How to Study Foreign Languages

This is a sequel to a post I wrote recently, entitled “Why Study Foreign Languages?” in which I explained why it is necessary to learn foreign languages in today’s world.  Now we will look at how to study foreign languages and examine some of the related mechanics.  I taught French (language and literature) for many years before becoming a full-time school administrator and I have a working knowledge of Spanish.  I have also lived and studied in France.

Learning a foreign language is not easy.  It calls for motivation, serious commitment and daily practice with the target language if you intend to reach an acceptable level of conversational fluency in a reasonable time.  Individual learning styles vary, so you must find the style(s) and methods that work best for you.  What works for one person may not work well for another.

Your purpose for learning the foreign language is very important.  This will determine which second language you choose to learn and how you approach that challenge.  Your strategy and linguistic focus will be different depending on whether you are, for instance, a student preparing for some kind of proficiency test in the target language, a traveller  preparing to spend some time in a foreign country and who needs basic language skills enabling her to get by on a daily basis, asking for directions, shopping, ordering food, and so on, or a businessman who needs to interact with foreign counterparts.

Depending on your purpose and your situation you have to establish personal language goals and methods of study.  Perhaps you just want to achieve basic conversational fluency in a year or so, or perhaps you would like to attain near native fluency in a few years.   You can enrol at an institution that offers foreign languages, you can hire a private tutor, take online or traditional language courses, teach yourself or live for a while in a country where your second language is spoken.  There are other possibilities as well.  However, I want to stress that, no matter which method of study you choose, you will have to do a lot of the learning on your own.  This is a basic fact in the study of foreign languages.  You have to memorize grammar, vocabulary, phrases, and language patterns.  Nobody can do that for you.

There are four skills that one must master in every language: namely, listening, speaking, reading and writing.  Little children learn language skills in that order.  These four skills must be practised diligently in order to enhance progress.  You need to listen to native speakers and fluent learners on a regular basis.  Listen to your teachers and radio and T.V. presentations in the foreign language.  Go online, watch video clips, movies, listen to audio recordings and music.  At first you will not understand much, but your ears will become attuned to the sound of the foreign language.  Try to get the gist of the stories.  If you persevere you will gradually understand more and more.  Speak the language with native speakers or advanced learners whenever you can.  Learn standard pronunciation.  Practice is vital.  Read books, magazines, stories and newspapers in the target language.  Not just your course materials.  Go online and surf the internet in your second or third language.   Your understanding will improve as you increase your vocabulary.  Get accustomed to writing in the foreign language.  This will improve your grammar and vocabulary if you pay close attention to the subsequent corrections.  Correspond via e-mail with a native speaker in your age group or join a relevant foreign language club or association.

Opinions vary, but I share the view that you can achieve basic conversational fluency by learning the most commonly used 3000 words in most languages.  If you increase your active vocabulary to somewhere between 5000 and 9,000 words you would approach the fluency of native speakers.  Of course this would take time and dedication.

There are different views on how vocabulary should be learned.  Many linguists recommend repetition of each foreign word to be memorized and the corresponding English word.  Others devise mnemonics or memory techniques to link each foreign word to the corresponding English word.  I generally prefer repetition.  It is best to learn vocabulary in context rather than in random or unrelated lists.  Recall is easier in context.  So you can learn vocabulary (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.) relative to shopping, sports, school, daily routines, city life, country life, jobs, and so on, more easily by keeping the words in context.  Dictionaries, flash  cards, grammar books, phrase books, note books, and electronic translators are extremely useful language learning tools.

Learning grammar enables you to understand and construct sentences better in your second language.  One of the best ways to learn grammar is to pick it up in a reading context.  Read and translate paragraph sized sections of text in the foreign language, paying close attention to the grammar.  Learn the most common regular and irregular verbs in the present, past and future tenses as well.

A foreign language should not be seen as a subject.  It is a vibrant, living means of communication used by millions of people every day.  You must practise it daily.  Challenge yourself! Talk to yourself in the foreign language sometimes when you are alone.  Talk about what you read, saw or heard, for instance.  Then write it.  You will make mistakes but eventually you will correct them.  Nobody speaks a language perfectly, so take heart.  Finally, steep yourself in the culture of the people who speak your second language.  You will eventually be able to think, to some extent, in the foreign language you study.

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Student Perseverance

Perseverance is a necessary trait which is possessed by all successful students.  Perseverance speaks to a refusal to give up the pursuit of a goal despite attendant difficulties.  It involves the ability to see failure as a positive learning experience and empowers the student to try and try again until the learning goal is attained.  Perseverant students understand the value of hard work, hone their problem-solving skills and take responsibility for their own academic progress.  They do not make excuses or blame others for failure.

Student perseverance is firmly rooted in the domain of social and emotional learning which I have explored in a previous blog post.  It stems directly from three of CASEL’s five social and emotional learning competencies, namely, Self-Awareness, Self-Management and Responsible Decision-Making.  At times it even includes the other two: Social Awareness and Relationship Skills, especially in building academically productive relationships with teachers, parents and other students.  Some aspects of student perseverance may also be socio-cultural in origin especially as they relate to ethnic and socio-economic variables among students.  As a reminder, CASEL is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.  It is the leading organization in the U.S. for advancing the development of academic, social and emotional competence for all students.

It should be clear by now that academic success does not depend on cognitive ability alone.  It is also dependent on social-emotional and socio-cultural factors such as perseverance and associated student qualities which include motivation, patience, focus, persistence, resourcefulness, resilience, and a high value attached to education.  In the mid-1990s, Daniel Goleman, a co-founder of CASEL, published the book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”  This book allowed people to understand the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) which can be seen as a measurement of emotional learning.

Perseverant students are easy to identify at school.  They work hard to improve their grades and they understand that things which are worthwhile are never easy.  They set goals and commit to them, never giving in to frustration or fearing failure.  They think positively and firmly believe that they can achieve anything they set their minds to do.  They ask for help when this is necessary; often seeking assistance from teachers and more knowledgeable peers.  They show initiative in finding solutions for academic or learning problems and they often work collaboratively with other motivated students.  They are not afraid of challenges and they ignore distractions.  They know that understanding increases in proportion to the effort they are willing to put into their work and they enjoy the satisfaction that comes from mastering difficult assignments.  Some even ask teachers for additional work.

Teachers and parents can foster student perseverance by talking to them about the benefits of perseverance and informing them about famous people who personify perseverance, such as Thomas Edison, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.  They must have high expectations for their charges and support their efforts to learn in every way.  They must get students to understand that learning extends far beyond purely cognitive skills.

Nowadays too many students try to avoid hard work.  They expect learning to be easy and they are all too willing to give up when the going gets tough.  They complain that academic work is boring and difficult.  We need to teach them social and emotional learning skills and not just curriculum content.  Student perseverance is a sorely needed characteristic in this scenario.

Limitations of Teacher Interviews

Given the fact that teaching is widely considered to be a vocation, interviewers have to be careful to select the right kind of candidates for the classroom.  The panel of interviewers needs to screen applicants thoroughly in order to advance teaching and learning in the classroom.  They need the skills that would enable them to accurately assess each applicant’s subject knowledge, instructional capacity, commitment or work ethic, and ability to fit comfortably into the particular school culture and add value to it.

This is a tall order, and since interviewing is not a science, interviewing panels can make mistakes at times and hire the wrong person for the job.  Here are some of the limitations of teacher interviews, culled from my own experience as an interviewer and reports from other principals.

Many candidates know how to prepare for interviews.  They know the types of questions they will have to respond to and they rehearse the answers beforehand.  If , in addition, they possess very good communication and social skills, they may overly impress the interviewing panel.

All interviewers know that some applicants have the gift of the gab.  They are extremely persuasive speakers and they do excellent interviews.  However, some of them turn out to be very unsatisfactory or ineffective teachers.  The panel has the responsibility of separating the talkers from the doers and this can be a very difficult task.  The panel must have the expertise and the experience to achieve this or students will be short-changed in the classroom.

Teacher interviews reveal a candidate’s personality, to some extent, and subject knowledge and training.  They do not predict, however, how well that candidate will work if given the job.  They do not reveal subsequent commitment levels, work ethic, and ability to work collaboratively with colleagues.

All interviewers on the panel may not be experts in the subject or administrative area in question and may not ask the right questions.   They may also be unable to properly evaluate the candidates’ answers to certain questions.  This renders the selection of the best candidate more difficult and uncertain.

Human nature being what it is, interviewers can select candidates according to very subjective, biased or political criteria at times.  The leader of the interviewing panel or a panellist with a dominant personality may also influence the selection of a particular applicant.

Interviews can be time-consuming and tiring for the interviewers especially when there is a long list of candidates.  This may cause inconsistency  or possible lapses in judgment.

Some candidates are too nervous and anxious to answer the questions well.  They may forget vital information and perform poorly during the interview.

It can be argued that the limitations of teacher interviews reduce their reliability at times.  Interviewing panels need to ask additional and more probing questions to elicit further information from applicants, and check with references and principals from the applicants’ past employment when this is relevant.