When a former student asks for advice about how to learn a third language

I get contacted often enough by former students seeking advice about how to continue their language journey. However, I absolutely love it when a student contacts me with vague memories of how it started with Spanish and wondering, “how do I repeat that process with a third language?

First let me emphasize what you should not do: no conjugation charts, no textbooks with grammar explanations, no thematic vocabulary lists and no teachers who want to teach you through these “common sense but flat out wrong” approaches. If you were my student before 2013, let me apologize to you. I was collecting the data I needed to reject those ineffective methods, and some of you I tortured exquisitely with the mistaken belief that I just had to perfect my approach to conjugation exercises. I was so wrong.

There is one crucial ingredient: listening and understanding what you hear in the target language. If it is compelling to you, then even better. Able to read and understand? Much, much better.

Notice exactly what I am saying: you do not have to speak or write in order to learn to speak or write. In fact, you should not speak until the words just plop right out of your mouth, until you have heard them so many times that they are effortlessly falling out of your mouth. Until then, concentrate your time on getting more and more comprehensible listening & reading.

Think about what was successful in our classes: most likely you remember El Internado. Do you remember all of the annoying times I stopped the video and repeated what was being said, summarized it, wrote it on the board, printed it up so that you could read it again and again? Yeah, I was learning to be a decent language teacher. Hopefully you remember some laughter. That also was by design, because I was coming to understand that anxiety about learning and speaking a language is the main thing that prevents students from soaking in the language. Laughter and no anxiety means better acquisition.

If you were my student around 2015 then you might remember that I put great effort into quieting my students, providing some space for student speaking but often encouraging silence. I still wanted a compelling class, but I realized that students had to hear and process everything. That is when I became convinced that student output (writing and speaking) is irrelevant to first learning a language. I realized that the more time beginning students dedicate to listening and reading, the better the final outcome three or four years later.

Not only are my students living proof of the power of this method, but there are many others who have adopted this approach. Have doubts? Take a look at a newspaper article written by Stephen Krashen, the linguist who inspires language teachers like me: goo.gl/YMXPHB

Once you know how to acquire a language, the hard part is getting someone to speak to you in an extremely comprehensible and compelling manner. Yeah, a good language teacher is worth their weight in gold. Chances are you will need to get that conversation from people who are not exactly trained to help you acquire the language. Here is some concrete advice about how to approach your third language. This is based not only on my classroom experience, but also on my own experiences acquiring my fifth language, Japanese.

You need to understand whatever language you come across, or it does not help you acquire the language. That sounds like an impossible condition, but it is not. Watch this classic video of Stephen Krashen explaining how to acquire German with “comprehensible input”: goo.gl/VxN73P (in fact, watch the full video to understand how to acquire a language).

When learning a new language I rely on tutors that I find on the internet. The best website that I have found for finding cheap and reliable tutors is italki.com where I pay around $10 for an hour of conversation. I always choose a “community tutor” rather than a trained language teacher. Sadly, most trained language teachers are not trained in language acquisition. Of course it’s even better if you can find someone interested in a language exchange: a native speaker partner who will speak the language you want to learn while you speak the language that he or she wants to learn. An ideal activity for language exchange is a method called “Cross talk” where you speak your native language and the tutor speaks their native language. I do this with tutors who understand English, although at a certain point with a portable white board and a little art, anything can be explained. To understand this method, take a look at this explanation by Pablo Román: goo.gl/Ln4eYn

By the way, I always record my tutoring sessions so that I can rewatch them later.

I have found that comprehensible reading is crucial because I can slow it down to my pace. With my tutors I always end with a summary session in which they create a paragraph long text summarizing what we spoke about. That written summary is what I read afterwards.

Once I have developed enough reading skills to be able to read simple texts, I would look for language learner literature. Not much available in Japanese, but in other languages there are some books out there. Check out this website: https://cireading.com/

Okay, now you are beginning to get a sense of how to acquire another language… by living it. Now I want to leave you with a video made by Jeff Brown, a polyglot that loves to acquire languages. He documented how he progressed in Arabic over the course of a year. Take notes from this guy! goo.gl/d4Kg2n

1 comment

  1. When I saw the topic, I wasn’t sure I would read the blog. But – Wow – I’m so glad I did!! What a great reminder that I need to keep everything I say comprehensible. I have a variety of student knowledge of Spanish in my first year classes. Many had Spanish all through elementary and half also took the exploratory classes for two or three years in middle school and they want to talk. A few have never had Spanish and don’t want to talk. At this point, I find myself leaning toward those who understand me. It is a fight with myself to stop and make sure everyone understands. Part of this is due to classroom management. The class is tired of my standing by the rules and waiting. They haven’t challenged the talkers so I’m still doing it. I also find myself getting caught up in the required vocab that hasn’t come up naturally but will be on the common final exam. I have these kids for 12 weeks to learn the first half of level one. While 1 colleague is teaching with CI (we collaborate), we are still tied to an exam that includes another teacher using a traditional curriculum. This blog has re-inspired me to keep at it – comprehensible input or bust!

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