Language Learning Tip #18

 

Problem

“I am trying to change some of my language learning habits, and  I have ideas, but somehow I don’t put them into action.”

Idea:  Address problems with strategies not with wishes.


Five steps for creating suitable strategies:

1) Identify areas you want to improve in.  Do this periodically as your needs and abilities change.  Write down things you want to be able to do at this point in your life and skills you want to practice.  Then prioritize them by giving them numbers.  Choose 2 or 3 of them and develop creative strategies to improve in these areas.


2) Identify your strengths and weaknesses as a learner.  What are you good at?  What is difficult for you?  Then focus on ways to strengthen your weak skills by using your strengths. 

For example, if you don’t spell well, identify the reasons.  Maybe two Arabic sounds seem the same to you so you get mixed up with words which have those sounds in them.  This would be a weakness in an aural (listening) skill.  But if you can see the word in your mind or you write the word a number of times, you can use your strength as a visual learner or as a kinesthetic learner to work on your spelling problem.  Or if your weakness is listening comprehension, you cannot improve in that area by making a grammar chart.  However, listening to recorded Arabic at slower speeds could be helpful. 

Look for a connection between the skill you need and the activity you want to spend time on.  If you can not explain the connection between the two, then maybe the connection is not really there.

 

3) Identify things in your personality that make it hard for you to do what other successful learners do.  Then find a way to compensate.  For example, if you are a shy person who finds it difficult to knock on your neighbor’s door, go visiting with someone else.  Or, if you never know what to talk about with people, before you visit, write a list of topics and questions that you can ask people.

 

4) Reevaluate your strategies from time to time.  If your strategies are all the same now as they were 3 months ago, you probably are not giving enough attention to this area.  Use your creativity and feed off of the creativity of your classmates and other learners.

 

5)  Find someone to be accountable to.  You might talk with that person about what you are writing in your language learning journal.  You should discuss what your current strategies are, why you have chosen them, and how you might improve them.  Sometimes another person might just have an idea that will turn a good strategy into a great strategy. 

Language Learning Tip #16

Problem 

“I am trying to change some of my language learning habits, and  I have ideas, but somehow I don’t put them into action.”

 Idea 

Have a weekly planning time.  I recommend that you follow these 3 principles:

  • Keep it very simple.  Don’t try to do too much at first.
  • Keep it regular. It should be at the same time each week.
  • Keep it together.  Have a special notebook for this purpose.

Think of a day each week when you have 30 minutes that you can sit without distractions.  In fact, sometimes you may only need 20 minutes to do these 4 steps.

Step 1)  Write 1-3 goals for the week. There is nothing wrong with only writing one explicit goal.

Step 2)  Make a basic written schedule outlining when you will work on those goals.  Break down the task into manageable steps. Be as specific as you can. Here are some examples of goals for the purpose of activating words you’ve learned before.

  • Review chapters 7-9 and write down 10 words I want to put in my active vocabulary
  • Speak out loud by myself using each word in two sentences (20 sentences total).
  • Use at least five of these words this week in conversation with others.

Here are some other types of goals you can set.

  • I will talk to three people for 5 minutes about __my home town   .
  • I will write down a list of 10 words that are related to __my home town   .
  •  I will practice  speaking with a tape recorder on __my home town    for 15 minutes.
  • I will try to visit (name) on (day) for (20-30 minutes) and will talk about __my home town   .

Step 3)  Evaluate your past week. Did you meet your goals?  Were your goals too big or unrealistic?  If you did this again, what would you change?  Etc.

Step 4)  Write something in your language journal.

A language journal is an activity that can be unrelated to the goal-setting outlined above, or it can be part of the whole process.  That is, whether you set goals or not, a language learning journal can be very valuable.  In fact, I would guess that journaling would be the most important part of your weekly planning and reflection.  You may even want to write in your journal more often than once a week.

Your journal should include your personal feelings about your language learning.  Write about what you liked and disliked about your language adventures this week.  When did you feel frustrated?  Did you have any breakthroughs?  What are you learning about yourself?  Your learning preferences?  Your language learning strategies?  Is there anything new you might want to try some day?

For example, “I met only half of my goals. Maybe I need to spend less time on Youtube. Am I being lazy or do I just love Youtube too much? Maybe I can try to take my iPad on my next visit and show Ahmad my favorite Youtube videos. That puppy on the skateboard just cracks me up!”

 

 


 

 

 


Language Learning Tip #15

Problem

“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”

We continue discussion of the 5th sign from the 5 signs that you may be working hard but not smart. Again, the 5 signs again are:

  1. Too much “brute force” in memorizing
  2. Very long study hours
  3. Lack of planning or system in study
  4. Low risk taking
  5. Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation

Idea

Take ownership of your personal language learning program.

Actually, this idea of taking ownership of your own program goes far beyond the 5th sign. What does “ownership” here mean? I won’t actually define it here. Instead, let’s compare two students, one who is taking ownership of the process and the other who is becoming a slave to it.

  • Student Atries to do everything that is expected of him.
    • He puts in long hours trying to learn all the vocabulary found in his lessons.
    • He puts a lot of emphasis on being correct and eliminating mistakes.
    • He believes that tests over the materials are important for evaluating his progress in the language so he works hard to do as well as he can on them.
    • He feels validated if he scores well and feels cheated if he gets a low score.
    • He gets frustrated with other students who are holding him back by not being as hard-working as he is.
    • He also gets frustrated because he feels he is putting a lot of work into learning aspects of the language that are not really very important to him.
    • The phrase “if only” is becoming common in his speech when he talks about how his studies are going.
    • All this is lowering his motivation to learn the language.

Versus:

  • Student B picks and chooses from the book the things she wants to learn.
    • She limits how much time she spends doing homework. In fact, she sometimes does only half the assignment.
    • Other times she rushes through the homework (unless it is something that she really thinks is useful).
    • She considers the material secondary to the greater goal of improving her language skills.
    • Her attitude towards tests could be called ambivalent.
    • She sees that they may have value for reviewing material and they are sort of a fun challenge, but she feels it is a waste of her time to put in hours preparing to ‘ace’ them.
    • What she really likes to spend time on are her own language projects that she has designed for herself and practicing with native speakers.
    • She almost, but not quite, sees the formal class requirements as secondary to her language learning goals.
    • Another thing, she rarely even notices how the rest of the class is doing.
    • She tries to be helpful and she pays attention to them out of politeness, but her focus is to catch some information from them and from their interaction with the teacher.
    • If she can make use of what her classmates have learned – that’s a bonus prize.

Questions: Which student has taken ownership of the language learning process? Which one is closer to your own experience? If you find that you have a strong emotional reaction to this comparison, ask yourself ‘Why do I have this reaction to these descriptions?’ Then after you have answered, stop and ask yourself again because there may be a deeper answer that your initial answer overlooks.

I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic here. Do you have a definition of what ‘taking ownership’ of your personal language means, should mean, or could mean? Please reply if you have comments or questions.

Language Learning Tip #14

A quick review; the following are the 5 signs of working hard but not smart as found in the book “Language Learning Difficulties.” Today we look at #5.

  1. Too much “brute force” in memorizing
  2. Very long study hours
  3. Lack of planning or system in study
  4. Low risk taking
  5. Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation

Problem

“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”

Idea

You need to keep working hard but you can probably work more efficiently. The last of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart.

5) Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation.

In some ways, this “mismatch” is unavoidable. Any time you are in a classroom with other people, your preferred learning style may be ignored or neglected. Any time you have a teacher or language helper, that person will not always do what you want to do. If you use a book, it may not match what you want. Even if you just work from a recording of normal Arabic speech, it probably won’t ‘scratch where you itch’. In fact, people regularly talk about things you are not interested in, or use words you don’t know, or speak too fast, or fail to read your mind, or …, or…

Whatever the nature of the mismatch, it can cause frustration for the learner. As I see it, there are only 3 possible remedies for this:

  1. Change the program to something that more closely matches your preferences, OR
  2. Be more flexible, OR
  3. Take ownership of your own learning.

First, I will briefly address the second remedy; be flexible. Many language learning studies have found a high correlation with good language learning and flexible personalities. If you have high walls of stubbornness, self-centeredness, or self-protection, you will limit what you can receive. If you tend to think ‘there is a right way and a wrong way for doing anything,’ you will be constantly frustrated. But we can easily excuse and rationalize our inflexibility.

  • “Well, I’m old and just a little set in my ways.”
  • “I know how I learn, and this just isn’t it.” (May also be a sign of a real learning disability)
  • “I just can’t … “
  • “I feel forced to ____ and I’d rather ____.”
  • “I can’t perform when …”
  • “I don’t see why I need to do this stuff.”

If you find yourself saying these things to yourself or to others, it may be a sign that flexibility is a problem and that you are working hard but not smart.

Language Learning Tip #13

Problem

“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”

 

Idea

You need to keep working hard but you can probably work more efficiently if you take more risks. Another one of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart is: Low Risk-Taking

You ask:

How can low risk-taking be not smart?!

Isn’t it unwise in life to take risks?

Why should language learning be different?

To answer that, let me give you some examples of low-risk behavior in language learning:

  • I study silently because I feel silly talking to myself.
  • I study alone because I don’t like others to hear my mistakes.
  • I stay home because I don’t want to feel awkward knocking on a neighbor’s door.
  • I don’t bring any Arabic materials with me on a visit because no one asked me to.
  • I look up words in my dictionary even after a native speaker has explained the meaning to me because I don’t trust that I really understood the word unless I see a translation.
  • I don’t record my local friends because I feel it is intrusive.
  • I don’t do my own language projects because I am afraid I will not have time to study for tests.
  • I don’t imitate the methods that more successful students use because those methods seem strange to me.
  • I avoid speaking in Arabic in some settings because I feel anxious and nervous.
  • I often find myself pretending that I understand something because I am too embarrassed to ask them to repeat it again.
  • I let other things crowd out my study and practice time because I feel those things give me more psychological satisfaction. (I feel more competent when I do those other things.)
  • I study calmly.
  • I reassure myself by asserting that most of my language-learning problems are because of factors outside of my control.

Each one of these behaviors is motivated by a desire to lower risk – psychological risk. There is a lot of research that shows that language learning is very threatening psychologically. My experience in the field confirms this to me over and over. However, language learners consistently discount this “threat.” It seems too silly that we as mature adults would feel threatened by trying to learn another language. Some in the language teaching profession go to great lengths to try to minimize the feelings of threat that students are exposed to. They seek to provide “a secure nest” for learners. They teach instructors to speak “in soothing tones.” They paint the walls in relaxing shades and play soft music in the background. They assign each student an alter ego, a fake name and personality, so that every silly mistake is made by that “personality” and not by the learner himself. The list goes on and on.

My view is that while those things can be helpful, it is more strategic to encourage the students to take risks and to challenge them. This approach has some negative consequences, but it is more realistic. However, ultimately, it is you – the learner – who must take the risks that will enable you to move forward at a maximum pace.

One practical thing. The first low-risk behavior I mentioned above is studying silently. Change this one thing over the course of the next month and see what happens. If you are learning to play the keyboard, do you unplug it and practice silently? Do you remove the strings from your child’s violin before he practices? Do you learn a sport by merely visualizing yourself doing it? Do you learn to paint portraits by waving your brushes in the air? Then how in the world do you think you can improve speaking by studying silently?

Language Learning Tip #12

Problem #6

“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”

Idea

You need to keep working hard but you can probably work more efficiently. The first of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart.

1) Too much “brute force” in memorizing

We know “brute force” in moving a heavy object is sometimes the quickest way. If you have a heavy box, you bend down, grab it and lift with your legs, right? But what if you have a thousand heavy boxes to move up 5 flights of stairs? What do you do then? It might help to stop and think a bit before you tackle the problem. (Hey! I don’t have time to think! Can’t you see I have a thousand boxes to move up these stairs!)

Usually, your most creative ideas will come to you after you have lugged a few of those boxes up 5 flights of stairs. You soon realize your limitations. But you have resources to draw on. Take inventory of your resources and your strategies. Seriously, sit down with a piece of paper and make notes on what you do to learn Arabic and why you do these things. Then, once you have outlined what you actually do, try to take a brand new look at what you are doing.

  1. Be Creative — You break down the memory problem into pieces and think about the most efficient ways to do learn what you want to learn. You take an inventory of your resources, you experiment, you approach your tasks from new angles. What kinds of things do you remember easily? Bring that type of memory work into play with Arabic.
  2. Research — If you have never done this job before, find out from people who have. Ask successful learners what their days look like. Don’t be afraid to ask them about details like why, how long, what steps, what works for them in specific areas. Also, ask about their weaknesses in memory and learning. This will help you to get a better understanding of their whole approach.
  3. Observe — Especially observe yourself. What are you wasting time with? When does your mind wander? Ask yourself what have you learned quickly and easily and how did that actually happen?
  4. Enjoy — Find something in your work to enjoy. Fatigue and discouragement are kept away by fun activities. Look at your study habits now and ask, “What is one thing I can do to make this more fun?”
  5. Specify — Use the right tools for the specific job. For example, if you want to put something in your long term memory, you cannot use the tool of cramming.

Finally, I would bet that many of you have had or have heard some ideas about language learning and memory that you thought you might try out, but now as you think about it, you realize you have never actually tried them. You have actually kept your old familiar habits because they sort of work for you. They are giving you a measure of success so you are not ready to give them up just yet. This reminds me of the next sign I want to address, which is #4, “Low risk taking.”

(By the way, I know that sign #2 is supposed to come after sign #1. So why am I skipping #’s 2 and 3 and doing sign #4 next? Well, why not? Does doing things out of order bother you? Does it upset your balance? This may be a sign that you are in fact a LOW RISK TAKER!)

Language Learning Tip #11

Problem

I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.

Idea

There could be many reasons for this. Some of them are out of your control. For example, you cannot easily change your natural aptitude. Some people are just more naturally gifted in different areas of language learning and it takes practice to develop those gifts.

However, what often happens is that people try to learn a language by “brute force.” They work hard, but they are often spinning their wheels or running around in circles. A book entitled Language Learning Difficulties listed 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart. Or more accurately, you could say they are not working efficiently, because not working “smart” is usually a matter of using the wrong tool for the job. Students have learned and studied many things before trying to learn Arabic, so naturally he or she brings their learning strategies and tools with them to tackle Arabic. Unfortunately, this often is like the man who was a successful engineer so he thought to solve his marriage problems with his engineering know-how. There is no recognition of the nature of the task. And many times we don’t even realize what we are doing. Anyway, here are the 5 signs.

  1. Too much “brute force” in memorizing
  2. Very long study hours
  3. Lack of planning or system in study
  4. Low risk taking
  5. Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation

Do you see any of these signs in operation with your study? Maybe it is time to re-evaluate your efforts. In the coming messages we will look at each of these 5 signs and make some suggestions about what you might consider changing.

Language Learning Tip #10

Problem

I read too slow. In fact, it is so slow, it is embarrassing!

Idea

Reading is a skill that is acquired in stages. At every stage, until you are quite advanced, I advise the same thing:

Practice reading aloud.

First, I want to say something that will most likely make no sense at first.

Many people read slowly because they are trying to read too quickly.

In the last message I talked about the stages of reading as decoding. There is, of course, much more to reading than decoding. Mental interaction with a text is crucial, but that’s another topic. When it comes to speed, decoding and processing is the key.

Question: How do I get the practice I need to move on to the next stage?

 Answer: Practice a lot of easy reading.

Practicing difficult readings may help your vocabulary and analytical skills, but it will not help you to increase your speed much. However, finding easy reading in Arabic is almost, but not completely, impossible.1 Nonetheless, you can do “easy” reading by re-reading texts, dialogues and stories that you have already learned in previous lessons. Read these texts aloud without looking up anything. Or, read familiar stories (childrens’ stories, Bible stories, etc.) Because, if you know the story already, your mind does not have to bother with trying to figure out the meaning. Certainly you will encounter words or expressions that are new. Don’t stop. Just keep on reading. The best texts to use for increasing reading speed would have about 95 to 100% of the words already known.

Why read aloud?

Reading aloud is one way of making sure you are actually reading with understanding. When you read aloud, your intonation, pauses and phrasing will give you immediate feedback regarding your level of understanding. When your natural phrasing breaks down, you sense immediately that you have lost track of the meaning.

Why read slowly?

If you are reading slowly enough to understand, you will be reading phrases instead of words. The meaning in a text (or in speech) is not found at a word level. Meaning is communicated at a phrase level and in “lexical chunks.” For example, “the” has no meaning by itself. “horse” is an abstract category of animals. “black” is a color. “big” is a size. But “the big black horse” is a phrase that means something in the context of a story. When you read aloud at a reasonable pace, your eye will read the whole phrase “the big black horse” and make sense of it. If you read “the big” and then work to decode “black” before you move to the next word “horse.” You lose the meaning of the phrase. Many people, in a rush to read faster and faster, are decoding one word at a time. They read and say a word before they even look at the next word; then they immediately try to say the following word without even thinking about the meaning or how the 3 words relate to each other. If you want to see how this phrasing works, take a familiar text and draw vertical dividing lines between the phrases. Then look at each phrase as a unit, and say it as a unit. This is how the mind reads most effectively.

And so what is the connection between decoding the written words and decoding meaning?

As your number of “sight words” increases, it becomes easier to group them into phrases. As your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar increases, you begin to anticipate what the next words could be. As the decoding of the words becomes automatic and subconscious, decoding meaning takes your attention. Efficient reading is by gestalt.2 This process is the same for reading in any and every language. It just takes more time and practice in Arabic because the writing system is different.3

 


 

  1. Believe it or not, the Kaliila wa Dimna stories we use are actually simplified. Your Al-Kitaab texts, however, are not simplified in any way. The tasks you are given in Al-Kitaab are sometimes simple, but the texts themselves were not created for people learning Arabic as a foreign language. This is done intentionally as part of their educational philosophy (one with which I disagree).
  2. “gestalt” — a structure, configuration, or pattern so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.
  3. Further evidence of these phenomena is the fact that Arabic writing was first designed as a kind of short-hand. The letters were only written to remind the reader of things they already knew. That’s why early Arabic not only had no vowels, it had no dots either. Meaning was found not in decoding the text syllable by syllable (no vowels or dots means no written syllables) or even word by word (without dots a simple word could mean girl, house, between, distinguished, or nonsense sounds beeb, neeb, teet, teen, neet, yeet, neyyet, teyyen, etc …) Meaning is found in phrases.

Language Learning Tip #09

Problem

I read too slow. In fact, it is so slow, it is embarrassing!

Idea

Reading is a skill that is acquired in stages. At every stage, until you are quite advanced, I advise the same thing:

Practice reading aloud.

First, I want to say something that will most likely make no sense at first.

Many people read slowly because they are trying to read too quickly.

“What?! Then if I try to read slowly, will I read more quickly? And if I eat more, will I lose weight? And if I’m nasty to people, will I become nicer? You had better explain yourself, Tim.”

Alright, be patient, and all will become clear.
Consider reading as visual decoding. (Just as listening is aural decoding)

Observe the following stages of decoding:

  • Stage 1– Learning to associate sounds with letters. (b, c, k, l, . . .)
  • Stage 2– Learning to quickly decode the sound combinations to create word parts. This is reading at the syllable level. (ba, lo, ap, at, lip, pil, top, pit . . .)
  • Stage 3 — Putting syllables together to make words. (paper, radio, come, …)
  • Stage 4 — Whole word recognition for common “sight words”, (words you can read quickly without noticing the letters and syllables). (In English for example — on, in, you, never, like, to, would)
  • Stage 5 — Increasing your sight words from a few dozen to several hundreds.
  • Stage 6 — Increasing your sight words further while learning to see “chunks” (meaningful phrases of 2-4 words)
  • Stage 7 — Predicting the coming words and phrases before your eyes even see them.
  • Stage 8 — Reading whole lines at a glance. Your mind can be engaged in things other than reading. At this stage you can pronounce what you just saw (reading aloud) while your eyes move on to the next bit. You can evaluate and consider the words you read without stopping. You can interact with the thoughts expressed without stopping your reading. You automatically sense the emotions conveyed as you read.

You will notice from these descriptions that the powers of the mind in this area can be amazing. You may have also figured out that I do not believe you can skip any of the stages. It may seem that your classmates are at a higher stage than you are. That does not mean they skipped a stage. It means one of two things: 1) Their natural talents enabled them to get through a stage more quickly, or 2) They practiced the skill more than you did until they became proficient and were able to move on.1

So, two questions arise. How do I get the practice I need to move on to the next stage? And what is the connection between decoding the written words and decoding meaning? Those are excellent questions. In fact they are so excellent, I can’t answer them yet. But let’s think about the questions more and let’s bring what we know to them.

How can I learn to read quickly when everything I am supposed to read is difficult? Am I being asked to do stage 4 things when my actual reading level is only stage 2? What about understanding as I read? I can’t even read one line without using a dictionary. And Arabic is really different; it seems that English speakers can learn quite quickly to decode and read in Spanish, for example, without understanding anything of what they read.2 Are the stages really the same for every language? And finally, what is the connection between the advice in the first paragraph and these questions?

My answer: Sorry, I’ll see if I can address these matters next time.

 

 


 

  1. Of course, actually the stages overlap somewhat and one second you are back at stage 2 and the next you are processing at a stage 4.
  2. But without understanding they will grind to a halt somewhere in Stage 4.