Every time someone claims to have found a new method for learning a language, I pause and listen intently. It’s not unusual to discover something useful and really effective by paying attention to language learning experts. But there are also times when the expertise is not enough – especially when it’s connected to strong and bold claims. Can you really learn a new language fluently in six months?
0. Introduction: What is the fuss all about?
Chris Lonsdale gave a talk at a TEDx event in which he said it loud and proud: anyone can learn to speak a second language fluently in six months. You can watch the talk below.
Chris Lonsdale points you to some worthy principles and very effective actions. But he’s wrong. Here’s six ways in which you can begin to find this out. If you know him, please ask him these questions as soon as you can. It’s important for language experts to have these conversations and to keep learning about language. We’ve a long way to go.
1. “Learn to Speak…” means you’re only halfway there
Chris does not mention how he learned to read Chinese. He does not give useful tips for improving your writing fluency. He mentions relevance and using tools which are effective to get the job done in language, though. This, for many people, also includes reading and writing.
By learning to speak a foreign language, we focus on listening and speaking primarily – and that was what Chris’s experience seemed to consist of. But the moment we begin to function in any language, all four skills become interdependent. And “learning to speak” the way Chris mentions – by listening a lot and practicing pronunciation – means not enough attention is devoted to at least 50% of the language.
2. “Fluent” is a word I’d like back now, please
This, to me, means being able to match up my language skills with the kind of life I lead normally. It means being able to conduct any business, tell any joke, read any article, hold my own in any conversation – in both my mother tongue and my foreign language. Fluent, both in English and in Polish, shares a lot with “fluid” – and it means enabling your language to hold any shape, form and volume. Not just a few thousand words. Not just a handful of pre-selected conversations. The whole wild rough unpredictable hog.
Sadly, several recent developments I witnessed seem to devalue the word “fluent.” If the definition of the word changes to a more limited one, then Chris may have a point. But I refuse to allow the word “fluent” to mean “getting by.” It takes the motivation out of the whole process, and inflates it with lazy thinking and lazy learning.
I’d like my fluent back now, please. I’m proud of my “survival” German and wouldn’t let anyone call me fluent.
[HT Chris Wilson for this part of the rant]
3. “Anyone… as long as you’re tolerant of ambiguity”
This is a small thing, but it’s important nonetheless. In the talk, it’s mentioned that you can only succeed if you’re OK with ambiguity and don’t need to know the meaning of every word. By tolerating noise and uncertainty you can move much faster – without it, according to Chris Lonsdale, you’re stuck.
The phenomenon refers to field dependence and field independence – two well-known cognitive types. Chris is right to mention that tolerance of ambiguity helps improve progress.
But telling someone “you have to stop being that way” is not solving the problem. Either you spend some extra time with those students to teach them some useful techniques (therefore possibly giving up the 6-month goal), or you accept that only the students who “get on” with the accelerated programme will make it in time (which means it’s not anyone, not by a long shot).
4. Comprehensible input will not solve everything
There’s a brilliant piece of research shown on the TEDx slides which shows how “comprehensible input” students ace every single language test possible. There are two things that Chris Lonsdale does not tell you about the graph.
Thing one: “comprehensible input” is not a language learning method. It’s not even a teaching approach. It’s a hypothesis. Krashen was rightly admired for the work he did around it, and it makes sense to gauge the level of difficulty with every language text you encounter. But “students taught by comprehensible input” will be hard to find today, since – like most hypotheses – it has been mixed into the 21st century language teaching methods.
Thing two: the graphs show “comprehensible input” test results compared with “Grammar Focus Language Teaching.” There are four tests measured. I could not find the “Oxford Grammar” test anywhere, but that does not matter. What matters is this: ANY modern teaching method will do better on the PET Listening, Reading and Writing tests than a grammar-focused approach. Grammar will not perform well at a Listening test – it will not perform at all.
So the slides there should not inspire you with confidence – unless you like it when a nonexistent language teaching approach is compared to a defunct one.
5. If someone tells you how your brain works, run
Psychologists have no idea what memory looks like. They can’t prove that it exists. They can infer that it does, based on changes in our behaviour. They can study the changes, the remembering, the forgetting. They can and they have.
This does not mean that they found all the answers.
So the moment someone tells you how it happens that new words stick to your brain, or how to make them get there faster and stay there for longer – the moment they begin mentioning mind maps and mental images and new neural pathways…
They mean well. And their excitement is showing. Frequently, they share what worked brilliantly for them. But there are no shortcuts and no proven measures.
You can slow down memory loss, but can’t stop it from happening. You can improve your memory techniques, but you won’t find it working every time.
6. Languages differ (oh, and people do, too)
Chris Lonsdale looks like a clever academic person who is interested in a lot of things and had the good fortune to be sent to a foreign country. It also looks like he could learn the language in a non-threatening, non-violent environment in order to perform better at the professional and academic arenas that he could largely choose for himself. In effect, he took 6 months to learn to speak a language with very little grammar and tense variation (he didn’t mention writing).
You are not Chris Lonsdale. Your language may have a lot more grammar. It may have several tenses. You may not have so many interests. Your boss may impose a deadline. You may find yourself six months away from a move abroad, where you’ll have to manage meetings and emails with people you’ve secretly hated for a long time – in a foreign language which you were keen to learn at some point, but not just yet.
I can’t believe I need to say this. Not after a TEDx talk, not again, not to anyone.
There are no shortcuts, no more Rosetta Stones to discover, no way to rewind back before Babel. We’ve been at it for a long, long time. There are too many languages, too many learning styles.
Go and watch Chris Lonsdale’s talk, and do absolutely everything he says. The advice is brilliant and the enthusiasm is contagious. I say this 100% honestly.
But six months later, get back here and tell me how it went. I have a feeling I know what you’ll say – I just hope you’ll say it in the language you’ve been learning.