A useful tip for learning a language

When I was teaching English in Rome I took a lot of interest in reading the literature on how we can best learn a language, and how we can best help our students to learn a language. There are lots of different approaches out there but most schools teach an approach which is a mix of grammar, role play, word games and spoken exercises — a modern-day version of the grammar translation approach. (One exception to this is the Berlitz school which uses the direct method). The school I worked at used the grammar translation approach.

One of the most common problems that beginner students faced when learning English was that they would feel like they just didn’t have enough vocabulary available to deal with the role-play exercises. Anyone who has tried learning a language will know the feeling of wanting to say something but just not knowing the translation of the words you need to use.

Well, here is a useful tip that I used to find very helpful for my students, since it would train them to think of clever ways to make do with a limited amount of vocabulary:

set yourself the challenge of explaining a story or role-playing an episode with a very small number of words in your own language. (I would suggest writing down a list of about 50 words in your own language so that you can be strict with yourself on which words you can use.)

Here is a variation which helps you to see how you can be creative with your current stock of vocabulary in your new language. The trick is easy: you will tend to be more creative with the way you use the words in your own language since you don’t need to also worry about remembering the translations, grammatical adjustments, pronunciation and all other things which make a learner seize up when faced with a language exercise.

  1. Write down all the words you know by heart in your new language.
  2. Write down the translations into your own language.
  3. Try to do your exercise or role play in your own language using only the words you have written.
  4. Do it a couple of times and then try it again in your new language.

Nothing too magical, really. Just an instance of a generally good principle:

simplify whenever you can, breaking problems down into bite-size chunks.

It’s one of the reasons I find LISP so fascinating too, since it incorporates this principle into its basic elements and allows you to build up your programming language to meet the problems you are trying to solve.

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