How to resurrect any Language

Here is another post from Tim Ferris

How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language (Plus: Be on the CBS Early Show!)

How can you possibly maintain fluency in two foreign languages — let alone five or six — if the opportunities to use them are months or years apart?

In 20 minutes, I leave from JFK for Iceland, then Scotland, and then a circle in Europe that will include Oktoberfest in Munich. Germany is strategic, as I want to “reactivate”my German before the media tour there.

Few topics provoke more anxiety and depression in language lovers than the prospect of forgetting a hard-earned language. After you return to your English-dominated homeland, how do you maintain your newfound skills, which seem to have yogurt-like expiration dates? Having juggled close to a dozen languages — keeping some and losing others — and having suffered the interference that goes it all, my answer now is simple: you don’t.

It is easier, and much more time-efficient, to catch up versus keep up.

Why struggle to maintain a foreign tongue in the US, for example, when you most often gain nothing more than bad habits? If you acquire the language in a native environment and attain an intermediate or advanced level of fluency, you can reactivate your language skills in four weeks or less when approached methodically. Would you rather spend four hours per week on your new language, only to see it get sick and bloated with a distinctly foreign-sounding twang, or spend two hours per day for 1-3 weeks and be right back at your fluency level from years prior?

I began reactivation of irretrievable German just over a week ago and can already hold a decent conversation. This is not a testament to my ability, but to the efficacy of a process that begins with massive passive exposure and avoids time-consuming review from square one:

1. Days 1-7: German films with English subtitles for at least two hours each evening for one week.

2. Days 3+: 10-20 pages of dialogue-rich manga (Japanese comics, here translated into German, that can be ordered in most languages from comic stores in your target country) for 30 minutes each morning and prior to bed. I’m a big fan of One Piece.

3. On the plane: Read a phrasebook in its entirety for active recall practice of common phrases (45 minutes of study alternated with 15 minutes of rest – this takes advantage of what is called the “primacy and recency” effect).

4. Upon arrival: Continue with manga and grammar reference checks as needed, using an electronic dictionary to reactivate vocabulary from conversation that is familiar but not understood.

5. Weeks 2-3: Thirty to sixty Vis-Ed flashcards daily. This seems like a lot, but most will have been covered in steps 1-3 – using active recall (English to German). Vis-Ed compiles its sets of flashcards from word frequency lists and includes sample phrases for usage. I begin flashcards after three or four days in-country.

The sooner you decide to reactivate languages when needed, instead of maintaining them for an unspecified time in the future, the more leisure time you will have and the less diluted your language abilities will be when you need them.

Don’t fear losing languages if you’ve attained real fluency. They’re just in temporary storage with the covers pulled over them.

Why Language Classes Don’t Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate (Plus: Madrid Update)

Coffee shops vs. classrooms – who wins? (Photo: eye2eye)

This is one of several articles planned as supplements to the original “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.” This piece focuses on acquisition of new material; for reactivating “forgotten” languages and vocab, I recommend also reading“How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language.”

Let us begin…

From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools (Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?

After testing the waters with more than 20 languages and achieving conversational and written fluency in 6, I have identified several cardinal sins that, when fixed, can easily cut the time to fluency by 50-80%…

1. Teachers are viewed as saviors when materials are actually the determining factor.

Teachers are merely conduits for the material and sequencing.

By analogy, it is better to have a decent cook with excellent easy-to-follow recipe than a great cook with terrible recipe. It is the material that will restrict or elevate the teacher, and a good teacher forced to follow bad material will hinder, not hasten, learning progress. I don’t sit in on classes or otherwise consider a school until I’ve reviewed both hand-out materials and text books.

Judge materials before you judge teachers, and no matter what, do not begin with classes or texts that solely use the target language (e.g., Spanish textbooks in Spanish). This approach reflects a school’s laziness and willingness to hire monolingual teachers, not the result of their search for the ideal method.

2. Classes move as slowly as the slowest student.

Seek a school with daily homework assignments that eliminate—effectively fire—students from the class who don’t perform.

The school should have a strict curriculum that doesn’t bend for a minority of the class who can’t cope. Downgrading students is only possible in larger schools with at least five proficiency levels for separate classes—beginner, intermediate, and advanced is woefully inadequate. Students can only be moved if the jumps between classes are relatively small and there are a sufficient number of students at each level for the school to justify paying separate teachers.

At the Hartnackschule in Berlin, Germany, where I studied for 10 weeks after evaluating a dozen schools, there are at least 20 different skill levels.

3. Conversation can be learned but not taught.

Somewhat like riding a bike, though unfortunately not as permanent, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things.The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from independent study and practice in a native environment.

I achieved fluency in German in 10 weeks using a combination of grammatical practice at the Hartnackschule (four hours daily for the first month, two hours daily for the second) and daily two-person language exchanges with students of English.

Grammar can be learned with writing exercises in a class of 20, whereas “conversation” cannot be learned in anything but a realistic one-on-one environment where your brain is forced to adapt to normal speed and adopt coping mechanisms such as delaying tactics (“in other words,” “let me think for a second,” etc.).

Separate grammar from conversation practice. I recommend choosing one school for grammar and several native books or comics to identify sticking points, which are then discussed in one-one-one language exchanges, where your partner provides examples of usage and does not explain rules.

Getting into trouble in Greek and Chinese in Athens with the help of Stefanos Kofopoulos,ouzo, and wine.

4. Teachers are often prescriptive instead of descriptive.

Many teachers take it upon themselves to be arbiters of taste and linguistic conservationists, refusing to explain slang and insisting on correct but essentially unused grammatical constructions (e.g., “with whom were you speaking?” versus “who were you speaking to?”).

Progress will be faster when you find a teacher who describes rather than prescribes usage. They should be able and willing to explain, for example, how Konjunktiv II is generally used in place of Konjunktiv I in German, even though it is technically incorrect. They should also be able to save you time by explaining what to practice based on actual frequency of use, not inclusion in a grammar text. For example, the simple past is almost always used in place of the perfect tense in Argentina, but some teachers still spend equal time on both.

To avoid those who act as defenders of language purity, it is often easier to target 20-30-year old teachers and those who are good at teaching inductively (providing examples to explain principles). Ask them to explain a few common colloquial grammatical constructions before signing up.

In conclusion—the learner is the problem (what?)

The above sins certainly inhibit the speed of learning, but the principal problem is the learner his or herself, who—more often than not—uses classes as a substitute for, and not supplement to, real ego-crushing interaction.

Classes are easily used to infinitely postpone making the thousands of mistakes necessary to achieve fluency. In boxing, they say “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Well, in language learning, we could just as easily say that “everyone has the perfect conversation in mind until they speak to a real native.”

Don’t waste time on more than learning more than a handful of conjugations for primarily first-person singular (I) and second-person singular (you) in the past, present, and future tenses, along with common phrases that illustrate them. Throw in a few auxilaries (to want to V, to need to V, to like to V, etc.) and jump on a plane before learning any more of what you’ll just need to relearn anyway. Even after you land, you do not need more than two months of classes in-country, and remember that, like training wheels, the goal is get off of them as quickly as possible.

Don’t go to classes because you have no social network outside of class, or because you want the illusion of progress with a coddling teacher who understands your Tarzan attempts at her language. If you are taking classes because they are enjoyable, fine, but understand that you are better off spending time elsewhere.

Make it your goal to screw up as often as possible in uncontrolled environments. Explicitly ask friends to correct you and reward them with thanks and praise when they catch you spouting nonsense, particularly the small understandable mistakes. I was able to pass the Certificado de Espanol Avanzado, the most diffucult Spanish certification test in South America, in eight weeks, which is said to require near-native fluency and years of immersion. How? By following the above fixes and making more mistakes in eight weeks than most make in eight years.

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field,” or so said Physicist Niels Bohr. Luckily, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to use his advice. Choose schools carefully and then, once they’ve served their purpose, abandon them.

The real world is where mistakes are made, weaknesses are found, and fluency is achieved.


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