This post is about a simple mindset change that creates big results when learning any language. Part of it is an except from the book, Conquering Foreign Languages.
Monash University, Melbourne, 2003
She was looking at me as though I had just asked the silliest question on earth.
“Yes, but what’s the translation?”, I foolishly asked, again.
“Don’t ask me that. Ask me how I would rephrase it in Japanese. Translating directly won’t help you.”
Yamada Sensei (not her real name) had a reputation for being one of the toughest lecturers in Monash University’s advanced Japanese program. She quite rightly picked on people who hadn’t done their homework and who asked unhelpful questions like this one, and was very strict in speaking to us in Japanese
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was trying to defeat myself, and she had caught me out.
How to dramatically increase your practice time and get the information you want, fast
I had been fishing for a translation from a difficult Japanese phrase into English. Seems like a reasonable request to a native Japanese-speaking senior lecturer, right?
In the first class of almost every language course, we’re taught how to ask “What does XYZ mean?” right off the bat. Most of us – myself included in the beginning – make the mistake of thinking “my [teacher/lecturer/friend/whoever] knows how to speak English. It’s much easier to get the translation, and I’ll remember it better that way”.
In fact, this is an excellent way of reducing the amount of vocabulary you can remember.
If you already have five, a hundred, five thousand, or however many words at your disposal, why not use them? This point alone will bring you enormous benefits in memory retention, not to mention speaking practice.
This brings us to a good rule of interrogation: ask for things to be re-phrased in your target language. Don’t focus on the English translation. If you’re starting out, get used to asking “How do I say XYZ” in the target language.
BAD: “How do I say [featherweight champion] in Spanish?”
Here, you have practiced zero Spanish words.
GOOD: “Como se dice [featherweight champion] en español?”
Here, you have practiced five Spanish words (‘como’, ‘se’, ‘dice’, ‘en’ ‘español’ = five words), compared to zero in the “BAD” example.
Once you start using this much-neglected technique, your vocabulary will skyrocket and people will naturally speak to you more in your target language.
Why care? What can you do about this right now?
Have a friend who speaks a language you like? (Especially US readers living in Spanish-speaking parts, I’m looking at you ). Most people I know have at least someone in their lives who speaks another language. And I bet you know at least a few words in that language (thank you, hello, how are you, goodbye..whatever).
Try speaking whatever you can to them in their language – you might surprise yourself, and them.
If you’re more advanced, or have already started ‘formally’ learning a language, give up on asking questions in English as soon as possible. Get used to asking in your target language, and if you’re not sure how, ask your teacher, or look it up and start. Eager listeners are waiting for you.
Question: How have you found ways to get more practice in your target language? Any sneaky tricks you want to share? Would love to hear about it in the comments.