‘Aha!’ moments: finding 3 new language-learning keys

Everyone has their own learning path.   My path has brought several moments when I’ve been bursting to tell other people what I’ve discovered. “I’ve found The Key to learning a language!” “I’ve found another Key!”  “Wow, this is amazing! Wasn’t sure this…. would be much good for me but I love it!” (Excuse the exclamations, but  ‘Aha’ moments are exciting…)

So I’m writing the first three here, in the order they happened, because I still think they’re great insights (into my own learning at the very least), and I’m still wanting to tell as many people as I can.

1. Making it about Me is Massively Motivating!

I’d researched loads of polyglot advice and decided to try it out learning Italian. Just about to start, suddenly no internet: frustration! We found an old Italian dictionary and basic grammar that had belonged to my late father-in-law. Using these, I had a go at writing in Italian my reasons for learning the language (OK, they were a bit feeble: to understand the words of operas and visit Italy as I love ice cream) and added a list of all the Italian I knew already (a few song titles). Not bad for a start: what next? Who might I strike up a conversation with if I was in Italy? At home, it would probably be anyone with a baby or small child… That was it! I’d write about being a happy granny, and talk about my little grandson! The more I thought of to say, the keener I got. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing anything as much. This was starting from the very beginning saying something real about me and my life! The limited terms and many mistakes weren’t important. Writing about myself before learning anything turned

the whole rather lukewarm intellectual challenge into something personal and completely engaging. That’s what the polyglots mean when they talk about personalising your learning!

2. Listen listen listen listen listen… and then listen some more!

Back on the internet, I was ready to start Listening, taking the advice of  Idahosa Ness and Gabriel Wyner, who are pretty convincing on the importance of starting with listening and pronunciation. (I’ve always been keen on getting pronunciation right from the word go, but hadn’t much focused on listening.) Then I saw a video by Moses McClintock, with proof, about listening to the same phrase 1000 times! “He learns 4 languages a year, so there must be a genuine payoff from listening multiple times,” I thought, and decided to listen at least 30 times. Paltry by comparison, but ten times the amount I’d have done before. What a revelation! The more you listen, the more you notice different aspects: the exact sound of a particular vowel, where there is more emphasis, how the pitch of the voice alters… Then you’re so much better prepared to practise saying it.

3. Don’t just repeat, shadow! And use backchaining to help! 

Next: time to repeat the words and phrases I’d been listening to. I was tempted just to have a go a couple of times and then move on… but the goal was getting as close to the native speaker pronunciation as possible. I thought of the bright idea of speaking in time and tune with the native recording… and then discovered this is actually a well-known technique known as ‘shadowing‘!

It’s extraordinary how your tongue trips you up even when you know the sound you need to make! So I stopped and used a technique I’d been trained in for teaching English as a foreign language: backchaining. You start by saying the last sound by itself first, then the last two sounds by adding the one before it, then the last three, and so on until you’ve got to the first sound and have gradually built the whole thing. (Gabe Wyner gives a great explanation here)  It works with individual sounds or whole words, like magic. (Every time my tongue trips, I find myself going back to backchaining.) Once my tongue was behaving itself I started counting repeats.

After listening 30 times and shadowing 10 times I knew the vocabulary, could recognise the sound and could make it accurately myself, at natural speed. It was mine and it popped into my head when I needed it, without painstaking mental translation. Yay!

Building a collection of phrases that come automatically had the huge bonus that I found myself mixing and matching elements, just the way children develop their first language, without the need to wade through grammar at the beginning. Refining my knowledge with grammar will come later.

‘Aha!’ moments didn’t stop there, and I know there are more to come. There’s still a long way to go and a lot more learning to enjoy.

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