Friday, August 11, 2006

Confessions of a Language School Junkie

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Many people in Thailand’s expat community teach English, and many more are learning Thai. Combined, they have more than a passing familiarity with the frustrations of language learning. But help may be at hand: “If you follow a few basic rules, you can take the ordeal out of language learning,” says Dr. Lynn Morris. The occasion was a presentation at Chiang Mai University (CMU), and Lynn called his talk “The Confessions of a Language School Junkie.”

An economist by training, during the last 12 years Lynn has studied five languages in seven countries at 15 different language schools. He only moved to Chiang Mai three years ago, but has already developed conversational fluency in Thai.

In his seminar, he offered ideas about language study from a learner’s perspective – and in his case, a learner with a bad memory. His audience included foreign students training to be English teachers in Thailand, and English instructors from CMU. Lynn’s presentation offered suggestions for learners based on his own experience and research. Noting that the great majority of language school students give up long before they reach conversational fluency, he stressed motivation above all. “Motivation matters.”

But suppose you are motivated. What can you do to speed up your language learning? You need to begin by understanding that most students study too little and try to learn too much. No one can realistically learn more than ten new words a day, for example, but learn new words you must. Says Lynn, “Vocabulary is king in language learning, and verbs are the queen. Ninety-nine percent of the time that I can’t do something in language, it’s because I don’t know the right word.” As a personal aid to his language study, he has created a system of vocabulary cards and voice recordings for pronunciation practice. Technically speaking, this system uses a principle known as anticipated graduated interval recall.

Lynn’s language regimen has five deceptively simple rules. First, “Repetition is the mother of mastery.” Use it. Another imperative is this: learn the most common words in your early days of language learning and move progressively on to those less frequently used. Third, get the pronunciation right. “If you can’t pronounce a word,” Lynn says, “you can’t memorize it.” Vowels are the biggest pronunciation problem for most people, so make this an area of special effort. Fourth, learn the vocabulary before you begin a reading practice. After all, reading exercises are about developing reading fluency rather than acquiring new words. Finally, spend 80 percent of your study time reviewing what you have already learned.

A vocabulary fetishist in every way, Lynn suggests that you can actually define the stages of language learning by word count. For example, a learner who has only mastered 500-1,000 English words can have no more than functional proficiency. By contrast, fluent conversation in social settings requires 3,000-8,000 words. And to understand TV news, read newspapers or participate in group conversation, you need 5,000-10,000 words. To put all this in context, an adult native speaker can typically use or recognize more than 20,000 words.

A rare few schools can teach languages quickly. America’s government-run Foreign Service Institute, for example, has supremely motivated students (career diplomats, military officers); highly expert instructors; and vast financial and training resources. Even with these enormous advantages, the FSI needs at least ten months to train an adult to work effectively in Thai.

By contrast, most language learners have limited resources and average teachers, so the period of mastery is much longer. Unlikely though it may seem after your first Thai lesson, however, there is no reason why a serious adult learner can’t become conversationally fluent. It just takes time and dedication.

Peter McKenzie-Brown is head TEFL instructor at Chiang Mai University’s Language Institute. This column is the first in a monthly series.

March 2003
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