[Note: this critique was spurred when I re-read this article from Benny about how studying doesn’t help when learning a language.]
I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to language learning and the pursuit of fluency. When I was twelve, I began taking German classes in middle school. At 17, I stepped into a life in Austria and soon learned the difference between “learning” and “speaking” German. At 21, I decided to learn Spanish via complete immersion, and left after a semester both conversational and a little wiser as to how I learn languages in general. Now, I’m working on my third foreign language, Korean, and testing out the learning theories that I’ve formulated. I don’t speak a hundred languages and I don’t have a PhD, but I’ve learned a thing or two through these experiences.
Being the language enthusiast that I am, I also follow other travel and language learning blogs. I love reading about other people’s travels, language struggles and accomplishments and of course about faraway lands that I’ve not yet gotten around to visiting. One of the blogs I found very early on and have been reading for a while now is Benny the Irish Polyglot’s Fluent in 3 Months. This article is a critique, but let me preface it by telling you that Benny is great. I love his mission to encourage and prove that learning a language is not “difficult” by many definitions and certainly not impossible for anyone. I love the way he went out into the world like a badass and destroyed Mandarin Chinese in three months. I love his dedication to inspiring other people to attempt the same, regardless of age. More than all of this, I love that he’s written article after article after article about the logistics learning languages and what techniques will work better than others. He’s not just a teller, he’s a shower and I admire that.
Let me also clarify that I am talking about speaking a language, not reading or writing a language. Speaking, conversation skills, listening comprehension and being able to respond are the subject at hand.
And on many points that Benny makes about learning to speak a language, I completely agree. Yes, it’s possibly for anyone to learn a language with the right dedication and mindset. Yes, it’s not the quantity of learning you do but the quality. Yes, you can’t learn a language without speaking it, a lot.
Benny says that anyone can learn any language, but what he forgets is that not everyone can learn any language the way he does. Benny has an effective method, but it is still just a just a method. Which leads me to the critique I have of Benny and his articles: he forgets that other people learn differently than he does.
There are nonnegotiable elements; speaking skills and listening skills must be honed and practiced, and that’s true without a doubt. Reading and writing a language is not speaking a language. Benny is completely on target in that regard. Where I disagree is this: concentrating on speaking to improve speaking skills is not always the right answer. What, Sally? That makes no sense? Allow me to explain.
Basic, simplified learning theory is this: we learn when we read, write, speak or listen to new information. As a given, some of us are stronger in some areas than others. Some of us prefer to listen to something in order to remember it, some of us will prefer to write it, some will prefer to audibly repeat the information back and some of us will want to read it. All of these are types of input learning, a way to receive and remember information. What Benny and I are talking about is how to achieve a certain output, and in the context of speaking foreign languages, this output is speaking, talking, conversing and understanding what is being spoken.
Benny’s method of language learning is very speaking and conversation intensive. For Benny, when he hears a word he is able to remember it very quickly. For Benny, when he speaks a word, he remembers it, too. That’s wonderful. He can then repeat that word and use it, adding it to his vocabulary. After speaking and listening, Benny has then become a little closer to fluency and speaking his target language. His method is effective, but it’s effective for him and for those who learn quickly when listening and speaking.
And that is not everyone. I, for one, definitely don’t learn this way. When I want to remember information, I need to write or read it. You could tell me your name ten times during a series of three days, and I still may not remember it. For some reason, and I’ve always been like this, my ears just don’t give a damn. They don’t pass on the message to my memory. Tell me your name once and write it down for me to read, and you’re all set. I’ve got it. It’s like a brand inside my brain, and next time I see you, I will physically picture your name in my head, as I’ve read it.
So as for me and language learning, this means that studying is not just helpful, but it’s essential. If I don’t sit down and spend time with a textbook, then I won’t learn. I won’t understand. I won’t remember a thing. If I don’t do vocabulary drills and flashcards on physical paper, then my time is as good as wasted. For me, studying is my primary method of learning to speak a language… yes, that’s right, speak. During conversation, I will picture the foreign word or sentence in my mind and mentally read it out loud. So as you can see, if I don’t read… then I’m a lost cause. If I don’t study, I’m a goner.
Let me clarify another point, though: learning to speak a language still means you need to do more than just study. Benny has written that spending years with your textbook will not gain you fluency, and of course he is right. Conversation practice is an important part of my language-learning techniques. I make it a priority to practice what I’ve studied with someone in person. But that’s just it: I use conversation practice after I’ve studied. No, I don’t study to gain confidence in what I’m trying to say, I study because otherwise I would literally not know how to say what I want to say. I need to absorb the information before I can use it. It’s just the way I learn.
Let me also elaborate that when learning a language, I rely more heavily on studying during the beginning than I do towards the middle or the end. Eventually, once I’ve spent a lot of time becoming familiar with the sounds and alphabet of a language, I can move on to more conversation-intensive methods. These are the methods that Benny encourages and swears by. At a glance, that might seem as though I’m shifting my language input to listening and speaking in order to speak, in which case I’ve disproven everything I just wrote. In reality, though, what this really means is that as time goes on, I’m more and more able to picture a word in my head from listening and not from physically reading. It’s that mental image of how vocabulary is written that makes all the difference. My language input type doesn’t change, because I am still reading words to remember them. What changes is where; suddenly, I’ve stopped physically reading (studying) and now I’m mentally reading words that I can picture in my brain.
So while I respect Benny and his incredible ability to make any language his slave within three months, I’m just not 100% on board with his message that everyone else can do it, by following this method. I agree, speaking a language is more important (in a practical sense) than reading and writing a language. You could study a language for years and see no results. Yes, when you learn a language, you need to concentrate on getting that speaking output to come through. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. But the way to achieve that speaking output is different for some people. Throwing me into a conversation in a language that I’ve just begun to learn will probably discourage me more than anything. I’ll be “taught” words by the other person, and if they’re not written down for me to go home and study, then they’re lost. My listening memory is not like Benny’s and it’s not a practical way for me to learn a language. I will definitely use conversation practice to become fluent, but for me, hitting the books has got to come first.
I think the most important thing to take away from all of this is that we are all different. Learning languages can be challenging, but it is never impossible. However, you need to take a serious look at yourself and figure out how you learn. It’s much more productive to play to your strengths and use them to your advantage. If you are a weak listener, then don’t waste your time attempting to learn that way. Know yourself and your learning style, and you’ll be able to conquer anything. A foreign language is not unattainable, except for those who choose not to attain it.
Of course, if you’re not sure how you learn, you know what the best way to figure it out is? Begin learning a language. Right now. And I think Benny would agree with me on this one.