Language strategy: clearing

February 20, 2013 — Leave a comment

This is part II of my series of language learning strategy.  Read part I here.

In my view, the single most important thing to growing foreign language comprehension is the consumption of large amounts of comprehensible input.  Memorizing vocabulary words in isolation won’t get you far; it is far better to read and listen to language in a natural context, to get acclimated to the “flow” and hear how words and phrases are actually used.  In my “clear, hold, build” strategy, I call this “clearing.”  Your goal is to clear as much comprehensible input as possible.

This material should be at the “i+1″ level, where “i” is your current knowledge base.  In other words, you want to consume material that mostly consists of words you already know, but that also pushes you to the next level.

So where do you find new material to clear?

If you’re just beginning a new language, brute force memorization of vocabulary is probably inevitable.  However, there are better and worse ways to tackle this challenge.  I plan to explain my Anki flow in a future post, but it essentially goes like this: when I started Turkish, I create a word template with four fields: English, Turkish, EnglishExample, and TurkishExample.  My flashcards contain both the word and the example, and I strive to embed audio whenever possible.  The result, if done properly, is a flashcard deck with full-audio example sentences.  This deck is extremely versatile, because in the future it’s easy to experiment with different flashcard structures…. for example, cutting out the English entirely and simply showing the Turkish word on one side and the Turkish example sentence on the other.

As you are beginning your new language you can also look for phrases to memorize.  I am a huge fan of Pimsleur language courses as a first step in learning a new language, as these programs use the “i+1″ principle to help you clear a significant amount of material.  They are expensive, but your local library might have them.  Another good source of material is phrasebooks, especially ones that include audio CDs.  For example, In Flight Turkish is a 60-minute CD that consists entirely of common phrases and words.  You will need a system to memorize and practice the material, but the phrases themselves are perfect for “clearing.”  My preferred technique is to use Audacity to strip out the audio for individual phrases, then create flashcards for them in Anki.

As your knowledge grows, your options increase and also become significantly more interesting.  You will obviously want to look for material that suits your current skill level, but you can also use more challenging material if you can somehow make it comprehensible.  For listening texts, that means having access to a written transcript.  And for difficult written texts, it means having access to an English translation.  Such materials make up the majority of my Arabic intake.

BBC is a great place to start, because news articles are written in a simple, direct style with easy vocabulary.  A variety of web browser plugins will give you real-time translation of words or phrases that you don’t know, meaning that if you have a certain baseline skill level, almost any webpage can become comprehensible input.  The vast majority of my early Arabic learning came from reading BBC Arabic with a browser plugin.  I have used several, but my current plugin is Franker for Safari.  I also use the Franker app for my iPhone and iPad.

Don’t underestimate Google.  If you are learning about a specific topic, like getting around an airport, it’s easy to Google “مطار” or “havaalanı” and find websites for major airports.  You’ll certain to see many of your new vocabulary words in context.

Parallel texts are incredibly useful.  Most holy texts like the Bible and Qur’an are available in parallel languages.  Many foreign affairs-related reports, such as those from International Crisis Group, are available in multiple languages.  You can also find books written in parallel languages.  In Jordan I was thrilled to discover a vast series of classic English-language novels (many of them simplified for children, some not) translated into Arabic, with the two languages on facing pages.  They are even rated by difficulty level.  I amassed a huge collection of these novels, and they continue to play an important part in developing my reading comprehension.  I have yet to find anything similar in Turkish, although I did discover some bilingual children’s books in the DLI library.  I also have both the English and Turkish versions of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, so when my Turkish improves I could conceivably study with the two copies side by side.

When it comes to listening, I’m always on the lookout for material that has transcripts.  If you are in the military or are affiliated with a university, you likely have access to SCOLA, which publishes weekly mini-lessons in many languages. Each lesson includes an MP3 and MP4 news clip, a native transcript, an English transcript, and a vocabulary list.  These are perfect for comprehensible input.

Every once in a while you can stumble across a goldmine.  Rob of the now-defunct Arab Media Shack introduced me to the transcript collection on Al Jazeera.  The website has a huge collection of full-length TV episodes, with complete transcripts attached.  More recently, I was delighted to discover a huge repository of dialect clips with bilingual transcripts attached.

Movies with subtitles are another source of comprehensible input.  For example, the web TV series Beirut I Love You has dozens of short episodes in Lebanese, subtitled in English.  And although I could only find one episode with subtitles, the famous Turkish melodrama Gümüş is available on YouTube.  Another great resources is Viki, which lets users crowdsource subtitles for foreign-language movies, TV shows, and music videos.

Lastly, there is no substitute for spending time with native speakers, especially in native contexts.  A good language tutor or partner can make language comprehensible by offering explanations or clarifications when necessary.

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.

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