Fast and furious

Grammar books mean instant happiness. I just love love LOVE them. I can’t get enough of grammar, the more the better, no, the faster the better! Yes, picture a little kid jumping for joy when opening a present …

The thing is, it is great to dive into something and have a solid base after a reasonably short amount of time, but I also put a lot of pressure on myself by wanting to do just that. Yeah, I get pretty tired of myself sometimes. But still I do it again and again …

Two of my recent acquisitions are Grammatica van het Afrikaans and Grammar matters, Bulgarian grammar. It’s like my birthday, Santa Claus and Christmas all in one. Exactly what I like, an overview of the tricky grammar points in both languages. I have been studying Bulgarian all in all for about two and a half years now (with a gap in between, where I didn’t do anything) and I started studying Afrikaans early December, along with Faroese. I never planned to study these languages. It just happened …

Let’s look at Afrikaans. Early December I decided to finally have a go at this language. By then I had the Teach Yourself for a while on my iPad, so it was about time I got started. This was little over a month ago now and I am already having conversations in Afrikaans of more or less half an hour with my italki tutor and I listen to Die groot ontbyt and any other video I can find on youtube. The only thing I haven’t quite mastered yet, is the pronunciation, but we are working on that.

Now, this didn’t just happen overnight. To be fair, I have put in an enormous effort to get this far this quickly. I studied for many hours (I had two weeks off over Christmas, that also helped) and started listening to authentic input fairly quickly. I started with the Teach Yourself book and audio and focused on the first 10 chapters. I wanted to have these under my belt as soon as possible, especially the vocabulary. Mind you, although Dutch (my native language) and Afrikaans are very similar, there are some distinct and even tricky differences. Just one example: the Dutch word amper means hardly, but in Afrikaans, it means almost. 

I dedicate all my available time to studying the language I am obsessed with at that moment. I don’t just learn lists of vocabulary by heart, my main focus is always, always listening. I put the dialogues on repeat, until I have driven my husband and sons crazy. This means I can speak along without even thinking, I copy the accent, I have internalised the responses and don’t have to think a split second anymore to respond to certain questions. While listening, I highlight certain things that draw my attention, certain ways of saying things, little words added here and there (especially in the Faroese course I am using), colloquialism that are added … When I re-read the dialogues later on, I focus on those highlighted words and phrases. I also write phonetics in the margin, not so much for Afrikaans or Bulgarian (which is surprisingly a very phonetic language and writing system), but for Faroese (which is all but a phonetic language!).

Besides listening and going through a text book, I also like to read real novels (no easy readers, no children’s books, but the real stuff). Frustrating as it may be in the beginning, I find it very rewarding in the end. I go for extensive reading (I think it is called), where I just read and read without looking up words, to the point where I do have to look up something to be able to follow the story. I know, mea culpa, I set the bar very high for myself. Those words (or other words that come back many times) I write down in my textbook, so that I get to study them along with the vocabulary in my text book. Reading like this is not for most people, I know that, but I need this challenge. I need to feel that I have to work to learn. Reading beginners’ books is not difficult enough for me. Last thing I do, is watching series on Netflix (thank God for that!). I use let’s say Spanish audio with Spanish subtitles, never English. This forces me to listen and read at the same time, which makes the vocabulary stick better. I also noticed that you unconsciously pick up ways of saying things. This happened to me in Danish. I had read a lot of Danish books at a certain point and when I then had to speak, I used expressions but I had no idea where they came from. Books, yes!

In short, I create an immersive environment.

There are two things I don’t like. 

Number one is mindlessly learning sentences by heart. I have to know what each word means and why it is there, precisely at that position in the sentence. So I dissect them until everything is crystal clear (in the case of a language with, well, cases … I want them all at once, so that I can compare and see where the differences are, when to use which case. Bulgarian is quite a challenge!). 

And second, I don’t want to be a parrot. I don’t want to study vocabulary in lists (although I do sometimes, especially with Korean or Bulgarian, you just have no way of knowing what word means what from context, unless you speak another Asian or Slavic language, which I don’t), I prefer to have sentences and learn from context. This works pretty good for Afrikaans and Faroese. For me the school-y method doesn’t work. I have to see how and where the words can be used. I don’t translate (although with Bulgarian I sometimes have to, this is just a crazy language), but prefer to look at context to learn words.

Inevitably, after such an intense period comes the weariness, mentally that is. I have put so much energy in studying that all at once, I am drained, shot, worn out … And I kick myself in the head. Why on earth did I have to do that? Why do I always fall into the same trap? Old habits die hard, I guess you could say. I then let it be for a while, a week or so, or two, and then pick up again, but at a slower pace. The basis is there and after a short rest, I am very happy that I did what I did and that I have this solid basis to build on. I take it from there and gradually improve my level. 

And although I tell myself that with every new language, I will not do the same thing, I will take it easy this time and go step by step, I know that I won’t.

So I will gladly keep on jumping right in, head first … But I will also remember to stop and take a breath every now and then …

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