When it comes to learning a language, I think we can all agree that one size does NOT fit all. People learn languages for so many different reasons: To travel to the Country, to talk to a friend or co-worker in their native language, to learn more about the culture, as a personal challenge, intellectual curiosity, the list is almost limitless. How do language courses adapt to fit so many different needs? Spoiler alert : They don’t.
A Typical Beginner’s Language Course
Let’s open up almost every single beginner’s language course on the market. Ah, the table of contents! Here we go:
1. Basic Greetings and Introductions
2. Numbers, Dates, and Times
3. Colors, Numbers, and Animals
4. Going to the Post Office
5. Making Hotel Reservations
6. Buying Train Tickets
7. Making a Date
8. At the Restaurant
10. Exchanging Money
11. Asking for Directions
12. At the Bank
13. Filling out Forms
15. At the Airport
Uh… What about if we are learning a language for ANY other reason besides travel? What if I want to talk about a movie I saw last week? Or the big game coming up? Or Chess? Or my comic book collection? Or politics? Or tell a joke? Or debate the pros and cons of Austrian Economics? You know, regular stuff that interests us. Do we really need to learn how to read a train schedule, ask for an ATM, and mail a package before we can get to the stuff that we WANT to learn about? I would certainly hope not.
So, where do we find courses that let us learn what is most valuable to us without wasting time on the “travel fluff”? Well, we just have to make it ourselves. I know, easier said than done. But not by much…
There are several different ways to create your own language course, and I will talk about two of them. I also will preface this by saying that SOME foundation in the language is necessary before diving right into the custom course of your dreams. By foundation, I would say the basics of nouns (gender, declinations, sentence position), verbs (conjugations, tenses, sentence position), adjectives, and adverbs (declinations, sentence position). You will also want to be familiar with word order and any essential grammar patterns. As for vocabulary, you may not NEED any to start designing your course, but a couple hundred high frequency words would definitely help.
Designing Your Language Course – The Basics
The basic premise of designing your language course is to select topics that you want to talk about and put together vocabulary words and common phrases associated with those topics. Using those words and phrases, you practice talking about your topic. This can be conversation practice with a tutor, a language exchange partner, or even a “self-talk” exercise. For broad topics, you could even break them into several lesson sets.
Here is an example of what I’m talking about. Say you want to talk about Chess:
to take (a chess piece)
“Do you play Chess?”
“I like to play Chess.”
“My favorite opening in Chess is…”
“How long have you played Chess?”
“Let’s get together some time and play Chess.”
“You need a good strategy to win at Chess”
The vocabulary selected should allow for in depth conversations about most aspects of Chess. During your conversation practice, you will discover more phrases and vocabulary that will help you to talk about the topic. Write them down and USE them. The more you use a word or sentence structure in conversation, the easier it will be to retain long term.
Two Methods for Creating Your Own Language Lessons
Method 1: Just Me and My Tutor
The first, and recommended (by me anyway) method of course design is with a tutor. I personally use italki.com to find my tutors. It is a great service and I have found high quality tutors for as low as $6 per hour for Chinese, German, Spanish, and Indonesian.
Step 1 is communicating your idea to your tutor before the lesson. You will find (oddly enough) some tutors that don’t agree with this method and will push you to follow a standard textbook that they like. Feel free to stop using that tutor and cancel the lesson (must be more than 24 in advance). When you find a tutor who is on board with your method, move on to step 2.
Step 2 is creating a list of vocabulary and phrases that you want to learn in order to discuss your topic. You can either come up with these on your own and send to your tutor to translate before the lesson, or you can tell the tutor your topic and let them choose the vocab and phrases. I have done both and find them equally effective. I aim for between 12 and 18 vocab words and 4-8 phrases. Much more than that and you are probably better off splitting the topic into multiple lessons.
Step 3 is to start your Skype lesson and talk about your topic until you’re blue in the face. Say the same stuff. Come up with new stuff. Mix, match, experiment. Make sure your tutor corrects you when you invent a phrase that makes no sense or isn’t correct. To really make the vocab stick, stick to your chosen topic for at LEAST a half hour (an hour is better).
Optional step is to record your lesson (audio or video) and listen to it a day or two AFTER the lesson. I recommend this step wholeheartedly.
Method 2: Just Me, Myself, and the Internet
Of course it is possible to design your own language course without a tutor or teacher of any kind. It requires a little more leg work on your part, but can be just as successful (maybe even more so) as the tutor assisted path.
Step 1 is to find your topic and select 12-18 vocabulary words and 4-8 phrases that you think would be important to know in order to discuss your topic with any depth.
Step 2 is to translate those words into your target language. This is where the leg work comes in. My personal experience is that this is the step that can get you into trouble. Many times, I’ve found a translation online or in a dictionary and written it down and started using it in conversations, only to find out that the word I found is outdated, over polite, or just plain wrong. My suggestion is to use a site like lang-8 to have your words and phrases translated by native speakers. You’ll have to pay it forward by making some corrections in your native language, but of course that’s for the greater good.
Step 3 is to converse with the words and phrases. You can find a language exchange partner online, go to a real-life language Meetup group, or even just film yourself talking about your topic for 15 minutes (or longer). You have choices here.
Reinforce Your Language Lessons
My advice is to make every 3rd or 4th lesson a “Retain Your Gain” lesson where you just have conversations about the previous 3 or 4 topics (or even farther back) for the entire session. Remember this: “Your language gets weak if you don’t speak”.
Now, for those of you that ARE learning a language just to travel to another country to buy train tickets and exchange money, I apologize that there was not much for you in this post. However, you can sleep well at night knowing that there is a plethora of great material out there to help you order food, take a taxi, and get directions to the post office.