Language Learning: The Basics Are Enough

For Turkish, I bought a beginners book last January and studied myself through the cold Chicago winter and warm Bishkek summer. I never took an official class, but I’ve probably made it through the equivalent of a first year university course. In Turkey
I can’t remember (or use) all the grammar I studied. The correct formation of “can not” sentences still eludes me. However, I am getting pretty able at expressing myself, and through practice speaking I’m also understanding more of what is said around me. I’ve always heard E speaking Turkish – to his colleagues and friends in Bishkek, on the phone to friends and family in Turkey. But before I would just catch glimmers of meaning. Now I can understand maybe 40-60% of a conversation, at least the structure of what’s being said. It’s like I needed to open my mouth and try out the words myself in order to open my ears.

Part of the reason I can understand so much is that at least 80% of what people talk about in daily life is actually quite simple. Giving and taking, arriving and leaving, better or worse, basic opinions, plans for tomorrow, things E’s mother wants us to pick up at the grocery store on our way home, comparing prices and quality.
I realized this while teaching first year English to seventh graders with Teach for China in rural Yunnan – if instructors just focused on teaching the English grammar and vocabulary of the first year textbook really well, (instead of rushing on to new grammar and less-useful vocabulary when all but the top two students were still struggling to memorize and manage it all), taught it so that the majority of students could really use it, then that’s all they would ever need for completely communicating in English. A dictionary would suffice for anything they couldn’t say, as long as they had a really strong base in the basics. This would be far preferable to the legions of Chinese students who study English for more than a decade, can answer complex (and often incorrect) grammatical questions on tests, yet can barely manage the most rudimentary of conversations.
I realized this while coaching a writing club with my top students in Yunnan. The stories they spun out were amazing, equal to something a top fifth grade student might write in the US – and yet they were just using the grammar and vocabulary covered in the first year of instruction. Maybe two thousand words, present, past perfect and imperfect, continuous, simple future. The only difference between them and the legions of Chinese students was that they had learned the organic structure of the language, and they really knew how to use the material.

So my advice for language learners would be this: before you go rushing off memorizing two hundred idioms or different aspects of the imperfect subjunctive, make sure you have a solid base in the basics. Chances are that in any situation the material you learn in the first year of a (college or insane Chinese public education-level) language course will cover 90% of everything you will ever need. Buy a good phrase book with a ten-page grammar index and just work your way through that.

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