Tower of Babelfish - A Language Learning Method
April 19, 2012 2:13 PM   Subscribe

I've been reading for 45 seconds and I have to say this is absolutely fantastic, and exactly what I'm looking for to help with learning all sorts of things.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:41 PM on April 19, 2012

I watched some of the Youtube vids earlier and indeed, they were fantastic.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 3:51 PM on April 19, 2012

Nice to see something like this from a fellow MeFi language learning enthusiast.

If I may offer a bit of constructive feedback: This is a good start, but it lacks depth and flexibility. For example, "fluency" is listed as the primary objective and end goal of the method, but there is no definition of the term or explanation of what specific language skills users of this method can expect after X amount of time studying. (Language fluency is an ambiguous concept. A person can be a fluent speaker but be completely illiterate in the same language (or vice versa). Which specific language abilities can I expect to gain if I follow this method?)

Also, it's naive to think that pronunciation in any language can be "learned" (again, a broad term) by spending a little time brushing up on IPA and listening to a few "carefully designed recordings" (whatever this means). Obviously the author has never spent time learning Arabic or Chinese. There is a body of research showing that humans more or less lose the ability to distinguish sounds outside of their native language in adolescence (which carries directly over into their ability to produce those sounds). Learning even passable pronunciation in phonetically complex languages that are different from one's native language takes years if ever.

Anyone who has studied a second language from adulthood knows that the market is flooded with products making big promises but lacking in the depth needed to follow through on them. This product falls under this category for me. It doesn't pass the sniff test. That said, I hope the author continues to develop it before publishing his book, and wish him luck in doing so.
posted by Kevtaro at 4:04 PM on April 19, 2012

How timely. Currently using Anki to learn spanish, french and American Sign Language. I agree that Anki is a great way to get the basic vocabulary into your brain. Thanks!
posted by acheekymonkey at 4:43 PM on April 19, 2012

Hate the way the site refuses to respect my text size choice. Makes it hard for me to read the damned English.
posted by schwa at 4:56 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anyone who has studied a second language from adulthood knows that the market is flooded with products making big promises but lacking in the depth needed to follow through on them. This product falls under this category for me. It doesn't pass the sniff test.

Agreed. There are entire fields and subfields devoted exclusively to the study of Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Dozens of academic journals. Over the decades, it has been a spectacle of relentless theoretical debate, churning in a sea of conflicting results. There are thousands of different angles on the cognition involved, e.g. whether learning happens implicitly or explicitly, what constitutes aptitude, the extent of cross-language transfer, all the way up to social factors of interaction and cultural attitudes. It is a dazzlingly complex set of phenomena to even the most advanced graduate student struggling to do a survey of one small subfield (say, the mental lexicon) within SLA.

If you found a method that works for you, great. But if you don't conduct a rigorous meta-analysis and literature review, and ground your methods in contemporary theory, you are in all likelihood contributing nothing but noise.
posted by stroke_count at 5:44 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

stroke_count: The academe isn't the one truth path, and may not even be a particular good path, to advancement of a given field. Music is an excellent example of an academic culture that only very rarely contributes to society outside it (and I say this as a big fan of those contributions). It doesn't strike me as so outlandish that language is another.

If you've got a critique of what he's saying, perhaps from some academic experience of your own, by all means tell us tell us. Don't just motion toward a culture of prestige and make pitying noises toward those outside.
posted by phrontist at 5:58 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

What is created with a language (literature, poetry, etc.) strikes me as more analogous to your music example than the actual process of second language learning, which, as stroke_count said, is an immensely deep and well-studied scientific field. A brief look the history of second language teaching methodology will show you that SLA research is directly applicable to language learning practice and has been used to drastically improve teaching and learning outcomes in the classroom and in people’s homes for years.

With that said, there is still so much not understood about SLA. Of course different people have different learning styles, and there are countless paths to learning a language to a desired level of competency. I think stroke_count’s point is that without more concrete justification for the author’s methods, there is nothing that sets this method apart from the hundreds of “Learn X Language in [short amount of time]!!” programs already flooding the market and duping inexperienced language learners into spending their money on ineffective products. As much as this process may have worked for the author, simply saying “it worked for me at Middlebury, so it will work for you!” doesn’t cut it.

Unless you are the rare and lucky individual that has a great memory and naturally learns languages quickly, language learning is a long and laborious process in which it generally takes adults years to gain any reasonable competency. Learning systems like the one linked to in this FPP are the language learning equivalent of a diet fad or a TV infomercial exercise product. Just like losing weight, however, learning a language takes time and dedication. There is just no getting around that.
posted by Kevtaro at 6:54 PM on April 19, 2012

This sounds like AJATT without the abrasive presentation, though that's a good thing.

I have to say I'm pretty dubious of the value of IPA - you want to understand how sounds go together conceptually in your target language's framework, not through another alphabet, even if it's better suited than what you're used to.

I'd also never thought of using corpus analysis to determine a vocabulary list. There could be trouble getting one that corresponds to daily spoken language rather than written language, which would particularly cause problems with things like conventional greetings and phrases that are too mundane to records but used often.
posted by 23 at 7:24 PM on April 19, 2012

> Hate the way the site refuses to respect my text size choice.

I wonder if that's what happening in my browser. The page usually doesn't recognize my mouse, but sometimes it does. Annoying and hard to get around. Frustrating. Never seen exactly this behaviour before.
posted by Listener at 7:47 PM on April 19, 2012

There are thousands of different angles on the cognition involved, e.g. whether learning happens implicitly or explicitly

Yay! I am a PhD candidate in Second Language Acquisition (SLA), specifically into the implicit and explicit learning of natural language morphology.

As someone who also enjoys learning languages, I always enjoy reading personal accounts of people’s success (or lack thereof) in learning languages, and the methods and tricks that they have used to some success.

The implicit / explicit learning debate really kicked off in the 1980s / early 90s in SLA following several theories of Krashen (cognitive psychology started this debate in the 1960’s with the work of Arthur Reber). According to Krashen, there is a difference between what can be learned and what can be acquired. For Krashen, acquisition occurs implicitly from input: an example of this is how children learn a language from listening and interacting with the world around them, without being taught the rules of grammar explicitly. For Krashen, explicit learning (i.e. studying the rules of a language) can only serve as what he calls the monitor—as a way for us to consciously analyze what we say. He also stipulates that only relatively simple grammatical constructions can be learned, such as the 3rd person singular marker –s (He walks) and that more abstract rules can only be acquired implicitly through input. Another influential concept was “comprehensible input” which stipulates that we can only acquire what we understand. An example of this would be listening to a lecture in a language you have no knowledge of. No matter how many times you watch the lecture, if you don’t understand anything, then you will never acquire anything.

The research of the mid-late 1990s / 2000s to present can best be described as “Krashen bashing” in SLA. While there appears to be truth to some of his theories (e.g. his theory of comprehensible input), the distinction between acquisition and learning has been discredited by numerous empirical studies (e.g. Robinson, 1995).

There is evidence from cognitive psychology that implicit and explicit knowledge is stored in different areas of the brain. There is also evidence in both cognitive psychology and SLA that some learning can occur implicitly (Williams, 2005). However, what we would consider “explicit” learning (learning the grammatical rules) has been proven to be much more effective than any form of simple immersion in the language (e.g. the work of Leow, Dekeyser, among others)

What appears to be most beneficial is the concept of “noticing” (Schmidt, 1990,1991,1993, etc). In order to learn a feature of the language, we first need to notice it. This seems self-evident. What is important to remember is that research into how we process language suggests that we have a limited amount of cognitive resources to attend to any language input and that we attend to meaning first. This means that if the input is too complex, we will devote all of our mental energy into working out the meaning.

It is only when the meaning of the input is comprehensible and less demanding for us to work out the meaning that we can focus our attention to the form (the structure) of the underlying message. This is why immersion programs tend to be less successful than input that has been graded to the level of learner. (e.g. Swain’s studies in the French immersion programs in Canada).

Of course, there are many more factors to be taken into account, and I am just a PhD candidate—there are a lot of people that know a lot more than me about this area.
As others have pointed out, learning a language is a complex process, it is important to point out that learning a second language (L2) is different than learning one’s first language. There is also a somewhat contentious theory of the critical period hypothesis (CPH) which attempts to account for why it is so much easier for children to learn a language. In short, the CPH stipulates that at after a certain age (research disagrees on what the exact age is), it is impossible to achieve “native-speaker” levels of language proficiency and pronunciation in a foreign language. This is not my area of research so I can’t really go into too much detail here, but I believe that it has been suggested that the critical period for pronunciation is very early—something like around the age of 2 or 3. After that point, one’s L1 will directly influence their L2 pronunciation.

I’m rambling now, but research into individual differences in learning languages points to motivation and language learning strategies as being two key factors of success. The strategy that this motivated learner has described, I feel, is nothing more than a strategy that has been successful for a highly-motivated individual. I would encourage anyone interested in learning a second language to experiment with different methods and strategies to see what works for you. However, the strategy outlined in the link is largely unsupported by empirical studies into the most effective means of learning a language.
posted by FunGus at 2:12 AM on April 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


Having a second look at the page, I would say it's not a particularly bad place for someone learning languages to start.

Approaching vocabulary from frequency lists is, in general, a good idea. However it is best if the vocabulary is contextualized.

If you are going to spend time memorizing lists of vocabulary, I would suggest memorizing them in short, memorable sentences rather than simply the word and its translation into English.
posted by FunGus at 2:40 AM on April 20, 2012

« Older I ate a hot dog. It tasted real good.   |   Epithet Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments