I love learning languages. When I start a new language I am motivated by the sense of anticipation that after a period of sustained effort, I will be able to connect with a new culture, and express myself in a new language. I am probably more motivated than most people. Nevertheless, there are many moments of frustration in the process of acquiring a new language.
One of my learning principles, something that sustains me and enables me to overcome the moments of frustration is the following: I should engage in simple activities that don’t require me to think too hard or deliberately remember anything, and which in some ways are effortless.
Of course these activities are not truly effortless, they are just less frustrating and therefore less effort than some of the more traditional ways of learning. I often have to remind myself of this principle when I am disappointed at forgetting the same thing over and over.
Getting a Toehold In the Arabic Language
When you start in a new language, everything is strange. At present, my goal is to learn Arabic. I have been at it for a week. Everything is different from what I am used to. When I listen I don’t understand a thing. I can’t read the writing.
I know that it can take years to learn Arabic. Nevertheless it is frustrating that after having studied the alphabet, and written out words, and read certain words, when I see these words again I still can’t read them. I have listened to a number of the mini stories we have at LingQ tens of times. I can make out where words end and begin, but other than a few very simple words, everything is still noise to me.
I know that once I am able to read, I will also have an easier time understanding when I listen. This will open up the possibility of learning while in the car, while exercising, while doing the dishes and so forth. But I am not there yet. And no matter how often I read these little stories and listen to them, I still don’t understand much.
But I don’t let this bother me. I don’t force myself to remember. When I do the review activities at LingQ, I minimize flashcards where I have to scratch my brain to remember the meaning of words that I have seen many times, and yet won’t remember when I see them again. Instead I try to engage in less frustrating activities, in the knowledge that eventually things will start to stick.
At this stage in my learning, when I still can’t read Arabic comfortably, my favourite activity is dictation, one of the five review activities at LingQ. I hear the word or phrase pronounced and try to write it with my Arabic keyboard. LingQ tells me if I am right, “close”, or wrong. Mostly I am wrong. Often the audio is not clear to me. I don’t know whether I heard a “d” or a “t” or a “b” sound. But I just write whatever I think is appropriate. I am not upset that I mostly get them wrong, although I am pleased when I get one right or even close. I am not really concerned about how well I’m doing. I know that if I continue in this somewhat repetitive task, trying to write the same words out over and over, eventually I will improve.
Once I am more familiar with Arabic letters, and how the words are spelled, my reading will improve. Thereafter, my listening will improve, my word count will increase, and I will be on my way to the next level, where I can start to enjoy interesting content. But that can bring another problem, the feeling that we are not getting anywhere.
Breaking Through the Plateau
Many learners experience frustration in language learning because of the seemingly endless supply of new words that we have to learn. We want to be able to understand things of interest to us and eventually to be able to use these words to communicate. Yet we feel that progress is painfully slow. What can be done?
It is important not to allow ourselves to get frustrated over our inability to remember things. I just listen and read, whenever I can find the time. My concern is not how much progress I am making. I am either listening to content of interest, or listening to simpler material, in an effort to notice certain words or structures in the language that cause me problems.
I listen while doing other tasks. I vary the nature of the of the content, in terms of subject matter and in terms of the level of difficulty. I mix challenging podcasts or audiobooks on the one hand with repetitive material using a more limited range of vocabulary, like our mini stories at LingQ. When I lose interest in the material I am reading or listening to, I switch to something else. This keep things fresh for me. Remember the brain likes repetition and novelty. Too much repetition and learning efficiency declines. Too much novelty in the form of more challenging material, can be too much effort.
I won’t be at level in Arabic where I can enjoyably listen and read to a range of material for another 3 to 6 months. So I have to choose simpler learning tasks that advance me towards my goals. I am confident that I will get there.
I have been in this situation in other languages. I know from experience that once I’m on the plateau, I may think that I’m not making progress, but I am. In fact my statistics at LingQ will show me that as long as I continue listening and reading, my vocabulary will continue growing. At some point, when I feel I have enough words and phrases bouncing around in my brain, I will feel the urge to speak. At that point I will engage with native speakers, either at LingQ or if LingQ tutors are not available, I will use italki. I have done this for many languages.
Learn Arabic and Access A New World
A week into Arabic and my main task is to try to get some traction in this new language. I am dealing with new vocabulary, new grammatical structures, new sounds, and a completely new writing system. It is therefore important for me to keep things simple.
I have to work every day on tasks that are slightly difficult, yet within my capability . In this way I get a small sense of achievement doing somewhat repetitive tasks knowing that slowly but steadily I am assembling the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that will eventually enable me to spread my wings in my journey of discovery of the Arabic world.
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