Language Learning Methods – Whatever It Takes

by Rachel Pieh Jones on August 11, 2014

There are all kinds of language learning methods. LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical), GPA (Growing Participator Approach), community education classes, hiring tutors. Some methods require people to only listen for a set period of time, no speaking allowed. Some require classroom study. Some prohibit grammar study. My personal favorite is one called: Whatever It Takes in which you do every possible thing to learn a language.

language learning

To learn Somali I started with a book called Colloquial Somali which came with cassette tapes (yup, I said cassette tapes). I tried to study while living in Minneapolis, in preparation, and there are almost 100,000 Somalis there so it was possible in theory. In practice, I landed in Somalia with about ten useable words. In order to learn a difficult language, I really had to be there. (Later when I emailed the author to thank him for the book, he apologized for all the mistakes, oh well).

Once we landed, in order to learn Somali, I drove my house helper nuts by following her everywhere, pointing, grunting, and writing things down in a miniature black notebook. I also sat on the steps and watched my kids play in the yard and played grunt-and-point with our guard, and wrote things down in my notebook.

After we evacuated and landed in Nairobi, Kenya for a few months, I took an actual language class. The class was taught by a German who spoke thickly accented Somali and we were each assigned Somali tutors. The grunts and points started to meld into actual sentences.

Later, in Djibouti, I hired my first official language helper, several actually, and for quite a few years, it felt like the only people I spent time with, the only people I called friends, were people I paid. We worked through vocabulary, grammar, stories. I recorded our conversations and we listened to them together to be sure I understood it all, they would correct my mistakes. We translated things like The Three Bears or Dheg Dheer (the Somali cannibal woman with a big ear who eats children). I wrote my own stories in Somali and my tutors edited. I listened to the radio, watched the news, read online articles.

Then, my kids started attending a French school. And voila, I had to start learning French.

To do this I bought the Rosetta Stone program, used old textbooks, watched Dora the Explorer and Teletubbies and literally repeated lines from these cartoons, word for word. To kick neighborhood children out, I pulled a line from the Teletubbies: C’est l’heure de dire au revoir, c’est l’heure de dire au revoir. I think they thought I was crazy but they left. I did my first graders’ homework. I did aerobics in French. Eventually I started reading Harry Potter books. I took classes at the Alliance Francaise. We spent six weeks in France at language school.

The Whatever It Takes method included making a fool out of myself, playing like a toddler, getting in way over my head, studying like crazy, devoting hours and hours to language study when I would much rather have done something else, feeding my family terrible food because I was studying, spending money, crying, making friends, giving horribly humiliating speeches which were met with cheers (thank you, friends I paid), and more crying.

People ask if I am fluent and I’m not. I have a really high standard for fluency and don’t expect to ever attain to it. But I’m highly conversational about deep matters of the heart and about practical matters of life. So somehow, over years and with much hard work and great pain, I’ve learned a little bit. The Whatever It Takes method worked for me.

Here are a few keys, in my uneducated and experience-based opinion, to learning a language:

  1. Be with people
  2. Listen with intention
  3. Speak without pride or fear of mistakes
  4. Work hard
  5. Do what works for you
  6. Pile on the grace

How about you? What language learning methods have you used? Loved? Hated? What do you recommend?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Jojo

    This is such a valuable post. I am trying to learn/brush up on my French in preparation for living in Morocco next year. I would appreciate any advice or “must haves” for this quest.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      N’ayez pas peur! Ni honte. Don’t be afraid or timid. Jump in, work hard, have fun, be patient, build relationships through laughing at yourself, and trust God to use you no matter how fast/slow you learn. Bon courage!

      • Malana Ganz

        I was reading some blog in Spanish and was pretty happy that i could understand almost all of the comments when i realized that the last comment had been in French. I haven’t used French since…1970? But my recent learning of Spanish to work with YWAM in Panama has apparently opened up the Latin roots once again. Now if I can only remember some of the Russian I learned so that I can use it when we go in October! I used to be able to have simple conversations but every time I try to use Russian the Spanish or French or Swedish pops into my head. Confusing….
        But a big shout out to Rosetta Stone. My Spanish has greatly improved by using it, and no paid tutors are necessary. Although paid friends for language are better than paying a psychiatrist to pretend to be your friend. (OK that was a bit snarky.)


        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          So true. So often words from long-ago learned language would pop up during learning a new language.

  • Pam

    Thank you for the perfectly timed word of encouragement. This week I signed up for my first Spanish class.

  • Dee Sutton

    Thank you! I needed to hear this. Not living in country and trying to learn the language is so hard, especially when there are no Khmer speakers in the area to even talk with. We are off to Cambodia for a 3 month stint, and I really need to hone what I do know, into some conversations. And I’ll be doing whatever it takes!

    • Marla Taviano

      Oooh! We’re moving to Cambodia in January. We’ll just miss you! Would love to hear more about what you’ll be doing!

      • Dee Sutton

        actually Marla, we are there till the end of Febuary. Will you be in Phnom Penh?

        • Marla Taviano

          Yes, ma’am! You too?

      • Dee Sutton

        We are working with and alongside New Life Fellowship

  • Marla Taviano

    I love this post. Thank you! We’re moving to Cambodia in January and are trying to get a jumpstart on learning Khmer. It’s hard, but there’s soooo much more I could be doing to learn. (I wish they had Rosetta Stone!) And speaking of Somali, since December we’ve lived in an apartment complex in Columbus, OH that’s 75% Somali refugees. Our girls are sooooo much better at learning it than we are. I know hooyo, abo, awoowe, ayayoo, wafientai, and I can count to 11 really slowly. 🙂 Oh, and sambusa and shah. 🙂

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I love seeing some Somali words here, you know about as much as my own kids – they’ve learned French but not so much Somali.

      • Marla Taviano

        Thanks for not commenting on my spelling. 🙂 Sometimes when i’m feeling extra adventurous, I choose the Somali menu at the ATM. 😉

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          Ah! Even Somalis will argue about spelling. And I got the meanings for sure!

    • Dee Sutton

      There is a really good Khmer course Marla, its called Colloquial Cambodian by David Smyth. Check it out.

    • Melissa

      Marla, learn to read and write. It will help your Khmer SO much. My Khmer improved exponentially as I became literate. Enjoy your time in Cambodia – it has been many years since I lived there but my heart has never left. 🙂

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        Really good advice. It can be so hard to learn to read in another language, and may not ever become as easy or enjoyable as in our native tongues, but is SO good. Reading, I found, helped pick up my fluency (by that I mean speed) and accuracy.

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  • Melissa

    Great post! I’m moving in a month to your landlocked neighbor to the west, and I really want to get stuck into Ahmaric, although at my age I feel daunted. This has encouraged me to forge ahead. 🙂

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Enjoy your move, glad to encourage!

  • Trevor Watson

    Well said Rachel.I enjoyed that and agree with all your six points. To the children it is second nature,but they are still employing your six-pack, without worrying and above all they have fun. Make it fun.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Love how you phrased it as ‘your six-pack.’ And right on about kids – they are able to play without feeling embarrassed and play is so good for learning language.

  • Anita

    Good points, all of them. In my second language acquisition class I learned that risk-takers tend to be better language learners, and so I believe there’s even research to back up your third point.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      That’s good to hear, thanks Anita.

  • hermanojuancito

    # 3: I always tell people trying to learn another language that it is important to not be afraid to make mistakes. I find many people who don’t go far in a new language have so much fear of making a mistake that they don’t say another, for fear of not being “perfect.”
    #1: I’ve never taken a class in Spanish (though I have taken two separate weeks of tutoring in language school) and get along, because some of my best experiences have been in total immersion where there was no one who spoke English.

  • Miriam

    I like to call my way of language learning ‘Pick ‘n Mix’, so that’s
    close to your ‘Whatever It Takes’!. There’s a general programme that I
    follow, but I like to choose different ideas from different programmes
    to bring in more variety and to approach the language from many
    different angles.
    I agree with your keys for language learning, but
    would like to add that motivation is the central key in my opinion.
    Knowing WHY you want to learn the language, and setting goals for what
    you want to learn (e.g. for 1-3 months ahead), is essential to keep
    moving forward, especially when you have reached a basic fluency by
    which you can survive in daily life. Without motivation it is so easy to
    just get caught up in all the time-consuming daily life issues that
    language learning gets a low priority. I’ve seen it happen around me.
    clear that you had that motivation to do whatever you could to learn
    the language. Way to go! For others, depending on their personality and
    learning styles, I’m wondering if fixed programmes might work better.

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