Today I came across an interesting article on Overlearning, via Polyglottery, which argues that it’s better to learn a relatively small amount thoroughly than to try to learn as much as possible of a language.

The author’s main point is that some language learners don’t repeat words and phrases enough before moving on to the next ones. This results in them half-knowing quite a lot, but unable to produce what they know smoothly and fluently.

A better way is apparently to repeat things many times, then practice using them with native speakers as frequently as possible. In this way, you are able to produce words and phrases without conscious thought – they just flow out when you need them.

The author also says that you can pick up the grammar by learning how to use words and sentence patterns in various situations. You may not know why a particular inflexion is needed, but you will be able to apply it when necessary.

This makes a lot of sense to me and sounds similar to the Pimsleur method.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

5 Responses to Overlearning

  1. Polly says:

    That realization was a real benefit to me. When I was younger, all my language learning efforts went into learning endless declensions and verb conjugations of every know type. And I could never figure out why I wasn’t getting fluent when others seem to gain fluency with far, far less effort. Grammar is important, but, after learning a few common examples of verb and noun declensions/conjugations, vocabulary, common idiomatic expressions, and PRACTICE should be the focus.
    Then I won’t just know ABOUT the language.

  2. Aaron B. Davis says:

    That seems to be my problem with learning languages. I focus far too much on learning every little detail of the grammar that practice and vocab kind of fall by the way side. I remember in High School, by the time I had gotten to fourth year Spanish I had completely lost interest, but I wasn’t the kind of person to skip. Because I wasn’t practicing, I had gotten a couple of Ds on exams (which is odd for me, especially in language).

    The teacher offered to speak with me and try to figure out hwy I was suddenly doing so poorly. When she went through all the various verb forms and patterns and whatnot, I aced it. When she quizzed me on vocab, I failed miserably: I had barely studied it at all.

    I had a similar experience with Modern Hebrew at University. I learned all the grammar rules — to the point where nearly all of 301 was boring because it was primarily grammar review — and this time managed to learn most of the vocab pretty well (though I am convinced the root systems makes this easier). However, I couldn’t speak it very well. Granted, the focus was on reading comprehension and writing, and the later courses on analysis — I guess they figured that if you really wanted to *speak* Hebrew, you would go to Israel and take Ulpan — but still, most people could speak it better than I.

  3. I’ve found that not speaking the language often really does throw me off as far as how smoothly I can speak–and this with over 8 years of familiarity with Spanish.

    Now, I do feel like I can read and write extremely well–it’s just the thinking-on-my-feet part that is a challenge. So I’ve been trying to meet with someone every so often to speak, so I don’t lose what I learned.

    Now this is a question for those of you who have been expatriates for any real length of time–do you ever feel like your native language is affected by using it less? Is it truly possible as an adult to forget, or does that really only happen to small children?

  4. Oh…you might also be interested in reading about the Total Physical Response method of language learning. My first year of Spanish was by that method, and it focuses very hard on the vocab and a good bit of the grammar you just take in subconsciously; it’s only explained later after you’ve gotten used to hearing and using it.

  5. Simon says:

    Minstrel – it is possible to become less competent in your native language if you spend a lot of time living in foreign parts and don’t use your native language very often. You probably won’t keep up with the latest slang, new words and new meanings of existing words. You might also start substituting foreign words for words in your own language that you can’t immediately recall, and to use foreign words for things you don’t know who to express in your native language.

    There’s an article about this on Omniglot written by a French friend who lives in Brighton.

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