Today, because I want to point out that nearly every rule when it comes to language learning has an exception, I want to share a tip that might contradict some of what I’ve discussed in the past.
In a few of my previous posts I’ve discussed why we should stick with one or two resources and work with them thoroughly. As a brief recap, I believe that focusing on a limited number of resources allows us to move forward quickly in our learning because, rather than spending time reviewing material as we move from resource to resource, we are able to consistently advance to the next level in our learning. We move forward rather than sideways.
There are times in language learning, however, where you don’t feel ready to move on. You aren’t ready to move on to that next chapter or that next podcast because you haven’t quite grasped what was in the one you just completed. The new information just isn’t really sticking and you need a little bit more time with it.
A Personal Example of When One Resource Just Wasn’t Enough
When I started studying Mandarin, there were a few subjects that took me a little longer to grasp than I would have liked. Namely, I had an issue with directions in Chinese. The first source where I had really encountered them was as a part of my Pimsleur audio lessons. I was able to retain enough to get by during that particular lesson, but whenever the material came up again in later lessons, the vocabulary and phrases eluded me. I didn’t think directions were particularly important based on my goals in the language, so I didn’t spend the time to go back and review them (it’s also probably part of the reason why they didn’t stick the first time around).
Later on, my Chinese tutor and I reached the chapter in the book we were working through that covered directions. I groaned and joked about skipping the chapter, but she and I pushed through it that lesson anyway (her idea, not mine). Again, I was able to understand directions enough to struggle through the lesson and complete the homework assigned to me, but in all honesty, I still didn’t feel comfortable with them.
Finally, I came across them again in a podcast from Serge Melnyk. I should point out, that until this point, I had not worked on directions between hearing this particular podcast and the homework that I completed after my lesson several months before (like I said, I didn’t see it as important). But despite not having reviewed the material, there was just something that clicked the third time around. Suddenly, it all made sense and getting through the material in that podcast was a breeze.
The three sources together, even though they were spaced out over time and even though I didn’t really do any work on the topic in between, were enough to help me grasp something that I struggled with. Why? Because I heard the material in three different contexts and my brain finally clued in to the information’s importance.
A Very Important Point Worth Noting
When you’ve studied something once or twice, or maybe even three times, and you still aren’t “getting” it, you may find yourself frustrated. I know that I did each time directions came up in Chinese.
Despite whatever frustration you may be feeling and despite the information not sticking, you are not a failure at language learning. So if you were thinking it, stop.
Some information takes more time to digest than other information. It’s totally normal.
Even if it doesn’t seem like it, the information is there somewhere in your head. You’ll know what I say is true when you have that vague sense of familiarity whenever the information makes another appearance. The trouble is, your brain just hasn’t pegged it as being important enough to really hang on to the information.
So if you are having trouble with a certain part of the language you’re learning, here are a few things that you can do.
How to Get Comfortable with the Parts of Language Learning You Already Know
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you may have noticed that I often talk about active and passive knowledge in a language. And while I’ve mentioned it before, I’d like to define it once more so I don’t have to send those of you unfamiliar with the terms on a wild goose chase of past articles. So for those of you familiar with active and passive knowledge, feel free to skip the next paragraph and move on to the tips below.
Active knowledge in a language is made up by the words and grammar rules you are able to actively use when speaking or writing. It is what you are able to come up with on your own when using a language. Passive knowledge, on the other hand, includes the words and grammar rules you’ll recognize if and when you hear or read them but that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to come up with off the top of your head.
Things that you don’t quite grasp in your target language will be firmly planted in your passive knowledge, so in addition to needing to get a better understanding of the information, you’ll also need to spend some time actively using them so that they don’t stay on the passive side of the line.
So how do you move more of what resides in your passive knowledge over into what makes up your active knowledge?
How to Get a Better Understanding of the Information Your Struggling with in Your Target Language
Use a different resource // One of the things that you can do is to get an alternative resource and start to work through it as well, at least up until the same level. Sometimes when things are just worded a little bit differently or structured a little bit differently, it makes it that much easier to understand. This can be the same type of resource that you’re already using but from a different source. So, let’s say, for example, that you’re using a book in the Colloquial series and you pick up Living Language to complement it
Work with a new type of resource // Another thing that you can do is that you can work with another type of resource just to give yourself a new way to approach the material that you’ve already learnt. So again, let’s say you were studying using Pimsleur but the audio alone isn’t working for you so you add in Assimil which includes both text (the new type of resource) and audio.
Hire a tutor // Another way to understand material that you’re struggling with is to actually sit down with a tutor or a language exchange partner and specifically work on the material that you’re having trouble with. Once you’ve taken note of the parts of your target language you’re studying with, it’s easy to sit down and talk them out with someone who already understands them.
How to Move Information from Your Passive Knowledge Over to Your Active Knowledge
The solution to this problem is quite simple, in theory, but a lot more difficult in practice. It is to actually use the information.
This means, that even though it may be a struggle at first, you need to make a point to use the information you want as a part of your active knowledge as often as possible. You can use it via language exchanges (chat or audio), tutoring sessions, notes, self-assigned exercises, or even journaling.
For example, maybe you’re having a bit of trouble with talking in the past tense in French. When you have the opportunity to chat in French or write in the language, use it to talk or write about the past. Rather than talk about what you’re going to do, talk about the things that you’ve done. It may be uncomfortable, but that’s okay. It will just give you something to laugh about later when you reflect back to that time where you struggled with imparfait or passé composé.
To make a long story short, the more you use the vocabulary or grammar that you’re struggling with, the better you’ll get it at and the more comfortable it will be come. Eventually it will find it’s way over from your passive knowledge to your active knowledge.
Now over to you. What are some of the things you’ve struggled with in your target language and what did you do to get comfortable with them? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.