Language Learning Strategies: Less Complacency, More Input

About a decade ago, the house I grew up in was to be torn down and my parents had to move. Although they are not hoarders, their possessions had accumulated over space of three decades, and my mother, daunted by the enormity of the task, said to me, “Imagine… I will have to handle each and every single item contained in this place at least twice, once packing it up and then unpacking it again.”

Much later, it struck me that there was an obvious parallel with regards to language learning. If you want to be truly proficient in a language, you’ve got to tackle all the contents of every wardrobe, cupboard and shelf, working your way with a fine-toothed comb through all the rooms of the “linguistic house”, including the dingy basement and the dust-ridden attic. And wouldn’t it be nice if you could remember vocab, phrases, verb forms and expressions by coming across them merely twice? As if…!

Like my mother at the point of moving house, I often feel totally overwhelmed by my self-imposed task to learn Spanish “properly”. It seems to me that I’ve lost a couple of toes to frostbite already, toiling up the frozen slopes of Mount Everest in air so thin I can barely breathe, only to find that I’ve dragged myself no further than Base Camp. After two and a half years in Spain, I’m reminded every day that I’ve still got such a long way to go.

During my first year in Spain, I was in perpetual linguistic panic mode. Despite having studied Spanish off and on for years, I understood precious little of what was being said to me. The prospect of having to make a simple phone call, where there was no body language to go on, was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.

To fix the comprehension problem, I bought a radio and lugged it around the flat with me like Linus his blanket, so I could listen to it while performing mundane tasks like hanging out the washing. Every morning, with my eyelids still stuck together and before I even remembered who I was, I would flick on the little black box and let my eardrums be bombarded with the country’s economic woes (no end in sight), last weekend’s traffic accident death toll (shocking) and today’s weather forecast (mostly sunny).

This way, making the most of every spare minute, I racked up between three and five hours of listening time a day, and, within the space of four months, my comprehension improved sufficiently so I’d no longer have gremlins wrestling in my stomach before every appointment with my accountant.

Salamanca Poppies

The language learner’s number one enemy, in my opinion, is complacency. Once the red alarm light stops flashing, once you can sort of function in daily life, it’s very tempting to just settle in your comfort zone. A lot of people stop pushing themselves at this point, it’s all they strive for.

My own objectives, however, were set a couple of notches higher from the very outset, but this doesn’t mean that I’m immune to laziness. As communicating became more manageable, I gradually let my daily radio routine slip, preferring soothing silence over the constant witterings about corruption scandals, royal hunting accidents and La Merkel’s cracking of the fiscal whip.

Trouble is, when learning a language, input is absolute key. Good comprehension is one thing, but building a sizeable active vocabulary and verbal eloquence quite another. We’ve all heard people say things like, “Oh, I understand [X-Language] just fine, but I can’t really speak it all that well”. Well, I’m sorry, but this is no good to me. No good at all.

To be able to produce language in a natural manner, to synthesise its components into fluent and flawless speech, without the need to translate or awkwardly dodging your way around tricky constructions, you need A HELL OF A LOT of input.

Language is, first and foremost, a copy cat endeavour. You need to hear the same words and phrases being said over and over again, in different contexts, to be certain of how to use them appropriately. Even being “original” requires that you know the rules before you start mucking about with them. Listening to the radio is an excellent way of receiving input, so I re-committed to this strategy four weeks ago, and I’m going to stick with it.

Whenever I get too bogged down with the seemingly unfathomable Spanish subjunctive, the tricky conditional and the pesky prepositions, I remind myself that, instead of letting these persistent trouble spots wrench all the joy out of my learning, I just have to “trust the process”. Instead of kicking the skirting boards, I need to let it seep in naturally and allow my clogged-up brain to assimilate the information in its own time. It will happen, eventually, I firmly believe in this (because I’ve done it before), even it it takes a lot longer than I had originally anticipated. For someone as impatient as I, accepting this is half the battle.

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52 thoughts on “Language Learning Strategies: Less Complacency, More Input

  1. Wendy Kate

    Oh dear. I actually hate admitting to people that I have been in Spain for 10 years, as I cannot believe either how bad my Spanish is. But the truth is I am now BORED with learning Spanish, even though I do go to an excellent teacher each week , I do nothing else the rest of the time. My friends are ex pats or Spanish who speak English and I work at an international school…so those are my lame excuses πŸ™‚

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  2. Expat Eye

    I love your language posts! Fantastic, as always! You’ve inspired me to switch over from something I’m not really watching in English to a German channel πŸ™‚ Oh, and I learned a new word yesterday – dick – but that resulted in some laughter and the end of the lesson. Back to it πŸ˜‰

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  3. Jackie Cangro

    One of the biggest issues for me to overcome when speaking (or trying to speak) Italian is the embarrassment. I realize I’m getting words wrong, or I’m not conjugating verbs correctly. I must sound like a 3 year old. I have a similar problem in listening comprehension. People speak so quickly and I’m often lost.

    I bet being immersed in the language by living there helps — mostly because you have no choice. πŸ˜‰ Great post!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I totally get the embarrassment factor, it’s a big one for me. However, I have a theory that reluctant speakers, once they can overcome this, actually turn into more competent speakers than those who don’t care so much about their mistakes and just start speaking freely very early on… I might write a post on this and see what people’s response it.

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  4. wannabe polyglot

    Great post, as usual! I need to step it up too. Been so busy with assignments and crap that I don’t take the time for my languages. Even though I do have plenty of time, I just don’t… Sigh, eternal struggle!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Same here. I drag out the things I MUST do (i.e.) work until late in the day, and then I’ve no time left for the things I actually WANT to do. Grrrr!

      How’s your shoulder?

      And what exams are these?

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      1. wannabe polyglot

        Exactly!! I frequently think ‘oh I could look at some Portuguese stuff’ and then realise that it’s 8pm and that I really need to eat something.

        English and Stats. Oh the joy…
        The shoulder is feeling pretty good. I’m cautiously optimistic that this was the last surgery. But I still have another 3ish months of physio ahead of me.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Stats? Am looking at some right now (for work) and it’s less than delightful. Good luck!

        Good to hear you’re on the mend. But awrh, another surgery 😦

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      3. wannabe polyglot

        Stats was really painful, about 5x the workload of the English course, but I’m just about done with these two. Finals are in two weeks.

        No, sorry meant that I hope I won’t need another surgery. Fingers crossed!

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      4. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Oh, so it’s the very last round of exams for you? Great! You can crank up the Portuguese again once that’s out of the way. Come over to Portugal, I’ll meet you there πŸ˜‰

        Soz, I misunderstood… OK, so it’s just plenty of physio for you. Tedious, but necessary, I guess!

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      5. wannabe polyglot

        No, sadly it’s not quite done, but I’ll take a break for the summer. Oh man, if I wasn’t a poor cripple I’d be seriously tempted!

        You know, I wonder sometimes how necessary physio really is… alas the surgeon is very keen on it and I shall keep him happy so he won’t reach for the scalpel again.

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  5. bevchen

    Great post, as always. And you’ve reminded me (again) that I really need to get back to my Spanish learning. I was all enthusiastic for about two weeks, then life got in the way again…

    I absolutely LOVE the photo you’ve used in this post!

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  6. Kim in Fiji

    I’m another fan of the language posts. Just out of curiosity – what would YOU do if your target language was a local pidgin that did not have books or broadcasts available?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      That’s a tough one… I already struggle to find enough stuff in European Portuguese, coz most of the material available online is Brazilian. I guess you’d have to engage in some well-structured language tandems with people who understand their own language and know how to explain things. Not every random native speaker is useful… gotta be selective. Perseverance will get you there. Good luck!

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  7. linnetmoss

    Laughing my arse off at the fat dick πŸ˜‰ But seriously, I was taken with the image of your mother handling every item in the house when it had to be torn down (!). There is something very moving about that. No pun intended.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Linda always has to get that one in somewhere πŸ˜‰

      The house… it’s weird… a completely different building now stands there in its spot. This is how we know we’re getting old, when the pivotal places that marked our childhood have changed beyond recognition.

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  8. y. prior

    nicely written – and your love for language is inspiring – and loved the point about input!!!
    and this….
    β€œtrust the process”
    πŸ™‚

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  9. barbedwords

    I’m always gripped by guilt after reading one of your language posts…I’m totally in the comfort zone where I can function ok so there’s no pressure to improve my Italian any further. Plus I go back to England for two months in the summer and by the time I return, I struggle to remember how to say ‘two coffees please!’

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Well, we all have different things we feel passionate about and which motivate us. Languages just aren’t your thing. You wrote a book instead! Not exactly chicken shit…

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  10. Anna

    First of all, this is your best-written piece on language learning yet. So compelling. Second – RADIO! OMG, I am decent w Spanish grammar and speaking/writing but my comprehension is nil. I need to start doing this, the radio… or watch our own news channel! I have been doing more work in Spanish – for work – and this could be the kick in the pants to get more involved with our Spanish outreach. Anyway, bravo.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Oooh, outrageous flattery… always welcome πŸ˜‰

      You already work 16-hour days – how are you going to fit in any more?! I hope you can make it happen somehow…

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      1. Anna

        I don’t know, live-stream our channel while I’m in the shower? I freaked out my cab driver on Friday because I was in the back seat with my laptop open, while Jen Psaki (US State Dep spokesperson) was blasting through my iphone speakers. That’s how we roll, baby. Seriously, vacation cant come soon enough and yet I dread it because WHAT IF SOMETHING HAPPENS AND I CANT CONTROL IT? >.<

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  11. camparigirl

    I think the reason so many people plateau is that the leap between learning to just get by in a language and becoming fluent does require a lot of effort, even if it is, as you say, just copycat. A genuine interest in the culture and immersion which doesn’t include hanging out with other expats all the time also help.

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  12. The Polyglut

    Have I been living under a rock? This is sound advice and I think I’ll pursue it with Chinese. My Chinese listening skills are abhorrent and I think that may be because I slipped into that complacent zone.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I’ve not seen you around for a while… too busy with studies and/or outrageous student social life, I should imagine…

      Got a raft of language-posts coming up in the near future, although I can’t hope to compete with your …erm… exotic choices πŸ˜‰

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  13. adamf2011

    I’m curious: Were you actively paying attention to the radio, or just using it as a kind of “background input” to be absorbed unconsciously? And do you have any opinions on the relationship between the radio (etc) input on the one hand, and more formal study of grammar/vocab on the other?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I try to listen actively, but of course, if you listen for a longer duration, you sometimes switch off, especially when the programme fails to rouse your interest πŸ˜‰

      I believe some formal study is necessary (though this doesn’t have to happen in a classroom), in order to discern the patterns. When you learn your first language as a kid, your linguistic landscape is blank, and with your first language, you get “boxes” installed. Of course, these boxes don’t work for other languages, but your brain will still try to filter new languages through these boxes, because that’s all it has to work with, it’s all it knows. This impedes the language acquisition process. It’s a type of ‘interference’.

      I see this here in Spain – the foreigners who never had any formal classes, although they often communicate very effectively, well, their grammar is, usually, shit. They’ve never understood how the tenses work, for example.

      Some degree of formal study gives you new boxes to play with, you become a discerning listener, able to correctly analyse what you hear and then apply it yourself. Acquiring knowledge of the structure and mechanics of a language gives you many satisfying “aha” moments in real life situations when you’re surrounded by the language you’re trying to learn.

      When I first arrived in the UK 25 years ago, I never took any formal classes, because I’d learned English at school, the “boxes” where already there. I remember that after three months, suddenly, I understood every word of the TV news, like if a switch had been flicked.

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