This is a cross-post from the website Arabiclanguage.me, which Kifah and I produce together.  Visit the original post for the dual language version!

Language Learning In the Body

The first two phases of learning a language are listening and speaking. These are physical activities and need to be practiced that way. Much as you do not become a good soccer player by reading or taking notes about it, you will not become a proficient speaker until you bring the language learning process into your body.

When adults learn a second language, they have a tendency to apply the same methods as they did with other academic subjects from high-school or college: diligent note-taking while the teacher is speaking.

The reason this works in your first language is because your whole system already runs on that language. If you are a native English speaker in a college history course taught in English, taking notes in English keeps you in the flow of the discussion and does not distract from the subject matter.

But if you are a native English speaker taking a beginner or intermediate level Arabic class, and you try to keep up by taking notes in English, you will find this almost always pulls you out of the flow of the subject matter, and pushes you back into your English-body.

When learning a second language we usually only have a limited about of time per week in which we can speak with native speakers or teachers. 2-4 hours of exposure to native/advanced speakers per week is typical. Make those hours count by using them for speaking and listening as much as possible! Do not distract yourself from the sport of speaking by trying to take notes until you are at a much more advanced level.

Of course, there is a time for learning to read and write- and it is usually after we reach an intermediate stage in speaking and comprehension. However, note that focusing on reading and writing in a foreign alphabet can be a distraction if you do not yet know sufficient grammar or vocabulary.

Think again of how you learned in your native language: you learned to read and write several years after you were a fluent speaker, and you started taking notes in class several years after you learned to write.

Summary:

1. Language is a physical activity. Treat learning to speak a language as you would treat learning a sport.

2. Note-taking during class is an extremely advanced linguistic activity, and should probably be avoided unless the teacher requests you write down specific things.

3. The steps to learning a language are: listening, speaking, reading, and finally writing.

4. The key to learning is to get as much immersion as possible. So when you are in class, try to think and write only in the language you are learning.

Posted by:brook delorme

7 replies on “Language Learning in the Body

  1. Brook,

    Great post and your comments about note taking especially resonated with me:

    “If you are a native English speaker in a college history course taught in English, taking notes in English keeps you in the flow of the discussion and does not distract from the subject matter.”

    “Note-taking during class is an extremely advanced linguistic activity, and should probably be avoided unless the teacher requests you write down specific things.”

    For a variety of different reasons over the years, for whatever reason I have been in a situation where I am listening to someone speak in Arabic and needed (or perhaps wanted) to take notes to record what they said. Obviously, the most ideal situation would be to take the notes in Arabic. But I always ended up writing the notes in English. Not ideal – because I am mentally spending a second or two switching between languages in my head, and not focusing directly on the speaker. If you can tape it, you can always go back.

    Often times that is not an option. Still haven’t figured out how to take effective notes in Arabic! You are right that it’s a very advanced sub-skill of learning a foreign language.

    Nathan

    1. Thanks! I totally understand…and I’ve never been in a professional situation where note-taking would have been very important- such as you no doubt have been. I’ve heard of some students just audio-recording their lessons, which is a good idea- but obviously inappropriate to pull out the iphone in an actual meeting and say, “um, can I record this?” ;)

  2. Yeah if you can record something, than that’s a great way to go about developing this skill.

    If it’s someone giving a lecture, by all means.

    But other times, meetings, for example, not usually going to work.

  3. A great article! A work with English language learners, who are immersed in an American school. I never thought of language as a physical activity, but after reading your post it makes so much sense! I will definitely use what I learned from you to educate my colleagues. Thank you!

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