January 31, 2013

My 5 language learning tips

There have been several popular articles and books written about the importance of Motivation in Language learning, Best Language learning techniques, Top 10 most important reasons for learning a foreign language or ways of becoming a successful language learner. On my blog, I usually write articles that are quite specific and are often aimed only at a fairly narrow audience. I usually talk about various different aspects of Mandarin Chinese and other languages, which might not be that interesting to everyone, so I thought I could try to work a bit on topics that are more general just to make my blog more diverse.

I tried to keep things as simple as possible and asked myself the following question: If I had to choose only five things that would sum up all of my language learning strategies and have these five things in mind during my language studies, what would they be?  As you can imagine, this was quite a complicated question and even after giving it a lot of thought I realized that naming only five was still very challenging. 

I had to turn the question around a little bit. In the end I came to the conclusion that in my experience whenever something was going wrong in my language learning process, I was neglecting one of the following:

Motivation
Input
Output
Consistency
Review

Motivation

Whether it is your daily study routine or the sheer reason for which you are learning languages, motivation is the key and probably the most important factor in order for you to achieve good results in a relatively short amount of time. The easiest way to learn anything is to become completely fascinated by it. It has been said many times before and I completely agree that if you love what you do then a) you can spend as much time doing it as you want without feeling bored or tired b) the time you spend on doing what you love doing is not work c) if you study something you love you will remember things much faster and although speaking a language is a skill and only being able to remember something fast will not automatically make you speak the language well, it helps an incredible deal.

A lot of people talk about talent when it comes to language learning and while it is important too, it is the drive towards the language of your interest that is decisive in the long run. Even a talented person will achieve his goals slower, get bored soon and will end up being frustrated when studying just for the sake of studying or keeping up with a study plan

Being and staying motivated especially with more difficult languages is not an easy thing to do. Inevitably you will get into a situation where you’ll feel down and feel as if you’ve hit a wall. Here are some things can help you be and stay motivated:

  1. Genuine interest. As a basis, choose a language that you are driven to and are genuinely interested in, everything else will be much easier this way.
  2. The will to learn more. Find something that makes you want to learn more of the language: a will to be able to flawlessly communicate, be mistaken for a native speaker, the ability to read books, understand movies, write articles in that language, be better than others, impress your friends or the general public (if that’s what helps you) ect.
  3. Visit the country where the language is spoken. Go to the country where the language is spoken as soon as you can. Finding out that you can communicate your thoughts in a whole variety of situations with no help in a new language can be a huge motivational boost.
  4. Fight procrastination. If you suffer from procrastination, separate your study time into smaller time units (10 minutes), set up deadlines (try to finish a lesson/book/word list say by 4 pm), invent a task that you need to do that day that is more important than language learning (say look for a job), try to force yourself into doing it, but since you are procrastinator, you will avoid that new task at all costs and will probably study languages instead. Be impulsive and do only what you feel like doing at that very moment, but always try to do something. You can find more useful tips on how to fight procrastination here.
  5. Create a study log and frequently record yourself speaking in the foreign language to monitor your progress. Often when you’ll look back at your levels from 5 months ago you’ll be surprised at how much you've learned, which in turn will give you a little motivation to boost.
Lots of input

As simple and easy as it sounds, in order to learn how to speak a language, you really do need to be exposed to it, learn it from someone/somewhere and that somewhere will not be a textbook. Textbooks are a great way to get you started and help you understand the rules of a language if you can’t figure them out on your own, but they will not teach you how to speak.

  1. Read or listen to something you understand. It has been said before and is something I fully agree with, that you need to read or listen to something that you can understand, in order to learn language patterns more efficiently. If you listen to something you can understand you will be able to get into the minds of the speakers and realize how to produce the language structural patterns on your own more efficiently.
  2. Quantity. Naturally the more input you have, the clearer the patterns of a language become to you so reading and listening to as much material that you can understand is the key. This is often a problem in the beginner stages and will probably require you to create your own study dialogues or ask your native speaking friends to record them for you. You can either work on the same material over and over to internalize the structures that are in it, or work on new material every time which is something I prefer, since you are pushed more to give that little extra effort to understand something you never heard before.
  3. Read more. By far the best way to improve your speaking skills is reading. If you compare reading to pure listening or echoing (a simple technique where you repeat everything you hear word by word simultaneously with the material you are listening to), the advantage of reading is, that when you vocalize everything you read (either orally or in your mind only), making that extra effort in producing the sounds, spending a little more time and focus on each sentence will help you consciously and subconsciously make associations in your mind between sounds and meanings, structures and meanings, situations and expressions etc.
  4. Listen to youtube vloggers. They are a fantastic source of language spoken from the 1st person perspective and enjoyable to listen to. Vloggers usually talk about where they've been, what they have seen, what they have done and what they think about all sorts of topics - in other words exactly the things you need to know how to say.
  5. Listen to political talk shows. To perfect your language skills, listen to news or political talk shows preferably with several participants, so that you can learn from them not only how to speak on your own (monologues, direct replies to questions by the participants) but also how to talk to someone else (listening to the participants interact).
  6. Try to repeat or simultaneously translate what you hear. Listening to something in a foreign language that you don’t quite understand can be tiring and it can be a challenge trying to stay focused. In this case you can either repeat what you hear along with the speaker or try to simultaneously translate the material you hear. In both cases, you’ll be forced to keep paying attention to what you are listening to much more.

Lots of output

Again as simple as it sounds, speaking a language is a skill as any other and to become good at it you need to practice it. Most language learners are learning their foreign languages outside of the country where these languages are spoken so finding someone to talk to on a regular basis can be a challenge, especially with more exotic languages. Luckily with modern communication this problem can be solved to a large extent.

  1. Online voice and text chatting. Go to websites like italki.com and find a language exchange partner.
  2. Talk to yourself.
  3. Practice describing one topic only. Whether talking to someone or talking to yourself, try to practice describing one topic and one topic only and do not drift away in your conversation. It might seem easy, but since you are limited in your foreign language it is actually a very challenging thing to do and the ‘drift’ is basically your brain trying to take an easy way out. Try to stick to one topic for as long as you can. An especially difficult thing to do is to describe rules of complicated games.
  4. Talk without interruption for 5 minutes. If you have an exchange lesson over skype, try talking on your own for 5 minutes. It works miracles. If you are a shy speaker, somewhere by the second minute you will start feeling comfortable and realize that speaking is actually not that bad. 
Consistency

I heard a gymnastics coach say once that if you skip one practice, you’ll need one week to make up for it. If you miss an entire week’s worth of practice, you’ll need a month to make up for it and if you don’t practice for an entire month, you can start all over again.

As with learning anything, without being consistent a lot of your effort will be put out in vain and you will feel as if you’re constantly starting over. This is especially true with for language learning before you’ve reached the so called epiphany moment. Think about the epiphany moment in language learning as that moment when you first realized how to ride a bicycle and that feeling you had when you knew what exactly to do to stay on two wheels. After having reached this point, even if you stop learning the language completely, you can get the hang of it easily should you start learning it again in the future.

The whole point of being consistent is to get to a level where the language will resonate in your mind and sentences and structural patterns will appear out of nowhere until eventually one day you will reach that epiphany moment. Here are some tips to help you stay consistent with language learning:

  1. Build a habit. Even if you don’t feel like it very much, try to do a little bit of something every day, until it becomes a habit. Lack of motivation can easily extend for days and weeks and you’ll be right where you started in no time.
  2. Diversify. Try to find a lot of different things that you can do in the language, read books, watch TV, talk to people, write articles, translate, read about your school project in a different language ect. Have a list of these things posted on your desk where you can see them so that when you don’t know what to do or don’t feel like learning, you’ll have things to choose from. 
  3. Have at least 3 lessons a week. In my case the absolute minimum study time outside of the country where the language is spoken was 3 lessons a week without additional review. Anything less than that and I felt like I was starting over again. With more difficult languages I would consider completely leaving everything behind and going to the country where the language is spoken from day one for a complete immersion. 
Review

I see review as a way to trick your brain into thinking that something is important by going through it over and over again. Once the brain thinks a piece of information is important, it will remember it. Review techniques have improved significantly over the years and there are several great SRS programs (Anki ect.) out there that can help students better organize their reviews, but as great as they are, they are only tools and in the end the work has to be done by the brain.

Some things you can do to improve your review:

  1. Create hand written word lists. Create good, old school, hand-written word lists based on your language conversations and review them every evening. I prefer hand written word lists to SRS because they are not so ‘sterile’ and I can remember words by a lot of memory aids that SRS does not provide me with (their position on the page, the way I wrote them, by the preceding/following set of words ect.)
  2. Reading review. When reading, circle-in words you don’t know, pull a line to the side of the page and write the translation over there. Review every ten pages. The circles will make it easier to find the words on the page and the reason for the translation on the side of the page far from the word is that you just won’t see it right next to your word. If you can’t come up with the translation for the word, read the entire sentence it is in. Nine times out of ten, you will remember what the word means.
  3. Listen to podcasts or watch recorded talk shows online in foreign languages and take notes of words that you don’t know. Pause/rewind yourself through the entire recording and then play it again. Review every evening and/or listen/watch to the same podcast over and over again.

33 comments:

  1. Brilliant!
    A very good article and a must-read for all people interested in the subject.

    My name is Alex, I am an aspiring polyglot myself and it would be great to get to talk to you. Where can one find you? :)
    Regards, Alex

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  2. Hello Alex,

    thank you for the nice words:) What langauges are you interested in?

    Try to send me an email to :

    vladimir (at) foreverastudent.com

    For some reason, sometimes, I can't receive messages through this address, so if I don't reply, please let me know.

    all the best

    Vladimir

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  3. It's an excellent list (I'm bookmarking it for later). I'm not a polyglot (I only play with languages).

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  4. Great article. I completely agree with you. I always set a certain goal for the day and try to meet the ends. For example my goal for yesterday was to read the 1000 most common words encountered in subtitles and wrote down 30 new , very important words. I also wanted to read one unit of my excersise book and anything beyond : watching talk shows in that language was sth extra that I did just for fun.

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  5. I totally agree with on this list you have compiled and thank you for sharing it. 11 languages? WOW! It's true what you said about the coach being I used to play sports in school. If a person has a goal, yet gets off track for "X" reason, that can make it really hard to refocus again. Great points! Every beginner should read this.

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  6. Hello,

    thank you for the nice words and I'm glad you found the post useful.

    11 languages.. :) not all of them I speak fluently and without practice I keep forgetting them so it's not all that great. And in the recording I did, Portugese should count as 0.5 not as one :)

    Wish you the best for your goals.

    Vladimir

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  7. What would you recommend for a native-like or near native pronunciation? A lot of people are sloppy with it and think they can get away with "average" pronunciation and most of the times it's true, but sometimes bad "melody" or pronunciation can lead to misunderstandings. For example pronouncing Dutch vrouw the same way as German frau.

    P.S. I know sometimes people are fluent in the language and yet they speak with an accent and they can live in a foreign country for decades without mastering the phonological aspects of the host language, but some people including you speak like different persons hence your recording in their languages. It's amazing.

    Thanks

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  8. Hello,

    Thank you for the comment about my recording. I also think, that learning correct pronunciation is very important, but unfortunately I don't know if I'll be able to answer your question, because after learning Mandarin, I'm not sure whether I am that good in immitating sounds in different languages. I can try to tell you what I've been doing so far.

    I try to relax when I talk to speakers of the language I'm learning and I'm consciously paying attention to their pronunciation and intonation and compare it to mine. I try to find out what I'm doing wrong, try to make small adjustments to individual sounds, speech organ starting positions ect. during the conversation and when I finally find the correct sound, I try to remember how I did it. Whether I really found it or not, I think is something that I do just purely by feel.

    Certain sounds for instance, I just can't figure out on my own and others have to point out what I'm doing wrong. I found that what works best for me in this case is that people first immitate my bad pronunciation and then show me the correct way of doing it.

    I also found that every sound I have learned so far had to be a pleasant thing to pronounce. In other words, if I am making an extra strange effort to produce something, I'm still doing it the wrong way, no matter how close I sound to the correct version.

    Other than that, I try to do a lot of listening so that I have a subconsious model of the language somewhere in the back of my mind and try to approximate it as I speak.

    There is probably more to it as I never really thought about pronunciation acquisition that much, but these things came across my mind now. Hope it helps a little :)

    Vladimir

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  9. Although you mention visiting the country as a source of motivation, immersion, especially in-country immersion, is not mentioned explicitly.

    I know that in today's highly connected world we sometimes think that it's not really necessary to experience the language and its culture first-hand. You don't have to travel to a country to learn a language, but what a difference it makes to study a phrase and then walk down the street and hear it used and maybe try it out yourself.

    I would actually make it a 6th thing. Everything else is great.

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  10. Hello Stan,

    thank you for the comment.

    I agree that immersion is absolutely necessary and maybe should be a sixth point in my list when it comes to very difficult languages, that mostly do come with a very different culture too. From my personal experience, I don't think I could have learned Mandarin outside of a Chinese speaking country.

    The thing is that I based my article around the question: "Neglecting which aspect of language learning influences the process most?" and I tried to narrow the list down to only 5 entries and all of the aspects that I mentioned in my eyes are more important than immersion. I didn't mention immersion explicitly, but a lot of the information scattered under the 5 entries is pointing to the fact that immersion balances the five best.

    I know it’s much more complicated, but just for the sake of argument, here in Taiwan for instance, often weeks and sometimes months have passed and I have learned nothing new, or only a very few things. There was no difference to whether I was here or in Italy or Spain when it came to learning Mandarin and I have dozens of friends with similar experiences. On the other hand, for instance, when I was back home in Slovakia learning Russian, I was so motivated, that I could listen to Russian news for 8 hours a day with a dictionary for weeks and learned how to almost flawlessly understand spoken Russian in maybe a month or a month and a half. I was motivated, had lots of input, was consistent and constantly reviewed what I was studying. I didn't learn how to speak, because I had very little output and I did that when I went to Russia a month later. Maybe if I had someone to talk to every day or every other day, I'd learn to speak the language outside of Russia too. I don't speak Spanish that well, but I learned Spanish the same way too. Another example that comes across my mind is Luca Lampariello and his English. He has never been to an English speaking country as far as I know and there are a lot of examples like him. Actually most young people in Scandinavian countries speak fantastic English and most of them have learned it at home, because all foreign TV shows are subtitled and not dubbed. I don’t know how well this would work with languages like Japanese or Chinese, but with these ‚easier‘ languages it works well. In the case of my experience with Chinese, Russian and Spanish, I don’t think that the fact that I was or wasn’t immersed in the environment has been the key factor to learn the language successfully (more important when it comes to Chinese though).

    In either case, it was just a fun article, no science and I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

    Vladimir

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  11. Hola Vladimir,

    muchas felicidades por este artículo que has escrito. De verdad esto me hace mucha falta como políglota, ya que, para ser honesto, no cumplo con muchos de estos requisitos y por eso es que no soy tan extraordinario como tú, Luca o Richard, entre otros. Pero me considero que soy valiente (al tener un video en Youtube en varios idiomas) y demostrar mi pasión.
    Entonces, qué me recomiendas que haga, para romper el hábito de la flojera? Porque ese es mi peor enemigo. Entonces, qué puedo hacer? Para crear un hábito de dedicarle una hora o minutos al estudio de un idioma y por ende, vencer la flojera.
    Espero mi pregunta haya sido clara. De lo contrario, me lo haces saber.
    Te mando un gran saludo desde México y me puedes responder esto en inglés, sin ningún problema.
    Hasta luego!
    Julio

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  12. Dear Julio,

    thank you very much for your comment and nice words. Thank you very much for writing in Spanish too and letting me respond in English:) It will be much faster:)

    I have seen your video on youtube. You did a great job. It is very difficult to speak into a camera in several languages in one go, so I'm sure in a casual conversation using only one language at a time you'd do even better.

    As far as procrastination goes.. this is one terrible terrible habit. Honestly, from my own personal experience, the only real way how I could get rid of procrastination was when I really wanted to do something and could spend 12 hours a day doing it without even noticing the time pass. Every other technique is just a way to fool your brain into work. When I really don't want to do something, even 5 minutes seem like an eternity and I'm sure many people can relate to that.. So the question is how to turn something that you don't want to do that much into something that you want to do all day and the answer is I don't know:)

    I think one thing that might work is to have a sudden massive 'push' out of the procrastinating situation you're in and then stick to the new habit for as long as possible. For instance if you change scenery, move to another city, have a sudden burst of inspiration and want to work on something, do it right away and try to stick to it for as long as possible. After a few days it might turn into a habit.

    You can also try some of the techniques I mentioned in the article, but as I said, these are all only ways how to temporarily fool your brain into work. The motivation has to come from inside... that's why I wrote that in my case motivation is the key factor, because if I don't have that, everything else is a struggle no matter how much I try.

    hope I helped at least a little bit:)

    wishing you the best of luck

    Vladimir

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  13. Hello Vlad, I've been wondering what do you do for living? If it's not a secret. It could be an inspiration for me actually. I love languages with all my heart, but I'm not sure I want to have a language related job.
    I mean I can imagine myself talking to entrepreneurs in their mother-tongue, but I don't want to be a professional translator, interpreter or tutor.

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  14. Hello,

    It depends on what your interests are apart from language learning I guess. In my experience, there is only a handful of jobs where you can actually use several languages at the same time and make a decent living. A lot of these are jobs are very hard to get too. Working for the foreign service springs into mind. When doing business on the other hand, most companies have locals who speak English nowadays and even though speaking the local language speeds things up a lot, it is not necessary. You could pursue a career in academia, but I don't know if you could make a decent living. Translation I'm not a fan of at all. Interpreting yes. It's a bit unfortunate, that there is no such thing as a professional polyglot, no?:)

    I currently work as a language consultant for a Taiwanese company.

    Vladimir

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  15. Thanks a lot. Just curious. Is there someone in Taiwan who actually wanted to learn Slovak from you? Because I knew a Japanese guy who learned Occitan and sometimes people do not chase after the "big" ones only.

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  16. Not from me personally, but I know some Taiwanese learning Slovak and some that actually went to Slovakia as exchange students to study Slovak, but they are truly a very rare sight. I've also met a Japanese professor of Slovak once.

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  17. Thanks for responding me! :-) Your help was more then helpful! See you soon!! :-)

    Julio

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  18. Thank you very much for your post and blog!
    Keep up the good work.
    Your posts have motivated me to put the gas pedal down on my 4th language, Spanish.

    Muchas gracias por todo.

    Ivan.

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  19. Hello Ivan,

    I happy to hear that you like my blog.

    Wish you the best in you studies.

    all the best

    Vladimir

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  20. Great list! Thanks a lot for this wonderful list of advice. :)

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  21. I'm glad you found it useful:)

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  22. Very helpful article
    currently i am learning french after that i will try to improve my english and i will also try to learn spanish using the top 5 things that you mentioned above..

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  23. Hello. Good luck with your studies.

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  24. Hi Vlad!

    I have a quick question really. I absolutely love reading fiction books, but I'm not at a stage yet where I can understand every word of the language I'm studying.
    I tend to just read the book I want to read anyway, and understanding wise, it is completely fine, but mostly because I can infer what other words are from the sentence. I find looking up words in a dictionary really boring, and it kills my enjoyment of reading!! (apart from the odd key word if it sparks my interest).

    Is this useful at all to read with infering (and never look up words), or would it be more beneficial to change it to a more 'looking up words in a dictionary' approach?

    p.s. this article is truly fantastic :)

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  25. Hello Rom. Thank you for the nice comment:) I actually have the exact same problem.I find looking up words very boring and time consuming. But I found that I have a much higher new-word retention rate if I look words up and then review them every ten or so pages (although I am usually too lazy to do this and this happens probably less than one time out of ten). Then again I also think it is not necessary to look up absolutely every word, unless you plan on working as a translator or just would like to have that kind of a knowledge of a foreign language. I think sort of like a hybrid system might work for you, that is if you encounter a word you never saw, but can infer it from context, highlight it and then review every ten pages.

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  26. Thank you for the reply, I'm really glad that you also agree that its time consuming and boring lol, I always felt that maybe I was just being lazy!

    These are great tips, I will definitely spend more time looking up words. I find it so boring, I think i may continue to read for pleasure on my enjoyable books (infer the meaning etc), and then look up words on interesting wikipedia articles and things, where its only a few pages long!

    How is your journey with cantonese and/or farsi coming along btw?

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  27. Wish you the best of luck:) Review is really very helpful, although I have to constantly remind myself of that.

    Unfortunately I didn't get to work much on Farsi or Cantonese in the past 2 years. I might have regular Farsi and Portuguese exchange classes soon though.

    What languages are you working on primarily?

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  28. Thank you! Well, my primary focus is German, which I have been studying for just over 7 months now on my own (quite consistently and intensely). I am actually the person who emailed a few months ago lol, about how I really wanted to start Chinese as well, since it was just really drawing me in. I attempted to squeeze it in, but I just found it really difficult to concentrate and be consistent with two on the go, so have found maybe its better for me personally to focus just on German for now lol.

    It's my first foreign language that I've ever attempted with a natural approach (as opposed to my failure to learn it at school properly), so now that I'm improving more than I ever have, and enjoying it so much, I have to force myself to not language hop!

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  29. I remember the email, but not the name:) I have a terrible memory for names.

    German for you as a native speaker of English (I presume) should be a very good language as a first choice. If you are really lazy and get bored easily, maybe you can try listening to German podcasts or audiobooks as you're doing something else to save time :)

    All the best with your studies.

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  30. Haha, my previous questions I posted with no name, so it's not your memory in this particular case.

    Yes! native English. The books that I am going through so fast, since it is so much fun, is the Harry Potter series lol. Each book has an audio CD, so I can read and listen, and I love Harry Potter, so I listen to each book about 3 times easily and never really get bored! but then I was cringing at the thought of having to look up words (especially when I'm understanding it all), and so this lead to me emailing you lol.

    Thank you for answering all my (many) questions, you have really been a massive help :)

    Best wishes!

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  31. My pleasure. Wish you the best with your further studies. Vladimir

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  32. Hello, Vlad.
    Great post!

    I want to ask you, how to learn languages which have case system such as Russian for learners whose native language doesn't have the case system?
    Should the learners learn the grammar first?
    I'm struggling with Russian.

    When I learned English, I learned the grammar first. In fact, it prevented me from speaking naturally, thinking the rules before speaking. My speaking improved after stopping learning the grammar. Instead, I did "mass listening", a term you used in your interview with David Mansaray, about 5-6 hours a day for a few months. But English structure is much simpler than Russian.

    Greetings from Indonesia/

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  33. Hello dear Imam,

    I'm glad you found the post interesting.

    To be honest I don't know how to learn cases, because my native language has a case system and whenever I had to learn a language that had one, I just related it to my native language.

    I hear cases give students lots of trouble but unfortunately I really don't know how to tackle them.

    Maybe you could try to learn them naturally learning entire constructions without worrying too much about grammar.

    Hope it helps a little.

    Good luck with your studies.

    Vladimir.

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