I recently asked myself a lot about how I shall learn a language because this is, what I am currently doing.
To answer this, I mainly was catching-up ideas and opinions from my teachers, colleague educators and language student friends. During that, I tried some recommended methods, reflected if they help me achieve the goals in the flow that I like and kept the one that worked for me the best.
I feel that now I have enough experience with the methods to recommend a combination. I call this combination of methods: my strategy. Although I can`t say that I will use this strategy without any doubts, I finally feel that my progress is fast enough that it`s more likely that by changing the strategy, I will lose more time than when I simply keep going.
By saying “learn a language” I have two different things in my mind: The first one is to learn a completely new language where I have no knowledge yet. For me, this is Cantonese, while it`s important to mention that I`m just learning the spoken language: I am not learning Chinese writing and I`m using an unstructured way of phonetic spelling but since I had my classes with the Yale system it is oriented on it. The second language is English. Even if my skills in English are good for discussions I want to practice since I have spoken with my friends and family mainly German and Polish until I become 20. For both levels, I want to mention here my strategy while I will start with Cantonese and end with English.
My focus in Cantonese is to remember some basic words or phrases… to minimize confusion I will not add “or phrase” anymore but it is always implied when I use “word”.
Temporary digital notebook
When I find a new word, where I see myself using this in the future, I write it down. The rule is that I must get clear that I can write down the pronunciation of the word in the new language and in my own. My suggestion is to use a digital one because when I get multimedia, I want to keep track of this too. I also keep track there about art in the language like games, movies, songs, books etc. The most important idea of this digital notebook is to see it as a temporary memory, so the words here must be moved to flashcards and to the notebook with categories. Usually, I get inspired or motivated so although there is no rule almost every art is leading to a conversation with partner, family and friends, and this is improving how quick I remember the new word from it because it is a nice memory. While I play, watch, read or listen I try to write new words down with the rule mentioned in this chapter, but afterwards, I am deleting the multimedia.
Since the idea of flashcards is so common, I will not make a huge in-depth explanation, but I feel that it`s important to mention that I memorize with them just for a couple of minutes every day, I am looking at the word in my own language (so I try to remember the new language by looking on my own) and I use 5 COLORS. Let`s say I have made a list of new words on flashcards:
1. I will take a “good amount” as my first goal. I must get a “big piece” of this “good amount” correct to go to the next “good amount”. In the beginning, all flashcards are WHITE. I will firstly look at every card once, in both languages.
2. Now I start to remember the new language and if I am correct the flashcard becomes YELLOW and if not it`s ORANGE now. Next to those colours, I am using RED and GREEN. That`s it for the first time.
1b. On the following days, I am using alternative steps. Until the “big piece” is GREEN. I start by looking at every RED and ORANGE card once in both languages.
2b. Now I try to remember and if I am wrong with an ORANGE one it becomes RED. The levels should be clear now:
RED < ORANGE < YELLOW < GREEN.
There is just one chance every day to move a card. If a card is GREEN I assume it`s “in the brain” and I am not learning it anymore. When I get a RED card wrong, I must ask what the reason is: In my experience, it is usually a word where I don`t have a good context yet or too little connections. That`s why the media are so important and the method with categories in the next chapter will help me here too. I can also try to change the order of the flashcards because when similar cards are closer, I can use this to my advantage. The only open question at this point should be how we estimate the “big piece” and “good amount”. I really think I can continue here with the cooking metaphor and say that it`s up to your taste and how hungry you are. The only rule I follow is to change both when I have fewer level-ups than level-downs.
Notebook with categories
Writing in a book with categories is necessary because it is important to make connections from word to word. The important habit is really the writing because it is one way how I can actively use the words. I am additional using categories like “nouns”, “verbs” or “phrases”. So, I use one page for one category, write down in a category the words that fit. Each with translation. It`s necessary to write down the context where I consumed the word. This context can be the art mentioned above but also a smalltalk is a context or a sign seen on a particular trip.
Now I will mention my strategy for the language I used to learn in school and in university since 5th grade, which I used in Ireland and in Hong Kong on an everyday basis and sometimes in Germany or Poland when I met international speakers. The focus here is to learn new Business English vocabulary but also to improve my writing. Mainly I use here a digital notebook and a normal notebook, but here without categories.
The notebook without categories
I can use the notebook for learning the English language similar to Cantonese but because I have much more known words, I am not using categories here because I think I will create enough connections just by comparison with the large amount of similar build words in our passive knowledge e.g. when the new word is “attempt” I will see that it`s built same as “empty” and that I have two “t”`s after an “a” like in “attention”. I believe that the categories help much at the beginning of language learning but later we are creating too long lists or too specific categories so it`s not easy to chunk. Like the strategy in the new language, I will also write down a translation but this time in my native language so German but I keep writing the context where we consumed the word.
Very different from the usage in the completely new language this one is rather a copy of the notebook-without-categories. The reason to have this copy is the ability of digital devices to show the context with multimedia what is sometimes just better (I don`t have the context in digital form for Cantonese because even if my flashcards are digital already (on Google Keep) I don`t want to have any context there to have a higher difficulty; and since this is digital I decided that it`s just better for my eyes to use a hand-written notebook-with-categories. The third reason is that I have a limited practice time every day for language learning which is these days 2 hours for Cantonese and 1 hour for English and I just realised that the copying described in this chapter for Cantonese is just too much.) Next to the advantage of context with multimedia, I think another one is that it is handier because I have my smartphone always with me so I can make these digital notes also in the park. Finally, copying is also a habit that is very useful to actively use words.