on December 12 2012 03:57 pm 4

The Cat-Lover’s Guide to Learning a Foreign Language

Kitten at my window and inspiration for this post.

Kitten at my window and inspiration for this post.

“I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior.” — Hippolyte Taine, French historian

Cats may not use words, but they know a thing or two about exploring and learning–things some of us humans would do well to imitate. And fortunately, the most useful stuff doesn’t involve eating kibble or scratching on furniture.

Be Curious

It won’t kill you, even if you don’t have nine lives.

Cats are well known for their love of exploration. Providing foraging games is one of the best ways to keep your cat from getting bored. It works with humans, too.

Much of the joy of learning a foreign language or anything else comes from our natural delight in exploring new territory, gaining insight, and developing new skills. That’s why language learning tends to be more fun at the beginner level, when you learn something new every time you use the language and your skills are growing noticeably every day.

Slavishly following a textbook kills the joy. To keep it alive, let yourself explore. Practice using an interesting word, even if you doubt you’ll ever really need. Ditch the day’s planned grammar topic and investigate something that looks more interesting (“Why do they say it like that?”).

Skip your usual newspaper article and read that intriguing celebrity gossip piece (or whatever just-for-fun topic interests you).

Stalk Your Prey

catlang2Ah yes, tracking the elusive subjunctive mood through the thick underbrush of doubt and desire that provides its natural habitat. If you expect to catch your prey, whether it’s a mouse or the subjective mood, you need to enter its habitat. And once you’re there, to catch anything, you’ll need to spend time carefully observing its behavior.

Or in other words…

go after the words and grammar you want to learn in natural contexts (not just from textbooks and dictionaries) and invest time in really learning how they work.

This is particularly important with vocabulary. If you’re trying to build your vocabulary quickly, it’s tempting to learn the dictionary translation of a word and then move on to gather more words.

But are you really sure you can use all those words you’ve jotted down? Instead of writing down a new word with its translation, write it down with at least one example sentence.

Then consider the other you’ll need along with that one. Don’t learn just “boat,” but also “to sail a boat” and “to crew a boat” and so on.

Sleep on it

catlang3Maybe all those naps are the reason cats are so smart…or at least never forget who feeds them.

A fair amount of research has shown that sleeping after a study session helps you remember the material you’re trying to learn. One of the more recent studies comes from the University of Notre Dame. A study of 207 university students found that learners remembered memorized items better after a night of sleep than after a day of being awake. (University of Notre Dame; 2012, March 23. Learning best when you rest: Sleeping after processing new info most effective.)

So don’t assume a little extra study before bedtime is useless just because you’re tired. Try at least reviewing your notes before you head off to bed or take a nap.

Find Your Space

catlang4Cats are territorial. Brought into a new home, a cat will spend hours sniffing and rubbing on everything to get acquainted with the place and mark it as her own.

While rubbing your face on your phrase book probably won’t help you much, staking out your territory can.

That fact is you can’t learn everything about a language before you start using it. There will be some topics you need to talk about now and many others you can leave for later.

Decide what topics are important to you now and focus on those topics until you get a firm grasp on them. In the beginning, those may be common topics like grocery shopping as well as your particular favorite (or work-related) subjects, whether that’s golf or biochemistry.

This may seem a little restrictive early on, but if you don’t focus, you risk developing a very broad but shallow knowledge: a lot of words you’re not very good at using. When you focus on gaining communication skills for one topic, you’re also learning a lot of skills that transfer to other topics.

After all, grammar is the same no matter what you’re talking about. And focusing on the most useful stuff first doesn’t stop you from taking breaks for fun and exploration.

Stretch Well

Stretching helps you reach good things.

Stretching helps you reach good things.

The cat’s flexible muscular and skeletal system are what lets her curl up in a ball for naps, twist rapidly while falling to land on her feet, jump to surprising heights, and end up in all those LOLcat-inspiring positions.

To keep that complex musculature loose and limber, cats indulge in their famous luxurious stretches.

Point being: stretching is healthy. It keeps you flexible; it helps you reach things. When you practice your new language, keep reaching for what’s a little beyond your skill level. Read and listen things that are a challenge to understand.

If you don’t know the right word to express something, don’t settle for “close enough.” Ask someone (ideally) or look it up in a translating dictionary (proceed with caution). You may not have time to ask at the moment, but you can make a note of it and find your answer later.

And because cats and introverts just seem to go together so well, if you’ve made it all the way down here, you may want to take a look at the older post Foreign Language Learning for Introverts: Speaking Practice Tips for Immersion Situations

Related posts:

  1. 10 Ways to Get Started Learning a Foreign Language Today
  2. Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language? Consider This When You Travel
  3. The Worst Language Learning Method Ever…Or “Why Review and Practice are Important”
  4. A Quick Spring Update from Faster Foreign Language Learning
  5. How to Set Goals for Learning a Foreign Language

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4 Responses to “The Cat-Lover’s Guide to Learning a Foreign Language”

  1. Ray says:

    Nice analogy. As the owner of 3 cats let’s continue with the feline theme – Hunt Together With Other Cats To Catch The Mouse. In other words get together with other language students (cats) to practise together to achieve your goal (catch the mouse).

  2. Amelia says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ray. Glad you liked the article.

  3. Joe Mitchell says:

    I agree with Ray, brilliant analogy, comparing learning a language to the actions of a cat!

    Interesting point about remembering things better after ‘sleeping on them’. As they say ‘you learn something new every day’ – well that’s my ‘something new’ for today!

    Great read, thanks.


  4. Amelia says:

    Thanks, Joe!

    Glad you enjoyed the post.

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