How to Master a Language for Life
Automate and retain language mastery through review activities
By Victor - 15/oct/2021 #Language and Education
If you’ve been following my blog, you know by now that your language diet needs to include plenty of nourishment from the four language “food groups” of listening, reading, writing, and speaking. To progress steadily and efficiently, you should add one more activity type to your balanced linguistic intake: review of your personal vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation content.
Mastering a language entails acquiring a vast amount of knowledge.
Unfortunately, it is not enough to memorize a few hundred grammatical structures and a few thousand words with their respective pronunciations. If that were sufficient, early computers would have been capable of using natural language, while in fact, even incredible recent strides in natural language processing haven’t brought computers close to human-level competence. Learning a language is incalculably complex.
To begin to understand this complexity, consider vocabulary. It is not enough to learn the meaning of a word; you must understand its multiple nuances and connotations, and which verbs, adjectives and prepositions are appropriate to link it to other words in each context. As for grammar, memorizing rules and their endless exceptions is of little use. Rather, you must become deeply familiar with grammatical patterns and develop linguistic intuition through meaningful contact with tens of thousands of examples. It's a bit like the game of chess: the pieces and moves are simple enough to learn, but the combinations you need to understand to become proficient are almost endless (there are more viable chess games than atoms in the universe; no doubt the same could be said about viable linguistic combinations).
But that's not enough. You must then convert this knowledge into active proficiency to be able to creatively produce language. You also need to constantly test and refine your intuition.
To this end, you must write and speak with natives who correct you. Through such "deliberate practice" you will continuously refine your proficiency, much like a student of music masters their instrument by playing with expert musicians and receiving their feedback. Such practice is also essential to develop the active ability to communicate.
However, to truly master a language, one more step is required: automating knowledge. You need to be able to express any idea—with the appropriate vocabulary, exact pronunciation, and correct grammar—instantly, without recourse to a conscious process of sentence construction.
It is to develop this automatic ability—by committing linguistic knowledge to instant-access, long-term memory—that the following fifth aspect of language study deserves equal attention and time as the four basic skills:
Intensive review of vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar content and corrections that are appropriate to the student's level and derived from a personal communicative context.
Let’s examine this key concept in more detail.
Review harnesses the power of repetition, a decisive factor in language acquisition. Most students, like me, have to hear a new word at least ten times, on various occasions, to learn it. Thus, intensive review allows one to assimilate key content and the corrections much more quickly.
As long as the content and corrections are selected to be level-appropriate, such intensive review thus makes language acquisition more efficient, allowing for continuous and cumulative progress in proficiency. And what is “level appropriate”? Briefly, content is level appropriate if the student has not yet mastered it and it is not too advanced. More specifically, it should be at the student's current level or just beyond it; or it should fill a knowledge gap—that is, be below the student’s current level, yet still unmastered.
Deriving content from a student’s personal communicative context is a way to ensure that it is yet unmastered. If you prepare a list of words or grammatical patterns in advance for a student to learn, you may waste time by including content that they already know quite well. That can’t happen if you choose content based on the deficiencies you identify in their own speaking and writing.
There are two even more important reasons for deriving content from a personal communicative context. First, words, grammatical patterns, phonemes, and even entire sentences lack meaning in isolation and, in any case, have no connection to real life without a context. Learning language elements in isolation is ineffective because, unlike real-life communicative content, it does not foster the intricate neural connections and pathways that language mastery requires.
Second, the personal context—the fact that the student wanted to express something in conversation or in writing and needed that content to do so—provides an emotional connection to the content. This is incredibly important because we know that emotions are powerful catalysts for learning and especially vital for long-term retention.
That is why I discourage students from memorizing vocabulary lists or grammatical rules[i].
This type of "review" is not effective because retention is terrible. You may be able to memorize a few hundred vocabulary words with a few days of effort, but six months later you will have forgotten almost everything you learned that way. By contrast, if you learn those same few hundred of words in real, personal communicative contexts, followed by intensive review, you are likely to remember the vast majority several years later.
Thus, one of the key, unique formulas of the Natural Language Institute method is to extract level-appropriate content from students’ oral and written production—via conversation classes and essays—by having native-speaking teachers register in-context corrections and content, and then make it available for students to review dynamically and intensively.
When students take advantage of this method and regularly review their content, linguistic knowledge becomes automated and deeply ingrained. They begin to use the correct grammatical structures, pronunciation, and vocabulary in real time, while talking or writing, and retain this ability over the long term. Consequently, they are able to regularly pile on new content and continuously reach new peaks of language mastery.
In the next few posts, we will examine the specific tools used at Natural to turn conversations and writing into a gold mine for consolidating, automating, and retaining language mastery.
Until then, you can get to know our review tools by making an appointment with our linguists.
[i] As always, there are exceptions. Most notably, a total beginner in a language (who does not speak another language that is closely related enough to allow them to pick up vocabulary from context) is generally well-served to memorize a few hundred of the most frequently used words in the new language, and learn a few basic grammatical patterns, as a starting point.
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