Week One Starter Kit

Have you ever noticed how somebody will be doing  credibly well in a new language, then they’ll get stuck trying to find a word? Suddenly, they drop back into their mother tongue with something like:’ How do you say that in __? Even though it’s such a natural thing to happen, this is probably the single most unhelpful thing you can do when you’re learning a language. Using your new language as a tool to learn the language can give you a chance to practice the new language that would help to dig the memory grooves in your mind and to become more automatic in your use of ‘skeleton key’ phrases and words. 

To master the new language, you need to remember, over and over again, until it is already second nature, that your goal is to direct connect. To move from thought to words to thought, all in the new language. No first-language mediation. And, like any new skill, you practice with the performance that you want.

Using the language to learn the language can make a major difference in the speed and ease with which you accelerate towards fluency. When you do this, you lay down pathways in the brain. You emphasize the importance of the new language, and your determination to learn. You build memory. And you train the mental and physical muscles that you need for a seamless performance.

When you already have some foundation it is, of course, easier to use the language to learn the language. But what happens on your first day? You’ve just parachuted into a new country, and you’re fully determined to use the language. And you are starting from a base of zero.

Right at the beginning, you need to focus in a very specific way. In the first week you need to learn maybe one dozen phrases that will get you launched into the language. There are really only two categories: basic politeness phrases and questions about the language.

Beginning with these core phrases really kick-starts you into the language. Your brain ‘gets’ that it has to focus here, and must deliver immediate results, albeit in a very narrow area. Essentially, even using a very simple starter kit is like priming the pump. This is a very physical metaphor. If you’ve ever worked with a water pump, you’ll know what I mean. With many water pumps, in the old days, the pump would not work when it was dry. Too much air leaked between the plunger and the tube in which the plunger has to move. In order to get the pump work, you needed to put a little bit of water into the tube. This did two things. It made the plunger expand a little as it took on water, and it filled air gaps with water, helping to create a vacuum. Then the pump would work. This action of putting a little water in a pump so it would work, and then pump water, was called priming the pump.

Today, we say ‘prime the pump’ to mean doing a little something to make a much bigger thing happen.

Even just a few ‘skeleton key’ words and phrases, spoken with intent to communicate, can make you more accessible to native speakers of a language. These phrases communicate more general messages about your intent. They communicate that you respect the people that you are with. It’s guaranteed there’s nothing that demonstrates respect quite as convincingly as making a true, honest effort to speak someone’s language. Even with just a few words.

So, what are the Week 1 starter kit phrases? The ones that are useful to gravitate towards are:

What do you call that?

How do you say (or write) that?

Please repeat that.

Please speak more slowly.

Can you help me please?

I have just started learning your language.

I’m sorry, I don’t understand that.

My brain hurts; I want to go home.

Starter kit — Begin with a series of phrases that will allow you to communicate and get useful information back about the language you are learning.

Use the language to learn the language — You get more practice and you signal to your brain that your new language is a tool of communication, not a  subject of study.


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