Of all the EFL quackery out there, perhaps the most commonly employed by advertisers is the notion of learning a language in a extremely short space of time using some fantastic new method. This closely parallels weight loss and fitness advertising, and both of these play on the human tendency to want something but not want to have to work for it. People want the gains but they don’t want the pain. Unfortunately the value of being able to do something difficult is that it is difficult to do.
Advertisers get round this because “learn a language” or “become fluent” mean different things to different people and there isn’t really a way to objectively measure this. For people who don’t speak another language this might seem odd as the notion of “fluent” might be, to them, connected with the idea of a native speaker, but it’s not that simple. Non-native speakers rarely reach levels comparable with native speakers and it’s questionable if that is even a desirable target for many. Like most things in language learning, when you scratch the surface you find things are a bit more complicated.
The Guardian recently had an article with the headline “How I learned a language in 22 hours” which uses this same fuzziness in order to get away with a very misleading headline. The author later adds several caveats:
It goes without saying that memorising the 1,000 most common words in Lingala, French or Chinese is not going to make anyone a fluent speaker. That would have been an unrealistic goal. But it turns out to be just enough vocabulary to let you hit the ground running once you’re authentically immersed in a language. And, more importantly, that basic vocabulary gives you a scaffolding to which you can attach other words as you hear them
This though, is quite different from the claims made earlier in the article:
When I asked Ed if he thought it would be possible to learn an entire language in such a minuscule amount of time using Memrise, his response was matter-of-fact: “It’ll be a cinch.”
The article also claims that the learning happened in just 22 hours with the headline “How I learned a language in 22 hours”. What we’re talking about here though is the time Foer spent studying the words. But as he notes in the article.
Cognitive scientists have known for more than a century that the best way to secure memories for the long term is to impart them in repeated sessions, distributed across time, with other material interleaved in between.
So Foer tells us how important the time distribution is (learning goes on when we’re not studying, for example, when we’re sleeping) but yet implies that this process only took, in total, one day. I suppose the headline “I learnt some basic words in a foreign language over a period of three months“, wouldn’t have made such a good headline.
The piece is ostensibly a huge advert for an app called memrise and to some extent Foer’s books. I download the app and was pleasantly surprised to find that memrise was free and had no ads. It’s quite a fun app too, but it’s quite limited in what it can do. For instance you can’t check your pronunciation listen to any of the language, nor can you practise writing characters or making sentences. It’s basically just a app for memorising things.
Memory techniques like using mnemonics or the method of loci can help us to store information in our brains. Language learning however isn’t just about learning vocabulary items and switching them between languages. Take this phrase in Japanese:
It is used, in some contexts, daily and it has no simple English translation. If you tried learning Japanese from English, you wouldn’t learn this phrases because it doesn’t exist in English. The reason I mention this is because there is an interesting part later in the article when Foer writes:
I told him, “Omona, nayoka Lingala malamu mingi te. Nasengeli kozala na mosalisi koloba Anglais” – “Look, I don’t understand Lingala very well. I need to have a helper who speaks English.”
Now I don’t know this language but as it’s not related to English, it would be very surprising if they also used “look” in this way. Any Lingala speakers out there please feel free to comment.
In order to speak a language successfully you need to be able to process what is being said to you almost instantaneously and be able to formulate an appropriate response in almost the same amount of time. You need to understandable and you need to understand the grammar and pragmatics of the language. It’s not easy and it takes time certainly more than 22 hours. In a memorable article on “principles of instructed language learning” in which Rod Wllis lays out what we know for sure about language learning, the claim made with the most certainty is this:
If the only input students receive is in the context of a limited number of weekly lessons based on some course book, they are unlikely to achieve high levels of L2 proficiency
If you want to get in shape then exercise and eat less. If you want to learn a language then study it and practise a lot. There’s no magic solution.
updatewell the 22 hours article/advert continues to buzz round twitter. The makers must be very happy and memrise has whizzed to 3rd place in the educational app chart. Amazingly this isn’t the first Guardian piece on Memrise, in fact they had one back in March another in January, another mention here and another plug here -all part of their memory series. Amazingly in an article just titled “what you like” a reader apparently felt the urge to write in and say how much he liked memrise in December 2011. Just fancy!
Another article that caught my eye and also had some rather suspicious claims was this one on, forwarded by @ScottThornbury no less. I won’t dwell on this one too long suffice to say its headline “machine translator speaks in your own voice” is very misleading. firstly the speech recognition software, as the guy says “makes a lot of mistakes” -you can see a number of them on the screen as he’s going along, and secondly and more importantly, it doesn’t speak “in your voice” at all. I’m sitting here listening to this Chinese translation, and it sounds like a generic Chinese computer voice to me.