Language Learning: Human Communication is Non-Negotiable

The first thing I did this morning was watch this TED talk by Prof. Patricia Kuhl at the UW.  She did a guest lecture in one of my classes when I was an undrgrad.  Back then we knew all the same stuff, more or less, but now she’s got a crazy brain scanner for babies!

She addresses the critical period for native phonology, that shows that there’s a stage in development where babies lock in on native language sounds, and start disregarding sounds that their native language doesn’t use.  People that are not used to all the science talk will jump to the conclusion that they are too old to learn a language and then regale me with their perceived limitations at parties and parents nights.  Folks, this research suggests that babies–all babies–are naturally, instinctively, biologically language learners; potentially multilingual.  If you look at the research, it will show you that this is regardless of language; there are no “hard” languages for a baby–they all become native speakers by about the age of five, no matter what language.  What this research does NOT show is that adults who have decided that  learning is too hard for them should TALK TO ME about neuroscience that they don’t understand.

To be clear, we can talk for days and days about the amazing power of the language instinct and how mind-blowing the brain is at language acquisition during that critical period.  But please do not talk to me about how you’re too old, how you took French in high school but don’t remember a thing, how you bought Rosetta Stone, but you’re just not good at languages, and “they” just talk to fast… I would honestly rather be at home cleaning the bathroom than hearing you talk about how you can’t learn.

I’d rather talk about how we can learn.

The amazing brain scanning stuff to me started happening at time index 7:15 in the video; the importance of the human being.  The American babies clearly “took statistics” on Mandarin after being exposed to a real person 12 times, and could recognize Mandarin sounds.  But when the human was swapped out with pure audio, the babies did not “take statistics” on those sounds.  The same is true for when they replaced the human with a video.  LANGUAGE ACQUISITION IS DEPENDENT ON REAL HUMAN COMMUNICATION.  Write it down!  Notice the interaction wasn’t lecturing on how to speak; it was regular baby play.

So we’re all adults and we’re past the critical period…. I’ll give you $100 to bet with, if you win, you can keep the money.  You can bet money on a) an adult learner who has followed a program where a person is talking to them with real communication; not lecturing, but regular adult play; or you can put your money on b) an adult learner who is doing Chinese Cubes.  Which one of those people will get to make it to ACTFL Novice level in speaking and listening… who would you put your money on?

I’ll put my money on the learner who went with human interaction.

So I recently read this post over at Hacking Chinese that has the outlandish proposal that learning Chinese should be fun, which I am 100% in agreement with.  At this point, my detractors will say–but JP, Chinese Cubes is fun, Rosetta Stone is fun, human interaction with Chinese speakers is excruciating!

Here’s my response:  human interaction and communication is non-negotiable.  Don’t buy in to methods that exclude human communication–they are a waste of your money.  Any method worth paying any mind to must include an element of speaking, listening, reading, or writing at the sentence and/or paragraph level.   Word-quizzing doesn’t count as language learning.  “Memorize a glossary” doesn’t count as language learning either.

“Fun” is a close second to human interaction, on my list; I am a decadent westerner and I demand to be entertained.  Luckily, language is already a medium of entertainment for every society on the earth… so WHY ARE MY LEARNING MATERIALS SO DORKY?

Seriously, there are people on this planet who insist on writing pointless dialogs that go NO WHERE; where the underlying subtext of every line is “I AM TEACHING YOU GRAMMAR!” There’s also the attitude that all language learning must be as serious as cancer.  Another school of thought is that language learning is propaganda time, time for you to memorize the forty fruits of China, or relish the bleak dehumanizing experience of the Arab ghettos outside of Paris.

Folks, grammar is great, serious is enthralling, 40 fruits are delicious, and the banlieues are places of fascinating contrasts–but whoever authored that stuff has forgotten to write for their audience, and usually it’s because they don’t know their audience.  There’s a place in entertainment for downers, but EVERY DAY IN LANGUAGE CLASS shouldn’t be a downer.

I don’t outline these posts anymore, so I’m aware that they are wandering and that I lose focus.  It’s early Sunday afternoon and I need to end this post and get coffee.  Here’s what you need to do–go out into the world and meet people who speak your target language.  Then speak to them in a target language, and try not to be a downer; don’t get into conversations about 40 fruits or the role of the hijab in French society.  Find people and media and make connections that actually fulfill you and enrich your life… and then your target language learning will be sustainable.

7 thoughts on “Language Learning: Human Communication is Non-Negotiable

  1. JP! Wow we need to meet! What a fabulous blog! I created Freestyle language center in order to connect people through language and to have FUN doing it, having gotten worn out through years of dry university standards. FLC is the opposite of the solitary learner in front of the computer! But SO true, the false human perception we’re too old, or it’s too difficult to learn. When we connect and have fun, learning comes easy. And we’re all the richer for it. My favorite quote by Nelson Mandela is about the connection we get through language: “speak to a ‘man’ in your language and it goes to his head, speak to him in his own language and it goes to his heart”. We learn better BY connecting AND our experiences are the richer for it….Thank you so much, love your blog!


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