Disclaimer.

I have passion for learning and teaching. I myself studied several languages, and I personally have the experience what it takes to be able to comprehend, read, write, give a gist of what I listened to, or summarize articles and stories I read, and at a later stage being able to interact on various topics and subjects in a new language with the people for whom it is their native language. I have a strong passion for teaching and helping language learners to succeed. In addition to my education, training, expertise, and experience. I taught languages to basic, intermediate and advanced foreign and second language learners. In the course of tens of years of my teaching career, I had the privilege to teach, tutor and assist to thousands of individual language learners giving them the necessary knowledge and the tools to succeed.

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Planning And Setting Clear Goals.

Each of us foreign language learners need to decide the overall goals for foreign language study. This will help to develop a clear direction and will also provide with some benchmarks to measure the progress, performance and finally outcome. For the same reason this is helpful to set clear goals for daily and weekly study. A foreign language learner has to follow the goals set for himself or herself. Any foreign language is learned in small bits, so a foreign language learner has to establish a regular schedule for studying and follow it. A foreign language learner achieves little by occasional studying. Learning a foreign language can be compared to rowing a boat. As long as we row, we move forward. When we stop rowing the current will take the boat back faster than we could imagine. After all, we didn’t learn the native language all at once. In fact, it took us quite a while to master all its intricacies. Speaking from my experience studying has to be done every day. Exercises do little good if they don’t have time to sink in. Finally, it is important to find the best time of the day to do studying. For one group of foreign language learners the most productive time to study maybe in the morning, and for another group of foreign language learners the most productive time to study maybe in the evening. It shouldn’t be done when there are many other things on the mind, or when a foreign language learner is exhausted. The mind has to be receptive for learning to take place. It is important to set up a schedule to learn something new every day. For example, how to give a gist of a news broadcast and a summary of a long article from a magazine/internet or a book. This is particularly true of vocabulary: a foreign language learner needs to build up vocabulary on his or her own, and also idiomatic expressions. As a foreign language learner proceeds in learning, he or she should notice successes, and especially what have been done to achieve them. For example, when learning the new vocabulary pronouncing words out loud helps to remember them better than reading them silently. A foreign language learner has to determine which exercises seem to help the most and for which kind of tasks. Also, I would suggest experimenting to see if some tasks are better accomplished by seeing, while other tasks are better accomplished listening, and a foreign language learner shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes. Applying the same strategy to all tasks will not work. If a foreign language learner tends to rely too much on the eyes as many adults do, may be doing oneself a disservice trying to do all tasks through visual modality, because so much of a foreign language requires the learners to use their hearing. I mean consciously working on strengthening listening comprehension skill. Proceeding with the learning, a foreign language learner should be on the lookout for what works, and what doesn’t work. Once a foreign language learner identified the strategies that work, he or she should continue to use them, and at the same time should be on lookout for strategies that aren’t effective. Not a bad idea to work with a partner. After all it takes two to talk.

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Negotiating Meaning.

A speaker’s meaning is not always perfectly clear, and there are cases the message might be deliberately ambiguous. When we are interacting, we will note that native speakers often negotiate meaning by asking if a particular story was meant to be a joke or if a statement was intended as a compliment or as an insult. They could also state that they did not understand a speaker’s intention and need clarification. Negotiation is an important part of any communicative exchange. When we speak in a foreign language, we need to discover when a statement s negotiable and how to indicate that a statement we have made is negotiable. Negotiation is possible and often expected in the cases of invitations and saying NO. Sometimes in American English an invitation is issued in such a way that it cannot be negotiated because the date and time are fixed. On the other hand, some non-invitations can be negotiated. A person says, “Let us get together soon,” he or she does not usually issue an invitation. The other person’s response may be something like this, “I’d love to. Would you like to set up a date and time now?” Then the interlocutor can negotiate the situation into an invitation. Negotiation can also take place to determine whether the response is a definite NO. To recognize when the word NO is actually meant takes a great deal of social knowledge and learning. Children as a rule very often have trouble with understanding this, what provokes their parents to express the non-negotiable intention by saying, “I said NO and that is final.” To express, to interpret, and to negotiate meaning are all part of a normal communication process. When we speak in a foreign language, we need to know that our message is interpreted appropriately. We can do this by watching our interlocutor facial expression and note whether the next comment is an appropriate reply to our intended message. Also, we can monitor ourselves for misunderstanding by checking our emotional responses. As to monitoring a written message is much more difficult, since we do not have the same sort of immediate feedback. We must be very careful responding to a written message that we express ourselves in an appropriate manner, and that we correctly interpreted the writer’s intentions.

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Taking Charge Of Foreign Language Learning.

We have to remember that unless we can take charge of our own learning, we probably will not succeed in learning a foreign language (FL). Each of us knows himself/herself best so we have to use our self-knowledge to guide our foreign learning process even if it means to disregard certain approaches and suggestions. We are all different and we learn whatever we want in different ways. Some of us analytical and need a rule for everything, while others are global, and they prefer to gather examples and imitate them. Some of us need lots of repetition, while others require less. We cannot rely on someone to provide us with an approach that is specifically designed for us. We need to experiment in order to discover what works for each of us and what does not work. So, in order to learn a foreign language each of us needs to be personally involved. It means to play with that foreign language we learn to develop a feel for how it works. The foreign language must in some sense become a part of us rather than remain an external system for manipulation. Learning a foreign language is like learning to ride a bicycle. Anyone can describe precisely what is involved in bicycle riding, but until one actually gets on the bike and takes a few spills, no meaningful learning can take place. Each of us needs to decide what the overall goals of the foreign language learning process are. This will help us develop a clear direction and will also provide us with benchmarks to measure the performance progress. For the same reason we have to set clear goals for our daily and our weekly study. A foreign language is learned in small bits, so we have to establish a schedule for studying and stick to it. We achieve little by occasional studying. We did not learn our native language all at once. In fact, it took us quite a while (estimated five years) to learn all its intricacies. So, we should give ourselves the same chance when we start learning a foreign language. For Americans some foreign languages easier to learn and some foreign languages are more difficult to learn, because foreign languages fall into four categories of difficulty. To be engaged in a learning process we must study every day, and our mind has to be receptive for learning to take place.

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Governed By Rules.

Foreign language learners may reach a point when they are ready to scream “One more rule and we are done! Is there no end to foreign language rules and exceptions?” It may be hard to believe that foreign languages operate with a certain number of rules. It takes time to learn them, but once learned, they are stored in the foreign language learners’ brains and allow speakers of a foreign language generate infinite sets of massages. Every person who knows a foreign language possesses a set of rules that allow him or her to understand and produce sentences, and to recognize whether or not a sentence is grammatically correct. However, not all rules are learned consciously. Very often we deduce a rule from the context, so we know that something sounds right but we cannot explain why. This is the knowledge that native speakers possess about their own language. It is also the type of knowledge that foreign language learners can acquire in real life informa settings. Since language is governed by rules, foreign language learners must come to grips with a foreign language as a system. There are rules at all levels. At the level of sounds the rules allow for certain combinations of sounds but exclude others. This may differ from one language to another language. For example, in English the letter m cannot be followed by the letter l at the beginning of words, so one knows right away that mlad is not an English word. At the same time, the letter b can be followed by the letter l. So, the word blad has the potential to be an actual English word. At the word level, rules govern combinations of parts. For example, in English the elements -er or -ian must follow the main part of the word as in the word reader or the word librarian. When we place them at the beginning of the word the results in nonsense. At the level of sentences, rules tell us how words can be combined in any of the languages. For example, in English the word order is usually direct that is subject-verb-object. In a group of other languages, the word order can be indirect because they have different from English lexical-grammatical structures such as cases and endings and produce the same meaning. By limiting the number of possibilities in which words can be arranged in English, grammar helps us predict what will follow when something has been missed. For example, when we hear a sentence Jack wore a black… we can predict that the missing word is a noun. When we hear the sentence The car mechanic… the engine, we can guess that the missing word is a verb.

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Role Of Teacher.

The beginning stages of foreign language learning usually take place in a classroom and modeled by a professionally prepared foreign language teacher not an amateur one, who determines the teaching materials and the method figuring out what type of learner we are, sets the pace, and creates the learning environment. However, as foreign language learners we have to remember that without our active input and participation even the most brilliant teacher will not be as much of help to us as he or she could have been. Thus, we have to discuss our goals and preferred ways of learning before we start. Our teacher not only models the foreign language we are studying, but he or she is also an important source of information how the foreign language structured, what phrases and expressions mean, and when and how they are used. And also, we have to use the foreign language we study as soon as possible and ask for additional explanations if we find something confusing or inadequate. We make sure that we understand the corrections in our speaking as well as in what we write, and the reading materials. Periodically he or she has to check our progress. Also, our foreign language teacher should be able to provide advice and feedback on how we have to study a foreign language. If his or her suggestions do not work for us, we develop our own study techniques and continue using those that have worked for us in the past. The foreign language teacher also helps us set a pace of learning. In many instances a foreign language course is taught by a foreign language teacher who is not a native speaker of the language. He or she may speak the foreign language with an accent. Many excellent foreign language teachers recognize this limitation in themselves, and they supplement the course with recordings of native speakers. The important factor is the ability of each of us foreign language learners to mimic what we hear and our motivation to improve our pronunciation, as well as seek every opportunity to interact with the foreign language native speakers.

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Nature Of Language.

Any language can be characterized as the most creative of all human inventions. Since the primary function of language is to carry meaning and since the number of meanings that people communicate to each other is infinite, language must be very efficient. This efficiency is accomplished through several features. To meet the demands of communicating the infinite number of messages, language producers so to speak, use individual words and combinations of words. The combinations make up sentences or parts of sentences. Anyone can make sentences that have never been said or written before. For example, “There is a purple dog on the living room couch eating a banana.” Regardless of whether we believe in purple dogs eating bananas in the living rooms, we can easily process this sentence and we will probably assign some meaning to it. The point is that words are units that can be used in a great variety of ways to build sentences according to the rules and structure of a certain language. These rules put limits on creativity by making some sentences really incomprehensible. For example, “Purple there a dog banana the living room is couch on.” This so-called sentence is gibberish and cannot be processed in any way, although the words are the same as in the previous given example. The same creativity creates new words out of the ones which already exist in language. The burger of hamburger can serve as a base for fish-burger and chicken-burger. The -ee of employee serves in escapee and draftee. The de- of deactivate builds words detoxify and defrock. Rules keep creativity in check. Creativity allows language to accommodate new meanings and messages through the innovative use of the existing elements, but rules limit the nature and the number of possibilities.

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Interacting With Other People.

Let us suppose that our reason and objective for studying a foreign language is to learn to speak. Since learning to speak is a complex skill, we should set step by step objectives. These objectives should be reasonable for the chosen foreign language, and for the amount of time being available to the learning process. In order to think of speaking ability in terms of stages, it may be useful to adopt the system and criteria used by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) or to adopt the system developed for all US government agencies which is used at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). Each system is designed to evaluate foreign language learners speaking ability regardless of how, where, or for how long, they have studied a foreign language. The definition of proficiency level is applicable to any foreign language, although the amount of time to reach a given level varies widely from one foreign language to another one. These ratings are called stands for Speaking. They range in ACTFL from Novice to Educated Native Speaker, and at the Defense Language Institute ILR scale for Speaking from functional speaking ability at level 0+, to Educated Native Speaker at levels 4, 4+, and 5. Experience shows that it takes more time and effort to move from one level to the next level. The hierarchy of levels from level 0+ to level 5 can be found in an inverted pyramid. Trained in evaluating the level of Speaking language experts often compare levels of foreign language proficiency to that inverted pyramid. When we look at the image of this inverted pyramid, we can see that based on the ACTFL proficiency scale it illustrates, at the beginning level (“Novice” in ACTFL terms) there is relatively little space. It doesn’t take much effort to go from level Zero to level Novice. A speaker at an elementary level needs to know significantly more than the beginner. As learners get into Advanced and Superior levels of language proficiency, each new level represents a significant jump in the number of things that a speaker must be able to do. Progress from Advanced to a Superior level takes a lot more work than progress from a Novice to Intermediate. I mention all of this because I find myself confronting this reality. As I continue to review and practice new to me foreign languages I learn new forms, my vocabulary is growing, and my ability to comprehend listening improves. However, despite the fact that deep down things are progressing, a good part of me feels stuck in progress, and some days it feels discouraging.

So, I want to remind myself:

1. Relax!  Paragraph-level tasks really are more difficult that sentence-level tasks.

2. Relax! It really does take time to build more vocabulary, especially in these languages that don’t have cognate forms.

3. Relax! Grammatical nuances take time to appreciate.

All of this reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon that I saw some 25 years ago. Linus said something like, “We have not been able to answer all of your questions. Indeed, we have not been able to answer any of them completely. In some ways we are just as confused as before. However, we believe to be confused about things at a much higher level and about things that are much more important.”

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Language Learner’s Surprises.

Some of the most fascinating examples of similarities and differences between different languages are found in idioms and set expressions. Language learners are often surprised when a rather unusual expression may have word-for- word equivalent in another language. Just as often, they may be surprised to find that an expression does not have an equivalent in another language, or this equivalent differs in many various and rather unusual for the language learner ways. Here are examples that have very similar equivalents in English, Spanish and Russian – the three language that, although related, are quite very far apart in most ways. So, let us compare them. English -To shed crocodile tears, Russian – Lit’ krokodilovy slyozy; English – To hit the ceiling,  Spanish – Tomar el cielo con las manos (To take the sky in one’s hands); English – To know something inside out, Russian – znat’ vdol’ I poperyok (To know something lengthwise and crosswise); English – To have nine lives, Spanish – Tener siete vidas (To have seven lives), Russian – Dvuzhil’niy (One with two lives); English – When in Rome do as the Romans do, Russian – V Tulu so svoim samovarom ne ezdyat (Don’t go to Tula – a city famous for its samovars – with your own samovar). On the other hand, there are no equivalents in English for the Spanish – Decir cuarto verdades (To tell four truths or to speak one’s mind freely); Spanish – Saber mas que las culebras (To know more than the snakes or to be cunning). At the same time no language seems to have an idiom or a set phrase for the English expression – to go bananas. It is important that language learners have some notion of the nature of the language they are going to learn, since that knowledge will help them in their language learning process. Knowing that the number of rules of a language are finite will make this task less striking. Using what language learners know about language they are going to learn will mean that there is less to learn. Recognizing that language is creative should help approach the task as a challenge that is open-minded rather than finite. Learning a language is a complex but well-defined process that is defined by the rules of the language and by similarities that languages may share.

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Languages Are Similar And Different.

Languages are alike and yet they are different, because the people who speak to them are alike in their human capacities yet different in very many ways. In the very broadest sense, all languages share some common features, yet language learners can be surprised that a new language does not express things in the same way as their native language. On the other hand, discovering similarities between a new language and learner’s native language is a relief. A new language can have same sounds as learner’s native language, but they are pronounced in completely different ways. Let us take English, French and Spanish which all have sound p. In English this sound is pronounced with a slight puff of air, while in French and in Spanish the air is released gradually. All languages have different ways of modifying nouns. In some languages the modifier precedes the noun, but in other languages the modifier follows the noun. Let us take English and Spanish. In English we say big house but in Spanish the normal sequence is casa grande. English, Spanish and Russian have words to express presence or existence. In English and Russian we have one verb that means to be, while in Spanish there are two verbs estar and ser. In Russian the verb to be in the present tense is omitted, while in English and Spanish it is not omitted. Words in our native language come to us so automatically that we rarely think of their relationship to the reality we connect them. The English verb to know seems so natural to us English language speakers that we assume all languages have the same concept. Unfortunately, many languages distinguish between recognizing people and things one hand and knowing about something on the other. Spanish has two verbs conocer and saber and so does French connaitre and savoir. Another example is the English word hot which refers to temperature of the air (weather); temperatures of various substances (coffee, water, soup); and degree of spiciness of foods (pepper). In Russian a different word for hot would be used in each of the three mentioned situations, and the English phrase hot soup would be very unclear.

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