02 February 2014

Language learning professionals vs Professional language learners

The internet, they say, "democratises" human activity. We no longer need to go to the ivory towers of academia to learn; we no longer need experts as intermediaries: we can collaborate with one another.

This is true, certainly, but with it comes a certain set of dangers.

First, the "wisdom of the crowds" is generally fallacious, and we either get a mass of people who constantly contradict each other flat-out or we get little cliques that share and reinforce each other's views, to the exclusion of all new information.

More importantly, though, people want to defer to experts. This means that it's actually quite easy for someone with the right patter to set themself up as a "lay expert". Once they do so, they gather a little clique of the "wisdom of the crowds" type who will support and propound the self-appointed expert's proclamations.

There are many such "experts" in language learning. Typically they say they teach not on "dry, academic grounds" or the "received wisdom of the establishment", but "from experience". Their argument is simple and appealing: I have learned a language, therefore I know how to learn a language. But wait... haven't millions upon millions of people learned a language too? Why you and not them?

I call these people "professional language learners". Wouldn't we all like to learn languages as a job? Wouldn't that be great? I know I'd love it... except that's only of benefit to me, so really there's no reason for anyone else to pay me to do it. I find it difficult to stomach that there are people out there who make their entire living by writing and making videos about their language learning, and kidding themselves and their audiences on that they're giving some immensely valuable and unique insight into the learning process.

But they're not.

Their advice is at best vague, and very often even inconsistent and self-contradictory (eg Sid Efromovich's video that I discussed recently). Vague advice can be followed to the letter, and still have you doing something almost entirely the opposite of what was intended. As advice it's at best useless, at worst detrimental. Why am I failing? What am I doing wrong? Frustration sets in. Maybe I'm just no good at languages.

But why is the advice vague? Is it a fault in the author's use of English? His writing composition? Maybe, but mostly it seems to me that these people don't actually fully understand their own process. There is much to be learned from these people, but only if they're willing to discuss it, so that we can help each other tease out the details.

This is why we need to defer to language learning professionals, people who have trained, and studied, and (hopefully) taught. But most importantly, they are in a position to experiment. They can try something on one class, identify the weaknesses, then try it on another class in an adjusted form. Did it work better? Then it's better. A professional language learner only has a sample of one, and therefore cannot identify the changes that make things better.

That is not to say that all language learning professionals are always correct; sadly, language teaching standards are pretty poor at present. Many teachers and academics continue to parrot outdated and/or unproven theories as gospel, but if they can express their views more clearly, then at least you'll be better able to follow them if you choose to.

Of course, a lot of language teachers aren't really experts anyway. Most professional teachers of English as a foreign language have a four week certificate that is essentially a walk-through of typical classroom techniques, and no real in-depth analysis of what works, when it works, why it works or how. Simply being a teacher does not make you an expert, and very few teachers would ever try to claim otherwise. A real expert is someone who has dedicated multiple years of their life to both academic study of the topic and real life application.

It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to become an expert, and for those of us who are going through all the slog of trying to become genuine experts, it's kind of galling to see these guys walking the easy route and getting pretty handsomely rewarded for it. 


random review said...

Well I agree with the general thrust of your post; but I think you may be a little too harsh here.

You have to approach such advice sceptically and try ideas out for yourself; but, without disagreeing with the main thrust of your argument, I know I have been helped immensely by *experimenting* with *some* of the ideas of people like Luca, Benny and especially Khatzumoto and Prof Argüelles.

Also, say what you want about Benny (and I think we largely agree about him), at his best he can be quite inspiring and we shouldn't underestimate how helpful that can be. That Arabic challenge was wonderful. I know he has more time, money and experience than I do and I'm not naïve enough to think I could emulate the feat; but watching him reach a level in Arabic (a language I'm far too scared to even try) that it took me years to reach in Spanish (which we both know is far easier for Anglophones), in just 3 months, WHILST LIVING IN BRAZIL(!), and then wander round Egypt speaking with people- that has been a source of motivation and inspiration for me ever since.

Nìall Beag said...

One of the most insidious problems in education is student blaming: if a student isn't learning, it's easier for the teacher to blame the student's lack of effort.

But very often, the unsuccessful students are trying a lot harder than the successful ones.

It's the teacher's techniques that fail the students, and then the teacher turns round and blames the student.

Now imagine that all you offer is "inspiration" -- no techniques, no teaching -- and then you blame any and every failure on lack of effort.

"I did it, so why can't you?"

It's toxic; absolutely toxic.

random review said...

100% true, but are guys like this actually in education? Well I suppose Benny is now with his new book. Someone like Khatzumoto has all his inspirational stuff kicking around his site for free for you to take or leave as you see fit. I see it more as a conversation with a mate who's been there and done it and I've found it very helpful. When he gets into education (not coincidentally where he starts charging), he provides genuine (and worthwhile) products: sentence packs, custom srs software gamification, cloze deletion packs, sources native material for you to save you time etc, etc.

Your point is well taken nonetheless.

random review said...

Sorry, mate. There should have been a comma after "software".

Nìall Beag said...

Benny has always been heavily anti-intellectual, discouraging people from listening to any real experts. He has always claimed that by following his advice, people will learn better and easier, but there is next-to-no advice to follow.

And after years of saying that grammar and bookwork are unimportant, he finally admitted that the first thing he does is sit down with a bunch of books. Even as he said it, he was telling people that it wasn't necessary, and you could still do what he does without actually doing what he does.

Benny has been selling the Language Hacking Guide for years, with the claim it is full of useful practical tips, but it never was. (I read it years ago.) It was so absolutely devoid of content, that he himself eventually realised it, and he justified it to himself as being a problem with the medium -- when he launched his video series, he said that he was doing so because books are inadequate for teaching language learning techniques.

And yet here he is launching another book. In the interim, he has continued to refuse to critically discuss his techniques, dismissing anyone who questions him even with good intentions as a "hater" or brainwashed by the establishment.

He rationalises away all his own failings and missteps, rather than learning from them.

He really knows nothing about anyone else's experience of learning language, and refines his views on the "best" way to learn languages based on what he does, yet with every language he learns, his learning requirements become less and less typical. As such, I can only assume that his advice is equally getting less and less useful.

This is the big difference between the language-learning professional and the professional language learner: the language learning professional has seen the results of the teaching process on hundreds of people, the professional language learner has seen the results on one.

Nìall Beag said...

As for Khatz, he has certainly mellowed with age. When he started out he was an "angry kid on the internet", as I recall once describing him. Although the swearing disappeared from his site fairly quickly, he was always very aggressively anti-intellectual, and his early advice was very, very lightweight. "Learn lots of sentences." Some waffle round about it, but that was it.

Over time, he has "discovered" a whole pile of stuff that other people already do, and he differentiates himself only by using different terminology, so to the uninformed he's the only one saying this stuff.

When he produces materials, he's doing it all on intuition. It doesn't matter how many people use his stuff -- he has no feedback to tell him if he's pacing it right or getting the ordering right.

Granted, a lot of professional resources are produced this way too, but they are typically written by university language teachers who have a decade or more of teaching under their belts. These people not only have the benefit of seeing their students week after week for at least a semester, but they also perform formal assessments, so they know if their teaching's working, and they can adjust it.

Your average bookshelf language course is written by someone who has seen the effects of their mistakes in action, and has corrected for them.

Plus of course, when Khatz abandoned the whole "umpteen sentences" thing, he continued to propose it in public. And as I recall it, it wasn't just that he'd changed his techniques, but that he'd realised that he wasn't doing what he'd been claiming. And yet, for a year he kept that as a privileged secret for his paying customers while lying to the wider public.

That's irresponsible.

random review said...

I slightly disagree with you about Benny (though I think you make some very fair points). Unusually for me I actually think you are missing something important with Khatzumoto.

True, with Benny, all I ever personally got from his writings was inspiration (not to be underestimated, though!). Indeed this is very noteworthy as Benny's strengths are actually my biggest weaknesses. I have long agreed with you that what Benny does is not what he thinks he does.

Khatzumoto is different. I've never copied any internet polyglot slavishly, but *experimenting* for myself with some of his ideas has helped me more than those of any other polyglot except Professor Argüelles. His ideas have something to offer.

There is massive value in the experience that comes as a teaching professional (one of the main reasons I still read your blog so many ears after you left HTLAL); it's not the *only* source of value, though. For instance in honest documentation of your less successful ventures (remember Keith?).

And Khatzumoto, anyone who reads his stuff for more than 5 minutes can see he's a businessman and not a teacher. His ideas (excellent though many of them definitely are) need to be approached accordingly.

Nìall Beag said...

The problem is that while you and me and many others can be skeptical, it's not being encouraged on the sites themselves, and they typically try to raise a barrier to stop skeptics and keep their adherents away from other people. How many regular commenters from either of those sites were ever involved in HTLAL, for example?

I have to admit that I think Khatz is on the right track with the "Silver Spoon" idea, but I question his ability to select appropriate materials. It's difficult enough to do when you're going into the classroom with your students every week, but I couldn't imagine attempting to do it outside of the school without a lot more experience than I have now, or without something or someone very special backing me up.

And I hardly think I qualify as much of a "language learning professional" with less than three years real experience to date, split over several years.

I really need to find work....