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.

Proxies for interaction and mediation – Week 13

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(Before reading my post, please note that I’ve updated my graphs page).

Interaction and mediation are undoubtedly important factors in language acquisition. Children do not learn their mother tongues simply by listening and repeating. They continuously receive corrections and other types of feedback from adults. Parents instinctually modify the pitch of their voices and their speech patterns to facilitate infant comprehension. They also generally teach vocabulary in a deliberate manner by pointing to objects and carefully enunciating words, eliciting imitation from their toddlers. They model structures and engage in question and answer sessions. Daily, children have the opportunity and the need to test and hone their skills, first at home, and later at school and other environments.

This type of human interaction and mediation is not only beneficial, but probably indispensable for one to learn to speak any language, and for a child to learn to read and write in their first language. I would say it is evidently beneficial for acquiring any language skill. However, is it indispensable for acquiring listening comprehension of a new language? Is it possible, without any interaction or mediation, gradually to decipher meaning, isolating words and then figuring out how they are combined and altered to construct sentences? Or is that possible only when one already speaks a related language?

In a sense, that is the question my experiment seeks to answer. I will not interact with any Chinese speakers. And nobody will be mediating for me: no teacher, no parent, nobody will modify speech patterns, gesticulate, check if I understood—and if I did not, slow down, repeat, rephrase, clarify.

However, my listening is not devoid of context. I assume that if I were simply to listen to audio recordings or Chinese radio for years and years I would never learn. At best, I might become a Mandarin parrot, imitating sounds and even words and sentences, but without grasping their meaning.

That is why I am watching videos. Hypothetically, the images provide the context I need to decipher meaning. Interaction between the actors can be considered a proxy—if a poor one—for my own interaction in Mandarin, to the extent that I can project my consciousness on characters and situations and experience them vicariously.

There are at least three proxies for mediation in viewing videos. One is simply being previously familiar with the story that is being told—in other words, having added contextual clues. I haven’t yet watched familiar Hollywood movies in Mandarin, as I intend to, but occasionally, familiar themes are presented in Chinese videos, such as in the movie Lost on Journey, which borrows heavily from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

A second, similar proxy for mediation that I consider far from ideal is the use of English subtitles. I have explained in previous posts that when I download movies that have English subtitles, I am allowing myself to view them. However, I don’t think this is an effective strategy in the long run, since it does not allow me to concentrate fully on dialogue, and thus is distracting. Additionally, if it leads me to develop a mental translation habit, it could be perniciously limiting. In the short run, though, it does allow me to pick up some vocabulary.

The third, and probably most beneficial, proxy for mediation and, at some level, for interaction, is watching shows that are made for toddlers. These shows are designed to help Chinese (or Taiwanese) children learn to speak (and read). Therefore, the adult presenters do a lot of the same things that parents do with their toddlers. They speak more slowly, more simply, with repetition and little mnemonic songs. They are not mediating for me, specifically, but they are mediating for small children in general. And, when learning a foreign language, one is analogous to a small child.

These shows are also sometimes designed to elicit reactions and repetition by children. These responses do not constitute authentic interaction, but they can be seen as a proxy for them.

For these reasons, in a way shows made for babies and small children are the ideal video sources for me or any beginner to learn Mandarin, or any new, radically foreign language. There is only one problem. They are so boring for an adult. This lack of appeal is not only a problem in terms of motivation, but also for engagement and concentration.

Nevertheless, I intend to increase my weekly doses of these shows. The two I have found so far are momo, which I have mentioned before, and a show that seems to be by the same producers and somehow related to it. I don’t have a proper name for it, but it might be qihu, or 巧虎 in Chinese characters. I call it Tiger, because the main character is a dorky “tiger” (a person in a life-size tiger suit). Many of the shows center around getting kids to wash their hands. [Correction: I just did a little googling. The show is called Qiao Hu, and it is a Japanese import.]

This show is both very boring to an adult and extremely good for acquiring new vocabulary and comprehension in Chinese (even better than momo). Although I’m not trying to learn script at all, I venture to say it would also be a fantastic tool for someone who was. I watched some this past week and will try to incorporate as much Tiger in my Mandarin viewing diet as I can stomach.

Here is an example of a particularly useful episode. The second half is even better than the first. Among other things, you can learn the names of several types of fruit. Happy viewing, and Happy Easter!