Warning to second language learners – Week 39

If you are setting about learning your first foreign language—and especially if you need to attain fluency fast—do not simply imitate my exclusive video-watching method. I am testing a hypothesis, and although my preliminary results are encouraging, I am not yet sure that I will learn well this way. I believe that I would learn more quickly and effectively by having some private classes in which I could speak to a native and be corrected, and perhaps tackling Mandarin characters from the outset. Further, there is no doubt that thirty minutes a day is far too little for someone who needs to learn quickly. You should put in several hours each day if possible.

Some of my fellow language enthusiasts in the forums at www.how-to-learn-any-language.com have told me and another video-only language student in no uncertain terms that (1) we probably will not learn at all and will give up after wasting hundreds or thousands of hours and (2) by conducting my experiment and blogging about it, I risk misleading less experienced students of languages into thinking this is a good stand-alone method and thus wasting years of their time as well.

So be forewarned! If you are not a seasoned language learner, do not try this at home without expert supervision!

However, I should add some additional warnings that my traditionalist friends at the forum did not mention.

  • Millions of language students worldwide obtain mediocre results after employing traditional language learning methods for years—namely formal study using textbooks, grammar rules, memorization, and translations.
  • You will never have time when speaking—or even when writing—to construct sentences based entirely on grammatical rules. If you rely heavily on formal grammar study, you run a serious risk of never speaking with reasonable fluency or even being capable of employing grammatically sound structures in practice.
  • If you learn vocabulary or study texts using translations into your native language, you may never grasp the semantic richness of the terms you are learning, and you may acquire a pernicious mental translation habit that you will hobble your fluency and practical grammar ability. (Students who acquire a mental translation habit first mentally construct phrases in their native language and then try to translate them into the second language, futilely trying to reorganize the translation using grammar rules.)
  • There are at least four serious problems with an approach that emphasizes memorizing vocabulary. Please note that I am very good at memorization and have aced tests throughout my academic career by simply memorizing a few dozen or hundred terms or concepts the day before the exam. However, memorization has not been effective for me in language acquisition.
    1. Long-term retention of vocabulary memorized using word lists, flashcards, or textbooks tends to be poor. I suspect this has to do with the way our brains work through neural webs. Rich neural connections are made when terms are acquired in real-life contexts that are emotionally charged or personally meaningful. This does not happen using flashcards or word lists.
    2. You need to learn many thousands of words (and their variants) to begin to communicate successfully or even understand a language well. Due to the difficulty of committing these terms to long-term memory, you need to review your full list dozens or hundreds of times over a period of many months or years, which presents obvious practical challenges, including intense boredom.
    3. What will you memorize alongside the term? A translation into your first language? If so, you will be painstakingly committing to memory an extremely limited and potentially misleading equivalence, not to mention risking developing a mental translation habit. To begin to appreciate the spectrum of meaning and connotations of the term, you would need to memorize the full dictionary entry for the word or multiple sentences in which the word is used.
    4. Memorizing a term and its translation or definition is still a far cry from being able to spontaneously use the term in conversation. It does not even transfer easily into writing or listening comprehension. Your goal in language acquisition should be real communication—whether written or oral, receptive or productive. Real communication is inherently fast, complex, and highly dynamic. You may be shocked how difficult bridging the gap is between memorized terms and actual communication.
  • The importance of good pronunciation to successful oral communication should never be underestimated. If you rely too much on the written language; if you take an overly academic (i.e. abstract) approach to language acquisition; and if you do not make a conscious effort to internalize the phonemes and cadence of the language you are learning, you may obtain a vast vocabulary and theoretical mastery of grammar and still have serious, permanent difficulties in making yourself understood.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for an adult learner to attain native or near-native level mastery of a second language, but it can never be achieved by traditional, textbook methods. Near-native fluency can only be achieved by a tremendous amount of immersion in the language and a conscious, intense motivation to absorb and imitate the mode of expression of the language and at least some of the associated culture. The example of children exposed to a second language, my personal example, and that evidence of countless other people around the world and through the centuries reveal that no formal study is required to attain true second language mastery. Whether formal study is helpful and can speed things up is open to debate; but there is no doubt that formal study is both insufficient and dispensable.

Over three decades of observing hundreds of people tackling language acquisition using various approaches, I have noted a strong and consistent correlation between the use of natural, immersive, communicative approaches and successful outcomes, and, by contrast, consistently limited outcomes with approaches that place a high emphasis on formal study, including grammatical rules, translations, textbooks, memorization, and prepackaged computer-based methods. Though other people may have very different experiences, the clear trend in applied linguistics is toward a natural, communicative approach to language acquisition.

So, with so many perils and warnings, what is a first-time foreign language learner to do? Do not despair! I’ll give you general guidelines and more specific recommendations, for what they’re worth.

In general terms, the good news is that you can successfully learn a foreign language using a wide variety of methods, as long as a few ingredients are present:

  • Strong personal motivation
  • Regular contact with native speakers and/or authentic listening and reading resources. (You will need feedback and corrections from native speakers to achieve a high level of spoken or written fluency.)
  • Thousands of hours of dedication.

Specifically, I recommend you do the following for best results:

  • Immerse yourself in the language by spending a significant amount of time among native speakers and throwing shyness to the wind. If you cannot spend a long time abroad or make native-speaking friends, hire a native speaker for in-person or online conversation classes.
  • Watch a lot of movies and other authentic video sources. In other words, use my method, just not in isolation. Audiobooks and radio are also excellent listening sources.
  • As soon as possible, start reading. You can begin with picture books or non-authentic texts (readers made for learners), but transition to authentic texts as quickly as possible.
  • Create a need and opportunities to do some writing on a regular basis.
  • Do a little formal study if it suits you and gives you some psychological comfort, especially in the beginning. But do not dedicate more than 50% of your time to formal study at a basic level or more than 10% once you reach an intermediate level. It is often much easier and comfortable to engage in formal study, especially if you are introverted, but it will hamper you over time if you give it too much emphasis.

2 thoughts on “Warning to second language learners – Week 39

  1. Greta Browne says:

    I have had the opportunity of teaching according to the method you developed for you language program, teaching English, Spanish, and other languages. I think your method is brilliant and that is one of the reasons that I am impressed with this experiment with learning Mandarin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s