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Success in Foreign Language Learning

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Arguelles has started making youtube videos again. I've talked about him before, he is a university professor, and he used to post a lot on the How to Learn Any Language forums. He is fluent in a dozen or so languages but has studied around 60 in some form or fashion. In this video, he discusses the factors that go into what it takes to acquire a foreign language.

I don't have a whole lot to add what he has said. One of his more controversial videos, just from looking at the comments.

At one point in his presentation, he mentions that it's not uncommon to see many people attempting to learn a language, they may even study for a long time, such as a year, or 2 years, or 3 years, but they tell you they can't say a thing or hold any kind of conversation. And he also mentions that many language learning products have a pattern in their marketing where they emphasize "effortless", "easily", "learn your new language like a child". But truly acquiring a new language, and being able to use in a variety of practical situations, and read books is an arduous process. There is no getting around it, it's hard.

I think I've said before that language learning is easier than you think, and perhaps it is in some ways, but I take back my words. Learning a new language (really acquiring it and making it become second nature to you and achieving college-level proficiency) is an extremely difficult and time-consuming task. Even if you just want to "get by" in your language, it's still going to be a frustrating and difficult road.

As for the methods that "work", I think language learning is special in that certain methods work better at different stages of your progress. I remember a little debate I had on the How to Learn Any Language forums, and I talked about how traditional classroom learning is generally inefficient because it approaches language from a bottom-up perspective rather than a top-down perspective.

bottom-up: Start from lesson 1, memorize X number of words, memorize these grammatical patterns, work these exercises. Lesson 2, rinse and repeat. Next, have a conversation talking about X, you will be graded on my arbitrary guidelines concerning what "proper" usage it.

top-down: Approach the language by starting from a wide-variety of perspectives, listen to radio hosts, listen to songs, watch some movies, read about the development of the language, read about the culture, take a grammar book, and finish looking at the entire text in less than a week, figure out the personality of the language in general and the types of communication it tends to emphasize etc. From this, you ease into developing a systematic study of the mechanics of the language.

Where the classroom fails is that it is way too focused on mechanics when this is opposite our natural instincts. Human communication happens in "chunks" rather than in "bits". Let me give an example to explain this (I'm about sound stupid but that is the point):

Take the title of the video above, it says, "Success in Foreign Language Learning". Let's say I'm new to the English language and the only words I recognize are Success and Language. So the title would appear as "Success sdkfj iouhjsdf Language kjhsdfl". Imagine you are trying to decode what this title is trying to tell you, your brain starts to actively figure out what "in Foreign" and "Learning" mean. You think through all the possibilities, search in your memory. The -ing in Learning may jump out at you and you think to yourself, "This looks like a present-progressive verb". And you [wrongly] recall that "Learning" means... the same thing as the word that means flying in your language. And maybe you're a ... Japanese person and in your language, generally verbs go at the end. You might see the "in" and think it's some sort of subject marker because you aren't familiar with that preposition and haven't learned about it, so you think, "Oh, this video is about a success flying into a foreign language. Maybe foreign means school, and success means plane. Is this a video of a plane crash into a building?"

That is all complete nonsense of course, but for someone learning the language, the title "Success in Foreign Language Learning" is very foreign to them and therefore the possibilities for its meaning become much more varied.

Consider if we hid the title of the video and just showed "Success in ________". As a native English speaker, we can fill in the blank quite easily with meaningful responses. This also means that our range of replies will be much narrower than someone who is unfamiliar with the language. They may fill it in with nonsense such as, "Success in asterisk 5 green jumping the". But when we, as fluent English speakers see, "Success in", we instinctively come up with meaningful words to finish the phrase. "Success in" is an example of the chunks of language I am talking about. We think in these chunks, and when we communicate, our responses are made up of chunks themselves.. Rather than thinking in individual words similar to an individual starting out in their language learning, where they pour over every character and word and think arduously on how to piece everything together.

Let's use the above example one more time to provide even more clarity on to what I'm saying. Say we hide a single word in the video title this time, "Success in Foreign Language ________". It is blatantly obvious what should go in the blank. We see the phrase "Success in Foreign Language _____" and our instincts immediately prompt us to fill it in with "Learning" or "Acquisition" or something close to that. A foreign learner of English may struggle a little more.

By spending years within an English speaking culture, and consuming patterns of conversation and writing, and watching movies, and browsing the internet, and composing essays and letters etc. We have linked the chunk "Success in Foreign Language ______" with other chunks such as "Learning".

When someone says, "It's time to sing Happy Birthday to Michio!" You immediately recall a large string of words (the traditional happy birthday lyrics) that are linked to the chunk "It's time to sing Happy Birthday to Michio!" There is much in common with single words like "fast" and "green" and entire chunks such as happy birthday to you....

Why do you think it's so much easier to remember 34 91 82 89 instead of 3 4 9 1 8 2 8 9?

So, when we approach a foreign language, we have to move toward (1) thinking in the language itself and (2) perceiving the world in that language as chunks. (1) is important because this is essentially learning the language itself, however a lot of people get stuck on translating from the language they are learning into their native language, and never trying to compose (i.e. think) in that language.

This idea of chunks is related to one of the techniques that Arguelles advocates called shadowing. It's simple, you listen to an audio recording (or any audio), and you talk outloud trying to imitate the speaker as close as you can and keep up with their pace. At first I thought this was kind of ridiculous, I mean, how is this helpful to learning the language? It's actually extremely helpful because primarily it forces you to predict what is coming next. In other words, you're linking chunks to chunks in a meaningful fashion (if you're doing the exercise correctly). It also just improves your listening skills and speaking skills. It's also just a very active and conscious process that forces you to focus making it an efficient study method. You should be doing this even when you're reading. When you read a book (or anything for that matter), on some level, you are predicting what is coming next if you are attentive. For some reason we shut off this natural instinct when we're reading or listening to something in an unfamiliar language.

One thing he ends up stressing at the end is that motivation is the key factor in a successful language learning journey. Sure we can discuss the best materials and methods to acquiring a language, but without the motivation, you won't do it. You'll give up. You won't give it the necessary amount of focus.

It's interesting because as far as motivation goes... the majority of the time I've spent learning Japanese and now Spanish, I haven't felt that motivated nor inspired. It's actually been a painful process, and boring at times, and tiring, and frustrating.

I first started learning Japanese in the 10th grade or so, and I jumped into in kind of a stupid way. My friend and I were just talking one day and we had just seen a cool anime movie Samurai X, and we watched it in Japanese. We thought, "Lol wouldn't it be awesome if we could like, speak and understand this. I mean, I don't want to be a typical monolingual American, maybe we should try learning a language." And we ended up learning Japanese together. Neither of us really knew what to do or anything, so like most people, jumped into by starting with some audio courses and random programs we found on the internet. This continued for a long time and we didn't get very far. I even put off learning the alphabet for over a year. It was just daunting. We tried to justify not learning the orthography but there was no reason to not learn it. The orthography is the language.

We had the motivation... for a while, because of the anime and the video games and everything else, but we were using all the wrong methods and materials. Had the wide range of entertainment/media not been there, we would have given up long ago. After a while, even that wore off. I'm about as much of a fanboy as I'll ever get, and even if I'm pretty comfortable with Japanese now, sitting down and studying it properly is nothing but a chore now. It's boring. I finally picked up Spanish, and after some 3-4 years of Japanese and learning from my mistakes, it was a lot less scary, but again, not exciting at all. Even when I just started it, it wasn't fun at all, I approached it in a purely methodical fashion like with Japanese.

So why do I keep doing it? It's a conscious choice I made, and part of my attitude. I decided language learning is a lifestyle, a lifestyle that I want. Rather than viewing it as a hobby or something I just dabble in occasionally, I decided I want to devote my life to acquiring foreign language. I don't even have a practical goal really, and I don't know if this is a bad thing or not. I simply want to learn languages because it gives me personal satisfaction. It's something I think I do well in, it's something that does fascinate me, and it makes me feel fulfilled to some degree.

Sure, I chose Spanish as my next language because I live in Texas and the lower half of this state is practically an extension of Mexico now. Knowing Spanish will make me valuable when it comes to finding work, it will increase my opportunities for networking and making friends etc. but I don't even feel like that motivates me to actually learn the language. I was motivated to start learning, in other words, it got me as far as picking Spanish instead of Russian or something, but I want to continuing learning languages because I can.

Perhaps this is just me and not most people, but as far as motivation goes, I don't think it's very valuable, but perhaps you can argue I am motivated, the evidence being that I have stuck to learning language for such a long time, but I would say it's more of an attitude thing.

Why do human beings climb mountains? Why risk yourself like that? I think you'll agree that many people do not climb mountains for exercise. It's much better to just run with tennis shoes at sea level instead of risking your life on Everest.

I continue to learn language because I changed my attitude. Mountains were made to be climbed. It's something to work toward and you can't climb Everest if you've never practiced and trained in mountain climbing before. I decided languages were meant to be learned, and it's something I am capable of, so I will do it.

Arguelles has a vision of an]http://foreignlangua...stitute.html]an ideal language learning institute on his website (he updates his site fairly often, check it out). This is part of what inspired me to take on this new attitude. Joining such a program of study would seem to require monk-like austerity, but if your goal is to truly become functionally multilingual, you have to have this attitude. I like where he says in the beginning,

The Institute should be affiliated with either a major university or with a governmental language training agency that wishes to encourage learner autonomy and life-long learning abilities in its students.

One thing to appreciate about learning languages is that, a proper and sufficiently intense study of a language will teach you what it means to learn in general. Remember our chunks? You can apply this concept to anything. Take anything you're an expert at, let's say "Existentialism". Just look at the word. After having read and studied "Existentialism", you have chunks of ideas and words attached to Existentialism. If I said, "Soren Kierkegaard is seen as one of the _____" and I told you to fill in the blank, you would be able to fill it in with something meaningful quite easily. If you had never studied Existentialism, have no idea what it is, and don't know anything about philosophy. Your range of answers will be quite large, and it's unlikely you will fill in the blank with something meaningful.

You can tell an expert from an amateur based on their flow and relevance from one idea to the next in their writing. An amateur will be choppy, inconfident, lack voice, stick to a limited range of expressions that they view as 'safe' (their writing will be either short, or long with nothing meaningful said)... Much like someone who cannot speak a language very well yet.

I may go so far as to argue that knowledge, meaning, language, and culture are inseparable...

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Posted (edited)

Learning a new language (really acquiring it and making it become second nature to you and achieving college-level proficiency) is an extremely difficult and time-consuming task. Even if you just want to "get by" in your language, it's still going to be a frustrating and difficult road.

Michio, you are right. I've been working with a literacy volunteer group, tutoring a woman from China for about the last year and a half. My student is in her early 40s, began learning English when she was a girl in China and has been working at it on and off since then. Since she moved here over seven years ago she has been working on her English daily using a variety of techniques. Even though she is immersed in it at work, she still has difficulty with extemporaneous conversation and being understood by others. Although she has improved since I've known her, she has a long way to go before she is truly proficient. Watching her dedication to the task and the small gains she makes is an object lesson in the difficulty of learning another language as an adult. Her motivation is strong and keeps her looking for new ways to learn, and that will be key to her success. She's been at it so long it's a way of life for her. At this point, I can't see her ever giving up her quest to learn this language.

Edited by AllBlue
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Posted (edited)

Thanks for the link and post Michio. Your posts on language learning were a tremendous inspiration for me a year and a half ago. Using them as my foundation, I have improved my Spanish considerably, developed a good reading knowledge of French and German and a basic reading knowledge of classical Greek. Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

Edited by ephelotes

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In your average European state school, there will be about eight to twelve hours of foreign language class a month. In this class there are about 25 to 32 students, meaning that under absolutely 'perfect' classroom conditions (whatever that means), each individual will receive about 15 to 30 minutes direct, one to one, language practice a month.

That any teacher could maintain these conditions, more than likely they would be tyrannical, and continue to involve themselves directly and constantly with every single student they receive, six hours a day, every day of the working week, is extremely dubious, but even so, even assuming this inconceivable teacher ability, we can appreciate that the amount of direct, one to one interaction in a foreign language classroom isn’t a lot, right?

What then are the most important things one can do in a language classroom when it is understood that the student could only ever receive about 15 to 30 minutes of direct learning a month? Evidently, it is for the entire class to try their hand at lots of exercises from a book, lots of grammar exercises, general listening activities, and to learn long lists of vocabulary. Perhaps we could even throw in an exam once a month, just to make sure we all know where everyone stands.

Perhaps this is the reason why, after so many years of learning the foreign language, there are still hundreds of thousands of European pupils with a poor level of foreign language ability. They may be able to read some text, some cheap airport novel, but cannot, for example, understand the foreign language as it is spoken in films or the radio; catch the lyrics of the foreign song and outside very mundane and restricted environmental settings – the restaurant, the hotel, the business meeting - generally have a very poor grasp and fluency of the foreign language.

As we can appreciate, then, each country faces its own problems when it comes to learning a foreign language. Just in Europe alone, the multi-billion Euro industry of TEFL indicates that learning English in European schools is extremely troubling both for parents and pupils alike. Perhaps the most stricking example of this inability to speak a foreign language is in the UK itself. Anyone who has travelled to the country will soon be aware that most of its people cannot speak a foreign language. Statistically speaking, this inability rests around 70% of the population, so I don’t think it is too much of an exageration to say that hardly any British person can utter a few sentences that are not in English and those who do speak a foreign language have usually learnt it outside of school. And, again, there are several reasons for this.

The first was the removal from many school curriculums of teaching English grammar. This happened around the 1970s. It was considered far more important that students read the classics and to practice writing themselves, than study English grammar. Most people who went to state school after 1975 in Britain, do not know what an adverb is, the subject of the sentence from its object, what exactly are the conditionals, the relative clauses and phrasel verbs, and, grammatically speaking, what are the differences between the perfect, past and continuous tenses.

Clearly, without this background, it becomes a lot more difficult for the older student to grasp the foreign language at school. Another important factor was the beginning of larger and generally more mixed groups of pupil ability in foreign language classes. This also happens in state schools in Spain, France, Italy, and so on. The consequences are that the best students are often held back and the poorer students are too often lost and bored. Curiously, this mixed group approach in the UK never really happens in classes of math or the sciences.

But even without these educational problems, there are still many more to deal with. All language progress depends on memory, and pupils start to forget when they stop using. This is why many English people who attended foreign lessons, even those who achieved good grades, have forgotten the language in a few years. Internationally, it is expected that everyone speaks English. Most foreign language speakers when mixing with other foreign speakers will use English to communicate. Most sign posts in airports, hotels, restaurants, travel guides around the world are in the local language and English; all these developments, and many more, have prevented the English native to practice or pick up a different language when travelling.

Most British schools have accepted what is inevitable and have taken away foreign languages from the compulsory part of the secondary education's curriculum. Nowadays, it might even be considered a little eccentric for an English speaker to learn a foreign language before studying one of the sciences or other modern technologies and practices. Today, learning a foreign language is probably considered on par with learning the piano, guitar or plumbing, a most pleasent way of passing the time. In short, because over two billion people know how to speak English, native English speakers never need to use a foreign language, and so they have become lazy with no need to practice or study one.

As indicated, there are many concerns. Personally, and this is after years of experience both as a teacher and learner, I think one must, to the best of their ability, learn to listen and talk a lot. I'll repeat that again. One mustt learn to listen a lot and learn to talk a lot, and learn these as much as possible in the foreign language. That way one learns to exercise one’s own brain and to practice listening and communicating in a spontaneous and creative manner.

For the mature student, as oppossed to the child learner, I would suggest that they do a little self-reading, a little vocabulary-grammar, a little comprehension, and a little listening each and every day. You know? The personal, private, self learning program in whatever way you feel it does it for you. But all of this becomes futile in a living language if it isn’t communicated, if it isn't practiced. That is why I believe the mature student should involve themsleves with conversation, discussion and face to face learning, preferably with an experienced teacher and preferably - nay, minimally, about three hours every week.

Essentially, for me, and by way of final words, foreign language learning for the adult-student is about boosting the learner's confidence, getting them past the barriers of embarrassment and frustration and to show them that they are understood and that they are clearly, always, making most excellent progress.

Edited by soleo
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