Language Learning, Article 4 - Divide and Conquer: Mastery through piece-work
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Divide and Conquer - Mastery through piece-work

Learning a language can, on one level, be compared to putting together a rather large jigsaw puzzle. Imagine that somebody gives you a puzzle that shows a panoramic view of the grand canyon - that is, if you ever manage to put all the pieces together. For there are several thousand of them, and many seem to look exacerbatingly similar. So how do you do it? Little by little, with patience and perseverance. You know you can't do it in a day, maybe not even in a week or a month, but if you do something on a regular basis, connecting just a few pieces daily, you know you'll finish sooner or later.

    Admittedly, the analogy isn't perfect. After all, the puzzle does have a limited number of pieces, and depending on how many there are altogether, you can calculate exactly how many days it'll take you to finish if you manage to put together, say, 3 pieces a day. A language, on the other hand, is constantly growing, developing, changing, evolving... Nobody in the world knows everything there is to know about his or her native tongue, let alone a foreign language.

    But then, when you set out to learn a foreign language, your goal isn't to know everything about it (since you are aware that that isn't possible). It is instead to master a vocabulary consisting of the most commonly used words, to learn to use the grammar correctly, and, in the end, to be able to understand and to make yourself understood in that language. This is an aim that can indeed be divided up into a few thousand parts.     Working with a list of the 1500 most frequently encountered words in your target language, as well as a good grammar book, you might theoretically be able to determine, for instance, 2500 "elements" that are to be learned: the 1500 vocabulary words, plus 1 thousand grammatical units. (One grammatical unit being, for example, the present tense of the verb "to be" in your target language; another one being the past tense, yet another could be a rule concerning word order, etc.)

    Now, if you learn 5 parts of this "puzzle" every single day, you know you will have achieved your goal in 500 days, or about a year and a half (2500 "elements" divided by 5 =500). That's not really so long, is it? Sure, you'll have to review material already learned, but if your daily "quota" of new elements isn't too large, you'll easily have enough time left over for review.

    Working in such a way not only guarantees progress, but just as importantly, it serves to all but completely eliminate one of the most formidable obstac/les to learning any subject of wide scope: the frustration you can feel when you think about all the things you'll have to learn in order to reach your goal.

    When you first begin to learn a language, it can seem a bit overwhelming. Learning how to say "Buenos días", or "Wie geht es Ihnen?" isn't so bad, but as soon as you want to express just about anything else, you realize that you don't know how to do so. Even after a couple of months, you still might have trouble speaking in tenses other than the present, and this severely limits your ability to communicate with others. It's as if you were climbing a mountain: if you look down, you may be delighted to see that you have already climbed the first few hundred meters, but when you look up, the peak may still be very far away!

    By "dividing and conquering" - learning just a few little "pieces" at a time, but on a consistent and regular basis, you will reach your goal, with an absolute minimum of frustration.    For your daily goal will not be "to be able to speak this *!#* language NOW!", but rather, to simply learn a few elements, and then do the same thing tomorrow, the next day, and so on. Patience, discipline, perseverance... and before you know it, you will find that you can handle yourself quite well in your new language, without ever having felt that your head was going to explode!

    A piece of practical advice: when you are learning a language, be sure you have a book that fulfills these requirements:

1) It should teach the grammar in a clear, orderly fashion, concentrating on the most important grammatical features, without dwelling on useless information. By "useless", I mean elements of grammar that are antiquated, extremely rare, etc. Once you have reached an advanced level, you can always buy another book that go into such details. But in the beginning, you should concentrate on useful grammar, with the goal of MASTERING it.

2) It doesn't give you a vocabulary of thousands of words. During my years of teaching English here in Spain, I have often seen books used for teaching English to Spanish high-school students that contain words that even I have never used in my life. This is senseless. Get yourself a list of the 1000 most common words (preferably ordered according to frequency) in your target language, and use this as a basis for vocabulary. In your grammar book, concentrate on memorizing the useful vocabulary; if you see a word that you would seldom ever need, don't bother with it!

3) It contains exercises as well as an answer key in the back. There's nothing more frustrating than to do grammar exercises, and then to have no way to check your answers. Of course, if you are working with a teacher, he/she can correct your mistakes. Nonetheless, since you'll no doubt be learning alone a lot, it is a comfort to know that when you are finished the exercises, you can immediately see if and where you went wrong.

    Of course, languages cannot be learned with books alone: you will also have to LISTEN and SPEAK. For this purpose. besides learning vocabulary and grammar, you must learn good pronunciation, so that you will understand others when they speak, and so that you yourself will be understood. This takes us to our next subject, entitled...

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