Shaping targets in language learning

Most teachers, linguists, and polyglots will have been asked the same question many times: “What’s the best way to learn a language?” Answers and debate often start flowing without a full understanding of the question, which is actually much more complex than it seems at first glance.

What is the best way to learn a language? Typical answers usually involve the names of common or popular resources: Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, Memrise, or even our own Linguisticator. Other common answers include taking traditional classes or moving to another country. These are non-answers, because all beg a very important question and assume we all know and agree on what it means to learn a language.

What is the learner’s objective?

Whenever people come to me for advice about learning a language, they usually want to know the following right away:

  • How long should they spend every day studying?
  • What should they do?
  • How long will it take?

Always, I stop them and start asking questions of my own:

  • Have you studied any of the language before?
  • Have you learned any other languages already? If so, to what level?
  • Why do you want to learn this new language?
  • Do you need to be able to read and write or just speak?
  • Do you want to use the language professionally? Or perhaps for a specific application, like reading literature, appreciating film, or because of an interest in culinary arts?
  • What level of active detail are you looking for? For example, do you want to be able to produce the names of specific flora and fauna, such as sycamore or snowy egret?

All these questions are designed to help start shaping the individual learner’s objective; we then continue questioning to reach a fine level of detail. Without a clearly defined objective, it is impossible to answer the question, What’s the best way to learn a language? I have met people whose objectives range from being able to exchange some ritualized greetings and use touristy language all the way to having full professional fluency in a highly specialized field. People at both ends of the spectrum use the same phrase – learn a language – to define their objective. You don’t have to be an expert to recognize that the former example will take considerably less time and effort than the latter.

Why don’t we put more effort into defining objectives in language learning?

There are many reasons. In part, it’s convention. More importantly, however, defining objectives in language learning actually requires us to understand how language works and how it is used. If we consider languages as just disorganized masses or blobs, learning a language then becomes a kind of nebulous activity without clear beginning or end. If, however, we can separate a language into both its component parts and its usage applications, then we can see more clearly what we need to do in order to get where we want to go. This requires a nuanced understanding of the different systems that comprise a language, from structure to body language. We also don’t generally consider the fact that not all native speakers are created equal – even in our own native languages, there is huge variation in knowledge and ability among our fellow native speakers.

Another reason we don’t often define our objectives clearly is that doing so can be disappointing or even demoralizing. It forces us to reflect on how much there actually is to learn. When we consider language as a nebulous blob, we can fool ourselves and hope that we’ll be fluent in a matter of weeks. Actually setting out the amount to learn can be a sobering experience. When someone wants to develop fluency in a new language equal to that of their native language, such aspirations might get reined in a bit when they actually see how much work is involved.

Despite these challenges, setting learning objectives at the outset of the process is essential to both gaining and enjoying success. When learners have realistic ambitions and a clearly defined quantity of material to learn in order to achieve their targets, then success becomes a simple matter of following an outlined progression. Let’s say you just want to be able to exchange greetings, handle touristy situations, and talk about yourself personally and professionally – most of what I would call ritual fluency. If you learn to do this within a few months – a manageable goal for most people – you will have a real sense of accomplishment. More importantly, you won’t expect to be able to do anything more, so you won’t be disappointed if you don’t understand someone chattering away in slang about the latest TV dramas in your new language.

For teachers, this last point is really important. A successful teacher will be able to manage students’ expectations, giving them a realistic sense of what is possible when they work hard. In my experience, while teachers do often manage the expectations of what will be learned within a given class, most still do not sufficiently help students shape their short- and long-term objectives and the paths students should follow to reach those targets.

The best way to learn a language depends on what your goal is

The best way to learn a language depends on what your end goal is, and the methods can change along the way. If you are just interested in developing ritual fluency, there are many resources for doing so. In fact, most commercially available tools are designed for this sort of objective: everything from the Teach Yourself series to Duolingo. If you want to develop what I would call a plastic ability in the language – that is, the ability to work creatively and generate new utterances – you will need to understand and internalize all the structural patterns. Structural fluency, the ability to use the entire grammar of a language fluidly, is the hardest aspect of a new language to develop as an adult, but it is a gateway. Once you have it, you can work within the new language and learn organically from context, preferably exposing yourself to culturally significant material, like popular books, songs, movies, and television shows.

Developing structural fluency

At Linguisticator, we focus on developing structural fluency. Mastering structure makes learning vocabulary and other language elements much easier and more organic. When we are children, we pick up the structures of language naturally. By a young age, we have all the necessary patterns to work within our native languages; yet as children most of us cannot speak about literature, art, philosophy, history, science, or mathematics. We lack not only the conceptual understanding, but also the vocabulary. We continue to learn our native languages through adolescence into adulthood and beyond, actually absorbing most of our professional vocabulary and jargon in adulthood. We often don’t think of this as language learning because it is done within the context of an existing framework and comes naturally. Our goal at Linguisticator is to provide that underlying framework to facilitate organic and natural growth from within the language itself. Our programs are not for everyone, and are specifically designed for those who eventually want a robust and fluid command of the language, as you would expect for professional use. We are quite clear that if you are just interested in using a new language for occasional travel or you just want to dabble in the sounds and expressions, there are other tools and resources better suited to your objectives.

Our approach at Linguisticator involves first mapping out a language in full, breaking it up into its component parts, and categorizing the content and material. We start with the broad strokes, dividing a language into eight main categories: structure, vocabulary, pronunciation, writing system, idiom, register, body language, and culture. Then, within each category, we drill down into the specific subsystems. Most of our attention is focused on the structural map, where we set out all patterns, variations, and exceptions within the grammar of a language. As you might expect, this is a challenging and laborious process that takes months of work by a whole team of people.

Map of the English language
Our map of the English language
Detail of part of the English map
Detail of part of the English map

With each portion of a language fully mapped out, we can then perform several functions otherwise not possible.

First, we can use large-scale spatial memory systems, or memory palaces, to teach the structure of a language in all its detail. People tend to be very good at remembering places they’ve been and things they’ve seen, but not so good at remembering text. Our grammatical maps are made of large amounts of text and can seem daunting at first. We are able, however, to teach these maps by using memories of physical spaces – houses, schools, parks, etc. – to organize and store the patterns visually in a memory palace. This process can be completed with surprising speed, even by those who profess to have “bad memories”. Without a map, building a memory palace for the total grammar of a language is impossible unless a learner is already an expert in both memory systems and language structure generally. Even then, it is extremely challenging and won’t be as effective.

Second, we can quickly assemble the relevant materials to meet a particular objective, selecting the portions of our structural map and other content, as well as providing reading and watch lists for culturally significant (or jargon-specific) books, newspapers, films, and radio. Some grammar is required for any use of a language, but for certain objectives – particularly ones racing an externally imposed clock – mastering all grammatical variations and exceptions on our maps is not required. We’ve divided our materials in such a way to accommodate reaching these narrower objectives, allowing learners to concentrate on the main patterns within each portion of the grammar. Once everything is separated out, we can easily say to an individual, “You need these elements of structure, these elements of vocabulary, these elements of culture, etc. to meet your objective.” Because of how they are mapped out and categorized, our materials can be combined and used in a modular way.

If you are to answer the question of best practice in any meaningful way, you must first define what it actually means to learn a language. With a clearly defined objective in place, you can then determine what material must be learned to reach that objective. Finally, you can determine the resources to use and progression to follow that are best matched to the individual’s target and preferences. At the end of the day, the best way to learn a language will be different for each and every learner.


About the author

Aaron RalbyDr Aaron Ralby is founder and CEO of Linguisticator Ltd, a language training program development company based in Cambridge, UK. Inspired by several early philologists, Aaron set up Linguisticator to provide systematic language training for adult learners. In addition to creating the language and memory programs found on Linguisticator’s website, Aaron and his team also develop application-specific language programs. Aaron has an extensive background in languages and philology, holding a PhD in Medieval Studies from Cornell University, an MPhil in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic from the University of Cambridge, and a BA in English and Modern Languages and Linguistics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


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3 thoughts on “Shaping targets in language learning”

  1. @Aaron- You have a fantastic site. I intend to buy an English Map for sure. I might even try to think of a way to turn the map into a game. But I digress. In your blog you say, “Ritual fluency is the ability to instinctively handle ritualized interactions.” Wow, is that true? Are interactions instinctive? I wish I could have told my father that at the age of seven when he tried to teach me how to “shake hands and introduce myself.”Dad, I would have said, my failures are all in the genes and are therefore all traceable back to you.

    Seriously, your whole approach sounds extremely elaborate and I dig elaborate things but I wonder if this isn’t just another stab at the lexical method with a bunch of added grammar thrown in?

    By the way, I really buy the idea of maps being easy to remember!

    • Thanks for your comments, Mike! Ritual fluency is instinctive, but still learned. So, unfortunately, it cannot be put down to genetics (sorry!). It includes the types of interactions that are ingrained in us from a very young age so that they become instinctive. The post above links to some blog articles on ritual and structural fluency, so you might check those out if you want to read more. It’s also a topic we cover in our free course on Time Management.

      As for similarities with the lexical approach, I’d say what we do is pretty different. When we talk about “patterns” we mean the underlying morphology and syntax of the language rather than set phrases. While we do include sentence constructions, these come after one has already learned to understand all the individual elements that make up the larger syntactic patterns of a language. I hope that makes sense!


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