Friday, July 11, 2014

become fluent in a foreign language in SIX MONTHS!

A colleague of mine pointed me to a YouTube video of an entrepreneur named Chris Lonsdale, who gave a very exciting TEDx talk that dealt, in part, with his experience learning Chinese, but more significantly with his claim that any adult can learn a foreign language to fluency within six months. That's a bold claim, and a suspicious one. I immediately smelled hucksterism. Lonsdale is an entrepreneur, after all, not a teacher: his primary goal is to sell products and make money, not to disseminate proper knowledge and technique.

Still, I didn't want to commit the genetic fallacy by dismissing Lonsdale before hearing him out. So I watched the video. While Lonsdale makes certain claims about language learning that I would consider legitimate, I couldn't help noting that certain crucial elements were missing from his talk, and that he also contradicted himself at least twice during the TEDx spiel. Let's first review what Lonsdale has to say, then I'll move into my critique of his sales pitch.

Because this is a TED talk, Lonsdale's speech is under twenty minutes in length (in fact, it clocks in at around eighteen minutes). I have to give the man credit for keeping his talk very clear and organized; if nothing else, Chris Lonsdale is an excellent motivational speaker. He begins his talk by identifying and refining a problem. At first, the question he claims to have asked himself was, "How can you speed up learning?" As he dealt more specifically with the problem of language learning and acquisition, the question eventually became, "How can you help normal adults learn a new language quickly, easily, and effectively?" This is the question Lonsdale tackles for the rest of his presentation.

The answer to Lonsdale's question is, according to him, threefold:

• look for people who can do it (i.e., who can speak the language)
• look for situations where it’s working (i.e., where language learning is effective)
• identify and apply those effective learning principles ("modeling")

Lonsdale goes on to highlight five principles, seven actions, and two myths. He begins with the myths.

Myth #1. You need talent to learn a foreign language (quickly).

Lonsdale thinks anyone, from any station in life, can learn a foreign language quickly. Effort, motivation, and focus matter much more than talent.

Myth #2. Immersion is necessary for learning.

Lonsdale cracks, "A drowning man can't learn to swim." Simply being immersed in a sea of information is no guarantee that learning will take place.

From there, Lonsdale moves on to the five principles of language learning:

1. Attention, meaning, relevance, and memory.

We focus on whatever aids our survival. Whatever aids our survival is relevant, so that's the language we need to learn first, and which we do learn first.

2. Use language as a tool to communicate from Day One.

Hit the ground running.

3. When you first understand the message, you acquire language unconsciously.

Lonsdale here relies primarily on Stephen Krashen's "input hypothesis," which postulates that language learning happens best when input—what we hear, what we read—is comprehensible. This brings us back, I think, to the "drowning man" image that Lonsdale had used earlier on: a sea of incomprehensible input is no aid to learning. Without something to grasp, no progress can be made.

4. Learning a language is physiological training.

There's muscle memory involved in learning a language; so much of this process is physical, not mental, which is why Lonsdale downplays intellectual tasks like memorization of vocabulary in favor of just practicing, practicing, and practicing more. We have natural filters in our heads that screen out unfamiliar sounds; getting rid of those filters is part of the learning process, and practicing new sounds and speech patterns takes physical effort. "If your face hurts, you're doing it right," says Lonsdale.

5. Your psychological state is important.

Here, Lonsdale focuses on the need to tolerate ambiguity. A person who always needs to know what every little phoneme and morpheme means will "go nuts" and undermine his own progress in learning a language. Communication can, believe it or not, proceed in a "fuzzy" cognitive state, one in which not all the linguistic elements are known. Go ahead and make assumptions while practicing your second language. Misunderstandings might occur, but they can be corrected in the course of a conversation. Throw away your perfectionism.

There are seven ways to enact the above five principles:

1. "Brain soaking": listen attentively by putting yourself in a situation where you hear "tons and tons and tons" of the target language.

2. Get the meaning first, before the words: this is possible, contends Lonsdale, by watching the non-verbal cues of your interlocutor—things like body language and tone of voice.

3. Start mixing: if you know ten nouns, ten verbs, and ten adjectives, then 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000 different combinations, a thousand different possible utterances. That's already a great start, and it's the road to creative output.

4. Focus on the core. There's a core set of important, high-frequency vocabulary that you need to learn, as well as a "toolbox" of expressions, like "What is this?" "How do you say [X]?" "I don't understand..." If you know 3000 vocabulary words, you've got a handle on 98% of all everyday discourse in the target language.

5. Get a "language parent." This person will serve as a sort of guide who provides the learner with a safe environment in which to practice and make mistakes. A language parent works hard to understand you, never corrects you, provides feedback, and uses words you know.

6. Copy the face: pay special attention to facial muscles in order better to understand how to make proper utterances.

7. "Direct connect": this means not relying on translation. You don't want your first language to be the medium through which the second language passes; instead, you want the second language to connect directly to your brain. Most words come down to wordless images and concepts, according to Lonsdale; one of his PowerPoint slides shows a person with a mental image of "fire," plus the English word "fire" connected to that image, and the Chinese word for "fire" (火) also connected to the fire-image, not to the English.

That's Lonsdale's spiel in a nutshell. But does it add up to anything?

I generally agree with one online critic of Lonsdale who feels there's nothing wrong, in particular, with any one of the principles and actions that Lonsdale suggests, but that the parts don't add up to the whole that Lonsdale is trying to convince us of: learning a language to fluency within six months. (For his part, Lonsdale claims he took six months to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese, but that native-level fluency took a little longer.)

My problem is that Lonsdale undermines his own trustworthiness, and reveals his hucksterish nature, by not offering us a self-consistent vision of language learning. He contradicts himself, at least twice, and he also leaves much unexplained.

First contradiction: Lonsdale rejects immersion as a learning strategy because "a drowning man can't learn to swim." But later in his talk, he advocates placing oneself in an immersive environment to absorb the target language—an act he calls "brain soaking." Lonsdale's advocacy of brain soaking is essentially for the same reasons that immersion proponents insist on immersion: throw enough language at someone, and eventually (unless the person is congenitally stupid) some of it will stick. So much for the metaphorical drowning man: there isn't any real "drowning" occurring in an immersive linguistic environment.

Second contradiction: Lonsdale rejects building up vocabulary through focused vocabulary drills, claiming that language learning is more about "physiological training" than about memorization. But again, later in his talk, he goes back to vocabulary in his Action #4, which is "focus on the core," i.e., memorize a core list of vocabulary that can be used as building blocks to constructing creative utterances (10 nouns x 10 verbs x 10 adjectives = 1000 things you can say!). So memorization does play a crucial role in Lonsdale's paradigm.

The notion that elements of language can serve as exchangeable building blocks also harks back to 1960s-era audiolingualism, a language-teaching approach that held that language is basically habit-formation (repeat, repeat, repeat), and that the elements of language are like the parts of a car: switch one element out for another, as long as it's context-appropriate. While audiolingual teaching methods do still find their way into the modern classroom, most teachers, these days, see the method as a quaint holdover from a bygone era. Audiolingualism failed to appreciate the creative, unpredictable nature of natural, free-flowing conversation, sacrificing that naturalness and creativity at the altar of habit and structure.

At one point in his lecture, Lonsdale quickly flashes us a graph that purportedly shows the difference in performance between people who have learned language through more grammar-explicit methods and people who have learned via a more comprehensible-input approach. My trouble with the graph is that, since Lonsdale makes no effort to explain its specifics, it is effectively meaningless to me. And as the aforementioned online critic pointed out, it could well be that the graph is showing us a false comparison: "comprehensible input" is not an actual teaching method, after all, and there is a wide spectrum of pedagogical approaches that make the learning of grammar explicit.

It also would have helped if Lonsdale had shown some concrete examples of his "method" in action, and if he had provided some hard performance data (perhaps in the form of before/after videos) of people who went from zero to fluent within six months. At the very least, I'd have liked to have seen video of Lonsdale speaking at length in his supposedly native-fluent, accent-free Chinese. In all, I don't know whether his Chinese is accent-free, but Lonsdale's spiel is remarkably evidence-free.

I agree that some of Lonsdale's advice is valid, but only the advice that he borrowed or stole from language experts. Aside from that, I think his method is pretty much a gimmick and a sham, and will work only for those who are especially gifted at learning languages. His approach is not aimed at the fat part of the bell curve; it's aimed at the narrow part—at the talented elite, much the way fad diets are aimed. Lonsdale claims that talent need not be a factor in learning a language, but little about his method actually supports this contention.

Lastly, I'll note that, when Lonsdale refers to a "language parent" who somehow never corrects errors yet always provides feedback, he's referring to a mythical beast. No such chimera exists: the provision of feedback will inevitably involve explicit error correction. There are movements in language teaching that advise against ever correcting student errors, but I think these movements are sadly mistaken. Students who aren't made conscious of their errors will form bad speech habits that calcify over the years as the errors are endlessly repeated; I've seen this time and again among Korean students, who have had years to learn how to drop articles, fumble verb tenses, and even mistake "he" for "she." A typical "oral-proficiency" approach forgoes error correction in the name of "fluency," itself a vague, ill-defined notion. Learning correct speech means slowing down and going old-school, but the end result is a student who is far more competent in the language than one who has graduated from the oral-proficiency school. (See my post on my teaching philosophy for more.) True proficiency in all four macroskills takes much more than six months, and native-level fluency may take a lifetime.


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