Foreign language learning – use it or loose it (listening vs speaking)

By | December 5, 2014

I think I’ve touched on this point in another blog post some time back, but it’s such an important thing I decided to revisit it.

When studying a foreign language, it’s natural to have a bias towards listening/reading over speaking/writing. This is not only because the latter is generally much more difficult, but because if you aren’t living in an environment that uses that language it’s  hard to really make use of it. On the other hand, if one of your reasons for studying that language is to appreciate it’s media and culture (books, movies, etc.) then you can easily put to practice your listening/reading skills on a daily basis.

For some time, in my Japanese study I consciously put an emphasis on these passive language activities (listening and reading), but eventually I realized that it would be a bad use of time if I ended up being great and these but horrible at expressing myself. In Japanese terms it would be truly “mottainai”.

Some time has passed and I’m a bit better at the active (speaking/writing) side, though it’s still an uphill battle in some ways.

However I’ve come to the conclusion that these active linguistic activities actually feedback and reinforce the passive ones. For example, say you are listening to a podcast and you pick up a handful of new words, or happen to hear some terms you haven’t heard in some time which refreshes your memory. If you don’t actually make an attempt to use these words, there is a good chance they’ll either get purged from your memory or at least shoved to a far corner where it’s hard to recover them.

On the other hand, if you make an effort to import these words into your lexicon (even if your usage of them is somewhat forced at first), you’ll be forced to think about them more deeply and how they can be applied to the situation at hand. As a result this will create more connections in your brain to that word and these associations will help keep it around longer. It’s also fair to say that being exposed to a word multiple times, especially if there is a strong emotion associated with the situation, will have a similar effect.

Also, assuming you aren’t talking to yourself or writing a blog which never gets published, you’ll also get to see the reaction of people to your use of the word in question. On more than one occasion I’ve had someone say “what? can you repeat that again?” to something I’ve tried to say in Japanese because I was using a word the wrong way, or had a misunderstanding of the meaning(s) of that word. If the person is not on close terms with you, you’re unlikely to get such strong, direct feedback, but even if you are interacting with strangers you may notice their reply to your statement was quite what you expected. On the other hand, if your use of the word seems to further the conversation in a good way, and communicate your intended thought or feeling to the other party, then this is a form of positive reinforcement that you got a good handle on that term.

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