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.

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