How Long Till You Were Comfortable With Your Second Language?

So I have a question for all of you. If you have learned a language (living or dead) and gotten to the point were you feel comfortable with it (yes, that is very vague), how long did that take you? Can you think of something that would have sped that up (other than just studying more)? Can you think of anything that you think slowed you down?

I’ll start. The only language other than English that I feel comfortable with is Greek. Of course this does somewhat depend on what I read. Anyway, to get to where I felt beyond intermediate took about six or seven years. And in the last year or so I have felt a personal leap.

What would have sped me up? Well, a few things. 1) If I would have focused on building a large vocabulary early, that would have helped a great deal. 2) If I would have started out very early on reading non-biblical Greek. 3) I spent some time memorizing some Greek text. There are a number of forms and words that this absolutely cemented in my mind. 4) Teaching. I bet this one won’t come as a surprise to much of any who have taught. I have taught two first year Greek classes at local churches and while I was a student I filled in for a couple profs a few times. Great learning experience for me.

What has held me back? 1) In my history I have tended to study in spurts. Consistency is definitely more valuable in language study. 2) I am a slow learner. I only know Greek as well as I do because I work really hard at it. Oh how I wish that wasn’t true! 3) I focused on syntax heavily early on and not reading. I think I spent as much time in Wallace’s grammar while in my undergraduate than I did reading Greek text. I still love the grammar, but more reading and less syntax would have been good. 4) More memorization of medium to large portions of text. 5) Not listening to any or composing much in Greek.

I guess that’s all. Anybody else? I know my comment form doesn’t lend itself to formatting and line-breaks. Sorry! I am planning on fixing it. If you want you can email it to me and I’ll post your responses. You can get my email address on my about page.


Chuck Grantham 2008-04-24 02:00:22

This pretty much mirrors most of my bad habits as well. And I am much too poor at Greek to even begin calling myself comfortable, except at the pathetic stage I am at now. Time to improve. I look forward to three months of Sunday School in Acts, but frankly, I could be helping myself by using Brenton’s old diglot in Genesis if I weren’t the incarnation of sloth.

Judy Redman 2008-04-24 03:31:49

I’m not sure that I’ve ever been "comfortable" with any language other than my first, but the way that I have been taught classical languages has certainly inhibited my learning. Being encouraged to speak the language, listen to the language, translate from English into the target language and write in the target language were all very important in my becoming reasonably comfortable with German, which I studied for five years at school. When I learned Greek, Hebrew and Coptic, we did very little other than read in the target language and translate from the target language into English, and I found getting them to "stick" was very much harder. And yes, teaching helped me learn.

Quixie 2008-04-24 06:13:40

My second language was English, which I gained confidence in fairly easily. It was a rapid and seamless transition.

The secret of my success, of course, was complete immersion. Nothing works like the sink or swim method :).

The first language that I learned to speak and to read and to write was Spanish. Beyond that, I took a couple of years of French in HS, and though it is well-rusty, wouldn’t take that long to reawaken . . . then . . . and a year of Japanese in college, which is just plain difficult to learn because of all of the peculiarities of the language that are irregular.

My study of Christian origins led me to muster the courage to learn some Koine Greek, and I do OK recognizing some verses when referencing and suchlike, but I do not find my cursory knowledge useful in any other way beyond that. It’s certainly not a conversational language for me. I think your advice to work from two different textbooks and to read some material outside of our usual focus, so that we don’t inadvertently play the pre-guessing game, are good suggestions for the study of *any* language.

How’s 1Clement coming along, btw? I’d be curious to read some impressions.

You just read the Protevangelion.

Any thoughts? Reviews? Questions?



Eric 2008-04-24 07:35:05

Thanks to all of you for your responses. Anyone else? Quixie: The study of 1 Clement is going fine. Unlike my study of Prot. Jas., I’m actually already familiar with it. I like 1 Clement a great deal. As for Prot. Jas., I think it is interesting. I am very glad we have it because it is a witness to some early traditions about Mary. I do recommend reading it, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone putting it in their canon :)

Seumas Macdonald 2008-04-25 01:32:57

It took me a long time to get comfortable with classical languages. I’d now say I’m comfortable with Greek and Latin, I can read a text with fluency, and only unusual vocabulary and grammar will slow me down.

It took me roughly 4 years of Greek, and the thing that took me over the line was a huge investment in vocabulary. However, I wouldn’t replicate the time I spent in pure vocabulary rote learning.

It took longer for Latin, because I started Latin earlier, but didn’t learn the self-reflective pedagogic principles I needed to until I was really getting somewhere in Greek. Then I started being very disciplined about vocab in Latin.

What changed everything, though, was starting to listen to teachers, Latin teachers in particular, and to start thinking about Language Acquisition and Modern Languages. Then I gave up translation, and focused almost all my attention on extensive reading, and some oral and aural work.

Eric 2008-04-25 07:43:46

Seumas, thanks for dropping in and giving us your experience. One quesetion: what do you mean by "the self-reflective pedagogic principles I needed"?

Seumas Macdonald 2008-04-26 01:50:21

Sure, by ‘the self-reflective pedagogic principles I needed’ I mean that part of the process of learning a language, whatever we might mean by that, involves a process of learning about ourselves as language-learners, what works, what doesn’t, and what practices create certain outcomes. This is why, for example, people who have learnt one language tend to do better at learning another - they’ve learnt something about how they learn.

Some of these principles are generalisable and abstractable, and that’s why the become the basis of things like Second Language Acquisition theory in Linguistics. Others are far more personal, and it’s really up to a learner to understand “X works for me, but Y doesn’t”.

Brett 2008-04-26 09:36:12

One of the most interesting ways I learned vocabulary, for example, was using the Mnemonic system that I learned many years ago. The Mnemonic system is revolutionary. Since the mind "thinks" in pictures, everything is converted to pictures and then stored FOR retrieval. When I teach the seminar, I guarantee every participant’s memory will increase over 400% or their money back. I’ve never had to refund a penny.

For the fun of it, I remembered the first 100 numbers in Pi in 35 minutes. I was able to give those numbers back... forward or backward, and I could tell you what was, for example, the 63rd number in the sequence. I don’t generally waste my time with such useless information, but it is fun a social parties.

The memory has two main functions: Storage and Retrieval. Learning how to store and retrieve information makes all the difference. I agree with Seumas that "X works for me, but Y doesn’t," but I’ve never met someone that Mnemonics does not work for.

Mnemonics does not work by association. Association is not an effective method. The system takes a little time to construct, but there is no paper work involved :o )

You’ve probably seen some mnemonics in Greek with those picture cards of vocabulary words with strange and funny pictures used to learn vocabulary. That is very effective if you understand that you don’t need to retain the picture forever; you have to learn the method to retention. After the word is retained, you don’t need the picture anymore. The picture is just to help you during the short-term memory phase. Long-term memory primarily comes from usage, and usage at the right times.

J. Mark Dufner taught me Mnemonics in the mid 80s. I don’t know if his material is still available, but you can use Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory book/CD. It is basically the same thing. Learning this method, and then doing some additional research on memory should get you on your way.

Eric 2008-04-26 02:09:43

Seumus: Thanks for the clarification.

Eric 2008-04-26 02:13:06

Brett: Thanks for the info. I think I’ve heard of that system. I remember reading a book on memory once that did something that was at least similar...but I don’t remember the name of it. It’s highly ironic :)