Trying to learn a new language can be a lot like trying to drink from a fire hose. As I mentioned in the Language-Time Conundrum, there is simply an enormous amount of information – culture, grammar, vocabulary, etc. – associated with language learning. It can be extremely daunting at first. One of the early keys to success in language learning is organizing the language itself into more manageable chunks. I’m here to propose to you some of those areas to help provide a framework for language learning.
Think of your brain as a complex computer operating system. When first trying to save a document you must select a folder or location in which to store the information. It can then be retrieved from the same location by visiting that folder and selecting the file. Computers are highly obstinate about forcing us to select a location to save the file, and won’t allow the save without that location. Our brains are very similar in that we store information in our memories by associating those things with what we already know (similar to folders of grouped files). At times we are forced to create a new category for something, which is generally more difficult to do with our brains than with computers.
If you don’t already have the right categories established within your cerebral file system it can be a very trying task to form them off the cuff while learning a new language. It’s a bit like laying the track while the train is barreling down behind you, realizing you’ve veered off course, and trying to correct it before the train overwhelms you. Establishing a proper framework can help you to categorize language subject matter and make the process of learning much, much smoother. I now present some necessary components to a proper language learning framework:
Parts of Speech
The bulk of the framework you need for language learning is to understand the parts of speech. You’re going to come across a lot of words from your middle school English class, and you should be prepared to spend some time to cover these basics (in this case, a little bit goes a very long way). They are called the parts of speech because, for the most part, they are universal. They exist in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, German, etc., etc. Even native Indian dialects such as Paraguay’s Guarani contain these parts of speech. To give you an idea of what I mean, here are a few of these parts of speech:
- Objects (direct and indirect)
- Articles (definite and indefinite)
- Person (1st, 2nd, 3rd)
- Voice (active and passive)
Understanding these parts of speech is crucial to establishing a proper framework for language learning.
Grammar / Sentence Structure
Understanding the ordering of words to form a statement or question, which words to use at which times, and the general formulation of thoughts while using the tool of a foreign language are also vital to acquiring that language. In English, for example, we use a SVO format (Subject, Verb, Object), e.g. “I like sushi,” where I = Subject, like = Verb, and sushi = Object. In Japanese, the format becomes SOV (Subject, Object, Verb), e.g. “Watashi wa sushi ga suki,” where Watashi wa = Subject, sushi ga = Object, and suki = Verb.
At true fluency this difference is easily handled through intuition. In other words, as you become fluent you don’t think about what word is the subject, object or verb. Rather you say what feels right, and mixing the order up isn’t even an issue (just like when speaking your native language). But in the early stages these differences can be formidable and should be studied so as to understand context and meanings conveyed through the language, especially when a change in order can substantially alter the meaning of the message.
Learning Phrases / Vocabulary
The final thing I will mention is the need to learn how to learn. Knowing some phrases and vocabulary words that will help you understand or convey meaning can make or break your early conversations with others. For example, “How do you say _____?” and “What does ______ mean?” are two of the most common phrases you will use when first learning a new language. Descriptive words are also important to help describe what you’re trying to convey (or understand), such as long, tall and short, round and flat, fat and thin, fast and slow, etc., as well as primary colors and numbers. Armed with this small arsenal, it becomes relatively easy to convey or understand most any simple concept or object which may confront you early on. This may not be language framework, strictly speaking, but these phrases and words help bring the new content to the framework you’ve established, much in the same way we use a hangar to hang our clothing on the framework of our closet shelf.
At first the information above may be somewhat overwhelming, but know that some effort here will pay off in dividends as you study your new language. As you come across parts of speech take the time to go study those principles for a few minutes. This will help you to formulate the categories in your brain that will help with new vocabulary and concept formulation in the future. The same applies to grammar; don’t glaze over those concepts, spend a few minutes really trying to understand them. The effort is well worth it, and in the end the quality of your foreign language abilities will be much improved.
How has establishing a framework helped you in language learning? Bring your experience to the table in the comments box below!