The four things you need to learn a language

Language: go do something with it! reports on some new efforts to incorporate technology and cognitive neuroscience into language instruction. According to Michael Geisler, vice-president of one of the best language immersion colleges in the US:

You need four things to learn a language. First, you have to use it. Second, you have to use it for a purpose. Research shows that doing something while learning a language—preparing a cooking demonstration, creating an art project, putting on a play—stimulates an exchange of meaning that goes beyond using the language for the sake of learning it.

Third, you have to use the language in context. This is where Geisler says all programs have fallen short. “A lot of people think that learning with authentic materials”—audio or video in which native speakers are speaking naturally, without a script—“is just a gimmick. But what you will get out of it is all the non-linguistic cues that you get in a real language-speaking situation. If you are in a doctor’s office, you know what they are saying due in large part to visual and audio clues, not linguistic clues.”

Fourth, you have to use language in interaction with others. In a 2009 study led by Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington, researchers found that young children easily learned a second language from live human interaction while playing and reading books. But audio and DVD approaches with the same material, without the live interaction, fostered no learning progress at all. Two people in conversation constantly give each other feedback that can be used to make changes in how they respond.

Having experimented with quite a variety of language learning programs and techniques, this analysis seems spot on, especially points 2 and 4. When I started learning Portuguese, I needed the language for a purpose – to immerse myself in the world of choro music, to communicate with Brazilian musicians, and eventually to find my way around Rio, where I took a music lesson with a mandolinist.

Later on, I used the language to educate myself about some of the recent environmental controversies in Brazil, which involved reading Brazilian newspapers, watching Brazilian tv and presidential campaign videos, and following Brazilian organizations on facebook. And I still use Portuguese for “interaction with others” — to keep in touch with the Brazilian friends I’ve made both here in LA and in Brazil. This means that much of the stuff I’m learning is now picked up live and “in context”, which I have to say, is much, much easier than listening to prerecorded speech (which can still be challenging for me). But there has to be something you need to use the language for.

Another point that seems relevant:

“You’re seeing a great movement to put language learning online or on a disk, without a teacher,” said Richard Brecht, the center’s executive director. “But our research shows that the ideal model is a blended one,” one that blends technology and a teacher.

I’ve often argued for a blended approach on this site – using Pimsleur plus Semántica plus Skype sessions with a tutor, for example. The particular mix will be different for each person, but the teacher/tutor part is essential. I suspect there are many people who pick up a teach-yourself language course and start to work through it, but they soon lose motivation and interest because they aren’t using and retaining what they’ve learned. Perhaps they feel like they haven’t yet reached the point where they can start having live conversations, but I think the point of all this is to have live conversations from the very beginning, even if they’re very simple ones. That creates the mental buy-in that keeps the motivation going.

And I’m not talking about occasionally trying to chat with your Portuguese-speaking partner or colleague. I mean to set aside regular time with a native speaker who understands the grammar of the language, who knows how to teach beginners, who is willing to correct you, and who has the patience to sit through what will probably be some rather boring conversations for them :-) This means you will have to find an actual trained tutor, and you will probably have to pay them. But these shouldn’t be stumbling blocks. There are tutors in nearly every large city, and many of them are offering their services on Skype nowadays. And just a one hour session once a week ($30-45/week) will make a huge difference.

But on the flip side, you can’t rely entirely on teachers. Even if you are taking a college class that meets three times a week (and this is an extremely optimistic scenario for most adult learners), you will probably not progress much without spending a considerable amount of time studying on your own. You still have to drill things, memorize vocabulary, do exercises — this is unavoidable in learning any language. You need a lot of repetition and practice, which you don’t usually get during the limited time you spend with a tutor. So the challenge here is to design good self-study systems that make these chores as engaging and motivating as possible, and provide you with a constant sense of progress. Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur do a passable job at this, but could be much better. And we know enough about how brains work these days that we can optimize many of the rote memorization tasks. Anki, for example, is a fantastically efficient way to move things into long-term memory.

Now that I’m back in the beginner’s seat learning a very difficult new language (Welsh), while at the same time reflecting on having attained a satisfying level of fluency with Portuguese, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I want out of a language course — what are the essential ingredients, what worked very well and what didn’t. I often think about what my dream language program would look like. Reading this article clarified things for me, so that perhaps I could distill the dream program down to just five components. It would look something like this:

  • The foundation would be some kind of Pimsleur-like self-study course. This is what you would spend most of your time using, so it would have to be exceptionally well-designed. The basic structure would be a prompt-response format using the principles of spaced repetition and prompted recall. After trying all kinds of different approaches, there’s no doubt in my mind that this kind of recall-focused audio course is the gold standard for internalizing the grammar, structure, and sound of a new language and getting you to actually start speaking it instead of just memorizing a bunch of words and grammar. And there are many other courses with this format besides Pimsleur: is just such a course that I’ve been using recently, and it works very well, even for a tough language like Welsh. I do think the Pimsleur approach could be vastly improved upon. I really believe you ought to show students how words are spelled at the time they are taught, and it is insane to avoid all discussion of grammar whatsoever, as if adult learners are children who will be frightened off by the mere mention of the word*. The language should be geared to the everyday speaking register, and the prompts and responses should be written into the context of a larger conversation to make it more contextual and engaging. Though listening and speaking should be the focus, you could incorporate video in thoughtful ways, perhaps as a way of providing the “non-linguistic cues” that Geisler mentions. And most importantly, the program should reward you with a sense of continued progress as you find yourself able to say more and more things.
  • Next you’d need an Anki-like flashcard system for drilling vocabulary and word inflections, something like the LinguaStep program mentioned in the article. It should be able to adapt to your pace of learning, using the principles of selective recall (focusing more of your time on the words you don’t know) and spaced repetition. But making card decks yourself is tedious. It would be nice if you had access to some pre-made decks geared to whatever course you were using in #1, and it would be great if the cards also had native pronunciation clips.
  • Regular two-way interaction with a native speaker. This could be with a private tutor (in person or online), a small conversation group, or a language exchange partner — see here, for example. But it shouldn’t be just recreational conversation — it should be expressly for the purpose of improving your language skills, with a native speaker who doesn’t mind correcting you and giving feedback. If in a group, it should be small enough that everyone has ample opportunity to speak. And whatever form it takes, it should happen, at the very least, once every couple weeks. Even a one hour session once a week will make a huge difference. Understanding what a speaker is saying in a live conversation is way, way easier than understanding a prerecorded monologue, because the context and non-linguistic cues (gestures, eye contact, intonation, prosody) are all there. And only by participating in real conversations do you learn how native speakers use idioms, connect their thoughts, and express emotions.
  • There should be time spent every week doing active listening, writing, and reading activities (in that order of priority). Listening is the hardest skill to pick up, and requires active practice in addition to the conversational time. Writing is great because you very quickly identify the aspects of the language that are giving you trouble, the words you don’t know, the uncertainties. And then you’re forced to resolve them. And writing can be something as simple as keeping a language blog or a language notebook that you write in regularly.
  • And finally, there should be some kind of outside activity that you can use the language to enjoy — this is the “using the language with a purpose” part. Here is where the language intersects with your other interests: joining a capoeira class or roda de samba, giving a presentation, chatting with a Brazilian coworker, singing in Portuguese, attending a Portuguese meetup, visiting a Portuguese-speaking country, blogging in Portuguese, commenting on your friends’ facebook walls — anything where the language is a means to an end rather than the main goal. I particularly like Facebook for this, because I can read and write short little messages in Portuguese as part of my daily routine, without having to be in ‘Portuguese study’ mode.

This program captures all of the principles in the Salon article — using the language for a purpose, using it in context, using it in interaction with others, and using a blend of technology and teachers. It’s probably a pipe dream to imagine that all of these components could be packaged up into one learning system, and I’d be suspicious of anyone who tried. But by knowing what resources are out there (ahem), it’s easy to put together your own program, and that’s one of the things I’ve tried to do on Hacking Portuguese.

* This is my standard rant regarding the grammar aversion that seems to be in vogue with consumer language products these days:

The claim that adults can learn a new language “the same way you learned your first language as a child” and “without studying complicated grammar rules” is absolute rubbish and a marketing gimmick designed to target people with bad memories of high school language classes. No adult can ever learn a language the same way they did as a child because the critical window for native language acquisition closes sometime during puberty. But adults do have one advantage over children, because adults possess intelligence and analytical faculties that children lack. Adults can take advantage of these faculties by learning a bit about the grammar and phonetics of their target language. The “complicated grammar rules” are just useful patterns that anyone with adult intelligence can use as a shortcut to learning a language, without having to spend over a decade absorbing language input as a child would. To not teach grammar or phonetics at all is to deprive adults of their one advantage in language learning and slow their progress considerably.

/end of rant

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4 Responses to The four things you need to learn a language

  1. Phil says:

    Thanks for another great post, Lauren. You’ve created a template for a truly comprehensive approach to language learning. While I agree that it’s unlikely that every component could be successfully incorporated into a single program, it’s surprising that so few high school and even university courses manage to include even two or three of them. Programs such as the one at Middlebury probably come closest, but they’re expensive and not feasible for every learner.

    • Lauren says:

      Thanks! By the way, I’ve really been enjoying your blog. It’s hard to learn Portuguese and not become fascinated by every other aspect of Brazilian culture… I still haven’t found the bottom of that rabbit hole :-)

  2. Fantastic. Here is condensed what everyone should know about learning a language. Follow these basic principles, and you’re all set.

    I’ll be designing my own system using this principles, the recommendations in this website (including the resources listed), tim ferris recommendations and also the language hacking guide by Benny Lewis.
    I’m a spanish speaker, and my goal is to obtain the Certificate of Proficiency in Portuguese for Foreigners (CELPE-Bras) as ADVANCED in ten months, starting in January 2013. I’m confident i will make it and will achieve fluency in a shorter time. My ultimate goal is to go to graduate school in Brazil.

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