Welcome to a summary of three fantastic talks that I attended on the last two days of the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin.
As with my summaries of days one and two, these are notes on the main points from the talks. I’ve written them in the first person, as I think it’s more entertaining that way, but please remember that they are my summaries, so I can’t guarantee that they are always exactly as the speaker intended.
For more on these topics, I encourage you to head over to the blog of each speakers where they all share many more fantastic insights on similar topics.
Here’s what the course content at Oxford looks like:
As you can see, it’s virtually all literature-based. Oral and listening examinations are limited to one exam, which constitutes 10% of the
mark for the entire course.
Oxford believes that the way to learn languages is naturally. That is, in the same way that native speakers use the language. The only way
to do this as a student sitting in Oxford… is by reading books.
This might seem restrictive, but there are many benefits to books, beyond what you can get from speaking. Books offer us the chance to be exposed to language that we wouldn't otherwise encounter.
So, how can you use books and literature to help yourself become a fluent speaker of the language?
To improve my German I would listen to Deutschlandfunk – 30 minute podcasts.
I would listen and write down words and phrases that sounded interesting as I listened. Then I'd stop and look them up. After that I'd go back and listen
again multiple times.
This particular podcast comes with transcriptions. For an alternative approach, apply the same process to the text rather than the audio – highlighting words and phrases which are of interest.
[Tweet “Forget shortcuts. You need to work hard at it and do the work if fluency is your aim.”]
This talk examined how you can adapt your method to meet various goals in a language.
Most modern courses are aimed at conversation, so they are good places to start. I would supplement this study with lang-8.com, (Note from Olly: see my ideas here for how to do this), then text chat, then Skype, in person. Finally, I would add phone conversations, as they can be very challenging.
The first stages above are in order to slow down the process and not to be put in a situation where you have to respond instantaneously to the other person.
When picking a language course, I like to look at the translations of lesson dialogues so I can tell right away if the topics are relevant or of interest to me.
If your main initial goal is to be able to understand books, using conversation-based textbooks is counter-productive.
Instead, look out for some reading-based textbooks, e. g. “Spanish for Reading” or a lot of the older, pre-communicative approach textbooks.
Alternatively, I might start by studying a grammar overview for a few hours just to understand the basics and then immediately embark on reading parallel texts.
For Asian languages, be sure to read on the computer at this stage, so you can use a hover dictionary. (Looking up Chinese characters, for example, in paper dictionaries takes too long.)
In terms of what types of texts to read, the following are good at the beginning:
Some book types tend to be simpler than others, in terms of vocabulary. For example:
[Note from Olly: I’ll just link to Judith’s excellent blog post on the topic instead of reproducing it here]
What if you’re preparing to give a speech in the language you’ve just started learning?
Here are the key steps I took to prepare to give a speech in Indonesian…from scratch!
[Olly: click below to see the results of her speech and write-up of exactly how she did it!]
[Olly: Luca’s talk was so packed full of valuable insights and useful info that I had a hard time paying attention and making notes at the same time! Hope you can follow the thread!]
We often think of C2 level on the CEFR as the standard for fluency. In fact, the descriptors for the C2 level show that it is an academic level of language, which many native speakers themselves don't reach themselves.
Here it is:
As a result, I don’t think we should be defining fluency as C2 for learners of a foreign language. We can function perfectly well in society without reaching such a high standard of proficiency.
When we look at native speakers, it’s tempting to see their ability in the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) to be related. This is inevitable, as native speakers will spend 80,000 hours living the language as a whole during the first 18 years of their lives.
For language learners, however, these skills are fundamentally separated. It’s perfectly possible to learn a foreign language by speaking, and hardly ever reading or writing, for example.
As you improve, continue developing the four skills. Don't neglect any one of them because fluency is a complex and difficult goal – in order to get there
you need to approach it from as many different angles as possible. Attending to each of the skills reinforces the others.
This is the fundamental process or path that I see for the learner of a language:
1. First: develop basic fluency – fundamental words in the target language
2. Second: gain personal fluency – add words and phrases that are personally useful to you
3. Third: literacy – learn and manipulate language associated with higher levels of education
The key to fluency is not to learn endless words, but to learn a small core of key words and phrases and manipulate them well to express yourself in endless situations.
Without this, it is very difficult to become fluent. You need constant exposure to the language you’re learning, and plentiful opportunities to interact with others using the language.
Here’s what I think are necessary:
We all have time to study a little everyday, but it's the amount of interaction we can create in our daily lives which really makes the difference.
The key to reaching fluency is a combination of deliberate passive exposure plus natural interaction over the course of time.
I've learnt all my languages by making a series of conscious decisions to live my life in this way.
[Tweet “The key to fluency is not to learn endless words, but rather a small, flexible core.”]
So there you have it!
Wow… what an amazing couple of days. Bring on next year!
What's your biggest takeaway from these three talks? Here's mine (its a big one!). Leave a comment below to let me know!
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