A Note on Methodology and Tools for Language Learning


When learning a new language, choosing the right textbook or program is really important. The wrong book can lead to frustration, confusion, or cause you to give up entirely. If you’re taking a formal class, a really good teacher might be able to make any book work, but when you’re learning on your own that book might be the difference between success and failure.

So today I thought I would explain the reasons why I chose the book I initially planned to use, why I switched, and why I like the new one better. My reasons for preferring one source over another may not work for you, you may go about learning in a different way, but you might still be able to take something from the way I considered my options. And, the whole discussion can relate back to some observations I made about lesson 2, so you get some videos too. Bonus!

Now, if you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you know that when I began this crazy adventure in blogging I was using a book called Colloquial Scottish Gaelic, and you know that after only a week of working with it, I suddenly switched to something called Teach Yourself Gaelic. If you hadn’t been paying attention… well, now you know. You should try to keep up though.

The reasons I decided to drop CSG are many, but it mainly comes down to the fact that the book was obviously intended to be used in a classroom setting, and I was learning on my own. I was doing a great job of memorizing phrases, and I knew what the meant, but I couldn’t tell you what I was saying. I had no idea which word meant what or how to formulate a sentence. I couldn’t plug new vocabulary into basic structures. I was just learning a semantics without the structure that underlies it. And without tests and grades, I wasn’t retaining anything. I needed a book that would teach me how to make sentences, not recite them.

so I went looking, and I came across a simple little book called Teach Yourself Gaelic. Now, this is actually an entire course, with two textbooks and audio files corresponding to units in the main book. (You can find the whole course on Amazon), but I’m not bothering with all that. I’m just using the little grammar book by Boyd Robertson that goes along with it. This little textbook has a very simple structure; each lessons begins by introducing a new grammatical rule or two (word order, inflectional morphology, etc), then gives you a list of vocabulary words that will be used in this lesson, and finally asks you to complete two exercises and read a few paragraphs. Exercise one gives you a number of sentences using the grammatical rule for the lesson in Gaelic and asks you to translate them into English. Exercise 2 gives you some very very similar sentences in English and has you translate them into Gaelic. and that’s where the genius is. Nowhere is there a direct translation of any of the sentences. But by working translation from one direction to the other and back you can start to identify patterns and understand more than just the particular rule your presented with, but corresponding rules the book does not address. And, because you are often expected to figure it out for yourself, rather than be presented with some lesson and dialogue and translation, your investing more brain power and retaining more information. Using the same basic sentences and building them in new and complex ways also causes you to review the old information as you practice the new. It’s a system perfect for someone doing exactly what the title says, teaching themselves Gaelic.

For an example, you can look at Lesson 2, which teaches you to use various forms of the verb ‘to be’ to form statements, questiions, negative statements, and negative questions. In the list of vocabulary words, you’re given ‘seo’ and ‘sin,’ which mean ‘this/these/this is’ and ‘that/those/that is’ respectively. You are, however, never given any instructions on how to use them, so the natural assumption is that they work the same way the equivalent words do in English. To say this cat, you assume you should say ‘seo cat.’ So when presented with the sentence ‘A bheil an seomar seo blath’ you translate it to ‘is the room this warm’. seems right. But later on you’re given the English sentence ‘isn’t this room warm’ and asked to translate it to Gaelic. You realize that the two sentences should be almost the same, that the demonstrative functions as an adjective in Gaelic, and can be used in conjunction with a definite article, unlike in English. You’ve figured out how a part of speech functions without being told. Rather than rote memorization, we have active analysis, which leads to greater comprehension and flexibility.

This style of teaching language has taken a lot of hard hits recently. There are complaints that the simple ‘see Spot run’ style sentences feel useless, that students get frustrated because they aren’t being taught to say anything that might actually be used in conversation, and that the method is too far removed from the way we learned our first language. And I don’t disagree. My video lessons are full of snarky asides about the strange conversations we’re presented with with. But that’s a problem with the writers, not the system. We simply need to change the vocabulary we pick to be more relevant to our students and try writing conversations that people might actually have, with an obvious connection between thoughts. Which is easy to do. We simply put new words which are the apppropriate parts of speech and plug them into the grammatical structure you’ve been taught. Which is precisely why this system is so good. Once you understand how to formulate a sentence of a certain type, you can take new words you learn later and use them in meaningful ways. The conversational method does not share this feature. By presenting dialogues without any explanation of the underlying structure, you are limited in what you might say. You aren’t able to apply your knowledge to new situations. You won’t talk, you’ll recite.

And as for the movement to make second-language acquisition as similar to first language acquisition as possible; I think that’s just plain silly. Yes, immersion will cerainly help you learn a language faster and more effectively, it requires that you actually be immersed. This cannot happen in a classroom. Immersion works because it increases your motivation; it puts you in a position where your survival, or at least immediate feeling of safety and security, entirely depends on you learning to communicate. The language is necessary, so you put your brain in overtime to learn it. This is, indeed, the way we learn our first language. But no matter how much your teacher stresses that grades are important, they do not produce that level of motivation. Instead, we should embrace the fact that we already have a language under our belts. We have metalinguistic knowledge that allows us to better focus our efforts and grasp rules and morphological changes far faster than any child. We can arrange the order we teach various concepts so that they build on each other logically. We can change the system if it isn’t working. Children simply do not have this option. We have control and the ability to improve. Shifting to this conversational format because students want to learn just the part of the language that’ll help them be a tourist for a week is doing a disservice to those students. Instead, we should be encouraging them to learn the structures that will give them the freedom respond appropriately in any situation. Teach them to search for the rules that allow the world to work instead of just using the results.

Wow, that was quite a rant. But now that the serious stuff is out of the way, you can has videos! Namely, me working my way through Lesson 2 in three parts (which I am now going to put in a new entry since this one’s so awfully long.)

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