New Languages: 5-week crash course


Week Four: Learn New Languages through Writing and Speaking

Writing. You already have literacy skills that can serve as a powerful tool to develop you learn new languages. This is actually the last thing we develop in language, and not just in foreign languages. Many high school English teachers would probably agree that a lot of people don’t master writing until well into adulthood or college. We need so much input and so much practice to master this skill. That said, while writing is a difficult skill to master, it is a great way to practice and develop language skills.

The method? Write very regularly. I can’t stress how important this is. If you don’t have a real context in which to communicate with other people, don’t let that stop you. Just like we learn the gaps in our knowledge by practicing speaking, you can do the exact same thing with writing. This works to develop skills at all levels and all languages, too. 

Writing at a very basic level is copying. As an absolute beginner, you want to get communicating as quickly as possible. Just as understanding the power of listening and combining it with speaking accelerates your learning, investing time in writing can turn your downtime into time learning, as well as provides content to develop your speaking skills.

One very obvious place to begin is flashcards. Writing and creating your own flashcards of the content you want to learn is an active way to build vocabulary and skills. It also creates input that helps you practicing speaking, and you don’t need another person to practice that skill. Writing those cards will also provide an opportunity to learn to better read, whether your target language uses Latin, or a different, script.

If you are an absolute beginner and not quite ready for the longer reading and fluency activities discussed thus far, there are still plenty of worthwhile activities that will help you build skills. Consider using themed vocabulary from a traditional textbook or a workbook of themed vocabulary. While it is not time spent on authentic communication with another person in the target language, it can be a great way to get some input and build skills during time that would otherwise not be spent in the target language. Using themed vocabulary to create journal entries is another way for an absolute beginner to learn and use vocabulary in a low stress, enjoyable way. For example, you might draw a room and label all of the words in your picture. This is great for learning everyday, common words. Think foods, people, faces, clothes, likes and dislikes, or nature. The possibilities are endless.

While both the visual journal entries and the flashcards involve learning basic words by copying, remember that you did some of this as you developed skills in your first language. As a literate person, you can use these types of activities to much more quickly develop this skill in a new language. You may have noticed that the writing activities and strategies that we discussed can also be used as be used as activities to comprehend reading. Integration of skills is natural.

One of the most powerful tools a person can have, regardless of the context in which they’re learning a language, is a task notebook. Let’s define the term ‘task’ first. A task is doing something in a language to communicate. Tasks can be very easy and simple, they can be extremely complex and they can be everything in between.

This example is basic survival Korean for ordering in a restaurant. It shows some very simple phrases to get a server’s attention and order in a restaurant. It also shows methods to learn written Korean by writing the phrases out in English and Hangul (a useful method to learn patterns and reading in writing systems different than English).

This is an example of words and phrases an absolute beginner would need to order in a Korean restaurant. As you can see, the list isn’t linear, neither is it exhaustive, with long lists of foods and drinks. There is just useful language to complete the task of going to a restaurant. It includes the words and phrases in the target language with my handwritten notes in Korean and in English.

Another reason thinking in terms of tasks is so relevant, is that it helps set you up to learn exactly what you need. In traditional paradigms, language learners are set up to learn the words and phrases that the author of the program they are using has decided the learner needs for each situation. In the case of tasks, the language is all that is needed to complete it. Tasks are not driven by structures or lists. They are driven by the language needed to fulfill real communicative interactions.

The next example I want to share is another survival task. You will see simple Japanese in the relevant Japanese writing system as well as English.

Some topics that can help you get communicating soon to work on:

•       Introductions

•   Directions

•   Making a purchase

•   Buying shoes

•   Checking into a hotel

•   Ordering a meal

•   Making a reservation

•   Survival in a class in the target language

•   Getting a taxi

•   Calling a taxi driver to pick you up at your home

•   Telling a taxi driver how to get to your destination

•   Asking for help to exit a subway station

•   Making a doctor’s appointment

•   Describing symptoms to a doctor

•   Getting medicine at the pharmacy

•   Getting a train ticket, getting the right train and getting off at the right station

•       Answering the telephone

•       Making a phone call

•       Leaving a voice message

Practice speaking. The more you practice, the better you will get. It’s ridiculously simple. All that time talking counts toward the time needed to build up to the language proficiency level you want to achieve.

In addition to the structured lessons you can complete with an app or with a skilled speaker on a site like italki, there are many activities to develop speaking skills in any language on your own. Talk to yourself. Record yourself. Make MP3s of your practice sessions. Record yourself and make playlists out of the MP3s. Talk to people who speak your target language. Whichever way you choose to do it, be sure to talk early and often in the target language.

Looking for some more ways to get writing in a new language? Click here.

Italian Korean Language Teaching Resources for Language Learning and Teaching Spanish

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