Lazy language learning

I’ve realised that I’m a lazy language learner. I don’t spend every spare moment studying and practising languages, and don’t usually try to learn as much of a language as possible in a short time. When I go for a walk I like to be in the moment sensing what there is to sense, rather than listening to language lessons or podcasts, though I do do that occasionally. I also like to just think and daydream at times.

If I’m planning a trip to another country, or expect to meet people who speak a different language, I’ll learn some of it before then. For example, I spent two months learning Italian before going on holiday to Italy. I was able to have very basic conversations and could understand and read the language to some extent, but was nowhere near fluent. Otherwise I generally learn languages out of interest, and because I feel a connection to them, to where they’re spoken and/or to people who speak them. I spend a lot of time listening to online radio, podcasts, audiobooks and other audio material, reading texts aloud, learning songs and poems, and sometimes writing blog posts and having conversations in speech or writing. I’m usually in no hurry and try to absorb the languages as much as possible, and look up words and grammatical constructions I can’t work out from context. If I find some aspects of learning tedious, I try a different approach. After quite a few years I might get to the stage where I can understand and read almost everything, and speak and write a language fairly well, though my listening and reading tend to better than my speaking, which doesn’t bother me at all.

I’m interested in all languages and in the process of language learning and acquisition, however if I don’t feel any particular connection with of a language and had no plans to visit places where it’s spoken, I don’t usually get very far with it. I’ve learnt a few languages to try out language courses and chose ones I hadn’t studied before, and soon gave up on them for these reasons.

When I’m learning classical pieces on the guitar I find some parts of them more difficult than others. One approach I use is to play those parts over and over until they are embedded in my muscle memory, though this can be somewhat tedious. Another approach I use is to play them slowly note by note observing where my fingers are and where they need to be and anticipating each position in my mind. In this way I find out which particular bits I need to focus on the most. When playing a whole piece I tend to worry about the tricky bits and expect to get them wrong, which I often do, though when I manage not to think about them, they sometimes go smoothly.

This step-by-step approach might work with some aspects of languages. For example, if you’re finding particular words difficult to pronounce, you could try breaking them down into phonemes and working out where the problem is. Then you could concentrate on getting the problematic sound(s) right.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning, Music.

5 Responses to Lazy language learning

  1. Andrew says:

    Sounds to me like what you’re saying is: it has to be fun.

    That is, if you aren’t motivated to do it either because you enjoy it or because you know you’re going to need it when you visit the country where it’s spoken, you’re not going to do it. Is that right?

    This is what I keep reiterating to people over and over: make it fun. Do this by using popular media in the language in question that you will enjoy, e.g. movies, books, TV shows, newspapers, etc. Pick stuff that you find entertaining and/or interesting, that’s in your target language, and use that to learn the language. Forget the dry textbooks and boring classes. You’ll give up on those.

    I swear that’s why most people who try to learn a language fail, because they do it in such a way that it’s not fun, or it stops being fun, thereby resulting in them quitting. Make it fun and you’re guaranteed to learn that language, I promise. It might take you 6 months, it might take you 6 years, but I guarantee you you’ll do it.


  2. Simon says:

    Exactly Andrew – it needs to be fun, interesting and engaging. Some people talk a lot about how the process of learning a language can be tedious and repetitive, and seem almost to relish how hard they’re working. I think of this as a kind of macho, gung-ho style, that involves wrestling a language into submission, ignoring any parts of it that aren’t immediately relevant, and trying to get to the destination as quickly as possible.

    There’s nothing wrong with this if it works for you, and I’m not criticising anybody’s methods or approaches, but such an approach doesn’t work for me.

  3. David Eger says:

    I like your attitude. My very simplistic take on learning languages is that, to learn a language, you must either *need* to learn it or *want* to learn it. To learn it well, it helps if both are true.

  4. Enrico says:

    I personally think that the “lazy” language learning you mention is actually the best. Learning a language should be something you do for the journey, more than for the end result. If you just want to know the language, you’ll either never really learn it, or you’ll be really miserable on the way there.
    If you just enjoy learning itself, on the other hand, you almost don’t realize that what you’re doing is “learning”. Especially if, like Andrew rightfully said, you do it with material you like, it’s more fun than learning. And that means a lot.
    Just comparing the two situations gives a disturbing image: if you learn a language because you want to know it (and don’t actually like the learning itself), the moment of your satisfaction is years in the future, and every day preceding that is a hurdle and a pain in the nether regions.
    If you enjoy the journey for what it is, on the other hand, you have a big moment of satisfaction (the one when you realize you “know” the language, as illusory as that knowledge is) preceded by many similar, if smaller, moments every day. Much better, isn’t it?

  5. I second your thoughts on “lazy learning”. Language acquisition is inherently a real fun activity provided it is allowed to take place gradually, organically, and in a natural flow instead of employing artificial tools to force it into our brains. The biggest enemy of today’s language enthusiast is the big old grammar book. No, grammar by itself is not bad. It is a very useful framework of rules that holds the language together. It gives that distinct shape to any language and is essential for any speaker.

    Where one goes wrong, however, is when this framework of rules becomes the language itself. Let’s take an example, our Constitution. It’s nothing but a collection of all possible laws and rules the entire country is meant to be following. It is the Constitution that governs how we do things and what happens to us if we do things that are tagged to be in its violation. However, to be the good citizen that you are and abide by the Constitution’s laws and rules, you don’t need to commit those acts and sections to memory, do you? You instinctively know that it is illegal to steal even without reading about the constitutional definition of stealing and the laws governing this act! You know you have a fundamental right to vote despite having never learned what section and act of the Constitution states that! We, however, do fall back on the Constitution when we need a more accurate reference, e.g., inside the Parliament, or a courtroom.

    The same goes for grammar. We need it for reference when we wish to understand something. We don’t need to spend hours cramming up those conjugations and prepositions. These things should be allowed to build up organically inside our heads which is only possible if we have the “fun” approach, i.e., watch a lot of movies or shows and read a lot of books in the target language! Give yourself time and you’ll realize that at some point, you develop a knack for the right grammar. At that point, without knowing the correct conjugation, you can make out what “just doesn’t sound right”. This is how we acquired our mother tongue. Grammar only comes along later when we are already fluent. grammar is only meant to perfect your structure once you have the language flowing off your mouth freely.

    By the way, did you note that I use the phrase, “language acquisition” instead of “language learning”? There is a big, big difference and am sure you understand what it is!