Learning from the children to learn French

One of the methodologies that we, adults, most often adopt to learn a language is to get a list of words and start memorizing them. And to make things worse, we also get a grammar book and start memorizing the rules. Abstract lists of unconnected words and abstract rules of grammar are not a treat for our brain – so, the whole process is a chore.  We get bored and discouraged quickly and start complaining about how difficult the target language is, how ridiculous the grammar rules and the pronunciations are or how bad a learner we are.

I decided to take a break from this approach and try something new looking at the way a child learns a language.  A child is constantly listening – he is soaking in all the words that adults around him are using. Over time, because of the context, the child is able to understand the meanings of most of the words without anyone telling him their meaning. In some cases, they ask an adult if they don’t understand a word. A child is also very curious – curious about everything he is hearing and curious to speak/apply what he has learnt.

So, for learning French, I decided to avoid any vocabulary lists stripped of context. I am keeping my eyes and ears open to soak in as much French content as possible. I have changed my iPhone interface to French and I am using Amazon.fr to do my shopping and I am trying to read every notice/announcement in French  – in the tram, in the supermarkets, in the coffee shop and in the office.  So, I am flooded with new vocabulary, but I don’t look all of them up immediately. I look up some important items immediately, but others I look them up after I have seen them a few times. I can guess the meaning of  some words after seeing them a few items in different contexts. Then when I look up, my mind immediately absorbs the meaning of the word as my brain has  lot of associations with the word – the word is connected to me in some way – this is the most important point when it comes to learning vocabulary. The more you are connected to the word in some way, the easier it is to remember the meaning. At this point, I enter the word and its translation into my SRS software on my iPhone (Flashcard Deluxe) and then use the systematic repetition to etch that word into my memory permanently.

When it comes to pronunciation and grammar, you should not start with rules, but start with content first and build enough connections in your brain. When you see members from any population, be it words, people or things,you start to notice patterns. The 80/20 rule applies to most populations. 80 percent of the population fits into a certain pattern and the remaining 20 percent can have many exceptions. If you are exposed to the members of the population and then you are introduced to the patterns, then the patterns seem intuitive and the exceptions don’t seem daunting. Instead, if you start with a list of rules and a list of exception to the rules, you will surely be frustrated.

When I started learning French, I wanted to know how each letter of the alphabet is pronounced. So, I picked up a grammar book and I read the rules of pronunciation and the exceptions to the rules and you can guess the outcome – I was very frustrated and I was not learning much. Then, fortunately, Assimil came my way and I forgot all of these rules and focused only on learning individual words and their pronunications without trying to analyze too much how the sound is formed – I listened and repeated. And I listened and repeated. Now, after having listened to 15 lessons in Assimil, I am starting to see patterns in pronunications and in grammar rules and the process is very enjoyable. When grammar rules are introduced, they seem very intuitive and they stick in my mind immediately.

So, the next time you are learning any language, try these 2 tips and let me know whether they work for you.

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