Spit it out! Memorizing phrases & the parroting process for improving foreign language fluency

Rote memorization won’t make you a fluent speaker of a new language, but it can be a powerful tool for increasing your foreign language fluency.Pimsleur

You often resort to routine phrases in your native language

Imagine this common scenario.

You’re hurrying into a familiar place, surrounded by people you know. Someone asks casually, “Hi! How are you today?

Most likely, you answer without a thought:

Fine, thanks.”

You answered with a learned response. You weren’t engaging the higher functions of your complex brain and its multiple intelligences. You went by instinct. That’s rote.

This kind of verbalization isn’t going to make you a master public speaker. It isn’t the rich, nuanced stuff of great oratory or literature. But words and phrases like these make up a huge proportion of the words spoken every day.

If you cultivate your knowledge of simple, canned responses to common questions and scenarios in a target language, you can really accelerate your comfort with speaking and your eventual progress toward fluency.

Fluency only comes if you actively use the language

I’ve always been a good student. The strength of my short term memory and my classroom skills made it fairly easy for me to get good grades in high school and university classes in Spanish and German. In spite of this, even after years of study, I was nowhere near fluent in Spanish, though I could read written materials fairly well.

By contrast, in only one semester of purely spoken Japanese taught by an immersion method, I learned a handful of phrases that stick with me in their entirety (and at full speed) to this day.

After that course, I never studied a language the same way again.

Do you intend to read, write, or converse in your target language?

Before Japanese, I improved primarily in the area of language my classes tested: reading and writing.

Sure, the students in my classes engaged in dialogues, but these were a small fraction of the time spent, and conversational skills were almost never on the test. With 15 pairs of high schools students talking to each other simultaneously, ostensibly in Spanish, there was no way for the lone teacher to notice—let alone correct—errors, omissions, or even a total failure to complete the assigned dialogue.

If your interest in acquiring a new language is to read, say, Descartes in his native French, or Don Quixote in the original Spanish, the American classroom experience may serve you well. For everyone else, read on!

Beginner language skills are usually used verbally

If you want to learn to really communicate in a new language, you should force yourself to speak.

Let’s look at the largest cohort of language learners: children. Can you even imagine kids learning to read and write before they speak? The very idea is ridiculous. You walk before you run; you speak before you communicate with written language.

There’s some debate about whether adults learn new languages in the same way young children do; also, about who really learns a new language more quickly. There’s little question, however, that a typical adult learns a language with the intent to engage primarily in verbal communication.

I want to converse with an interesting stranger while I travel. I want to conduct transactions in foreign hotels and restaurants. I want to interact with international colleagues in a more meaningful way and advance my career.

Descartes and Don Quixote are awesome, but they won’t help with any of these typical goals.

Recordings are your best bet unless a native speaker owes you big

If you aren’t surrounded by a community of fluent speakers in the target language who are motivated to spend lots of time and effort on you, your best option is to parrot audio recordings.

The internet hosts about a million people who want to sell you a better way to learn your target language, but I have yet to find a single audio program, textbook, or reader that offers truly radical content.

How could it?

Your target language is what it is. It’s sitting out there, existing, maybe growing a little, changing a smidge, but the grammar and vocabulary are the two parts you must master if you want to use it.

You need to grab hold of one correct piece of that language and start practicing, over, and over, and over…

Think about a mother (family) talking to its newest child: “Hello, Baby! Let me describe you. Here’s what I’m doing. Here’s how I feel about you.”

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

The true advantage of the small child acquiring language is hours of repetition by a group of people deeply invested in its outcome. Even my own mother would be unlikely to commit this kind of time to me now that I’m an adult!

Find a recording by a native speaker, preferably checked for correctness by an organization with a reputation to protect (Pimsleur, Living Language, etc.) Try to borrow these from your local library. Start improving your speaking skills right now.

Work through as many lessons as you can stand until the words fly out of your mouth. If you get bored, take that one back to the library and switch programs for a while. There will be overlap between the programs, but that’s a good thing.

It’s like when Grandma asks “Are you thirsty?” in the scenario where Mom wants to know “Would you like a drink?

Let each of them repeat themselves, and the child learns to speak fluently.

The first time I borrowed Pimsleur German I, I was bored before I’d even finished the ten included lessons. Right now, I’m going through it again for the fourth or fifth time, playing it in the car with the kids. The depth of my knowledge of these lessons has changed radically in terms of ease of access, speediness of recall, and correct changes in articles for different cases.

I could have passed a written exam on this material before even listening to German I because of my college German courses, but I couldn’t carry on a full speed conversation using the contents. Only now do these words spring freely to my tongue in response to the prompts… even while I’m driving on the freeway during rush hour (with construction!)

There are more fun ways to study languages (and this is my favorite), but there’s no shortcut that will let you avoid putting in the time.

Recordings are a good way, a cheap way, and an effective way to make progress toward the goal of fluency in a non-native language.

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