Fluency in six months

« previous post | next post »

When it comes to linguistics, convincing, worthwhile presentations (such as those by John McWhorter and Steven Pinker) are rare on TED; more typical are poorer ones (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here).

If that is true for TED, then I wouldn't expect better from TEDx.  Indeed, the one TEDx program on linguistics that I have seen, which was published on November 20, 2013, has garnered a viral 5,859,273 views, and is still soaring, having received an additional two hundred thousand or so views since I saw it a couple of days ago — but it is a travesty of language pedagogy.

The program is "How to learn any language in six months ", featuring Chris Lonsdale, at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.  According to the YouTube introduction:

Chris Lonsdale is Managing Director of Chris Lonsdale & Associates, a company established to catalyse breakthrough performance for individuals and senior teams. In addition, he has also developed a unique and integrated approach to learning that gives people the means to acquire language or complex technical knowledge in short periods of time.

The proposition in the title of his talk is so suspect, if not preposterous, that I had grave doubt about his claims even before I began to listen to it.  Indeed, I thought that surely it would vie with ShaoLan Hsueh's Chineasy for the worst language boondoggle swallowed by masses.

I watched  for two reasons only:  1. because it focuses on Chinese, so I considered it my duty to watch the presentation, given the vast numbers of people who have been exposed to it; 2. because it was called to my attention by Dave Cragin, who has previously suggested other interesting topics for discussion on Language Log (e.g., here and here).

Here is Dave's reaction to the presentation:

In the past, you’ve blogged on various controversial language learning claims.  Here’s a TEDx one that’s hard to beat in terms of unsubstantiated claims, i.e., that you can become fluent in 6 months in any language.  Notably, the speaker shows no evidence of his fluency in other languages and from my view offers no useful insights on how to learn.  I wouldn’t share it except that it has gotten 5.7 million hits(!).

The video is even worse than my skepticism of the title suggested.  My view is that he gets almost nothing right in regards to language learning.

One of his claims is that he arrived in China without speaking any Chinese.  Two weeks later he spent 8 hrs in the dining car of a train “talking” with a guard.  He claimed that this taught him enough Chinese such that he was understanding parts of conversations 2 weeks later, despite no further study.

In another story, he says a colleague went to classes for 9 months to learn to type Chinese and she didn’t learn.  However, they received a project to create a manual in Chinese and she learned to type Chinese within 48 hrs because she needed to learn.

He also appears to contradict himself:  Early in his talk, he says immersion doesn’t work, because you won’t understand anything.  However later in the talk, he suggests putting yourself in environments to listen to the language even if you don’t understand it.

He notes, “If you have 10 nouns, 10 verbs, 10 adjectives, you can say 1,000 things” (and I’ll add:  you can say 1,000 things, but none correctly).

Notably, he says only 2 Chinese words during his talk and zero words in any other language.

The best that I can say for Chris Lonsdale is that he may be a decent motivational speaker, but the overwhelming majority of people who watch "How to learn any language in six months" are already motivated to learn a language.  What they're looking for are practical, effective methods for becoming fluent in another language.  Lonsdale does not give them that.

Dave wonders what other Language Log readers think ARE the keys to learning a foreign language.


  1. J. F. said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 12:55 am

    Start when you're young (in childhood or infancy).

  2. Shravan Vasishth said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 12:59 am

    I haven't seen the TEDx talk.

    I have stopped watching TED talks after the ridiculous and embarrassing power posing talk by Amy Cuddy; watch it yourself and then go read the paper:


    At least in my experience, learning a foreign language takes sustained effort over many, many years. However, I have the feeling that many people say that they "speak" a language, even that they are "fluent" in a language, when they have only very basic competence. Under that lax definition of being able to say and understand some things, of course you can "learn" a language in six months.

    The keys to learning with a good level of frequency seem to be: extensive exposure to text and speech; sustained and repeated effort at producing the language, with expert feedback and self-correction. And, if possible, engaging in extended real life interaction with native speakers over many years.

    Seems pretty obvious, I guess.

  3. Zora said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 1:00 am

    Textbook, dictionary, grammar, flashcards, Bibles in English and target language (many languages will have Bibles; the English Bible helps you check your understanding of what you are trying to read), and immersion in an environment where the only language people speak and understand is the target language. Powerful motivation.

    I learned passable Tongan in a year. It was better after two years.

  4. Momine said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 1:14 am

    1. Some people learn languages more easily than others. There is great variation in how easily, quickly and well people learn new languages, regardless of teaching method.

    2. I think one factor, other than brain architecture or inherent talent, in effective foreign language acquisition is knowing your own language well. Having a rich vocabulary and a good knowledge of grammar makes it easier to take in and organize the info related to a new language. This is born out by studies of kids.

    3. Structured and systematic instruction helps, especially when combined with live, practical exposure to the language. The faster you can put theoretical knowledge into action, the faster it sticks, in my experience.

    4. Many programs claiming to teach FL with great speed and ease, rely (like Lonsdale seemingly) on teaching you 3 phrases and 50 words and calling that "language." You can teach someone a really bare bones set of phrases very easily and quickly, but the problem is that most people can't build that into an real proficiency.

  5. Russ said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 1:32 am

    I run the blog 'evidence-based efl' and this kind of thing is shockingly common. I wonder if you saw the guardian one a few years ago about 'learn a language in 22 hours?' (I blogged about it here http://malingual.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/its-not-easy-and-it-takes-time.html)

    The language industry has such entry requirements that anyone can claim to have developed a new method and make a fast buck (or in many cases, many fast bucks). I'm surprised this guy is going with 6 months though since there's already a guy out there claiming you can be fluent in 3 months.

  6. panoptical said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 2:23 am

    People appear to have different aptitudes and learning styles for learning new languages.

    Concretely, I would say that the effectiveness of immersion as a learning technique depends at least in part on the social skills of the learner – such as active listening, patience, and proficiency in non-verbal communication. I am too cautious and analytical (and shy) for immersion – when push comes to shove, I'll just say nothing rather than attempt to communicate in a language which I only partially know.

    Spaced repetition definitely helps with vocabulary, which can ease the whole process, although from experience I'd say that if you don't put the words you learn in context through use they won't enter your active vocabulary.

    There are at least two schools of thought on grammar – the Rosetta Stone approach of learning it implicitly through trial and error ("like a child learns") or what I would call the more usual approach of explicit grammar study (the memorization of rules and systems). I'm not sure of this but I would suspect that the controversy persists between these methods because each benefits some subset of language learners more than the other.

    I have personally found that having a good teacher who uses a variety of methods, along with a good study group that provides practice and encouragement, is the most comfortable way to learn a language for me, although I'm not sure it's the fastest. I also find that learning songs in the target language helps me, but I don't think that would be for everyone.

  7. Momine said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 2:33 am

    I agree with you, Panoptical, on this:

    "I would suspect that the controversy persists between these methods because each benefits some subset of language learners more than the other."

    as well as this:

    "I have personally found that having a good teacher who uses a variety of methods,"

    I am one of those people for whom the Rosetta Stone approach is almost useless and extremely frustrating. On the other hand, I have a good friend, who has learned absolutely flawless and fluent German mostly through immersion and intuitive acquisition of the grammar.

  8. Jeffrey Shallit said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 4:45 am

    Have you read "Babel No More" by Michael Erard? What did you think of it?

    His main conclusion is that there is no royal road to learning languages. It takes a lot of work and putting in the hours.

  9. Drone said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 5:29 am

    After years of personal study and countless conversations with other learners, I've come to an astounding conclusion that leads to unique, breakthrough performance in language learning. The secret is: do a lot of studying.

    Anybody whose Chinese is better than mine has spent more hours than me studying textbooks and reading books/watching TV with a dictionary in hand.

    Anybody whose Chinese is worse than mine has spent fewer hours studying textbooks and reading books/watching TV with a dictionary in hand.

  10. Michael Ranke said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 5:37 am

    Anyone who talks about "catalys[ing] breakthrough performance for individuals and senior teams" should be treated with utter contempt.

  11. John Walden said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 5:40 am

    Do whatever it is the Church of Mormon does.

  12. flow said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 7:32 am

    I was in a Berlin major bookstore to check out whether they had any interesting new C(hinese), J(apanese) or K(orean) dictionaries, character teaching aids, or any further reading materials especially on Chinese characters.

    Sadly, it's almost needless to say they had none, despite the language section's considerable size; in Germany, you better set your expectations to find CJK stuff in bookstores rather low to prevent disappointment.

    What i did find was a German translation of Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" (there's an excerpt of that work here: http://www.kanji-lernen.de/tHLB1_Leseprobe.pdf but be warned that a sizable portion of the Kanji have been wrongly encoded so you get lots of 文字化け).

    Reading Heisig's explanation of the character 卜 explains why i did not buy this book: "Dies ist das Bild einer Wünschelrute, zusammengesetzt aus einem Spazierstock und einem Tropfen, jedoch einfach genug, um es sich als Piktogramm zu merken. Stattdessen können Sie auch an einen Zauberstab denken." (A picture of a dowsing rod, composed from a walking cane and a drop, but simple enough to memorize as a pictogram. Instead, you may also think of it as a magic wand.)—This is both so awkward and vastly inferior to the common explanation (i.e. picture of a crack on a tortoise shell, scorched for divination). Throughout the book these inane confabulations are freely mingled with actual meanings of the characters and their components, which i find horrible (using cribs (Eselsbrücken) just to get that stubborn character right is great, but of course those cribs must be kept apart from 'sane' explanations).

    And of course they did have editions of Chineasy. Having never seen that in printed form, i took up one and browsed through—the horrors! The suggested visualizations utterly lack that primary value of any crib or mnemonic: being memorable. When you google for 'chineasy' the results are mostly for single characters (actually, they're almost all for that scant dozen of characters where Chineasy *sort-of works*). That book, however, was full of phrases / compund words like the one shown here: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BjgyJOXCcAAHRuD.png 白馬王子 ('prince charming', lit. 'white', 'horse', 'king', 'offspring; son or daughter'). Now when you look at the above link, you'll find that the character 白 is explained by *printing* it in white (on a dark background), which explains nothing. With 馬, the four legs and the tail of the picture of a horse are matched up with the dots and the lower-right stroke of the character; one could've painted a dog or a t-rex that way. As for 王 and 子, they completely give up, just showing the head of an elderly, bearded crowned male face and a nondescript young head, respectively, printed behind the characters, making the purported mnemonic the (inferior) equivalent of stating: 王 means 'king', 子 means 'offspring', period. In short, where the picture of a tree or a horse more or less jumps at you when seeing 木 or 馬, Chineasy gives you an ugly visualization. Where the connection between written form and intended meaning is less obvious, Chineasy gives you nothing but a gaudy sketch.

    I really wonder why there are so many inferior books about this subject.

    To conclude, one of the many keys in language learning seems to lie in avoiding bad materials. Even those can be fun, but learning a language or a writing system like Chinese characters takes a lot of time and effort, so you'd better not waste too much time on memorizing explanations that are all essentially wrong, or staring at pictures that explain nothing.

    There's one thing i can connect to in Dave's report: "a colleague went to classes for 9 months […] and she didn’t learn. [later,] she [did] learn[…] within 48 hrs because she needed to learn." I experienced the exact same thing several times. You learn much better and faster the moment you thoroughly understand that *this* is important (that character, that technique, that word, that sound, that intonation, that skill). It is typically a by-product of immersion. I find Lonsdale's statement that "immersion doesn't work" utterly wrong. I've seen it not working with some people, that much is true, but then i'm at loss to recommend a better way.

  13. David Moser said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 7:56 am

    Yeah, like the ads for "PLAY GUITAR IN JUST 10 MINUTES". Poppycock. Michael Erard is right, learning a language takes dogged work and a lot of time.

    Reminds me of a paper I read in grad school by anthropologist Margaret Mead, in which she recounted her experience learning the Manus language of New Guinea, which I quote here:
    "All the work was done in the village of Peri during the six months of December to June, 1928–29. I worked throughout this period in collaboration with my husband, Dr. R. F. Fortune, who was making an investigation of the general culture. This circumstance made it possible for me to shorten materially the time which must be consumed in getting all understanding of the general outlines of a primitive culture before any special problem can be isolated and studied. I learned the Manus language, and all work with the children was conducted in it. The Manus language is a simple Melanesian language; a month is sufficient to get a good working knowledge of it; it is strikingly lacking in idiomatic refinements or delicate nuances."

    WHAT??? A human language lacking in idiomatic refinements or delicate nuances? And a month is enough to "learn" it? Gee, what a "primitive culture" indeed! And here is the kind of conclusion Mead claims she was able to reach after just a month of studying the language:
    "I found no instance of a child's personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or the stars. I found no evidence of a child's attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes."
    After just one month of study Mead was able to glean all this data from native speakers?? Reading this, I threw the article in the trash and dismissed Margaret Mead forever as either an idiot or a charlatan, or both. And if it were possible to throw a TEDx talk into the trash, I would throw Lonsdale's hype in there, as well.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 8:43 am

    From a colleague:

    Someone should write a typology of scams. Teaching how to learn a desired skill without effort and/or in a short time goes into the Secret basket. The scammer has a secret to sell. There are at least two subtypes, which may overlap: the Secret Method and the Secret Device.

  15. Aaron said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 9:13 am

    The "secret" to language-learning is to be highly motivated and work very hard at it for a long time. But of course that's not a secret; everyone knows it. They just don't want to believe it, because it's difficult and time-consuming.

    Just as with other challenging goals such as losing weight or making more money, people want a quick fix. And anytime a quick fix is wished for, charlatans will appear to cash in on it, promising fast and easy results. In just six months, you too can be thin, rich, and speak fluent Mandarin!*

    *(results not typical)

  16. Rodger C said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 9:33 am

    I read Growing Up in New Guinea as an undergrad half a century ago, when Mead was still taken at face value and before I was able to judge a statement like that about language. I remember being struck by the second statement, but if I'd understood the real implications of the first … And she was a maker of the 20th century.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 9:40 am

    From the director of a major Chinese language program in Beijing:

    I suspect that, as non-natives who have gone through many decades of hard work to attain our current level of Chinese, such bogus language-learning claims are particularly infuriating.

  18. KWillets said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 11:13 am

    My simple rule for Korean in particular has been to avoid any book with the word "Easy" in the title. Early on I had a few books like that, and they all oversimplified and left out key points of grammar, vocabulary, and so on.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 12:05 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    That was certainly a great comment from “Flow” (whoever that might be). His skewering of Heisig made me smile thinking about all the jokes made in the old days about that infamous (but popular) Japanese-English dictionary by Oreste Vaccari. (Jim Unger tells some great anecdotes about the man and his methods.) If you don’t know the book and its various iterations, Vaccari classified the kanji characters by fanciful shapes and pseudo-etymologies (Eselsbruecke—I always liked that word; much better than mnemonic, in my opinion!). And so, in a play on the poor man’s name, some wag gave the dictionary the name uso bakkari うそばっかり ‘nothing but lies’, which was a bit cruel but unfortunately true.

    In any case, your unnamed colleague in the last posting is quite right in saying that somebody should do a typology of scams. When I was still at Columbia, I remember there were ads I heard on the radio for intensive weekend(!) language training sessions held at some branch of SUNY (was it New Palz?). They went something like this: “Come to us for the weekend and leave your language at home!” At the end of an intensive, weekend-long immersive session, it was claimed, you’d be—“fluent!” in whatever language it was you wanted to study. Ah, yes. If only!

  20. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

    From a colleague:


    A couple of relevant blogposts and some comments of my own:


    (The second of these posts is related to something I have been thinking about recently: listening comprehension. Basically, no one in the world seems to be able to analyze listening comprehension into its constituent mental processes. Noone seems to know how to improve listening comprehension quickly. I suspect that much of it is just having a large-enough vocabulary size. There must be a way to improve listening comprehension in a language which one is learning in a rapid way. I just don't yet know what this way is. There's gotta be more targeted/specific ways than the oft-heard "immersion".)


  21. Ekes Gonini said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

    Flow has totally misunderstood the point of Heisig's method. You're not meant to memorize Heisig's "incorrect" etymologies or stories. Instead, you use them to help fix the underlying meaning of the kanji. Once you've learnt that, the image or story or etymology that you used to fix the meaning in your mind drops away. (I've used the method, and I can vouch for this – I remember the meanings of the kanji, not the silly stories that I concocted to help me memorize them.)

    The real origins of any particular kanji, such as the cracked shell story that Flow discusses, are not usually helpful because they tend not to be vivid and specific enough to help one fix the meaning. For example, the image of a cracked shell is fine, but it does not help us remember the specific shape of the kanji. Heisig's walking stick and drop are elements that he has already introduced, so combining them gives an instant, specific picture of the kanji.

    Heisig's book has been subjected to a lot of criticism, and some of it is valid – it's not a technique that works for everybody, and it's not necessarily a quick fix. But Flow's comment here is simply uninformed.

  22. Jeff W said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 3:49 pm


    People appear to have different aptitudes and learning styles for learning new languages.…I'm not sure of this but I would suspect that the controversy persists between these methods because each benefits some subset of language learners more than the other.

    I’ve had an informal hypothesis that people who are better at “disintermediating” in learning a new language—in other words, not learning the language “in terms of” of their native language but just as itself—just have an easier time learning it and learning it with greater proficiency. I’m not sure if that’s true and if it is, if that’s a personality thing (like introversion/extroversion) and how transferable/learnable it is. Although that’s very close to the idea underlying immersion strategies like those employed by Rosetta Stone, it’s not a pedagogical claim—it’s more on the level of individual differences and about a certain subset of learners.

    As for what are the keys to learning a language, I’m not sure if the following is a “key” but my buddy Vladimir, who is a polyglot, recommends an emphasis on listening.

    The process, in general terms, is

    •Search for the best native audio resources you can find in the language you want to learn. These could be newscasts, political talk-shows, podcasts, audiobooks, national radio or anything that interests you.
    •Listen actively to the audio. You can listen passively, but that would miss out on an important aspect of why mass listening is so effective.
    •Pause the audio when you encounter a word you don’t understand, rewind and repeat until you can figure out the spelling of the word.
    •Search for the word you couldn’t understand in the dictionary. If the word fits the context you know you’ve found the right word.
    •Add the new word to a list for review later.
    •Continue the process until you understand the audio completely. •Then, listen to another audio file and go through the process again.

    Some of that has aspects of a disintermediation strategy also—the learner is listening to the audio as itself and not really as a translation exercise (although he or she obviously has to discern the meaning).

    That is not a shortcut—it takes a lot of time and effort—but Vladimir says while it’s slow-going for some time, there is a payoff on a lot of different levels later on.

    (Vladimir concedes that this technique is easier for beginners whose L2 languages that are closer to their L1—he says at least try to get audio that is “one level up” from where your current level is—but I think he would still argue for its applicability generally. Also I tend to think of polyglots not so much as speakers of several languages but as experts at learning to speak several languages so, on the one hand, these tips might work but, on the other, they might work for a very specific subset of learners—those who are better at learning languages, generally.)

    [A 2011 podcast where he talks about that is here. It’s actually a pretty nuanced conversation. He talks about the same thing in this more recent podcast which adds some other elements aimed at attaining native fluency.]

  23. Craig said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 4:30 pm

    @John Walden, as a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the church's proper name – I can assure you that there is nothing special in the language training methods of the faith.

    When I served my mission in the early '90s, members submitting an application to be called on a mission listed all the languages they already spoke, the level of education they had attained, and their GPA/marks in whatever schools they had attended. In general, members with low marks and no language aptitude were placed in missions where they wouldn't have to learn a language. "Inspiration" being what it is, occasionally, this was not the case, but it was a strong enough rule that unless there were an extraordinary intervention – say, a letter from a local ecclesiastical leader indicating a genealogical connection and family bent toward a particular mission area or a similar affidavit explaining how hard-working said missionary would be – few exceptions were made.

    So ultimately, the deck is stacked in favor of missionaries who are more apt to learn languages to begin with. And it's worth noting that prospective missionaries with high marks, but no particular prior interest in languages would often be sent to Latin America Spanish-speaking or Portuguese-speaking, insofar as these were perceived as easier languages.

    After receiving their assignment, the missionaries spent around eight weeks training in a Missionary Training Center – the majority in Provo, Utah – where they tried to maintain a reasonable modicum of immersion with small groups (6-12) taught by a small rotation of teachers all of whom are usually recent missionaries, sometimes native.

    In my day, the training materials for the major European languages leaned heavily toward vocabulary one would need daily conversation as well as ecclesiastically-specific terminology that one needed to teach about Mormonism. The books were not frilly, and they covered grammatical concepts pretty much in the order of practical utility, e.g. in French, présent came before passé composé, futur proche, and imparfait with only a glancing nod toward passé simple – which one needed to read scriptures.

    Missionaries were expected to "Speak Your Language" at all times in their small groups. They even got to try their language skills out in a few mock-teaching scenarios with outsiders who spoke their instruction language. (I volunteered after my mission to regularly play the non-member recipient of such lessons at the so-called "Training Resource Center" in both French and German.)

    All this being said, when I got to France, I still found it took about four months before I reached my comfort zone where I actually understood what was being said and felt that I could converse reasonably well. However, it should also be noted that I was persistent in my language studies after I got to France. I had had a background as an exchange student in Germany as well as an Ivy league education in which I studied Japanese, so I recognized that the church's language manual was not an end-all be-all.

    Most LDS missionaries do pick up a good accent and a certain fluency with their assigned languages, but if you scratch the surface and try to bring up fields of interest that aren't in their wheelhouse – politics, sports, current events, history, science, what have you – then it becomes clear that they aren't much different from any other learner with 18-24 months of immersion under their belt.

  24. Michael Rank said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

    Just listened to this moron's speech (or as much as I could take of it). Apart from its utter vacuity he claims that if you know Mandarin and Cantonese you will understand 60% of Vietnamese!!

  25. S Frankel said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

    Another Heisig fan here. Heisig's method developed from surely unobjectionable observation that Chinese and Korean students of Japanese find it much easier to learn kanji than students from non-kanji cultures do. This is because the written shapes are already familiar to them (for the most part), plus they have at least a vague idea of some of the meanings in Japanese.

    "Learning" the kanji, to Heisig, doesn't mean learning Japanese. It's a preliminary step to learning Japanese, meant to give students from non-kanji cultures the same advantage that Chinese and Korean students have.

  26. jimmij said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 5:32 pm

    I think the newer post (with closed comment section) by Geoffrey K. Pullum on the idea "If you have 10 nouns, 10 verbs, 10 adjectives, you can say 1,000 things." is very unfair. The idea packs a lot of truth in it, but Pullum is being deliberately obtuse, I don't know why. Obviously the TEDx speaker didn't mean any random set of nouns, verbs and adjectives, that is bound to fail. With a judicious choice of the words in each category, the idea makes a lot of sense. For example:

    Adjectives applying to living things: happy, old, tired, sad…
    Nouns of living things: dog, plumber, man, actress…
    Intransitive verbs applying to living things: runs, jumps, walks, swims…
    Sentences: the happy dog jumps, the old plumber runs…

    Now the N^3 number of possible things to say with N words in each category works perfectly. You can do the same for inanimate objects, or using triads of the form (subject noun, transitive verb, object noun). It is a nice concept for a motivational speech. We all know that it would not work with random sets of words, and I don't think writing a long, angry post about it is necessary.

  27. David Morris said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

    Perhaps the requirements for language learning could be summarised as: motive, means, opportunity.

  28. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

    I think it is possible to learn a language in six months, given enough money and enough hours each day. That's why I was shocked that Fabio Capello, when he became manager of the England football team, failed so miserably to learn the language. He can't have had the will and/or the ability. When I did O-Level German, I had 3 lessons a week for 4 years = 240 hours, which equates to 6 weeks full time. A good O-Level/GCSE grade is supposedly CEFR C1 level, so the lower end of proficiency.

    So the "6 months" claim is hardly as eyebrow-raising as some would make out, though it would require at least two hours of (effective) study every day for an able linguist.

  29. Stephen Hart said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 7:23 pm

    I wonder what Dr. Mair and commenters think of the full-time immersion systems the Defense Department and Peace Corps use. (about 6-18 months, depending on the language)

  30. Momine said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 10:55 pm

    Stephen Hart, the Monterey school and others like it provide a combination of total immersion, cultural instruction and systematic language instruction. It typically works quite well, in large part because it is extremely intensive.

  31. Keith said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 3:21 am

    Adrian Bailey, When I did O-Level German, I had 3 lessons a week for 4 years = 240 hours, which equates to 6 weeks full time. A good O-Level/GCSE grade is supposedly CEFR C1 level, so the lower end of proficiency.

    I studied French to O-level (then after a few years' break to A-level, then degree level) in the UK. Our French studies officially began from the first year of comprehensive school, though our junior school teacher had already given us a bit of a head start (gramophone records of lessons and accompanying workbooks).

    It's a long time ago, and I can't pretend to remember all the details of my timetable, but I think that we would have had a similar rhythm but with an extra year, so around 288 hours of classroom teaching.

    But what makes a huge difference between getting an A or a B in the O-level exam, and getting an E or an F is the amount of extra effort like reading Le Point or L'Express every couple of weeks, listening to Belgian and French radio.

    As David Morris pointed out in the thread, perhaps the requirements for language learning could be summarised as: motive, means, opportunity.

  32. Christian Saunders said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 4:28 am

    Perhaps unlike some of the other commentators here I am a languages teacher, and I can tell you that in 10 years of teaching I have never met a student who has achieved anything like what I would call "fluency" in 6 months, despite unlimited resources.

    Having watched students struggle all those years it seems an insult to me to suggest that it can be done so quickly, and I think it does a lot of damage to the field of FL teaching. I made a video about it:


    One thing that does trouble me though, is that there is a large variation in students' abilities to learn languages that I can never seem to account for. Some students who seem to have little motivation can progress really quickly and others who are more diligent and spend more hours can really struggle, and there appears to be little or no decent research to find out why. I think it's an area of linguistics research that's really lacking.

  33. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 4:48 am

    Keith: "But what makes a huge difference between getting an A or a B in the O-level exam, and getting an E or an F is the amount of extra effort like reading Le Point or L'Express every couple of weeks, listening to Belgian and French radio."

    Our scientific and brilliant German teacher, who was regarded as one of the best in the country, was adamant that students should concentrate on productive use of the language. There were no reading/listening exercises for the first 18 months, and thereafter the amount of reading and listening we did was strictly controlled; until we got to the latter stages of the course I had to plead with him to allow me to do extra reading.

  34. flow said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 7:19 am

    @Ekes Gonini—I don't feel i've misunderstood Heisig's method. Quite the contrary, i've used a similar method to remember lots of characters, like the top of 壽, what goes into 疑, and which one of 左右 is left and which one right; for each of these i have a ditty or phrase i can call up when in doubt. That said, there are great books that try to look into the origins of the characters in a serious way, and insofar those more faithful explanations do help in memorizing, they should be preferred.

    Sometimes the choice is actually not easy. Everyone knows the explanations for 東 and 西 as 'sun behind a tree; hence, east' and 'a bird perching (on a tree, on its nest) when the sun is going down in the west; hence, west'; these are already found in the 說文解字 ("从日在木中"; "日在西方而鳥棲"). One may wonder why the sun becoming apparent behind a tree (being low in the sky) is taken to mean 'east', not 'west' or 'winter', or why the characters for 'to perch' (棲) and 'nest' (巢) look so radically different from the purported picture of a bird perching on its nest (西), but at any rate this is the way these characters have been explained for centuries.

    However, it turns out the likely explanation is that 東 originally depicted a 'bundle', possibly a blanket tied up around a long stick for carrying, and 西 is the picture of a basket; their uses for 'east' and 'west' are explained by sound similarity. This neatly explains why 東西 means 'things'; it is directly analogous to German 'Sack und Pack' (i.e. belongings).

    Now i don't know how Heisig chooses to explain 東 and 西. But looking at 卜 "Dies ist das Bild einer Wünschelrute" and some other of his explanations available online i guess all i will get from him will be another weird story. The point here is that (1) Heisig's wording ('this is the picture of a dowsing rod') is highly misleading. There's no way for the reader to distinguish this fanciful invention from the case when he actually gives a reasonable account (maybe '木 is the picture of a tree'). Keeping your Eselsbrücken apart from the facts is important, Heisig does not do that. (2) Both ways to explain 東 and 西 as given above are already as good as it gets. 東 may or may not be a sun behind a tree, but it has certainly been taught to people for centuries, so it's still a true statement about Chinese culture that 東 is most often perceived as such. (3) Heisig's explanations are quite often very helpful not. Take this: "千 Dieses Zeichen ist beinahe zu simpel, um es auseinander zu nehmen, aber werfen Sie zu Übungszwecken dennoch einen Blick auf die Pipette oben und die Zehn unten. Fügen Sie nun die Elemente zusammen, indem Sie sich vorstellen, aus einer Pipette zwei weitere Nullen neben die Zahl zehn zu träufeln, um aus ihr eine Tausend zu machen." Ouch. "中 Die Elemente sind hier Spazierstock und Mund.". Walking stick + mouth = center? I find both "arrow hitting the target" and Sear's explanation (http://chineseetymology.org/CharacterEtymology.aspx?submitButton1=Etymology&characterInput=%E4%B8%AD) vastly more memorable, helpful and convincing.

  35. S Frankel said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 10:03 am


    I think you don't understand Heisig's method. Here's the crucial sentence from Ekes Gonini's comment:

    "Heisig's walking stick and drop are elements that he has already introduced, so combining them gives an instant, specific picture of the kanji."

    Your method works fine, arguably better, for isolated characters or for characters learned in a graphically random order, which I think is typical. That is, most people learn characters based very roughly on frequency

    Heisig figures that, in order to get a decent reading knowledge you need to learn "all" the kanji, where "all" is defined as the government-prescribed list of 2000 or so characters. The adaptation of Heisig for Chinese uses a similar list, which is derived from frequency tables, but (this is the crucial point), the student doesn't learn these in frequency order. Instead, the student learns them in graphical order, meaning that characters with graphically similar order are grouped together.

    So, Heisig's stories aren't nearly so complex as they might seem if taken in isolation. They're recombinations of things that are already familiar, because they illustrate characters that have familiar graphical elements.

    You can't learn Japanese (or Chinese, I guess) this way. But when you do get around to learning Japanese (or Chinese, I guess), acquire the kanji becomes much, much faster and easier because the characters are already familiar.

  36. Paul Mulshine said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    Immersion works only in extreme circumstances that most people would rather avoid. In 1982 I drove to Mexico in a camper armed only with a good knowledge of French as well as a bit of Latin from high school, but no Spanish. After I was there about four months and had picked up some basic Spanish, my van broke down in the mountains near Tequila, which is a real place. To get it back on the road required me to learn enough Spanish to function. It took about four weeks and all that time I was around not a single fellow English-speaker. By the end of the ordeal I had a functioning knowledge of Spanish. But it was anything but effortless. It was more difficult than anything else I've done in the realm of words.

  37. Stephen Hart said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

    Paul Mulshine said, "Immersion works only in extreme circumstances that most people would rather avoid."

    And yet thousands of people in the military and Peace Corps have done just that. I've been in one language course in each (Vietnamese and Bahasa Malaysia). It's true that these were full-time courses, not regular college classes or things you do in your spare time.

  38. wally said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

    One problem with talking about fluency is that I don't know that it is a well defined term. Sometimes it is used to describe a not particularly high level: the language flows but is nowhere near perfect in any sense. Googling I found the ILR scale of 0-5. I think 2 or not quite 2 could be considered fluent by some definitions, and this seems attainable in 6 months of intense study.

    I've heard a great way to learn is to get a girl/boy friend.

  39. Eric S said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 5:37 pm

    I will take this opportunity to point out one linguistics TEDx talk that I really enjoyed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwT1jwR5NdY

  40. Martin said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 11:03 pm

    I don't know anything about the neurological aspect of starting young, but there's also a huge difference in the immersion environment between when you learn as a child and when you learn as an adult.

    As a child, less communicative ability is expected and required of you to function normally, and this lower bar is easier to reach to become fluent relative to other children. Being around the same revolving cast of characters for the whole school day, every day, for years also means that they're more familiar with you, being able to recognize non-native speech tics and being willing to correct them. They're also better speech models to imitate because you're familiar with their speech quirks and accent background.

    I sometimes wonder when I became fluent as well as when I started considering myself a native speaker. Personally, I think there are three stages to native-sounding fluency:

    First, people think that your X is quite poor, but they don't say that.
    Next, people say that your X is quite good, but they don't think that.
    Finally, people say and think nothing about your X, and now you realize you're a native speaker.

  41. Dave Cragin said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

    To follow on David Morris’s comment on: motive, means, opportunity, I like the thoughts offered by Jonathan McWhorter in one of his linguistic courses on DVD.

    McWhorter notes there are 2 primary motivational factors associated with adult language learning:

    1) instrumental: involves wanting to learn a language to achieve a concrete goal, i.e., for a job, school, etc.

    2) integrative: involves wanting to enter a fascinating culture or communicate fully with another human being.

    McWhorter notes that instrumental learners to speak correctly but not very fluently and progress is limited. They tend to speak like that taught in books and not what people actually say.

    In contrast, integrative tend to be much more fluent, with more mistakes, and make much more progress. His description fits my experience perfectly.

    I started learning for a concrete purpose, i.e., an adoption trip in China. I could say things correctly, but I couldn’t say much and much of what I said was formal wording, not what people actually say. I didn't expect to continue learning after the trip.

    However for my 1st trip to China, I found that even limited skills allowed me entry into a fascinating culture and to connect more fully with others. This changed my motivation to integrative – one that has continued for many years: I’m much more fluent, I make lots more mistakes and much more progress.

    The wonderful reception that Chinese give to a Westerner that speaks Chinese is extremely motivating and makes me want to use every opportunity & means to improve my language skills. (I say this because some may be discouraged from learning Chinese because of its reputation as being difficult – I'll say the payback is worth it).

RSS feed for comments on this post