How to intensively learn a language

Harold F. SchiffmanAcademic Director, Penn Language CenterLuce Professor of Language LearningSouth Asia Regional StudiesUniversity of PennsylvaniaRecent work in the analysis of suc

How to intensively learn a language


Harold F. Schiffman
Academic Director, Penn Language Center
Luce Professor of Language Learning
South Asia Regional Studies
University of Pennsylvania

Recent work in the analysis of successful language learning/teaching frameworks recognizes the need for all parties in the process to have a clear set of goals. Furthermore, these goals must intermesh with each other to form an overall Language Learning Framework. Otherwise at some point the framework will fail, and learning will not be enhanced.

Experience as Language Director of the Southeast Asia Summer Studies (SEASSI) Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle during 1992-93 convinced me of the need for all participants in the Language Learning Framework to be explicit about their responsibilities and expectations. For students, what seems to be most needed is a way for each student to develop and declare a Language Learning Strategy. This strategy will be based on the needs of the particular student based on the language learning situation s/he finds him/herself in. Some students may find that they need to spend four hours per day doing homework, while others may need six, and others only two. Students must assume, however, that their success or failure in the program depends in large part on the effort they put in outside of class, rather than exclusively on what happens in the four hours of morning classwork. Here are some ideas I have pulled together in consultation with other experienced language teachers

Elements of a Language Learning Strategy

Some factors enhance language learning, and other things detract from it. The intensive languge program student who spends four hours a day sailing on Union Bay, flipping hamburgers at Burger King, writing her M.A. thesis, or watching MTV does not have a strategy that will enhance language learning. We can't tell you you can't do these things, but we do know that four hours devoted to non-program activities during an intensive language course will not enhance your learning of the target language. Furthermore, we do know that some or all of the following will help rather than hinder learning.

  1. Time Management. Probably the most important element of a successful LLS is how students manage their time, especially the time spent outside the classroom. Scheduling time for the various elements that will be necessary to perform well in class may take some experimentation, but there are a number of rules of thumb.
  2. Intensive Language Classes are Intense. Remember that when you study a language in a regular school year, you usually have 50 minutes of class time followed by 23 hours of other activity (and sleep) before the next class. You may spend an hour or more doing homework, listening to tapes, etc. for that one hour of class. Buf if you have four hours of class per day, you are going to have to do at least four hours of homework per day, but maybe more. And remember that a day of class missed in a regular program is only an hour missed, but a day missed in an intensive class is the equivalent of a week. Can you afford to take long weekends camping in the Poconos?
  3. The dreaded ``M" word. Memorization is necessary in any language program---vocabulary, grammatical forms, phrases, whole conversations, paradigms, tones and tone rules---must be to some extent committed to memory. You need to work out the system that works best for you. Some students find that memorization 15 minutes a day, at four different times spread throughout the day is more effective than devoting 1 hour of undivided time. Some students find it works better to work with another student. Others make notes and paste them on their mirror. Find what works for you, and do it.
  4. Make flashcards and carry them around with you. Write new vocabulary down that you hear in class directly on your cards. Alphabetize them and date them. Test yourself with them constantly, but make sure you do it honestly---write down your answers, rather than giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Or, work with another student on a regular basis, testing each other. Keep a record of the words you have trouble with, put that card aside, and test yourself again later.
  5. Break up your homework time into reasonable chunks; don't make the mistake of thinking that just sitting for four hours will bring you to a point where you can then declare yourself finished. Break for a snack, some exercise, whatever, and then come back.
  6. Read ahead in the book---look at what's coming. Sometimes it makes it clearer why the material in Lesson 5 is there---it's to provide a transition to material in Lesson 6. And don't forget to review older material on a regular basis; don't wait for the teacher to remind you. Good teaching materials and good teachers will deal with this automatically, but it doesn't hurt to do it yourself.
  7. Listening to tapes. If there are tapes that accompany the material, plan to spend a goodly amount of time listening to them, either in the Language Lab, or on your Walkman. Play them while you're doing something else, like taking a walk. Play them several times a day, rather than just once. You may be required to memorize dialogues on the tapes; schedule this in.
  8. Organization. Time management during an intensive language class may require more organization than you have ever needed in your life, but if you are doing it, and doing well in class, it will be a success. You may feel that you are `not the kind of person' to schedule your time this way; if not, show us another plan. Intensive language programs are not `feel good' programs; our responsibility is to teach the language, not organize a pleasant summer.
  9. Keep a log of time spent, actual time spent, at various of these activities. Then if your time management plan isn't working, we need to know about it. If you're having a problem keeping up with other students, we can't diagnose it unless we know what you're doing.
  10. The (pro-)Active Approach. Review the work performed in class each day. Look at the notes you took. Is it all clear to you? Could you explain any or all of what was said to someone else? Could you transcribe your notes (e.g. type them up) in a coherent manner that will make sense to you later? If you can't, maybe you need to ask a teacher or the Coordinator about whatever it is that doesn't make complete sense.
  11. When someone else is speaking or being drilled in class, how do you use the time? Do you daydream, look out the window, talk to your neighbor? Or do you prepare for the eventuality that each time anyone is called on, you should be able to provide the answer? In other words, are you constantly seeking answers to questions, or are you waiting for someone else to take responsibility for your learning?
  12. Take advantage of every opportunity to use the language you are learning. Make a pact to only speak the target language with certain individuals; go to every movie you can, every field trip; use your breaks to reinforce learning rather than let it slide.
  13. Use of Class Time. Take advantage of the teacher's office hours, and bring any question or uncertainty to this hour, rather than using valuable class time to waylay the teacher into long discussions of grammar. You will soon discover which teachers would rather discuss culture, or grammar, than to drill the class and make people talk. One strategy that does not enhance language learning is to take advantage of this propensity and get a little vacation from the constant drilling.
  14. Language Learning and the Non-traditional Learner. Many of us, myself included, find that as we get older, certain kinds of learning become more difficult. Memorization is one of these. Another problem may be with our reaction time; it seems to take a little longer for the nickle to drop. And maybe our hearing, which has been perfectly adequate up to now for our mother tongue, doesn't seem to hear those fine distinctions in spoken Klingon. Older students may have to face issues of loss of self-esteem, (what, me fail?) and how to compensate for this. On the other hand, older learners usually are clear about why they want to learn and may have very practical uses to which they intend to put the language. (And they usually are better time managers.)
  15. Exercise, a healthy diet, entertainment, and adequate sleep are part of a good strategy, and should not be neglected in a daily schedule. They should just not be allowed to dominate the schedule, or receive first priority.

If the above sounds like an absolutely awful grind, maybe you need to reassess why you want to study this language. Intensive language classes have been referred to by some as `half summer camp, half boot camp.' There can be mood swings---usually the first few weeks are full of energy, then come the doldrums. Enthusiasm may revive, only to flag two weeks later. Usually intensive program ends on a high note, but the road may be rocky. Be prepared for these variations, and don't be thrown by them. To help you think about what time you have at your disposal, start your planning with the following grid:MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday8:00--9:009:00--10:0010:00--11:0011:00--noonNoon-1 p.m.lunchlunchlunchlunchlunchlunchlunch1:00--2:002:00--3:003:00--4:004:00--5:005:00--6:006:00--7:00dinnerdinnerdinnerdinnerdinnerdinner7:00--8:008:00--9:009:00--10:00

Fill in the blanks with your current schedule--how many hours in class, how many hours eating, enjoying recreation, exercising, doing homework, watching television. Then make some decisions: what could be done differently? Is there something that could be cut out, or left until the end of the day? You decide; you're the manager of your time, or should be.

fname: lglstrat.tex Fri Feb 2 14:08:49 EST 1996




Harold Schiffman
Fri Feb 2 14:08:27 EST 1996

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