In Learn Languages Like a Child?, we touched briefly on whether adults can learn languages more effectively than children, and in Can adults learn languages more effectively than children?, we discussed methodology. In this article, we discuss some avoidable obstacles that learners create for themselves: text-based methods and vocabulary memorization.

The problem with text-based methods

Most of the articles on this deal with this problem specifically, and it's hard to encapsulate the extent of how serious a problem this is in a short space. The biggest issue is that text does not accurately represent sound, and when it does, it doesn't do it consistently. Most learners are shocked to find out how native speakers really sound because it's not what they were expecting based on their text-based approaches. There really is a disconnect here, and a great misunderstanding among the general populace about language learning in general.

The solution is similar to how children learn languages: they hear, they speak, they become fluent... all without ever referring to a text or spelling. You may not remember this experience specifically, but if you're a speaker of American English then at one point during elementary school you had to learn how to spell the word "better" and it may have baffled you at first. The reason why is because you never knew or even realized you were saying that word with the letter "t" in the middle of it. And you probably forgot about it and never worried about it again. But there must have been some spark of curiosity at that point. If you have children of your own, I encourage you to explore their own experiences of when they discover strange things about their own language because we have a lot to learn that we've forgotten from our experiences as children.

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The problem with word-based memory systems or flash cards

The goal of our blog is to build awareness among readers and language learners that languages are a rather complex system of sounds. The sounds of a specific word when spoken in isolation sound completely different when spoken in a sentence. If you learn to speak every word in isolation, you'll never know how they're supposed to sound with sentence prosody. And making that jump can be very difficult if you haven't been exposed to full sentence prosody and intonation. It's very far from what fluency feels like or sounds like.

This is part of the reason why children become fluent at such a quick pace even in a foreign language setting: They're exposed to full sentence prosody and intonation right from the start. Only later do they figure out where the individual word boundaries are and how to manipulate the bits and pieces to change their intended meaning.

Let's take a look at the havoc that fluent sentences play on the mind of a learner who has only focused on vocabulary memorization all along. Here's an example of something from English:

Mega left data neck slight

Say that phrase very quickly, and you may actually understand it (using a short <a> in "data"). Now why did I write it like this? Because this is the way English learners in Taiwan write the sentence down when I play a fluent recording of it. These are people who have completed English classes all the way through high school. Every student gave slightly different answers, but they were all within the same theme of nonsense words strung together. It's not an issue of identifying vocabulary. It's an issue with full sentence prosody, intonation, and word boundaries, and how English words fuse when they come in contact with each other. The reason why they can't understand the sentence at all is because they've never been exposed to how to produce full sentences, how to listen to full sentences, or how to analyze full sentences.

When you go from a text-based method to an audio method in learning your foreign language, you will also be faced with very similar challenges. In fact, most people get frustrated with how much the language sounds different to what they assumed it would sound like just by learning the writing.

In many ways all languages are like that except that the gap between text and sound is different for every language. The fusional nature of sounds in English are quite moderate compared to some of the world's languages. There are many cases where sounds undergo huge amounts of changes that few teachers or native speakers can actually explain. Or when they do explain it, it requires hundreds of pronunciation rules.

Of course, if you're already speaking and using your new foreign language regularly, then a massive expansion of vocabulary is a necessity, and flash cards and other memory systems can be a huge advantage for you. This is because you already have a framework that exists for new vocabulary and they stick well in your mind enabling you to use them at the next opportunity.