Learning a second language


I was an English language teacher before becoming a professional Chinese to English translator. That doesn’t make what follows right, but I think the science is on my side.

Grammar versus structure

1. Never ever use a grammar-based approach. Learn language “structures”, but not grammar. Learn structures with a teacher or textbook or by recognising them for yourself. Your brain will often do it automatically for you.

Anyone who wants to teach you grammar is on the wrong track.

Now let me qualify. It may sometimes be useful to know the differences between verbs, nouns and adjectives. When your vocabulary is ahead of your ability to decode structures, then you’ve already made good strides in the language. So listen more, read more, speak more (and ask questions to clarify).

Grammar is for linguists, not for people wanting to speak a second language. You don’t need to be a mechanic to drive a car. You don’t need to know the past perfect tense or the pluperfect tense (and grammarians like to argue about that) to know what ‘I had arrived before she left’ means.

Minimal Pair (MP)

2. Your second language will probably have sounds that are not in your language. Your conscious brain probably won’t hear the difference. You need a good teacher to help you hear, then produce, the sounds. This can involve learning new ways to place lips and tongue.

To hear and produce the sounds, a “minimal pair” (MP) is the ONLY way IMHO. An MP is two items which sound the same to a non-native speaker, but are very different for a native speaker.

An MP sets up two items which are pretty close ie minimally different. Your aim is first to hear the difference, then reproduce the difference.

In a typical MP session the teacher writes down the MP. It can be two sounds, words, tones (for tonal languages), phrases or sentences. The teacher says one of the MP at “random” (I don’t believe in random) and the student points to the one they hear. AFTER the student can hear the difference correctly, the student says them at “random” and the teacher points to what they hear. After the teacher can hear correctly what the student is trying to say, then you’ve probably made a good start. It takes patience and some native speakers who aren’t familiar with MPs cannot believe that you cannot hear the difference or speak the difference.


3.  Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

Ten minutes working hard on one sentence again and again is much better than twenty minutes on 40 sentences.

Here’s a good session: listen to the sentence a few times. Your software must allow you to slow it down if you need to. You should break it up into smaller pieces and listen again and again, trying to figure it out.

Then and only then, check the written copy. NOW it’s time for you to speak. Listen once more then speak the item. Listen again to see if you think it sounds right (once you are a little advanced and you’ve mastered MPs for the items in the sentence, this should be ok to do without the teacher). Listen and speak the item again.

If it’s a sentence you might want to start with just the first few words. Repeat these, and each time through, add the next word or phrase. Listen/speak. Listen/speak.

Let me say again, ten minutes on one sentence can actually be very valuable.

Don’t skimp on the speaking, even if it sounds like a waste of time. One day you’ll find yourself speaking the same words or, more importantly, “structures” and sentences you’ve made up, and you won’t know where it has come from. It will be perfect and your brain will have figured it out for itself. I once got great marks in a grammar-based test without having a clue about the grammar. My brain knew what “sounded” right.


4. This can be more tricky than you think.

Reading is an active process. Your brain guesses what it expects then you read the rest of a sentence to see if you were right: it’s automatic. The aim is to keep up the pace. Force yourself on a bit to extract some meaning. Don’t worry about every little vocab item or confusing structure. Think of reading a pretty bad Google Translate piece; you can get the idea, even though there are gaps. What you are aiming for is fluency, NOT word for word slow translation in your head. If you’ve done speed-reading training you will have a good start. Once again, your brain will be learning more than you think.

You’ll reach a new plateau; you’ll level off and think progress has stopped, then suddenly there will be another jump. This applies to listening too.


5. Revision is key.

Time spent on solid revision is time well spent. The more you progress, the greater the ratio of revision to new learning you need. Set yourself a revision cycle and stick to it. Best is to revise new stuff a few minutes after you learn it, then a few hours later or the next day, then a week, then a month etc. Keep a notebook and make sure you use it.


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