What this means is:
- You need to learn those aspects of the language (words, expressions, grammar, syntax) that are in current use by native speakers.
- You need to learn them in order of frequency of use, meaning that the most commonly used words are the most important and should be learned first, then the next most frequent, then the next most frequent, and so on.
- The language will take care of all of this for you, presuming you expose yourself consistently to large volumes of it that originate from native speakers.
We’ll delve more deeply into each of these in a moment.
What I’m trying to say here is that you don’t need to know, beforehand, what you need to study. You don’t need anyone else (teacher or textbook) to tell you, either. The language will tell you. When someone who doesn’t speak English begins to study it, they know that they need to figure out what “is, the, he, she, it, they, them, those, here, there, in, on, out” all mean and how to use them correctly because they immediately see (and hear) them used at a very high frequency in all the English-language material they study. You wouldn’t need to know anything about English to know this, you’d just need to start exposing yourself to it and it would become immediately obvious. The language will tell you what you need to learn, and it will teach it to you.
Let’s now go into a bit more detail on the three main points I made above.
You need to learn those aspects of the language in current use by native speakers
I don’t think I need to say much about this, except that we should try to avoid outdated language or, and this is a bit more insidious, language which we are told is more important (more commonly used) than it really is (old textbooks are often guilty of this). This leads me to the next point.
You need to learn words, expressions, and grammar in order of frequency of use (and you don’t need a word list or frequency dictionary for it)
Obvious, right? You want to learn the most commonly used words and phrases first.
One of the problems with using material, like language instruction books (textbooks or otherwise), that teach the language itself is that even if they were published recently they can use sources from years or decades ago that give too much importance to certain words or phrases, e.g. overemphasis of “usted” in Spanish and its corresponding verb conjugations.
To take Spanish as an example: yes, you need to know how and when to use “usted”, and how to conjugate verbs for it, but it’s not as important as a lot of books would lead you to believe because it’s prevalence has dropped substantially amongst native speakers in the past couple of decades. “Usted” is the formal way of saying “you”, and it used to be how people who weren’t intimately familiar with each other would refer to each other, even if they were of the same age and social status. This is no longer the case. It has largely been replaced by either “tú” or “vos”, depending on region, however a lot of textbooks still give more emphasis to “usted” and less to “tú” and “vos” when it should be the other way around.
The language will take care of all of this for you, and it will teach it to you, if you…
…simply expose yourself consistently to it in the form of contemporary media made by native speakers.
I used to say “made by and for native speakers” (because there used to be a lot of rather poor textbooks out there for students) but now there are a lot of really good YouTube channels and podcasts run by native speakers but directed towards students of their language, so I don’t think this is necessary anymore.
I think these YouTube channels, podcasts, etc. work so well because they’re able to be constantly updated and you can see and hear who you’re dealing with. A textbook, on the other hand, was likely written over a period of several years (then throw in another year or two to edit and publish it) by a sixty-five year old professor of Spanish (or whatever language) who teaches the language they learned growing up (presuming they’re even a native speaker) and then said textbook isn’t seriously updated for the twenty years it’s used by the school that buys it, so the students are taught Spanish that is effectively fifty to seventy years old, at least. Most of it will still be current (basic grammar, syntax, and core vocabulary change very slowly) but a substantial minority of it will not be.
Here’s how “the language teaches itself to you”:
- As you’re exposed to the language, you focus on what you see the most (at the highest frequency) that you don’t already know. Let’s look, for example, at the following sentence from a news broadcast in Spain, “La política viene marcada hoy por el arranque del actividad en el Congreso. El primer pleno de la legislatura debatirá la convalidación o derogación de dos decretos del nuevo gobierno.”
- A beginner should focus on words they know are very common, both because they’ve likely seen them before in Spanish already and because they know that they’re very common words/concepts in their own native language (this works pretty well: the words “dog”, “bush”, “house”, “go”, are all about as common in one language as any other). In this case those would be words such as “viene” (present 3rd person of “venir”, “to come”), “hoy” (“today”), “por” (“by/due to”), “el” (“the”), “en” (“in”), “primer” (“first”), “de” (“of”), “o” (“or”), “dos” (“two”), and “nuevo” (“new”); they’ll look up the other words in order to understand the whole sentence, and that’s fine, but they’ll probably forget all but the most common ones like those I just mentioned, which is also fine, because…
- They’ll see them again. An intermediate student should focus on words they’ve seen before, and therefore know are important, but don’t yet know well enough, in the case of the example sentence that would be: “política” (“politics”), “marcada” (“marked”), “arranque” (“kick-off/beginning”), “actividad” (“activity”), “Congreso” (“congress”), “legislatura” (“legislature”), “debatirá” (future 3rd person of “debatir” which means “to debate”), and “gobierno” (“government”). An advanced student would only bother with those words they don’t know, in this case probably, “pleno” (“plenary session”), “convalidación” (“validation” with regards to proposed laws or credentials), “derogación” (“repeal”), and “decreto” (“decree”).
- As you continue to consistently study the language (persistent consistency, right?) you are naturally exposed to these same words, syntax, and grammar over and over again at the rate at which they are used in the language (so how commonly something is in a language determines how often you’ll see it, how often you “naturally review it”). The most important things in a language to learn are those which are most commonly used, that is to say that importance corresponds to (and is determined by) frequency of usage, right? This means you don’t need to try to determine what’s important and what needs reviewing when, the language will take care of that for you if you’re consistently exposing yourself to it via natural sources (those sources featuring native speakers speaking naturally). You’ll quickly learn the most important parts of a language, then after that you’ll be able to focus on the next most important parts, and after you’ve learned those you can focus on the next most important parts, and so on and so forth.
This is a very simple method that’s complicated to explain and warrants a complicated explanation because if you don’t fully explain how it works to people then they won’t do it regardless of how simple and easy to execute it might be (walking around in public with a bagel taped to your head is both simple and easy to execute but I’d have a hard time convincing you to do it).
If you’d like to learn specifically how to use popular media to learn Spanish, I wrote a book about that called The Telenovela Method which is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback format. I also recommend a service called Yabla that uses popular media to teach languages by taking video clips from shows, movies, etc. and then surrounding them with various language learning tools (subtitles in both the language spoken and English, quizes, click a word in the subtitles and it looks it up and simultaneously adds it to your flashcards for later review, etc.). I did a review of Yabla here if you’re interested.
Let me know what you all think in the comments.