3rd December , 2012

4 Aspects of language learning and how you learn naturally

So I'm about a month into dedicating time everyday to learning Chinese, and I came across this article by Niel from confusedlaowai.com about the 4 Strands of language learning, which I thought was very interesting to any language learner, not just Chinese. He talks about how there are 4 aspects to learning a language and having the right balance of all 4 will amplify the speed you obtain fluency. These are input, output, fluency development and deliberate learning. Input is basically listening and reading, so it's all about trying to understand and learning through context. Output is about speaking and writing, so you can pinpoint your knowledge gaps by trying to translate from your native language and also pick up on pronunciation, grammar or spelling mistakes. Fluency development is basically practising all four skills of a language, but of knowledge you already know so you gain speed and fluency in words, phrases and sentences you already know. Lastly deliberate learning is what much of the UK's education system of full of, which is things like going through a textbook and learning vocabulary, but also can include using things like flashcards to drill vocabulary, spelling, word/character recognition. The problem with the last one is that it usually involves a lack of context, so these need to be practised in context to be useful to you - otherwise I guess you'll just be really good at spelling tests!

Just to recap:

Aspect 1 = reading and listening - listening to conversations, reading books, listening to radio, reading newspapers

Aspect 2 = writing and speaking - speaking to people, writing letters, recording yourself to hear pronunciation, writing essays

Aspect 3 = fluency development - speaking, reading, writing and listening but concentrating on already known vocabulary not new words, phrases or grammar

Aspect 4 = deliberate learning - flashcards, vocabulary tests, formal classes

My theory on language learning

I had a think about how people learn languages and I believe the order in which you would learning a language as a child (natively) is in this order:

Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing

First the child with no knowledge of a language will be spoken to, possibly the same word hundreds of times, until that word is now associated with certain situations or objects. Then the child begins to repeat and speak these words. Once the child has some basic listening and speaking skills, the child begins to learn how to read the alphabet and eventually words. And once he or she has been taught to write the alphabet he or she will begin to learn how to write words. And most of the words that he or she will write will be words that they have already heard, _spoken _and _read. _This is mostly just Aspect 1 and 2, which is input and output, with bits of fluency development (aspect 3). Once the child reaches school, this is where a much broader range of vocabulary is introduced to the child and he or she must take tests and learning new vocabulary or a weekly basis. On top of that there are many children there that the child will be encouraged to converse with and practise these new words and now all aspects are being used at an amplified level. The child learns new words from aspect 4, uses aspect 1 and 2 to practise and learn these new words and then once those words have been learnt they will use aspect 3 to drill these words so they can be recalled in 1/10 of a second rather than several seconds.

Now it seems to me that once you get past the basic level which you as a child learn through input and output through their parents, the deliberate learning is not what takes over from aspect 1-3, it infact what drives how much of aspect 1-3 you can do. Aspect 1-3 are mainly about practising words you already know or sentences you mostly know and learning through context the meaning of words. However with Aspect 4 you will have more words you know and therefore you have more words to practise and therefore with an increasing amount of deliberate learning, there must also be an increasing amount of input, output and fluency development.

I wasn't sure exactly where I was going with post until I'd got up to here, but I feel now that there must be an equal amount of all 4 aspects for you to learn a language effectively. If you spend all your time doing flash cards (Aspect 4 - deliberate learning), then you will not gain any fluency in a language as you will have tons of vocabulary which you cannot use in context or in situations other than what you learn them in. However if you just spend your time talking to natives that aren't particularly interested in teaching you (aspect 3), then all you are developing is fluency in vocabulary you already have. I was actually confused about the subtle difference between aspect 1 + 2 and aspect 3, but I believe that aspect 1 + 2 is when you are actively trying to learn through context, so if you are speaking to someone, that other person is trying to pick up on your mistakes or teach you new words or different phrases with words you already know - therefore you are gaining knowledge. Therefore if you just speak to natives without learning you will never be able to speak about some other subjects as you aren't learning. I was stuck in this area for a very long period of time (years) as I learnt to talk about the fact I couldn't speak Chinese and why. That's one hell of a trap I put myself in, and I was far too quick to jump to '我不会说中文' (I can't speak Chinese) and '我听不懂' (I don't understand), which is basically fluency development in discouraging talking to me in Chinese. Even my friends would introduce me as the Chinese guys who couldn't speak Chinese. Oh how I regret those days...

What I have realised after learning about this

Anyway, enough of my regret filled story. My conclusion to this now extended blog post is that you cannot just speak to natives and develop fluency as you won't have enough vocabulary to make significant gains in osmosis. You also cannot learn with just deliberate learning, such as Chinese classes, self studying through textbooks or flash cards, you must use the other 3 aspects to practise what you know so you can understand what you've learnt through context and gain fluency through repetition (in context not through flash cards!). Therefore my method for learning will now try to do more fluency development with a friend of mine who is on a similar level of Chinese, as well as those of native speakers. I've spent a lot of time using flash cards to learn vocabulary and also a decent amount of time learning through aspect 1 and 2 with my private Chinese tutor, but I need to practise this vocabulary every single day so I can begin to think using these words rather than stand there blankly whilst I think of each word.

My progress so far

It's been about a month and as I've just said I've been doing a lot of flash card practise (about an hour a day), as well as about 2 hours a week with my private tutor, which is mainly aspect 1 and 2 with aspect 3 thrown in here and there (I've been using her too much for fluency development, when I should be using her more for aspect 1 and 2 as she's my teacher).

I've learnt about 450 Chinese characters in this time according to Skritter, which I've become thoroughly sold on during the 1 month trial I'm currently on, so I expect I'll be subscribing in the next few days when my subscription runs out. Skritter has been a rock in my learning routine as any word I find interesting I put into the app and the bulk of the words I've learnt is through deliberate learning which has allowed me to use my private tuition much more effectively.

I've also have done quite a few modules on the HSK 3 syllabus and I think I could probably get a pretty good grade by the end of the year. The only thing that is tripping me up is some simple vocabulary that i don't know that are in the previous HSK vocabulary lists, so I've been breezing through the HSK2 syllabus as a lot of the characters I already know from HSK1 and HSK3.

And lastly I've been trying to speak as much as I can with my parents and friends that speak some Chinese or fluently, but I think I need to do more of it so I can obtain much better speaking fluency in words and phrases I've learnt recently so I can recall quicker. Once I've learnt them fluently through speaking, I'll say them so often that It will be easy to pick up which words I can't read/write and I can practise that in that order of listening and learning a word, trying to speak it, learning to read it and then eventually learning to write it.