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How Desired Skills in Foreign Languages Affect Methodology and Time Estimates for Learning Them

Dear Professor Arguelles,

This is the second of my questions. I have once again posted the outline of the entire series below, and will continue to do so in each of my future posts for easy referencing purposes. Please note that I have changed a question from the original list, and with your indulgence may add one or two more questions before the entire series is finished.

1. Principles for Learning Order
2. How Desired Skills Affect Methodology and Time Estimates
3. Nation’s Fours Strands & the Right Balance between Different Types of Learning Activities
4. Frequency of Maintenance for Different Skills and Related Language Families
5. Rate of Deterioration of Different Skills

My second question centers on how the choice of desired language skills (reading, listening, writing, and speaking) affects an autodidact’s methodology and time management during both learning and maintenance. Put another way, since I only wish to read literature in some of my target languages (as I do for Latin and Classical Chinese) should I forego any time spent trying to listen, write or speak in that language? If I only wish to listen and read in a language (as I do with Japanese and Greek) should I completely forego speaking or writing practice? Are there any pitfalls to cutting away skills that are not part of your end goal? One often hears of a “synergy effect” from practicing different skills,

To hastily clarify several potential points of confusion: when I refer to speaking and writing, I mean trying to create unique, original sentences and ideas in your target language, not copying or shadowing. So for example, in my future study of Greek, while I plan to make rigorous use of both shadowing and scriptorium at a certain part of the learning process, I have no plans whatsoever to either engage in conversation with a tutor or to write regularly in the language, unless later on down the line I have the pleasure of being able to visit that beautiful cradle of the West. Perhaps I might try to think and talk to myself in the language when out and walking about, but nothing more than that as far as active skills are concerned.

Likewise, as regards listening, I mean trying to understand the spoken language without reference to any written text. For example, in my future study of Latin, especially in the beginning and intermediate stages, I would strive to read and listen to recordings of texts at the same time, so as to create a voice for the language in my head. However, after I am able to begin extensive reading of original Latin texts for pleasure, I do not plan on spending any time listening to any of the several Latin podcasts I see floating about the Internet, or only listening to audiobooks in Latin.

I remember having read several inquiries addressed to you regarding the question about “Breadth versus Depth” in regards to languages. In the past, I too worried about this for a time. For a ‘normal’ learner – to use your recent terminology – who only wishes to learn one or two foreign languages in their life, this question is probably a mute point, as there should not be too much of a time management conflict between the different languages in their life – assuming they can find the time from other life commitments of course. But once the number of languages a person wants to learn starts to creep into the 4 to 7 range, and especially once you’re talking about 10+ languages, figuring out which of the four skills you want to invest time in developing becomes critical.

After thinking about the matter though, it seems to me that I can actually have my cake and eat it too, if I plan strategically. If I review the languages that I want to learn and analyze my original motivations for wanting to learn them, it seems like – in most cases – advanced receptive knowledge of the languages would suffice for bringing me to the goal that I want (mainly, reading and listening at will to texts of interest, whether they be general, literary, or technical in nature). Furthermore, as specified in my first letter, for my two to three favorite languages that I choose to be my ‘productive’ languages, I really only want to be able to write well in them at the drop of a dime. So, for most of the languages I want to learn, I only need to achieve and maintain high levels of listening and reading ability, and then for a select few, a high level of writing.

Of course, if I eventually relocate to one of the countries where one of my receptive language is spoken – Greece or Japan perhaps- then I would obviously be willing and eager to seriously improve my spoken productive skills in the language. And, of course, if I do happen to encounter and forge a deep friendship with a native speaker of another language, then I would welcome the opportunity to regularly converse and share views on the world with them. However we can’t live everywhere at the same time, and friends in life are not nearly as numerous as most people believe them to be. Therefore, it seems to me that trying to develop productive abilities to advanced levels in all the languages I want to learn would be a fruitless use of my time.

It is pretty universally recognized that achieving high levels of productive ability in a language requires more time than achieving high receptive levels. Furthermore, it is well attested that high productive skills are built on top of high receptive skills. That is to say, to compose crisp Russian prose you first need be able to understand clear Russian prose, and that to speak Japanese articulately you must be able to understand articulate spoken Japanese. Finally, from my own anecdotal observations, speaking ability seems to deteriorate the fastest from amongst the four skills; reading ability deteriorates the slowest. Listening and writing ability seem to be somewhere in the middle. As I plan to ask you about this topic in a further question, I won’t elaborate this point here. I raise all these points only to support my idea that it would save both time and effort for most people if – in addition to asking themselves very seriously what languages they want to learn – they also ask themselves what skills they want to bring to a high level in those languages. In most cases, especially for polyliterates, I believe that high receptive skills would be enough, and would shave off quite a deal of time needed to reach a level where you feel “good enough” in a given language.

Certainly when I first started learning Mandarin, I didn’t realize that I don’t need to develop every skill in every language I will learn to as high a level as I can. Just as trying to tackle too many languages can lead to our eyes becoming bigger than our stomach – trying to perfect and then maintain every skill in each language we learn would seem to sap more time from our studies than it would save.

Ultimately, the root of this question – and most of the others in this series – is my sincere desire to avoid having to ‘abort’ any language or language skill that I seriously set out to learn. Reading and reflecting on your own experience in Korea and afterwards really struck me to the core over the last few years, and I aim to take note of the lessons you learned and have kindly imparted to us young whippersnappers. As much as possible, I wish to avoid learning any language or language skill that I am not subsequently going to grow and use regularly in the future.

I would like to ask for your elaboration and erudition on this matter, as my current language learning plans have been forged after careful thought and whittling away of any language skills unnecessary to my goals. Is this general principle of cutting out practice and maintenance of any skills not related to your goals advisable? Will it actually save a lot of time in the long run? Can this shaving off of skills in be carried too far? Is this cutting away of the skills perhaps more advisable at different levels of language learning? Are there any potential hidden pitfalls that you have experienced using this approach in your studies?


Chase Bodiford

My reply:

Dear Chase,

Thank you, as always, for your thoroughly thought out and well articulated inquiries. You ask the most questions in the last two paragraphs of your letter, so let me focus on them.

I completely understand your desire to avoid having to abort any of the languages you have spent time and energy learning, as I myself found that I needed to do. If there is one thing that I would hope to help the next generation of polyliterate scholars avoid, it is precisely this. For those who may not be aware for what is meant here, there was a stage in my life when I was able to concentrate almost all of my time and energy on teaching myself foreign languages, and so gave myself a solid base in several score. I then realized that while it was possible to learn that many languages to a foundational level by studying for short periods of time every single day, in order to take them to a more substantial level required substantially more and more time. Therefore, it was not possible to take all the languages I had learned to a higher level, and so I had to “abort” a number of them, or sacrifice them so that I could concentrate upon others.

To answer your question succinctly, I did not have to abort any languages because I felt I had spent too much time developing skills in them that I did not need, but rather I had simply bitten off more than I could chew across the board. I do think that a point may come in your developing knowledge and use of a language when you realize that you are really interested in reading only, whereupon getting conversational practice might be a non-productive use of your time, or vice versa, when you are mainly interested in speaking with people and that the language has a difficult script and writing conventions, such that spending hours trying to decipher them might not serve you well. This last case is particularly likely precisely for some of the languages that interest you, namely the East Asian ones, where the development of reading and writing abilities really is a separate matter from developing overall abilities.

In the main, however, in succinct answer to the slew of short questions that you ask in your last paragraph, yes, I think you are overthinking this one. During the actual learning stages, I believe it is always best to take a holistic approach to developing your friendship with a new tongue rather than slicing it up into separate skills trying to focus only upon those that seem to you mostly likely to be of use. One never knows what new perspectives the future will bring, so I do not think this general principle of cutting out practice and maintenance of any skills not related to your current immediate goals is advisable, nor do I think it will save you much time in the long run because yes, it can be carried too far and then you might have to backtrack and develop skills you ignored before, whereas learning them initially as a part of holistic growth would have been more natural. As I already wrote above, I think this cutting away of the skills might make sense when you have already developed them all and realized that you need some more than others, i.e., at more advanced stages. Finally, I have never used this approach in my own studies so I cannot warn of any specific pitfalls encountered while using it, but honestly it rather rubs me the wrong way, as if, rather than respecting a language as an entity in herself, you are carving up her cadaver to cannibalize only the most “productive” parts, so it seems you might face more resistance from the language in the learning as she will naturally not want to be treated in this fashion.

I hope this is helpful and I look forward to your next sets of questions.

With all best wishes for your continued fruitful studies,

Alexander Arguelles

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My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

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