Effective Study Methods

 

Back when I started studying Japanese I used a podcast program I had stumbled across. I had a fair amount of experience learning languages – after all I could speak both English and German fluently. I wanted to learn Japanese (due to my endless fascination of Japanese culture) and this podcast program looked promising. It had hundreds of little audio lessons in Japanese ranging from complete noob (me) to advanced (hopefully soon me).

So full of motivation I dove straight into lesson 1 and started working my way through the audio lessons. I learned the greetings and some basic sentences, but after a while I started wondering what I had actually learned from the past 20 lessons. I couldn’t really recall, but looking through some of them again I could recognize it all. So, I continued on with renewed enthusiasm. After all, I really wanted to move to Japan and be able to speak Japanese there. However, this issue persisted – after taking another huge batch of lessons I still didn’t seem to progress much. Listening to the Japanese dialogue in the lessons I could rarely understand anything at all. And trying to speak a little to myself I wasn’t able to express much either. Good thing there weren’t any Japanese people around so I’d have realized I couldn’t speak to them either.

Does this sound like something you’ve experienced too?

It wasn’t until I joined the Add1Challenge I was (heavily) encouraged to get a Skype teacher on Italki. It wasn’t too expensive so I decided to try it out and found my teacher Noriko. This was probably the best decision I could have made for learning Japanese! After just a few lessons I noticed I had gotten much better at both speaking and listening to Japanese.

This opened my eyes to what a huge difference it makes, when you use effective study methods!

 

2 key elements

When you study a language, there are 2 key elements in your studies:

  • Material
  • Study Methods

 

And it’s important that you both pick suitable material and methods for the specific skills you want to study.

 

Use different approaches/methods for different aspects of learning a language

But Jesper, I just want to study Danish – what’s the most suitable material and method for that?

The thing about languages is that they are rather complex and there aren’t 1 optimal way of learning them. Quite the contrary! Some people will pitch you their new super method for learning a new language like it’s going to bring world peace and cure cancer. But honestly, they are really just displaying their own ignorance (and usually trying to sell you a product they made).

 

There are 4 basic skills of a language:

Oral

Text

Production

Speaking

Writing

Recognition

Listening

Reading

 

On top of this there are grammar and vocabulary that goes across all of these, and pronunciation that extends speaking.

That’s 7 widely different skills! But for some reason a lot of people don’t realize that you can’t learn all these different skills by only employing 1 study method. Like myself back when I was listening to the podcast, expecting to learn speaking this way. It was accompanied by some written material as well as a flashcard system, but even so there wasn’t any chance of me learning to speak Japanese this way. Because there wasn’t any speaking involved. I feel a bit dumb for not realizing it back then.

 

Active learning beats passive learning

When studying it’s easy to fall into the ‘passive learning trap’ where all study activities become easy choices, like watch Youtube videos, listen to podcasts or reading articles or even a text book.

None of these activities are bad, but also really not very effective as it’s just dumping information into your brain. The brain doesn’t know what to do with it so just archives it. But the brain isn’t designed as a database where you can fetch any data store with relative ease. It’s designed be good at recognizing things you’ve seen before and mastering skills you execute repeatedly.

This is why I felt like I already knew the material when I listened to some of the podcasts again. The issues was that I couldn’t recall any of it actively so it wasn’t super useful.

While I do believe it’s important to exercise all 7 skills of a language, what I’ve found when I practice speaking or writing is that I also improve my listening or reading, respectively.

For more information on the topic, I can recommend this article.

 

So where does that leave traditional classroom teaching??

Classroom teaching is from a time where we couldn’t just download a lesson online. Schools and libraries were your only access to knowledge. Because of this it’s designed as a way to provide knowledge and skills to a large audience. And while some places has been upgraded with more expensive material or tools, the format has largely remained the same. This is an issue, because it’s not designed based on how the memory works or how certain skills are acquired, but how it was convenient and efficient to deliver knowledge to a large audience.

Classroom studies still have a couple of things going for it: It’s decent for distributing information to a wide audience while enabling live questions to the expert. It also provides some level of accountability which is an often underestimated quality.

But let’s take a look at a couple of common classroom activities to get a better understanding of what’s going on:

  • Grammar explanations.
    Works quite well as the grammar is explained, usually with examples, and the students can ask questions to an expert.
  • Reading out loud in the class.
    This mostly teach you vocabulary and to some extent grammar, and only in a reading context. The vocabulary is centered around one topic, which is good, but there’s no Spaced Repitition involved.
    If it’s the student reading out, the individual student practices pronunciation, but the rest listens to mostly incorrect pronunciation (not a good listening exercise).
  • Questions, teacher to student.
    Includes only listening for the students who aren’t selected to answer. And even those only get to practice a minimum of speaking, not in a conversation context.
    The only upside is that all the students are tasked with trying to understand the question uttered and formulating an answer.
  • Speaking exercise with your fellow students.
    This looks like a good exercise because you exercise speaking which is what most people dream of mastering. But it has a number of severe drawbacks: None of the students are likely able to use perfect grammar, vocabulary and especially pronunciation. So, it can easily result in bad habits because mistakes aren’t caught and corrected.

It’s not my intention to bash classroom lessons and label them as useless, because as I described in the beginning of the section, they have some useful qualities. But if you rely exclusively on classroom lessons to learn Danish, it’ll take years if not decades to get fluent, due to the low amount of speaking practice.

 

Suggestions of Effective Study Methods

I’ve tried out a number of different study methods and apps in my various language journeys, and here I’ll outline some of the methods I’ve had the most success with.

Also, don’t do apps – they all suck !! I’ve only tried 2 apps that I didn’t end up discarding because the study methods applied we’re rather crappy. (And those 2 apps would be Skritter and Flashcard Deluxe – and the latter isn’t even a language learning app).

 

Digital Flashcards (with Spaced Repitition)

These are great for learning vocabulary and grammar. I’ve used them extensively in my language studies and soon I’ll write a long post outlining my experiences and how to get the most out of them. But for now I’ll leave you with a bit of advice:

  • I know of 2 good flashcard systems: Anki & Flashcard Deluxe (Anki is free, but I prefer Flashcard Deluxe, though it costs $4)
  • Make you words and sentences from English to Danish
  • Use Spaced Repetition (not going through them in order or randomly)

Some people don’t like flashcards because they say they’re boring. That’s completely true, but I do enjoy seeing that I’m able to learn 30 new words every day using them. That kind of results really motivate me and give me a sense of great satisfaction.

One note though: With Korean the use of flashcards and self-talk resulted in some rather cringy pronunciation flaws that my teacher had to point out repeatedly – so please be mindful of that.

 

Private teacher/tutor

This is probably the most expensive tip, but also the most effective one. There are few things as effective as the undivided attention of a language teacher, especially because he can help you with whichever part you find tricky. It’s also a good way to ensure that you get some speaking practice as well as accountability. When I learned Japanese and Spanish, I used to have daily lessons on Skype with my teachers. It’s without a doubt a part of reason why I progressed fast.

 

Language partners

A good alternative to a private teacher is a language partner. You lose the benefits of a structured learning experience, but save your money instead. The main expense here is time – it can take a lot of time, but I also find it super fun. It’s important to balance having fun and practicing both languages when you’re doing language exchange.

 

Self-talk

This is a good way to practice grammar and vocabulary. Alternatively setting time aside to write down sentences to practice grammar and vocabulary can work too. The idea is simply to practice words and grammar you know, by making sentences about what you see, do or think about. And it’s a very flexible method because you can make it as hard or easy as you want to. The main drawback here is that you don’t get any correction so it might hurt your pronunciation.

 

Shadowing

This is the act of repeating sentences you’ve just heard. Quite like a parrot. This is usually encouraged with podcast systems, but I also sometimes do it while watching a movie or even in conversations. This method only really does one thing (even though some podcast systems make it sound like it will get you fluent in no time): Improve your pronunciation. It’s quite good at that because all you focus on is the “correct” sound and how you sound repeating it. But there’s no activation of vocabulary in anyway so you need to practice this in other ways.

 

Key take-aways

There are a lot of different study methods and they all have different advantages and shortcomings, but more importantly they train different parts of Danish. It’s important to be aware of this when you study Danish and that you select a study method suitable for what you want to train.

 

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