Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Insider Secrets: Learning a New Language

When I was in Dallas last month, a friend asked me my secrets of learning a new language. His question made me laugh. As if. . .

. . . as if! Well, the subject of language learning would be fodder for 50 blogs, I dare say. First, there's the Russian language school in Vermont where I studied summer of 1998. It was a total immersion language school which means, that a person is, well, surrounded by nothing but the new language. In fact, if we spoke anything other than Russian on campus during the eight weeks, we were threatened with expulsion. Lucky for me, I had a car there and managed to get off campus quite regularly. That helped because for me, total immersion was an understatement. I'd say drowning would be more accurate.

Another topic would be statements that I've made in Russian, saying something quite different from what I had intended. Claiming, for instance, that I worked at the circus - simply because the Russian word for circus is so similar to the word for church. Oh yes, this topic could go on at length. But don't run off, please (that's to say, пожалуйста), dear blog reader don't flee just yet, I have no intention of inflicting that sort of torture on anybody. But I digress. Where were we?

Oh yes, language learning. I do know a thing or two about that. I may have purchased, as a matter of fact, nearly every Russian language learning tool published between 1996 and 2000. Perhaps I exaggerate. Perhaps not. Cassettes, flash cards, books on culture, dictionaries -- pocket-sized to 5-pounders. That was before I even moved to Russia. Then one day it occurred to me that the information in those books would not enter my brain by simple osmosis. Having them on a shelf within 15 feet of my skull wouldn't cut it. I had to open them, live in them and digest them. Oh yum.

Still, there are a couple of techniques that have made a difference for me. One is using a white board for vocabulary drills, 15 minutes morning and evening. What vocabulary? I like to keep an index card handy to jot down new words that I encounter. And then come home, look them up and expand on those words. Like if it's a noun, influence for example. Enlarge that to include the adjective and verb forms, influencial, to influence and such.

Another source of words for drilling is Vis-Ed, a company based in Springfield, Ohio which produces language learning cards. These are pocket-sized cards, maybe 1 .5 by 3-inches and printed with vocabulary words. The set has 1000 cards. Drilling with those is useful. And carrying them in a pocket or purse, just to pull out or look at in odd moments - waiting for the tram or walking along.

I need to insert a photo here, don't I? You're wanting to have a look at these cards, are you not, dear blog reader? Okay, I'll do that sometime. Only thing is right now I need to be getting ready. . . need to be heading off to the circus by 9:15. Oh my, did I say circus? Well, you know what I meant, didn't you?


Tammy said...

I feel your pain... and share in the laughter!

Jeanette M said...

You've given me hope...chu-chute...that I will eventually have a reasonable grasp of the Russian language. I'm also laughing as I think about the huge pile of learning resources I have accumulated, but rarely find time to open. This year I mispronouced probka (traffic jam) as pobka (the place you put a diaper...) LOL