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John Dowdell

NB: Everyone learns in different ways, and uses different blends of techniques. These are ones that happened to work well for me, as a primary-English adult learner in San Francisco. Your mileage may vary.

The Pimsleur Method: If I was studying a new language today this would be my first stop. Their all-audio courses get their results by asking "How do you say X?" questions throughout each half-hour daily session. The challenges continually vary the sentence patterns and vocabulary, so we learn how to construct a variety of basic sentences with well-honed patterns. Starting with an audio presentation means that the accent suffers less risk, and (compared to book or class study) there's less jarring disconnect when first hearing live speech.

How to make Pimsleur better? It's one-pass learning, and you can benefit from going through each session only once, but I generally get an hour for this material each day, and first rerun the previous day's new material. Pimsleur is also good for fast review, if my brain suddenly stops working in that language. I'd definitely recommend carrying a pocket dictionary or phrasebook while listening, to get a visual representation of any ambiguous sounds.

John Dowdell

Top $20 tip: Lonely Planet packages some of their pocket guides with a cassette or CD from Penton Overseas (makes of VocabuLearn). The audio does English/target handlings of top tourist phrases... no repeats. Unlike Pimsleur, you have to listen to this audio many times to pull things out, but there's a pocket visual representation to refer to. Within a month of daily use you'll have at least a handful of reliable phrases and will understand more about how the language is put together.

More phrasebooks: Speaking of which, phrasebooks are so cheap that there's no reason to not have two or three nearby at all times. They fit in a back pocket or bag, and can be pulled out if you have even thirty seconds to spare. Rotating in different brands of phrasebook for the same target language means that each doesn't go stale, and you can see a variety of handlings (and confirmations), and such phrasebooks usually have their own unique cultural info as well.

When I restarted Japanese I was already at the intermediate level, and although I started using phrasebooks when first approaching Mandarin, I didn't really exploit them. After seeing some of the usefulness of the book/audio sets, one of the first things I'd do with any new target language is to collect as many phrasebooks as I could get.

John Dowdell

Top Tip: This one took me awhile to accept, at multiple levels. The idea is to tailor the methodology to what I need, rather than what someone else thinks is the best way to teach.

No one approach gives the results, I've found, that using a variety of approaches gives. Learning the same material in multiple ways provides more hooks for it to stay in, more resources to see subtleties in any piece of new learning.

This was the thing that continually soured me on language classes: I would find myself doing homework that I knew I wouldn't yet retain, instead of studying and learning the language as I really wanted.

Same with media -- there's much excellent courseware which requires daily reading & writing sessions. I was frustrated because I could not sustainably schedule such sessions. I found a way to emphasize an audio-oriented approach, with ad hoc reading. I had to tailor the approach to what I wanted, and what I could do.

John Dowdell

Top cheapy tip: Local TV and radio are free. San Francisco has 'em both.

For TV, try local station channel 26. There are news shows, childrens shows, and dramas in Mandarin, Japanese, Cantonese, Korean and more. For more options, try the Dish Network satellite service -- better international choice than DirectTV.

For radio, switch to the right end of the AM dial. (You've heard NPR before, try switching to something new. ;-) There's KEST, KVTO, and another station out of San Jose which offers a variety of programming. Station strength fades in and out, but the range 1350-1450 will usually turn up something interesting.

But these broadcast shows are incomprehensible... understanding radio speech is a very difficult task. So what use is it?

First, can you figure out which language it is? How do you know? What tipped you off? The music of speech, the TV graphics, a location shot, some specific words, a sentence pattern, something else?

If there's more than one speaker, then can you figure out their social relationship? Which one is deferential? What types of support does each give the other speaker? Is this different from social relationships in other parts of the same show?

For that part, can you figure out which is the news section, which the weather, which the advertising, and so on? What gives it away?

Can you pick out English words in newscasts? Places and names are a good bet. It can be an accomplishment just to be able to hear the speech this clearly... it's worthwhile work.

How about numbers? If you know ten digits you can usually hear when they announce phone numbers.

For TV, can you recognize from the building style where the scene is set? Suppose it's San Francisco news in Cantonese, with many interviewees speaking English... you can pull a lot of meaning out of that bilingual situation, right? What *types* of things are the target speakers saying to set up the English speakers?

A college student might want to handle such a communication a word at a time, and become overwhelmed because we're not yet proficient. But children learn by gradually making more and more sense of the continuous external world. We may not understand a foreign broadcast the way we do an English one, but that doesn't mean that we don't extract meaning from them. These skills increase with practice, too.

John Dowdell

Eavesdropping: San Francisco is great for this... there are tourists from all over. What language are they speaking? How do you know? If you've studied this language then can you recognize any words or sentence patterns? If not, can you pick out any English cognates? What type of meaning can you extract from the *way* people speak to each other, regardless of not knowing the content?

There's also a chance to help tourists who are lost, but it's been hard for me to approach a stranger and start speaking in the target language.

John Dowdell

Bookstores: There are different types. Borders, Staceys, Cody's and others usually buy from established domestic channels, and have a good supply of Teach Yourself, Instant Immersion, dictionaries and other resources.

But the used bookstores are uniquely valuable too, particularly in an area where students may drop off old books. Many of these used books have been brought from places with different distribution channels, so you can find titles used that you'd never find new. I've scored big at Green Apple, Moe's, Black Oak and many more.

There's one more type of bookshop, the specialty shop. Kinokuniya in San Francisco's Nihonmachi has a wide range of Japanese books, and East Wind Books of Berkeley, on University just west of Shattuck, has an extremely wide range of Chinese instruction books.

How many to buy? That's hard to say. Some of these resources are hard to find and so warrant a quick purchase even if that material is not on the immediate study list.

John Dowdell

Best Kanji book: I've tried a lot, but Kanji A-B-C is the first I've found oriented to the needs of an adult learner. Schoolkids learn a few hundred each year by rote... different books for adults order them in different ways, or tell you stories the author uses to remember each... Kanji A-B-C takes a structural approach, where any kanji can be expressed as a combination of any of 600 core graphic elements, each of which has its own word or concept attached.
      Result: It's easier to recognize and make up a story about each character, which then provides a mental hook for the meaning and the various readings. (It even helps with recognizing Cantonese characters, as this approach of using a "graphic alphabet" makes it easier to recognize and recall any new character.)

John Dowdell

Video assets: Video courseware is starting to occur, often broadcast on local "public service" channels. There are sometimes written materials available too.

One of the best I've seen is "French In Action", using the Capretz Method (dunno what that is, comes from Yale). With a video recorder you can capture them from KCSM (I think it was). It can be one-pass material, with low need for multi-day review, but it requires concentration to use well... it's not background material.

For Mandarin there's "Communicate in Chinese" set of 40 twenty-minute segments, produced by the Chinese government and CCTV. I've occasionally found it on satellite programming. There is a corresponding VideoCD set of recordings as well as some books, and I may try to order these from East Wind Books.

Speaking of VCDs, some DVD players will play these, and some won't. There are economical portable VCD/DVD players in SF's Chinatown... try upper Grant, south of Broadway. You can use a portable in places you couldn't use a full video system. I'm not sure how much money Jackie Chan makes from each sale of his VCDs in Chinatown, but at 3/$10, even the state television nature documentaries offer a lot of learning material at little price.

John Dowdell

Get a hobby: For me, learning is easiest when I can hook new things to things I already know -- when I can build structures of knowledge, then it's easier to retain many details.

Each of us already has structures of knowledge, things we know a lot about. If you're a musician, then how do the musics compare? Cooks study regional cooking differences. Movie fans have a wealth of ways to learn more about the target culture. Sports fans have their own comparisons to make.

This is also an entrypoint to the new community if you relocate... knowing how they practice your own hobby is a strong connection point.

John Dowdell

More: I wrote more in this weblog in 2004... try the categories or search to find additional items.

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