korean was for a long time I just listened and I didn’t do very much reading.

I was a very lazy reader and so I found when I would read texts that you have this sub-voice that every time you read something you’re saying it in your head and when I would say a word in my head I’d be like oh, that sounds really familiar.

I would recognize it from some other phrase that I’d heard or something.

But I think inversely if you don’t have that listening experience or exposure or the years and years of constant exposure to the language then it’s a huge benefit to be able to hear it and then match that.

It allows your brain to much more easily remember it.

Steve: Absolutely.

I mentioned on my blog there’s research now that shows that people who have dyslexia that that is connected to their inability to hear well or to distinguish certain things about language.

There is no question in my mind that listening is very much connected with reading.

I mean, from an evolutionary perspective, we were listening and telling stories and listening to stories for tens of thousands of years before writing was invented and so naturally we’re more sort of programmed to understand things that we hear.

To me, writing is just like having a recording machine.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: It’s just like before they had Dictaphones or mp3 players they wrote.

So it’s just a recording like we record something by hand in writing, so there’s a very strong connection.

Certainly, the more I listen to something before I read in a foreign language the more I’m able to vocalize, the better I’m able to vocalize, the more familiar I am with the text, so there’s a real connection.

The other thing you mentioned too, which was interesting, is as you’re sub-vocalizing, which we certainly do when we read in a foreign language much more so than in our own language, you sub-vocalize it, or even in reading it, you’re more conscious of the connections between different words.

I think a big part of building vocabulary is recognizing these connections.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: That enables you to acquire a lot of words incidentally, words that you haven’t even deliberately tried to learn, but you’re becoming more attentive to the connections between words.

In fact, for me when I do flashcards, I do them mostly to see connections between words.

Like I’ll often go into our vocab section at LingQ and I’ll deliberately review them in alphabetical order because then you’re going to see words that are variations on the same or a similar core root.

That’s so important to build up that attentiveness to the connections between words and reading does that.

I mean reading is very powerful when it comes to vocabulary building.

There’s no question.

Alex: Yeah.

I think, too, with that, I know when I read in Korean, for instance, I do way more sub-vocalizing, as you said, than I do in English.

I can do it without kind of that conscious sub-vocalizing, but I find that then I kind of miss something to it.

One process that I enjoy is the process of sub-vocalizing or, if I can, reading aloud because then I hear my own voice and then those phrases and those words stick better than just the meaning of what it’s saying.

Steve: Oh, absolutely.

It’s just that sometimes whatever we’re doing we have like five different goals and so we have to decide which one we’re going to focus on.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: So, reading out loud is good because it helps to engrain.

It’s that sense of repetition, of getting the neurons to fire, so to speak, you know, so that’s good.

Yet, you’re anxious to move ahead in the book so you want to read for meaning.

Alex: Yeah, exactly.

Steve: And you want to focus on certain language patterns, so yeah…

Alex: It’s tiring. It is.

Steve: Yeah, sometimes.

Tat why I think you can read more than once the same text and focus on different things.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: And, for sure, repeating what we hear.

Like I know at an early stage in any language it’s often useful to walk around doing stuff at home repeating phrases that you’ve just heard.

All of this helps to engrain these words and phrases in your mind.

The problem is that we can’t do it for every word and every phrase that we have to learn.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Like I’m a great believer in sort of a random approach.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: So if you randomly repeat certain words and phrases that’s going to do it.

Like if I have to learn 30,000 words in Czech – I don’t know what the number is — I’m not going to repeat them all to myself.

I can’t possibly do that.

Alex: Right.

Steve: Similarly, I can’t possibly review all the words and phrases that I’m saving, but even if it’s done on a random basis and even if it’s not scientifically-programmed spaced repetition.

I’m sure that’s very effective, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

I think it’s also quite helpful to do things on a random basis.

Alex: Right.

Steve: To me, the main thing is just to do things that you enjoy doing that are convenient for you to do.

If I had to sit down every day for one hour and religiously review all my words I wouldn’t do it after a while.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: So I think it’s important to tell people, if you are disciplined enough to do that, go for it.

I’m sure that’s very effective.

But if you’re not disciplined enough or if you don’t have the time to do it, don’t worry about it.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Even if you’re doing it sporadically it’s going to help you.

The main thing, though, is to make sure you spend the time.

So, today you’re more motivated to read on because you’re interested in the subject, some other day you’re more motivated to read out loud, the third day you’re motivated to do your flashcards.

As long as you’re spending time with the language you are, in fact, going to improve.

Alex: Yeah.

And I think that’s touching on a good point, too, of the accessibility of language learning.

I think in a traditional approach you think you need to spend concentrated time on it every day and a lot of people think well I can’t really juggle that many things in my life.

If they have a family, they have kids, they have work, they have other things that they have to attend to they think well I can’t possibly learn another language.

But I think that very fact of five minutes here, five minutes there, reading on the way to work or listening or something, just getting it in.

It’s a random approach, but I think the exposure is absolutely beneficial.

Steve: Well, yeah.

I mean we see there are people on YouTube who talk about how they spend six hours a day learning languages.

And they do learn them.

And they’re good at it.

And that’s commendable.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I know that when I studied Chinese I went at it very intensively, as many hours as I wanted.

I was paid.

That was my job.

I could spend five-six-seven-10 hours at it every day.

I did very well.

I learned very quickly.

I mean in eight months I had learned Chinese.

Russian has taken me four years at an hour a day.

But, realistically, most people have trouble patching together an hour a day.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: But if you’re a full-time student, obviously, you can be much more methodical, thorough, you should be more disciplined, all those things, but people who aren’t in that position can still learn.

Alex: Yeah. I think that’s it.

The joys of language learning are not reserved just for the few elite who have four hours free a day, right?

Steve: Exactly.

So, insofar as learning a language from scratch, I’m very happy with my Czech and I have the impression now that we have…well, we have Arabic, Polish and Dutch up there as well.

The Dutch I think would be a breeze.

I’ve had a look at some of the Dutch text.

I don’t think it would take very long between German, English and Swedish, whatever, it’s pretty close.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: The Polish looks a little bit daunting.

I think I might do that after Czech, if I feel motivated, but I’ve still got to slide my Korean back in there.

But the one that scares me is Arabic.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: The biggest thing with the Arabic is the writing system.

There again, everything that we don’t know scares us.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Anything. Like I drove down to California, I’ve never driven down to California.

It seemed like an awfully long way to drive.

Now that I’ve driven down to California once — my wife and I went down and enjoyed ourselves there in Santa Rosa — it’s no big deal now because I’ve done it.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I think if I got started with Arabic and started writing those little squiggles from right to left, once I get used to it…

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: It’s just the fear of the unknown and I think that’s a big factor in language learning.

It’s that fear of the unknown.

Czech is a breeze, I’ve done Russian.

I’ve overcome the first hurdle.

Chinese, having done Chinese, Japanese was a breeze.

Even Korean was no big deal because I had done the Chinese, the characters.

I was into Asian languages, although they’re not related languages.

Arabic now is like from nowhere.

Like it’s wow!

It’s just a matter of getting started; getting started doing it.

Alex: I think that’s the thing, too, of having the confidence.

Like you said before, you read a text in Czech you know three words.

You listen to it five more times and then you read it again and you know seven words.

Steve: Right.

Alex: I think a lot of people get very discouraged at that, but I think it takes the know how to understand every little step counts and every little bit that you do is going to help you in the long run.

Steve: Absolutely.

Just to finish off with this whole issue of speaking, everyone wants to speak and people have different sort of objectives in terms of how they want to use the language.

So if your objective is simply to go to Mexico and be able to say a few things with the locals that’s one thing, in which case, yeah, you start doing that.

I must say in the case of my Russian, I know from experience now, I manage quite well in Russian in speaking and, yet, overwhelming my activity has been passive.

Not because I don’t want to speak, but because there’s no one to speak to here.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I can’t program my day around finding people to speak Russian to.

There’s no guarantee that at a point in my Russian where I can’t communicate very well that some guy I meet in a shopping center is going to want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with me just to amuse me, you know?

So, I’m confident that in this process in my Czech that as long as I keep letting the words flow in.

I don’t have anyone to speak to, but I’m building up my vocabulary.

Passive, but it’s going to start converting itself to an active vocabulary and when I have the opportunity and when the need arises I will stumble and stutter and struggle, but I will eventually be able to use many of those words and, of course, the more I speak the better I get.

So, obviously, people should speak when they have sufficient confidence in their vocabulary or when they have the opportunity.

Or if their goal is to use it for simple social situations, by all means, speak.

But I have the confidence, in terms of what I am doing in Czech now that what I am doing is going to enable me to speak.

I don’t feel a need to speak now.

Right now I probably couldn’t say anything, but I would say in a month if I hear someone speaking Czech in a store I may just say my three words of Czech and then run because I won’t understand what he’s saying.


Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Okay, Starting from Scratch. There we go.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Okay.

Alex: All right.

Steve: Thanks Alex.

Alex: Thanks for listening everyone.

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