Coffee shops vs. classrooms – who wins? (Photo: eye2eye)
This is one of several articles planned as supplements to the original “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.” This piece focuses on acquisition of new material; for reactivating “forgotten” languages and vocab, I recommend also reading “How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language.”
Let us begin…
From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools (Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?
After testing the waters with more than 20 languages and achieving conversational and written fluency in 6, I have identified several cardinal sins that, when fixed, can easily cut the time to fluency by 50-80%…
1. Teachers are viewed as saviors when materials are actually the determining factor.
Teachers are merely conduits for the material and sequencing.
By analogy, it is better to have a decent cook with excellent easy-to-follow recipe than a great cook with terrible recipe. It is the material that will restrict or elevate the teacher, and a good teacher forced to follow bad material will hinder, not hasten, learning progress. I don’t sit in on classes or otherwise consider a school until I’ve reviewed both hand-out materials and text books.
Judge materials before you judge teachers, and no matter what, do not begin with classes or texts that solely use the target language (e.g., Spanish textbooks in Spanish). This approach reflects a school’s laziness and willingness to hire monolingual teachers, not the result of their search for the ideal method.
2. Classes move as slowly as the slowest student.
Seek a school with daily homework assignments that eliminate—effectively fire—students from the class who don’t perform.
The school should have a strict curriculum that doesn’t bend for a minority of the class who can’t cope. Downgrading students is only possible in larger schools with at least five proficiency levels for separate classes—beginner, intermediate, and advanced is woefully inadequate. Students can only be moved if the jumps between classes are relatively small and there are a sufficient number of students at each level for the school to justify paying separate teachers.
At the Hartnackschule in Berlin, Germany, where I studied for 10 weeks after evaluating a dozen schools, there are at least 20 different skill levels.
3. Conversation can be learned but not taught.
Somewhat like riding a bike, though unfortunately not as permanent, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things. The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from independent study and practice in a native environment.
I achieved fluency in German in 10 weeks using a combination of grammatical practice at the Hartnackschule (four hours daily for the first month, two hours daily for the second) and daily two-person language exchanges with students of English.
Grammar can be learned with writing exercises in a class of 20, whereas “conversation” cannot be learned in anything but a realistic one-on-one environment where your brain is forced to adapt to normal speed and adopt coping mechanisms such as delaying tactics (“in other words,” “let me think for a second,” etc.).
Separate grammar from conversation practice. I recommend choosing one school for grammar and several native books or comics to identify sticking points, which are then discussed in one-one-one language exchanges, where your partner provides examples of usage and does not explain rules.
Getting into trouble in Greek and Chinese in Athens with the help of Stefanos Kofopoulos, ouzo, and wine.
4. Teachers are often prescriptive instead of descriptive.
Many teachers take it upon themselves to be arbiters of taste and linguistic conservationists, refusing to explain slang and insisting on correct but essentially unused grammatical constructions (e.g., “with whom were you speaking?” versus “who were you speaking to?”).
Progress will be faster when you find a teacher who describes rather than prescribes usage. They should be able and willing to explain, for example, how Konjunktiv II is generally used in place of Konjunktiv I in German, even though it is technically incorrect. They should also be able to save you time by explaining what to practice based on actual frequency of use, not inclusion in a grammar text. For example, the simple past is almost always used in place of the perfect tense in Argentina, but some teachers still spend equal time on both.
To avoid those who act as defenders of language purity, it is often easier to target 20-30-year old teachers and those who are good at teaching inductively (providing examples to explain principles). Ask them to explain a few common colloquial grammatical constructions before signing up.
In conclusion—the learner is the problem (what?)
The above sins certainly inhibit the speed of learning, but the principal problem is the learner his or herself, who—more often than not—uses classes as a substitute for, and not supplement to, real ego-crushing interaction.
Classes are easily used to infinitely postpone making the thousands of mistakes necessary to achieve fluency. In boxing, they say “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Well, in language learning, we could just as easily say that “everyone has the perfect conversation in mind until they speak to a real native.”
Don’t waste time on more than learning more than a handful of conjugations for primarily first-person singular (I) and second-person singular (you) in the past, present, and future tenses, along with common phrases that illustrate them. Throw in a few auxilaries (to want to V, to need to V, to like to V, etc.) and jump on a plane before learning any more of what you’ll just need to relearn anyway. Even after you land, you do not need more than two months of classes in-country, and remember that, like training wheels, the goal is get off of them as quickly as possible.
Don’t go to classes because you have no social network outside of class, or because you want the illusion of progress with a coddling teacher who understands your Tarzan attempts at her language. If you are taking classes because they are enjoyable, fine, but understand that you are better off spending time elsewhere.
Make it your goal to screw up as often as possible in uncontrolled environments. Explicitly ask friends to correct you and reward them with thanks and praise when they catch you spouting nonsense, particularly the small understandable mistakes. I was able to pass the Certificado de Espanol Avanzado, the most diffucult Spanish certification test in South America, in eight weeks, which is said to require near-native fluency and years of immersion. How? By following the above fixes and making more mistakes in eight weeks than most make in eight years.
“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field,” or so said Physicist Niels Bohr. Luckily, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to use his advice. Choose schools carefully and then, once they’ve served their purpose, abandon them.
The real world is where mistakes are made, weaknesses are found, and fluency is achieved.
Some random videos:
A promo for bookstores in Spain. It’s not easy to suppress my Argentine accent.
For German Amazon.com – some of you have seen this before.
Odds and Ends: Update on Madrid party location this Thursday!
For all you readers and friends in Europe, come have a glass or bottle with me! The space will be on a first come first served basis, so register early. So far, there are 132 people coming — it’s going to rock.
Play hard with us 6-9pm on Thurs., Sept. 25th in Madrid. Location:
Centro Comercial Arturo Soria Plaza
Calle Arturo Soria 126
28043 Madrid, Spain
Tel. 91 300 36 01
Get your free ticket here.
Espero que nos veamos pronto!
Follow Tim in real-time on Twitter
Posted on: September 22, 2008.
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This is called “total immersion,” and it’s what our fourth-born, Samuel, spent this summer doing — a final hurrah before he starts medical school in mid-August. He flew home last Friday, barely recognizable after so many weeks without a shave or a haircut, but now fluent in español.
The second-best way to learn Spanish is by using a program called Pimsleur Speak & Read Essential Spanish 1. That’s what those of us at home have been doing this summer, so that we’d still be able to understand Sam once he returned.
Our family first discovered the Pimsleur method for language learning nine years ago. After saving enough cereal boxtops and frequent flyer miles to get ten free tickets to London, we spent the better part of a month backpacking Europe with all our little ones in tow, visiting nine countries and seventeen cities in twenty-one days. We had a wonderful time and got around easily, even in areas where English was not commonly spoken. That’s because we spent the three months before the trip going through Pimsleur’s 30-day courses in German, French, and Italian.
These programs use organic learning principles and graduated interval recall to help students acquire a second language in the same way they acquired their native tongue. Because it is almost entirely auditory, our whole family was able to go through the CDs together. Even our littlest ones, who weren’t actively trying to learn the language, picked up a few new words and phrases. I also supplemented the younger children’s language study by reading picture books and singing nursery rhymes in German and French (and now Spanish). We own a few such books ourselves and check out others from the library.
Interestingly, TIME Magazine published an article just last week (July 29 Issue) entitled “The Power of the Bilingual Brain,” which details how early exposure to foreign language makes children’s brains more flexible and improves their problem-solving abilities later in life, even in non-linguistic studies like algebra.
Now that some of my kids are older and are needing foreign language credits on their high school transcripts, I’ve had to find a way to objectively measure their progress using Pimsleur. I don’t allow them to write or take any notes during the actual lessons. The program works best when students just listen and respond (the same way they acquired their first language as babies).
But I’ve designed a series of tests for the lessons in Pimsleur Spanish 1, and am using these to assign our high schoolers a grade for the course. I have them take an exam after each lesson. If interested, you may print them out for your own use by clicking on the links below:
Spanish Tests 1-10
Spanish Tests 11-20
Spanish Tests 21-30
Spanish Answer Keys 1-10
Spanish Answer Keys 11-20
Spanish Answer Keys 21-30
The last five or ten lessons of Level 1 are pretty challenging, so we are currently reviewing those before moving on to the second (then eventually third and fourth) levels of Pimsleur Speak & Read Essential Spanish. I’ll upload tests for the higher levels as I complete them.
If you are interested in checking out Pimsleur for yourself, you can try a free sample lesson by clicking the link below:
PS. I sometimes use affiliate links to share products or services I love and think you'll love, too (like Walmart's pickup grocery service below... how did we ever survive without that?). You can view my full disclosure statement here.