A. Common misconceptions
Some people think that because languages are made of words and rule to assemble
them, if you learn the dictionary and read a grammar book, you'll be all set. Too bad it
doesn't work that way, we would save money. In fact, if you do this, the best you will
achieve is filling grammar exercises or being able to read some texts. But oral fluency
will remain a dream.
This is a very widespread misconception (straight-talking people, please excuse
the euphemism). If some things are really difficult in a language (genitive plural in russian, subjunctive in french), most
of the rest can be learned in a pleasurable way. Don't begin with studying complicated
grammar rules, this will only discourage you and destroy your spontaneity. You should end
with the grammar rules, but begin with short, useful phrases that you accept with faith.
Same thing for exercises : if they look like advanced physics, something is wrong. The
right idea in this misconception is that you can't learn a language without effort, but
there's no rule written on a stone that it must be boring or painful.
If you want to learn, you must work for it. This does not mean the work must be
boring or even painful, but still, there's some constraint. You will remember many words
rapidly, but for the few die-hards that always slip through your memory, you need to find
mental hooks to remember them. Same things for difficult syntaxic patterns, you can learn
them by memorizing grammar rules or by inferring from phrases, but still you must get the
picture. So, if your idea was to get into the country and think the language will come as
quickly as the turista, you will wait a long time.
B. Schools of thought
Note : I confess being no specialist
in the following part and I would welcome help, references or any feedback from somebody
who would be (a specialist).
Some people, especially people in the second half of their life, refer to the
"old school", where you were taught languages the hard way. I guess they mean
that their teachers were heavy on the grammar book and vocabulary lists. Of course, this
does not work if your aim is to speak a language with any fluency, but it seems that many
people who have been taught languages like this are reluctant to use any other method. It
probably has more to do with the love of the known and Angst before new things
rather than efficiency concerns.
During WWII the Americans had to "produce" efficient speakers of
german, japanese and russian very quickly. With not that many Germans willing to help,
they developped methods using audio tapes that the intelligence officers (language
learners) could use without teachers, saving these for advanced students. The programs
were centered on dialogs to be learned by heart and, not surprisingly, drills
that stressed patterns of speech (phrase structures). The system was so efficient that
after 6 months the officers could begin active work.
These efforts were at the beginning of the Defense Language Institute in
Monterrey (California), which nowadays teaches 10% of all adult language courses in the
(Note : if you know more about this, or have been
involved in this program, I would be really glad to hear from you at Francois@micheloud.com)
This approach was a real advance for the time, but after some years the defects
appeared : being centered on drills, the students found it difficult to connect phrases
they knew with real life situations. Critics emphasized the rigid, mechanical exercises
that hindered spontaneity. But people were already at work to make it better.
People like Dr Pimsleur improved the army audio-lingual method by emphasizing
the link to the context of utterances. For example, in Pimsleur's tapes the voice explain
you the particular situation in which you are (You are in a bus in St Petersburg. A
young woman seats next to you. What do you say to her?) before making you speak. The
result is far better than with the army method, because when you fall in these situations,
the right phrases immediately come to your mind, even if you have to create them
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that this text is free of errors or copyright infringement. Nevertheless, some may have
slipped through. Also, these pages only reflect my opinion on language learning, limited
by my own experiences and knowledge. I invite you to contact me if you feel something is wrong and
should be corrected. (requests about American political correctness will be dismissed)