Don’t Debate: Experiment

This entry is part of 10 in the series Social Resistance

“…the yeoman work in any science…is done by the experimentalist, who must keep the theoreticians honest.”
~ Michio Kaku

Every so often, perhaps twice a year or so, some kid comes up to language bloggers like me and Ramses and Benny and tries to get us to mudwrestle I mean debate each other. And we generally refuse. And they’re like “why are you shutting down the debate, I just want to make sense of things; I want to understand why XYZ method works etc. etc.”.

Now, it may well be that all these kids want is to see a fight, a sort of Jerry Springer-esque voyeurism. But that would be an unfairly cynical view of things. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and say that they honestly think a debate like this helps. Why, then, would we refuse?

Because we know it doesn’t help. We know it’s a waste of time. We know that not only will no good come of it, but that — in fact — a lot of bad might result. What, you don’t think we’ve had conversations and discussions with people before? You don’t think we know how that ends? In orgasms of enlightenment and insight? Paul Graham was right: the Internet is funnier than TV sitcoms.

But here’s the biggest, deepest reason we don’t debate. Because, in my humble opinion, nobody — not even Noam Avram Chomsky, perhaps the greatest living linguist — actually, definitively knows why any of this stuff works. We know some of what works and definitely that it works. But we don’t really know how or why. And we definitely don’t know everything. Nobody does. They try. But they don’t know. All they’ve got are hypotheses, theories, guesses. Don’t let their authority, erudition and gentility cow you into assuming that they do know, because they actually don’t, and they know they don’t: that’s why they keep studying it. After all, what would be the point in studying something you already had totally figured out? It would be about as stimulating as a conversation with an upper-middle-class person about their family problems.

Does that mean we’re all useless? Yes. It does. We’re useless for debating purposes. That time Daniel Everett (also a great linguist) debated Chomsky? Useless. From where I was standing, all it created was unnecessary mutual venom. Maybe they’re besties now; I don’t know 🙂 . Fortunately, though, it turns out that that doesn’t matter. Because…

All that matters is whether or not the method works, not how much sense it makes. Many sensible things don’t work. Many ridiculous things do. Many true things make no sense. Indeed, that’s the whole point of science, and (as a scientist I read once pointed out), it’s the only thing that makes science worth a damn: science is only valuable when it’s counterintuitive. Anything our intuitions can tell us, we don’t need science for. It would be like boiling water on a stove and then immediately microwaving it…Redundant, confusing and maybe even destructive.

The logic of an idea, and the effectiveness/veracity of that idea are mutually exclusive properties. They have nothing to do with each other. If sounding good and making sense were all that mattered, then Communism would work and women would respond to reason; neither of these things are true. Communism is comically bad at working: it can’t even keep people fed (in fact, Communism has a deliciously ironic history of causing major famines, arguably the very thing it was supposed to prevent — basic, 0-level, ground-floor human suffering). But it sounds awesome, sort of like having the Care Bears run a country. Sharing and caring and singing kumbaya around campfires? It’s kindergarten all over again — sign me up!

But then you’ll hear people say of Communism: “it would work if people would do it right”. Well, that’s even worse! An idea that needs everybody to be on board and acting perfectly in order to work is a bad idea. An idea that calls for any improvement of individual character, let alone the character of masses of individuals, in order to work, is a bad idea. That’s like a plane that won’t fly unless every passenger is also a highly trained, highly skilled pilot. That’s like saying: “the Internet would work just fine if only every computer in the world were turned on at the same time and running the exact same version and service pack of the exact same operating system”. Bad.

Methods should be like an AK-47: light and adaptable, robust and relentless. They should work even when they shouldn’t work, even when they’re broken and scratched all over and filled with sand and water. The method should work even when the entire outside world seems to be conspiring against it and FUBAR and SNAFU and tofu and pear-shaped. And that’s why immersion is so cool — you don’t even have to be in-country! All you need are working headphones and battery power to transform your 3-foot-radius personal world into Japan.

Whenever someone says “if only everyone thought/acted like this, the world would…”, my eyes want to…whatever a good joke about rolling is. I dunno. Swiss pastry. Work with me. If only everyone thought/acted like this? Well, they haven’t and they don’t and they won’t, so what’s the new plan, Stan? I bet you when there only two people in the world, they thought and acted differently. Good luck with that times 3.5 billion. You can’t even get individuals to be internally consistent over time: I went from being an Apple hater to having a Mac and 4 iPads (some were free, long story).

An idea that needs all external factors to be perfect in order to work is a bad idea. An idea that needs to be timed right is a bad idea. An idea that needs celestial bodies to form perfect geometric patterns is a bad idea. You want your idea, your method, your technique to work right now, with or without Bisquick, while half-naked European teenagers with unwashed dreadlocks are having screaming tantrums in your face (true story, I might tell you about it sometime). In your face, blud. In other words, despite whatever else is going on.

Away from guns and my right wing politics, back to science. Arguably, the whole point of science is to be surprising. The earth is spherical (“it’s an ellipsoid, Khatz, flatter at the poles” — yeah, shaddup!)? That’s weird. And it’s spinning? I notice myself spinning; I notice my car spinning; why wouldn’t I notice an entire planet spinning?! It clearly seems to be standing still — flat and stationary, thank you very much. And quarter-mile-long boats made of steel can float? Are you kidding me? And gigantic planes made of metal can fly? Not glide, but fly? With wings that don’t flap? Whaaaat? All of this is extremely counterintuitive. It can’t be true. It doesn’t make sense. Oh, you’re used to it now; we grew up in a world where these things are normal. But trust me, those ideas would get raped and left for dead in a debate. Aristotle would have unerotically asphyxiated those ideas. Repeatedly. Only experimentation has borne them out and made them mainstream.

The value of the work of, say, a Newton, wasn’t in telling us that apples fall (apparently that’s an apocryphal story anyway): We already knew apples fall! We had that one largely under control; your housepets know that apples fall. The value was in telling us that the same simple set of rules, the same gravity that works on Earth also works in the heavens. Or something to that effect, I dunno. Either way, that’s kinda weird — i.e. counterintuitive — if you think about it for more than a couple of minutes, because when you throw rocks into the air, they don’t keep moving in a straight line forever, nor do they start orbiting each other and stuff. So it would seem as though different rules apply. But, no, them laws of motion apply to everything from pebbles to planets and we can reduce that junk to equations that are so simple that the term “rocket science” is in reality quite woefully malapropos as a metaphor for something difficult.

So don’t reason it out too much (now, I realize that that sounds funny coming from someone who just spent a paragraph praising the work of someone who wrote a theoretical Latin book called Principia Mathematica 1. But the point is that ultimately experiments bore out Newton’s work; to my knowledge, he didn’t win a flamewar about it on 4chan with superior sarcasm). And definitely don’t waste your time debatin’. Don’t argue, don’t complain, don’t explain. Run experiments instead. If you want to create light and insight instead of heat, then try stuff out and see how it works for you. All that matters is whether or not it works. Not why. Fun matters because fun gets done, and experiments can only work when (get this) something gets done. So have fun with it. Play. You can’t lose, you can only win or learn.

For the record, I think all language learning methods are in fact just…different facets of each other 2. In the same way that sports cars and minivans are both just different types of car. At some level, Benny’s Fluent-In-3-Months systems is a sports car, optimized for speed; AJATT is an RV, fully loaded with practically your whole life in it, optimized for distance. A Ferrari…is not a misdesigned RV. Even a Lambo is not a Ferrari that’s been “built wrong”. Remember, metaphors break down quickly, so there’s more to it than that, but that’s one way of looking at it.

If I were you, I would not be attached to any one “school of thought”. Because school sucks 😛 . Also, good ideas are like dust — they’re everywhere. All over the place. Every goose has at least some nice feathers. Pluck that junk. Use it to weave your own patchwork quilt, your own unique combination of other people’s ideas. Are quilts elegant and smooth? Maybe not. But they work and they’re cosy and personal. What? I like quilts!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I started off reading books like A. G. Hawke’s The Quick and Dirty Guide to Learning Languages FastA book written by a former American Green Beret. American, as in “the monolingual laughingstock of the world”. Note that the book was not called “The Long and Deep Guide to Learning a Language So Well That People Think You Grew Up In The Country”, but that did not stop me; I had no ideological opposition to the work. I happilly used the techniques from that book, just for a longer period and focussing only on a single language. I drilled deeper and longer, but it didn’t matter to me who had made the drill or why and how he had used it. It was a good drill. It worked.

When two people debate (which is an adult euphemism for “say mean and snarky things to each other”), the best orator wins. Not the best idea. The best argument. If you want to know who the smartest is, have a debate. If you want to know what works, try stuff out. The truth does not matter; all that matters is what works. Because what works is “the” truth.

Debating will not reveal new, concrete truth. It will only rub old, abstract truth (and some lies) against each other and leave one or more people burned from the friction. Truth of the kind that you’re interested in emerges from tinkering. The truth that you’re looking for is discovered, not reasoned out.

PS: Personally, if I’m ever trying to get functional in a language fast, I’m going straight to Benny’s house for advice.

Series NavigationSocial Resistance >>


  1. or not… 🙂 — wrong title
  2. Talk about Monistic 🙂

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  11 comments for “Don’t Debate: Experiment

  1. Some Guy
    June 6, 2013 at 04:49

    I just have to be anal about this: “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” is the name of Newtons book. It is occasionally called “The Principia,” “Newton’s Principia” or simply “Principia”. “Principia Mathematica” refers to a collection of books written by Russell and Whitehead.

  2. Tom P
    June 6, 2013 at 20:57

    “If you want to know who the smartest is, have a debate. If you want to know what works, try stuff out.”

    And there it is. Great article and great advice.

  3. Lane
    June 7, 2013 at 11:16

    >Because we know it doesn’t help. We know it’s a waste of time.

    Like any good tool, if it isn’t used, it’s useless. On the flip side, talking over various methods and outcomes can mean the difference between hammering a nail with, say, a hammer versus a socket wrench or, in the spirit of the words of the Khatzu himself, it can mean the difference between learning language by spending a few hours a week in boring classes or by having fun reading manga/listening to music.

    A certain amount of discussion is helpful in determining which is a more appropriate method to pursue, but in the context of the time spent actually doing something would constitute a negligibly small percentage of the total.

    I think the important difference is to realize that the tool is useless if it isn’t used. So if we’re talking about hammering with a hammer versus a socket wrench, if we never actually spend time driving the nail, we might as well be using shoestrings or spaghetti. That doesn’t change the fact that the hammer is the most appropriate.

    Perhaps what Khatzu is saying is that, if we learn about the hammer while using the socket wrench, we can “change horses midstream”, but at no point should we not be actively hammering.

    To that extent, I would agree and concede that the point of my post is moot. : )

  4. BM
    June 7, 2013 at 15:34

    It’s not the differences that lead to success, it’s the similarities. Instead of focussing on what’s different, focus on what’s the same.

  5. June 9, 2013 at 05:39

    This is very true. I’ve given up on Anki because I’m not a “mobile” user and I don’t like using it on the computer. Paper flashcards work well for me, especially coupled with pronunciation files.

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