Like I’ve said before…the set of tools/methods described on this site…I don’t know why it all works; looking at and thinking about how people learn their native language, it just all seemed obvious to me. In other words, I knew what I needed to do to achieve fluency…but not much more.
One of the more apparently “controversial” pieces of advice I’ve offered is to simply immerse in audio – keep listening whether or not you understand L2 (the target language). It’ll all just start to make sense. No doubt I am not the first person to have suggested this. At best I simply pushed the idea to its logical extreme…
And it all seems like a bunch of voodoo, especially to people who’ve spent the greater part of their waking lives in school, in a mostly abiotic urban or suburban environment, playing short-term memory games [online preview], prohibited from observing and participating in natural growth and learning processes. People like you and me. Perhaps if you and I grew plants more regularly, we would know that advice like: “just add soil, sunlight and water and this seed will one day grow into a long, thick, hard plant” is quite sound. We would know that growth often involves a period of continuous high investment for nearly zero visible returns, but that it cannot happen without this investment.
A lot of the theoretical background for the language learning advice on AJATT comes from the work of the dashingly handsome Dr. Stephen Krashen, particularly his Input Hypothesis. One piece of advice that people seem to have locked onto with great fervor is that input needs to be “comprehensible” and “i+1″ (where i = your current level of full comprehension); they viciously defend this idea to the point of branding the “keep listening to L2 whether or not you understand” advice invalid “because Krashen says that…”.
I haven’t actually read Krashen in a while and I can’t be bothered to go back and check, but, as I recall, he suggests input be fun, freely available in large quantity, and, yes, comprehensible in an i+1 way. Nothing wrong with that whatsoever. What I’m saying is that the “comprehensible” part is just a way to make it more “fun”, so it’s more a bonus option than necessarily a hard requirement. The hard requirements are the input x fun x large quantity. Or something like that? I don’t want to get too wrapped up in theory since I don’t know what I’m talking about anyway…Besides, Dr. Krashen is probably down with this already.
So, the two main reasons why the “listen to it, just listen, 10,000 hours” advice was so controversial are because (1) there is no instant gratification, and (2) no one in academia was pushing it that hard, so it seemed unfounded. Both of these concerns are entirely valid: why believe some random guy on the Internet when you see no proof and no one authoritative-looking seems to be saying the same thing? It would be perfectly reasonable to doubt the guy.
The reason I used and recommend the “listening all the time” technique in the first place was partly to remove any and all excuses involving the words “you’ve just got to live in the country”, and partly because I strongly felt that the universally high level of proficiency we see in native speakers of a language is entirely due to their environment and behavior. It follows that if I were to replicate conditions of environment and behavior, then surely I could expect to replicate the results…that was my thinking. I felt that native speakers enjoyed what I like to call an “incubation period” (perhaps “gestation” period would be more accurate), where they simply passively listened to their language for obscene amounts of time, and that this period was essential to their prodigious linguistic awesomeness.
Anyway, finally, academia got my memo (“Where the heck were you, academia! That one was right to you!”), and the cognitive science people are now getting with the program (they’re all: “We were with the program the whole time! We ARE the program!”), and starting to explain what goes on in the lives of every native speaker of every language; taking our hunches and giving them some level of experimental rigor. Enter Dr. Paul “All Russian All The Time” Sulzberger from Victoria University of Wellington in Brand Spanking New Zealand, who was interested in:
“what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language.”
Paulちゃん came to the realization that:
“Simply listening to a new language sets up the structures in the brain required to learn the words.”
And the way to build those neural structures is…?:
“by lots of listening-songs and movies are great!”
“However crazy it might sound, just listening to the language, even though you don’t understand it, is critical. A lot of language teachers may not accept that…”
Listening, listening, listening. Lots and lots of listening. Like, hundreds and thousands of hours of listening. Some classes are already working with this, not allowing students to say a word of their L2 until they have listened to at least 800 hours of it. My personal take on it is to let output come when it comes, which is after some “critical mass” of a given set of inputs is reached. If you hear something enough times, you’ll eventually be able to say it aloud quite effortlessly, whether or not you try to remember it; it’s true of commercials, it’s true of TV theme songs, and it’s true of “foreign” language.
In kidhood, like all male children of sound mind, I enjoyed kung-fu movies and fighting games. I still do. When I was 15, I wanted to go to a monastery and train in martial arts like Jin KAZAMA/風間仁 from Tekken/鉄拳, so I could have fire come out of my punches by the time I was 19. Things have changed a bit. I took refuge from the over-macho-ness of sports by jumping onto the “intense training required for sporting excellence = a risky investment of time and resources, with a brief payback window, an ever-present threat of injury and overdependence on factors outside one’s control…plus after all that work everyone is just gonna say you have magical fast-twitch muscles anyway” bandwagon. But also, something deeper happened. I was drawn into the words and texts in which these kung-fu ideas had been expressed. And it dawned on me that the ability to comprehend and manipulate the language of kung-fu movies (Cantonese), or indeed any language, was a skill easily as personally rewarding, economically valuable, and plain out freakin’ cool, as being able to catch flies with chopsticks like Kwai Chang Kane. In short, language is kung-fu; your weapons are your books and computers and media players, your skill is built into your body, your “opponents” are the people you listen to, read, talk to and write to. And you can get into fights with anyone you want without anyone ever getting injured. Like Sulzberger said:
“Language is a skill, it’s not like learning a fact. If you want to be a weight lifter, you’ve got to develop the muscle – you can’t learn weightlifting from a book. To learn a language you have to grow the appropriate brain tissue…”
Once in a while, just to feel cool…I sit in cross-legged dignity, pick up my mouse like unto a katana with slow-motion reverence (I even make the sounds)…place it on my beanbag…jiggle and click the link to open up a movie or a book or my SRS. Try it. Better yet – feel it. Sports and martial arts only seem cool because they’re so well fetishized – movies, merchandising, instant replays. Arguably, learning a language is just as deserving of respect, time and attention…Don’t ask me where I’m going with this because I don’t know either. Suffice it to say that you should feel free to have a healthy respect for the work you’re doing in building your language muscles.
You can see the full article on Sulzberger here.