The Mimic Method
January 17, 2012 3:14 PM   Subscribe

The only way to become fluent in a language is to actively mimic the speech sounds of native speakers. Idahosa (ee-DAO-ssah) Ness has developed a language learning system based on music and mimicry.
posted by unliteral (49 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
As my grandmother used to say: interesting...if true.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:26 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by R. Schlock at 3:27 PM on January 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

Tried to sign up for the Portuguese language beta test, only to find about 3 steps into the sign-up process that it had been cancelled.

Maybe he should make that clear up front. You know, before he harvests people's email addresses?
posted by jacquilynne at 3:30 PM on January 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I find that when I speak German, my voice drops in pitch quite a bit and I find that my breathing patterns become completely different.

I have no idea how strongly US-accented my German is, but I do know that I involve some mimicry of what I heard when living there when I speak it.

So... whether you can learn a language that way or not remains to be proven. But to drop an accent... yeah, you have to engage in some mimicry.
posted by hippybear at 3:34 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

What madness is this? Next they'll be telling us to emulate their vocabulary and syntax too! I far prefer the tried and tested method of raising one's voice and enunciating in English as if speaking to an idiot; Johnny Foreigner gets the point eventually.
posted by Abiezer at 3:34 PM on January 17, 2012 [25 favorites]

If you'll forgive the self-link, for some reason this takes me back.
posted by rory at 3:36 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Johnny Foreigner gets the point eventually.

As Manuel would say working at the Fawlty hotel... "Evennnn...shoolee".
posted by hippybear at 3:37 PM on January 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I have been using The Mimic Method and Rhythmic Phonetic Training to teach language in person for the past two years, and now I am in the process of translating this experience to a virtual platform. This is where you come in. I need interested people to test my materials and give me feedback. Benefits of becoming a Beta Tester include...

But anyways, if this is a real thing, I wonder if this means that you could learn a language more easily from someone speaking with a strong accent that uses sounds you can successfully imitate.
posted by XMLicious at 3:41 PM on January 17, 2012

I laughed, but why do you say that R. Schlock- at least when it comes to spoken languages? On the surface, mimicry is pretty much how all of us learned our first language, no? I think the biggest impediment is what I've heard about phonemes, that if you didn't learn to hear them early on, you can never quite distinguish them the way a true native speaker can.

Which, the last time I did a lot of acid, made sense when I was playing the piano, and hearing/feeling the music so much better; the "gulf" between tones, even semitones, seemed impossibly wide, and I was literally effortless at sight-reading a Beethoven sonata, the notes huge and my sense that "Hey, there are only 88 words in this language, I should never struggle with this".

The old saw is that acid is like returning your brain to an early state of adaptability and perception, which makes sense... our brains are more about filtering than they are about perceiving, and it would follow that we can probably learn such things better when we can stop filtering long enough to re-learn the nuances and details we elided the first time we learned them. Like, my musical ear is decent enough that I'm baffled when people can't even do Parson's code on the melodies they hear. But would they, if they took music lessons on acid?

This comment is getting weird now, so I think I'll stop.
posted by hincandenza at 3:44 PM on January 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

So all those karaoke theme songs in anime are teaching me Japanese? Sugoi!
posted by Kevin Street at 3:45 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I laughed, but why do you say that R. Schlock-

My wife calls me a parrot. I can replicate the sounds of several different languages extremely well. In short conversations, I can often be mistaken by native speakers for another native. But my actual language skills are shit. Total, complete, shit. Take me off the ranch and I fall apart. And it's not for want of trying. I've done years of language training in a variety of intensive and immersive contexts. I'm just not hard-wired for multilingualism. It pains me to admit this, but the tradeoff, I think, is a remarkable command of my native tongue. I enjoy English so much and I use it with such subtlety that my self-expression in other languages will always be a caricature of the real thing. I honestly think this state of affairs has prevented me from immersing myself deeply in another language's syntax and my "parrothood" is, in some sense, a compensation for that.

If you listen carefully, this guy isn't "teaching" language acquisition at all. He's teaching "mimicry," which he presents as an important step toward acquisition and fluency. But that next step? Unmentioned.

Hence: bʊlʃɪt
posted by R. Schlock at 3:53 PM on January 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

There are some good ideas here -- using music lyrics* as a memory aid, and encouraging people to really imitate the true sounds of the language they're learning. (I've always thought that it helps to pretend you're a comedian doing an impression of the native speakers.) That said, there are people out there who are pretty darn fluent in a foreign language but clearly haven't picked up the real sound at all. Still, I like this approach, and for something like Chinese, where the sound *really* matters, it might be the only way to go.

*("Und MacHeath, der hat ein Messer" -- that's how I remember it's das Messer and not der Messer.)
posted by uosuaq at 3:53 PM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Could this be more of a right brain or auditory processing thing? He says that it works best with people who are musically inclined.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:59 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

In short conversations, I can often be mistaken by native speakers for another native.

You and me both. I like to say that my Japanese is good enough that I can fool native speakers into thinking I'm fluent.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:05 PM on January 17, 2012

I far prefer the tried and tested method of raising one's voice and enunciating in English as if speaking to an idiot; Johnny Foreigner gets the point eventually.

The funny thing is that everyone does that, not just people who speak English. In college I had a friend who worked at Disneyland, and he said he'd get people asking him questions in Mandarin, and then eventually REALLY LOUD, REALLY SLOW Mandarin.
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:06 PM on January 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am facile at mimicking Mexican television announcers. Especially the ones for beer. Con gran sabor!
posted by jim in austin at 4:09 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I learned Bosnian by singing to pop songs I heard and saw in TV, and got better by watching English language TV shows and reading the sub-titles. I learned basic Irish from singing along with songs I liked. Given how crazy written Irish looks, it's the best start. You can pick up the reading part of it .... ebhencualí...
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:30 PM on January 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

What *is* up with written Irish, anyway? Was that spelling system their last, best chance to mess with the English, or something?
posted by uosuaq at 4:36 PM on January 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

They even reformed it once, uosuaq, and it's still patently made up as you go along.
posted by Abiezer at 4:42 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

hincandenza: if you didn't learn to hear [phonemes] early on, you can never quite distinguish them the way a true native speaker can.

This. You will never invest those 10.000 hours immersed in those phonemes late in life. But training them in rhythmic exercises as repetetive as only music can be seems like a great idea especially for that reason.
posted by yoHighness at 4:47 PM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

What *is* up with written Irish, anyway?

I was just reading a bit about Manx Gaelic, and how its writing system is much more sane (from the point of view of English at least). This means it looks nothing like written Irish or Scottish Gaelic but actually sounds similar and is mostly mutually intelligible.
posted by BungaDunga at 5:25 PM on January 17, 2012

So, there's a guy, and he's got a revolutionary way of learning foreign languages, and he's going to revolutionize the industry?

I have no problem with that at the moment. I'm lucky enough to work at a school where we have a pretty set curriculum that, while I might not be in love with the end goals, meets or exceeds its set goals in English proficiency. We don't have to deal with bullshit trend of the year and having to overhaul our curriculum everytime another genius reinvents the wheel.

What works? Using the language you're learning. Speaking with native speakers. Writing, but not fill in the blank grammar solving, actual writing, where you try to say, in your target language, what you really mean to say. Active participation in your target language is what makes you a better speaker.

And use your normal goddamn voice. Don't suddenly use an odd accent when you speak in a different language. You're only adding another barrier to mastery when you speak in an unnatural voice. Easily the strongest thing I have going for my Japanese is that, intonation and pronunciation aside, I use the same voice speaking English as I do speaking Japanese. Of the non-native speakers I know, the ones that sound the most fluent are the ones who don't use an odd voice or stilted accent. If you're a 25 year old Bostonian guy, trying to mimic the sound of your 45 year old Saitama-born female teacher's voice is only going to make it harder for you.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:38 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

R. Schlock: But my actual language skills are shit.

Although your username is German I see. Very good. Didn't get it immediately.
posted by NailsTheCat at 6:04 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh wow. I totally didn't see that until NailsTheCat nailed it. Thanks Nails, and kudos, "R. Schlock".
posted by uosuaq at 6:40 PM on January 17, 2012

Oh dude, your username is upside down like what the fuck, man.
posted by hincandenza at 6:49 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

German? Schlock is Yiddish...
posted by jim in austin at 6:52 PM on January 17, 2012

I signed up. I think it would be cool to have Lenny Kravitz help me with my spanish.
posted by bongo_x at 6:59 PM on January 17, 2012

posted by Wolof at 7:03 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I signed up and just worked my way through the first Spanish lesson. We'll see how it goes as I get further into the instruction.

I do like the idea of this. Almost the only things I remember from long ago Russian lessons are a couple of songs and nursery rhymes, so I believe those will stick in memory. Plus, if the exercises revolve around learning songs in Spanish, I can guarantee that I will put more time into practicing than I would for just about any other approach I can think of short of moving to a Spanish-speaking country.
posted by tdismukes at 7:16 PM on January 17, 2012

My dad was fluent in German and Hungarian; German from when we lived in Munich as expats (I was born there), and Hungarian by listening to State Dept. language tapes (as I was growing up, the sight of him with a cassette player & earbud, muttering phrases back, was ubiquitous - the only phrase I know in Magyar, picked up from constantly hearing those mutterings, translates as "I'm going crazy"), as well as his frequent trips to that country for the exchange programmes he ran. (He also picked up a smattering of Polish and bits of other Eastern European languages, not fluent by a long stretch, but accented well, as I saw from native speakers' reactions.)

In both cases auditory immersion and imitation was key, and he had a good enough ear that he nailed the native accents in both cases. I once witnessed an Austrian headwaiter at a restaurant in London ask him, after my dad asked him a question auf Deutsch, "Sind Sie von den Bundesrepublik?!" And he once recounted an incident where having just flown into Budapest, he was berated by a customs lady, after speaking to her in Magyar, for having abandoned his native country, how dare he have moved away to America, etc. (I guess she didn't quite grok the very Anglo-Saxon name in his passport, or assumed he'd changed it or something.)

Of course, he achieved his mastery by more than just parroting; there was some formal study of the grammars, etc. (Really essential with non-Indo-European Magyar.) But immersion really is key, especially in languages where the written words seem tangential to the pronunciations (Gaelic, French.)

Here in Québec, if by sheer chance one happens to pronounce well a phrase in the local dialect(s), it's common to be told that, oh, you speak French well, even if one's vocabulary and aural comprehension are as rudimentary as mine. It can get you into trouble, since they'll assume from your correct pronunciation that your overall mastery is equally as good.
posted by Philofacts at 7:58 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

That said, there are people out there who are pretty darn fluent in a foreign language but clearly haven't picked up the real sound at all.

My dad once mentioned a guy he knew during our Munich days, some US Army guy, who was a classic case of this. My dad, still learning German at that point, was envious of how fluent the guy's grammar and vocabulary were, but as for pronunciation, he said, wincing, "the guy had an absolute tin ear!"

A childhood friend of mine is married to a very bright and creative woman from Barcelona. Besides her native Catalan & Castilian Spanish, she speaks lightly accented French. But, despite having been immersed in the Anglosphere for the better part of 30 years and being fluent in English now, her accent, as my mom has chuckled about more than once, actually seems to be getting thicker.

I don't know what it is, if there are some innate differences among people that determine whether they'll pick up the sound as thoroughly as the comprehension. We certainly see plenty of examples of accent lost causes (Schwarzenegger; Michael Caine's, and to a lesser extent, Sean Connery's, inabilities to break out of their respective Cockney and Scottish accents, in marked contrast to Hugh Laurie's Gregory House.) My dad was already in his 20's when he began learning, so it's not necessarily a case of needing to be very young and neuroplastic. Despite my being a musician and having a good ear in other ways, and having been immersed in German as a small child, I don't have my dad's facility.
posted by Philofacts at 8:30 PM on January 17, 2012

It kind of makes sense but I really can't be bothered to try the beta since I have no interest in learning Spanish of Portugese (but if they come up with a lesson for learning Danish, I'm all over it). English is my first language but my parents are Chinese, and even though I pick up a lot of Chinese from my conversation and the environment around me, I'm pretty bad it - I can carry a normal conversation in Cantonese and Mandarin, but I can't say anything profound. And my writing and reading skills in Chinese are just terrible.

I tried learning French for a couple of years but I wasn't really good at it (partially because I didn't really give a shit but now I regret it, living in Canada) but I was taught by someone best described as a polyglot (he speaks fluent French, Japanese, English, German and Italian). He had a fairly distinct accent to his non-English languages, but it makes me think that it's not the fancy theory-based language learning systems that will get the results, but rather the motivation to learn a language. I know people who stuck with the French classes in high school and are so good they could probably be mistaken as a Parisian.
posted by Meathamper at 8:41 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder what is the minimum set of languages you'd need to know in order to cover the maximum number of language sounds.
posted by emeiji at 9:24 PM on January 17, 2012

Once a lovely elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me in a coffee shop - turns out he spent something around four months learning Cantonese in Guangzhou and his accent and pronunciation was absolutely perfect. PERFECT. Not just good for a non-native speaker, but he sounded as though he'd grown up in China. Four months and he had an accent better than mine (which is mostly lazy Hong Kong drawl, born from confused schooling and too many Stephen Chow movies), and it turned out he could speak Hebrew, German, Italian, Spanish, French and English all with conversational fluency, and the only discernible accent I could hear in his English was a slight Israeli twang. He told me he'd just started learning Mandarin for fun, he wasn't very good at it yet and that's when I had to bow out of the conversation for sheer shame because holy shit even his beginner's Mandarin was good and my Mandarin was/is just so, so terrible, even after several determined teachers.

I don't know if what he did was mimicry, or just a natural aptitude for language but however he did it - amazing. I wanna be him when I grow up.
posted by zennish at 10:12 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Zennish, it's just those kinds of people that make me think there's some genetic quirk that allows some people to pick up languages so completely and fluently, even beyond what determination can accomplish.

I studied Arabic for a year, 25 years ago, and though I learned more, and far more methodically, from the second teacher I had, an extremely bright and driven native speaker from Baghdad who spoke Spanish, Portuguese and French as well as English (and she was in the process of learning Hebrew and Russian), it was the first teacher, a local (Cambridge. Mass.) boho type (same dirty black T-shirt day in and day out) who knew nine languages, who exemplified that same polyglot effortlessness. On the other hand, his pedagogy was undisciplined and his lesson plans scattershot. Perhaps that was because he hadn't had the experience of learning those languages in an academic setting, but simply on the street.
posted by Philofacts at 12:32 AM on January 18, 2012

My French teacher here a few years ago may have been another one of those natural-born polyglots: she's from Mexico, was in the Applied Linguistics programme at UQAM (Univ. of Québec at Montréal), sounded like a native (Anglo) Californian when speaking English, taught us in perfect Parisian French, and code-switched instantly into Québecois patois when chatting with other, Québecois teachers. (The accent, as any French French will tell you, is quite distinct.)
posted by Philofacts at 12:40 AM on January 18, 2012

Well, I lived long in the US and eventually started thinking and dreaming in English. It took me years. But once you made the switch, it gets easier thinking in other languages. And thinking in another language gives you a total different state of mind.

"To have another language is to possess a second soul." - Charlemagne

"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse" (attributed to Charles V).

"you don't live in another country you live in another language" E. M. Cioran
posted by yoyo_nyc at 3:05 AM on January 18, 2012

This! I can mimic the hell out of other languages (and frequently end up in the "mistaken for native, oh shit I have just reached the end of my known vocabulary limit!"), but the grammar takes me forever to acquire well...which itself is a problem because then I just sound teenager-slangy. I think it's interesting to base a learning program on this, though, because all the best language-acquirers I know are also musicians or otherwise really good interpreting and "playing back" sounds.
posted by at 6:12 AM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

"you don't live in another country you live in another language" E. M. Cioran

My Indian music teacher, a German who spent 10 years in India getting his degrees at a music college there (on sitar) and is married to a Québecoise, once remarked to me re French that "This is the fourth language I've lived in." (German, English, and Bengali being the others.) He speaks French to his son.

...thinking in another language gives you a total different state of mind.

The researcher Lera Boroditsky would agree, albeit with qualification. ("Total" is too black & white.)
posted by Philofacts at 7:22 AM on January 18, 2012

It can get you into trouble, since they'll assume from your correct pronunciation that your overall mastery is equally as good.

Yup. That happens to me all the time. I've a good ear for music and I can pick up phrases in other languages, pretty much mimicing the person who taught them to me. Which is great if you're asking for coffee in Miami. However, when the barrage of questions comes back at me, I have to smile and nod because my comprehension is about 12% out of context. Sometimes I get a napkin, sometimes I don't get change.

If I had any super-power in the world, it would be to understand languages.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:32 AM on January 18, 2012

Ghidorah: If you're a 25 year old Bostonian guy, trying to mimic the sound of your 45 year old Saitama-born female teacher's voice is only going to make it harder for you.

Tangentially, this makes me think of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who spent several years in Georgia and spoke English with a southeastern U.S. accent. Fifty or sixty years ago that would have struck most as charmingly incongruous because particular accents imply particular things about the speaker's background, but the world's a different place now.

I can't really comment on whether outright mimicry is a good idea or not, since I've only failed to master other languages, but I will say that I'm not really sure what it would mean to speak another language with "my own voice" yet with correct pronunciation. The way I pronounce vowels and apply stresses "naturally" works in English, but not so well for, say, Spanish or French.
posted by cobra libre at 8:46 AM on January 18, 2012

When learning languages as a kid I was always happy with a good accent and weak vocab/grammar versus perfect mastery but a lousy accent. My teachers agreed. Now, of course, I have neither….
posted by wenestvedt at 9:14 AM on January 18, 2012

Oh dude, your username is upside down like what the fuck, man.

hincandenza, if not for you, I would continue to assume uosuaq was a Gaelic name. No foolin'.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:39 AM on January 18, 2012

Russia's big... if I don't want to be picked out as a foreigner I just say I'm from Kamchatka, if they still look confused I claim to have one Tatar and one German parent and bingo! These aren't the droids you're looking for :-)

On the other hand, if I need to, I put on a thick American accent because that signifies "rich foreigner". I guess mimicry is good for code switching, but I feel most comfortable with my native light west of Scotland which naturally drifts a little towards the accent of whoever I'm talking to.

I have noticed that all Russian men speak English half an octave higher than Russian; I can think of several reasons why but I have no idea how to test them.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:52 AM on January 18, 2012

Language chameleon here.

I only started (changing continent with my family) when I was nine, and despite my first, fast switch from German to you'd-never-know-I-wasn't American within a year, at fifteen I was pretty sure I'd have a hard time with French when we moved to Paris. I picked it up all the same without really trying within a year and a half, and after a subsequent four years of mutating my American to UK English, from age 20 I became Italian to the point that it's now the language that comes most naturally, so it's what I speak with my kids.
People are generally incredulous at my mimetic accents in all four language - it gets to the Zeligesque point that any significant amount of time spent in a particular region, or with someone who has a specific regional accent will colour my inflection and expressions.

So, certainly in my experience, immersed imitation (at first) and perfected mimicry have gone hand-in-hand with language acquisition. The only explanation that's ever seemed adequate to me is that perhaps I've retained a quite literally infantile language-learning skill-set.
posted by progosk at 3:12 PM on January 18, 2012

I vaguely remember a story about a guy who was working in Japan and had a female Japanese tutor. Once he got good enough to speak to other Japanese he found they were snickering and laughing at his accent. Not because it was too English, but because he sounded like a girl.
posted by j03 at 12:53 AM on January 19, 2012

Another full-on mimic here. Learned Brazilian Portuguese by imitating my wife and her friends. Hand me a Dutch newspaper, and I can read it out loud like a native-- I'll just have no idea what it means. I've been picking up a little Xhosa phonology by singing along to Miriam Makeba with my toddler in the car.

It's a neat trick, and definitely fun in its own right, but I suspect that as a teaching method it's only going to help those who already have an innate knack for picking up languages, or were lucky enough to get two languages down by age 7.
posted by otherthings_ at 1:48 AM on January 19, 2012

Cobra libre, by naturally, I mean without the half octave shift the Russians were using speaking in English mentioned above. It's almost purely about confidence, though. Without confidence, most language learners speak haltingly, trying to feel out their words to make sure it sounds right. This leads to sound like they are speaking in a higher tone, or sounding like they are constantly asking questions with every word. That sort of being ill at ease with the new language keeps them from sounding like themselves.

Especially in learning situations, I stress the need for my students to fail boldly and often. It's hard, especially in Japan, to convince students not to worry about making mistakes, but that worry not only interferes with actually mastering the language, it also keeps people from speaking confidently in their new language with the same assurance they have in their first language.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:47 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm working through the Spanish lessons now - I've completed the first 2 lessons and am starting on the 3rd. I was thrilled that to discover that Idahosa is actually providing personalized feedback on my assignments. I think this is a great deal for the beta testers.
posted by tdismukes at 11:29 AM on January 20, 2012

« Older 10 Alternative Book Covers/Film Posters   |   GO EAGLE. GO EAGLE. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments