All Japanese All The Time is an inspirational language learning blog – Khatzumoto, the author, has a great writing style, and there’s plenty of useful language advice. Actually, it’s more than that – it’s a fully-fleshed language learning method. Discovering AJATT was a huge revelation for me – it was as though a previously locked door to fluency in another language had been thrown wide open. I’d been struggling along with Japanese for a couple of years, wondering just when the hell I would get fluent: the whole exercise was completely depressing. I adopted his method, and lo and behold, my Japanese didst improve! Quickly, too.
Anyway, fast-forward a few months, to when Cantonese is the order of the day. Unsurprisingly, I was completely taken aback when happened upon another language blog of titanic proportions – Benny the Irish Polyglot. I think the first thing I read on his site was “speak as soon as possible“. “What. The. Hell.” I thought – surely this must be wrong! Surely this is the cause of so many crappy second-language speakers! Stop making people suuuuuck!1!!1!!
It dawned on me a few days later that my speaking of Cantonese was really not very good. Not reading mind – the words of others were easy to read out. Putting my own thoughts into Cantonese was near impossible though. Furthermore, my friends suggested that maybe speaking and listening would be a better use of time (since then they could actually hold a conversation with me, as opposed to a monologue), and so I figured I’d give it a go. This was about… a month ago.
Since then, the vocabulary I have produced talking to native speakers are by far the words I remember most clearly. Whilst there may be an element of a virtuous circle here (you can use the words so you do use them so you keep using them…), I’ve started to be able to speak.
Unsurprisingly, I do make mistakes when speaking, I do say things that my friends don’t understand right away – but they correct it right after, and then I’ve learned something I didn’t know before (in a way I’m likely to remember). This too is how children learn – through constructive feedback. They may not get it right away, but they sure as hell do a couple years down the line.
Incidentally, this leads on to something else – how do you get feedback as an adult? Social awkwardness tends to ensue whenever foreign language learners make a mistake. One solution I’ve tried (from Benny’s highly recommended Language Hacking League – giving credit where it’s due!) is to turn feedback into a game. For every (say) ten mistakes corrected, the correctee buys the correcter a drink. Genius. Kills the awkwardness dead in its tracks, improves someone’s language skills and gets someone else a free drink. Everyone’s a winner.
I’m not saying that language learners out there should focus solely on speaking: that is a road to ruin. You will end up with speakers with bad accents and grammatical errors all over the place if all they study at school is speaking. I think the reason fossilization persists in second language learners is either a) that they either don’t want to sound native (their accent is their identity), b) they think talking like a native makes them sound like an idiot (this is exactly what my Hong Kong friend said the other day), or c) they’re just satisfied with being able to communicate and don’t want to put in any more work into sounding more authentic. It’s not that they couldn’t pass as a native if they tried, they just don’t want to.
On the subject, I also have some evidence as for why fossilization is bogus: I didn’t start learning Cantonese by trying to master the tones. I purposefully ignored them, on the grounds that learning just the sounds of the words would be easier to start with; I planned on figuring out the tones later. You know what? I can say words (with tones) correctly now, despite not saying them right at all to start with – and that was for a good couple of months. Fossilization schmossilization.
Anyway, the bottom line is that speaking is probably just as important as listening for mastery of a language. To be fluent, both massive exposure to native material and practice at speaking are needed – and it’s okay to sometimes screw up at either, since focused practice can resolve mistakes later.
So there’s one man’s brain dump on the subject. What’s the general consensus on input and output? Do you think it’s a good idea to largely ignore output when learning a language (AJATT-style), or do you think speaking sooner is a good idea (polyglot style)?