July 23, 2009 | Russian

Instinct Versus Intellect

You have to trust your instincts when you are learning languages.

I just did more Pimsleur, this time lesson 21 (Level I). I did okay, but I am going to have to repeat it. Once again, I don’t know how people do these just once. All this studying is making me feel a bit tight in the head and heart. It’s head-squishing to do this much non-native language work.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I sometimes fight with intellect what I know by instinct. This language study program demands that I believe in instinct. For example, in one of the exercises in the grammar book, I knew the right answer in my gut, but decided to check it with the “rules,” which as I read them contradicted my gut’s answer. I put the answer the rules recommended, and got the question wrong. As it turned out, I was reading the wrong section, and I should have known it.

Another language-learning challenge: I have to live in the moment. I have to focus on learning now, one tiny bit at a time, without thinking about what I don’t know or still need to learn or how little I’ll know at the end. It’s very undermining, the way I think.

In Pimsleur lesson 22, they started giving some of the instructions in Russian. In other words, instead of prompting you entirely in English to say X or ask Y, they give you some of the words (particularly “say” and “ask”) in Russian. That will be better, I think, though I absolutely 100 percent believe that for adults it is helpful to get some of the instructions in English at the beginning. It speeds things up incredibly. If people tell you everything in Spanish when you don’t know a word of Spanish, it is terribly annoying and takes forever. No matter how earnestly they look at you and how carefully they explain whatever they’re explaining, if it’s in Spanish you still won’t understand it. Perhaps it’s different if you’re a little kid. I’m not.

Comments (2)

Traci • Posted on Mon, November 29, 2010 - 9:36 pm EST

Hi! I am going back to read your blog from the beginning. Your last paragraph in this post amused me! My daughter is in a Spanish immersion program at her school (she’s nearly 8 and has been in it since kindergarten) and that seems to be exactly how they teach them Spanish. They just jabber on at them in Spanish and the kids just seem to pick it up! I guess since they are in the same place 5 days a week and follow a routine, the kids eventually understand what the teacher wants of them even if they do not know or understand exactly what the specific words mean in that moment.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, December 01, 2010 - 10:28 am EST

I started Spanish at age eight and would occasionally get really frustrated when I couldn’t understand what the teacher was trying to say. Nonetheless, I think immersion is a good approach for children. As an adult, I dislike it, particularly where grammar instruction is concerned! Though I do think almost all instruction should be in the target language, even for adults.

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