Why Vocabulary and Grammar Aren’t Enough When Learning a Language

It’s easy to think that if you spend enough time with your language’s vocabulary and grammar that one day, you’ll master the language. But a language is so much more than just words and grammar.

And in order to effectively learn a language, you first need to learn how to learn.

You can be the most dedicated grammar learner or have more points than all of your friends on Memrise, but memorization and grammar exercises are only part of the equation.

Learning How to Learn Better

When I first started studying languages on my own, the only way I knew how to learn was what being in a classroom environment had taught me.

But there were a few small problems that equated to one big problem when I added them all up.

You see, in the classroom, I studied material to pass a test. I did the exercises as homework because I received a grade for doing them. I knew what vocabulary to memorize because I had a teacher tell us which words to highlight and study each week in class. I knew how to prepare for dictation because it pretty much always covered whatever chapter we were on in the book. And I kept doing the work because my final score in the class was important for university applications.

When I got out of school, I didn’t have any of that accountability. Neither did I have any of the instruction and guidance.

I went to the store, bought tons of books and figured that working through them systematically chapter by chapter would be good enough. The book would tell me what to study, I’d study it and voilà. I’d know the language.

Here’s where things got tricky.

1. I never spoke the languages I was studying. So even though I knew a bunch of words and grammar, I never really got the chance to put it all together. Whenever opportunities to speak did come up, I failed miserably because I didn’t have any practice at it.
2. I eventually burned out doing the exercises. No one was checking in on me, so it wasn’t long before I began thinking, “seriously, what’s the point?”
3. Modern cultures and technologies change faster than most course books can keep up with. I was still learning about outdated currencies and music formats when streaming was the hot ticket.
4. A lot of what I was studying was completely irrelevant for me. I wasn’t planning on buying train tickets or converting currency in the languages. I wanted to talk about music and video games and the books I was reading. But the material I worked with didn’t teach me how to talk about jazz improvisation, quests, or the mother of dragons.’
5. I equated owning more books with knowing more of the language when really, I was just learning the same things over and over again in different books.

I needed direction.

Then I discovered the online language learning community. After years of reading what everyone was doing, seeing what worked and what didn’t, experimenting with things on my own and making a lot of mistakes along the way, I finally designed out a system that was right for me.

It wasn’t easy. It was worth the work, but I would have loved to have figured it all out sooner.

The Four (or Five) Core Language Skills

Based on what I learned in school, there were only two things I needed to learn in order to master a language: words and grammar.

But those two things are just a part of the bigger picture. Those two things need to be put into a larger context – the four core language skills.

The four core language skills are: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. And together, they form your overall ability in a language.

Actually, I’d add a fifth – cultural awareness.

Without this, you cannot be an effective communicator. Even if you can read, write, speak and understand well, lacking cultural understanding will render you a poor communicator in your language.

Now, these four or five skills, they’re super important. And words and grammar fit into each of these, but in a different way. And you have to work with them in those different ways to really make them your own.

It doesn’t stop there, though.

The priority that each of these core skills gets depends on what your goals are with the language. Your goals determine how you need to study a language in order to master it (in the way that you need to master it).

For example, someone studying a language to be able to read Tolstoy in it’s original Russian will need to focus on a completely different skill set than someone who is looking to communicate with their Japanese family in Japanese. And someone who is learning Korean to sing along to and understand their favorite K-pop tunes, needs to focus on different things than someone who is moving to Italy to work in their company’s offices there.

Each of these people can be fluent and can master their language, but what they need to work on in order to feel like they’ve mastered the language in the context that they need it differs immensely.

There’s no one size fits all approach to learning a language.

So just how do you go about figuring out which approach is the right for you?

Figure Out What Your Goals Are

The first step to really determine what you need to do as a language learner is sit down and have a think about what your goals are. What is it that you’re hoping to accomplish by learning your language? What would you ultimately like to do with the language?

I have a post about goal setting that comes with a free worksheet if you need a push to get started.

Join a Language Community

There are tons of fantastic language communities around the web, as small or as large as you’d like them. For example, there’s the Language Reading Challenge, my Facebook group. It’s still relatively small, so you can get to know the other members and share your love of reading and languages. There are also forums, language exchange sites, and meet ups.

Become a Better Learner

There are a ton of incredible books, articles and courses out there that will help you become a better learner. They’ll help you figure out what tactics are right for you, how to fit language learning into your schedule, and more.

Find a Way to Stay Accountable

When you learn on your own, you loose a lot of the systems that help you stay motivated and accountable. This means that you need to figure out a way to keep yourself accountable on your own. There are useful apps like Askmeevery or Habitica that help you track your progress.

Get All of The Above in One Place

If doing all of these things separate sounds overwhelming, there’s another option for you: Language Study Club.

Language Study Club is a community organised by myself and Lindsay Williams of Lindsay Does Languages.

Over the past six months, we’ve worked with a private community to build the course and now we’re ready to open up membership to the rest of the world.

Each month, we focus on a different topic. That way, you can give one area of your language learning a lot of focus and room to grow. Plus, it’s a community so you have other learners there to support you, help you find your way, as well as Lindsay and I to chat things out with during the monthly Live Q+A.

The best part is that by joining now, you’ll already have access to 6 months of content to dive deep with. These include:

  • Motivation
  • Core Phrases
  • Overcoming Reading Anxiety
  • Goal Setting for a New Year of Language Learning
  • Escaping Subtitles
  • and Time Management

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Every month, we add new topics. Some of those coming up include Learning Different Writing Systems, Sociolinguistics, and Learning On The Go.

As a part of each month’s theme you get:

  • Week 1 – the Video Lesson for the month
  • Week 2 – the Workbook to help build on what you learnt the previous week
  • Week 3 – a Mini Challenge so you to put everything into practice
  • Week 4 – the chance to participate in a Live Q+A with Lindsay and/or me + other members of Language Study Club

Additionally, you get access to the private Language Study Club Facebook Group.

I Want to join Language Study Club!

We are offering special rates to join this week only! At 11:59 pm on Friday night (March 30th, 2018), the price goes up.

You can find more information about the special pricing and our bonus offers here.

If you’re still on the fence (or if you’d just like some awesome and free language learning advice) Lindsay and I are hosting a free webinar tomorrow.

You can sign up for the webinar here.

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Published on: March 29, 2018

Filed Under: Language Resources

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