Language learning: how can I learn language patterns on a more subconscious level?
January 26, 2009 5:45 PM   Subscribe

Language learning: how can I learn language patterns on a more subconscious level?

I have a serious problem with language learning that I need your help with. Basically it comes down to the issue of sentence patterns/grammatical structures/vocabulary not sinking in on a subconscious level. These learned "patterns" come out just fine if I let my mind produce them slowly. If I don't think much and speak fast, what comes out is junk. The funny part is that about 10 seconds after the junk spills out, my internal editor comes out and corrects my own words rather effectively. So how do I generate the same language output that takes a bit of thinking and pausing more naturally? I already practice speaking, so what I am looking for are specific exercises and mental games to address this specific issue.
posted by gregb1007 to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Listening to music helped me hugely. I immersed myself in the work of some very simple pop artists and I find myself now referencing those song lyrics as I spontaneously construct sentences. Basic pop songs contain a lot of useful stuff -

I love you
I love you because..
When I did this I..
If you do that the...
The last time I went...
The only thing..
I went away when..

etc, etc

Music is easy to learn and recite and comes more readily to mind than rules or written examples.
posted by fire&wings at 6:00 PM on January 26, 2009

Input, input, input. Just get it in your head, constantly, 24/7 if possible. Buy an MP3 player, download some real radio podcasts, and listen. Exercises and mental games will not help you. Language is not a skill, it's habit... all it takes is INPUT and your mind will get used to the language on its own.
posted by Theloupgarou at 6:15 PM on January 26, 2009

Response by poster: Theloupgarou, the issue is precisely that my speaking habits don't synchronize with the input unless I am very slow. The output often doesn't match the input and that's the problem!
posted by gregb1007 at 6:19 PM on January 26, 2009

Well, that's a memory problem, and the answer is usually just really massive amounts of input. What you're talking about is getting used to naturally speaking in a different language -- that's no light undertaking. It's easy to memorize canned lines and grammar rules and to speak slowly and deliberately (editing and such), but when you want to speak naturally (fast and without thinking), you have to wonder where your subconscious is going to get those naturally formed words and sentences from... and the answer is that its gotta have those language patterns grooved in, and that's not going to happen until a lot of familiarization with a language, probably in the order of thousands of hours.
posted by Theloupgarou at 6:29 PM on January 26, 2009

Hmmm... the question isn't entirely clear but I once lived in Germany. Twice actually. I read everything, absolutely everything. I'd just mumble the pronunciations. When in conversation with German friends I'd sometimes respond in half/half English/German, or shift to/from. I'd also flip through 501 German verbs regularly. In about a year, without any formal training I was at "street fluency."

Get some children's books, magazines, rent movies, tape flashcards to objects around the home, make silly notes to yourself, the music noted earlier, etc.

All of this will eventually become absorbed.
posted by ezekieldas at 6:33 PM on January 26, 2009

Get some children's books

Seconded. Sir Richard Francis Burton, explorer and one of the world's great linguists, recommended reading children's books for their simplified syntax and vocabulary. He also recommended silently repeating the speach of native speakers, in order to capture the pronunciation and rythmn of the language.
posted by SPrintF at 6:51 PM on January 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

If your problem is output, try memorizing things. Songs, dialogues, sentences, whatever. If you find specific constructions you tend to get wrong, memorize passages that include those constructions. Recite them frequently.
posted by trig at 9:03 PM on January 26, 2009

I agree with fire&wings, music is a great way to learn this kind of thing...!
posted by ryanbryan at 12:43 AM on January 27, 2009

Immese yourself in the target languages' media, which you can find easily on the internet. Have radio play in the background during the day - it eventually helps sentence patterns seep into your brain and makes pronounciation come easier in the long run, especially with languages whose sound systems pose problems for english speakers (I listen to French radio daily... and it is how I learned the sound system of Romanian - logical and simple, but releatively unpronouncable - at first.) Sit down with old fashioned pen and paper and translate simple news articles using a dictionary - writing by hand helps fix vocabulary memory. And my old and shameful but very effective secret: fill your bathroom with magazines and books in the language, plus a dictionary. A couple of times a day you will have a brief study break whether you planned on it or not. It actually works.
posted by zaelic at 3:14 AM on January 27, 2009

Try finding or starting a theater group that produces plays in your target language, focusing on contemporary works (so you're dealing with contemporary syntax). Don't read the lines, memorize them. Write your own theatrical pieces in the target language (to emulate conversation). I have a friend who does this for his ESL classes. It takes away your choices and forces you to speak conversationally. Half of your delayed-output problem is just fear of getting it wrong and looking foolish; using someone else words frees you from that. Find a sympathetic native-speaker and engage in conversation with them a couple of times a week.

That said, don't worry about sounding slow or foolish; don't worry about incorrect grammar. Force yourself to just keep talking.

Prose doesn't do it, because the writers are using language very differently than you'd use it in conversation. Otherwise, I'd say the podcast idea above is excellent-- start listening to people in conversation. Don't disparage input-- how do you think children learn language?
posted by nax at 4:24 AM on January 27, 2009

I completely know what you're talking about. I'm the same way and no one here has really addressed your problem specifically -- these all just seem like general "get better at a language" suggestions.

Am I right in thinking that you don't feel really fluent? I think, for me, the problem is that I'm not thinking in the language. Even though the "wrong" thing comes out really fast, and then I go over it after the fact and correct it, I'm still translating in my head the first time around, albeit very quickly. Translating in your head will never work.

I've always wished that listening to the language while I sleep, etc, will work, but I don't think it does, and even if it did, I think that would only help with fluent understanding, and not speaking.

What I've found to help is listening to something where real people are actually talking (as opposed to speaking, like a speech or an audiobook or something fake/forced). For French, I like the radio and TV station websites -- they have a lot of shows and things online. News isn't really good, but things like interviews, or talk shows, or anything improvised will be more natural.

Find something that you can record and play over and over. Either get a transcript or write out your own (also good practice) and then speak along. This will get you repeating common idioms as well as common grammatical constructions. I believe that your mind is able to absorb/comprehend/process sentence structure and learn to use it, and can learn the pattern of the language (this is the basis of Pimsleur, which also might help; I LOVE it). It might just be that for people like us, it is necessary to actually say something over and over as opposed to just listening to it; the act of (re)production.
posted by thebazilist at 7:06 PM on January 27, 2009

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