A useful first guide to language learning

by Patrick Hall
(Maryland, USA)

Despite its age (it was published in 1989), I found this book to be a useful addition to my collection on language learning. I like the fact that it's brief, and easily readable. The tone is informal (and at times even humorous), but the information conveyed is clearly based on the author's hard-earned experience.


The book is primarily aimed at those who are immersed in a culture where a language is spoken, where opportunities to hear and use a language are not limited. Nonetheless, the advice is applicable to anyone who has at least some interaction with a language. If you want to make progress learning Mandarin in Beijing, or English in Cincinnati, or Spanish in Madrid, you're *still* going to have to make the effort to get out there and talk to people. This book can't make you do that, but it can give you tips about how to plan ahead so that when you work up the courage, you'll be ready to make some real progress.

The primary learning technique that Marshall advocates is called "The Daily Learning Cycle." This is a set of repeatable steps:

1) Decide what you want to learn. How to introduce yourself? How to buy milk? How to ask directions?

2) Prepare a script. Try to ask a native speaker to help you come up with a good dialog for a particular situation you have decided to work on. You'll acquire vocabulary through this process, and also a sense of what is correct language for a given situation -- should you speak formally or informally?

3) Practice. You should practice the script until you have it down pat. Marshall gives various approaches to creating helpful drills here. There is some great advice here.

4) Communicate what you've learned. Take your script out into the world, and use it. Marshall's portraits of what might actually happen when you try to pull off this scary step are entertaining and a bit humbling, but from my own experience, quite realistic! You have to grow a thick skin if you really want to become a competent language learner.

5) Evaluate. This is a great idea, and one that I have tried to start implementing myself. Once you're done trying out your newly acquired phrases in the real world, you should analyze your progress. Which words did you find difficult to pronounce? Which words did you forget? Were the reactions I got what I was expecting?

Next Marshall addresses proficiency, and how to measure it. He gives tips on goal setting, and a graded proficiency scale that you can use to see how far you've come, and how far you have to go. This is something that I think a lot of autodidact language learners (myself included) fail to do, and they end up losing motivation. Setting and achieving clear goals is a great way to feel like you're making progress.

Chapter four addresses the human relationships in language learning: between the learner and community members, and especially between the learner and a mentor. He discusses how to find a good mentor, and the issue of compensation.

Chapter five gives a selection of sample lesson plans. These have whimsical titles like "Quickly sir, what do you have for diarrhea? Or, How to Plan for Sudden Distress." Very practical, and worth studying.

The sixth chapter, "Techniques and Tricks" is, as its title suggests, a bit of a grab-bag: time management, using visual aids, memory tricks, and so on. Any of these topics could be expanded, but it will get your ideas going.

The final chapters cover learning at home before you leave, and suggests that you do things like visit ethnic restaurants related to wherever you're going. There's also advice on the long-term view: what do you do if you exhaust all the opportunities for formal training in your target language? Then you *must* become a self-directed learner.

Finally comes an annotated bibliography, which is itself a very useful resource. For whatever reason, the literature on self-directed language learning is rather on the outskirts of mainstream linguistics, and even other language-related fields like language acquisition and second-language instruction. There were several titles in here that I plan to track down.

So, all in all I would say this is a great guide for anyone who hopes to learn a language on their own. It's also a nice antidote to the fact that most literature on this topic is burdened with missionary terminology promoting a specific religious viewpoint. Language learning is not, in and of itself, religious in nature. So secular texts like this one, although they are far and few between, are very valuable indeed. My only complaint is that this text could be longer.

Highly recommended.

Review from Amazon.com

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