25 February 2011

Don't fight against your own brain

Simple fact: it's your brain that does your learning for you.  It knows more than you'll ever know about how to learn.  So when you're trying to learn something and it just isn't sticking, don't fight against your brain -- you're brain's telling you you're doing it wrong.

So how do you get your brain to accept new information?  The new information has to be meaningful, first of all.  If it doesn't mean anything to your brain, your brain doesn't want to know.

Unless you need to learn certain specific words, the best thing to do is to start anticipating what you're going to want to say.  Lots of courses try to do that for us, but they can only anticipate what we're going to want to say at some point.  Only you can determine what you're going to want to say now.

To use a fairly obvious example: holidays.
If you're going on holiday, you're going to tell people about it.  It's not a matter of showing off, either: you have to explain to people that you're not going to be around for a week or two.  Once you say that you're going on holiday, people are naturally going to ask you about it.  So before you tell anyone you're going on holiday, you can have a good guess as to what you're going to need to know to answer their questions:  the name of the place, the type of accommodation, words such as "beach" or "mountain", "package tour", "ferry", "aeroplane" and so on.  This is stuff you know you're going to be asked about, and it's stuff that you're probably thinking about lots already anyway.  This is the sort of stuff your brain wants to know.

But even if you don't think you're going to get enough practice, remember that most people aren't personally invested in other people's holidays, so they don't tend to remember the details.  This means that when you're back and they ask about your holidays, you get to repeat a lot of what you said before, as well as going into further detail.

I go to weekly conversation groups for several languages where I speak to different people each week, so I find that my holidays are a topic of conversation for two or three weeks before going and two or three weeks after coming back.  Talk about the same topic for over a month and a lot of it sticks

Even better is when your holiday destination is where the language you're learning is spoken, not only because the vocabulary will be relevant to you when you're out there, but also because every time you meet someone from that country they'll ask you if you've been, and your answer will revolve around this same holiday.  My last holiday was in November, and part of it was spent in Barcelona.  It's nearly March, but I've spoken about that holiday at least once every two weeks since, because every time I speak to a new person in Catalan, they ask me if I've ever been there.

Does the topic of holidays seem limiting?  At first glance, yes.  You look at language books and holidays are all about flights and passports and beaches.  But when you're on holiday, you've not stopped living.  Life carries on.  You still eat and sleep.  Sometimes you're woken by people coming back to the hotel drunk in the middle of the night.  Or maybe you have a noisy couple just down the corridor.  All these little slices of everyday life become stories when you come back from holiday.

Stories from my last holiday include talking about trying to find an internet café through the medium of Catalan; turning up at my hostel only to find it's in the middle of the red-light district; a sleazy Italian trying to pick me up on a secluded beach; a flight cancelled for snow; overnight trains and speed restrictions.

I come back wanting to talk about these things.  But in talking about these exceptional events, I don't just need words specific to the individual context, but I often find I need more mundane, everyday language that I just didn't know before.

Listening to your brain
Most of us, as language learners, develop an ability to avoid holes in our knowledge.  You don't know how to say you're going to do something?  You just say that you will do it instead.  We become adept at spotting these potholes and swerving to another way of saying it.  The better we get at this, the less we notice it, and this becomes a problem, because at that moment, the brain is telling us exactly what it wants to learn.  If you want to say it, it's because the brain wants to know it.  So when your brain says it wants something, take note of it, whether on paper or mentally.

Learn to listen when your brain asks for language, and you'll find that it's always asking for new words, and it will keep you busy for a long, long time.

Music, maestro!

Having discussed films and videos, I thought it would make sense to talk about music next.

Can music help you learn?  Certainly, but again, in a limited way.

At all stages of learning, a song or two can help you increase your vocabulary.  But whenever I start learning a language, I find myself blinding mimicking streams of sound and never really getting much out of it.  The best thing you can get out of songs as a beginner is the rhythm of the language.


In order for a song to teach you the rhythm of the language, it has to be in that rhythm, and as you'll know from your own language, some types of music take liberties with the rhythm.  In particular, this is a problem when a foreign genre is brought in.  Listen to English-language "Latin" music from people like Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin: the rhythm seems very rigid and mechanical, because it's a Spanish-language rhythm, not an English one.  So if you go into a foreign language music shop looking for the type of music you normally listen to in your own language, you'll be selling yourself short.

How about as an advanced learner?
Well, as I said last week, I find films and TV more useful in learning to understand things that I have already learned to some extent elsewhere.  The same goes for songs.  When I should know most of a song, then I can train myself to hear the words.  It may not be very "iPod generation", but I still like albums.  With an album in a foreign language, I start by listening a few times.  Once I've got a favourite song, I learn it with help from Mr Google and the many lyrics sites on-line.
Having learned to sing it, I can hear the words clearly when I listen to it again.

But that isn't the end of it, because learning to hear the words of one song seems to teach me to understand not only the song, but the singer, and as a result, I start to hear more of the words in the other songs.  After a while, I'll learn a second song from the album, then possibly even a third.  By this point, most of what the singer says is pretty clear to me.  (Obviously there's other words I don't know.)

However, the biggest limit to the usefulness of songs is "poetic license" -- every songwriter will play around with language to make it fit the tune, so a song isn't a good model of a language.  For example, in the chorus of the French song La Lettre, Renan Luce ends one line with "jeu" (or, later, "enjeu") and then reuses that as the word "je" for the start of the next line.  It's not "good" French, but it's clever songwriting (and it's a good song).

Don't be fooled into thinking that you can make a whole education out of songs.  Don't even think of songs as too much a part of your "learning", but as a way to fill time between study sessions.

18 February 2011

Link: A Brief History of OK

The BBC online magazine pages have a short article about one of the most common words in the world. It's certainly a fascinating word, and it's really interesting to hear how often it comes up in the Scandinavian crime dramas that BBC4 always seem to be showing...!

Watching films as language study...

Well, I've been a little bit too technical and theoretical of late, so let's go for something more practical for a change.

A lot of people love the idea that you can learn a language just by watching films (such as Keith Lucas, discussed last week).  You can't.  Well, maybe there's one or two linguistic supermen out there who can, but for most of us, it won't work.

Can we get anything out of films?  Of course.
Can we get a lot out of films?  Hard to say.

First of all, if you're an absolute beginner, you're not going to understand anything watching the film without subtitles, and all proponents of target-language-only learning say that it's in understanding that we learn.

But unfortunately, once you start reading subtitles, you stop listening.  The brain, so I'm told, has only got one "language channel", and if you load it through the eyes, the brain tunes out the words hitting your ear so as not to mix up the two streams.  I'm sure you've tried talking to someone while reading or writing and found that you've written down a word from your conversation or suddenly said a word you've just read.

So once you start tuning out the sounds, your not going to learn much.

I first bought a DVD player in the January sales in 2005, with the express purpose of learning from foreign films.  My plan was quite typical: watch them with English subtitles, then later watch them again with the subtitles off.  Well, I never really did that -- I just kept buying and watching them with the subtitles on.  Not brilliant for my language skills, but now I've got one of the best DVD collections of anyone I know.  (Well, I know some people who have better collections, but at least mine's all originals!!)

However, after about a year, I started to notice little things at the start and end of sentences.  Little things like "you know...", "I see..." etc.  You know, little things that just seeped through before I started or after I finished reading the subtitles.  But I'm still only using one language channel.  People who can hold a conversation while reading a book aren't really doing two things at once, they're simply switching backwards and forwards between two tasks very rapidly, and this is what I started doing.  As a kid, I could never hold a conversation while reading, so it's not an innate talent on my part.  (My big sister always used to be able to do it.  I always assumed she was faking it or lying.)

Over the intervening years, I've been able to pick up more and more, but it seems to me that in a way I'm "primed" by the subtitles -- I'm anticipating how that would translate and what I hear is then matched against my expectations.

But really, the way to improve when you're good is to go without English subtitles (or whatever your native language is).  The first step to achieving that is to get material with target language subtitles.  The subtitles never match what is said on screen, so it's limited, but it does help you get tricky words.

Just now, I've been watching a French series Un Village Français. I tried watching it without the subtitles, but a few words slipped by me.  The first time I watched with subtitles on, I saw the word "scierie" and I realised it had to be "sawmill" ("scie" is "saw", and I knew the guy owns a sawmill from watching it before).  I'd watched two whole serieses without subtitles and never realised what this word was.  I hadn't even noticed that the word existed.  Two minutes with subtitles on, and I doubt I'll ever forget it.

But so far, so vague.
How did I start being able to listen while reading?  It's hard for me to say, as I wasn't really thinking about it at the time, but I believe it was when I started echoing my favourite actors to try and get the rhythm of the languages.  You can't do that without listening (obviously) and at first this got in the way of reading the subtitles and I ended up using the pause button a lot.  But having done that, it seems like my brain started realising that it had to listen and eventually I got there.

I only really noticed I was doing it when I went to see a French film and one of the characters was bemoaning the fact that kids today don't watch French cinema.  The subtitles talked about "rubbish from far away", the voice said "American crap".

But even after years, my "listening while reading" is still very limited.  It leaves me with a question I can't answer.  Do I get more out of watching with subtitles and hearing less of the speech or do I get more out of watching without subtitles and hearing more, even if I understand less?  It's impossible for me to measure this, and in the end the choice is made for me by circumstance, because if I have subtitles, I watch with subtitles.  If I don't, I watch without.

TV vs film for learners

But on a different tack, it's worth noting that watching serieses is far better for your language skills than watching films.  A film is relatively short, so there's little recycling of dialogue.  Each new film has potentially new accents and ways of speaking, but a 90 minute film finishes just as you're starting to get accustomed to the actors.

TV serieses, on the other had, offer several hours of dialogue written by the same scriptwriters, delivered by the same actors in the same accents, and covering the same topics.  The vocabulary and turn of phrase is repeated in throughout the length of the series, naturally reviewing and revising your learning. I've been following a particular series in Spanish for about two and a half years now, and I personally feel it has been immensely helpful to me.  Of course I've learnt a lot from other sources during the same time, but this has really aided my listening comprehension.

I already mentioned Un Village Français - I bought a two-series boxed set for around the cost of two full-priced feature films, and that's 10 hours of drama with 3 hours of historical documentary as bonus features for the price of 3 hours of film.  As I progressed through the series, I really did feel like I "tuned in" to the accents - there were things in the first few episodes that I should have understood (in terms of grammar and vocabulary, they were withing my boundaries) but that I didn't (because my ear wasn't picking up the detail of what the actors were saying).

So how do you make films and TV part of your learning strategy?

In the beginning, I don't think you really can.  At that stage, don't consider it "learning time", consider it "TV time".  Get used to the whole idea of subtitled foreign cinema with subtitles in your native language.  If you start to hear a word or two, great.  If you don't then it's no loss as this isn't "learning time".

I only really started getting serious with Spanish TV in the run up to my exams.  I'd studied a lot, I'd learnt a lot, but it still felt really disjoint.  I considered TV viewing as a type of revision -- I was hearing stuff I already knew, but used in many different ways.  I got used to the speed of natural speech in various accents, but I don't think I could have done that if I didn't already have a solid foundation in the grammar, because it reduced the amount of unknown material in the language.  In the end I picked up a couple of structural points too, and some good vocabulary, but mostly I mostly found that it took the language I knew in an academic context and made it more real and alive.

(And in the spirit of taking nobody's word for it and what I said in the follow-up, I'd like to point out that I can say definitively that I learned the Spanish construction "volver a hacer" from the Spanish series Águila Roja.  The fact that I can give a specific example suggests to me that I didn't learn much in this way.  Unfortunately, if you don't think about it, you can be misled into believing that remembering an example is proof of the effectiveness of a method.)

One thing I think would work well is to use a DVD player or computer video player that you can slow down.  I'd like to start watching foreign serieses with the first few episodes slowed by about 10 or 15% while I get used to the characters and their ways of speaking, then speed it up to normal speed for the rest of the series.  Unfortunately most of my serieses to date have been on-line without speed control, but I'll give it a go later in the year when I order in some French TV, and possibly Italian too.

13 February 2011

Take nobody's word for it: a case study

So last week I gave a few reasons why you shouldn't pay too much attention to other people's advice.  Of course, you do have to pay some attention to other people's advice, so you have to evaluate the soundness of that advice.

A few weeks ago I was alerted to a perfect example of bad advice via a post on the How To Learn Any Language forums.

What makes this such a good example is the fact that the guy giving the advice has kept a blog, which allows us to critically evaluate what he says.

Keith Lucas believes you can learn a language just by watching TV.  This flies in the face of a lot of opinion, experience and most theoretical models of human language.

A month ago, Keith completed a 2000 hour "silent period" of Chinese.  That is to say that over the course of 2 years, he has watched 2000 hours of Chinese TV without looking up any grammar or vocabulary.  He will only now start to speak the language.

Keith's inspiration is the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) method.  ALG is in essence a variation on the Direct and Natural methods of the late 19th century, which suggests that we can only learn a language through that language itself.  I was talking about "one all-important concept" last week, or in Decoo's words "a concept that is stressed above all others" -- this is ALG's all-important concept.  Decoo says that this concept has to appeal to the imagination, and this certainly does appeal to the imagination.

The earliest post I can find on his blog referring to ALG is from October 2008, but it doesn't tell us how he discovered ALG and the exact nature of his experience with it.  He then went on to talk very enthusiastically about the principles of ALG in several more posts over the course of that month.

Then we get the leap of logic.  That very same month, inspired by ALG, he decided that he would try to replicate the ALG classes by watching internet TV.  Of course while the principle of ALG is learn a language through itself, in practice, ALG uses a structured course to introduce grammar and vocabulary in a controlled manner.  As such, simply watching TV doesn't approximate the ALG method at all.  Well, for the beginner at least.  A well-experienced ALG teacher has said that TV is only a replacement for ALG when you can understand 55-70% of the language to start off with.  To quote the article exactly: "If you are a complete beginner, it won’t work. The TV would just become more noise."

There is more to a method than the all-important concept!

Anyhow, so why does Keith seem to have succeeded?  Is he lying?  Is the rest of the world wrong?  What?

Well, the clues are scattered around his blog.  On the day he started his simulated ALG he said: "I'm no longer going to try".  "No longer", he says.  OK...

Then it gets interesting:
"As I have already learned a little bit of the language, I hear many of the words that I have learned. I am experiencing first-hand the crippling effect of my learning. Whenever I hear something familiar, the meaning just won't come. I have to associate it with the English and then I understand the meaning. There is some kind of barrier."
The implication in here is that the previous learning is a hindrance, rather than a help.

Keith seems to be denying the usefulness of his previous study, and it's a pretty common thing to do.  I've lost count of the number of times I've seen a review for course X, Y or Z that says "I learned more in 5 days with course X than in 5 years of school/evening classes/whatever".

It is impossible to go back and start from zero with a blank slate.  Everything you've studied previously has some effect, and it seems to me that most immersive courses and methods are most successful for false beginners.  In general, it seems to me that most courses are incomplete, and immersion fills in the gaps, filling in the need for meaningful practice that a lot of non-immersive courses fail to provide.

People will tend to ascribe their success to one thing, but in reality, their success is the cumulative effect of everything they've done.

But, in fact, Keith actually knows this himself.  In 2009 he wrote about how to write a language method, and in that post he says that on the internet "you can find many examples of what people are doing or what they think they did when they successfully learned a language".  Notice that "what they think they did" -- the tacit implication is that (as I said last week) we don't always know what we're doing.  But despite knowing this, despite knowing that people are never fully aware of their own actions and ways of working, he keeps slipping into making definitive statements about how things work and about what he does.  And to be fair, so do I, which is what the title of last week's post was all about!  Being aware of common human failings does not make us immune to them.

So a general request: when giving advice on learning, don't only tell people the stuff you think worked.  Tell them everything you did, and tell them which bits you think worked and which bits you think didn't work, but tell them that you can't be sure that you're right.  Then they can evaluate the whole thing critically and decide what they want to do for themselves.

04 February 2011

Take nobody's word for it - not even mine.

The world is a difficult place for a language learner.  With so much advice out there, how do you know which to take?  Unfortunately, you can't take anyone's advice without a pinch of salt.  The usual response to this is to use your "common sense" or your "critical faculties", but neither of those is going to get us very far.

Before getting into the meat of the question, I'd like to quote Marcel Pagnol:
<<Telle est la faiblesse de notre raison : elle ne sert le plus souvent qu'à justifier nos croyances.>>
(Such is the weakness of our reason: most often it serves only to justify our beliefs.)

Pagnol wrote this in his autobiography La gloire de mon père, in reference to the rigorous debates between anti-clerical schoolmasters and the clergy, something of an everyday occurrence in post-revolutionary France.  Both sides were well educated and well read, and both could set forth a good argument, but for the most part their arguments were always built on selective evidence.

This is a problem that bedevils research even to this day.  In writing a paper, many researchers will quote research that supports their view, and will only cite research that disagrees with it when they can counter the point raised.

It the field of language learning, this is a particularly vexing problem.  People on a regular basis go back and cite sources from the 60s and 70s, completely ignoring decades of research that run counter to it.  Here our critical faculties as individuals fail us: it is not that we cannot be critical, but we are not presented with all the relevant information.  Even if it was, we would be incapable of processing all the relevant information due to the sheer volume of research carried out.

We can be "blinded by science".

So much for critical reasoning.  What about common sense?

Well, if it really was a question of "common sense", you wouldn't even need to ask, right?  Common sense is just another word for a person's beliefs.  At one time the existence of gods was common sense, and today the argument for or against gods boils down to the same thing -- all sides consider their view "common sense" and "logical".

Nope, common sense is no good, and reasoning can trick you, so you have to be careful.

Regular readers will know that my favourite piece on language is Wilfried Decoo's lecture On the mortality of language learning methods.  One of the key points of Decoo's argument is that most methods have a broad basis of similarity, and differ in the inclusion or exclusion of one or two particular features, or even just in declaring that one particular feature is made more prominent.

In short, for all their arguing, most methods are incredibly similar.  For example, Assimil claims that you doesn't teach rules, and that you learn by "natural assimilation", yet more of a typical Assimil book is dedicated to grammatical explanations than dialogues.  On the other hand, any grammar-heavy course may say that the rules are the important bit, but most use lots of examples.  Even the proponents of grammar-free "natural" learning produce courses with a structured introduction to grammatical features.

Problem 1: One all-important concept

Decoo says, "A new method draws its originality and its force from a concept that is stressed above all others. Usually it is an easy to understand concept that speaks to the imagination."  Traditionally, this could be disregarded simply as marketing, and not directly harmful to the student.  However, the internet has changed that, and these claims are becoming downright dangerous.


Well, people are going out and trying to recreate these methods for themselves, not based on the content of the methods, but on these stated principles. So while Krashen advises lots of listening, he offers a structured lesson.  Yet a self-teacher can't produce a structured lesson, and listening to poorly selected material won't get you anywhere.

Problem 2: Nobody really knows what they're doing

As a general rule, when we're involved in doing something, we're not normally aware of exactly what it is we're doing.  For example, can you describe how you walk?  How you ride a bike?  Probably only very superficially.  So how are we to trust someone's claims about how they learn languages.

Aside from this general observation, we've got another problem -- the human brain can make insignificant things seem very significant indeed.

For example, if you live in a big city, you'll walk past thousands of people in a week.  Yet run into one old schoolmate, and you'll comment on how unlikely it is, or how it's a small world.  Statistically, that one friend is insignificant, but psychologically, that friend is more significant than every stranger in your town.

This phenomenon inhibits our individual ability to evaluate the effectiveness of our learning techniques.  If you learn 3 things from a given technique and forget 300, by definition you only remember the things you learned.  The 3 things become used as proof that you learned effectively from that technique.

In fact, I find that if I can remember a few specific examples that I learned in a particular way, it usually means quite the opposite: if a technique is effective, I rarely remember specific examples of things I learned with it.  If I remember one or two examples, they're often the only things I learned well using that technique. So quite unhelpfully, the things that stick in my mind are actually the least helpful techniques.  (I previously wrote about a similar phenomenon: the unspoken value of student feedback.)  (This is part of something called recall bias, and it is one of the reasons very little science relies on survey responses these days.)

As a consequence, I'm generally sceptical when someone advises something as what they do, because, quite simply, how do they know?