Category Archives: Goals

Breaking out of your vocabulary box

This isn’t an easy blog post to write.

The truth is: we all know you’re faking it.

You can speak fluently enough, but we can all tell it’s just the same hundred words over and over.

We all know that you can get by with people who know you, but that things drop off pretty quickly outside the office. It’s no secret that a lot of what people say goes right over your head.

Okay, sorry to aggravate your impostor syndrome. That post is written to everyone, because it’s something that everyone struggles with. We’ve all got limited vocabularies. We try to work around the, but we’re stuck speaking foreigner-speak. As someone put it to me a few years ago, “We don’t really speak Dari, we speak Glassman”—referring to the grammar book and vocabulary list that for years defined IAM’s Dari curriculum.

What can we do about it?

You’ve got to break things up. You’ve got to find new words: try to understand things you haven’t understood before, try to learn things you haven’t learned before.

But wait, you say: I don’t have a problem finding new words. It’s mostly just a mass of unknown words!

Exactly right. And what will happen if you try to get new words in a conversation with your language teacher? In one ear and out the other. Next week, you’re right back to where you started.

To solve this, you’ve got to work from new texts—something that you can record and listen to, or re-read later. Maybe you’ve already got a text that would be useful, or maybe you’ve got to create a new one; any text will do, or anything else as long as it doesn’t go away. If you study the words with flashcards as well, so much the better; otherwise, you can study by listening to or reading your text.

If you have a text relevant to your life or work, that’s ideal: perhaps curriculum from your project, or a translated policy. That’s the raw material for your language lesson. Look up those words in the dictionary, talk about it with a teacher, in short: massage the text. It’ll be immediately relevant.

If there’s no obvious text for you to work with, then you’ve got to find something new. This can be written text, a TV show, a recording from the radio, a story that you record from your teacher or a friend (or a stranger!). Next post will suggest a way to get new vocabulary from that fount of all knowledge: Wikipedia!

What’s our goal in learning grammar?

My last post was about strategies for learning vocabulary. With this post I’d like to talk about learning grammar. In the vocab post, I shared a lot of ideas from a blog post that solicited various opinions. Interestingly, the same blog has another selection of opinions about learning grammar, which are notably more diverse. Grammar-learning is a controversial subject. In fact, I decided it was necessary to have a whole post just on what we mean by “learning grammar.”

Our goal is clear and accurate speech and accurate understanding

I want you to speak correctly and fluently. I want you to understand completely and fluently.

Some people are paralyzed by the need to speak correctly: they just seize up. If that’s you, then loosen up a bit. Let yourself make a few mistakes—you can learn from them.

Other people speak fluently from the beginning, accuracy be damned. If that’s you, you should be cautious about letting bad habits fossilize. Make the effort to speak correctly as well as fluently

The goal is to understand and produce, not to know about grammar

If you can understand and speak the language correctly, then you’re done. Stop reading this. I have nothing more for you. You don’t need grammar.

If you’re having trouble speaking and listening, you probably need to learn grammar. But you need to internalize the grammar, not study it explicitly. To understand that contrast, here is a sentence about Dari grammar:

 “The subjunctive is used as a dependent complement of the independent verbs khâstan ‘to want,’ tavânestan ‘to be able’ and gozashtan ‘to allow, let.’”

It doesn’t really matter in the least whether you understood that. On the other hand, you do need to be able to fill in the blank below.

“I want to go.” ma mexʌjʊm _______.

If you can’t fill in that blank, you need to study grammar. You can get a book about Dari grammar (like the Glassman book), or you can sit down with a teacher and just try to figure it out.

An inductive approach is the best way

The ideal is to learn the grammar inductively, without reading a book about grammar. We hope that this goes on during the Long Course. The goal is that the language “sound right” to you. It should eventually just come out by itself.

But the inductive approach is not the only approach, and we have grammatical resources (like the Glassman book) to give explicit instruction. Always remember that explicit instruction is a means to an end: to help you internalize the grammar. It’s not an end in itself.

Some limited rote repetition is probably necessary

At some point, I’m sure that I practiced verb agreement by rote: [ma mijʌjʊm, tu mijʌji, u mijʌja, mʌ mijʌjem, ʃʊma mijʌjen, unʌ mijʌjand; ma raftʊm, tu rafti, u raft, mʌ raftem….] — and on and on. If you’re learning about the perfect subjunctive for the first time, I recommend that you produce twenty or thirty perfect subjunctives to practice.

But again, this is only needed to beat the forms into your brain. You should be able to leave off the drills fairly quickly and use it in the real world. I do not recommend that you do drills with a language teacher. Find a foreign friend and practice with him/her if you need the correction. Use native speakers to practice fluency.

The grammar example is from Wheeler M. Thackston’s An Introduction to Persian, 3rd ed., pg. 112. It’s the best book on Persian grammar I’ve found, and I’ve learned a great deal from it.

[ma mexʌjʊm bʊrʊm], if you weren’t sure.

Adding tension

If you can ride a bike, you’re probably aware of the two most significant gears: the one connected to the pedals that you turn, and the one that turns the rear wheel. But take a look at the picture below.


What is the purpose of that red thing? It’s neither the pedal gear nor the wheel gear, but without it the bike would not work. It’s the tensioner. Its whole job is to press outward on the chain, to keep a certain amount of tension on it. If there’s not enough tension on the chain, it’ll fall off the gears.

To draw an analogy with language learning:

  • The pedal gear is where you put the effort into language learning.
  • The rear wheel is what you get out of it: better language ability.
  • The tensioner is constant pressure you need to apply to make these things connect.

The tensioner is that small bit of positive stress in your use of language—“positive” in that it prompts you to want to learn more, and to keep your lessons relevant to your daily life.

Some people are “out there” trying to get stuff done in the language. People like that probably have all the positive stress they need already—probably some negative stress too!

I expect that most of us, however, need a “tensioner” in our lives. We can converse fluently in our five routine conversations. But what’s going to get you to the next level? That’s where the tensioner comes in. It’s the next thing you’re trying to learn. It’s what keeps you growing in the language.

I have the personal goal of understanding Afghan culture better. Recently, I’ve started reading poetry with a language teacher. Poetry does two things for me:

  1. It stretches my language ability, because it’s not easy—though if you’re thinking of getting into it, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be either.
  2. It opens up cultural doors. What does the reed symbolize? How could a single death be that upsetting? I don’t have answer to those questions, but now I have the questions.

What could your tensioner be?

  • A radio program
  • A television show or serial
  • A book or short story
  • A work goal: being able to give a lesson or a speech, or being able to read a translation
  • Random flashcards—I learned the word اِنقِلابی from a deck of flashcards a three years and ten days before I heard it in real life, but when I heard it I was ready! (If that seems oddly specific, the flashcard program keeps track of dates and I heard the word for the first time the day I wrote this.)

It doesn’t have to be big. I spend about two hours a week on poetry—one hour with a teacher, one hour in private study. It’s just enough to keep the pressure on, to make sure that I keep learning.