Finding Good Learning Material, Part 3

One other aspect of finding good learning material that I wasn't able to touch on in my last post is the issue of variety.

Let's say that you've found a great, convenient study method for building vocabulary and reading comprehension. You've found a good news site that provides video clips and an accompanying transcript.  You watch the clips, read along, and use an online dictionary or some Firefox plugin to look up the meaning of words that you don't understand. Then you copy those words to your notes or enter them into an SRS program.  You repeat this for 30 minutes a day for 6 months.

At the end of that 6 months, you will undoubtedly be much better at reading and watching clips of current news. But you will probably not be much better at describing the problem you're having with your Internet service to the customer support person, or flirting with someone in a bar. You may not even be able to debate current events topics well.

The language used in news reporting is a particular mode of communication, with its own particular conventions. Don't believe me? Turn on a TV newscast, close your eyes, and try to imagine that someone you know from work or school is speaking to you in this way. News has a consistent register (in the U.S. it's slightly formal) and is mostly declarative and informational. They are supposed to be tellling you the news, after all.

So you need to switch up your training regimen to include other sources of input.  Learning in other media may not be as efficient as the tidy little system I outlined above, but in order to develop a balanced fluency, you sometimes have to take the less systematic path. Good supplements to a news-reading habit might include:

Blogs: These are usually written in a less formal register more similar to spoken language, so you can get some exposure to more common everyday phrases. Of course, with this you miss out on the audio-visual aspect. Also, blogs are going to be mostly about topics. So you won't be able to glean much functional conversational skill from them.

Fictional Movies and TV shows: Here we have a medium where people are actually talking to each other, so you can learn how people request things of each other, ask and respond to questions, etc. Two problems here, though.  One is that dialogue on a movie or TV show is an approximation of human speech, not quite the real thing. All the hesitations, vagueness, seemingly random changes of topic, etc. are cleaned up. That's good for entertainment purposes but bad for learning real, authentic language. The other problem has to do with the "studying" aspect. It's a lot harder to look things up that you don't understand and to record items that you want to review later.  It's possible, but you'll have to ride that pause button pretty hard.

Documentaries and Reality TV: Watching unscripted video solves one of the problems with the scripted stuff. The language used is unvarnished and natural. You will still have the problem of not being able to look up and save facts. Depending on the language you're learning and the entertainment culture of the coutries where it is spoken, you may have an easier or harder time finding a good variety of unscripted video. In the case of Japan, I found that there's tons of shows about people visiting different restaurants and eating, but not much documentary-style footage of people interacting in a business setting, which is what I'd be much more interested in learning.

Podcasts: I listen to a few different podcasts and find them useful in that they are super portable - I listen to them while walking to work or while lifting weights at the gym. Depending on what language you're targeting, there may be enough of a selection that you can specifically choose topics that you're interested in.  I listen to a lot of business and meta-culture stuff. The downfalls are that, like news, the conversation is always about topics, not functional language oriented toward a task.  And you also have the lookup and save problems of video.

Nonfiction Books: Good on specificity of subject matter.  If you're learning a language that uses the Roman alphabet or a phonetic script, you won't have too much trouble looking up unfamiliar words, but I've found that to be a real pain point for Japanese, where it takes a ton of guesswork and a long time to look up an unfamiliar word.

Novels and Comics: You can get some good information about dialogue in a format that's easier to search and save than video, but like fictional movies and TV, it's not going to be 100% realistic. Not to mention that the setting of the story itself might not be all that plausible. I got sucked into reading 50 volumes of a Japanese comic about super-powered pirates, for example, but haven't found a lot of good everyday uses for the words for "captain", "devil's fruit", or the Japanese equivalent of calling someone a "salty sea dog".

All of this is to say that you need a good smattering of variety in your study methods, as well as a little creativity. You can sometimes get around the limitations of one medium by accessing the same material in multiple formats, like getting a paper version of a book as well as the audiobook, or watching a movie and somehow getting your hands on the script or a novelization of the story.

There's still one area of language learning that I still feel gets left out in all of these media, which I've alluded to a few times.  That is the functional conversational content. It's still hard, in all the media desribed above, to find a good, authentic example of someone going to a clothing store and asking the salesperson for help finding your size.  Or someone politely asking their boss to take the day off.  Or answering questions in a job interview.  For that kind of language, I feel like we're still mostly limited to the made-up conversations of language textbooks.

Thoughts about finding language input in different media?  Know where I can find some good functional conversation examples?  Leave me some comments.

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