I was walking through a bookstore today–a real, old-fashioned book store, with paper books and everything. I wasn’t shopping for paper books, of course, just taking a walk after a breakfast I regretted eating. Anyway I wandered up to the foreign language section, of course, and found another book with language learning method. This book, of course, emphasized “hacking” your brain, which brings images of MacGyver starting a car with chewing gum and falling barometric pressure, or frantically swapping computer chips in zero gravity before you drown in your own carbon dioxide.
Your brain is a language learning machine. That’s what it does. That’s why you learned your first language; that’s why you continue to ‘pick up’ accents and slang, buzzwords, and jargon; words you never heard before–without much instruction.
Your brain doesn’t need to be hacked. Maybe your attitude needs to be hacked. Your behavior should be hacked. Your approach is probably wrong; you might have an “ugly swing,” to borrow some golf lingo. Most people I know, including myself, have crazy counter-productive habits that sabotage their language learning. I wish I could dock people points. Not that I want them to feel bad. I just don’t think it’s realistic to play basketball without whistling down fouls, or to let restaurants with rat infestations operate without notices and fines.
Fines. Actually, who cares about points; let’s make it interesting. Here are some fines I’d like to asses on you. I’ll give you my email address if you’d like to deposit the fines into my Paypal account.
$10 Every time you pause our target language conversation to ask “was that right?” Yes, it’s right. When it’s not right, I’ll correct you. Stop making every damn conversation about target language grammar and vocabulary, you egomaniac. The fine doubles if you switch to English. You have to understand how boring it is to have to talk to someone who can’t get through the conversation without calling attention to their sentences.
$10 Every time you just have to tell me something in English. It better be a matter of LIFE OR DEATH if you’re going to forgo the target language, and even if it is a matter of life or death, I’m still going to need ten dollars.
$10 for using your flashcards to produce English. So if your flash card says “el plátano” and in your mind you think “that means banana” and then you turn the card over and say “yasssss, banana, I was right!”, then congratulations, you have just rewarded yourself for producing English instead of Spanish. That will be $10 per card, please.
There will be a $50 fine for feeling bad about making mistakes. The fine is squared if you make another learner feel bad about making mistakes. Your job is to make mistakes, and then learn from them, forgive them, and then laugh at them. And not repeat them. The maxim is “learn from your mistakes,” the implication is that you actually have to make mistakes in order to learn.
There will be a $50 fine for people who feel bad about getting something RIGHT. This includes the teenagers who get the right answer, but still find away to hate and punish themselves. It also includes my heritage language brothers and sisters, for whom vocabulary and grammar triggers deep emotional conflicts after decades of not speaking your parents’ language. In the case of heritage shame, I will dedicate the fines I will have collected to a foundation dedicated to showing you that it wasn’t your fault. In the case of teenage hatred, that money will contribute to my personal wealth.
Every time you refuse a free word or gracious correction, you owe me $100. When you forget or flub a word, the person you’re talking to usually guesses what you’re trying to say and then SAYS IT TO YOU.
“It’s time to get some sleef.”
“It’s time to get some sleep?
It happens just like that, casually. Your job is to accept the correction and say the word out loud. Repeat it. Don’t nod at them or give the “correct” signal from charades, unless your learning target is the “correct” signal from charades. Say it out loud with your mouth.
$100 Every time you do an assignment just for the sake of finishing it, paying no attention to the learning objective. If you didn’t learn, you have wasted your time. If the teacher has to grade it, you have wasted your teacher’s time. You could have spent that time learning, and making the test later much easier for you. But you didn’t, so you’re test is going to be a pain to take, and a pain to correct. 傷不起。 Well now on top of that, you’re buying me a steak, potato, salad bar, a glass of wine and dessert to share. I deserve it, frankly.
$100 Every time you choose memorization over communication with living people. If you can’t go out with your target language friends because you have to stay home and practice your dumb vocab quizzing software, then send me money. If your face is buried in some app that calls itself the “fastest, easiest, most fun way to learn,” instead of exchanging basic pleasantries with the grandma sitting next to you on the bus, I’m going to need you to cut me a check.
$100 Every time you make a claim that you are some special snowflake that has a special second language impediment that the world has not yet discovered. You are probably the 7 billionth person to feel challenged and discouraged. You don’t have to blame someone or find a medical exemption.
$100 Every time you confuse temporary confusion and frustration with acute physical pain. That’s not pain. If you’re one of those people whose pain receptors actually do fire, then obviously you are a special case. But for the people who take ill and act like they’re going to die when they forget a word? that’s not pain kids. Now give me your money.
It’s a $100 to expect a friend or loved one to act as your simultaneous interpreter. Actually, $100 is pretty cheap as far a s simultaneous two-way interpretation goes. If you have a relationship that’s established in English, that person cannot be your interpreter, or language teacher for that matter, without straining your relationship. Pay someone else to be your interpreter or language teacher; professionals are payed by the hour.
$5000 every time you propagate some pseudo-scientific language learning folklore by treating it as gospel truth. For example, if you tell me that “studies have shown that humans can’t learn a language after puberty, then please multiply that sum by the number of languages I have learned after puberty. I thank you greatly. Oh the learning style excuse! “I’m a visual learner so I have to see it written or else I’m medically incapable of learning,” you owe me $5000.
“JP,” you say, “Isn’t it horribly discouraging to impose penalties on people” Well yes, you’re probably right. This blog post does not, in actuality, suggest a course of action. However, I hope it makes you realize that you’re doing a whole bunch of counter-productive habits that sabotage your language learning.
I could keep adding to the list of fines, but I’ve probably alienated enough people today already. In the future look forward to a list of fines I’d like to issue to unhelpful native speakers.
Anyway, before you go hacking your brain, try hacking your horribly counter-productive habits that sabotage your language learning first.
Just to wash the stench of negativity off of this post, here’s a splash of affirmative instruction. The great secret; the great “hack;” the sneakiest short cut to language learning is this: use the target language in real communication. For most of you, that will mean suspending your native language temporarily to give your target language room to grow.
That’s it. You don’t have to buy anything, and no, there’s no software or app that will bypass this for you. If you want to learn to ride a bike, you get on the bike and ride it. If you want to learn to eat with chopsticks, you put chopsticks in your hand and eat with them. If you want to speak a certain language with people, you start by SPEAKING THAT LANGUAGE WITH PEOPLE.
Ask me another time about the miracle of practice; I have more stories to tell.