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"A Few Simple Ideas for New Language Learners...and old
ones needing some new life"
by Ambrose Thomson, Angela Thomson, Chad Thomson, Greg
Copyright (C) 1999 The Authors. Used by permission.
1. Some Background Principles
Who should read this?
Have you ever noticed that learning and using a new language
can be emotionally demanding? That's for sure. We can make it better by good
mental health practices, but we can't make it emotionally undemanding.
So we've been thinking, since it is going to be emotionally
demanding no matter what, why not make it intellectually undemanding? Now
you may find that you like it to be intellectually demanding. Maybe that
helps your emotions. You are an outstanding student, and your ability to
learn stuff better than the rest of us is a real encouragement to you. You
love languages courses, and you like them to be as demanding as possible. Or
you love reading complicated grammar books and doing all the exercises.
Question: Is this working for you? Are you steadily getting better in the
language you are learning (as measured by your ability to use it
conversationally)? Then accept the heartfelt congratulations of other
readers and us, and put this paper down. We've known people who have become
famous as language learners through endless hours of intense study combined
with intense efforts to use the language in real life. What we have to say
is for those of us who are tempted to envy them.
Or perhaps you are just hanging around with people and you
are making good progress in the language. We know a guy who learned Urdu
really, really well just hanging around with buddies in Albuquerque, New
Mexico. (We kid you not.) We know another guy in Canada from Russia who is
an excellent public speaker in English, fifteen years after starting. He
refused to take ESL courses, because he hates studying languages. He noticed
after nine months that he could speak a lot more English than many of his
friends who had been full time ESL students for the same nine months. If
you're doing great without doing any special "language learning
activities" beyond communicating in real life, then accept the
heartfelt congratulations of other readers and us, and put this down. What
we have to say is for those of us who are tempted to envy people like you.
Whew! Are they gone? Now they are kind, well meaning people,
and we love them, and are happy for them, but they intimidate us. Now we're
left with the 80% or so of us who are unable to remove the emotional demands
from language learning, and so we really might like to limit the
Now we are a pretty traditional family. Angela bore and we
raised six children. Four of them are out of the nest. What we are about to
share has grown out of our recent language learning experiences. One of us
(Greg) previously wrote a number of papers on field language learning. Those
reflected what Angela and Greg, and a number of colleagues in the Language
Project of the Church of Pakistan, learned about language learning between
1986 and 1990. For people who have read those essays, this can be taken as a
partial update. Those papers contain a lot of detail. That is one reason for
the present paper. Getting started in language learning shouldn't be so
complicated. What we have to say here is based on our recent experiences in
what Greg has elsewhere called a "challenging" language learning
situation: the early months of learning Russian in Edmonton, Alberta,
Canada. At the outset of this project our ages were 13, 47, 10, and 47,
respectively. It has been nearly 100% a joint project. Learning Russian is
part of our shared family experience.
1.1. Four cute language learning principles you won't forget
We often see requests for information which go something
like "I want to start learning language X. Can someone please recommend
a good textbook?" Or "Does anyone know if there are courses in
language X taught in my area?"
A language is not an academic subject. A language is
something that happens between people in flesh and blood. That is where it
is. That is what it is. No more. No less. Individuals experience the world
individually. That is called perception. Communities experience the world
together. That is called language. Thus the first cute principle is
Communing. And here is a golden rule to go with it:
Golden Rule C ( for "communing"): Join with people
around experience using language.
For example. If you are a beginner in Language X, and
someone points to various objects in the room, and says what they are
called, then you are joining with that person around experience using
language. This is sometimes called here and now language. Or suppose you are
more advanced in language X, and are showing someone a photo of your
father's store. You attempt to describe parts of it to your friend. She has
trouble understanding you and tries to help you clarify what you are saying.
But you then need her to clarify what she said in her attempt to help you
clarify. Back and forth you go, until she has figured out what you are
trying to say. Or perhaps she has the photo and you go back and forth
figuring out what she is trying to say. Same difference. It is sometimes
called negotiating meaning. In negotiating meaning around the photo you are
joining with people around experience using language. Or suppose you are
more advanced yet, and someone is telling you a lot that you didn't know
about events in your new community during the previous ten years. That is
the experience of the community. Communities have lots of experience that is
only shared largely indirectly by means of language. Person A has the
experience. Person B shares in it only because person A told him about it.
And person C, who has never even met person A, shares in this experience
too, because person B told her about it. Now you are getting people to share
the community's experience and knowledge with you. You are still joining
with people around experience using language. From beginning to end,
progress comes as you join with people around experience using language.
Come back to all those people who say, "I want to learn
language X; where can I find a textbook?" What would be a better first
question for them to ask? Try "I want to learn language X; where can I
find some speakers of language X?" How rarely people ask that. How odd.
The second cute principle is the principle of understanding.
You need to understand things that people say in language X. And that gives
us the second golden rule.
Golden Rule U (for 'understanding'): Pay attention to large
doses of things that people say which you can understand.
Now you may be thinking, how can you understand a language
that you haven't learned yet? Piece of cake. We'll see later that you can
set up activities which will get people to say lots of things to you that
you can understand. And we'll just suggest a few simple activities.
Can you see why this golden rule is important? You want to
learn to speak Language X in a manner similar to the way that its current
speakers speak it. Well then, you have to hear what they are saying. No
language could ever be captured in a textbook. If you go on and on in this
language, eventually you'll have understood people speaking it for many
thousands of hours. You will "pick up" an awareness of the kinds
of things people say. Even quite early you'll often be saying to yourself,
consciously or unconsciously, "Oh, so that's how they say that."
If you haven't started yet you might find that hard to imagine. But let us
get you there.
You may notice we haven't said anything about memorizing
words and sentences. Memorizing is a great activity for certain purposes.
But for most people it is time consuming, and time spent on memorizing is
time taken away from communing and understanding. You can progress more
quickly if you skip the memorizing and get on with the communing and
The third cute principle is the principle of talking. There
are various ways the third golden rule can be formulated. How about this?
Golden Rule T (for talking): To become good at speaking you
need to speak a lot, putting your own ideas into your own words.
There is an additional step to get from being able to
understand something to being able to come up with it when you need to say
it. If you do things right, then your language ability will be something
like the following diagram, at least for the first few years:
Figure 1: [picture graph where comprehension is greater than
Now language learning doesn't always work this way. If this
same learner, instead of communing, understanding, and talking, had chosen
to memorize "useful expressions" and vocabulary and "model
sentences" and rules, and subsequently to talk, and then commune, and
then understand, then her abilities might be better expressed by the
Figure 2: [picture graph where production is greater is
Now we can't prove that this is true, but that is what some
of our language learning felt like, and we know plenty of others who
describe their experience in similar terms. (There are exceptional people
who do really well this way, but we told them to stop reading after the
first paragraph or two.)
The final cute principle is evolving. By this we mean that
your ability to use the language changes over time, and along with it, you
will want to change your approach to communing, understanding and talking.
Thus the final golden rule is as follows:
Golden Rule E (for "evolving"): Adapt your
language learning activities to your current level of language ability.
Which brings us to the topic of what are the few simple
things to do to learn a language.
1.2. Things to do to learn a language
First, what are the key resources you need to locate? A
textbook, you say? Bzzzz! Ah, but you knew better. A human, you say. Chime!
One or more fluent speakers to join with around experience. Next, you need
some time to meet with those people. Third, you need some experience to join
One of the authors has written quite a bit about how to find
people, and the kind of people to find in the paper "Leave Me Alone!
Can't You See I'm Learning Your Language" But we continue to see
repeatedly that a key to organizing your early language learning is the way
your native speaker friends understand their role as your helper and co-communer.
Explain to them that you need a friend, not a teacher. People base new roles
on ones they already know. "Teacher" may seem to them to be the
obvious one. Don Larson reminds us that "mother, father, uncle, aunt,
older sibling" are closer to what you actually need. You need someone
who will talk to you in such a way that you can understand her, and who will
help you along as you struggle to put your own thoughts into words. That's
all you need. If the person can read English, let her read this very
paragraph if you'd like. She will be "teaching" you in a sense,
but not in the sense that she is likely to have in mind. So it is better to
call it something like "language practice". And call your language
sessions "visits" rather than "lessons". The youngest of
the authors emphasizes that even the word "sessions" gives too
serious a tone to what we have in mind by "visits". We find that
in meeting with three different friends there is one with whom we are more
formal in that we tape recorded the visit. The other visits are just visits.
1.3. Now what do you do with your resources?
So now you have people, or at least one person, and you have
agreed to meet for, let's say, one hour three times a week for language
practice. Next, what experience should you join around? Well, let's start
with the physical objects of everyday life. Of course, these will vary from
culture to culture. But every aspect of life is full of objects. Think of
rising in the morning in the authors' culture. Objects: bed, pillow,
blanket, sheet, pajamas, robe, belt, slippers, door, bathroom, toilet, sink,
soap, washcloth, towel, shower, water, razor, toothbrush, toothpaste,
hairbrush, curling iron... The point is, life is full of objects.
People can recognize objects. You have some memory of what
it is that beds look like, and you use that to recognize beds when you see
them. Let's call this memory of what beds look like a "mental
image" of beds. You also know the sound of the word "bed", so
that you can recognize that word when you hear it spoken. To know the word
"bed" is to have a link in your brain between the memory of the
sound, and the memory of what a bed is when encountered in the world. So you
want your language activities to lead to forming many such links between the
sound form of words and the mental image. Perhaps the best and quickest (to
say nothing of funnest) way to do that is to have the actual objects present
when they are talked about. It also enables you know what is in fact being
(Don't take the mental image business too literally if you
are relating the word "dog" to a dog that you can see, or even a
toy dog that you can see, or a stuffed dog, or a picture of a dog, then you
are making the right link. Later when you hear the word it will call up the
"image" even though you may not experience any vivid mental
Switching from beds to dogs, the following diagram is an
attempt at illustrating the way the word for "dog" will be
represented in your head. Learning this word is a matter of getting two
things to become very strong: item 1 in the diagram, the memory of how the
word sounds; and item 2, the link from that memory to the mental image. We
are assuming that the mental image itself is already there, though this may
not be the case when there involve new cultural objects or actions. And
there is a further matter of using the word in your own speech once it is
strong enough that you can retrieve it and speak it as you need it. This is
a matter of getting what comes out of your mouth to match your memory of
what the word sounds like (that is to match item 1 in the diagram).
Figure 3: [Picture of sound waves on the left, representing
"memory of the sound form of the word representing 'dog'". Picture
of a dog on the right, with a line connecting the two.
Initially your memory of the sound of the word (1 in the
diagram) is likely to be weak, and the link between the memory of the sound
and the mental image (2 in the diagram) is likely to be weak. But something
will have changed in your head, just the same. With some words, your memory
for how they sound may become strong first, while the link to the mental
image remains weak. You hear the word, and think, "I recognize that
word, but I can't think of what it means". In other cases the link to
the mental image may be strong, so that you start to say the word to express
that meaning, and suddenly you realize that you are not exactly certain of
how it sounds when spoken. Eventually both the memory of how it sounds and
the link to the image become strong, and then, once you have used that word
a few times in your own speech, it will be a secure part of your language
Names of objects are by far the easiest things to learn
first, so "go to town". Gather up a whole bunch of the objects of
everyday life, and take them to your native speaker friend for your language
learning visit. And collect more at her house. (We actually think it is
better at first to have her come to your house, but this is not essential.)
Or go outside with her to find objects galore, some of which, of course,
cannot be gathered up. This brings us to the simple activities. All language
learning activities, whether for beginners, or for advanced learners, have
one or both of the following purposes:
2. The Simple Activities
What follows contains the main meat of this paper. It is the
part that you may want to come back to.
2.1. Simple activity 1: learning names of objects:
Take twenty objects and put them on the table in a clump.
Remove two from the clump. Your friend tells you, "This is a glass and this
is a spoon". You are now understanding the language. She then asks
"Where (or which) is the spoon? Where is the glass?" You respond
by pointing. Then you take a third object from the heap, add it to the first
two, and continue in the same way. Pretty soon she is asking you randomly to
point at any of the twenty objects. You now have a (weakly implanted)
vocabulary of twenty words.
2.1.1 Interlude -- Some commercial resources for extending
simple activity 1:
There are many variations of this activity. And it feeds
into others, such as the Lexicarry activity (simple activity 2). They are
easy for your friend to learn, and what you are doing quickly comes to make
perfect sense to her. It may come across a bit like a "teaching 119
activity, but not a familiar one. You will find more natural ways of
building vocabulary later by simply conversing about objects and pictures,
and yet you can profitably come back to this activity whenever you feel
discouraged about slow vocabulary growth. Are you an intermediate level
learner who has grown discouraged feeling you haven't made much progress for
a long time. Then grab one of the tools listed just below, and conquer a few
hundred new vocabulary items. That ought to give your spirits a lift.
The following books are sure winners. If you visit the ESL
(English as a Second Language) center of a major university you may find
Lexicarry: An illustrated Vocabulary Builder for second
Languages, by Patrick R. Moran (1984, 1990) Pro Lingua Associates,15 Elm
Street, Brattleboro, Vermont 05301. PH.: 802-257-7779
Action English Pictures, by Noriko Takahashi; text by Maxine
Fauman-Prickel (1985, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs 07632)
The Basic Oxford Picture Dictionary, by Margot F. Gramer.
(1994. Oxford University Press.)
This is better for early language learning than the New
Oxford Picture Dictionary.
Actionlogues, by J. Klopp. (1985, 1988. Sky Oaks
Productions, Inc. P.O. Box 1102, Los Gatos, California 95031. Ph.: 403 395
Longman Photo Dictionary, by Marilyn S. Rosenthal and Daniel
B. Freeman. (1990, Longman)
Word by Word, by Steven J. Molinsky and Bill Bliss (with
Germadi G. Borbatov for the EnglishlRussian version. 1996, Prentice Hall.)
Picture It! Illustrated by Richard Toglia, no author listed.
(1978, International communications Incorp., Tokyo; 1981, Prentice Hall)
Most of these are designed for ESL, and so they have
editions available in various European (and sometimes Asian) languages. But
that is neither here nor there, since we are interested in the words in our
friends' heads, and in their communal sharing of experience. For our
purposes all that matters is the pictures (and our friends-- who matter
infinitely more than the pictures).
2.1.2 Extending simple activity 1 -- simple activity 1a
Some of these books also come with instructions as to how to
use them. We ignore those instructions and use them in ways that suit us.
Now the pictures in these vocabulary books will function as the objects did
in simple activity 1. Your native speaker friend can first tell you what is
happening in two pictures: "This man is waking up. This man is getting
out of bed." Then she can ask you, "In which picture is the man
waking up? In which picture is the man getting out of bed?" (Or she
might simply say "He is getting up. He is getting out of bed.) You can
respond by pointing. Then she adds another picture. Then another. Before you
know it she has you responding by pointing to any of twenty pictures which
she asks you about randomly.
Now these vocabulary building techniques are supposed to be
simple, and they are. Some snootie language learning specialists will say
condescendingly, "But those aren't information questions. They are
merely display questions." But if you can acquire, without drudgery,
many hundreds of vocabulary items in a few weeks, what do you care what they
say? Just think what you are accomplishing. First, you are forming a strong
memory of the sound form of each word. Second, you are forming strong links
from the memory of the sound form to the mental image of the item or action.
(Review the diagram above if this is unclear.)
By the way, verbs appear to us to be considerably more
difficult to acquire then nouns. This doesn't surprise us. To acquire the
word for "dog", "cat", or "man", you need to
link the sound form of the word to the mental image of a dog, cat or man. By
contrast, you can't have a simple mental image of "running". You
must have an image of a dog, cat, or a man (or the like) first, and then you
can have it be running. So linking the sound forms of action verbs to their
mental images is naturally more difficult than linking the sound forms of
concrete nouns to their images. We think it helps to act out the verbs as
you hear them some of the time. (The reasons are a bit complicated.)
But be patient. Whenever you are understanding your native
speaker friend as she talks about objects and activities, learning is
occurring. Learning often does not go through to completion all at once.
Each time you understand a word used in reference to an object or situation,
your memory for the sound form of that word gets a little stronger. And your
link from that sound form memory to the mental image of the object or
situation also gets a little stronger. Time spent understanding language is
never wasted. Don't get discouraged if you cannot recall a lot of words when
you want to use them. That will come. You just have to understand them
enough times to make them strong enough. And as we say, by means of simple
activity 1 (including 1a), you can quickly come to understand many hundreds
of concrete nouns and verbs used in simple but natural utterances. And we
have (only) a few more simple activities.
2.1.3 How do you get enough repetition with these simple
It may take many times hearing a word and associating it
with the mental image before both the memory for the sound form and the link
to the mental image will be strong. At first, your native speaker friend
will have a hard time believing how many times you need to understand a word
in a meaningful context before it becomes strong enough in your head to
function property there. We have found certain ways to increase the amount
of exposure we get to whatever we are learning. For one thing, since there
are four of us, two adults and two kids, our native speaker friend can do
everything once with each of us, while the others watch and listen intently.
Then we can engage in a "race": Our friend says the word and we
race to see who can point the most quickly. This provides a lot more
repetition. Finally, we can have more than one friend whom we visit, and do
the same activities with different friends. Or we could let our friend read
this section, and then take our word for it that we need a lot of
repetition. There is a Russian proverb which says that repetition is the
mother of learning.
O.K So far we've been building a large vocabulary of words
that we can at least understand when we hear them in context But obviously,
we need to be able to say some practical things too. Simple method 2 will
help us with that.
2.2. Simple activity 2: talking about stuff in Moran's
It might seem odd, when we have such a small number of
simple activities to share, that we should devote a whole activity to a
single book that you'll have to order if you want to do the activities. But
Moran's Lexicarry (details above) is the best single all in one language
learning resource that we have come across. Now the nay sayers will rise up
and shout, "But it is too culture specific". Well, as soon as they
produce better tools that are more appropriate to specific parts of the
world, we'll stop recommending Lexicarry for those parts of the world. For
reasons we can't figure out, we decided to demand considerably less than
perfection in such matters. And actually, the pictures are plain enough that
in many instances culture specific changes could easily be made using a
The first lengthy portion of Lexicarry contains comic style
ststrips. Typically there are three frames per story, and the stories have
comic style bubbles with the words missing. The stories illustrate
approximately sixty common language functions and communication situations.
During our first month, we like to concentrate on learning to understand,
and so we can use the story strips in the manner of simple activity 1. Our
native speaker friend begins by telling us what each person might be saying
in the stories and then asks us questions like "Who is saying, 'May I
help you?'; who is saying, 'I'm sorry'?". In a few moments, by using
activity 1 with the Lexicarry, we can recognize ten new useful expressions.
But simple activity 2, really kicks in once we start talking
more (in month two). You can still begin the Lexicarry activity as with
activity 1, but then adding a talking step. You learn to understand half a
dozen new story strips (the number that can typically be viewed at once).
You each take your turn at pointing in response to your friend's questions.
Then you have your race. Finally, and this is the new step, you can each
take a turn at trying to tell each of the half dozen story strips. You don't
tell them verbatim from memory. Rather, you tell them in your own words as
best you can. It is a struggle, but your native speaker friend helps you out
at every step by expanding or recasting your broken utterances. For us, once
again, we get to do this four times, if we wish, each taking a turn while
the others watch and intently listen. If you are all alone, then you really
will want to have three or four separate friends to visit and do this with.
And/or you can tape record your visit and listen to the tape over and over.
That's it for activity 2. Simple, eh?
So now you're growing this huge vocabulary of concrete nouns
and verbs (and adjectives too), using activity 1, and you're learning all
sorts of useful things to say in activity 2. But the world of experience
that you are communing around is not just a matter of objects and actions,
or nice things to say in social situations. It is a story in the making. And
so you might as well start learning to relate language to stories. But they
need to be stories that unfold as you talk about them. You are not nearly at
the point where you can cope with stories about what you cannot see.
2.3. Simple activity 3: working your way through books
This is the simplest activity yet. You go through children's
picture story books, page by page, with your native speaker friend. You
verbally point out anything that you can describe in your own words in the
new language (even if you can only make a stab at it). You ask about things
you cannot say, (by month two you can easily say "What is this?"
or "What is s/he doing?" in your new language). Set your timer or
stopwatch and tell your friend, "For the next twenty (or thirty)
minutes we are only going to use your language." After the twenty (or
thirty) minutes are up, you can use another language that you share (such as
English) to ask about things that puzzled you. For but for those twenty
minutes, no matter how much of a struggle it is, you do not depart from the
You may question the importance of sticking to the target
language. Well, we find it extremely helpful. As soon as we let English in,
the whole exercise goes out the window. We must be forced to try hard to do
as much as we can in our new language. Otherwise it quickly becomes a
conversation about the language rather than one in the language. Now once
you are gaining some fluency this may be less of an issue. But while you are
seriously needing to develop some fluency, it is an issue.
For this activity you need to collect children's books. At
least we've not yet seen an adult book that serves the purpose. The ideal
books have a sequence of pictures which tell a complete story without words.
If there are lots of words, even if the pictures are wonderful, the pictures
alone will probably not tell the whole story. You want the pictures to tell
most or all of the story by themselves. Actually, the best book we found for
getting this started did have words, but very few, and we covered them with
Post It note papers. The title was Hallo! How are you? It was the story of a
little bear who was on his way home from somewhere, attempting to greet all
and sundry. Various other events occur along the way and at home.
This is really a month two activity, when you already have a
vocabulary of a few hundred items, and have been understanding them in
context in simple sentences for a month. You may not be sure exactly how
much you know or how well you know it, but whatever it is, you want to put
it to work as you get into serious talking. You should be able to come up
with children's books either by visiting bookstores (there are tons of
children's books in bookstores in Pakistan, for example), and by raiding the
collections of friends whose kids have outgrown the books. We found Hallo!
How are you? in a city library book sale. New children's books can be quite
expensive, but you might be able to share with other language learners. Two
of our early books were
Hallo! How are you? By Shigeo Watanabe, illustrated by Yasuo
Ohtomo. (1980,The Bodley Head, London, Sydney, Toronto; first published by
Fukuinkan Shoten, Tokyo.)
The Big Fat Worm by Nancy Van Laan, illustrated by
Marisabina Russo (1987, 1995, Alfred Knopf.)
A book we spent two or three hours in was a version of
The Three Bears, by Paul Galdone. (1972, Houghton Mifflin)
Then we were able to talk much more readily about the
Deep in the Forest, by Brinton Turkle.(1987, Dutton
It is a completely wordless book which happens to have the
story of Goldilocks in reverse. It is about a little bear who goes into the
house of three humans who are off on a walk to let their porridge cool.
Other good wordless books include the following:
Pancakes for Breakfast, by Tomie dePaola (1978, Harcourt,
Brace & Company)
Good Dog, Carl, by Alexandra Day (1986 41so, other books in
the Carl series. Simon & Schuster)
And these Puffin Pied Piper Books by Mercer Mayer
Frog on his Own (1973)
Frog Goes to Dinner (1977)
A Boy, a Dog, a Frog and a Friend (With Marianna Mayer,
One Frog Too Many (With Marianna Mayer, 1975)
Ah Choo (1976)
0ops (1977) (Dial Books for Young Readers, 375 Hudson
Street, New York, New York 10014)
(We don't recommend that you use Mercer Mayer's Frog, Where
Are You? since we have a secret purpose for that, which would be fouled up
if you were to use this as a language learning book.)
At a later point, some books by Japanese children's
illustrator Mitsumasa Anno will provide an enormous number of language
learning opportunities. The one we have used is Anno's Journey (1977, Putnam
& Grosset, 200 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016).
But these are just ideas. We're sure you can come up with
children's books that we'll wish we had come up with.
2.4. Simple activity 4: Role cards
For this you need a partner, or other helpful person, in
addition to the native speaker friend with whom you are going to be
practicing the language. If you are a solo language learner, you can adapt
it. In the form we do this one of the learners writes on two cards. One card
is then given to the native speaker, and one to the other language learners.
A simple example might go like this:
Figure 4: [Native speaker's card: "You own an ice-cream
store. Your chocolate ice-cream is very popular, and you have just run
out." Language learner's card: "You are craving chocolate
ice-cream. Go and get a cone at the ice-cream shop."]
It is crucial that neither the native speaker nor the
language leamer know what is on the other one's cards. Now here is another
one which we used for Russian:
Figure 5: [Native speaker's card: "Olga: You live in
Moscow. You do not know even one word of English. In the apartment next to
you a Canadian widow and her two friendly sons recently moved in. They speak
broken Russian. You want to get them to help you learn Engl. Call on them
now. Arrange to visit with them every day for the purpose of learning
English." Language learner's card: "Angela, Ambrose, and Chad: You
have recently moved to Moscow. You need someone with whom to practice
Russian for one hour every day. Your neighbor Olga is very sweet, and she
does not know one word of English, which makes her an ideal person for you
to arrange to talk with. Arrange to meet with her for one hour every day to
improve your Russian."]
The basic concept here we have taken from Strategic
Interaction, by Robert J. DiPietro (1987, Cambridge University Press). The
role cards have some shared information and some unshared or conflicting
information that will add a problem that must be solved in your new
language. Our ice cream example could be used quite early. At advanced
stages, the role cards can be as complicated as you like.
At all stages, once you have finished the activity you can
trade role cards to see what the other person was trying to achieve. Then
discuss what both of you did (early on, this discussion can be partly in
English or some other language that you and your native speaker friend know
well.) It is helpful if you taped or videoed the activity. Then you can go
over the tape or video with your native speaker friend and tell her
"This is what I was trying to say at this spot. How might I have better
expressed myself?" And she can explain things to you that she had said
during the activity and you were unable to figure out, even with her best
efforts to clarify for you. But the activity itself should be strictly
carried out in the new language as a way of forcing you to talk.
2.5. Communicating across information gaps
Simple activity 4 is really the first of our four which
incorporates the important principle of the "information gap".
That is, this activity creates a need which can only be fulfilled through
the exchange of information in the new language. We do other activities
which meet this condition. For example, we sometimes have two identical sets
of objects on the opposite sides of a barrier (such as a cardboard box).
Learners on one side of the barrier arrange the objects. The native speaker
describes what they do, and the learners on the other side of the barrier
attempt to arranged their objects in the same way based on what the native
speaker tells them. We do the same thing with something called TPR kits
(described in the catalogue of Sky' Oaks Productions, P.O. Box 1102, Los
Gatos, California, 95031 1102). These contain a plastic picture, for
example, of the interior of a two-story house or the main street of a town.
In addition there are reusable plastic stickers of many objects and people
found in such locations. Again, we ignore the instructions that come with
the kits, and just use them for information gap activities. That means we
always need two of each, although you might find ways to achieve the same
thing with a single kit.
At a later stage, we do our information gap activities in
such a way that the native speaker is on one side and the learners are on
the other. The learners have information which the native speaker needs in
order to perform the task. In addition to arranging objects behind barriers,
or TPR kits, you can use simple line drawings. Make two drawings that are
partly the same and partly different. Your native speaker friend must ask
you questions to find out all the ways in which your drawing is the same or
different from the one you gave her. We find it is less demanding if the
native speaker is the one needing the information to perform the task, and
the learners are the ones providing the information in response to the
native speaker's probing. This provides a lot of opportunity to understand
language that you have never heard before, and thus to notice ways that
native speakers express themselves. At an even later stage, you can reverse
these roles, and the balance will shift from this being more of an
understanding activity to being more of a talking activity.
3. Odds and Ends
The main meat of this paper is over. But we feel we need to
address a few questions readers may be wondering about.
3.1. Can technology help in all of this?
Some helpful tools for enriching and extending the above
activities are tape recorders, cameras, and camcorders. If you tape record
many of the activities above while they are being performed, you will be
able to add many hours of listening pleasure to your few hours each week
with your native speaker friends. This can be a wonderful reinforcer,
increasing the rate at which those sound forms and links to mental images
become strong in your brain. For example, you can go to bed half an hour
early, and listen to the conversation you and your native speaker friend had
over one of your children's books. You can also have your native speaker
friend tell the stories (in the straightforward sense) of any children's
books you have worked through, and record those as well.
Cameras are also a wonderful tool. On one occasion in
Pakistan we were able to take about 100 photos of normal every day life
settings and activities in two hours. With a little planning, most of the
simple activities above can be adapted for use around photos.
Camcorders have an even richer potential for making sound to
experience links available for repeated exposures. But although the
potential is impressive, we don't want to push this beyond many of our
pocketbooks and living situations.
3.2. Grammar and pronunciation?
Some people will have a hard time believing that doing these
simple activities will result in language learning unless there are also
grammar lessons. In fact there may be mild evidence in support of a limited
role for "focusing on form' as a means of improving one's accuracy in
the new language. However, grammar may be more important than this for some
people, since they seem to have a psychological barrier to language learning
without grammar study. For such people, we recommend our paper Kick Starting
Your Language Learning: Becoming a Basic Speaker Through Fun and Games
Inside a Secure Nest. People with this need can also read grammar
descriptions in addition to their normal language learning activities.
However, if there are no descriptions available, they will need to postpone
producing one until they learn the language! They might keep brief notes of
the aspects of grammar that they notice while learning the language.
If some people feel a need to "understand the
grammar", other people are in the opposite position. Rather than the
absence of a focus on grammar being intimidating, they find that grarnmar is
intimidating. They will be relieved to know that language learning can
proceed steadily through the above activities without their "learning
You might have wondered where grammar fits into the above
picture of mental links between sound forms and mental images. We talked as
though you understand a noun by connecting it to a simple mental
"picture" of sorts. What is popularly called "grammar"
involves aspects of language that are used 1) to organize simple images into
simple "scenes", and 2) to orchestrate "movies" that are
built out of connected sequences of simple scenes (what is you get when you
understand a story, for example). Your language learning cannot depend on
your understanding how this works, because no one really does. You mostly
need to trust your brain, believing that it will sort this all out. And for
the most part it will, without a lot of help from you, as you keep improving
your ability to understand increasingly difficult speech. It is a natural
growth process, at least for the most part.
As for pronunciation, it is important to develop a thorough
and crisp awareness of what the language sounds like when spoken by native
speakers. People who attempt to learn languages by memorizing and drilling
tend to do a lot of speaking before they are hearing the language clearly.
There own pronunciation then becomes the basis for the memory of the sound
forms of the language. We don't recommend that. We think that throughout
early language learning understandingshould predominate over speaking, and
especially during the first month. This way you can at least be aware of the
fact that your speech differs from that of native speakers, and gradually
tune your instrument. Beyond this, some training in phonetics is great,
especially if it is oriented toward the language you want to learn. If you
do not have such training you might benefit from the help of someone who
does, and who has learned this language as a second language. However, not
having phonetic training in no way cripples you.
3.3. Reading and Writing?
We are a bit unusual here. We distinguish between language
learning in the narrow sense, and second language literacy and composition
skills. Certainly the development of literacy and composition skills are
closely tied to, and significantly effect, language learning in the narrower
sense. Reading often feeds directly into speaking, provided you are at the
point where you can figure out new words from context, and the writing
system is fairly closely tied to the pronunciation system. And literacy and
composition skills may be essential (eventually) for you as an educated
member of your new speech community. For beginners, you may have difficulty
finding any reading materials appropriate to your level of language ability.
We see no need to rush into reading at this stage. Once you know more
language you can develop reading fluency more quickly, primarily by just
reading a lot. If the language has a complex writing system, then you might
prefer to postpone reading and writing a few months anyway, until you know
enough of the language to understand what your literacy teacher is saying.
We don't recommend receiving your literacy instruction in English (or any
other language except for the language you are learning). But these are
topics for another day.
3.4. These activities are impossible in your situation?
Now, you tell me, the speakers of the language you are
learning are all monolingual, and they cannot understand pictures or photos,
plus they believe that photos steal people's souls, and therefore they kill
photographers, as well as people who make tape recordings (they torture
people who make videos). Furthermore, it is against their cultural rules to
talk to you until after you know their language.
A few thoughts on situations where structured language
learning activities are impossible. Our first thought is that it is a
characteristic of severe discouragement to feel that "all is hopeless;
everything is impossible; and nothing can possibly work." If you are in
this condition, then I wouldn't pressure you. Think about what you have
read, ruminate over it, pray. Go fishing (and reread this when the fish
aren't biting). You may come up with some small solutions which will grow
into big ones.
But no. You aren't at all discouraged. You just know that
structured language learning activities are not possible in this monolingual
situation. This need not be tragic as long as you stick to the principles of
communing, understanding, talking and evolving. People will talk to you in
ways that make it possible for you to understand what they are saying with
the help of what you see, and the general context. So just engage in such
communication for many hours a week. You will progress.
But in many other difficult situations, structured
activities such as those described above will make the difference between
learning a language and not learning it. This is especially true if you
cannot be immersed in a community where the language is spoken, and even
moreso if you only have sporadic access to native speaker friends (in which
case the use of the technological aids takes on some urgency).
3.5. But you're a language TEACHER!
Wonderful. You probably chose that line of work because you
enjoy seeing language learners succeed. You can easily apply the CUTE
principles, because you're the teacher. Now in many cases, you will already
have a raft of ideas for language learning activities which are similar to
our simple activities and you use them regularly. You are already into
"leamer-centered" ways of doing things, and you train your
students to take responsibility for their own learning. Nothing more need be
But if you are a more "traditional" teacher, then
you may want to consider re-educating your students with regard to what your
role is, that is, if you decide that you would like to start helping them to
join with you around experience using language. You may also want help them
to develop leamer autonomy. That is, as time goes on, the students would
increasingly take responsibility for how they want to join together with you
around experience using language. You can begin by giving them some
experiences to build on. For example, you might do simple activity one with
them the first day, using a pile of objects that you provide. After that,
each student can bring several objects that they would like to learn to talk
about. Or students can make role cards for other students to use, either
with one another, or with you taking one of the roles. Some students will
have learning goals that are important to them right from the beginning. By
responding enthusiastically to their goals, you can use them as models for
other learners who need to learn to take more responsibility for planning
3.6. Or you're a STUDENT in a language school or language
Depending on the nature of your course, you may want to go
ahead and do something like our simple activities on your own, outside of
class. If you do this, say, two hours per week with a native speaker friend,
you may find that you progress more quickly in the language than is the case
when you limit yourself to your course activities.
3.7 God bless busy moms.
We have noticed that language learning can be a special
challenge for busy moms. We feel our approach can make a big difference. For
one thing, Dad can do all the work of getting language learning visits set
up and prepare the language learning activities. If both desired and
possible, the native speaker friends can come to the learners' home for the
language learning visits. If Mom can manage, say, an hour a day for such
visits, they will give her a refreshing break from other activities. Now if
the baby starts to fuss right in the middle of an activity, it is up to Dad
to get distracted, making sure that Mom remains free to enjoy the activities
to the hilt. If the activities are tape recorded, Mom can listen to the tape
later, while Dad prepares supper or does the dishes.
If there are older kids or teens, then they should
participate in the daily hour (or two) of language learning activities. This
means that the activities must be designed to be interesting and engaging
for all ages. That is O.K, because the extra effort to make things fun and
interesting may benefit the adults' learning more than the kids'. Having
children involved is a good way to force yourself to do good language
Now every couple and family is unique, and it may often be
the case that Mom and the kids will want an equal chance to plan and direct
the language learning activities. That is fine too. It is just that Mom
needs to be assured that if need be, all she has to do is be present when
the visits happen, and take part, and she will make good progress.
3.7. What it's like to keep evolving
We think it is amazing how language ability grows. For your
early language learning visits, it will take a lot of planning in order to
have rich experiences of understanding and talking. But in a few months you
will be hearing volumes of language that you can understand, as long as your
native speaker friends are making a good effort to be understood by you. Yet
even then, structured activities can be beneficial, helping you to quickly
fill in gaps. But as you continue to join with people around experience
using language, you will move out into the open plains of culture learning.
You will find suggestions in our paper Language Learning in the Real World
for Non- Beginners. In brief, you tend to move from being able to understand
speech about the here and now, to being able to understand other language
with familiar content (such as stories about events that are familiar to
you), to being able to understand concrete language with unfamiliar content
(such as stories about events that are unfamiliar to you), to being able to
understand "fancy" language, like oratory, poetry, academic
But don't make language learning too complicated. Simple
activities 1-5 can keep you profitably busy for months, moving you steadily
forward. We recommend that you at least do those activities. Some people can
provide you with much longer lists of language learning activities. We
prefer to suggest a smaller number of carefully chosen ones-ones that we
feel are especially powerful and relatively pleasant for a wide variety of
people (including some of you who were supposed to have quit reading on the
When you meet for an hour or more with a native speaker
friend, it is good to switch activities fairly steadily. Other activities
like Total Physical Response (see the books and materials available through
Sky Oaks Productions, P.O. Box 1102, Los Gatos, California, 95031 1102)
offer lots of ideas. And once you're into this, you'll be inventing your own
activities that fulfil the CUTE principles. Changing activities can make the
time more fun and interesting for both you and your native speaker friends.
Evaluate the quality of each language learning visit by the "laugh
And that's it. We have suggested five simple activities that
you can use on a regular basis. Now you will need to follow the following
1) Establish contact with one or more native speakers.
2) Schedule a language learning visit
3) Plan your language teaming activities for your visit.
4) Conduct your visit.
5) Repeat 2-5 (and sometimes 1)
Five activities. Five steps. And you're on your way.
this article in Language Impact's Language Learning communities.