The “multi-track” approach to language learning (Guest Post by iguanamon)

When I first wrote this post over on HTLAL, it was at a time when a few active members were preaching, course, course, course and more course. The forum tends to go through cycles, and at that time, that was what was going on to a large extent. Some people were wondering why on earth I would recommend native materials to people at beginner levels. So I felt I needed to explain why. The post went on to get 61 votesover there (as of this writing) as being useful, so some people must have thought it was. Anyway, I’ve been asked to re-write it and I have changed it a bit.

This post is intended to explain about and why and how I use the “multi-track” approach in my language learning. I am not intending to win a debate. There is more than one way to learn a language. There is no “best” way. I just want to explain why I feel the multi-track approach is a good way to learn a language for me. Opinions about language-learning are legion and mine is just one in the chorus. This is just one way to to think about learning. It has worked for me, and others. It may help you too. That being said, for those experienced, and non-experienced, learners reading this, here are some caveats

Caveats: This method is NOT THE ANSWER! I am not a guru or the next great polyglot. We all learn differently. I’m just a guy who has managed to learn some languages on his own and I think I can help some people who might want to try something that may be a little different.

  1. If you are a perfectionist, don’t follow this advice, it won’t help.
  2. If you are an obsessive anki user, don’t follow this advice, you will defeat the purpose.
  3. If you are happy with your course(s) and whatever approach you use, if you feel like you are doing well and making good progress, then don’t follow this advice.
  4. If you don’t like or don’t want to be challenged, if you need or want to have everything explained and need or want the structure that is provided in a course, then don’t follow this advice.
  5. If you only have a very, very limited amount of time available for language learning in a day, don’t follow this advice. (though not having enough time is an illusion, “seek and ye shall find”. The time is there in “hidden moments” throughout your day.
  6. If you are studying several languages simultaneously (as a monolingual beginner), and they are all at a beginner level, you may have significant difficulty in following this approach.
  7. This approach may not apply to very opaque languages with different scripts, where there are very few cognates and non-intuitive grammar. I haven’t tried that… yet.
  8. This post is not intended for experienced learners who already speak or can use a language at a high level. Whatever you are doing has worked for you successfully. Keep doing it!
  9. If you are looking for efficiency or if you are looking for quantifiable facts and figures for me to prove a hypothesis, look elsewhere. I can’t do that. I have no figures for number of hours, pages read, ouput versus input, none of that. I don’t keep track of such things because to me, it is not important.
  10. “When you meet the Buddha on the road, you must kill him.” This is a Buddhist koan that means you must not place your faith so much in any particular someone or something that you lose yourself in the process- not me, not youtube polyglots, not Barry Farber, not Professor Arguelles, no one. You must find your own way. In implementing the multi-track approach, I can’t tell you what the right mix is for you. That’s something you will have to discover for yourself, if you decide to go down this path. I’m just giving you an outline to follow, if you wish- or not.

And More Caveats:
I have seen verifiable proof of members here on the forum who have successfully learned a language, by using the course-only method, at least to an intermediate level, and these learners do not follow any of the advice I am about to proffer. To what extent, they have eschewed native content varies, some people don’t consider watching a video or reading an article “study”- and consequently… they don’t mention it. There are people who vehemently disagree with my approach and they have been successful in learning a language on their own to a high level. I have also seen members front-load grammar and vocabulary with srs and be successful in learning a language to a high level. Though, personally I would find this method very hard to do, speaking for myself. If you believe the multi-track approach could work for you, go for it.
Your mileage may vary.

However:
If you feel that something is missing from your routine, if you feel that you are not being challenged sufficiently by your course, if you are dissatisfied at the pace of your course and the choice of topics covered, if you want to, perhaps, shorten the time it takes you to reach the intermediate stage, and make the intermediate stage less of a shock to your system, if you want to make your routine more fun, interesting and turbocharge your learning, if you want to learn the language in, perhaps, a deeper way… then read on.

What is the multi-track approach?
In a nutshell, the multi-track approach isn’t about perfection and overwhelming yourself, it’s about making your own connections and seeing vocabulary, grammar and constructions in different contexts. It’s about synergy in learning- where one track informs and reinforces the other.

WARNING- LONG POST FOLLOWS!!!
For a more practical demonstration, look at how I applied my approach when I started with Haitian Creole in my log- M ta renmen pale kreyòl ayisyen. Followed by my log here- The iguana’s tale. My approach is holistic.

I believe courses, in the beginning are highly useful. Courses give a good grounding in the fundamentals, and… well, you’ve got to start somewhere*. For most people, myself included, a pre-packaged course is significantly easier than coming up with something from scratch. Where I differ from common wisdom in language-learning is by recommending a couple of complimentary, simultaneous, course(s) along with some type of (very limited to start) native material from near the beginning- even when you won’t understand very much at all. Just listening to the language as it is spoken natively, outside the course, can help the learner to become accustomed to the rythyms of the language. (*emk and sprachprofi have shown that you may not even need a course by using their subs2srs method and in emk’s case, a basic grammar, however; emk and sprachprofi are experienced learners. In emk’s case, he has successfully taught himself French, a related language. He knows how to learn a language and what works for him.)

Course-world and the real world are very different. Courses are designed for the mass market. The course designer/author, no matter how expert, can’t possibly know what interests you, the vocabulary you want or need to know for your interests and needs, or how you are best able to learn. They must sell or present their course to a mass of people. Any mass designed course is a compromise. The lessons are designed to teach you in a “logical” progression. I put logical in quotes because, it’s the author(s)of the course’s logic. The topics may be uninteresting, boring and impractical to you. You must wait to learn certain aspects of the language until the course author(s) decide you are “ready” to learn them. It’s their decision when you should learn the past tense, for example. It’s their decision to emphasize travel vocabulary, family relationships and greetings. I’m not saying these are bad decisions, just that your needs and wants may be different. Your ability to handle more may be different than the lowest common denominator as well.

The beginner course audio can be painfully slow and unnatural. I understand the rationale behind designing a course in this way- to accusom the learner gradually (without “pain”) to the sounds of the new language, but it does nothing for me except annoy me. The pain I have is with unnaturally slow and clear audio. This is the prime reason I can’t deal with Assimil. (I also know that the audio gets faster and that the Assimil courses are very useful for many learners. I even recommend it myself. It’s just not for me. Even in the last Assimil lessons, to me, the audio is unnaturally slow and clear.) That’s one reason why learners are sometimes woefully unprepared for listening to the real thing, even after they’ve been “studying” for maybe a year using a course mostly.

Many of these learners, who have primarily focused on just their courses, then try native material and are often shocked to find that they understand a lot less than they expected, both in writing and in the spoken language. Sometimes they give up, or worse, they repeat the same course thinking that that’s where they went wrong. Or, they may end up doing a succession of other courses. If you are engaging the language from the start, at the same time as you are doing a course, you are much better prepared for the language as it is actually spoken and written outside of “course-world”.

What to do in the beginning:
My advice would be to pick one or two courses and do them at the same time period, alternating days or doing one in the morning and the other in the evening, or one after the other in the same time period. My favorite method is one in the morning and the audio course throughout the day in “hidden moments” of time. If you, for example, do Pimsleur in the morning and then, say, a course in the evening, you’ll find that the material from one will often reinforce the other. Add in some comprehensible input- bilingual/parallel text, a short news item, a song or even a tweet and you are using the “multi-track” approach. You don’t have to and you shouldn’t start off with a book. Start small and work your way up.

Barry Farber described this phenomenon in his book “How to Learn Any Language” like this:

Barry Farber How To Learn Any Language writes:…seeing a word or phrase in your grammar book fifty times does not secure it in your memory as effectively as seeing it two or three times and then coming across that same word or phrase by surprise in a newspaper or magazine or hearing it on a cassette or in a radio broadcast or a movie or in conversation with a native speaker.

 

It may be hard to explain why the multiple track attack works, but it’s easy to prove that it does. It’s somehow related to the excitement of running into someone from your hometown on the other side of the world. You might have ignored him back home or dismissed him with a “howdy,” but you’ll be flung into each other’s arms by the power of meeting unexpectedly far from home.

 

The rub off effect kicks in nicely almost from the beginning of your effort as words you learned from a flash card or cassette pop up in your workbook or newspaper. Sure, you will eventually conquer the word even if it occurs only in your grammar book or your phrase book or on your cassette, but that learning involves repeated frontal assault on a highly resistant unknown. Let that same word come at you, however, in a real life newspaper article and your mind embraces it as an old friend. …(emphasis is mine)

Here’s how Farber describes how he would start:

Barry Farber writes:…Tradition bound teachers would have problems with that kind of “ice plunge,” a naked leap into a foreign language newspaper after only five lessons of grammar with nothing for help but a dictionary, which in many cases can’t help because you won’t know the various disguises (changing forms) of many of the words. What’s the point?
There are several. America is a nation of people who make straight A’s in intermediate French and then get to Paris and realize they don’t speak intermediate French! The knowledge that the text – newspaper, book, magazine, whatever – is a real world document that does not condescend to a student’s level is a tremendous confidence builder and energizer for your assault upon your target language. The awareness that you’re making progress, albeit slowly, through typical text, genuine text, the kind the natives buy off their newsstands and read in their coffee shops, gives even the rank beginner something of the pride of a battle toughened marine. …(emphasis is mine)

When Farber talks about the newspaper after five lessons, he’s talking about working through just a paragraph. Then, after some review of the unknown words and some more lessons, the next paragraph- and the next paragraph of the article- not the whole flippin’ newspaper. He says that by the time you get to the end of the page, your highlighted unknown words will be much less and you will have learned quite a bit. I wouldn’t necessarily do it that way, but anything will help. (Listening and speaking are very important as well.)

Where a lot of people fail with using the multi-track approach is, worrying too much about understanding everything perfectly (you don’t have to), focusing too much on any one aspect and giving up too early and obsessing so much on any one text/audio that they have difficulty moving on to the next one. Also, I have seen people bite off way more than they can chew with using native materials. For beginners, focusing way too much on native materials, having the balance skewed too far to native materials is just as bad, if not much worse, as over-focusing on courses.

Too much focus on courses can leave a learner unprepared for the way the language is used outside of courses. Too much focus on native input can leave a learner without a good grounding. A good balance is achievable and desirable to create a good synergy and get the chain-reaction going, in my opinion. It’s about finding a happy medium. You have to experiment and find the right mix that for you. Just try not to go from one extreme to the other.

In the beginning, courses are most important. In a language like the Romance languages, for example, you have to get to a point where you recognize gender of nouns and adjectives, can conjugate verbs in the present tense and at least recognize the conjugations for the other tenses before the non-course material will really start to make sense.

For native material, I wouldn’t start off with Don Quixote or Harry Potter. I’d start off with a short news item (ideally with a bilingual text), a song or something of a few paragraphs and, over time, work my way up. Even if you have to look up every word in the dictionary at the beginning- in a short text, if you can puzzle out what the sentence means on your own, before you check the translation, you’ll be on your way.

How do you go about using the multi-track approach as a beginner?
Pick one or a couple of courses that don’t annoy you too much. If you pick two, try to make sure they’re complimentary. A classic combination is Pimsleur (or Michel Thomas/Language Transfer) and Assimil or FSI/DLI. Do them at the same time, not sequentially. For example, Pimsleur during the commute or at lunch and the book+audio course when you can set aside a block of time to devote to it. The two courses will be teaching you different things at different stages. Don’t worry about that. This is good because you will see/hear something in one first and then later see/hear it in the other one. One tends to reinforce the other and that’s synergy! It makes the concept more sticky. Flashcards can help as long as you’re not obsessive about them by inputting and reviewing Anki cards so much that you end up working for Anki instead of having Anki work for you.

I, personally, don’t even use SRS at all- not for vocabulary or anything else. I never have. SRS is not an absolute must in language-learning. I don’t count words, either. I learn them through having them reinforced in many ways, reading, listening, writing and speaking. Again there is nothing wrong with SRS as long as it is just one out of the many tools in your arsenal. When you start finding yourself hating the reviews, delete, delete, delete.

Comprehensible Input
Comprehensible input is the key. Comprehensible input means input that can be understood by means of a faithful translation or made to be understood by the use of visual clues, subtitles, a dictionary… something to make the meaning of the text or audio understandable to you.

When you are missing too much to make sense out of something in native materials, as long as it’s short, sure, do what you have to do to make sense out of it. Whether that means learning that short piece of text intensively by looking up every unknown word or using a parallel text that’s ok, just don’t obsess over it. If you can’t figure it out… CHEAT! Cheat often! Brazenly cheat! There are many sources of bilingual texts available if you look, even if it’s just a users manual for a device, government advice, or news items. See my post on Using GlobalVoices.org to make simple parallel texts to learn how to make a parallel text without too much trouble and without massive computer skills.

There is a very important element that many monolingual beginning learners leave out until much later- listening from the beginning one of the most highly voted psosts at HTLAL, written by leosmith. I wrote a response post in the thread How to listen to Latin American Spanish that can be extrapolated to other languages.

Speaking, as often as you can, even imperfectly, especially imperfectly, in conversation, is very important and often neglected. We tend to learn a lot from our mistakes when we get corrected. Speaking of correction, I’ve started to notice some monolingual beginners writing their logs in the forum in the TL. The jury is still out on whether or not this is an advantageous thing to do. When you do this, you may be cutting yourself off from help from mor experienced learners who, while not speaking or learning your language, they do have general experience in language learning. Sometimes, the particular language doesn’t matter as much as technique when you are struggling. If you write your log exclusively in Swahili, I can’t help you. Besides, this forum is just not a very good place for getting correction. I, myself, only feel comfortable correcting my own native language, English. That’s what sites like Lang8 and italki are made to do. Lang8 is great for writing in your target language (TL) and getting corrections from native-speakers. Italki is not just a good place to find a private tutor but it’s also a good place to find conversation/chat partners for conversation practice and correction.

Of course, if you are going to post on lang8, don’t be a “drive-by” poster. Take some time to cultivate good correctors by correcting TL speakers’ English (or your own language) posts. Make sure to give good detailed corrections (the kind you would like to have yourself) and explain to the best of your ability why you are correcting such and such. A good corrector is worth their weight in gold, do this and motivated learners will beat a path to your door. It can even open up opportunities for free language exchanges and perhaps even a friendship.

What benefits are there with the multi-track approach?
Often, learners will be going great guns in the beginner stages with just their courses and then hit a wall in the intermediate stage because they haven’t learned how to learn on their own without the course holding their hand. Using the multi-track approach, you won’t have those problems because you’ll be used to figuring things out without the guidance of the course. As you progress through your course, the outside resources will become more and more important as the course becomes less of a focus. At this point the course becomes more of a tool to solve the problems you’re having rather than serving to teach you from scratch. It’s one thing for the course to tell you how the imperfect tense is used, or how the subjunctive is used and why. It’s another thing entirely to have already seen these constructions and heard them well before your course gets to it and be aware of it. Then, when you reach that point in your course where these constructions are taught, you’ll be thinking- “ahhh, that’s why they do it that way!”. Instead of “what’s this!”, “how am I ever going to learn this?”.

The language you are learning has speakers who have accents, speak fast sometimes, use slang and idioms, run words together, drop letters and do other frustrating things that your course never quite gets around to teaching you. If you already know that and have been exposed to it, the intermediate stage will be a lot easier for you. It will still be hard, just not nearly as daunting because you will now know how to learn on your own- because that’s what you’ve already been doing all along by using the multi-track approach. You won’t need Course Part II or III. In fact, you may not even finish the course you’re using because you may become so good at teaching yourself that you won’t need it- and that’s what it’s all about- turbocharging your learning and making connections on your own. When you make your own connections, the words and concepts seem to stick better in your mind.

So, how and where do you start adding in native material?
You don’t have to start with a novel, children’s literature or watching a television series or films. A short podcast- one to two minutes, a song with an accurate translation, or a 140 character tweet are sufficient at first, after you can at least conjugate verbs in the present tense, perhaps after a quarter or a third of whatever course you may be using. If it takes you a while to get through a three paragraph Aesop’s fable (with audio and bilingual text to check your comprehension) or a short text/news item, no worries. The main thing is to not give up and not to get discouraged. Be persistent and consistent. The more you do this the more critical mass you will build. Have faith that eventually, gradually, it will start to become clearer. Then one day, it will be very clear indeed, but it takes time. It is not going to happen overnight.

Barry Farber talks about waiting to start the multi-track approach until you’ve done 5 lessons and then pick a newspaper or magazine article (printed of course, his book was written pre-internet). His advice is to look at the first paragraph and highlight every unknown word, look them up in a dictionary (remembering that words do crazy things sometimes- like conjugations, gender, plurals, nowadays there’s linguee, WordReference and google translate) and enter them into a flashcard. Personally, I skip the flashcards, but if you want to use them- don’t overdo it. You could also make a list, or not. Memorization is a whole ‘nother aspect of language-learning.

My advice is an adaptation of Farber’s. Your forays into the real world should be limited- at first. If you have an hour a day to devote to language learning, try to take just 10 minutes or so out of that hour of structured study with your course to puzzle out some native text not from your course, trying to understand a song, decipher a tweet or a short text at least a couple of days a week- the more the better. Don’t worry that it doesn’t make much sense at first or if you only have a vague gist of an understanding. Don’t worry if you have to look up every single word in the dictionary- at first. Later, you should try to concentrate on reading and instead make guesses, try to figure out words/constructions from context or prior knowledge of a text. What matters is building critical mass. So, don’t get so obsessed with any particular text or audio that you don’t move on to the next one. The more you do this, at the same time as you are using your course, the more opportunity you have for synergy to work its magic. The more texts/audios (comprehensible) you go thorugh, the more chance you have to see words and grammar constructions again in a natural context. The same goes for speaking and listening- which is another topic entirely that I am not going to get into discussing right now.

How I integrated this approach into my learning day
I take a walk every day for 45 minutes or so, I use that time to listen to native podcasts, music or audio books. When I was learning Haitian Creole actively, I used it for Pimsleur, a learner designed audio book course and/or a Haitian news podcast. I would often spot a word or phrase I had heard in Pimsleur or studied in my DLI HC Basic Course. I also met once a week for conversation practice with a Haitian friend. Words and phrases reinforced each other across all those “tracks”. (Caveat: Pimsleur isn’t for everyone. It has its issues, as all courses do. )

When I was learning Portuguese, I listened to the NHK World Brazilian Portuguese newscast every day (along with doiung my two courses- Pimsleur and DLI)- because it had a transcript and I could also find the same stories on their English site. The newscast was 10 to 15 minutes long. With daily listening I was able to take advantage of repetition of an ongoing story. I could go back and read the transcript. At home, I could read and listen to the text. At the same time I was studying Pimsleur and DLI Portuguese Basic Course (Disclosure: I already spoke Spanish prior to learning Portuguese). I also chatted online with native-speakers, listened to the Deutsche Welle radionovelas with transcripts and bilingual text when needed, and used a tutor for 1 hour skype conversation sessions a couple of days a week (cheaper than you think- $10 US/hr).

Twitter is a great resource.
You can follow people who tweet in your TL who write about topics that interest you. If you have a smart phone, you can check your twitter feed at idle times while you’re waiting. Now, twitter even has built in bing translate, but beware- it can be, and is at times, inaccurate. Still, it can help with figuring things out. I learned how to read the Cyrillic alphabet through member Serpent’s tweets. I could write a whole post on how Twitter has helped me in language-learning.

How to find your own native material
You may hate news and love sports, cinema, the environment, politics, fantasy books, science fiction, music, travel or something else. There is something for you out there, I guarantee it. You just have to find it. One way to find it is to use Wikipedia to look up a subject in your native language and then click your target language, if available. You’ll get the TL equivalent of what you’re looking for and maybe some external links to follow at the bottom of the TL article. Searching the internet via the TL is the way to go. For instance, if I want the lyrics to a song in Spanish, I enter the song name + “letra” which means “lyrics”. Also, you can search or ask on the forum. Most of us are here to help. Be patient, it may take a few days to get a response depending on the language.

Yes, it will be frustrating working with material from the real world, but don’t quit working with native materials (again, I’m not talking novels and Almodóvar films here, at least in the beginning stages) because you’re simply “uneasy”. Quit because you feel, as emk says, like you may be hitting your head against a brick wall. If that’s the case, then BY ALL MEANS, STOP!!!! and come back to it later after some more course work. Just don’t let simple unease be an easy out. Remember, at some point you will have to transition to native materials if you want to advance your language skills, and you won’t be perfect. No course will, on it’s own, take you to proficiency. If you accustom yourself to the real world sooner rather than later, it can show you what you have to do to get there and give you a benchmark to work towards.

Specific materials do not matter as much as the technique itself. Just make sure you’re giving yourself opportunity enough to take advantage of synergy. I didn’t list all the materials and resources available, just some examples. To list everything I’d like to list, I’d have to write a book and I am not a linguist or an author. DLI GLOSS (US Defense Language Institute Global Language Online Support System) is an amazing, high quality, free and somehow vastly underutilized resource that has structured lessons using native content.

The GLOSS lessons teach from real world examples and work on both listening and reading. The audio is the real thing, not unnaturally slowed down and clearly articulated, like in many courses- including Assimil. If you aren’t using it as part of your learning routine, you should definitely have a look. It’s good enough for the US military/government for their own instructional use. Have a look at the link before dismissing it out of hand.

Music
Brazilian music was a big part of what got me interested in learning Spanish and Portuguese in the first place. I memorized the first verses of Tom Jobim’s “Aguas de março” when I started learning Brazilian Portuguese and found a lesson online about the song, before I knew anything about lyricstraining.
The Lyrics Training site can be a fun introduction to learning with native materials. It can also be used for training listening at the same time. Youtube has many popular songs in TL in a karaoke version with the lyrics straming across the screen.

In Conclusion
My point in writing this post is to encourage people, especially beginners, to push themselves just a bit, to make and discover connections on their own, to spice up their routine and give themselves the power of synergy. As a learner, you don’t have to do any of this at all if you don’t want to do so. As long as you are having fun and learning something, that’s all that matters. Be aware, though, that it may take you much longer to reach a higher level following the course-only method and you may run into a brick wall at some point, eventually.
Courses will only take a learner so far. In the intermediate stage for many languages, there may be few, to even no, courses available. So, there will have to be a transition to native materials and speakers anyway if the learner wants to advance to a higher level. The multi-track approach gets the learner used to doing this process much earlier and avoids the shock and discouragement encountered by those who only learn with courses may face when confronted with the real thing in the real world.

If you want to find out more, have a look for Barry Farber’s book “How To Learn Any Language”. Farber was pre-internet but most of his methods can be easily adapted to the 21st century.

I wonder what Farber would make of all the advantages we have today in language-learning. We have access to video and audio from all over the world. Long distance phone calls used to be a major barrier to international communication in Farber’s day. Now, there’s Skype. Letters could take weeks to get to their destination. Now, we have email. Free dicitionaries are online, built into reading platforms. There are online dictionaries that can be used for slang and verb conjugation sites exist as well. Google and Bing translate can be used, to varying degrees of accuracy and inaccuracy, for whole texts. I enjoy searching for unknown words (especially nouns) in Google image search.

Now we have free, online, courses available, websites with the same content available in several languages. We have forums like this one where people who were once beginners like you , who have successfully learned languages to a high level on their own are happy to help. In Farber’s day he started a language-learners club in New York City. Then FX Micheloud started HTLAL, the ancestor of our current forum. There’s never been an easier time to learn a second language than right now.

Good luck in your studies and thank you for taking the time to read this very long post. I hope it can help someone to get the same joy I have by being able to speak and understand a second language. It’s a wonderful feeling.

 

This guest post written by senior forum member iguanamon who speaks: English (Native); Spanish (advanced); Portuguese (advanced); Haitian Creole (basic fluency); Ladino (basic fluency) and also Studies: Lesser Antilles French Creole
You can read iguanamon’s own language log here: http://forum.language-learners.org/viewtopic.php?t=797