Writing Sentences in a Foreign Language

I’ve just completed Day 12 of my learning Mandarin Chinese project. I felt that rather than talk about my method in just that post, I’d write this article to give a general overview of best practice when learning about writing sentences in a foreign language.

Writing Sentences in a Foreign Language: 1. Keep it simple.

There is no need to pressure yourself. I have a tendency to want to stack clauses together and create complex sentences like I do in English. It’s difficult to resist the temptation. So, until you’ve really pushed the sentences as far as you can using the method described yesterday, don’t try and aim for a more complex grammar.
For instance:
我不知道
Means, “I don’t know.” Instead of trying to write, “I don’t know how to compile sentences in Chinese” think of the sentence as a key to learning more verbs. “I don’t know how to …” This keeps it simple, and it means that vocabulary and grammar learning work side-by-side. This is the key to easily getting better at writing sentences in a foreign language.

Writing Sentences in a Foreign Language: 2. There’s no rush.

This is both a continuation of the point above, and an expansive topic that could be an article on it’s own. There is no rush to learn a language. It is something that will take years to achieve true mastery, and something that you can work on for a lifetime.
Even if you have a short term project like this one, there’s no sense to push yourself too far, too fast. In fact, if you’ve been reading along since the beginning of this project, that’s exactly what I did at first. If you have a ninety-day project, then every session is only 1/90th of your total time. It doesn’t make sense to push too hard on that fraction of time. It’s like going 200mph on the first mile of a hundred mile journey. You’re just going to make a mistake.
If you learn one sentence, like the one above, and apply it to five different verbs, then you’ve learned more than five sentences in a day. If you learn five sentences, and manage to learn the vocabulary to change those up five times, then you’ve learned more than twenty-five sentences. It all stacks up quickly on it’s own, so there’s no need to hurry unduly.

Writing Sentences in a Foreign Language: 3. Include Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing

This is important, and it’s easy. If you’re learning writing sentences in a foreign language, then you’re already passively learning how to read them also. If you speak them aloud, then you’re learning how to say them. This all creates a symbiosis, because all parts work together. It shortens the amount of time you have to spend on new things, and it increases your retenion of those things.
That’s all you get for not much effort other than speaking the sentences out to yourself as you write them.

Writing Sentences in a Foreign Language: 4. Mnemonics, Drill, Spaced Repetition.

The system I’ve found best in the course of the learn mandarin project is that a combination of mnemonics, drilling and then spaced repetition is the best combination for learning new items. Mnemonics are efficient at getting an idea in your head via using familiar imagery in memorable ways to cope with the alien item. They won’t last forever though, and you’d spend more time remembering the stories than you would the new language if you didn’t move on to drilling. Drilling is the boring bit that we have to learn at school. Luckily, there are ways to make it interesting. I’ll go into this in a future article. Drilling is great, especially if you learn a language that requires large adaptations to the writing system.
Spaced Repetition has its place. It’s not great as a learning method, but it is a great way to retain information once you know you’ve learned it correctly. Remember at one second, two seconds, five seconds, ten seconds, thirty seconds, one minute, five minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes, one hour, two hours, etc. By the time you get to several days between learning, you don’t need to continue the practice anymore, you’ll remember as long as you keep your exposure to the language up.

Writing Sentences in a Foreign Language: 5. Learn, Controlled Practice, Free Practice.

These are the stages that a non-native English Speaker will go through in an average TEFL Class. The teacher will demonstrate the new language, and then the class will do controlled practice; that is, exercises that require them to use the correct terminology in a very fixed environment. Then they will finish with free practice, which is where the students will use the new language that they’ve learned in a free manner. For instance, if they’ve learned past tense, they will talk about their holidays amongst themselves.
You can do this with your writing sentences in a foreign language. You learn the correct form, and then write out dialogues with that language as controlled practice, and then write an imaginary letter with the new language for whatever purpose you see fit.

Writing Sentences in a Foreign Language: 6. Remember, Sentences turn into Paragraphs.

The key to all of this is to remember your goal. Real interaction with real people. Conversations are mostly made up of short sentences. These sentences are what you’re learning. Conversations are also made up of short monologues. “What have you been up to?” Is a common question. The answer is made up of short sentences combined into paragraphs. Rarely does this answer require a complex, multi-faceted sentence.
Conversations are made up from the same words we always use, just in different ways. That’s why the chopping and changing part discussed yesterday is so important: No amount of Anki or memorisation practice is going to save you in a conversation if you’ve never practiced accessing the cognitive, ‘think-on-your-feet’ aspect of using a language.

Language Bug
 

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