The classic approach

So here is the classic approach. It outlines the way many classic text books for learning a new language are written:

  • Step 1: Learning vocabulary
  • Step 2: Attempt to understand the lesson
  • Step 3: Attempt to pronounce, read out loud
  • Step 4: Practice grammar exercises

Step 1: Learning vocabulary

Learning vocabulary

Being forced to learn new vocabulary from a simple list runs you into the following problem: You are supposed to pronounce - at least to mumble - new words of which you do not yet know the proper sound. In the little exercise you just did - how about the pronunciation? You had the English transliteration, yes. This got you somewhere near it. But how to make sure you learned the right sound?

For example: Imagine someone is trying to learn English. Let's say he or she has no idea of the right pronunciation. And that person is handed a list with the word "school" on it. Chances are he/she would simply run into learning the wrong sound.

Another typical example is when Germans try to learn English. They might pronounce silent letters, learning [KNAIF] for “knife” or [WRAIT] for “write”. Words containing new phonemes (e.g. the “th”) might be totally butchered.

So this way of learning vocabulary - besides being a time consuming and tedious task - leads to two major disadvantages:

  1. You will have a hard time to understand native speakers,
    because the correct pronunciation is at least unfamiliar or simply unknown.
  2. Native speekers will have a hard time to understand you.

Moreover, it is very difficult to unlearn the wrong pronunciation and retrain the right one later on, once certain typical mistakes have been identified. So it would be much easier and faster to get it right the first time. We will see a simple way to do so in a minute, but let us first compete the discussion of the classic method.

Step 2: Attempt to understand the lesson

Usually, after learning certain vocabularies, you are exposed to some text in Telugu, either a dialogue or some description, whatever. The problem that comes up now is, that even if you have learned the vocabularies well, you have learned them as isolated chunks, without context. Words in Telugu, similar to English, often have different meanings in different contexts. At this point you have no way to determine the right meaning. When to use which word? This leaves you with the impression that Telugu is a complex language (which is not true).

And if you have not learned the vocabulary well you will feel helpless, frustrated, even "stupid" and perhaps conclude "learning Telugu is very difficult" or "I have no talent for languages", which is probably far from being true, since you already learned English well enough to read this. :-)

The danger here is that this creates negative expectations. Such expectations create a potential to become true and in turn reinforce such beliefs. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is very important to keep up the positive feelings about the language. That keeps you going!

Step 3: Attempt to pronounce, read out loud

In this step you are usually supposed to pronounce the Telugu words right from the start, either during the learning of vocabulary or during a class. While this approach is believed to be particularly "modern" it is not the natural way. Consider that babies listen to language for many months before they even try to imitate some of the sounds. But we as grownups expect our selves to immediately imitate these sounds we are not yet familiar with. How should that work? Well, it hardly does.

What happens is that we will not only pronounce badly, we will also associate talking Telugu with the uncomfortable feelings of frustration and failure. This "negative learning attitude" is the number one killer, the prime reason for bad results or people stopping to learn Telugu all together. This can be easily avoided, as we will see soon. However, let us first talk about the last step in the classical model:

Step 4: Practice grammar exercises

In this step you are confronted with grammar rules. Many of if-this-than-that kind of sentences, exceptions, exceptions of exceptions and so on. Again this gets confusing soon.

Let me ask you some questions: Has any of the children you know had a grammar text book while learning their first language? No.

Did they learn their first language, perhaps English, well? Yes.

Even with such things like “I go” and “he goes” and all the multiple meanings of a given word? Yes.

Did you have a grammar text book? No.

Was this a hard burden somehow? Did you miss a grammar book a lot? Probably not.

Hmmm. Do we need a grammar textbook at all in the beginning?

Well, my dear reader, at this point you might become a little skeptical, specially if you have never heard about one of these methods where learning vocabularies is simply forbidden (because counterproductive) and studying grammar is optional – only advisable if you enjoy it. But there is a way. Let me surprise you...