Clear, hold, build: a strategy for language learning

December 30, 2012 — 5 Comments

With this post, I am beginning a practical new series on my strategy for learning languages.  After years of learning what does and doesn’t work for me with Arabic, this is the strategy I am pursuing with my newest language: Turkish.  I have written some about my Turkish journey here, but will use this series to go more in depth and to offer some practical methods for turning the strategy into action.

The Challenge of Strategy

When learning languages, half the battle is learning how to learn.  If we are genuinely immersed in a foreign language–and have no choice but to hear and speak it continuously–we tend to learn more naturally, but very few Americans ever have that opportunity.  Even if we live in a foreign country, English is so prevalent around the world that we often can’t escape it.  I was never immersed in Arabic for more than a few hours at a time when living in Jordan, despite my best efforts to do so, because so many Jordanians knew English and insisted on speaking it to me.  What this means is that very few Americans learn “naturally”, and most of us have to find artificial means of exposing ourselves to the target language.  We must pick and choose the right tactics to ensure that we learn.  Unfortunately, many tactics don’t work; we can invest a tremendous amount of time and energy in these tactics, only to burn out when we realize we aren’t progressing.  Furthermore, very few of us have a strategy to link these tactics together.  For years, my strategy was to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what stuck.

Anyone who has tried to learn a language has been there.  We do lessons in a book or Rosetta Stone or Livemocha, but can’t comprehend anything when we step into the real world.  We study flashcards, but forget our new words within 24 hours.  We read difficult passages that swamp us with new vocabulary, and write them down in notebooks or on flashcards, but never commit them to memory.  When we do learn words, we aren’t confident enough with their usage to employ them in conversation.  We try listening to the radio, but the language rushes past so fast that we despair of ever making real progress.  I’ve been there.  Often.

Two Key Insights

Two insights changed the way that I approach language learning.  First, we learn language by digesting comprehensible input.  This means reading or listening to texts that we can mostly understand, but that constantly push our boundaries.  If texts don’t challenge us, our growth stagnates.  But if texts are too difficult (that is, are incomprehensible) we simply don’t learn anything.  This principle is tied to the work of Stephen Krashen, who used the term “i+1” to refer to ideal comprehensible input.  If a student knows “i” language, he or she should seek out material at the “i+1” level: material that grows the language bubble just a little bit farther.

The second insight is that the basic unit of language is not the word, but the “chunk”–a phrase or sentence that we can reuse or modify.  This insight came from Donavan Nagel at the Mezzofanti Guild.  By learning chunks, we learn words in context and can be confident in their usage.  Chunks also have built-in grammar, so we can use them without memorizing tedious grammar rules.  Example chunks are “I am 32 years old” or “I would like to order chicken.”  Rather than memorize vocabulary lists, Nagel advocates starting a new language by studying phrase books.

The Strategy: Clear, Hold, Build

These two building insights helped me craft my current strategy, which I call “clear, hold, build”: terms that will be familiar to any military officer who has served in Afghanistan or Iraq, because they are shorthand for population-centric counterinsurgency strategy.

If insurgents are opposing a government, COIN forces need to begin by clearing the enemy from specific locations through intelligence work and military action.  Once a piece of territory is cleared, it must be held to prevent the enemy from regaining its lost ground.  That means leaving adequate troops in place to defend the territory against insurgent attacks.  Carelessness or inattentiveness at this stage could mean backsliding or even the loss of the territory again.  Finally, the COIN force must build up the territory; they must give it sufficient infrastructure, economic output, police/military power, and popular support that the COIN troops are no longer needed.  The process starts locally, in small pieces of territory, but the idea is that these territories become “oil spots” that can spread outward, bringing law and order and governance until they eventually encompass the entire population.

For a more visual depiction of this strategy, think back to all those great games like Civilization or Warcraft/Starcraft, where you start a new game by looking at a vast black map that is waiting to be explored.  You move your explorer or settler about, gradually revealing the contents of adjacent tiles.  As the game progresses and you gain more units, you can see more of the board.  You clear territory by exploring and fighting enemies.  You hold it by defending your territory against enemy attacks; at this stage, you can lose territory quickly if you don’t defend it, and your visibility of the game map will diminish if you don’t keep your units roaming about.  Finally, you build up your territory with new facilities and more troops, until your core territories are so strong that they are impervious to any attack except a full-blown military invasion.  You no longer worry about seeing the game map in these territories, because they are so fortified that you have 24/7 visibility of what’s happening there.  Clear, hold, build–and repeat until you have dominated the entire world.

With this military strategy in mind, let’s get back to language.  When I started learning Turkish, I was looking at a black, unexplored screen.  Step 1 was to clear some territory.  My first foray into the language came with Pimsleur’s Turkish audio course; by the time I had finished lesson 1, I’d revealed a few tiles of the map… phrases like “Excuse me” and “Do you know English?”  Step 2 was to hold that territory.  If I waited too long before reviewing those phrases, the tiles would disappear back into the darkness.  I needed to keep roaming around that territory, reviewing and using the phrases whenever possible.  Fortunately, Pimsleur does an excellent job of reviewing previous material, so by keeping up with my lessons each day I was able to hold newly gained territory.  If I did let too much time go by between lessons and began to forget, I skipped back a few days and reviewed lessons.  Finally, step three was to build… by employing my newly-gained phrases in real conversation, and reading and listening to dialogs using these phrases (because I’m focusing on comprehension at this point I’m doing more of the latter than the former).

The strategy encompasses the two principles I mentioned above.  I am always on the lookout for “i+1” material, that is mostly comprehensible but that pushes the limits of my ability.  Also, when I am clearing new material, I try to focus on “chunks” rather than mere words.

This is how I am learning Turkish and improving my Arabic; it is how you can learn too.  Do that first lesson.  Clear, hold, and build.  After that, repeat.  And repeat again.  Over and over and over, rain or shine, in sickness or in health, when you’re feeling like a language rockstar and when you want nothing more than to burn all your language books and dance around the fire.  If you stick with this process every day, you will get better.

The strategy is simple in theory, but we all know it gets complicated in practice.  How fast should we clear new territory?  How do we find territory to clear, which is neither too difficult nor too easy?  How can we hold territory, when we struggle so hard to remember new vocabulary?  How should we allocate our time between holding old material and clearing new material?

I will tackle some of these practical questions in coming posts.  For now, I’ll just say this: keep the strategy at the forefront of your mind.  I’ve found that when I get derailed, it’s usually because I’ve lost sight of the basics.

Much more in posts to come.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

5 responses to Clear, hold, build: a strategy for language learning

  1. Do you favour the learning of Esperanto to bring people of different nationalities together?

    • Thanks for the question, Bill. I don’t know much about Esperanto, but I can’t believe that it will ever have much appeal except to language enthusiasts. For my part, I would rather invest my time and energy in languages that are spoken by ordinary people around the world.

  2. The issue you raise about learning “naturally” is an interesting one. We all did it successfully learning our mother tongue(s) so what goes wrong? A lot really! Some blame can be put on the methods we were and are taught by which had us believing by the end of it, as most of our results were so poor, that we were poor language learners. Once you believe something to be so, the results will only match your beliefs. Then of course we became adults with adult like “stuff” like hangups and inhibitions. Whatever has happened we can improve on how we learn, as you suggest, and that can go a long way towards turning our results around.
    One example is how we learn vocabulary. You refer to a method using phrases as being better than the old one of using word lists etc. It may well be, there there are also far better ways, like “you” creating meaning packed sentences (full of personal references) that utilise what we know about about memory skills…form personal links! (For elaboration refer to
    The key to it all is to start to believe that you CAN learn a second language as well as the first..and then look for the means to do so.

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