Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fallacies about language learning

Linguists like me learn early in their careers that people don't want to hear about linguistics.

They REALLY don't want to hear about it.  Like the quote at the top of my blog says, "Don't talk about syntax [a subfield of linguistics] at parties; people will walk away from you."

But that certainly doesn't stop people from talking about language.  All the time.  People comment on things that they and other people say often, and have lots of ideas about them such as which accents are good and which are bad and what grammar is good and bad.  But these ideas are largely uninformed by rigorous study of language and how it works.  One of my mentors once compared this to someone saying, "I know all about cell biology.  In fact, I'm doing it right now."

An example: Recently I was in the dressing room of a store trying on some clothing.  I overheard a young woman in another booth in the dressing room talking about a Filipina woman she had met like this:  "She was trying to say 'Oh my God' but she couldn't say it.  She just kept saying 'Oh my gut.  Oh my gut.' It was so weird."  The implication was that there was something wrong with this Filipina.

It was a bit hard to resist the temptation to go over to the other part of the dressing room and explain to the young woman that there was no need to think it was weird; saying "gut" instead of "God" is a simple phonological process common to many learners of new languages.

But I did resist.  Because people don't want to hear about linguistics.  Especially from strangers in dressing rooms.  Regardless of how many advanced degrees in linguistics the person has. (I've got two!)

But in this post, I am going to tell you one reason why you should want to hear about linguistics: if you knew more about lingustics, you would find it easier to make choices about what language learning activities and programs you would do and purchase, and which you would avoid.

Why would I want to read this post?
Lots of people nowadays would like to learn a new language.  Your reasons might range from the fact that it's cool to travel opportunities to hoping to increase your job opportunities.  I don't think anyone would argue that learning a new language would be a life asset in some way.

But, as many people know, language learning is kind of challenging.  Or at least it seems that way.  Enter people who want to help.

There are lots of books, CD sets, computer programs, and classes designed to help people who want to learn new languages.  Some of them have pretty obvious methodologies, others use techniques you might not have thought of.  But all of them promise that they work.

Wouldn't it be great if you knew which of all these methods were good and which were largely a waste of time?

People seem to be pretty savvy when they buy things like computers, dishwashers, TVs, and so forth.  They study the features of the product and buy the one that will meet their needs.  But if you don't truly understand your needs, you won't make a purchase that will serve you.  And that is where people go wrong in spending money and time on language learning methods that don't work.  Lots of people have tried ways of language learning that aren't very efficient or effective.  As a result, they don't get far, and they feel frustrated.

No wonder that people think they can't learn a new language or that it's too hard or they are too old.  If you try something that doesn't work, it's natural that it won't get results.  It's like saying, "Goodness, no matter how much of this carpet I buy, I can't lose weight!" or "I keep reading books on history, but my car's oil still hasn't been changed."  It seems obvious that buying carpet or reading history would not have an effect on weight loss or automotive maintenance, because people know a bit about those things and know that they aren't related.  But people don't know much about language and language learning (even though they think they do), so they can't judge whether a methodology is good or not.

Couple that with not wanting to hear about linguistics and you have a lot of people spending time and money on language learning programs that aren't teaching them language or changing their oil.

In this post I point out the promises that a lot of these language learning programs offer and why you shouldn't just believe them.

The problem with choosing a language-learning method based on your own logic
As I mentioned earlier, people are largely uninformed about what works and what doesn't when it comes to learning language.  And what happens in a vacuum of knowledge?  Lots of pet theories.  Language learning programs (both commercial and personal) are built on all kinds of principles that, as far as they know, may or may not actually work for learning language such as translation, worksheets, learning grammar rules, listening to music, clicking pictures on a computer, and so forth.  But people think they will work, and that is the problem.

Take this silly possible situation: you believe that the thing that determines whether or not a person learns a language is the person has to be standing on one leg.  So you sign up for your German class and you very diligently stand on one leg during all your classes.  You also stand on one leg while doing all your assignments and while listening to German pop music on your iPod.  You even stand on one leg while watching German television shows or reading a German newspaper.  After months of careful effort at one-leg standing, you feel that you have successfully learned the skills in German you wanted to learn and you proudly announce: "See?  I knew that standing on one leg would work!"

It is hopefully easy for people to see that it was probably all the other things you were doing, not the standing on one leg, that caused you to learn German.  But people tend to focus only on those things they think will work.  If you think standing on one leg is the way to go, you will discount all the other activities as unhelpful or extra, even though those were really the things that helped you to learn German.  No matter how logical a methodology or technique seems, unless you know it has been researched and found to work under controlled or quasi-controlled scientific circumstances, a method that you think will work is only a guess, and may be completely ineffective.  Doesn't it make a lot more sense to find out what really works in scientific research?

Why you shouldn't believe "It worked for me."
Just a couple of days ago I was in a bookstore and picked up a book that was designed to teach people how to learn languages.  The author is a man who is apparently highly proficient in a few different languages and he decided to write this book to share with people how he did it.  So in this book he shared his ideas about language learning and the techniques he followed as he learned these languages.  The techniques mainly focused on how to use different forms of media in language learning.  The back cover of the book promised that his ideas were based on research.  But when I looked further, what did I discover?  The research was about the media, not about language learning and what things are most effective and helpful for language learners.  This man was simply sharing what he believed to work for language learning.  His advice might as well have been "stand on one leg" for all he knew about language learning research.

Would you buy a book on car repair from someone who didn't have any special training in car construction or maintenance?  Would you buy a self-help book from someone who wasn't a trained counselor or psychologist?  Would you buy a book on business from someone who didn't have any experience or training in making money?  I hope you wouldn't, so why buy a book on language learning from a non-linguist?

"But it worked for him!" you say.  When he was learning those languages, he used the techniques that he is talking about.  But for all he knows, and for all you know, all those techniques he used were as effective as standing on one leg or buying carpet.  Even worse, they could have actually even limited or slowed down his language learning.  He did them because he thought they would work, and because he perceives himself to be a successful language learner, he thought those techniques caused his success.  But it is entirely possible that other things he was doing which he thought were extra turned out to be the true key to language learning.

Or, it could be that the things he was doing worked, but very inefficiently.  Imagine you had the task to move a mountain, and the best idea you had about how to move mountains was with a shovel.  So there you are, digging away with your best shoveling technique, thinking that you are moving the mountain by the best way possible.  Your friend comes along asking for advice and you hand him a shovel, saying, "It worked for me!"  Well, it does work a little, but shoveling is not the ideal way to move a mountain.  If only we had a bulldozer or some dynamite!

No one person ever has the experience of learning the same language two different times using two different methods.  So there is no way that one man can ever scientifically evaluate the experience that he had and judge which aspects were helpful or not.  The only way this can be done is by carefully designed research that studies large numbers of language learners and tracks their progress using the scientific method.

Many language learning books and programs out there claim that they have the best way, and they have testimonials to back it up.  But I hope you can see now why testimonials are not sufficient evidence for the effectiveness of a program.

Why are you being so negative?
In this post I have focused on fallacies that people commonly believe when it comes to language learning and shown you why they are fallacies.  But I don't intend to end there.  In future posts, I want to share with you what linguists and researchers know about what really does work.  Then, you will be armed with the principles you need to evaluate what language learning techniques you want to use to meet your language learning goals.  And I hope that, with the right principles under your belt, you will find language learning more pleasant and effective than your previous experiences.  You may find that you will purchase programs and books, but you will use them in different ways than you previously would have.  And I think you will also find that there are many things you can use to learn a new language that are easily accessible and cost little.  Who doesn't like that?

Friday, February 10, 2012

You see? I'm not the only one.

Apparently I'm not the only linguist who sometimes gets frustrated when people ask, "So how many languages do you speak?"  Enjoy this little slide show that explains why that question works, but doesn't work, for a lot of us.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wacky Language Learning: Zuiikin' English

Welcome to my first post in a requested series of posts about wacky language learning techniques that people have used over the years.  I can't think of a better one to start with than Zuiikin' English, a wacky language learning system that is so memorable it has quite a cult following on the web.

Zuiikin' English is a series of shorts that showed on Japanese TV during the early 90s.  It was a morning show that aired near the morning news.  In this program, Japanese women dressed in exercise clothing lead the viewer through a series of exercises where they make body movements and say English sentences in time to percussive music, as the sentence is displayed in both English and Japanese on the screen.  The sentences involve topics that would be of interest to a business traveler from Japan, such as how to meet people to date, safety, and getting medical help in an English speaking country.  Many of these videos have made their way to YouTube.  Here is a quintessential example:

The theory: Unfortunately there is very little available about the theory behind Zuiikin' English, so I have to base this whole section on the Wikipedia article on Zuiikin' English and what I remember from reading about it before. Apparently the person who invented this language learning method feels that speakers of different languages use different body parts more in their everyday movements, and thought that practicing certain kinds of body movements would help the language learner to more naturally learn the language of the people who use those body parts more.  I assume this is the reason that the exercises seem to involve a lot of arm movement in comparison to movements of other body parts.

Why it doesn't work: As many language learners know, memorization of a sentence does not mean that you can speak the language of the sentence.  Ignoring the movement part of the video, basically you have an English sentence and a Japanese sentence on the screen at the same time.  The learners aren't really learning English, then; they are just thinking of a sentence in Japanese and then saying a memorized series of sounds associated with that Japanese sentence.  This is the language equivalent of repeating your times tables, being able to spit out an answer that is associated with a question.  You can do this without understanding the meaning behind the English words or grammar in the English sentence at all.  (Any other language learning program that teaches sentences in the target language by glossing them in the learner's native language has the same problem.)  The body movements probably aid the memorization process, but the underlying theory that body movements of certain groups of people are somehow associated with their languages has no research basis that I am aware of.

Another more minor problem with Zuiikin' English is the rhythms associated with the sentences.  There is no doubt that different languages have different rhythms (this is one of my favorite topics on language) and a big part of comprehensibility in English pronunciation is using the rhythm that listeners expect.  In Zuiikin' English
the rhythm of the English sentences is changed to go along with the music.  If learners speak these sentences with this rhythm, it may be more difficult for native speakers to understand them.

If we look at Zuiikin' English as just a fun program rather than a serious language learning methodology I can definitely see the appeal.  Enjoy this list of Zuiikin' videos on YouTube.  And what better way to end this post than this video:

Monday, January 23, 2012

A little tip for guys who send me messages online

If you want to make a good impression on me, I suggest that you don't:

1. Tell me what subfield of linguistics I should study.  Having written a dissertation on second language phonology is kind of proof that I've already chosen that one.  And I really don't like it when people tell me what they think I should do unsolicited.  How about this question instead: "Why did you choose that field?  What do you find interesting about it?"

2. Make up garbage, unoriginal theories about linguistics, based on your own strange ideas about languages and language learning.  Know-it-alls are not attractive, especially because I have my own know-it-all tendencies.  How about this instead: "I've always thought such-and-such, but I don't know much about linguistics.  What have you studied on that topic?"

To the guy who did both of these things in as many messages to me: major turnoff.

A little friendly advice for Republican delegates

Dear Republican delegates,
A little friendly advice, since it seems like many of you want to actually have a Republican president in office again.  I realize there are many of you out there who don't want a Mormon president, no matter what.  But you should ask yourselves -- are you willing to lose the election over it?

As all the pundits are saying, Gingrich seems to be collecting votes from anyone who doesn't want a Mormon president.  But imagine Gingrich against Obama.  Gingrich is much less TV-friendly (let's face it, he's not particularly good-looking) and already, criticisms of his handling of his personal life and moral behavior are coming under question.  In addition, Gingrich's politics are far right, which doesn't usually play well in the main presidential election where voters tend to lean moderate instead of extreme.  Next to our smooth, family-man, progressive incumbent president, I don't think Gingrich will end up the victor.

Romney, on the other hand, is relatively good-looking and has already established himself as moderate in the sense that he is conservative on some issues and liberal on others.  Such a moderate platform will appeal more to the general public, who drives the electoral college.

So if your top priority is to not have a Mormon as president, go with Gingrich, and get ready for an Obama re-election.  If you want a Republican in office, though, Romney's your man as far as I can tell.  Don't let prejudice prevent you from achieving your main goal.


(Just in case you're wondering where I'm coming from, I'm not affiliated with any party, but have generally conservative leanings on many domestic issues.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

The McDonald's embargo

I haven't blogged in months (as you can see by the date on my previous post) and that's mostly because I didn't feel like I had anything to say, at least not anything to say to the audience on the interwebs.  And I'm still not sure that I have anything to say, but I am going to tell you about my only-semi-official boycott of McDonald's.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I don't have anything political against McDonald's.  My main complaint is that their food is generally poor quality.  If I want a burger, there are lots of other restaurants out there where I can get a better burger.  And over the years some items they have offered have been incredibly unhealthy (such as McGriddle and, more recently, their oatmeal).  Which means that I am not highly motivated to go there...

Which leads me to the "boycott".  I don't eat at McDonald's.  It's a long-standing tradition.

The last time I can remember purchasing food at McDonald's is when I was in high school on our choir tour to California.  We pulled into a town at night in our choir bus for a quick food and wash-yourself-a-bit-in-the-bathroom visit.  As far as I know (with one limited experience I'll tell you about later), I have not purchased food at McDonald's since then.  So that would be an estimated 17 years that I have gone without Mickey D's.  I have eaten a couple of burgers during that time that my dad brought home when they were having a sale or something.  But during that time I have not stepped foot into a McDonald's restaurant or purchased anything there as far as I can remember.  And after it had been a time, it sort of became a thing and I sort of made a point of avoiding McDonald's. Which isn't hard because I don't think I am missing much when it comes to the food.

When I was in the Czech Republic I learned that my favorite city (at least from the ones that I experienced) was Pilsen, and there is a McDonald's there.  McDonald's is popular in the Czech Republic because it was started by a guy with Czech parents, Ray Kroc (yes, Kroc is not actually supposed to be pronounced "krok" like the first syllable of crocodile, but "krots", a good, solid Czech name.)  I remember at one point that someone mentioned to me that I could go to McDonald's while I was there, assuming that I wanted to go to McDonald's because I'm American.  But I don't want to eat there.  I just stayed outside and took a photo of the Ray Kroc plaque on the side of the building.  And I am glad that my Czech friends think McDonald's is cool but honestly I think the US of A could be known for something a little better quality than McDonald's food.  And I know that a lot of Americans like to eat at McDonald's when they are abroad because, I guess, it's a form of comfort food to them, something from "home" that they can relate to and know what they are getting.  But I am totally fine with exploring other cuisines.
(P.S. I didn't notice until posting the picture on the blog that the plaque is in English.)

So why don't I eat at McDonald's?  Because it's been so long since I ate at McDonald's.  It's a self-perpetuating thing.  And I guess there is a part of me that wants to be a bit of a snob and be different from what everybody else in America is doing (though that's not really true).  I have to admit that some of their more modern menu items seem more appealing than the classic Big Mac (which, in my my memory, is disgusting) but they have really been advertising the Big Mac lately and I'm also not interested in collecting collectible different-colored Coke glasses or whatever. So maybe in the future I will want something there or be really hungry or be in a small town where McD is the only option and give it a try, but I have a feeling that the McDonald's embargo is going to continue for some time.

That said, this last summer when I passed through Washington, D.C., I visited the National Mall and bought a bottle of water from a cart on the mall.  And after I had placed the order I realized that the person at the cart was wearing a McDonald's uniform.  Apparently McD's has a contract to provide all the food services in the area.  So technically I bought a bottle of water from McDonald's, I guess.  And that doesn't really bother me because there isn't a really good reason for the whole Mickey D's standoff anyway.  But don't expect to see me in there tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A message to the guys of the world

Dear Men,
Unless you have a legitimate reason (like being in the military), do not, I repeat, do not get a crew cut with a flat top. It does not look good on anyone.