21 January 2014

Video commentary: 5 techniques to speak any language

Sometimes it's nice to run with a theme, and although I'm mixed it up with a few unrelated posts in between, I started discussing what we can learn from learners a couple of weeks ago, and followed up with a discussion on the limits of my own self-awareness. I figure it makes sense to build on this theme and have a critical look at what others say.

I came across the following video last month, where Sid Efromovich presents his "5 techniques to speak any language" at TEDx UpperEastSide. You can watch the video (~15 min) now to make up your own mind, or skip straight down to my analysis.

Now, the first thing to note is that the video blurb says that Sid grew up in Brazil, which tells us that either he is an exceptionally good learner (I never noticed any flaws in his English) or that he was a childhood bilingual -- unfortunately not even his personal website tells us which. Not knowing his starting point makes it quite difficult to evaluate how suitable he is as a model for any individual (if he's natively bilingual in Portuguese and English, that wouldn't be particularly unusual, but for those of us who were brought up monolingually, it doesn't match our world).

Now lets move on to the actual talk, and Sid's rules.

1: Make mistakes

My first reaction when he gave the title was "here we go again," as I expected the usual line about how we learn from our mistakes. Yes, we are more than capable from learning from our mistakes, from which the hardliners conclude that there is no learning without mistakes... and yet the things I've learned best were learned right first time.

Thankfully, that's not what Eric goes on to discuss. Instead, he talks about how we all have a "database" of sounds and structures that our brains identify as correct, and that everything outside that database is flagged as "wrong" by the brain.

This throws us into a little paradox where our fear of making mistakes causes us to make mistakes.

His example is the Spanish letter R, which he gives with the word "Puerta". The Spanish R is markedly different from the English R, but close enough that a beginner's brain will try to replace the wrong-sounding Spanish R with a correct-sounding English one, which Eric refers to as the "closest relative sound".

In this rule we have something of real value to the learner. I've discussed the difficulty of dealing with foreign phoneme maps many times, but I never made that last logical step and talked about perceived wrongness and correctness, so a big thank you to Eric -- this idea alone made the video worth watching for me.

Caveat emptor

However, in that same example of puerta, Eric starts to show the limitations of his language awareness, as he appears to be claiming that it is only the Spanish R that isn't in the English "database", which is simply untrue.

The P, though close, is subtly different, as Spanish is a language more typically distinguished by aspiration, and English by voicing (in the pairs P/B, T/D, C/G). It's a very subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

The Spanish UE doesn't exist in English, and any attempt at approximating it is going to be wrong -- one typical English pronunciation of Puerto Rico is /ˌpwɛərtə ˈriːkoʊ/, whereas the Spanish is /pʷeɾto ˈriko/.

Finally, there's that last syllable ta. This has a clear vowel, because all Spanish syllables do... but not all English ones. It is exceptionally difficult for an English speaker to pronounce a clear vowel in the syllable directly preceding or following the stressed syllable, because in English these are almost always reduced to schwa -- that feeble little "uh" sound.

So there's the first alarm bell... his pronunciation is good enough to show that he internally knows the difference, but he's not consciously aware of everything he does, which (as I keep saying) is the limitation of anyone who claims to speak from experience.


2 Scrap the foreign alphabet

Rule number 2 is a doozy. Eric reckons that the foreign alphabet "will give you wrong signals," at least for languages in the same script as your own, and he is correct. It is difficult for an English speaker to see the letter "I" as representing it's so called "cardinal" value (the Latin I) because that's not the sound it has in English.
So far, so logical. What is the alternative?

Some (not Eric) propose learning aurally first, ignoring writing completely. (I disagree, because there are differences that a beginner might not be able to hear in the spoken language, but they'll be seen in the written language.)

But Eric is in favour of writing down. Does he suggest learning the IPA? No, instead he proposes using your own pseudo-phonetics, based on the sounds of your own language.

His example for this whole section is the Brazilian currency: the Real. It's a great example, because it is immediately misleading, having as it does the same spelling as an English word. His suggested phoneticisation, though, is very troubling: hey ouch . In writing it this way, he's using the same "closest relative sounds" he warned against in rule 1, which is a total contradiction. A Brazilian Portuguese R is not like an English H: it's a guttural sound, more similar to the German/Scottish CH (Bach/loch)... but not even quite the same as that. The L isn't quite the w-glide of ow/ouch, and even if it was, you're going to have to find a different notation for it in different situations (in can occur after vowels that an English W wouldn't appear after). And there are other problems too, but that'll do for now.

The main thing is that having presented only two rules, we already have a contradiction and fundamental incompatibility, throwing into doubt Sid's credibility as an instructor.

But setting that aside for a moment and looking at this rule in isolation:

Avoiding the native spelling is by no means a necessary step in learning a language.

Myself, I have at times learned to pronounce a language from its written form before making any serious attempt to learn the language, and to me that's far more useful, because I'm able to look at dictionaries and phrasebooks to learn new language, whereas if I'm stuck with my own idiosyncratic phonetics, I won't have access to any external sources whatsoever. I say learn the alphabet, but learn it right. Even if idiosyncratic phonetics did work (and I don't think they do), the cost in terms of isolation from materials is simply too high.

3 Find a stickler

He reckons you need someone who'll correct you, and you probably do, but he doesn't address the serious limitations of this, or how to avoid them.

First of all, correction is ad hoc. You say what you want, you get a correction. Fine, but language and a system, and therefore effective correction has to be systematic. A lot of the corrections you get from a native speaker are going to be extremely different from what your mistake was, and therefore don't really correct the source of the error, just the superficial form.

Secondly, if you make an error, you may be misunderstood. If someone says "I will do it yesterday," do they mean "I will do it tomorrow" or "I did it yesterday"? Where an error is ambiguous, the correction given has as much chance of being totally wrong as being right.

But worst of all, sticklers often teach things that are outdated. For example, the English you and I as subject isn't current in most parts of the English speaking world, but a stickler will "correct" you and me even if says it himself. Similarly for there's three things. Or he might "correct" can I...? to may I...?

How do you avoid these things? How do you choose your stickler? Well, for the first one, you're not looking for a language buddy, you're looking for a teacher. For the second and third, you're looking for a good teacher. You need someone who is an expert not only in the language, but in showing others how to become experts.

4 Shower conversations

Eric then suggests talking to yourself, a technique lots of people use. For many of us, that language practice is in the form of a silent internal monologue. The acknowledged limitation with this is that it's not practising pronunciation.

Eric's idea of having your conversations in the shower gives you a safe area to practice pronunciation, but the bigger point he raises is that by having a conversation as opposed to a monologue, you're more likely to identify gaps in your knowledge.

I'm not sure that this is actually true, and as a result he glides by what should have been his most important point, and worthy of being a rule in and of itself: mind your gaps.

When you're speaking, it will be your natural tendency to avoid and skirt round gaps in your target language knowledge, and doing so is part of being a successful user of the language. However, it is all too easy to become so proficient at avoiding gaps that you stop looking for them, and stop learning new things. The really successful learners continually seek out gaps in their knowledge and plug them with new information. Obviously it's less embarrassing to identify those gaps when you're on your own than when you're in a conversation, so it's a good starting point, but on the other hand, the reality is that you cannot say anything to yourself that you don't expect, so you can't find as many gaps speaking to yourself as you can when speaking to others. If you can be bothered, you can carry a notebook to jot down any gaps you come across, but while I had such a notebook for years (for Spanish), I only ever noted down 2 or 3 things in it...

5 Buddy Formula

Sid's final rule is a "formula" for finding the best "language buddy" for practise. Now I object to the trite, twee abuse of the term "formula" here, because it's just a rule that he chooses to write with an equals sign:
Target language = best language in common
He raises a very good point in his justification for this: that clear communication is the motivation for learning a language, and that if you know you can get your message across more easily in another language, you're going to switch to that other language.

You will get no argument from me on that -- I often find myself banging into that wall, and I often caution against so-called "immersion" classes where the class has a common language anyway (eg. immersive Gaelic for English speakers) because it risks conditioning people to view the language as a barrier to communication instead of a means of communication.

But more than that, Sid offers no advice to dealing with the big problem that all learner-learner conversations carry: learner errors. If one English learner says pod-ae-to, and the other says pod-ah-to, they're both wrong, and there's no stimulus for correction. Or perhaps one of them gets it right, then the other gives a well-meaning "correction" that teaches them the wrong thing.
...unfortunately, no feedback on errors.


So what can we take away from Eric's advice? Even if his rules were all unarguably correct, they alone are not going to teach you a language -- in fact, they're pretty peripheral to the main learning process.

But his rules aren't correct. Rule 2 is a dogmatic assertion that glosses over a very complex issue.

Neither rule 3 or rule 5 is wrong per se, but neither is essential, and Sid's description is inadequate as advice for the learner, because it doesn't give any concrete advice on how to circumvent any of the problems a learner will face.

Rule 4 fails on similar, but slightly more interesting, grounds. Again, he has failed to really give enough advice on how to avoid potential pitfalls, but in rules 3 and 5, those were pitfalls I don't believe he'd really thought about himself. With rule 4, he does talk briefly about the pitfalls. He identified a problem, and identified a suitable solution. He has used that solution and it should be useful to many others. But there is nothing unique in the shower conversation that forces you to identify your language gaps. If his rule had been "Mind the gap", his shower conversation could have been given as one possible technique to address it, and then he would have been forced into providing a description of how to structure a shower conversation such that it addresses the goals of a "mind the gap" rule.

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