Bad at languages?

I had a very international childhood – lived in Venezuela and Rome and London, and visited lots of other places in Europe (Paris, Athens, Venice, Barcelona). The cause was my dad working for a multinational; the result was that I learned and forgot three languages before I was thirteen.

OK, maybe 2.5 languages would be a better count; I never thought I was very fluent in spoken French, though I could read it well enough (in the late 1960s, when the available English renditions of the Asterix comics were pretty bad, I translated them myself for fun). I was a crib bilingual in Spanish, though, and my Italian became passable.

This had some interesting though minor effects on my later life. One is that, like many crib bilinguals, I am much better at hearing and correctly reproducing phonological features outside the inventory of my native language than most monolinguals. (There’s recent research showing that crib bilinguals organize the language-processing circuitry in their brains slightly differently.)

When I traveled in Asia I found this gave me a useful knack. Chinese and others who deal with Westerners often take Western nicknames to, er, make themselves pronounceable; I, noticing this, developed the habit of asking them for their real name and then pronouncing it back at them. This invariably produced delighted smiles.

(Note: This doesn’t work in Japan, Japanese phonology is too simple. You need to go somewhere that pronouncing the language is actually difficult for English-speakers.)

OK, so, crib bilingual, spoke three languages besides English, good ear (like Frodo) for foreign sounds. Here’s the funny part. I thought I was bad at languages.

The handful of polyglots in the audience are now laughing at me, I know. As well they should; I didn’t begin to get a clue until I tested out of my French-language requirement at college. Um, that was six years after studying it and not having used it at all.

But I didn’t really clue in until I started doing my second round of traveling as Famous Internet Guy in the late 1990s. And noticed that when I was with a group of monolinguals, I was pretty much always the one who clued in on street signs and bits of the local language the fastest.

I think it really hit home when I visited Warsaw for a Linux conference. Polish is not closely related to any language I’d ever spoken, yet…after a day on the ground I was starting to get bits of it. And the other visitors – weren’t. Indeed, they behaved as though it never occurred to them that they could, as though the language barrier was impermeable without concentrated and effortful study.

Yes, go ahead, chuckle at my naivete. But it was a bit of a wrench when I realized that they were the normal ones. It’s my ability to absorb languages through my skin that is unusual in an adult. (Children, of course, do it routinely.)

The point of this rant is actually the question that preoccupied me for a bit once I thought through my observations and did a little research, enough to realize how very mistaken I had been. How in the hell did I develop the belief that I was bad at languages?

Because what I found out, of course, is that this is the history and behavior of somebody who is really good at languages – a natural polyglot. Crib bilinguals tend to be like this more than others, but it’s a tendency rather than a rule.

This, too, made a (minor) difference in my life. By the time I visited Taiwan a couple years into the new century I was confident enough to set myself the goal of learning to hear and reproduce the tones in Mandarin Chinese during the few days I’d be there. And I succeeded, though that’s not really the point I’m driving at here.

No. The point is, I did eventually figure out why I thought I was bad at languages for so long. It was because I was bad at language classes. Found them boring, didn’t get good grades at them, got shut of them as soon as I could, and felt greatly relieved when I tested high enough to fulfill the foreign-language requirement at Penn.

So my conclusion is this: the foreign-language instruction methods in our schools suck horribly. I mean, really horribly. I think it must constitute something near a worst-case definition of suck when you take a crib bilingual with a good ear and a strong knack in one end and spit him out the other with a belief that he’s bad at languages so fixed that it lasts nearly thirty years.

What makes this funnier, in a way, is that I cultivated an interest in linguistics over those three decades and still thought I was bad at languages…

I don’t really know what can be done about this. But I started reading The Polyglot Project recently, motivated by a conjecture that I’d find I’m more like those people – the sort who eat languages like bonbons – than like most monolinguals. And indeed it seems that I am, but that’s not my point either.

My point is more like this: Jesus H. Christ and his bastard brother Harry on a pogo stick, why isn’t the educational establishment listening to these people? What in the hell are we doing numbing childrens’ brains to insensibility with the 413th repetition of a textbook drill about la plume de ma tante when it is utterly clear that immersion and motivation through native-speaker materials is both more effective and more fun?

I know, I know…our educational system is very broken in general, I shouldn’t be surprised at yet another symptom. I managed it, though; thus, this rant. The best I can hope is that it might set somebody to thinking.

219 thoughts on “Bad at languages?

  1. I remember as a kid that I thought I was bad at math. Then the “new math” came in and my grades went from Cs to As. But all the other kids were baffled by it, and it turned out to be a mistake. The average kid isn’t smart or math-talented enough to profit from it, and did better memorizing multiplication tables. It might be the same with languages: the instruction may not be as bad as it seemed to you, FOR AVERAGE KIDS. (Then of course the fault is still that of the education system, but it’s the one-size-fits-all assumption, not language instruction per se.)

  2. Hmm. I’m decent at French, for someone who doesn’t actually speak it, but always detested French classes. I suspect that with a bit of immersion I would get better quickly; I’ve got my foot in the door, so to speak.

    Been watching a lot of anime lately, and plan to take Japanese next year. I wonder which will do more good?

  3. Don’t know about language **teachers**, but as any immigrant with half a brain will tell you, immersion is the **only** way to learn a language in a useable way (at least those immigrants not possessing of non-integrationist mindset _cough_ la raze _cough_)

  4. I got really lucky. When I took high school Spanish classes in the early 2000s, the teacher hardly said a word of English. Instead, she would ask us to do things like “put the banana beneath the chair, and touch your head” (translated), or ask us simple questions, to be answered in Spanish — and we were just supposed to figure it out, the same way a baby does. It felt kind of like trying to learn a really cryptic dictionary for the first week or so, but then something amazing happened: the sounds started sounding like actual words, and I stopped mentally translating to English as a clunky intermediate step. Over time the vocabulary got bigger and the sentences got more complicated, but it felt easy. We were just learning new words and grammar, and that’s the most natural thing in the world for humans. Everybody just picked up basic Spanish. Later on, she threw in some children’s books. (I was a fan of Jorge el Curioso.)

    At no point in this did we get assigned a list of words to memorize, or anything that could be described as a drill. Learning the language just sort of happened. I was honestly shocked when I discovered that this wasn’t normal.

    Looking back on it, there’s one thing that surprises me even now: the ability that you described, to easily hear and reproduce unfamiliar phonetic features, seemed to be rare even in a class where the majority were doing a good job of absorbing a new language. I can do it, very young children can do it, and most of the people I know who’ve been multilingual from a young age can do it — and for some baffling reason, most other people can’t. Is this a skill that people either develop when they’re young, or don’t?

  5. >I got really lucky.

    Yes, you did. Near as I can tell, this full-immersion method is the thing that actually works. It’s a recurring theme in the Polyglot Project book. And, contra J. Storrs Hall, it works for people who aren’t specially talented, too.

    >Is this a skill that people either develop when they’re young, or don’t?

    I suspect so. And “skill” may be too weak a word – it may require an adaptive response in the organization of the brain’s language area that doesn’t usually develop unless you’re challenged by multiple languages during your language imprinting period.

  6. My mom, Macedonian (which, I heard recently is not a dialect, but it’s own language), raised in Belgrade = Serbo-Croatian (make that one, although they both insists it’s two, these days – more a political move. It’s really one language). As a 5 yr old went to pre-school in Munich, German-y. First foreign language in school: good old Latin, then French, then English … and so on and so forth.

    I share the belief, that I suck at languages. And … I do. I am pretty ok reading 10+ diff languages. And yes, you can have an ‘ear’ for languages, when you hear them. If you stay in “foreign” countries (stupid word), you pick up quickly. But when it get’s to memorize adjectives and elaborate the nuances of things, you feel compelled to articulate, in more detail, I at least, suck badly. I cannot “compete” with a native speaker. I mix up grammar and words in my head. I write phonetically, not accurately. It’s a mash-up, which at times can be confusing to read or listen to, for others.

    I do agree however, make kids learn a 2nd language early on! Mandarin, or even better Cantonese! Spanish is a no-brainer. And get your kids to travel and see the world (if you can afford it). Opens the mind. Widens the perspective.

  7. The best account I ever read about language learning was:

    The word brain
    http://thewordbrain.com/

    The problem seems to be that language teaching is targetted at reading and writing. Speaking is just an after thought. Speech simply does not count when the all important written test comes up.

    Btw, most humans are bi/trilingual. It is just that their native tongue is not recognized as a language for political reasons.

  8. The Rosetta Stone folks take the same approach to teaching languages as Peter Scott’s Spanish teacher. It works quite well. I have their Spanish course, though I never did much with it. (At one point, I thought I was going to be doing some work in the Dominican Republic.)

    I probably started learning French a bit too late to get the full advantages of it; I had four years, from the 8th to the 11th grade. Still, I did gain enough fluency in it that I could think in it if I needed to.

    Yes, the educational system could fuck up an anvil – or at least leave a kid with a talent for languages with the belief that he sucks at it.

  9. I am not native English speaker, so I will be talking about learning English as a foreign language.

    During high school English lessons were split into two parts: once per week in larger group we were taught by a (Polish) teacher of English, and once per week in smaller group we were taught by a native English speaker (not much older than we were) – a part of some exchange program. I think this helper, at least a bit.

    But it was a course I took during graduate studies that helped most: it was a small group where we were discussion about some chosen topic among each other (with teacher helping).

    But reading English… that was books. Gordon R. Dickson “Forever Man”, Brin, Silverberg,…

  10. I hate how people get ostracized from their preferred circles by being unable to learn the foreign languages they need. It’s sad, the way so many people I know don’t think they’re any good at English (particularly English, even if they think they can learn other languages), thus remaining on the margin of Computer Science and all its friends.

  11. @iajrz
    Want to learn a foreign language?

    Select a tv show you realy like to watch, manga, sponchebob, soaps, South Park, whatever. And watch every episode online dubbed in your language of choice. Eg, manga in Mandarin seems widely availabe. Soaps are availabler in every conceivable language.

    Note that formal grammar is completely useless. The very last thing you c can do while speaking or listening is digging up written rules from memory.

  12. People are so desperate wanting to speak that even the spam filter catches comments about it. Have to wait until it is released.

    Anyhow, like eric wrote, if you want to master Mandarin tones, the only thing that works is practice. And you need examples from natives. I am still not sure anything works for Cantonese tones. If it were not for the Cantonese I would not believe it could be done.

  13. I’m not traveling any more, and I don’t speak any languages other than English (I can order dinner or find the toilet in Spanish, given a tolerant interlocutor, but that’s as far as I go). But the thing that always amazed me was how most people don’t see the similarities when the language is written. There’s a sign: it says “Ristorante” or “PECTOPAH”. There are tables and chairs and people chowing down, and out front the person I’m with is wondering where the Hell we might find something to eat!

    Yeah, that’s an extreme example, but not by all that much. Western civilization has been so interrelated for so long that Western languages are pretty much all one thing, with variations. The variations come in families, and within the families there’s commonality. English is in many ways the result of that intercourse, primarily influenced by two of the major Western families but ending up very like the Imperial flag at the end of Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen: you’d have to come from a pretty obscure culture to be unable to look at English and say, “ah, that word there, that’s from my language.”

    So what is it with English speakers who cannot, for instance, look at a couple examples of “hof”, see that it’s cognate with “house” (not totally, of course), and figure out that a building with “-hof” on the sign is a place that expects visitors? Or can look at something labeled “Universidad” and wonder aloud what goes on there? It’s a puzzle, all right.

    Regards,
    Ric

  14. I’m not a crib bilingual although I am supposedly good at languages (I can still surprisingly drag out Spanish class knowledge after 27 years, even though it’s gone largely unused.). Although my native tongue is Russian, I learned English mostly, as you suggest, through immersion – particularly context-based materials such as television. It took all of a year and a half before I was earning best English student honors in a class of native speakers.

    Immersion works because you quickly capture context and idiomatic usage. It’s a more holistic approach, and classes tend to be piecemeal torture.

  15. > I know, I know…our educational system is very broken in general

    I wouldn’t say “broken”, I would say actively, horribly perverse. My pet peeve is chemistry.

    In a few hours, it would be simple to teach about the noble gases and the the two “ends” of the periodic table where an atom only wants to get or get-rid-of one or two electrons to be fine – you’ve got your ionic bonding, salts dissolving in water to form ions. Then you have your elements in the middle, that by combining and sharing electrons so that they are only one or two electrons from being fine – you get your sulfates, carbonates (ie. limestone), phosphates. Get into carbon-to-carbon bonding with 3 or 4 bonds, hydrogens on any left-over bonds – you’ve got your alkanes: methane (natural gas), ethane, propane for the barbecue, (skipping a some now): the longer the chain the thicker: gasoline, kerosene, heating oil/diesel fuel, lubricating oils, tars. Make those carbon chains branch and become 3-D and you’ve got your polymers – plastics. Touch on flat, rigid benzene rings with practically anything hanging off: an OH gives you phenol that makes Ozenol ointment smell funny, CH3 gives you toluene. Get into CO2, O2, N2 and metal oxides in general – you’ve got your simple molecules that are super-stable – iron is strong but rust live on.

    How long did that take me? Make it an hour or two with lots of examples and you can understand the basic chemistry of a great deal of what goes on around you. Oh, better do H2O – and your “viscous bastard ions” – chlorine bleach, oxygen burning stuff, H- making acids and OH+ making bases.

    The point is that chemistry is fascinating and, at the basic level, easy. But chemistry classes?? You spend the whole time learning the fucking NAMES of way too many things and learning stuff that only people that are going to become chemistry teachers care about. “You can’t say ferric oxide, we don’t do that any more, you have to say Iron III oxide.

    It is criminal, this business of teaching histories and naming instead of the actual subject matter and examples in the real world.

    OK – sorry – rant over.

  16. My experience is that poorly done “immersion” teaching is at least as bad as structured grammar classes and can be much worse. Most high schools don’t have access to true native speakers and so in my classes, they tried to “immerse” us by handing us over to people who spoke Spanish with a Texas accent and spoke very slowly in very broken Spanish. I didn’t find it helpful at all and I was bored to distraction.

  17. While I was raised in a completely monolingual environment, I wound up with a linguistic aptitude similar to esr’s. The only difference was that I was also really good at language classes, so I never suffered from the delusion that I was bad at language — the only problem that I had with the Spanish courses at my school was that they were too easy and slow-moving.

    However, I think that this aptitude is actually normal for most people in most times and places. As mentioned above, bilingualism has been the norm throughout most of human history, and the modern feature where you use the exact same language to talk to your grandmother at home, your teacher at school, and the merchants in the market is in fact historically anomalous.

    Language instruction is pretty much always awful in this country. What we have is a watered-down version of the old way of teaching Latin, which of course was almost entirely written and not spoken, where you began with memorizing conjugations and doing exercises, and moved fairly quickly into actual Latin authors. But, what with general educational decline, the exercises and memorization part of the course has been expanded and dumbed-down, and most students never get within sight of an actual native speaker.

  18. Ah, Brian, the problem is, you have a mental deficiency. I share it, and so do the vast majority of people who’d be motivated to post here: You’re a nerd, defined as somebody who finds such things interesting. For instance, you think a benzene ring is kewl. Three bonds shared around the ring with six atoms, and you can’t really tell which is which. It’s neat. It’s fun.

    The preponderance of your fellows (?) have no such interest, and in fact consider it somewhat perverted, which is why nerds are only allowed to hang out with the cool kids if they’re buying. Most people have the world neatly sorted into Pratchett’s Four Categories — if you can’t eat it or f* it, and don’t have to run away from it in the short term, it’s a rock. Rocks are interesting only to the extent that it’s necessary to find a way over, around, or through them.

    Didactic teaching methods evolved as the only way to get anything at all through to Four Categories people, and they’re still the only thing that even sort of works, so they continue. A secondary but important factor is that being the Teacher in a didactic system is a post of power, which attracts power-seekers like honey does flies. Once in power, the power-seekers naturally perpetuate the system that granted it.

    Universities started out as student collectives, organized so that people who wanted to learn something could hire experts to explain it to them. They immediately devolved into Yet Another Power Structure, and that situation continues today. Meanwhile, people educate themselves by investigating things they want to know, as it has been since the Beginning and will be ’til the End, selah.

    Regards,
    Ric

  19. @esr: “… why isn’t the educational establishment listening to these people?”

    Is the educational establishment listening to *anyone*? Except the echo of their own voices, that is. They are probably the very pinnacle achievement of a truly closed system.

  20. Yep, the educational system is soooooooooooo broken. After 2 master’s degrees and umpteen years of experience teaching at college level, I am not considered qualified to teach anything in high school. Not even with a reasonable mentoring period. No, I would have to go and get yet another degree (in education). What bullshit.

    Incidentally, when I used to teach German, I used Charlie Brown cartoons and nursery rhymes in my class. It was very successful, and much better than reading from rote from a textbook.

  21. “I stopped mentally translating to English as a clunky intermediate step.”

    Peter Scott said something important here that should be paid attention to. It’s long been recognized that, when teaching people Morse code, you have to do everything you can to make them NOT look at the table of dots and dashes and try to memorize it. You want to make them listen to the sound of the letter and immediately write the letter down. Hear, recognize pattern, write. You don’t want the ‘recognize pattern’ part to be, “That was a dot, followed by a dash, which I remember is an ‘A’.” That’s using the wrong part of the brain for pattern recognition. I think it’s the same if you’re learning another language.

  22. My biggest gripe with foreign language education is that it waits till high school and by then a good chunk of the language centers in the brain are already developed. Languages should be taught early in life, not held back till the teenage years.

  23. @esr:

    >As others have pointed out, it’s not just languages.

    @Brian Marshall:

    > My pet peeve is chemistry.

    When I was in high school, I hung out with this really bright girl who was a couple of years younger than me for awhile. She was really struggling in chemistry with getting the numbers right in redox reactions. The textbook showed some simple heuristics for some simple reactions, but that method just didn’t scale very well. So I showed her “here, all you do is set up a system of linear equations, and solve them.” The light bulb came on immediately, and after doing a couple of problems, she whined “Why don’t they TEACH it that way?” Even as a high-schooler, I knew that the answer was that the average chemistry teacher didn’t understand math well enough to integrate it into the curriculum.

    Anyway, my theory is that it’s all down to the teachers. There are studies that show that for mental therapy, the individual therapist is much more important than the method they are using, and I think that a well-run study would show it’s the same for school.

    But…

    There’s a mitigating factor in math and hard sciences, in that there is usually an immutably correct answer. When there’s not — when interpretation is required, that’s when the trouble starts.

    My youngest daughter is extremely artistic. This comes out in her music now, but it used to also come out in her drawings, until they beat it out of her in elementary school. Here’s newspeak for you: good art is art that conforms — that is about the same subject as all the other drawings on the wall, and you are graded on how well your colors match the normal expectations and how straight your lines are.

    She is also very good at math, and school in general — she’s a senior at the University of Texas in physics and math, maintaining a 4.0GPA. But her introduction to formal math was a bit shaky. Her 7th grade algebra teacher made them write things like “X + -Y” instead of “X – Y”. I thought this was a training wheel that would come off soon, but when she was still doing it after a couple of months (and making mistakes, because that tiny minus sign is easy to miss) I told her she needed to change how she did things, and she told me she would get points taken off if she did did it “my” way.

    I phoned up her counselor and read him the riot act, explaining that, as far as I was concerned, algebra was a LANGUAGE, much MORE important than English, and I wouldn’t stand for them teaching my kid pidgin algebra. Things got better then, but my daughter was insecure in her algebra for years. I can’t begin to imagine how the average student of that methodology fares.

  24. Before I comment on this, let me say, for the record that the first commenter – J Storrs Hall — is like OMG, not THE J Storrs Hall? Like the smartest guy alive? He is my hero!! Please go make some utility fog, I wanna buy some so bad.

    OK, gathering my emotions together…

    Language instruction is a perfect example of what is wrong with school. The only way to effectively learn a language is by immersion. If you want to teach kids to speak French, for example, you could do it quite easily. All you have to do is spend one single semester of school teaching them French only. Or perhaps for relief, every morning of one semester teaching them French, and all afternoon classes also conducted in French. Then, when you are done, you take a trip for a week to Montreal or Paris. After than, the whole class will have moderate fluency in French. Total time 12 weeks * 20 hours = 240 hours of instruction. Result? Fluent French, broader minds.

    But that is impossible with the mechanics of current school. It doesn’t fit with the schedule. And so instead we give them four hours a week of French one hour each on different days for eight years. I’d say that anyone who knows anything about language acquisition will tell you that this is probably the absolute worst way to teach someone a foreign language. Total time 8 years * 30 week * 4 hours. 960 hours of instruction. Result? Kids who can barely mangle Bonjour. Kids who hate foreign languages, and think the are hard. Kids who think French people are weird.

    So what we have is that the schools are run for the convenience of the teachers and the bureaucrats. The education of children being barely an afterthought. Anyone familiar with organizations run by the government will not be surprised at this result, because that is what always happens.

    I was reminded of this when I heard a comment by Steve Jobs, talking about monopolistic corporations. He said something to the effect of: when an organization has a monopoly, like IBM for example, they become totally focused on process, because they don’t need to worry about improving the product. I agree. And it immediately made me think of the monopolistic schools.

    What is the solution? Simple really. Privatize the schools. If we are to have public funding of education then lets do that. Lets eliminate all public schools and replace them with a $7000 per kid tax credit for educational expenses. But for God’s sake lets not let the lunatic governments and crazy teachers’ unions be in charge of something as precious as the education of our children. Better to give a Picasso to a caveman that to let the precocious, curious, innocent minds of children be filled with the nonsense of these self serving, narcissistic, bottom of the ladder parasites.

    (For the record, of course, there are lots of great teachers seeking to do the right thing, but unable to do so because they are mired in the swamp of mediocrity and bureaucracy that is our school system.)

  25. Yes, schools are incredibly bad at teaching languages. I think this is a historical fallout from the decline of Latin in the west. No, I’m not advocating that Latin is some mystical language, or that everyone should learn Latin. Up until the 18th century or so every educated person knew Latin, and they knew it well because it was taught correctly. When you went to school instruction was in Latin and you wrote your papers in Latin. Also convenient was that you would regularly speak Latin with foreigners, because you both knew Latin. School was a practical immersion in Latin as much as anything else.

    However, when Latin declined, schools no longer provided an immersive experience in Latin. So, Latin instruction became rote exercises in conjugations, declensions, and memorization. After a couple of generations native Latin speaking ability died, along with the ability to provide the immersive experience. All of the sudden, if you needed to communicate with a foreigner, you needed to speak their language. So now, instruction in modern languages picked up, using what was by then standard language instruction: conjugations, declensions, and memorization. But, now you also can’t provide an immersive experience very well. It’s fairly easy to provide an immersive experience for one widely spoken language, not so much for all commonly spoken modern languages at the same time. And schools have been stuck with this ever since then, partly because of inertia, partly because of the economics of providing immersive experiences for n languages, where n > 1.

  26. Um … yeah … what you said. Yes, I’m laughing. A lot. As a child, I managed to learn varying amounts of Spanish, German and French. I was probably semi-fluent in Spanish, and I actually managed that from classes in high school, and a circle of friends who were determined to learn it. I’ve since forgotten most of what I learned then. And yeah, I thought I was bad at language learning too, in spite of a demonstrated knack *and* A’s in high school Spanish classes. I got that idea from the fact that those classes took effort and practice outside of class to learn the language. What I didn’t realize is that my learning was happening almost exclusively outside of class.

    Learning a language isn’t hard in the way that school language classes make it appear. It requires effort in other ways. I was going to point you to Benny’s blog, but since you found the Polyglot Project book, you already know about it. One of the things that he has emphasized repeatedly is the need to get past the fear of making mistakes and just talk to people in your new language. Yes, it takes effort, but it’s why immersion works. You only train you brain to use a language by using the language. Duh.

  27. @Jessica:

    > What is the solution? Simple really. Privatize the schools.

    I think we should try this (and it’s happening in various parts of the country) but I wouldn’t characterize it as simple. There are two interrelated issues — who pays for the schooling and who controls the schooling. Nothing is absolute, e.g. PTAs often supply additional funding to schools, and sometimes have a voice in the governance, but the four “pure” possibilities are:

    1) Parents or other benefactors fund the schooling and control it (this frequently happens for rich people and for really religious, dedicated, frugal people)

    2) Parents or other benefactors fund the schooling and government controls it.

    3) Society (through taxation) funds schooling and government controls it.

    4) Society funds schooling but parents control it.

    For much of history, number 1 worked fine. In order to do this generally, though, you probably have to bring back the apprentice system. Which may be the solution when government goes completely broke, but seems to be unpalatable otherwise.

    Number 2 is a non-starter because (a) we at least pretend to be a free market society, and (b) we can maintain that illusion in this case because so few people can actually afford private schooling on their own.

    Number 3 is the normal case now because “we” seem to have agreed that everybody deserves an education, but if “we” are paying for it, “we” want to instill some common values. Unfortunately, as you point out, the “common values” message gets distorted by and subsumed under the needs of the bureaucracy.

    Number 4 has the potential, as you point out, of having good things happen (and we seem to be lurching this direction, especially in areas of the country where the excesses of number 3 have played out in a bad way), but also has the potential for some kids of having really bad things happen. With 40% of the populace believing in young earth creationism, do I really want my tax dollars supporting the Christian version of madrassa schools?

    I believe we might gradually move from number 3 to number 4, but that there will always be some government control, but that it might be moving away from direct control of the schools to indirect control in the form of standard tests.

  28. >For instance, you think a benzene ring is kewl.

    @Ric and
    Yeah!! Now, I figure, if you want to get more in-depth, you want to get into:

    In the benzene ring itself and in the plane of graphite, the way the electrons work makes them function as metals. And, hydrogen, sitting up there on the left, metallic end of the periodic table is a metal – you have to squeeze it pretty tight, like at the center of Jupiter, before it acts like a metal, but, like other metal oxides, H2O is small and pretty darn super-stable.

    @Patrick
    >She was really struggling in chemistry with getting the numbers right in redox reactions.

    I admit that I have a bias – I struggled with math – I could solve a system of linear equations the one-equation-at-a-time way but I stopped “getting it” at matrices…

    Why in hell do you need to be able to get the numbers right in redox reactions in High School? Who is ever going to need that other than a chemistry teacher or the teeny proportion of people that become chemists or practicing chemical engineers?

    It is like all the time you spend factoring polynomials and learning the concepts, names and rules of grammar.

    Regarding learning language: Through some fluke of what classes I was in, I had exactly one class of grammar. I got me some dam good grammar by reading thousands of books and just picking it up, like picking up a language. I still have no idea what a “predicate” is.

    My point is that, even if it is basically a power game, they still need to decide what to teach. Why not stuff related to the real world? Granted, few people would care, but the few people that do are the ones… that… advance the…

    OK, I get it – I am trying not to be too paranoid, here, and, if true, I hope it is not deliberate, but… the people that make the decisions don’t want people like me to excel, they want people like me to shut up. I am forever rocking the boat and interrupting important meetings to say something because I think it is funny.

    I didn’t like school… I wanted to learn.

  29. >With 40% of the populace believing in young earth creationism, do I really want my tax dollars supporting the Christian version of madrassa schools?

    I believe that it was in “Free to Choose” by Milton and Rose Friedman that they suggested that one good role of governments doing things was state schooling as a way to provide the common knowledge base required to keep society together, Of course, depending on who has the majority, the common school may not be teaching what you want.

  30. @Patrick
    I know examples that come close to 4 in Europe. The problem of lack of parental input is often replaced by voting with their feet. Option 4 comes with choice of schools, and competition.

  31. I tried, multiple times, to post something yesterday and it kept failing. I just posted something touching on chemistry and grammar but coming down to what they decide to teach. When I submitted it, it looked like it was added to the blog. When I closed my browser, opened it and came back, my post was gone.

    Are some of my posts being stopped or removed by a moderator? Or is the infrastructure somewhat broken? Insight, anyone?

  32. Patrick Maupin:

    The ideal form of US public education – from circa 1930 through roughly 1970 – had the Federal government issuing grants to both state departments of education and to individual school districts – with it being tacitly understood that what the money would be spent on would have to conform to state school regulations and what the local school boards would spend it on.

    During this span, school teacher unions were MUCH MUCH less powerful, and teachers could (and did) get fired for reasons ranging from incompetence to then-current political faddishness. Much of the rise of the NEA as a political force grew out of organizational efforts in the 1960s in support of the Civil Rights movement.

    No organization ever dismantles itself when its objective is met. Political activism that began as a professional association to keep teachers from being fired for trying to integrate black students into class rooms became focused on keeping teachers from being fire. Period.

    How to fire an incompetent teacher

    It has since gone on to promote extra pay for extra credentials, and thence, through lobbying the Federal Department of Education, to mandate that all schools carry a minimum number of these credentialed teachers. For example, Spanish-language classes for the children of Latino immigrants…in Nome, Alaska(!), because the teachers who are certified to teach that way get an extra $5,000 per year in salary.

  33. >When I closed my browser, opened it and came back, my post was gone.

    I see it. So you may have a local issue.

  34. @LS

    Peter Scott said something important here that should be paid attention to. It’s long been recognized that, when teaching people Morse code, you have to do everything you can to make them NOT look at the table of dots and dashes and try to memorize it. You want to make them listen to the sound of the letter and immediately write the letter down. Hear, recognize pattern, write. You don’t want the ‘recognize pattern’ part to be, “That was a dot, followed by a dash, which I remember is an ‘A’.” That’s using the wrong part of the brain for pattern recognition. I think it’s the same if you’re learning another language.

    Hmmm… I have learned Morse code via a mnemotechnic technique: for each letter there is a word in Polish starting with said letter (for example Azot for the letter “A”), which syllables tells you dashes and dots — if syllable contains letter “o” it is dash, otherwise dot, so “A” with helper word ‘A-zot’ is dot-dash. This helps most in sending, and somewhat in reading, but nothing helps as much as practice, practice, practice (harcerstwo i.e. scouting in Poland).

  35. @Ken Burnside:

    > Much of the rise of the NEA as a political force grew out of organizational efforts in the 1960s in support of the Civil Rights movement.

    Yes. We seem to now have labor laws and government infrastructure that would obviate most of the need for unions. Now we just need to (a) castrate the unions (and I include the ABA and the ABA in this designation, as well as the especially pernicious police unions), but simultaneously (b) somehow explain to the supreme court that no, their job is not to protect employers and big business and the government at all costs, because sometimes employees do have legitimate grievances.

    The system is out-of-whack in all directions at once.

  36. Jakub: That method is used by one Morse training system here, too, called Code Quick.

    I started learning Morse code when I was 10. Maybe that was enough to get my mind the required flexibility? The entire time, I never did the intermediate step of hearing things as dit-dah and thinking that’s an A. I heard dit-dah and thought A. That was what kept me in trouble until the FCC changed their testing methods, and why the old test for Amateur Extra was such a hard one to pass: they demanded one minute out of five of perfect copy. I was hard pressed to do that for 13 WPM for Advanced, but I finally got it (65 characters in a row). They switched to a multiple choice test not long after that, and I passed the 20 WPM test with no problem at all. I’d been copying in my head for years at that point; what was a bad habit suddenly became great.

    I can still converse in Morse at about 25 WPM. I used to be able to cruise about 35, but it’s been a while since I used that particular ability.

  37. I had great luck with German classes: My first German teacher really knew how to do immersion in the classroom, and within two years I could converse (if haltingly) with a native speaker. I also managed to spend a year in Germany towards the end of my college studies.

    With other languages, I’ve found it horribly difficult to find a teacher that would provide immersion.

    @Jessica: No, no, no, *no*! Public funding combined with private operation of *any* sector of the economy is the fastest way to horrible inflation within that sector known to man. It’s worse than either private funding and operation or public funding and operation. You may increase the quality of education, but you’ll send the cost through the roof, resulting in either crippling taxes or massive government deficits.

    @Patrick:
    >With 40% of the populace believing in young earth creationism, do I really want my tax dollars supporting the Christian version of madrassa schools?

    A lot of people I go to church with would ask the opposite question: “With 60% of the populace believing in ‘evolution’, do I really want my tax dollars supporting the ‘atheist’ version of madrassa schools?”. (I use quotes around “evolution” because, in those circles, everything from big-bang cosmology to the history of plate tectonics to actual evolution gets lumped into that one word).

    I myself would like to see my tax dollars go towards the teaching of epistemology, since many on both sides of that debate seem to be totally ignorant that the two side’s epistemological assumptions are radically different.

  38. Even though I took German in high school and college, I only remember a smattering of words, and thus for years considered myself monolingual. Then I met someone from Sweden (who spoke at least three languages, and spoke flawless English with a British accent) who considered me multilingual because I know at least half a dozen programming languages and can pick them up fairly quickly. His argument is that programming languages are a type of communication that requires just as much skill to learn as any spoken language. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s an interesting argument.

  39. @ Jon Brase
    > A lot of people I go to church with would ask the opposite question: “With 60% of the populace believing in ‘evolution’, do I really want my tax dollars supporting the ‘atheist’ version of madrassa schools?”.

    One solution might be to teach evolution in science class, and magic fairy tales about creation could be kept to religious education class.

  40. Personal experience: After some high school classes, and some personal effort later on, I can speak very poor French. My vocubulary sucks, and I don’t know a lot of the little glue words. But I can speak it without having to translate word by word. I can also understand spoken French, if it’s spoken slowly and clearly.

    I’ve travelled in Europe, mostly Italy, and I found that I could get around on my own: make out signage, labels, etc. OF course Italian isn’t very difficult in that respect for an anglophone. I once thought about visiting Japan – and then was terrified by the realization that in Japan I would be iliiterate.

    I’m going to repeat a prediction that I’ve posted elsewhere:

    Some time in the next 25-50 years, neurologists will work out how children are able to learn languages so much more easily than adults (and why some adults learn new languages more easily than others). Then they will find means of artificially inducing that condition in anyone who wants to learn a new language.

    Multilinguality and even polyglossia will become commonplace. With easy access, there will be a huge revival of classical Latin and Greek. Quite possibly more Latin poetry will be composed in this century than in the whole Classical era.

    The great works of non-Western cultures, heretofore obscured by linguistic barriers, will rise to much greater importance in “the canon”. So will the greatest works in relatively minor languages such as Magyar, Georgian, or Korean.

    Also, many “dying” languages will be revived, if only as hobbies or ethnic fads.

  41. I can definitely agree with this. I’m Canadian, so French class is inevitable, and I absolutely despised it all along. I’ve promised myself that I’ll get fluent in French before I have kids, solely so that they can be crib bilingual and not have to suffer through French classes like I did.

  42. > Some time in the next 25-50 years, neurologists will work out how children are able to learn languages so much more easily than adults

    Perhaps it is partly because they can spend a year or two doing it in a “total emersion” environment and no one is expecting them to be productive and earn a living.

  43. Follow-on: if I had direction of US defense/intelligence efforts, I would make language learning enhancement a top research priority.

    I was afraid to go to Japan, a safe, law-abiding country because I would be unable to read anything.

    Imaging what it has been like for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The country was infested with people who wanted to kill them, submerged in a vastly larger population of neutral and friendly people who were visually indistiguishable. They couldn’t read anything, and couldn’t communicate with the locals (except through interpreters). Any mistake – in navigation, in interaction, in combat reaction – could cost the lives of Americans, or of innocent Iraqis. It scares me just to think about it. Yet our soldiers largely mastered this situation. I’d be curious to see how many picked up how much Arabic.

    Maj. Vladimir Peniakoff, the leader of “Popski’s Private Army” in World War II, wrote later that “our men… all learnt Italian after a few months… when we had been in Italy a year, I could pick out any man at random, send him alone to the next village with a complicated message for the head partisan and be sure that he would bring back a complete and accurate reply.” These were ordinary British soldiers (except that they had all volunteered for his exotic unit).

    It would be immensely valuable to the U.S. military for its personnel to be able to learn languages quickly.

  44. @Patrick M:
    > …but I wouldn’t characterize it as simple.

    Perhaps I am being pedantic, but it is simple — I could explain in full detail in less than a page of paper. However, I will grant you that it is not easy, the two words being far from synonymous.

    > There are two interrelated issues — who pays for the schooling and who controls the schooling.

    This is indeed the heart of the matter. Let us assume that “society” should fund an education for every child, though I should say I think there are strong arguments for and against this proposition. However making this assumption, it is far from obvious that “society” should run the schools. To use the canonical example, we have decided as a society that no one should be allowed to starve to death, and so we provide food stamps. But the government doesn’t run the farms or the food industry.

    Of course, he who pays the piper calls the tune, but the longer the distance between the government and the invoice, the better we all are. That is why I favor a tax credit over a voucher. It reduces the lever of control the government has over the school. There are various mechanisms to make this control even weaker, but just the tax credit is politically difficult, never mind the necessary castration of the various other power brokers.

    > 1) Parents or other benefactors fund the schooling and control it (this frequently happens for rich people and for really religious, dedicated, frugal people)

    Just one comment — schooling is very different than education. Schooling serves many purposes beyond the simple impartation of academic skill and knowledge. Perhaps you can make the argument that teaching everyone literacy and numeracy makes society as a whole better; a rising tide lifts all the boats we are told. However, the argument is rather less compelling when I am told I have to fund little Johnny’s football program, or little Susie’s violin lessons.

    > do I really want my tax dollars supporting the Christian version of madrassa schools?

    First of all, I think that is an insane comparison. Certainly Christian schools teach values that I do not agree with, but to compare them with the vile madrassas system of Islam is ridiculous. The local Lutheran school might teach silly science, but at least they don’t teach kids that Jews and pigs and monkeys, and the local Christian school might teach about the Christian martyrs, but they don’t actually encourage kids to follow suit.

    Nonetheless, your point is correct — I don’t want my tax dollars going to pay for things I disagree with. But how is that any different today? Do I want school teaching kids about sex, with 5 year old Susie putting a slimy condom on a banana? Certainly not. Do I want school science class teaching AGW as casually as they teach Hydrogen + oxygen = water? Certainly not.

    What is the solution? It is to simply recognize what I said above — one might make the argument that society should provide literacy, numeracy and basic social knowledge to all kids. But all these ancillary things — it is far from clear why I should pay for other kids to learn them. What we need here is set intersection, what we have is set union. A tax credit can be managed by having independent organizations measure kids capabilities in basic academic skills. We already do this in the USA, it is called the SAT or ACT. A version for younger kids could easily be written, and be the qualification for that tax credit (with caveats ….)

    I recently listened to a discussion on teacher evaluation. Some droid from the teachers’ union was going on about how unfair teacher evaluation was. She said something like: “How do you objectively measure performance in music or gym, for example?” My response would be — exactly, that is precisely the point.

  45. @ Jessica Boxer
    > Do I want school teaching kids about sex, with 5 year old Susie putting a slimy condom on a banana?

    I’m not sure that “school teaching kids about sex” equals “5 year old Susie putting a slimy condom on a banana”.

    Well-run and age-appropriate sex education at school in my view is a good thing.

  46. TomM Says:
    > Well-run and age-appropriate sex education at school in my view is a good thing.

    However, I hope you will agree that poorly run, age inappropriate sex education at school is not a good thing?

    Perhaps you will agree also that there is a pretty broad range of opinions in society of these two measures?

    Perhaps you will also join me in questioning whether it is right to forcibly extract money from parents to pay for teaching their kids things they find repugnant?

  47. I just read Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson. He’s one of the top bass players in the world, and one of the points of the book is that people make learning harder by using strategies that don’t work like taking details out of context, ignoring pleasure, concentrating when what’s needed is to be receptive, assuming that it’s hard for them to learn, and probably more.

    It’s a happy book for the most part, but I’m not in a happy mood, and so I’m going to look at institutional reasons for some very large proportion of people using bad learning strategies.

    It’s a truism of the John Holt style of home-schooling that babies and small children are very capable learners, and it gets knocked out of most of them by conventional schooling. Note that I say conventional schooling rather than public schooling because there are plenty of private schools which are no better in this regard.

    I think a lot of what’s going on is simply that humans are so rich (even in poor countries) that we don’t have to be efficient. There are so many people that there’s no incentive not to throw away most of their potential. My handy example for that is that there were a couple of isolated communities with a high proportion of deaf people. Everyone in those communities knew sign language, and whether or not a person was deaf wasn’t an interesting feature. They didn’t institutionalize deaf people– that would have been silly.

    This doesn’t mean that we’d be better off in the Neolithic, even though there are some varieties of civilized misery (like needing other people’s permission to make a living) which we have and they didn’t.

    The thing is, making learning difficult enables a lot of people to make their livings, whether by imposing inefficient methods or by trying to undo the damage.

    What’s worse, going through the imposition of inefficient learning (whether it teaches a lifetime of bad habits or just wastes a lot of time) is the most-relied-on credential for getting a good job, or even for getting a job at all.

    I don’t know if there’s a way out– perhaps Wooten’s right that it’s possible to show people how to rely efficiently on their own minds and senses. I can’t think of anything else that might work.

  48. Nancy Lebovitz Says:
    > I think a lot of what’s going on is simply that humans are so rich (even in poor countries) that we don’t have to be efficient.

    I agree with most of what you said Nancy, but here we part ways. I think the opposite is true. When you are a hunter gatherer you don’t actually have to know all that much. When you are a modern person there is a huge amount you have to know. Consequently I think we need to be a lot more efficient that the low bandwidth word of mouth, when you have a moment free type of teaching that would have prevailed in these ancient societies.

    No, the reason we are not efficient is that schools are monopolies. There is no incentive to be efficient. For the vast majority of kids their education is whatever thin gruel the local government chooses to give them. Just look around you — whenever there is monopoly there is stagnation, there is no innovation. Whether the monopoly in question is the public school or the teachers’ qualification, all you see is stagnation.

    Add to that the cultural error that schooling = education, and that education is the responsibility of teachers, and we should not be surprised at what we ended up with.

  49. > No, the reason we are not efficient is that schools are monopolies.

    There is also another aspect – some bad science and all that that entails…

    You know what I hated most about school? Nobody was allowed to fail, so there was some attempt to teach every kid what they were supposed to know. Probably most folks posting on these blogs had the same gripe: I had to sit there listening to the same stuff over and over, most of which I already knew (if not before that year, by the time I had read the text book). Schooling is done at a pace set for the stupidest or least motivated student – you all know what that is like for someone with a brain that wants to learn. IT DRIVES YOU UP THE FREAKING WALL!!!

  50. That latter concern probably did me a lot of damage–it got me in the habit of bringing a book to class and reading it when I was bored. Which was usually, of course, more immediately interesting than the topic being taught even where there was new material, so I just basically stopped listening. Still a tendency that I’m fighting in myself at college.

    Even at college, though, there’s a lot of repetitive idiocy. Took first-year EE class this semester. The first two weeks of the course were numbers in different bases, binary, hex, et cetera. All stuff I already knew, but I could have survived another lesson on it, except that it was utterly repetitive even on its own terms. Yes, I get that the grade-school addition algorithm generalizes over number bases. You don’t need to painstakingly demonstrate it and have us follow along as you do trivial math problems in decimal, binary, hex and octal. The lectures for that class are basically unhelpful to me.

  51. I’ve heard that learning music is like learning a language, and having an ear for music helps with accent nuances.
    Has anyone found this to be true?

  52. @ Jessica Boxer

    > However, I hope you will agree that poorly run, age inappropriate sex education at school is not a good thing?

    Yes.

    > Perhaps you will agree also that there is a pretty broad range of opinions in society of these two measures?

    I think that’s safe to say.

    > Perhaps you will also join me in questioning whether it is right to forcibly extract money from parents to pay for teaching their kids things they find repugnant?

    Whoa. Several conceptual leaps there.

    To boil it down, yes, I think parents should have a say in how their children are educated. But what worries me is that sometimes what parents find repugnant might still be necessary for children to learn.

  53. I work on developing language courses that are delivered by mobile phone. I have spent much of the last 18 months researching how language is learned, and how to do it more efficiently. it turns out that all established wisdom is wrong.

    Old school focused on grammar and word lists. But there is no time to recall grammar rules in a normal conversation, and rote learning of words is horribly boring and inefficient. Our memory is built for remembering things in context.

    Total immersion methods fare a little better. They focus on a high level of language exposure, but they start at the word level.

    This is unfortunately the wrong level to start. You have to begin at the phoneme level. Each language has its own set of sounds and unless you train you brain to recognize the sounds of the new language it will map those sounds onto your mother tongue.

    As an interlude, I should mention that to the most part, language learning is not education, it is training. This is an important distinction. You need to have no understanding of grammar rules in order to speak and write a language perfectly. What you need is training in hearing what is being said, training in speaking without an accent, training in reading and training in writing. All this has to be done in a way that gives your brain massive exposure to the language. It also has to be done in an order which is adapted to the working of the brain. This means that hearing and speaking skills should come before reading and writing. (The reasons for this are involved and won’t fit in this comment.) Massive exposure is in our experience 1-3 times 20 minutes each day, 5 days a week for 3 months.

    Back to the phonemic training, your ear has to be trained to distinguish between all the sounds of the foreign language. We know this can be done. We have even managed to get grown up Japanese and Chinese people to hear the difference between R and L (which map onto the same sound in their mother tongues), and to get them to pronounce them close to the way they are pronounced in various western languages. Once you have the circuitry in place for hearing the sounds, you can start imitating them. This focus on training/memorizing the foreign language has the added benefit that tying the meaning of what you are saying to your own language becomes trivial.

    The interesting thing in reference to the polyglots is that the idea that there is a trick to learning any language is both true and false. It is true in the sense that if you tackle the language by learning the phonemes as the first thing, you will have success with any language. It is false in the sense that all languages have a different set of phonemes, and just learning one set, or trying to learn all existing phonemes will not do the trick. You have to go through the phase of building neuron structures in your brain to deal with the new language. This requires the building of new nerve cells and new nerve paths, which is a physical process. It takes time.

    There is a very fascinating book on the neurology of reading, called Reading in the Brain. It is by Satnislav Dehane. Highly recommended for anyone interested in hopw our brains actually work.

  54. @Jacob:

    > We have even managed to get grown up Japanese and Chinese people to hear the difference between R and L

    That’s noteworthy. Maybe you can even train me to speak/understand French.

    > This means that hearing and speaking skills should come before reading and writing.

    Is it a serious problem if you know how to read/write a language already, or just inefficient?

  55. Immersion:

    A former co-worker of mine told me about how his father (who is from Spain) teaches Spanish. He walks into the classroom on the first day and says “Hello, I’m Mr. ____, and this is the last thing you’ll hear from me in English.” Then he reintroduces himself to the class in Spanish, turns to one of the kids and asks him what his name is, points to objects in the room and describes them in Spanish… and proceeds to teach Spanish by, you know, speaking Spanish.

    It works.

  56. Brian Marshall: I’ve heard that the highly repetitive style of teaching (at least for math) is the result of a bad theory– that the best way to learn math is with multiple passes rather than achieving a solid understanding and then going on.

    The Khan Academy found that using good explanatory videos and keeping track of whether students were able to do exercises meant that students got enough drill to learn but no more than that, and students who were thought of as hopeless actually just needed enough time to grasp the material.

  57. >It is false in the sense that all languages have a different set of phonemes, and just learning one set, or trying to learn all existing phonemes will not do the trick. You have to go through the phase of building neuron structures in your brain to deal with the new language.

    How do you explain people like me, who can pick up stuff like Xhosa click sounds and the weird double fricative Polish uses on very limited exposure? If I’m building new neuron structures for that, I’m doing it awfully fast.

    (I admit to still being thrown by Welsh voiceless l, however.)

  58. Jacob Hallén Says:
    > I have spent much of the last 18 months researching how language is learned, and how to do it more efficiently.

    I, for one, would like to know more. Do you have any more detailed results that are publicly accessible?

  59. Nancy Lebovitz: That is very interesting. I have always wanted to understand, that’s why I read so many books. To me learning is the process of getting to understanding. I am pretty smart, so it works well almost all of the time. But I found that if there was something I wasn’t understanding (like why matrices are so important in math), I am just lost. Most of the other students would just go along, memorizing stuff and all of a sudden I was the furthest behind in the class because I didn’t understand.

    It’s wasn’t just the repetition, it was the whole business of the class being aimed at the slowest students – I would just sit there, hating being bored. In almost any class, I could easily have proceeded 3 times as fast. I have always hated waiting.

  60. Here is an opinion I would like to toss into the ring…

    Almost everyone (as a proportion of the people who have jobs in a city) would know all that they would ever need to know if they learned the most important quarter of everything they were supposed to learn up to the end of junior high – grade 9.

    Most important of all, ANYTHING THAT WORKS to get kids to read enough that it is easy for them to read so they like reading for any of them this works on. Actually, parents should start this one at home reading to kids to get them to want to know what is going to happen next. Give them the incentive to do the hard work of learning how to sound out words they don’t know and then find something that THEY WANT TO READ.

    Make sure they learn to read, write and do arithmetic; learn some real history and cultures/countries/places, some basic science including how science works, evolution and mechanics and for the ones that want it: basic algebra (F=MA so A=F/M) and basic SOH-CAH-TOA trig. Some logic, not the history of logic or the names of anything, just how to operate a syllogism. As little names and history as possible, actually. The ones who want to learn will learn it, the ones who don’t certainly aren’t going to care or remember how the nucleus was discovered.

    Surely you can do this in 9 years. I could have done it in 3.

    Now, for how many jobs, even most “professional” jobs, would this be an inadequate education? Both as a practical matter and compared to what the average high school graduate actually retains?

    Granted, for a lot of jobs, you have to learn how to do that job, but, even for most professional people downtown, that is true anyway. Think HR, management, purchasing, selling, the actual manufacturing, quality control.

    Now, we do need lots of engineers and the future depends on having as many good scientists as we can. Some jobs like geologists and geophysicists do need a fair bit of higher math and special knowledge. But these people are a very small proportion of the population, could be treated as a special case and are generally self-selecting.

    For 99.999.. % of the population, the best quarter of a junior High eduacation is lots if they actually learned it.

    I am suggesting, in fact, that that is the level of education that most people have, at best. “When I think of all the Crap I learned in High School…” (Paul Simon)

    Comments?

  61. “I’ve promised myself that I’ll get fluent in French before I have kids, solely so that they can be crib bilingual and not have to suffer through French classes like I did.”

    You’ll have to stay fluent and speak French to them for years and years. Up to the age of about six my family lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. My parents told me later that I spoke perfect Spanish to the Puerto Rican kids I played with. Then we moved away to a different neighborhood and I lost it completely.

  62. I think that the paragraph below requires a post of its own. Please elaborate on that:

    “So my conclusion is this: the foreign-language instruction methods in our schools suck horribly. I mean, really horribly. I think it must constitute something near a worst-case definition of suck when you take a crib bilingual with a good ear and a strong knack in one end and spit him out the other with a belief that he’s bad at languages so fixed that it lasts nearly thirty years.”

    Being fluent in English, Portuguese, French and German, I totally identify with your post on a really personal level.

  63. Brain studies have shown clear differences between a monolinguists brain and that of a polylinguist for those exposed to languages at a young age. Those changes/adaptions greatly assist a polylinguist in learning more languages later on in life.

    Years ago, I took lessons in Cantonese by an older Chinese gentleman who had a PhD in English. He knew English better than I did! When teaching us, his approach was “I’ll tell you a translation, and then I’ll tell you to forget about it. Instead, focus on the pronunciation and how and when to use the word”. His other comment was “We don’t teach our kids the 9 cantonese tones, we just teach them how speak and when to use the words and they learn from there”.

    I learned more from him in a few weeks about a language than I’ve learned from anyone else ever.

    While I’m still only fluent in one language (and barely at that!), I’ve made sure that my kids can speak three so they won’t be limited like I was.

  64. >Brain studies have shown clear differences between a monolinguists brain and that of a polylinguist for those exposed to languages at a young age.

    Yes, I read about this a few months ago and was massively unsurprised.

    The Warsaw experience I sketched in the OP was a classic moment of perspective inversion. I truly didn’t understand, before that, that most adult monolinguals are sort of language-blind outside of the channel defined by their one language. Once I had time to think about it, and readjust my mental model from “I think linguistics is interesting but I’m bad at languages” to “WTF…I have an unusual talent for this?” it didn’t take me more than a few seconds to guess that my history as a crib bilingual had to be at the back of it somehow.

    From there, the obvious conjecture was that something in crib bilinguals’ organs of Broca gets super-adapted, much the same way children who live early at high altitudes develop higher oxygen-carrying efficiency. I would have been more surprised had neurologists disconfirmed this.

  65. @LS
    “My parents told me later that I spoke perfect Spanish to the Puerto Rican kids I played with. Then we moved away to a different neighborhood and I lost it completely.”

    Rule of thumb is that if a kid stops using the language before it has learned to read it, it will lose the language. I have heard several examples of this.

  66. @Nancy Lebovitz
    >It’s a truism of the John Holt style of home-schooling that babies and small children are very capable learners, and it gets knocked out of most of them by conventional schooling. Note that I say conventional schooling rather than public schooling because there are plenty of private schools which are no better in this regard.

    >I think a lot of what’s going on is simply that humans are so rich (even in poor countries) that we don’t have to be efficient. There are so many people that there’s no incentive not to throw away most of their potential. My handy example for that is that there were a couple of isolated communities with a high proportion of deaf people. Everyone in those communities knew sign language, and whether or not a person was deaf wasn’t an interesting feature. They didn’t institutionalize deaf people– that would have been silly.

    My understanding is that 20th-C education was designed (in the mid-to-late 19th-C) to help produce better factory workers.

    That is, turn children into people who would be good at doing boring, repetitive tasks for long hours.

    I may be mistaken, and there may have been other forces involved. (In the US, there were also attempts to build a unified system to accelerate assimilation for children of immigrants.)

    But that realization explains a great deal.

  67. @Nancy Lebovitz
    “Do languages learned as children and then lost come back with exposure?”

    I do not know of actual research in this direction. However, what I know from those who experienced it (anecdotes) is that they do not think the early exposure helped them in any way in relearning the language. This was high school students who grew up in an English speaking country and later had to relearn English in high-school in the Netherlands.

  68. About school choice…
    I went to school in a country (Belgium) where most schools were privately run, but government funded schools. The principle was “funding follows the student” and schools did compete with each other to attract students. I went to a Catholic (Jesuit run) high school 85 km away from home. My brothers and sisters all went to different schools. School choice, and government funded religious schools exist elsewhere in Europe too. (In Belgium 70% of the schools are run by the Catholic Church…)
    I think the fear that suddenly “creationism” will be taught if schools are run by churches is unfounded. When schools compete for students parents suddenly look at things like “how many students of this school get accepted by top universities”. I doubt schools teaching bogus science would fare well in a proper education market. None of the Catholic schools in Belgium taught funny science.

    In my native country there existed then special “school advisors” who would suggest what the best school for your kid (based on personality and talents) could be. In my case this “advisor” actually didn’t do a very good job though, and I ended up spending two hours travelling by train to and from a school I thoroughly hated. That has made me a bit ambivalent about school choice. Not going to the school most kids in your neighborhood go to really messes your social life up.
    Where I live now kids go to school till they’re 15 in the local neighborhood school (compulsory schooling ends at 15 in Switzerland). These schools are quite small, as the principle here is that every child should be able to walk to school (so you need lots of them). There exists a lot of local control (our town is run via townhall meetings). The schools seem to do a good job of teaching the essentials. Most kids go for apprenticeships when they graduate at 15.

    Comparing my experience in both countries (and a third one I lived in) I think that Switzerland has the best balance. Schools are government run and paid, but the government involved is a small one, close to the people.

  69. “Do languages learned as children and then lost come back with exposure?”

    I can confirm Winter’s comment from my own experience. Twenty years after I lost the Spanish that I had learned in early childhood, I went to work for a Spanish language radio station. I was completely immersed in a Spanish language environment, but the language did NOT come back. What little I learned, I learned from scratch.

    …siga la musica continua…en HOM, el sonido de hoy…la primerissima en Neuva York…1480 en su radio.

    And all New Yorkers will recognize, “Aviso – la via del tren subteraneo es peligrosa….”

  70. @Patrick Maupin
    >> We have even managed to get grown up Japanese and Chinese people to hear the difference between R and L
    >That’s noteworthy. Maybe you can even train me to speak/understand French.

    I think so. I’m occasionally working through our French course myself, and it teaches me things I failed to grasp in 5 years of French lessons in school.

    >> This means that hearing and speaking skills should come before reading and writing.
    >Is it a serious problem if you know how to read/write a language already, or just inefficient?

    No, being able to read and write the language at any level is not a problem, you just spent too much time getting those skills (unless you are one on the small minority of people who do much better at grammar and rules than at spoken language (these people tend to be very interested in languages and become linguists and language teachers)).
    It can be a bit of a problem if you have used the spoken language for a long time, because bad pronunciation tends to cement over time. Nevertheless, we have seen astonishing improvements by people who have been in Sweden for many years and were speaking with a bad accent. (Laura Creighton made a breakthrough by practicing daily for about 10 days.)

    @esr:
    >How do you explain people like me, who can pick up stuff like Xhosa click sounds and the weird double fricative Polish uses on very limited exposure? If I’m building new neuron >structures for that, I’m doing it awfully fast.

    We have circuitry for recognizing sounds that are not part of language. This is quite slow for most people and very fast for some. Musicians, and especially improvising ones, have a quick pickup of various sounds. There is also some indication that some people have a special propensity for picking up languages (growing up multilingual is most certainly a factor that helps you deal with foreign sounds).

    One thing that has become clear to me is that the plasticity of the brain together with our capability of introspection make the equation of how we learn an extremely complex one. We can only talk about in statistical terms, because there will always be individual examples that work in different and totally surprising ways. When we learn things, we are not programming the brain, we are metaprogramming it, while changing the hardware at the same time, and using the same brain for the task. It’s like modifying the Linux kernel on the fly using cat, while wildly hotswapping core CPU modules.

    @Jessica Boxer:
    Unfortunately I don’t have all that much material at this time. There are some things at http://www.sotospeak.se, but they don’t really go into any depth. I strongly recommend the
    “Reading in the Brain” book. It is fantastic. The Language Instinct, by Stephen Pinker is an interesting read too, though he is a bit too Chomskyan for my taste.

    For the effects of massve exposure, there is an interesting Google Techtalk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyPrL0cmJRs&feature=relmfu .
    There is some quite interesting research on what words and how many you need to know to understand English. Google for “Paul Nation” and “Tom Cobb”, to find the research of the top names in the field.

    My latest find are some articles that could explain why the methodologies of Rosetta Stone and other “natural method” proponents don’t work as well as they would like. They also give us a number of other insights in how small children learn language. When an adult points to an object and talks about it, the child initially has no clue what the thing said is about. Is the adult trying to say that it is a ball, that it is round, red, made of plastic or that it is sitting on the shelf. Finding out is not done by focusing on the ball, but trying to understand what the adult is thinking of. The focus is not on the object, but on the communicator. Showing pictures of objects together with text or spoken phrases do very little for the learning, and may even be harmful. I have heard of research that I haven’t managed to get a first hand source for, that claims that when presented with visual and auditive stimuli, the visual ones will dominate in brain activation in most people, making the memory effect of the auditive stimuli weaker.

    Another interesting thing about the research is that children put weights of authority on the incoming information. Children of age 2 tend not to commit anything to memory from speakers of dubious authority. This includes adults who show uncertainty, people who are saying things that don’t fit in the current world view and other children.

    At age 3, children have a full understanding of different domains, and that things said in a different language are different from gibberish. They can easily sort things by domain and apply different criteria for authority for the different domains.

    The article on the subject can be found at http://www.psych.ucalgary.ca/CCD/LCD-%20Lab/pdf%20files/hendersongraham.pdf.
    It has a nice list of references that I have started following.

  71. @Jacob:

    Thanks for the reply. That’s all very interesting!

    I have heard of research that I haven’t managed to get a first hand source for, that claims that when presented with visual and auditive stimuli, the visual ones will dominate in brain activation in most people, making the memory effect of the auditive stimuli weaker.

    I remember seeing in the past some research that, for learning, the different kinds of stimulus can be complementary, but only if the information presented via each independent stimuli is complementary, rather than simply repetitive. Apparently, if you are simply reading off your powerpoint, that’s much worse than merely displaying the powerpoint. I don’t remember seeing why, but presumably people get bored and disengage, because you are very slowly telling them stuff they just read.

    I didn’t find that exact thing when I just looked, but googling for powerpoint and learning seems to bring up some interesting results. Here’s one:

    http://www.lifeafterpowerpoint.com/?tag=visual-auditory-kinesthetic

  72. >Musicians, and especially improvising ones, have a quick pickup of various sounds.

    I think that’s the winner. I’m a musician who improvises effectively at the drop of a note. Interesting. I was counting on my musical ear to help me get Mandarin tones quickly; I didn’t know that it’s useful for other kinds of odd phonology as well. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

    This theory leads to a testable prediction: studio engineers will be good with “foreign” sounds.

  73. From K_ Says:
    >Most kids go for apprenticeships when they graduate at 15.

    This is in line with my suggestion that “Nine years is lots” rhetorical-proposal. From a retained-learning point of view, High School is a silly but incredibly boring waste of time for most people.

    Of course, High Schools offer social opportunities (and for us nerds, opportunities to be punched) – the 420 meme supposedly started in a particular high school where a group of students would meet outside a particular door each day at 4:20.

    I throw out the idea again: Despite current attitudes about education, for at least 99.9% of the population, Paul Simon said it all:

    When I think of all the crap I learned in high school
    it’s a wonder I can think at all.
    And my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none;
    I can read the writing on the wall.

    Meanwhile, the nerds like me already new about subatomic particles while in elementary school.

  74. The “Educational Establishment” doesn’t listen to anyone outside its self. You could name (and I’m sure folks have – I haven’t read all the comments) charter schools and the lack of interest in anything that doesn’t lead to college. Consider what Mike Rowe – of Dirty Jobs – had to say to Congress.

    My father was an educational administrator. In the 80s, he was for time, Principal of a school built on the “open concept.” This was the “school without walls.” Outside of bathrooms, and a few offices, there were teaching areas, but no classrooms. Anyone with 2 brain-cells to rub together would have known this would be a disaster. But some PhD. Thesis did an experiment – no doubt at a lab-school where most of the parents were college professors, engineers, lawyers or other parents who would ensure the kids learned no matter what the school did. And that experiment was a success. The trouble was, the premise was flawed, the experimental environment was not a part of reality, and by the time the schools were being built in suburbia, it was a catastrophe. My dad oversaw the building a walls almost on day 1.

    More recently was “whole language.” It didn’t work. Around the time it was introduced, “Hooked on Phonics” became an industry, because kids stopped learning to read. (All that tedious teaching kids to read, and vocabulary worksheets and SPELLING- yuck.) Teachers didn’t want to be bothered. Forget about diagramming sentence structure. So they adopted whole language, and clung to it for YEARS after it was shown to be a failure. The University of Louisiana (or was it Alabama?) was teaching it long after others abandoned it, and only relented when they were threatened with having the accreditation yanked.

    The teaching establishment is no longer interested in teaching. It doesn’t care about what the country needs. (More plumbers and welders please, fewer people with degrees in multicultural studies.) It is one of the reasons the Occupy $Place movement is full of recent-college-grads with no clue about the real world or how to get a job. (Or how to pick a degree.)

  75. > vocabulary worksheets … diagramming sentence structure.

    I would like to suggest that diagramming sentence structure has as little to do with kids learning to read as an academic investigation of word origins – it is another example of trying to teach kids to be teachers/professors. I’m not sure what “vocabulary worksheets” are, but I can just tell that I would hate them.

    The greatest gift a parent can give a child with a mind is the desire to read, the ability to read easily. Reading to a child, getting them to want to know how the story is going to come out, teaching them the alphabet and teaching them to sound out words… I know I am speaking as a nerd, about nerd children, but if your kids can’t do this by the time they enter school at age 6, there is something wrong with you or something drastically wrong with your child.

    I am thinking that comic books, aimed at pre-schoolers and elementary school kids would probably be the greatest tool of schooling that one could have, if such comics existed and particularly if they were designed with an eye towards being understandable only if the “reader” did at least a little reading. As a hard-core (non-politically-active snall-l) libertarian, with no small kids, I would gladly approve an increase in my taxes to support the production and distribution of such comics.

    If your kids can read, they can learn anything else. (They can also become hopelessly addicted to ESR’s blogs, but that is another matter.)

  76. @Brian Marshall:

    I know I am speaking as a nerd, about nerd children, but if your kids can’t do this by the time they enter school at age 6, there is something wrong with you or something drastically wrong with your child.

    Yeah. It’s hard to pinpoint when it starts, because the process is really pretty organic. My oldest daughter was certainly reading reasonably well before she entered kindergarden. We moved when she was halfway through kindergarden, at which point she could read just about anything, and my wife went down to the new school with her and they did an “assessment” which mainly consisted of them asking my wife about how well my daughter did this or that — after all it was only kindergarden.

    About two weeks later, they had a parent’s night at the new school where the kids got to show off all their little projects and what-not. We went down there, and the teacher came up and enthusiastically introduced herself to me and then turned to my wife and said “when you said Suzanna could read, you weren’t kidding, were you??!?”

    I guess a lot of parents say their kids can read because the kids know what the parents are going to say on the next page of Hop On Pop, or something.

    FWIW, Suzanna had a lot more books to choose from, and more trips to the library, than I did growing up, but since I can read fairly well, I made sure that the same books I cut my teeth on were readily available to her — Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.

  77. I know I am speaking as a nerd, about nerd children, but if your kids can’t do this by the time they enter school at age 6, there is something wrong with you or something drastically wrong with your child.

    I’ve seen a claim in a homeschooling source that children naturally learn to read by the time they’re 8, and that pushing them to learn earlier than comes easily to them just makes reading into a fraught topic. Does anyone have actual information on the subject?

  78. > pushing them to learn earlier than comes easily to them just makes reading into a fraught topic.

    My point is that the greatest gift you can give a child is the desire to read so that they go it enough for it to become easy enough that they do it all their lives. Whether it starts at 4 or 6… 4 year-olds can certaily start to learn the alphabet, first as a song, then as letters that you point out while you are reading to them, then as letters they are pointing out as they try to read a word.

    But the important thing is GET THEM READING.

  79. > I made sure that the same books I cut my teeth on were readily available to her

    Yeah, whatever works… The most important thing is getting them to want to read – given that, the special theory of relativity is theirs for the taking (not at 4, of course) – Einstein wrote a great little book with almost no math beyond a bit of subtraction and velocity/distance stuff – you (or at least, I) have to read it over and over to really get it – I really need to read it again, now a couple of times.

    But yeah – the key is finding something that they want to know how it comes out.

  80. “when you said Suzanna could read, you weren’t kidding, were you??!?”

    My parents and six older siblings told me that when I was 2 years old, sitting in the grocery cart, I’d make Mom hand me each thing she wanted to buy so I could read the label. People would say “oh, that’s cute, he thinks he can read” or “he’s not really reading that”, and Mom (or Dad, who worked at the grocery store) would tell me to read out loud the ingredient list. About the time I got to “riboflavin” or “mono- and di-glycerides” they’d believe. I didn’t know there was anything extraordinary about reading at such a young age; my next-older brother was three years less two days older than me, and I just assumed that if he could do something, I ought to be able to do it too.

    It occurs to me that exposure to other languages (even the Greek that always came up in New Testament concordances, which we learned as single vocabulary words, nothing about how to conjugate verbs or decline nouns and adjectives) prepares people to learn the languages of mathematics and science, computers, etc. leaving monolingual people find themselves at a comparative disadvantage.

    Once you know any other language, you have an innate sense that “the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory”, because you have two or more different words for the same thing, and false cognates that sound or look like the same word, but clearly don’t mean the same thing. And that makes you more resistant to entire classes of sophistry that depend on you equating things just because their names are similar.

  81. I know I am speaking as a nerd, about nerd children, but if your kids can’t do this by the time they enter school at age 6, there is something wrong with you or something drastically wrong with your child.

    Way to go with respecting neurodiversity there, dude. My older son (7, bilingual Japanese/English in Japan) still has problems with sounding out letters, though I recently wrote him a cheesy little Javascript practice page which seems to have helped. And he taught himself both sets of kana from a poster we stuck on the wall, which seems to be what most kids do here.

    Immersion is great for kids, but I’m curious to know how people go about setting it up for adults, who normally have to work and stuff. I mean, I’ve been here for seven years, and my Japanese would be honoured to be described as “rudimentary”. But most people I know who’ve found time to take classes, with Grammar and stuff (Which Is Useless! Word!) seem to have made lots of progress. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo.

    I’ve seen a claim in a homeschooling source that children naturally learn to read by the time they’re 8, and that pushing them to learn earlier than comes easily to them just makes reading into a fraught topic.

    I think that’s the way the Steiner schools view it.

  82. > Way to go with respecting neurodiversity there, dude.

    Hey, I was engaging in hyperbole. Everyone is different and relatively better at somethings and relatively worse at others. ESR can improvise music; I can improvise kung fu. On the other hand, I can Never remember whether “Moving the deadline up” means moving it forward or back – how the hell do you relate either of those to “up”? My brain just does not remember arbitrary binary symbols for two opposites. That is just one of my weaknesses.

    The important thing isn’t the age, it’s that they learn to read (I think this point may already have been covered – hint: I frequently say things in a particular way because I think it is funny; the last comment was hyperbole too).

    On the other hand, I have been listening to people respecting diversity ever since… I was sitting in Junior High in Canada and the teacher said “Our unity comes from our diversity” or some such thing. I naturally thought that she had accidentally used the opposite of one of the two words, that she misspoke. She was a bit miffed that I didn’t just accept what she said. Since then, for the last 40 years, the idea has become the “Only Acceptable Truth” and a lack of respect of diversity in some contexts is now a tort or even a crime.

    I recognize diversity. I like diversity. But I am fed up with having it rammed down my throat, now by force of law.

    Sorry, Man, but you hit one of my hot buttons…

    I don’t suppose that you were just trying to be funny? Your son is presumably fine although there is an interesting point here. If he wasn’t bilingual, maybe he wouldn’t be having this problem or to this degree. Most people are improved by learning a second language, but maybe the way some brains are wired, the two languages are interfering with each other. I am not suggesting that this is the case, but in the context of this blog, it is an interesting idea.

  83. @Nancy Lebovitz:

    I’ve seen a claim in a homeschooling source that children naturally learn to read by the time they’re 8, and that pushing them to learn earlier than comes easily to them just makes reading into a fraught topic. Does anyone have actual information on the subject?

    I can well believe both those things about most children. We often had the girls in extracurricular activities, and I felt very sorry for the kids whose parents made them do a zillion different things — a frantic existence. But there’s a huge difference between pushing kids and setting up things so that the kids themselves want to do things.

    @Brian Marshall:

    Yeah, whatever works… The most important thing is getting them to want to read…

    Exactly.

    @The Monster:

    My parents and six older siblings told me that when I was 2 years old [I could read really, really big words].

    I was kind of the opposite. I apparently didn’t even speak until I was 2 years old (but did so in complete sentences then. I guess everything was fine before that…)

    My mother was worried about me, because I was 5 and didn’t recognize numbers and couldn’t count to ten. But a couple of months later, they started giving me an allowance, and a couple of months after that, if somebody asked me how much a couple of things cost at the store, I’d give them the price with the sales tax included.

    @Adam Smith:

    Immersion is great for kids, but I’m curious to know how people go about setting it up for adults, who normally have to work and stuff.

    You need to find a place to work where they won’t coddle you by speaking English at you. Necessity’s a mother. :-)

  84. > I apparently didn’t even speak until I was 2 years old (but did so in complete sentences then.

    This is SO off topic, but… my daughter started speaking before she started using complete sentences. But the first complete sentence she spoke was: “Is that Sargent Pepper?”

  85. But a couple of months later, they started giving me an allowance, and a couple of months after that, if somebody asked me how much a couple of things cost at the store, I’d give them the price with the sales tax included.

    It has been my experience that people who do really badly at math often find their aptitudes enhanced by putting things in monetary terms.

  86. I also see a parallel between poly-lingual humans and software projects. When Linux moved from 386 only to include the Alpha architecture (which is big-endian, making it very different from the 386), the developers had to go through a massive re-write, extracting every bit of architecture-dependent code to be compiled conditionally, leaving an independent code base that adapted to the next platform far quicker. It has become expected that Linux can be ported to an entirely new architecture with very little effort, precisely because of this rigorous separation.

    I think anyone who achieves sufficient fluency in a second language should find that his own thinking has undergone a similar process that makes adapting to a third, fourth, fifth… language far easier than the second.

  87. >I think anyone who achieves sufficient fluency in a second language should find that his own thinking has undergone a similar process that makes adapting to a third, fourth, fifth… language far easier than the second.

    That is quite well known to be true among polyglots. With only four languages in my history I’m a low-grade example, but even I have experienced this effect.

  88. >Once you know any other language, you have an innate sense that “the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory”, because you have two or more different words for the same thing, and false cognates that sound or look like the same word, but clearly don’t mean the same thing. And that makes you more resistant to entire classes of sophistry that depend on you equating things just because their names are similar.

    Absolutely true. My wife’s non-English skills are limited to spoken French and a few words of Polish, and are thus more limited than mine ; nevertheless she has noticed this effect.

    (Cathy seems to learn and retain languages relatively easily, but doesn’t have my Frodo ear for tricky phonology or my knack for rapidly absorbing lexical items in a previously unknown language. I guess that’s what “good at languages” looks like in people who weren’t lucky enough to have been crib bilinguals and gotten their brains rewired by it.)

  89. This is a fascinating subject. I am at the opposite end of the spectrum from ESR, which makes his essay an interesting contrast to my own experiences.

    I had no exposure to foreign languages whatsoever (barring Sesame Street) until high school. As a result, I can’t hear or pronounce those subtly-different phonemes that are not found in English. But when I starting taking French class in high school, I earned A’s three years straight, and was the top student in that class.

    Then I went to college, took the advanced placement test for French…and was placed in 101. That ended my formal language instruction.

    Admittedly my high school only offered 3 years of French, so my senior year I never touched it at all. The gap probably weakened my performance. But I think the bigger issue is that I was very good at memorizing and applying all those grammar rules, conjugations, accent marks, etc. which meant that I was highly skilled at what was on the school tests, but very poor at actually pronouncing the words correctly, struggled to remember vocabulary, and couldn’t really use the language in practice.

    I’ve read that the magic cutoff age for most people is around 11 or 12. There is some evidence that past that age you can learn a language well enough to use it, but you can never be truly fluent and sound like a native speaker. Of course there are some individuals who retain their childhood language learnings skills into adulthood; I knew one during my undergraduate years, and everyone else called her “The Language Goddess”, because we didn’t feel we were from the same planet. :-)

  90. The comments of LS and others on learning Morse Code are dead on. I’m a ham radio operator, and I struggled initially to get past 5 words per minute. I tried using Morse-training tapes, but they just didn’t retain my interest.

    So some years passed when I didn’t use the code at all. Then I met an “Elmer”, an elderly man who became a good friend and had been doing radio for years. He and I set up a schedule where we would get on the radio once a week at an agreed time and have a conversation on the air for an hour or so. Initially I’d be doing about 5 – 7 words per minute, but in just a few months I was cranking up the rate.

    I eventually settled at about 16 words per minute as a comfortable working speed. Now I can enjoy long conversations in Morse about anything under the sun, although I still don’t have enough experience to do “head copy”, where you listen to the conversation without writing anything down and just remember the core meaning. But with a pencil in my hand, I can have a lot of fun and just chat without making it into work.

    It definitely makes a difference how you learn and use Morse, and the closer you can get to a “language immersion” experience, the faster and more effectively you will learn it.

  91. @Nancy Lebovitz:
    “I’ve seen a claim in a home schooling source that children naturally learn to read by the time they’re 8, and that pushing them to learn earlier than comes easily to them just makes reading into a fraught topic. Does anyone have actual information on the subject?”

    I haven’t heard this, but would be interested to hear more if anyone has. I suspect that the most important thing is the amount of exposure that kids get. Malcolm Gladwell talk about this in his book “Outliers”, showing some data from a study that indicates kids from all SES levels make significant progress in skills during the school year, but during the summer the upper-middle-class and higher kids keep moving forward (e.g., lots of books and other learning opportunities at home), while the lower-class kids stagnant or even regress (because they’re just watching TV or shooting hoops).

    Of course, this cuts both ways. My mother tells me that I was already reading at 3. She also told me that when I started kindergarten, the teacher lectured her as to why she should not have taught me to read before starting school. Apparently the teacher was uncomfortable dealing with kids who were ahead of her curriculum plan…

  92. >But I think the bigger issue is that I was very good at memorizing and applying all those grammar rules, conjugations, accent marks, etc. which meant that I was highly skilled at what was on the school tests, but very poor at actually pronouncing the words correctly, struggled to remember vocabulary, and couldn’t really use the language in practice.

    No blame attaches. You produced exactly the kind of behavior conventional language instruction is designed to elicit, and it’s not your fault that it has so little relevance to actual language competence.

  93. >It definitely makes a difference how you learn and use Morse, and the closer you can get to a “language immersion” experience, the faster and more effectively you will learn it.

    I maintain a Morse-code trainer that’s designed to produce this kind of immersion. I accepted the maintainer’s baton because I wanted to use it to learn Morse…but I haven’t yet. Keeps falling to the bottom of my to-do list.

  94. I spoke to an Esperantist at an educational fair in Paris about ten years ago, and he told me that one of the benefits they’d found of teaching it as a second language to children was that its extreme regularity made it so easy to learn that it seemed to boost the levels subsequently achieved with other languages later on, which were considerably higher than those reached by kids who hadn’t done it.

  95. Hey, I was engaging in hyperbole.

    “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” is hyperbole, nobody’s going to expect you to actually do it. But “if your kids can’t do this by the time they enter school at age 6, there is something wrong with you or something drastically wrong with your child” is a bit less obviously ridiculous.

    Everyone is different and relatively better at somethings and relatively worse at others. ESR can improvise music; I can improvise kung fu.

    What makes you so sure ESR can’t improvise Kung Fu as well?

    [...]

    I don’t suppose that you were just trying to be funny?

    I would never *just* do that.

    Your son is presumably fine although there is an interesting point here. If he wasn’t bilingual, maybe he wouldn’t be having this problem or to this degree. Most people are improved by learning a second language, but maybe the way some brains are wired, the two languages are interfering with each other. I am not suggesting that this is the case, but in the context of this blog, it is an interesting idea.

    Well, bilingualism isn’t free. Kids have got a double load to learn, and their dominant language is generally behind that of their monolingual peers for a while, though I’m assured they do catch up (and perhaps overtake) eventually. My lack of seriousness about Japanese does help force my sons to use English, as Japanese is not an option when they want me to do something for them – if I could speak it I’d have to establish the habit of not replying to things I understood.

  96. >What makes you so sure ESR can’t improvise Kung Fu as well?

    I wondered that myself. :-)

    >Kids have got a double load to learn, and their dominant language is generally behind that of their monolingual peers for a while, though I’m assured they do catch up (and perhaps overtake) eventually.

    I’m not sure how that normally works. My language skills didn’t seem to lag during the time I was bilingual, but this may be because I wasn’t being compared with monolinguals who were bright enough for such an effect to be visible.

  97. Well, I’m obviously not in a position to judge my son’s Japanese, but my wife seems to think his friends can often express themselves in it a bit better than he can, that’s all. I presume your parents both spoke English to you, and that might be a different situation.

  98. The problem with this blog (other than it’s high addiction factor) is that by the time I’ve read down to the comment form, I’ve forgotten at least half of the things I wanted to comment on. I suppose I just need to come up with a better system for following it.

    Anyway, here’s a few things that have come to me while reading it…

    My experience with languages has (I think) been very fortunate. I went to a preschool run out of a Cuban woman’s house and she taught everyone Spanish. According to my parents I would sometimes go into a store, begin a conversation in Spanish with someone inside, and when the storeperson tried to speak to my parents in Spanish, they would get funny looks when they explained that they didn’t speak any Spanish. I remember very little of it now, but on the rare occasion when I am surrounded by Spanish (like a few years ago when I went to Mexico for a friend’s wedding), I do find things coming more and more naturally, so I’m not convinced that everything is lost. (Of course I was reading by the time I left preshool for “real” school, so perhaps that’s why).

    [aside: Although I could read perfectly well, could do basic arithmetic, and had already realized that there was no actual limit on how high I could count when I started Kindergarten, I was almost held back. This was, literally, because I could/would not color inside the lines. Coloring, you see, came right before recess, and as soon as we were done we could go out and play...I'm sure you see what the real problem was. My kindergarten teacher, however, thought I was at least mildly retarded. She thought the same of most of my friends, who turned out to all be very bright. One ("He'll never amount to anything") is a lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court. Another ("That boy just can't learn") is I think working on his third major degree (Architecture, Architectural Engineering, and something else). The school librarian at the same elementary school told me in third grade that I couldn't check out "The Hobbit" because it was a fifth grade book, and I was only in third grade. The look on her face when I told her that it was one of my favorite books and I had already read it twice makes me grin to this day. Long story short (too late), I learned early on that school was basically crazy, and you had to show them what they wanted to see, regardless of what you actually learned.]

    When I reached highshool, I ended up taking 3 years of French, which I was fairly good at having an attractive female teacher the first year (right or wrong, this will hold the attention of an adolescent boy), and one of those really good teachers the other two years. You know the ones. The ones who are competent _and_ give a crap. I likewise can’t conciously recall much French today, but every couple of years I hook up with one of my high school buddies who also took French, and we can still converse. Living in North Texas, I don’t have a lot of other conversation partners…

    In college I had the best luck of all. I took four semesters of Japanese (all that was offered). The instructors were decent, though not spectacular. The amazing piece of luck was this. When I started college (at Texas A&M) they had a branch campus in Koriyama, Japan. I had been looking forward to maybe doing a semester abroad there, but sadly it closed. This meant that a lot of Japanese students there suddenly had unfinished degrees, so they came to Texas to finish them. Sadly, they ran afoul of state standardized testing requirements, and while of course they were all well-educated enough to easily pass the basic math and “language” parts of whatever test you had to take to get college credit from a state school in Texas, very few of them could finish the timed “writing sample” part of the test (they could all write in English, just not _fast_ enough). Thus the state in it’s infinite wisdom (<-sarcasm!) said they could only take "remedial" classes. For native Japanese students this included (you guessed it) Japanese 101, etc. So for all four semesters, _every_ _single_ native English-speaking student in the class, had a native Japanese-speaking conversation partner. I cannot possibly describe how helpful this was. Of course, then I graduated, and again, not many Japanese speakers in the North Texas area, so I've lost most of it. I could probably pick it up again fairly quickly if I needed to, though.

    As far as kids reading…I expect my kids to be able to read simple books on their own by age 4. It's not a hard limit, but I will feel as if _I_ have failed them if I don't meet this goal (already met for the older one, the younger is only 2, so he's still working on basic letters and sounds). I expect the "making kids learn too fast" or "reading too early" crowd isn't teaching them right. You don't force them to read. You get them to _want_ to read. You praise them every time they read a street sign, or a can label, or whatever. Later you get them to figure out that they can learn all kinds of things by reading it themselves, and they won't have to wait on anyone else to tell them. Or get them to figure out that they can entertain themselves almost anywhere with a good story book or a magazine. Reading to them also helps. Tonight I fulfilled a lifelong dream when I finally managed to get the older boy to sit still and listen to Kipling's Just So Stories. I've been looking forward to that since I was about 12. Yes, I'm weird.

    If there's a difference between mono- and poly-linguistic brains, I must have the latter. I seem to have a talent for languages, which mostly goes unused, since I never have the opportunity for the actual training/practice needed to become fluent. But I have a good ear for accents, and can replicate them pretty easily. And once I actually learned the way you make the Chinese -sh and -zh sounds it became instantly clear to me the difference between those and the Western versions, and I could hear them easily. At the time I stopped really using it, I was just getting to be able to discern regional accents in Japanese. It drives me nuts when they cast two British actors in a movie who are supposed to have grown up together or something and one has a London accent and the other a "Northern" accent. Etc, etc.

    The question is, how do I get immersion in a language no one else near me speaks? Like Irish Gaelic? I've been playing around with that for years, but it's all mostly from books, and more recently the Internet. There's a meetup here for Japanese speakers, though noone seems to show up (though I haven't tried to go in quite a while), and I worked at a Japanese company for a while (though the Japanese all wanted to practice their English), but other than that, there's not much opportunity for Japanese either. Of course, it's not like I _need_ to speak any of these, but it sure would be nice.

    Anyway, it's late, and I'm rambling. I had some more stuff in my brain about schools, learning, programming languages, etc. but I've gone on long enough.

    p.s. Despite years of practice, I am still a lousy typist. Please forgive the typos.

  99. >What makes you so sure ESR can’t improvise Kung Fu as well?

    I was making a list using improvising as something impressive that some people can do. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if ESR can improvise kung fu – I would be surprised if he couldn’t.

    I see kung fu as being much broader than simply a group of Chinese martial arts. I see kung fu as doing the hard work of teaching your body how to do some physical process, but then once learned, you just relax, let the situation happen and respond to it. I realize that this applies much more to Wing Chun than to some other forms of kung fu.

    This whole approach is largely a result of my master, my Sifu, Brian Lewandy, who is the most peaceful, mellow man I have ever known. My master’s master was William Cheung whose master was Yip Man (who was also Bruce Lee’s master). So, I descend from the Yip Man branch of Wing Chun kung fu and my master’s master and Bruce Lee had the same master, a fact that I love.

    Anyway, as I was saying, I see kung fu as learning, then just responding. Walking is kung fu. Driving is really kung fu – it is what keeps almost all of us alive even though the roads are covered with yahoos. From the way ESR describes learning and playing the flute, it is clearly kung fu.

    @ESR
    Getting back to the Yip Man branch – I don’t know much about Tae Kwon Do, but I know a little bit about aikido. I believe that being good at aikido requires skill – you have to successfully meld with your opponent, which is fine if you have the skill. The beauty of the Wing Chun I studied is that it really doesn’t require skill in the same way… you teach your body to move in the Wing Chun way and geometry just makes it work. To a certain extent, it even protects you against people who are better than you – it isn’t how fast you are, it is how soon you start the move. Some moves have parts where you momentarily kill time to wait for the kick to pass you… it is really quite amazing. If this was not your experience with Wing Chun, and you want to continue to learn more martial arts, I would encourage you to give the Yip Man branch a try. It is a very small art, relatively speaking and like aikido, it is totally defensive. It was (the story goes) designed by a woman for a woman; it works for old people. If you really master, the stuff they teach you in the first week, you can do kung fu. I love it – it changed my life.

  100. So off topic, but so cool… A bit more about Wing Chun…

    I have passed level 5, which means that I am basically a junior senior. The interesting bit was that I was consulting and traveling for most of a year, all the time in the months leading up to testing. I did all my practicing by myself. On the day of the test, I told Sifu that I had never actually been taught a defense against the spinning back kick. He showed me a defense without leaving his chair. I didn’t really like it, so I used a different defense that I had seen – basically doing what looks like a kick at the opponent’s thigh but is really just jamming the opponent’s leg as it comes around. The problem was that, by this point, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t get my foot high enough by the time I had to do it on the other side. So I just invented a new defense, part way through grading – I stepped in a little deeper and jammed the leg coming around with my knee. Wing Chun is a truly cool martial art.

  101. >I believe that being good at aikido requires skill

    It does. I wasn’t very good at aikido – the movement style collided badly with my cerebral palsy in some ways, and the art is a poor psychological fit for me in others. On the other hand, I liked wing chun a lot better and was (I thought) quite good at it. It has one serious limitation, though, which is that you have to be in real close – you plain can’t fight at the longer engagement range typical for (say) TKD. As a matter of personal style I don’t actually mind this, as I’m physically and psychologically tough enough to like close-in fighting, but I think it’s a bad deal for anyone who doesn’t have that preference. Unless he/she is really quick.

    I think my school was part of the Yip Man branch or something close to it, though I don’t recall the exact lineage.

  102. A thing I like in Aikido is the “plausable deniability”. A good Aikido fighter will break arms and legs (even necks) of her opponent without anyone understanding what happened. “He just fell” will even hold up if there is a low quality video recording. The less people understand what happenen, the better.

    Practicing bare handed against swords was very educational and entertaining. The one thing it drives home is that you should not fight people with swords bare-handed. That holds mm for knives. I won’t talk about that nonsense of “Aikido against guns” they taught in Tokyo.

  103. The one thing it drives home is that you should not fight people with swords bare-handed.

    Things like this need to be driven home?

  104. >That holds mm for knives.

    Disagree. A competent empty-hand fighter can take on an opponent with a short blade with much better odds than facing a sword. One major difference is that a knife hit probably won’t kill you outright or put you in immediate shock, outcomes that are far more likely from a sword hit.

    And you absolutely should close to grapple against a gun. I’m not good at this – too slow on my feet – but it’s definitely an effective tactic for many people more agile than me. Retreating from a knife makes sense, but nobody’s going to outrun a bullet; also, a charge is the last thing a gunman is likely to expecting and prepared for. The key is not hesitating and not telegraphing the move; you have to go in fast, hard, and total. My sword school teaches this.

  105. I learned some French and a little German at school in the UK, and I started trying to learn Mandarin a little over a year ago, nearly 20 years after finishing with European languages.

    One thing I’ve learned with non-native English speakers, that surprised me at first, is that I (and I guess, everyone else) is much more forgiving of rough spoken language than of rough written language. My Italian or Chinese friends with good-but-not-perfect English could make themselves understood very well in spoken English, and I never paid any attention to their language errors. Reading their emails was rather more painful.

    Two things stand out about learnign Chinese versus learning other European languages:
    - the phoneme set is definitely the right place to start with Chinese, and probably not the right place to start with European languages. The differences with Chinese are too great to deal with “later”. Using pinyin without first learning how it maps to sounds it worse than useless.
    - Written language is a useful accelerator of the language learning process for many languages. Reading French or German helped, I believe, the process of learning to speak and listen to the language. Learning to read and write pinyin may be as helpful, but learning to read and write hanzi, while useful in its own right, is not a huge help to speaking and listening.

    Purely from my own experience, I am skeptical of what seems to be the generally accepted view of language learning – that it’s the territiory of those under eight, or ten, or some other magical age. I suspect that language learning is very much faster when you have no choice but to do it all day every day. I don’t yet see the need for any additional explanations in terms of brain plasticity.

  106. Adrian: You mean someone finally found a use for Esperanto?

    Personally, I’m endlessly amused – and, I understand, Esperanto partisans are thoroughly pissed off – by the fact that Klingon has more speakers than Esperanto ever did…

  107. @esr
    “Disagree. A competent empty-hand fighter can take on an opponent with a short blade with much better odds than facing a sword. One major difference is that a knife hit probably won’t kill you outright or put you in immediate shock, outcomes that are far more likely from a sword hit.”

    I was told about a test by a competent knife fighter vs a competent martial arts fighter. The knife was blunt with ink marker on the “sharp” side. After the test, the bare-hand fighter was full of marker. A sharp knife would have cut him up. The advice I got is to avoid a fight and run if at all possible when seeing a knife. A short knife might give you a small window of opportunity. Maybe you know of better statistics, but my understanding is that the person with the knife wins and the person without ends up (almost) dead.

    When opposed to a gun the choice is mainly between surrender or die. If the other side is prepared to kill you, he will pull the trigger if he even sees you blink. I brought this up because one of the early students of the founder of Aikido gave lessons to the Tokyo police force to fight against opponents with guns. The initiative was thoroughly discredited.

  108. > re: Wing Chun
    I don’t actually mind this, as I’m physically and psychologically tough enough to like close-in fighting, but I think it’s a bad deal for anyone who doesn’t have that preference. Unless he/she is really quick.

    Here, I roll out of bed to apologize for lecturing about Wing Chun in a language blog and everyone is OK with it; in general I will try not to do this, but, man, this is a great place…

    Anyway, when I used to screw around with martial arts in the high school <euphemism)Judo</euphemism) club, I always wanted to engage as far away as possible because I was afraid of getting kicked.

    But in Wing Chun, it isn't how fast you are, it is how soon you start your reaction (the same way you avoid dying driving your car). I found it weird and a little scary at first, but there are two aspects:

    The first part of every move is to step either out of the line of fire (as you read it) or in, which, surprisingly, ruins the opponent’s move. Almost every blow (punch or kick) has real power behind it only in a surprisingly short range of distances.
    Getting that close in is usually so weird for the other guy that his whole style just won’t work and he has no idea what to do.

    We did what we called “Traditional” Wing Chun, in which most moves begin with a step to put you out of the danger zone and at an unexpected angle. Whereas in what we called some other “Modified” Wing Chun styles, they don’t step, they pivot – it is faster but it doesn’t get you out of the danger zone.

    So, it isn’t how fast your moves are, it is how well you read what your opponent is starting to do. The idea is that the opponent has to move to get close enough to hit you, which gives anyone plenty of time to start reacting (if you read his move right). If he is already within engaging distance, you are supposed to be already engaged – punching him or doing something so he will do something so you can start punching him. But this shows the “nightmare scenario” for this style – some big guy might be in your space being threatening and you don’t want to start punching him.

    Sifu said many times, if you have to defend yourself, do it and then run. Witnesses won’t even see what got you moving, all they will tell the cops or judge is you pounding on the other guy.

  109. @Cathy:

    “…although I still don’t have enough experience to do “head copy”, where you listen to the conversation without writing anything down and just remember the core meaning.”

    That will come in time. What you are doing is automatically writing what your ears hear; your more conscious mind is out of the loop, but barely. The next step (you may already be there) is the realization that you are ‘copying behind’ – you are writing down letters that were actually sent a few characters ago. (Computer geeks will recognize sending received characters into a buffer, then sending them to the printer.) After that, you will start ‘hearing’ syllables and short words, instead of individual letters. At that point, your conscious mind will be sufficiently decoupled from the automatic recognition of characters and syllables that you will be able to read the incoming character stream without sending them to the ‘printer’.

  110. Hmm… Brian, that sounds suspiciously similar to OODA loops, which I first read about as applied to aerial combat.

  111. >OODA loops, which I first read about as applied to aerial combat.

    Sure – aerial combat is definitely kung fu – you teach your body to react then try to relax and just respond. In arial combat and most forms of kung fu, the orient and decide steps have to happen so fast that your consious mind can’t even tell what you are doing.

  112. @Cathy:

    “…although I still don’t have enough experience to do “head copy”, where you listen to the conversation without writing anything down and just remember the core meaning.”

    @LS:
    That will come in time. What you are doing is automatically writing what your ears hear; your more conscious mind is out of the loop, but barely. The next step (you may already be there) is the realization that you are ‘copying behind’ – you are writing down letters that were actually sent a few characters ago.

    Yes, I am definitely able to copy behind, and I hear some simple words (CQ DE, my callsign, and, etc.) as words. But my brain doesn’t currently have enough buffer space to remember a word while still being able to translate future incoming code.

    “After that, you will start ‘hearing’ syllables and short words, instead of individual letters.”

    Yes.

    “At that point, your conscious mind will be sufficiently decoupled from the automatic recognition of characters and syllables that you will be able to read the incoming character stream without sending them to the ‘printer’.”

    No, not yet. So far I feel as though I need to use the same part of my brain to remember the letters/words/phrases previously heard that also needs to do the future translating.

    Unfortunately I now live in a condo in a narrow valley, so I can’t operate from home. This reduces my operating time to almost nothing. Until I move again, I’m probably off the air on HF.

  113. @Winter:
    “I was told about a test by a competent knife fighter vs a competent martial arts fighter.”

    I have no experience with martial arts (after trying aikido briefly in college and finding that I just couldn’t “get it”), so take this comment with a grain of salt.

    I think the original poster was not necessarily referring to a competent knife fighter. I would not be surprised if a lot of those carrying knives have only rough-and-ready, untrained skills with them, and taking them down is likely not as difficult as one who is properly trained.

  114. > OODA loops

    “One of John Boyd’s primary insights in fighter combat was that it is vital to change speed and direction faster than the opponent.”

    In Wing Chun, you make your self more safe and confound your opponent by moving sideways or in-and-sideways and often in so close that your opponent’s style just doesn’t apply anymore.

    One of the various things I find amazing about Wing Chun is that I found that I could effectively train at home just imagining an opponent. In Wing Chun, you are usually defending with one hand and attacking with the other at the same time. Often, just after you engage, one of your hands goes to cover and control the opponent’s elbow. Early in my exposure to Wing Chun, I could practice this at home imagining the elbow I was pinning, then I would go to class and it would just work.

    Interesting point: In Karate, when practicing, the pairs of students carefully measure the distance they should be apart so that if the defender misses the block, he won’t get hit. In Wing Chun, the attacker has to go a deep full punch so the defender has something to work with.

    As I said in an earlier post, they must be far enough apart that the attacker has to move to reach the defender, giving the defender plenty of time to respond. It just works. If the attacker is already in striking range, you have to strike immediately because otherwise, he can easily hit you – anything he can do in less than 1/5th of a second is faster than anyone can respond.

    To be really good at kung fu, you must be very sensitive to your opponent, and, if your opponent is really good, not “telegraph” your moves. Hence the “When you can grasp the pebble from my hand, grasshopper, you will be ready to leave.” I used to think that this was so stupid when I watched the show, but when I got into Wing Chun, it all made sense. Once you can control your body so well that your opponent can’t see your intentions, and once you are so good that you can read your opponent’s intentions, you are basically a master – what particular moves and techniques you have picked up is largely irrelevant.

    I say again: If you can just master the stuff they show you in the first handful of classes of Wing Chun, you can “do kung fu”.

  115. > I think the original poster was not necessarily referring to a competent knife fighter. I would not be surprised if a lot of those carrying knives have only rough-and-ready, untrained skills with them, and taking them down is likely not as difficult as one who is properly trained.

    I agree. I once told my brother that if you are challenged in a pool hall, the best thing to do is to break a cue in half and hand the heavy half to the challenger and say “Here”. That way, he is almost certainly going to just try to use the “club”, which probably isn’t his strong suit. He will not be using his regular fighting skills and it is really easy to read what someone is going to do with a club, the heavier, the better. If you could convince him to use a tire iron, he wouldn’t have a chance.

  116. ESR,

    It’s nice to see this written by someone like you as I long suspected language teachers cripple their students but I did not really dare to speak up against the the weight of the collected experience of the experts.

    In 2009 I decided I want to live in Austria and spent three months brushing up my very-very basic level German, 3-4 hours a day, not having a job in the period. As I already suspected there is something wrong with traditional teaching methods, I avoided language textbooks and focused on learning from life, movies with substitles, newspapers, a novel. I visited a private language teacher three times a week but asked him not to teach me, just converse with me, generally focus more on having a fluent conversation rather than on grammatical correctness, only stop me and correctly if I make the same mistake all the time, otherwise, as long as he understood what I said it is a good enough. After 3 months of this I went to the University of Vienna for a language class, where out of 8 levels (where level 8 is basically for official interpreters) they wanted to put me into level 4, I was already fluent enough, but my grammar was bad, I negotiated it up to 5, began the classes and found the following surprise: these studentrs, from all over the world, from Spain to Japan, who generally spent 10+ years at various languages schools (when level 8 means interpreter 5 is already high enough) could not simply perform a fluent conversation.

    They spoke slowly, timidly, always stopping and correcting themselves, generally it took ages until they finished a sentence. Clearly they showed the influence of teachers who cared about correctness more than ability to converse, who made them afraid of making mistakes.

    Being disturbed by the slowness of my classmates, I asked myself up into level 6 and still finished third in the class, my grammar still sucked but using a dictionary with a grammar supplement was allowed and that helped. After two years of working here, I am completely fluent and my grammar stopped sucking. Well, mostly.

    I don’t think I am a genius. I think there are rather two things fundamentally wrong with the methods used by teachers.

    One of them is focus on correctness rather than a fluent and understandable communication. I think this comes from a grading attitude, that it is a lot easier to grade based on right / wrong than on how well the general conversation was going.

    Another one is the focus on a rules-based, intellectual, rationalistic way of speaking, language as if it was a science or lawyering. My method of “learning from life” and disregarding grammar followed a completely different ability of the human brain, namely patter recognition. Instead of thinking about what case follows what, I just got immersed in the language and my brain just sorted out by itself what and how people say in what situations and context – first just vaguely then more and more accurately. Why don’t the teachers encourage this behavior? Probably they are under the influence that language is a science in the schoolteaching sense of science – the same kind of attitude that thinks understanding biology is know the latin name of human bones – that you can only do something well if you know exactly what you are doing and also know the name of the rule you are using…

  117. @Cathy
    I agree, against inexperienced people the odds improve rapidly. Do not rely on incompetence, though.

  118. BTW I learned this when it took me 10 years of (private!) English classes between 6 and 16 to get a rather lousy intermediate exam (a vocabulary around 1000 words was enough, and we had to do only direct translations, not f.e. summaries or extracts) and I pretty much hated every minute ot if. Then at 16 I just bought a fantasy novel in English ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dark_Elf_Trilogy , the first one ) which I began to read with with a dictionary at the grand speed of one page per hour. By the end of this book alone I was almost reading without a dictionary, a feat in about two months that ten years of study could not even come near of achieving – and it was fun all along, it totally did not feel like work / study.

  119. I also need to add that a few decades ago programming language textbooks / docs /whatever suffered from the same problem, the “science” assumption i.e. that ability to use a programming language equals the ability to lawyer about it. Luckily some clever fellow realized in the meantime that it is actually more like a skill like cooking and thus tutorials were born…

  120. I tended to get high marks in foreign language classes. But they were usually A- to B+. The minus was because though I scored high on tests and the instructors recognized my talent, I did only a paucity of homework. Foreign language homework is frustratingly, mind-numbingly, eye-gougingly boring. You are basically using the same phrase or construction over and over for like, 30 exercises. People don’t learn their native languages through drilling, why should they be expected to learn a foreign one this way?

    I used to love the essays and the conversational exercises. Things that let me play with the words and grammar and construct my own sentences out of them.

    I recently got the chance to test and improve my Japanese skills while on vacation in Japan. Crucibles like Japan, where you have to come to grips with the native language or else flounder about helplessly, are becoming rarefied. Americans are made fun of for being monolingual, but a monolingual American can get by in a huge chunk of the world because everybody else knows English now, too. Not so in many parts of Japan. In addition to many of the same crappy foreign language instruction problems we have, there is the traditional Japanese fear of embarrassment. When being interviewed, the famous Nintendo designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, can take questions in English but only responds in Japanese. It’s not because he doesn’t deign to speak English, but rather he is afraid he will sound funny. People in Kansai tend to be a bit more relaxed and outgoing than in Kanto, so in Osaka I had no problems getting people to try to use English even though most of them knew very little of it. Nevertheless, in order for real communication to take place I had to use Japanese, and was met with deep appreciation and compliments on my skill. For my part, I was only too happy to accommodate them, as I had learned useful vocabulary and grammatical usage far faster than I ever could during my several semesters of university Japanese instruction. It was a challenge to my courage, to risk sounding funny, to risk blank stares and awkward pauses (and I did get a few of those). But the payoff was well worth it.

  121. Of course, this cuts both ways. My mother tells me that I was already reading at 3. She also told me that when I started kindergarten, the teacher lectured her as to why she should not have taught me to read before starting school. Apparently the teacher was uncomfortable dealing with kids who were ahead of her curriculum plan…

    You lucked out. I was reading and writing before age 3. Upon discovering this a few years later, my first grade teacher’s response was to pretend that I could not read. She made much more drastic suggestions to my parents to keep me in line with the lesson plan. Since then she got her Ph.D. and is now a prominent consultant and developer of educational materials.

    And people wonder why American education sucks.

  122. >But in Wing Chun, it isn’t how fast you are, it is how soon you start your reaction

    You’re not disagreeing with me. “Quick”, the way it’s used in martial arts and athletics, is not identical to “fast”. Possibly you’ve never encountered that terminological distinction before.

  123. @Nancy Lebovitz
    >I’ve seen a claim in a homeschooling source that children naturally learn to read by the time they’re 8, and that pushing them to learn earlier than comes easily to them just makes reading into a fraught topic. Does anyone have actual information on the subject?

    I am part of a limited data set (homeschooled after age 8, with one older brother and three younger siblings).

    I can’t speak for the older brother, but I learned to read independent of my schooling. I think I was 5, and my parents had noticed that I’d memorized a book that they read. So they got me a book for Christmas, with the promise that no one else would read it to me. About a month later, I knew how to read.

    I have no idea how the kindergarten I went to affected this process. All I remember is staring at the page and working out how the symbols translated into sounds and words.

    My younger siblings all learned how to read by age 8. The most stubborn gave passive resistance until he reached the age of 8, at which point he decided that reading was fun and he wanted to learn how.

    Of course, my parents also eschewed TV during that time, and read books to the children at night. That might have had something to do with the results…

  124. > You’re not disagreeing with me. “Quick”, the way it’s used in martial arts and athletics, is not identical to “fast”. Possibly you’ve never encountered that terminological distinction before.

    I was basically suggesting that a person does not need to be able to move his/her arms faster than the eye can follow (even if their opponent can), and that the brain can respond very fast once the movement is learned. But you are correct – what’s the difference?

  125. Almost everything I have said about Wing Chun is stuff I have decided is true. Wing Chun has a many interesting aspects, but the training is training – very few students in the school cared about the theory – this may also have be true of Sifu.

  126. >But you are correct – what’s the difference?

    Quickness is reaction time and ability to change direction of motion rapidly, as opposed to speed which is how fast you can move. You are saying that in wing chun quickness is important, not speed. And that the style trains for quickness. I agree.

  127. > Quickness is reaction time and ability to change direction of motion rapidly

    These are two really different things, aren’t they? Connected, I guess…

    No doubt that reaction time is important, but brains are fast. Can you train for it or is it just how each person’s brain is?

    The ability to change direction rapidly is definitely good.

    I remember in one class, I told someone “Ok, do something random” (meaning I didn’t know what it would be). He did some sort of double round punch, something from one side and then the other. I handled it. I said “OK do something else random”. In both cases, I was moving so fast that I have no idea what he did or I did, but I could tell from how it felt that he and I did the same thing both times. I love Wing Chun…

    So, reaction time and ability to change direction rapidly are both good. As I said in my last post, the teaching per se didn’t really teach the theory, it just taught kung fu.

    So my question is: how much can training improve either aspect of quickness?

    I couldn’t really discern any improvement in either aspect.

    Oh, wait. Driving is kung fu…. Are race car drivers trained to be quicker? Do they get quicker?

  128. My experience seems to rhyme with Cathy’s. I grew up in a completely monolingual environment (Finnish) and started English as the first foreign language in school in 3rd grade (age 9 in Finnish schools). Swedish and German followed in grades 7 and 8 (ages 13 and 14). I was a good student and did increasingly well with the formal grammar exercises at whatnot, and got top grades in high school. The methods employed in the Finnish school system at the time may have been slightly better than in some other places. Tapes of native speakers were used practically in every class, and we had a fair amount of time in what was called “language studio”, where the students would sit in booths with headphones on, listening to or having fake conversations with a native speaker on tape. Overall, it was all still very focused on reading and writing. The standard reply from the teachers, should anyone complain about this, was that the skills in written language would translate to oral skills, but not the other way around.

    I still remember the very first English class in 3rd grade. The teacher began by playing samples of various languages on tape and asked us to tell what they were. It was obviously meant just as a children’s game to introduce the idea of foreign languages. For some reason, I ended up recognizing all of them and answering the teacher, while the other 15 or so kids just sat there, possibly out of simple shyness with a new teacher. The tape had Russian, Italian, English, French etc. The only exposure I could have had to them was on television (foreign programs are almost always subtitled, not dubbed on Finnish television). I certainly don’t have the ability with foreign phonemes that ESR describes, and I’m also remarkably free of any musical talent.

    I’ve since spent some time in England and worked extensively with native English speakers in Finland. On a good day, English feels like second first language. Non-native English speakers from at least Japan, Taiwan and Saudi-Arabia have mistaken me for a native speaker (which may tell more about their ability at English than mine). Several times I’ve had the experience of working all day exclusively in English and then spending the following day alone, not speaking to anyone, and feeling my brain make an almost audible clunk when it switches from thinking in English to Finnish, many hours after the last conversation English.

    I recently watched a 15-minute piece of a German-language TV-show, and only realized afterwards that it had no subtitles. I’d understood every word, even though my ability to speak German has mostly gone out the window since finishing school (which included some time spent in Germany). I guess that TV-clip simply happened to use the bit of German that I still retain, but the experience was somewhat freaky, almost like having a fantastically successful session in one of those immersion classes.

  129. @Jeff Read:
    “And people wonder why American education sucks.”

    How has the rest of the world managed to escape the institutionalized rigidity of the American education establishment?

  130. > How has the rest of the world managed to escape the institutionalized rigidity of the American education establishment?

    I would say that they have not. The Finnish school system has been rated as being in the top three in the world in several PISA surveys (an OECD thing). Probably all of the problems that you see in American schools are there in the Finnish ones, just to a lesser degree. Some of the big differences probably are that the disastrously bad schools that you might find in the US in areas with a lot of other problems don’t exist in Finland, and that teaching is seen as a respectable and reasonably well-paid profession. Teachers are required to have a master’s level university degree, and the teacher training programs at universities are popular and difficult to get into, so the level of students there is probably quite good. There’s also very little focus on standardized testing compared to the US, and the individual schools and teachers have much more freedom in planning their classes. All that said, it’s still mass schooling that’s set up to produce obedient worker bees.

  131. Btw. we’re 35 minutes into the 94th independence day of Finland (6th of December). Here’s the Google Doodle for google.fi for today (I’m assuming that it’s not displayed on their other sites):

    http://i.imgur.com/RnEVV.png

    (Yes, the national bird is the swan.)

  132. “When being interviewed, the famous Nintendo designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, can take questions in English but only responds in Japanese.”

    “I recently watched a 15-minute piece of a German-language TV-show, and only realized afterwards that it had no subtitles. I’d understood every word, even though my ability to speak German has mostly gone out the window since finishing school (which included some time spent in Germany).”

    I think this must be common; my own experience is similar. When I was working for the Spanish station, I heard Spanish all day long, but didn’t really use the language. Outside, Spanish-speaking people would come up to and ask things like directions to the subway, etc. I knew exactly what they were asking, but I couldn’t tell them the answer. It was perfect one-way communication. Very frustrating.

  133. “Most high schools don’t have access to true native speakers and so in my classes, they tried to ‘immerse’ us by handing us over to people who spoke Spanish with a Texas accent and spoke very slowly in very broken Spanish.”

    Wait a minute…Texas can’t find true native Spanish speakers?

  134. Adrian: You mean someone finally found a use for Esperanto?

    Well, they didn’t seem like rabid anticapitalist one-world hippies at first glance, and I think the idea that everyone would speak it one day was quite a while ago. One thing they mentioned was that if you do speak it (and again, it’s really easy to learn) you can travel all over the world staying with other Esperantists. Course, you might be able to do that with Unix geeks, but you’d have to worry about Stallman getting there first.

  135. That’s gotta be apocryphal. In my hometown, if we wanted to learn Spanish, we could just as easily have learned it from classmates. (Who in turn were taking it for the “free” elective.)

  136. @LS:
    “I think this must be common; my own experience is similar. When I was working for the Spanish station, I heard Spanish all day long, but didn’t really use the language. Outside, Spanish-speaking people would come up to and ask things like directions to the subway, etc. I knew exactly what they were asking, but I couldn’t tell them the answer. It was perfect one-way communication. Very frustrating.”

    Yes, that sounds very familiar. I was in the Paris subway about 10 years ago, when someone came up to me and asked for directions to somewhere or other. I knew what they were asking, and I knew where it was, but I was completely unable to express myself and give an answer. I was just mortified.

    On the other hand, during that same trip I discovered that I can read a French newspaper article, with occasional uncertainly around key words that are not in my vocabularly. The ability to read the language stuck to some extent, the ability to write it much less so, and the ability to speak and understand it is at the “I can order in a French restaurant, but nothing else” level.

    One of these days I’d like to learn Spanish, but after reading this thread I’m wondering if taking a class at the local college is at all worthwhile. I can’t think of any local (San Francisco Bay Area, east side of the bay) clubs or activities that would give me any exposure.

  137. This comment is going to seem a bit pointlessly personal, but bear with me, because there is a punchline.
    I speak German. I don’t speak it fluently, I get hung up on playing grammatical games like constructing an imperfect subjunctive with partially inverted brown sugar syrup (whatever /that/ is), and if you dropped me in Germany, anywhere from Schleswig-Holstein to Schwaben, I probably wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively.
    This is partly because I learned it through structured grammar and other such ‘formal methods’, even when the teachers were trying to use what the educational system currently thinks “immersion” means (which, of course, is nothing like immersion).
    Nonetheless, I feel that if it were necessary for me to become fluent in German, I could probably achieve it faster and more effectively than if you tried the same thing from scratch with someone who /hadn’t/ learned the structured grammar stuff (indeed, if I were to go to Germany for a fortnight I think I’d probably come back fluent) – and in the meantime, I have access to the symbol-game that is grammar (and those who know me will attest that what I really love is playing symbol games, hence why I study mathematics).
    So, don’t completely discard the formal grammar approach to language-learning; while it won’t itself produce fluency any more than reading the Morse Code chart will get you up to 30WPM, it may well have its use as part of a combined strategy.

  138. Hmmm…when I’ve been to France in the relatively recent past (a year or two), I could construct and say sentences, but my vocabulary se fait pfft. I also couldn’t understand the flow of conversational French at all.

    I think I’m in the same boat Sound and Fury is: if I spent a couple of weeks in France with people who refused to speak English around me, I’d probably come back fairly fluent.

  139. Immersion is the one method that my brain isn’t wired for, but i’m probably an outlier.

    Listening to long random patterns of sounds, with no idea how to sort the verbs from the prepositions and the nouns just leaves me confused. The case I use is where the german instructor ran across the room but the word was to convey industriousness or diligence. I just gave up.

    How does immersion work with american sign language?

    I’ve ha? better luck with classical languages (latin).

  140. >Listening to long random patterns of sounds, with no idea how to sort the verbs from the prepositions and the nouns just leaves me confused. The case I use is where the german instructor ran across the room but the word was to convey industriousness or diligence. I just gave up.

    That sounds like the deformed education-system version of immersion. However, I agree that for immersion to really work, you need to have some base to build on – that’s why First Contact SF stories are so fascinating, and it’s why I spoke up above in defence of structured grammar learning.

  141. There’s another obstacle to learning languages, and that’s the cultural context. If you are an English speaker, and someone comes up to you trying to speak English, you’ll do your best to help them out. Not so for Spanish speakers. They think that someone who speaks poor Spanish is horrendously funny. They laugh. The staff at the radio station humored my attempts, but readily admitted that that’s what they do.

    Another story was told by an American woman who grew up in Paris. She spoke perfect French. When she was about 15 her parents moved back to the ‘states. As an adult, she returned to Paris several times, each time trying to pass herself off as a native. Each time, there would be a new word or phrase she wasn’t familiar with, or she would use a word or phrase that had gone out of use, and the French would find her out. Then they would be rude to the American.

  142. “How does immersion work with american sign language?”

    Which brings up another question: why are there separate American Sign Language and British Sign Language languages? This seems utterly pointless. One would think that sign language could be a great lingua franca for people of all nations, since it doesn’t require being able to hear subtle phonemes or glottal stops or other idiosyncratic local spoken language may have developed.

    Plain Indian Sign Language was used as a contact language between different tribes, so there is precedent.

    I’ve considered learning ASL at some point, as it seems like it would be easy to learn without formal classes, immersion, or other techniques. I’d love to hear yea or naey from those who know it well.

  143. Jay Maynard,

    Try Montréal. It’s closer, and the population is heavily francophone. Their dialect is a little different, and a lot of them know English, but they’re less willing to use it. Reminds them too much of their neighbors the Canadians.

    (No, a Québécois is not a Canadian! Lesson one when you get up there.)

  144. @Cathy
    “Which brings up another question: why are there separate American Sign Language and British Sign Language languages? This seems utterly pointless.”

    Because sign languages, like every real language, are created by a community of children. As deaf children used to live on isolated islands consisting of schools for the deaf, each community created their own language. These were “merged” when a larger community emerged.

    There is utterly no relation at all between the sign langauges and the common spoken languages. The only relations are between the communities of the deaf.

    And indeed, there is no point, just use.

    To see how such a language is created “de novo”, look here:

    Nicaraguan Sign Language

    Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) arose in the early 1980s when hundreds of previously isolated deaf individuals were brought together in schools for the first time—the result of an educational reform movement dedicated to providing literacy training and a fourth-grade education to everyone. For virtually the first time, it became possible to directly observe the emergence of a new language.

    http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/linguistics/examples.jsp

  145. LS: Strangely enough, when I as an obvious American have been to Paris, each time I’ve used what French I do know, the reaction has been one of pleasure that I’m at least trying, at least directly to me. What they do away from me, I don’t know…and I’de grown used to not caring what people think of me, anyway.

    Jeff Read: Les Québécois have an even more vicious reputation than Parisians about hating those who speak French poorly…with the common report being that they get snooty and hard to deal with.

  146. @Jay Maynard
    My experience in Quebec was that I started out in simple French (European TV version) which they could understand. But then I could not understand the response (Quebec dialect). After this, they normally realized that this was going to take a loooong time so they were happy to switch to English.

    But elsewhere too, the natives are generally pleasantly surprised when I start in their own language (using some travel guide). As this is then going to progress really slow, they are also happy to find another mutally understandable langauge.

  147. “Les Québécois have an even more vicious reputation than Parisians about hating those who speak French poorly…with the common report being that they get snooty and hard to deal with.”

    They are not the only ones. My own musical hero, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (born in New Orleans in 1829, grew up speaking French) complained in his journal about how badly the French Canadians spoke their language. He poked fun at them.

  148. I’ve often wondered why the American education system doesn’t teach languages to children at younger ages, when they are more plastic. I think we’ve seen movement in this direction over my lifetime.

    When I was a kid, you didn’t get languages other than English until you were in high school, the worst possible time to try to learn them. This practically guarantees that most people will not achieve anything approaching fluency even after several years of significant work. (I’m deliberately avoiding wading into the teaching-methods debate here.)

    At times, I have thought that this was a deliberate political decision to make the U.S. an English-only society, a decision that was probably made in the late-19th or early-20th century at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was much fiercer than is the case in 2011.

  149. “I’ve often wondered why the American education system doesn’t teach languages to children at younger ages, when they are more plastic. I think we’ve seen movement in this direction over my lifetime.”

    This was actually tried in the New York City public schools, decades ago. It was abandoned after a couple of years. When you have such a large school system, it’s hard enough just getting the young kids to learn reading, math and history.

    High School is the place for language courses. You have Hispanic kids taking Spanish for an easy grade, and the ‘grinds’ taking Chinese because they think that will impress college admissions officers. (The big battle is between Lin Yee and Caitlin Markowitz over the presidency of the Chinese Club.)

  150. >This was actually tried in the New York City public schools, decades ago.

    Thanks, that was interesting information. I wonder, though, if they didn’t sabotage themselves by doing the rote-textbook-drill thing rather than immersion learning. Given how powerful the teachers’ unions are there I’d say that’s a good bet.

  151. “High School is the place for language courses. You have Hispanic kids taking Spanish for an easy grade, and the ‘grinds’ taking Chinese because they think that will impress college admissions officers. (The big battle is between Lin Yee and Caitlin Markowitz over the presidency of the Chinese Club.)”

    That depends where you live. I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere and went to a small rural high school. I’d guess the class was maybe 10% Hispanic, if not less; at the time that meant Puerto Rican, but that may have changed with time. I don’t think we had any Chinese at all.

    Chinese club and Hispanic kids heading for college are not necessarily features at this size of school. Yet we did have 3 years of French and 4 years of Spanish offered.

    “When you have such a large school system, it’s hard enough just getting the young kids to learn reading, math and history.”

    Given the lousy way that history is taught in many American public schools (“memorize these dates”), I’d argue that skipping much of the history details and replacing it with languages would make the kids better off. I had a really excellent history teacher as a freshman in H.S., but she was not the norm.

  152. @esr
    “I wonder, though, if they didn’t sabotage themselves by doing the rote-textbook-drill thing rather than immersion learning. ”

    As this pattern can be found in each and every school system in the world, name a country, any country, I think the causes lie much deeper.

    The problem with young age immersion learning is that you need to teach writing too, or else the children will lose it again. And in most school system more than a single foreign language is taught to each child (I had three). Add to this that the standard language used in school already is a new language for many children, and you see that early foreign language training is a “challenge”.

    Which leaves us with high school children.

    Much, much more can be done to improve teaching languages in high school. But anything beyond non-native speaker teacher and teaching reading and writing is expensive. You see that with teaching Mandarin. The all important problem is getting the children to pronounce Chinese correctly (both phonemes and tones). But for that you need a teacher that can guide and correct the child’s pronunciation. Therefore, an effective course in Mandarin has to be half the size (~16 pupils) than that of, say, Hindi or Japanese. Which makes Mandarin twice as expensive.

    And however you slice it, high school children also need to learn to read and write in their foreign languages.

    Btw, there are ample free podcasts that teach you any language you want. By the immersion method.

  153. @LS @other

    It completely weirds me out when people can understand a language but cannot speak it. For me it was always the other way around and I can hardly imagine how can it be so.

    F.e. when I am in Italy I will use the few Italian words I picked up, I will italianize English and Latin words f.e. I take the word “percent”, stick an “o” at then end, pronounce the “c” as “ts” and hope to get away with it, use those very “international” English / Latin / German words that I hope pretty much everybody understands, and supplement it with gestures and making faces and pointing at things.

    This sort of works, although rather less than more. But the problem is always understanding their answer. Even if the rare case they use a word I actually know, they will speak too quickly and probably in a local dialect.

    Expressing yourself is easy. Understanding what folks say, especially if it is their native tongue and thus dialected, slang-ridden etc. is hard. This is for me so obvious that I can hardly understand how can it be for some people the other way around.

  154. Expressing yourself is easy. Understanding what folks say, especially if it is their native tongue and thus dialected, slang-ridden etc. is hard. This is for me so obvious that I can hardly understand how can it be for some people the other way around.

    Perhaps, like Shigeru Miyamoto, the people who “can’t speak” a language they understand are simply afraid of sounding funny. Perhaps there are aspects of the phonology that they couldn’t quite get (the r’s of most continental languages are difficult for English speakers; Japanese have trouble with English sounds such as /f/ or /th/ that involve biting the lip or tongue) and don’t want to risk being laughed at, stared at, or completely misunderstood.

    As for me, I’m much like you, except I have the same problem with my native language which is English. I don’t do well understanding spoken English in less than ideal conditions, and so to compensate I think my mind was entrained to rely on visual feedback (e.g., lip reading) to understand spoken language more than I’m consciously aware of. Speaking on the telephone with some background noise is difficult; speaking on the phone with a heavily accented person (e.g., an Indian tech support droid) or to anyone in a crowded bar is damn near impossible.

  155. “Thanks, that was interesting information. I wonder, though, if they didn’t sabotage themselves by doing the rote-textbook-drill thing rather than immersion learning. Given how powerful the teachers’ unions are there I’d say that’s a good bet.”

    They *did* use immersion. The whole idea was to teach the language before the child got too old and lost the ability to pick language up easily. It died for the usual budgetary reasons. You can’t pin this one on the UFT.

  156. It seems to me that with regard to language learning there are just too many misconceptions floating around, and most of them exist because of usually less than optimal classes being taken by large number of not sufficiently motivated people. On top of than, motivation usually quickly erodes when action (e. g. attending a class) do not seem to produce adequate results (e. g. understanding the target language as it is actually spoken outside the classroom).

    Anyway, I just wanted to share a rather insightful guide to learning Japanese (that is actually useful for any language).
    http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/all-japanese-all-the-time-ajatt-how-to-learn-japanese-on-your-own-having-fun-and-to-fluency

  157. I’ll start by apologizing for only reading the topic essay and not the subsequent blog entries. I run the substantial risk of repeating someone else’s comments.

    When I read the host’s consternation about the educational system’s conduct when (attempting) teaching additional languages it reminded me of a conversation I recently had in which I argued that two semesters of a foreign language is a ludicrous core requirement for a bachelor’s degree in ether liberal arts or science.
    I think the reason for our educational system’s bas-ackwards approach might be geography, economic dominance, lack of resources and public relations requirements.
    First, the US is relatively linguistically isolated. The most populous languages in our vicinity are Spanish and French, coming from a minority of Canadians and our poor neighbors to the south. Millions of us live our whole lives without hearing much of that jibbery funny talk.
    Second, Americas prosperity over the past century (and English prosperity a little earlier) means that US businesses have become much more accustomed to letting others learn English than the other way around, so much so that we are intolerant of even pigeon versions of our own tongue.
    Third, most people who teach languages (in my own limited experience) are not native speakers of those languages but rather the people who enjoyed their own language courses so much that they decided to get a degree in it. Gold in gold out. Shit in… well it may not be fair to expect a person to teach in a way radically different than the way that they learned.
    Fourth, schools spread their linguistic personnel too thinly teaching hoards of uninterested people things they will never use so that the faculty and community will appear to be worldly and non ethnocentric.

  158. >I think the reason for our educational system’s bas-ackwards approach might be geography, economic dominance, lack of resources and public relations requirements.

    You’re missing one. English has some features that make it almost uniquely suited for use as a world language.

    The most important of these is a characteristic it shares with trade pidgins, spoken Mandarin Chinese, and Malay – it’s exceptionally easy for an adult speaker of another language to acquire. In his excellent book Empires of the Word, Nicholas Ostler analyzes why this is and settles on SVO isolational grammar as the key trait.

    Thus, it actually is easier for foreigners to learn English than the other way around…

  159. It’s a bit like the guitar – easy to pick up the basics but hard to master.

  160. My grandfather had a joke from his days in the Austro-Hungarian army:

    “Just put a very hot potato in your mouth and speak German. It will come out as English.”

    …of course, he was the guy who spoke seven languages fluently…

  161. Autro –> Austro

    Apologies to all fans of the Dual Monarchy.

    ESR says: Fixed your typo, there.

  162. This is off topic but the drift is already there and this seems like a good place to ask.

    I have a question for those involved in the kung fu subthread. I have an interest in martial arts but no real knowledge of it, and the idea that wing chun was suited for close in fighting (and *not* suited for longer ranges) was a distinction that hadn’t occurred to me before. I’ve considered learning it but maybe I’m better off not. Are there particular styles that are better suited for someone with a long reach and height?

    (Hi. I lurk here.)

  163. >Are there particular styles that are better suited for someone with a long reach and height?

    Yes, but don’t rule out wing chun on that account. I think it’s a good starter style even for people who would like to fight at range.

    Of the styles I’ve personally trained in, I’d say the one that’s likely to make use of your height and reach effectively is tae kwon do. But much the same could probably be said of any hard-style karate, or for that matter Northern Chinese kung fu styles like Shaolin or long fist (changquan). Probably the easiest arts in this class to find schools for are TKD, shotokan, and kenpo.

  164. >I’d always heard that English was difficult to learn as an adult as a second language.

    No, really, it’s exceptionally easy. Reports from polyglots who include English in their repertoire are very consistent about this. One such person, Shenpen, has commented on this blog about it. Linguistic studies back them up.

  165. One such person, Shenpen, has commented on this blog about it.

    Everything must be easy after Hungarian.

  166. >Are there particular styles that are better suited for someone with a long reach and height?

    Wing Chun is also good as you age – it can be very effective even if you are not the fastest or strongest. Extra reach is good. I agree with esr.

  167. As I think was already said (sorry, skipped reading most of the comments), its the education system that’s fucked. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

    I have been thinking about this problem, much before you posted this, as on several occasions it has hit home, that with a different style of teaching, I would have done much better at whatever it was I was doing. There was nothing wrong with that particular style of teaching, it just wasn’t suited to me. So, thinking about it, I have devised a solution, that I think could work quite well (I think some employers use this sort of thing…)

    Upon entry, to that particular education establishment (or whatever it may be), have a sort of, ‘entry exam.’ Their place will already have been confirmed by this point, but I called it an exam, because I don’t really know what else to call it.

    This exam will consist of a few hundred questions, to be sat on a computer, all of which will be multiple choice. A, B, C or D. Once an answer has been made, you are given 10 seconds to change it, to rectify any potential mistakes made, then it is locked in, and you cannot see your answer. All of these questions will be designed to gain an insight into that particular person’s mind, and, after all of the questions have been answered, the information will then be used to best match a person to any teacher, lecturer, tutor, whatever, in that establishment, for every subject studied, with respect to personality of both parties, teaching style vs learning style, and so on.

    I think that, this way, grades would go up tremendously, and a fair few crime problems will be sorted out. Of course the system won’t be perfect, there can never be a perfect match, otherwise you’d end up with 1600 classes, with one person in each, and that wouldn’t work. But, near-as-damn-it match, the education system wouldn’t be so borked up.

    (In hindsight, the comment I mentioned above, was the first comment made… oh well)

  168. English easy?

    All creole languages are easy to learn as they were made by second language learners for second language learners. ;-)

    You can blame William the Conquerer and Richard Lion heart for that too.

    That is, except for the atrocity that English orthography is. I often despair that Chinese characters are as informative about pronunciation as English orthography.

  169. >That is, except for the atrocity that English orthography is.

    This is actually something of a myth. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Languages, English orthography is about 75% consistent, with the exceptions concentrated in the 400 most common words. These statistics are not exceptional and display the same pattern one sees, for example in French grammar: while its declensional system is overall quite simple and regular., the exceptional verbs are the really commonly used ones.

    Linguists believe that the odds of a language feature remaining irregular with respect to widely applicable generative rules drop with usage frequency for a very simple reason – rarely-exercised rules get forgotten! This applies whether we’re talking grammatical, orthographic, or phonetic exceptions.

    I think you are correct in attributing English’s ease of acquisition to its history as a double creole. That history has been discussed in comments on this blog.

  170. @esr
    “This is actually something of a myth. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Languages, English orthography is about 75% consistent, with the exceptions concentrated in the 400 most common words.”

    Listen to the hollow laughs of a billion learners of English.

    It is utterly impossible to determine the pronunciation of an English word from its orthography. Leicester, Gloucester, and Worcestershire are just the start of a long and very painful journey. As is the “high frequency” ghot is pronounced as “fish” joke.

    The problem begins by that you have to know which syllable of a word is stressed, because only that vowel will be pronounced as anything other than a schwa (the duh sound in “the”). Then you will have to find out how that stressed vowel has to be pronounced. Because English has relabeled all vowels some time after they fixed the orthography (the great vowel shift), but not all of them, the written symbol might or might not map to the expected vowel.

    Then the consonants might be pronounced, or not pronounced at all.

  171. This poem lists the problem quite nicely. Students of English, print it out and past it over your desk and bed!

    Funny English
    (Page One)

    It’s no wonder the English language is so notoriously difficult to learn.
    Sometimes it’s amazing we manage to communicate at all!

    http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/funnyeng.htm

    Dearest creature in creation,
    Studying English pronunciation.
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
    It will keep you, Susy, busy,
    Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
    Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
    So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer.
    Pray console your loving poet,
    Make my coat look new, dear, sew it.

    And then follow more than a dozen other stanzas.

  172. Leicester, Gloucester, and Worcestershire are just the start of a long and very painful journey.

    A journey into the exactitudes of English placenames is one quite a few will be able to defer for a while.

  173. @Adrian Smith
    I know. A nice poem listing the horrors of English orthography is “awaiting moderation”.

  174. English orthography is awful, but it’s mostly because the pronounciation changed, while the spelling did not. Example: The ‘k’ in ‘knight’ used to be pronounced. The ‘ght’ is there because of its gutteral German ‘echt’ pronounciation back when metal suits were all the rage. We could make everything fonetic, but then reading comprehension would become more difficult, not easier. ‘The nite rode out at nite.’ Is that any better?

  175. > Everything must be easy after Hungarian.

    My native language in Finnish (distant relative to Hungarian). I’ve studied English, Swedish and German. English is definitely the easiest of those three. Finnish doesn’t have grammatical gender, and that alone makes German, and to a lesser degree Swedish, quite a bit more difficult than English for a Finn.

    Finnish has an almost completely consistent orthography. Somehow that doesn’t quite make Finnish an easy universal language for world trade…

  176. > It completely weirds me out when people can understand a language but cannot speak it. For me it was always the other way around and I can hardly imagine how can it be so.

    For my part, I simply meant that I’ve lost a lot of my active ability at German. I was able to speak it to an extent at age 18, after studying it in school for five years and spending a few weeks living with a German family. I could probably pick it up again if I had to, but at the moment, it would just take ages for me to get one sentence out. I guess I was just surprised at my passive understanding of spoken German when listened to that TV show and didn’t stumble on anything. I’m sure it could easily have used a key word that I didn’t know, and I would have been thrown off.

  177. Actually, Mikko, there’s at least one SF series where Finnish is the basis of a trade argot, for that and a few other reasons. (Drat, now I can’t remember. Was it Anne McCaffrey’s Planet Pirates series?)

  178. A journey into the exactitudes of English placenames is one quite a few will be able to defer for a while.

    Not if one lives in Massachusetts — home to Wusstah, Glosstah, Lemminstah, Dawchestah, Medfid, Woobin, Peeb’dee, and Quinzy, among others — though obviously not spelled that way. You have to learn the local pronunciations or people will think you’re retahded.

  179. > Wusstah

    Fantastic, they should consider changing the spelling!

    > there’s at least one SF series where Finnish is the basis of a trade argot, for that and a few other reasons.

    Well, there’s a reason why that is fiction… Not that I’d be opposed to a career change to consulting English-speaking people on their business Finnish.

  180. @Jay Maynard:

    > Klingon has more speakers than Esperanto ever did

    Quite false. The lower (and more accurate IMO) end of the range Wikipedia gives for Esperanto is 10,000. (Plus 200 to 1,000 native speakers.) For Klingon, it gives a count of “around a dozen fluent speakers”. I personally have conversed in Esperanto with a few dozen people.

  181. > English orthography is awful, but it’s mostly because the pronounciation changed, while the spelling did not.

    I have read that 14th century monarchs often spelled a word a number of different ways, sometimes even in the same document and that this habit often extended even to their own names. If this is true, we might owe consistent spelling and inconsistent pronunciation, this “awful orthography” to the printing press. We also might fix it by following the German example and simply redesignate correct spellings for modern times. That having been said, it might not be a problem worth fixing.

    >the nite went out at nite

    Looks dreadful.

  182. there’s at least one SF series where Finnish is the basis of a trade argot, for that and a few other reasons. (Drat, now I can’t remember. Was it Anne McCaffrey’s Planet Pirates series?)

    Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy” used Finnish in its trading empire, but for just the opposite reason: apparently it was (hypothetically would have become? we need new tenses for fiction) an obscure enough language to provide a modicum of secrecy for conversations between traders in front of outsiders.

  183. Foreign language teaching in American public schools (and probably British) is not intended to make it possible to travel to a country which speaks the language and be able to converse. It’s intended to teach the kids something about grammar, which is much easier to do in a language which has a full grammar, instead of a vestigial rump. The exercise of figuring out who or what are the actors and the acted upon, and what are the actions, etc., etc., in some foreign language gets the student thinking about that sort of thing while writing in English, which doesn’t have conjugations and declensions to serve as hints for those issues. This is why teaching of Latin persisted for so long in Protestant communities – Latin has a pretty full set of conjugations and declensions – enough so that word order isn’t often necessary. This makes it idealy ideal for teaching monolingual anglophones about grammar.

    Things have changed in the past few decades – nowadays, Spanish is taught partly to give easy grades to spanish-speaking immigrants, and to make sure that the least educated of them are literate in *something*. French, German, Italian, Polish, and some other languages have served this function elsewhere and elsewhen. Fashionable ideas about the “country of the future” have led people to push teaching of Japanese, Mandarin, and earlier, Russian, though that seems to have been limited to upper-middle-class enclaves and private schools in general.

  184. The awful orthography is because the average English speaker is indifferent to their language, and probably has been since around the time the Romans left England. (In contrast to say, the French.) If you’d pointed out to that monarch that they’d spelled a thing different ways, they’d shrug at you. These are the people who thought ‘colonel’ was good enough.

    We already know why children pick up phonemes easily and monolingual adults don’t, and it’s because of the auditory cortex. Monolingual adults literally cannot hear other sounds, because it has pruned the pathways for transcribing ear-hair twitches into brain code. Crib bilingualism prevents this pruning. Presumably, an abstract version of this prevention is responsible for making languages easier in general; it’s not that you develop a skill to learn languages easier, it’s that you don’t lose the original instinct.
    With pruning mechanisms that are particularly passive, you get things like languages goddesses, whose auditory and language centres are still pretty much like a baby’s.

  185. >Crib bilingualism prevents this pruning.

    Not invariably. Some crib bilinguals still “lose the original instinct” later in life, as you put it; I was lucky.

  186. I have to disagree with Anthony, at least partially. When I was in school (50 years ago) it was made clear to me that if you wanted to train in science, you needed to study French and German so that you could read scientific papers. You needed a reading knowledge, not conversational ability. My high school French got me past the foreign language requirement in graduate school. Then they dropped it a year later; everyone writes scientific papers in English now.

  187. I don’t think monopoly or unions are the only reason teachers are against immersion. The real reason is that the culture of most modern school systems are for memorizing facts and not for developing skills, as developing skills is difficult to grade and their grading is up to much subjective jugdement, even arbitrariness, where personal likes and dislikes can play a role, which could even lead to abuse of power, favoritism and even corruption in the most extreme cases. If on your history test you have to tell the date of the Battle of Waterloo, the grade is 100% impartial, objective and uncontestable: either you got it right or not. But what does the teacher do when angry moms come and say their kid is much smoothly skilled than the teacher thinks he is a deserves a better grade?

    It can vary by country but in mine (Hungary) teachers avoid to teach and especially to grade skills even in skills-related classes like gym, music or drawing. Typically they teach and grade art history in music and drawing classes, while actually singing and drawing plays a secondary, almost entertaining role. In gym classes mostly just grade general fitness, and either do basic fitness or just let kids play basketball etc. but rarely actually teach them how to play them. And these grades don’t count where grades generally count like university admissions.

    Part of it is legitimate concern. Look at political or justice systems, there is a clear concern of avoiding arbitrariness and thus corruption, and generally trying to make things thus mechanical, objective, impartial, as if done by a computer. And of course this is fueled by the general culture of modernity which still could not fully shed the “that which is not mechanical is irrational” Cartesian attitude it inherited from the (French) Enlightenment.

    As I said this is a legitimate concern. However I think folks who lean towards left-liberal attitudes – and that is typical amongst teachers – generally fear arbitrary judgements too much, because that clearly establishes a power relationship between individuals, while impartial bureaucratic mechanisms hide power relationships, so one cannot blame any individual for actually being an oppressor. Thus, I think they tend to go for mechanical solutions even when the cost is unacceptably high like not being able to actually teach people skills like languages.

  188. @Shenpen
    “Part of it is legitimate concern. Look at political or justice systems, there is a clear concern of avoiding arbitrariness and thus corruption, and generally trying to make things thus mechanical, objective, impartial, as if done by a computer. And of course this is fueled by the general culture of modernity which still could not fully shed the “that which is not mechanical is irrational” Cartesian attitude it inherited from the (French) Enlightenment.”

    Trying to avoid the arbitrariness of grading is avoiding teaching all together. If a teacher is not allowed to grade skills, then she will not grade skills and education becomes as empty as Quran root memorization. Moreover, if you do not trust teachers do a good job, why let them teach at all?

    Note that this approach to grading: using multiple choice correct/wrong answers, also kills science teaching.

    When grading science answers, the very worst thing you can do is look whether the final answer is correct (say, 2 instead of 3). You will have to judge the approach taken by the student and see where she missed a step.

    If you really want to get a taste of how awful this approach makes math teaching is in the USA (not to say it is better elsewhere), read

    Lockhart’s Lament
    http://www.maa.org/devlin/devlin_03_08.html

    The actual lament is behind the link at the bottom:
    http://www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf

    A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where
    music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more
    competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are
    put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and
    decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or
    composer.

    Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious
    black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students
    become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it
    would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a
    thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone
    composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until
    college, and more often graduate school. A

  189. LS – I agree that was (and still is) a secondary purpose for foreign language teaching. For that matter, when I was at UC Berkeley in the late ’80s, the Chemistry major still required a semester of German because so many foundational papers were written in German. Now they only have a general language requirement.

  190. Some fields still expect academics to be polylingual: ancient history and archaeology come to mind (the ability to read complex texts in Latin, ancient Greek, German, English, and one Romance language is a bare minimum for professionals). Of course this has its own problems- these skills are much easier to keep up in Europe than North America, and there is still lots of Spanish, Portugese, Arabic etc. scholarship which most classicists can’t read!

    In Western Canada mandatory French instruction starts around grade 4, and immersion schools are available. It doesn’t have a great effect because most children can’t see how French would be fun or useful to them.

    A few of the replies seem to be subject to the naturalistic fallacy. It doesn’t follow that the way toddlers learn languages over 10 years is the best way for adults to learn over a few years! Immersion seems to work well if people practice speaking and listening, not if they just accept that they can’t speak the language and rely on interpreters (or let someone else do the talking for their household). Formal grammar is a way to resolve ambiguities, and to speed up pattern recognition- this is especially important in writing, where a lot of audible and visual clues are lost.

  191. Immersion seems to work well if people practice speaking and listening, not if they just accept that they can’t speak the language and rely on interpreters (or let someone else do the talking for their household).

    If you’ve done this – learned a language by immersion in another country, with a family in tow (and the time constraints that tends to entail) I’d be delighted to hear your insights.

  192. >It doesn’t follow that the way toddlers learn languages over 10 years is the best way for adults to learn over a few years!

    But, I’ve been researching the matter and it appears that all the most successful for-profit courses (the ones marketed to business travelers) use immersion. This is real-world evidence with some weight, I think.

  193. But, I’ve been researching the matter and it appears that all the most successful for-profit courses (the ones marketed to business travelers) use immersion.

    Have you looked at any of Michel Thomas’ stuff?

  194. Adrian, I haven’t tried it, although I hope to supplement the German I am learning (and my childhood French) with a trip to the continent. I do have an Anglo friend who had lived for decades in Montreal. He works from home for an American company, while his wife interacts with the rest of the city; in 15 years his French has gone from “enough to order a coffee and buy a movie ticket” to … “enough to buy a coffee and order a movie ticket.”

    esr:

  195. >Have you looked at any of Michel Thomas’ stuff?

    That is interesting. It’s not immersion, but it’s like immersion in what may be the most important way – the students are guided to engage the spoken form of the language immediately through their own utterances rather than as a set of rote drills. The effect is immersive even though Thomas is speaking English.

    I think he actually revealed the core of his teaching method in the first minute, by telling the students that English words ending in “-ible” and “-able” are all from French and work with a slight pronunciation shift. That was brilliant, because (a) it gave the students dozens of words of production vocabulary in an instant, and (b) it gave them an immediate sense of mastery. You could almost see the motivation level in the room going up. Great stuff…only I wonder how you work that hack with (say) Mandarin?

    I don’t think he’s kidding about making each step easy and telling the students not to worry about remembering anything. What he’s aiming at doing is simulating the way kids learn during their crib years – I certainly didn’t worry about remembering anything in Spanish when I was five years old, I just talked with my nanny. It wouldn’t surprise me if what he’s done is found the behavioral keys to actually re-inducing plasticity in the language center.

  196. esr: I’m skeptical about immersion as a silver bullet, but agree that it often has good results. I suspect that a lot of the benefits are that it forces people to get a lot of practice, and gives an immediate reward for success. I also think people tend to forget how hard their 2 to 12 year old selves worked to learn their native languages, and how frustrating irregularities were! The comment about children learning baseball statistics effortlessly at the start of the video about Thomas seems to forget how much time a bookish child can spend reviewing baseball statistics or dinosaur taxonomy. I also suspect immersion works better for conversational oral/aural skills than reading/writing, and live languages more than dead ones.

    The three part video about Thomas is interesting. I notice that he chooses what to cut out (reading and writing) and thinks about which direction to teach rules in (do you teach how to spot a French word with an English cognate, or how to generate French cognates from English words? Do you teach how to generate a pronoun to fill a grammatical role, or how to interpret a pronoun as you read or hear it?)

    Do you have any data on those business schools, what they try to teach and what results they get? I’m not sure whether I would take commercial success as proof that the training works … Rosetta Stone makes a lot of money selling to people who don’t use their software or give up after a few dozen hours, and I suspect that classes have the same problem.

  197. Think of “understanding speech” and speaking in a foreign language as swimming or martial arts. All four are skills which we can describe with difficulty or at all in words. And even if we could put them into words, students would not learn the skill by reading and memorizing them. Think of the old joke about a corresponding course in swimming or martial arts.

    I think the “swimming” analogy was in the mind of those who popularized “language immersion”.

    In the end, any fruitful attempt to learn to understand or speak a foreign language as speech will involve a lot of listening and speaking. And a lot means hundreds (thousands?) of hours. Immersion is simply the fastest way to achieve that amount of exposure. But it might not be the only one.

  198. @Jay Maynard:

    I’m no expert, but that sounds completely broken. Be sure to look for the ulterior motives. They probably want to have people who wouldn’t self-select for that school move there in an attempt to raise test scores, promote integration, or something.

    In Austin, there is a magnet high school that both my daughters went to. When they first started the magnet school, there were two related ulterior motives:
    1) Integration via voluntary busing
    2) Raise school test scores

    So, naturally, they put the magnet school inside a low-performing high school, and everybody lived happily ever after. Well, for awhile anyway. The high-performing kids’ parents were happy they got some focus, the low-performing kids’ parents were happy that the high-performing kids were eating the same dogfood, etc.

    Fast forward a couple of decades, and now:

    a) the Texas Education Agency is smart enough (note, I didn’t say smart) to rank schools according to how well they serve the worst performing ethnic groups, and;
    b) The automatic top 10% admission rule for state university, combined with the universities being completely full to the brim, means that none of the neighborhood non-magnet kids can get into a good university, because they aren’t in the top 10%…

    So the magnet school is still in the same campus, but was administratively considered a completely separate school (they share band, football, etc., but have two different principals), and some of the parents of the magnet students (last time I checked) are campaigning to move the magnet school to a more convenient location.

    FWIW, despite the politics, I feel my girls got an excellent education there. The Washington Post ranked the school 29th in the nation out of 1800 public high schools.

    http://kutnews.org/post/austin%E2%80%99s-lasa-scores-high-national-school-ranking

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Arts_and_Science_Academy_High_School_of_Austin,_Texas

  199. @Jay Maynard:

    I’m a little confused. The story says that the program is new, and starts in kindergarten. Later on, it says that fifth grade students are achievers and bilingual. How long has this ‘new’ program been going on?

  200. The very influences that made English so delightfully simple in grammar compared to its Germanic and Romance family members* also conspired to give it a vocabulary that draws from so many sources that spelling/pronunciation is really difficult. Look no further than the fact that British and American English pronounce the exact same word differently, or favo(u)r different spellings. Consider how the name of the Arkansas River is pronounced differently in KS and AR, due to the way those names were assimilated differently from French to English.

    By contrast, the complex system of noun and adjective cases, and far more diverse conjugations that make German grammar more difficult to learn are offset by the fact that one may look at a word and know exactly how it is to be pronounced, or hear a word and have very little doubt as to how it should be spelled. The notion of a “spelling bee” just doesn’t apply.

    __
    *Linguists consider English part of the Germanic family, but I maintain it is the bastard child of the Germanic and Romance families.

  201. Mandarin Chinese has a simple grammar. That does not make it an easy language

    (I know about the Mandarin quantifyers, just as I know about lexical stress in English)

  202. I spoke to an Esperantist at an educational fair in Paris about ten years ago, and he told me that one of the benefits they’d found of teaching it as a second language to children was that its extreme regularity made it so easy to learn that it seemed to boost the levels subsequently achieved with other languages later on, which were considerably higher than those reached by kids who hadn’t done it.

    I think this is true. By the time I learned Esperanto I was already fluent in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, and pretty good at Aramaic; but learning Esperanto shone a light on some aspects of those other languages that I had never grasped until then.

  203. As far as kids reading…I expect my kids to be able to read simple books on their own by age 4.

    What if they’re not speaking until 3.5? That is within the normal range, you know. I was speaking fluently before the age of 2; my next brother down didn’t speak till 3.5. I don’t believe anyone who knows us both today would guess it. There was and is nothing wrong with him; he just wasn’t ready to speak until then. When he was ready he started. I was reading by 4; I don’t know when he started reading, but I doubt it was before 5. Again, no long term effect.

  204. OK, here’s a question for the assembled: I’ve just been asked to teach someone Yiddish, for an hour a week. He’s starting from nothing. Doesn’t even speak German. I speak Yiddish fluently but have no experience in teaching languages. What should I do, but more importantly what should I not do?

  205. Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy” used Finnish in its trading empire, but for just the opposite reason: apparently it was (hypothetically would have become? we need new tenses for fiction) an obscure enough language to provide a modicum of secrecy for conversations between traders in front of outsiders.

    Was that the reason? I just assumed it was because that set of trading clans happened to be descended from Finns.

  206. >What should I do, but more importantly what should I not do?

    Talk to him in $LANGUAGE, speaking slowly and choosing words with English cognates. When he says something in English, immediately repeat it back to him in $LANGUAGE, using the same intonation. Have him repeat sentences in $LANGUAGE back at you so he starts to get the phonemic pattern. Point at things to give him nouns. Illustrate verbs. Do tell him that his job is to absorb, not to strain at remembering. Do correct his accent – this seems surprisingly important.

    Do not use written materials unless they are primary sources intended for native speakers. (Travel guides, postcards, and posters are good. Conventional language textbooks are deadly.) Do not worry about teaching grammar; the human brain is designed to learn language not by rules but by examples.

    Aim at recognition competence first, speech production a close second, conversational fluency third, and formalized understanding of the language’s rules a distant and dispensable fourth.

    I believe these rules will work for any value of $LANGUAGE, but the early stages are much more difficult if the target language shares few cognates and little grammar with one the student already speaks. English and Xhosa…hard. English and Yiddish…dead easy.

    Disclaimer: I am not a language teacher, just a low-grade polyglot who knows what worked for me.

  207. >I just assumed it was because that set of trading clans happened to be descended from Finns.

    I believe that is correct.

  208. Do not worry about teaching grammar

    Good, because I have no clue about Yiddish grammar :-) (And nor did my gramma… )

  209. > >I just assumed it was because that set of trading clans happened to be descended from Finns.

    > I believe that is correct.

    My own vague memory is that each different trade clan had its own “secret” language, and that church latin was used as an inter-clan “secret” language.

    A moment of googling brings up the Google Books result: “They talk their ‘secret language-only it isn’t secret; it’s just Finnish. Each Trader ship has its own language-one of the Terran tongues. And the culture has an over-all ‘secret’ language which is merely degenerate Church Latin-and at that they don’t use it; ‘Free Ships’ talk to each other in Interlingua.”

  210. I agree that immersion is probably the only method for learning a foreign language. However in my experience learning English, although I could read and write English pretty well, I wasn’t able to fully master the spoken language until I taught myself phonetics. The thing about phonetics is that is an unconscious thing, which means that you don’t really know what’s going on when you talk. You have to become aware of the actual sounds that you make (which usually are not the sounds that you think you’re making), in order to be able to speak the language with any degree of proficiency. For me, it really worked, to the extent that usually I speak English much better that people who’s actually lived in Britain for a period of time, while I have only been there occasionally on holidays.

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