Language learning hacks – practical advice or chasing rainbows?

May 8, 2013 at 8:38 am

Do you want to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese in three months?

Sounds great, doesn’t it. You too can fly in the face of the stereotypical English-only speaker, wowing friends, family and business contacts with your flowing Mandarin (or Cantonese, why not?). Watch locals crease up in laughter as you recount your favourite anecdotes, amaze fellow travellers as you negotiate a sliding scale, sale or return group discount for theatre tickets, understand what on earth you are actually asking for at a night market.

Just ninety days, son, and all this will be yours.

Or if the Asian languages seem unrealistic, why not use your ninety days to learn fluent German? That’s much easier.

Online gurus

Photo: Jeffrey Beall

The internet is bursting at the seams with advice for everything from weight loss to love-making, spirituality to cake-baking. There is a growing community of language learners and teachers offering “language hacks” – shortcuts to developing fluency in a language outside of formal tuition. Some offer their advice for free on blogs, others sell products to help you on your journey.

One of the most prominent language hackers out there is Benny “the Irish Polyglot” Lewis who runs a self-help site called “Fluent in 3 Months” which claims to attract almost half a million monthly users. His methodology is based on immersion, focus, repetition and “chunking” – all highly commendable elements of any language learning methodology.

He doesn’t drink alcohol, travels the world constantly and is present on pretty much every language learning forum on the web. You can watch a TEDx talk where he introduces his techniques here (linguists would disagree when he says in the talk that he pronounces words “incorrectly” because of his Irish accent, but that is a debate for another day).

“One confusion people have when they arrive on my site is this non-existent “claim” that I’m here to prove that fluency in 3 months is possible, which I’ve never made,” says Benny,” But I find the question itself (asked generally) quite silly: of course it’s possible… You simply can’t argue with me that “fluency in 3 months is not possible” because I’ve seen it happen.”

He goes on to explain that his site is named after his goal of achieving spoken fluency in various languages within three months, as opposed to any specific claim that you will achieve anything. Either way, you’ve got to admit, the name has a ring to it and is an appealing brand for the self-help products and services sold on the site.

What is indisputable about Benny’s method is the value of immersion, of putting yourself in the position to use the target language in your everyday life and not being afraid to get out there and speak from day one. This can be particularly hard if you have reached adulthood speaking just English, but you will be delighted by how people respond to your attempts to communicate with them in their own language (except, anecdotally, in Paris… but that’s Paris). Once you get over the initial nerves, there’s no looking back.

Elsewhere on the web, Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week, claims that “Principles of cognitive neuroscience and time management can be applied to attain conversational fluency (here defined as 95%+ comprehension and 100% expressive abilities) in 1-3 months.”

His language hacking method breaks language learning down into three major considerations: effectiveness, adherence and efficiency. Find the right study materials, stick with your studies and ensure you are using the right methodology for your learning style. The theory goes, if your study materials are related to topics that are interesting and relevant to you, there is a higher likelihood that you will persevere. And learn the language skills that you need.

One method he highlights on his blog is frequency lists: finding the most used words in the spoken and written forms of the language you want to learn and learning them. “In all cases, treat language as sport,” is one piece of advice on the blog. “Do not read about something that you would not read about in your native language. Use the target language as a vehicle for learning more about a subject, skill, or cultural area of interest” is another.

“Even if you select the most effective material and efficient method, if you don’t adhere with repeated study, effectiveness and efficiency mean nothing.”

But would you really be “fluent” after memorizing a word list and some vocab related to jiu jitsu, because that’s what you’re interested in? Probably not by any accepted definition of fluency.

Old-school gurus

Michel Thomas is one of the big names in the world of “language hacking”, although he died before the term was coined.

Thomas, born Moniek Kroskof in Łódź, Poland, lived a fascinating life that involved escaping Nazi concentration camps and serving the French resistance before developing a groundbreaking method of learning languages. He was later awarded the Silver Star by the US Army.

(For more about the life of Michel Thomas, read the biography of him written by Christopher Robbins, although the book has itself been a cause of controversy.)

Celebrities lined up to spend time with the charismatic teacher whose method hinged on finding common points between a language that the student already knew (English) and the target language. The student is presented with chunks of grammar, without it being called that, and then encouraged to translate sentences from English into the target language.

When there is vocabulary to remember, Thomas would try to create a link to an English word or use visual prompts – this tallies with Benny Lewis’s approach and traditional revision methodology. Anything that makes a word memorable can only be a good thing. For example, when Thomas prompts his students for the German word bald (soon), he says something like “I am soon…” and everyone giggles. But it works.

Thomas breaks down the target language into chunks, introduces them gradually and frequently returns to what has been taught earlier, offering a tremendous amount of encouragement along the way.

Before he died, a number of Thomas’s classes were recorded and can now be bought as courses for the self-teaching language learner. You take the place of a student in the class, alongside an American and British learner. In every class, one of the students is guaranteed to be a drooling idiot who will have you punching your iPod, but even they are soon mastering long sentences along the lines of “I would love to come with you to the cinema this evening but unfortunately I cannot as my mother is unwell”.

The technique is great for your confidence and gives a strong foundation in grammar. Although many native English speakers are afraid of the idea of grammar, having never been explicitly taught it at school, the Michel Thomas method dives right in.

Thomas explained that “my course [guarantees] students to acquire a solid, comprehensive knowledge of the entire structure and grammar of a language, and proficient, practical, and functional vocabulary, and the ability to speak, to read, and to write a foreign language within two to three days.” Forget fluent in three months, this is fluency in three days.

One area in which Michel Thomas courses do not prepare learners is listening comprehension.  Communication is a two way street. As this post from Donovan Nagel at the Mezzofanti Guild explains, listening comprehension is one of the most important parts of being able to communicate effectively in a language. And there is no simple shortcut, just lots and lots of practice. Although the parallels between acquiring your first language and learning a second language have long been debated, one thing that is certain is that you are exposed to a tremendous amount of your first language(s) before you utter your first word. But is that true of the language you are trying to learn?

Self study courses

American company Rosetta Stone provides self-teaching courses for language learners. The software is offers interactive flashcards, giving an image, some vocabulary and a pre-recorded pronunciation. You then have to match images, and later videos, with sentences.

Unfortunately there is little focus on grammar or syntax, which is likely to lead to communication problems if you find yourself actually needing to communicate, as opposed to naming the objects in your shopping basket.

Some people criticise Rosetta Stone for being too commercial at the expense of focus on the language content of their courses; a view which was reinforced by a recent advertising blunder.

Elsewhere, there are loads of self-study resources on the internet. Check out these lists for Spanish, French, Italian and German.

And the rest…

Aside from people trying to make a living from selling courses or self-help programs, there are many people sharing their own language learning tips for free online. Here are a few of the more interesting posts:

http://www.vasinov.com/blog/hackers-guide-to-learning-a-foreign-language

http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/how-to-hack-language-learning.html

http://zenhabits.net/how-to-learn-a-language-in-90-days/

So, is it time to hack?

You can take something from most of the “language hacks” out there, but the most important thing is to find a method that works for you.

Consensus in the world of SLA (second language acquisition) theory is that exposure to the language you are learning is vital, alongside some repetition in your learning (flashcards are a good way to achieve this).

Try the various methods out there, see what works for you… and if you have found the right balance, let us know how you did it!

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