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?

1 comment:

maicart said...

I don’t think you’re being negative, I think you’re being realistic. It’s important to set realistic objectives when you’re trying to learn a language. The “it worked for me” strategy is skillfully used by language bloggers turned into used car salesman marketers either to promote their website and/or sell their book. Some of them genuinely believe in their method, but saying that you have a “hack” for language learning is plain wrong. There are better or worse methods, but as far as I know, there is no "hack" to learning a language. The “it worked for me” is a populist view based on the following association fallacy: 1. John is polyglot. 2. John uses my method. 3. Therefore all people that use my method are polyglots. Real learning takes place when you get out of your comfort zone. Throwing balls over a net does not mean you’re learning how to play tennis. But people don’t want to hear this. Due to the cynical and lazy nature of people, they will always be on the lookout for “instant gratification”, especially when it comes to learning languages.