Home » BRAVE Coaching » How to Talk Back at Chris Lonsdale Fluently in Six Points

How to Talk Back at Chris Lonsdale Fluently in Six Points

Human Brain Evolution 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).
That’s cool.
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.

[Photo Credit: hawkexpress via Compfight]

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7 Responsesso far.

  1. Jared says:

    Fabulous article Wiktor, I hadn’t seen that TED talk, so thanks for sharing it. I completely agree with #2. If you believe all the online blogs, everyone’s fluent in the 12 languages they’re studying.

  2. Jared says:

    I just realized that he’s also the author of The Third Ear which I read years ago. I just pulled it off my bookshelf to read again.

  3. Kevin Kim says:

    Lonsdale also contradicts himself twice. First, he 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 (he calls this “brain soaking”)—basically the reason why immersion proponents insist on immersion: throw enough language at someone, and eventually (unless the person is congenitally stupid) some of it will stick.

    Second, 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!). In essence: memorize!

    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, talented elite, much the way fad diets are aimed.

    By the way, it would have helped if Lonsdale had shown some actual 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 native-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.

    Yeah… color me skeptical. I’ll be blogging about this myself. Thanks for the article.

  4. Brian Johnson says:

    Are you sure you understand what he said?
    1. He never said don’t immerse yourself. He said don’t immerse yourself per se. This means that just being immersed won’t do anything for your language learning, as he pointed out and is shown true by thousands of people who are immersed in a foreign country for years but can’t speak (myself included). Instead, he is talking about focused immersion. Just being around something that you ignore and don’t attend to will not be helpful. He is talking about massive amounts of focused listening, and is what he means about comprehensible input. If you listen to a lot of stuff you understand, your ability to deal with the small amounts of ambiguity will improve and you will acquire language at a faster rate. There have been a lot of studies about this.

    2. As for the vocabulary thing, you seem to misunderstand as well. Rote memorization of vocabulary is not effective. Instead, contextual understanding of vocabulary is what is important. When you truly understand the meaning of a word it becomes encoded in your memory. This can be done through repetition, but everyone knows that isn’t the most effective method for learning new things.

    How can he show examples when he is giving a short talk? Every person is an individual learner with different styles. He himself is the example. He learned to speak Mandarin in 6 months. There are hundreds of other people who have attained similar levels of conversational fluency using the same principals. His talk was simply explaining the things you need to focus on to reach that level.

    You can see him speaking Chinese on his product website kungfuenglish.com.

    Also, there really is no such thing as gifted language learners.

  5. He’s spot-on in some parts and fuzzy in others. I appreciate that he learned a language (or a few), but the breakdown in reasoning comes when these successes are sold as a solid, foolproof way of learning a language. Which this talk does, on several occasions, with strong and unambiguous terms.

  6. Kevin Kim says:

    Mr. Johnson,

    “There really is no such thing as gifted language learners.”

    The above is an assertion, not an argument, which is precisely the sort of thing Lonsdale does: he provides claims with no actual rigorous evidence to back them up. I can see why you’re so sympathetic to his “case,” such as it is.

    And here is how most people—experts, anyway—view language learning (from here):

    Psycholinguists are divided on the answer, but they agree on several points. For starters, a 2-year-old’s brain has a substantial neurological advantage, with 50 percent more synapses — the connections between neurons — than an adult brain, way more than it needs. This excess, which is an insurance policy against early trauma, is also crucial to childhood language acquisition, as is the plasticity, or adaptability, of the young brain.

    Once the “critical period” — the roughly six years of life during which the brain is wired for learning language — is over, the ability to acquire a first language is lost, as your brain frees up room for the other skills you’ll need as you mature, such as the ability to kill a wild boar, or learn math, or operate your iPad.

    Lonsdale cherry-picks from among Krashen’s theories, appropriating Krashen’s input hypothesis and affective-filter hypothesis but conveniently ignoring his critical-period hypothesis, which doesn’t fit Lonsdale’s contention that adult learners can acquire a second language as fast as kids can (perhaps faster, since “fluency”—which Lonsdale never precisely defines—is supposed to take only six months).

    As for the points you think I’ve supposedly misunderstood, I’ll provide a fuller rebuttal at my blog (bighominid.blogspot.com), as I feel I’ve hijacked this thread enough.

  7. Brian Johnson says:

    Multiple studies have shown that a persons aptitude does not greatly affect language learning ability. Lonsdale doesn’t show the evidence because it is talk, not a paper needing citations. The research is out there in reference to aptitude and language learning.

    Age is also not a significant factor. Adults will learn a second language faster than a child, as they have their own language understanding to apply, whereas a child is learning the entire language from scratch and has nothing to base their knowledge upon. The only advantage that linguistic studies have shown children have is in term of pronunciation. This is the critical period you refer to. In the first seven years a child can learn the sounds of any language, but after the first neuron pruning that ability is lost.

    I read this information from Cambridge’s “Lessons from Good Language Learners” which is a compilation and summarization of the past 20-30 years of linguistic research into second language acquisition. The articles you linked are your own personal blog and an opinion article with no references.