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How Not To Learn A Language – Avoid These 8 Common Mistakes

How Not To Learn A Language – Avoid These 8 Common Mistakes

Maybe you have to learn a foreign language to get a new job, communicate with colleagues abroad or just need it because you want to travel and not feel helpless. In any case, you are part of an exclusive club as only about 17% of US citizens are able to speak a foreign language! But apart from the statistics, there is an even more worrying trend. The way foreign languages are taught is full of pitfalls and not many schools are doing it right. Here are 8 wrong ways to learn a foreign language. So if your teacher is insisting on any of these, it might be a good idea to find another school. We need to keep in mind that language study is not a one-size-fits-all exercise as learning styles will vary.

1. Learning grammar rules

The grammar of a foreign language is full of complicated uses, exceptions and fine distinctions. Teaching these rules might be useful when writing an academic essay but at beginner level, grammar will not help a student to understand or to communicate in the language.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency decided to abandon the grammar based approach when teaching their border agents Spanish. They prioritized the language tasks the agents needed such as communicating with immigrants, calming detained families and explaining legal rights in simple terms. You can see why knowledge of the subjunctive here would be pretty useless! They helped them develop the language skills for these tasks by using role play exercises and videos. At the end of the course, there was a dramatic improvement in their Spanish competence.

2. Learning lots of new vocabulary

Did you know that you only need a limited number of words in any language which are used over and over again? Yes, in English, you can get by for most purposes by just using 300 words. The same goes for most other languages.

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How do you get to know what these words are in your chosen language? Just download an app such as Anki app on your phone and you are ready to go. The system uses flashcard methods which shows you the new words at strategically spaced intervals to help you remember them. The visual element in helping to memorize new words has been stressed by Tim Ferris. He found that reading comics in Japanese was a turning point for his Japanese language skills.

3. Repeating meaningless sentences

If you find that you are asked to repeat meaningless sentences which have no context or even relevance to you personally, then it is unlikely that you will become proficient in the target language. Stephen Krashen, the distinguished linguist, has made it very clear that unless you can understand the messages from comprehensible input, then there is little chance that you will be able to learn the target language. This, he believes, is the most effective way to learn a language. He illustrates this very clearly in the video below.

4. Reading classics in the target language

Experts now agree that reading classics or even simplified versions of them is not the most efficient way to acquire a language. The language may be outdated and the vocabulary archaic. A better alternative is to read children’s books in the target language. This is a great way to get exposure to the language, its essential grammar and vocabulary. Everything is illustrated and the language is perfect for beginners. There is an added advantage in that if you know the story of a fairy tale then that is a great help to contextualize new words and be able to guess their meaning correctly.

5. Underestimating listening skills

The key to communication is understanding what people are saying in your target language. If you neglect this, then you are on the road to failure. Many schools make listening a rather boring exercise and insist on answering comprehension questions which are barely relevant. The result is that students’ listening skills are way below par and this is an obstacle to effective communication.

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Listening must be a daily exercise. With MP3 podcasts, TV shows, news broadcasts, radio, YouTube and a host of other resources, the choice is embarrassing. Students need to listen when they are jogging, commuting or eating alone. This is the easiest and cheapest way you can get to full immersion which would, of course, be ideal.

6. Learning a language the traditional way

Studying grammar and memorizing endless lists of words is not the best way at all. There are now apps which are widely available and I, personally, think that they can complement more traditional methods, so maybe a mixed approach is best.

Did you know that one free app called Duolingo has 50 million users? Experts have said that one college term of language tuition is equivalent to using this app for about 35 hours. But some learners yearn for more formal verb tables and a more structured approach, so find out what works best for you.

7. Not exploiting cognates

“Mastering the vocabulary of most European languages means simply learning to recognize a number of old friends under slight disguises.” – Henry Sweet

Cognates are words which are similar in English and other languages. For example, English and Spanish have lots of words which originally derive from Latin. Learning about cognates is often underestimated because people are obsessed with ‘false friends’. If you say ‘embarazada’ in Spanish, thinking that it may be the same as ‘embarrassed’, you are telling people that you are pregnant! This is an example of a ‘false friend’. But cognates are a great resource as well and language learners need to be aware of this, rather than obsessed with making mistakes.

For example, the following English words:

  • mechanical
  • historical
  • ideological
  • ethical
  • cultural

have almost identical equivalents in Dutch, German, Swedish and Norwegian.

8. Seeing learning a language as a task

Those students who regard the whole language learning process as a means to an end or to achieve a certain goal are going to find the task an uphill one, if they are not passionately involved

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The best way to approach it is to regard it as opening up a box of opportunities to learn about a new culture, to enjoy new literature, movies, computer games, and songs. All your favorite activities can be done in the language you are learning. Chat to new friends on Skype, update your status on social media and reply to emails. Organize a trip to the country to try out your new language skills. This will make the whole process so much more enjoyable and also make your learning really much easier.

Let us know in the comments how you overcame any obstacles when you studied a foreign language.

Featured photo credit: Jumbled wooden letters close up via shutterstock.com

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Robert Locke

Author of Ziger the Tiger Stories, a health enthusiast specializing in relationships, life improvement and mental health.

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Last Updated on May 22, 2019

The Pomodoro Technique: Is It Right for You to Boost Productivity?

The Pomodoro Technique: Is It Right for You to Boost Productivity?

If you spend any time at all researching life hacks, you’ve probably heard of the famous Pomodoro Technique.

Created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is one of the more popular time management life hacks used today. But this method isn’t for everyone, and for every person who is a passionate adherent of the system, there is another person who is critical of the results.

Is the Pomodoro Technique right for you? It’s a matter of personal preference. But if you are curious about the benefits of using the technique, this article will break down the basic information you will need to decide if this technique is worth trying out.

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management philosophy that aims to provide the user with maximum focus and creative freshness, thereby allowing them to complete projects faster with less mental fatigue.

The process is simple:

For every project throughout the day, you budget your time into short increments and take breaks periodically.

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You work for 25 minutes, then take break for five minutes.

Each 25-minute work period is called a “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for tomato. Francesco Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato as his personal timer, and thus the method’s name.

After four “pomodoros” have passed, (100 minutes of work time with 15 minutes of break time) you then take a 15-20 minute break.

Every time you finish a pomodoro, you mark your progress with an “X”, and note the number of times you had the impulse to procrastinate or switch gears to work on another task for each 25-minute chunk of time.

How the Pomodoro Technique boosts your productivity

Frequent breaks keep your mind fresh and focused. According to the official Pomodoro website, the system is easy to use and you will see results very quickly:

“You will probably begin to notice a difference in your work or study process within a day or two. True mastery of the technique takes from seven to twenty days of constant use.”

If you have a large and varied to-do list, using the Pomodoro Technique can help you crank through projects faster by forcing you to adhere to strict timing.

Watching the timer wind down can spur you to wrap up your current task more quickly, and spreading a task over two or three pomodoros can keep you from getting frustrated.

The constant timing of your activities makes you more accountable for your tasks and minimizes the time you spend procrastinating.

You’ll grow to “respect the tomato”, and that can help you to better handle your workload.

Successful people who love it

Steven Sande of The Unofficial Apple Weblog is a fan of the system, and has compiled a great list of Apple-compatible Pomodoro tools.

Before he started using the technique, he said,

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“Sometimes I couldn’t figure out how to organize a single day in my calendar, simply because I would jump around to all sorts of projects and never get even one of them accomplished.”

Another proponent of the Pomodoro Technique is Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal. Shellenbarger tried out this system along with several other similar methods for time management, and said,

“It eased my anxiety over the passing of time and also made me more efficient; refreshed by breaks, for example, I halved the total time required to fact-check a column.”

Any cons for the Pomodoro Technique?

Despite the number of Pomodoro-heads out there, the system isn’t without its critics. Colin T. Miller, a Yahoo! employee and blogger, tried using the Pomodoro Technique and had some issues:[1]

“Pomodoros are an all or nothing affair. Either you work for 25 minutes straight to mark your X or you don’t complete a pomodoro. Since marking that X is the measurable sign of progress, you start to shy away from engaging in an activity if it won’t result in an X. For instance…meetings get in the way of pomodoros. Say I have a meeting set for 4:30pm. It is currently 4:10pm, meaning I only have 20 minutes between now and the meeting…In these instances I tend to not start a pomodoro because I won’t have enough time to complete it anyway.”

Another critic is Mario Fusco, who argues that the Pomodoro Technique is…well…sort of ridiculous:[2]

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“Aren’t we really able to keep ourselves concentrated without a timer ticketing on our desk?… Have you ever seen a civil engineer using a timer to keep his concentration while working on his projects?… I think that, like any other serious professional, I can stay concentrated on what I am doing for hours… Bring back your timer to your kitchen and start working in a more professional and effective way.”

Conclusion

One of the best things about the Pomodoro Technique is that it’s free. Yeah, you can fork over some bills to get a tomato-shaped timer if you want… or you can use any timer program on your computer or phone. So even if you try it and hate it, you haven’t lost any cash.

The process isn’t ideal for every person, or in any line of work. But if you need a systematic way to tackle your daily to-do list, the Pomodoro Technique may fit your needs.

If you want to learn more about the Pomodoro Technique, check out this article: How to Make the Pomodoro Technique More Productive

Reference

[1] Aspirations of a Software Developer: A Month of the Pomodoro Technique
[2] InfoQ: A Critique of the Pomodoro Technique

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