No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s learning a language, trying to become a writer, starting a business etc. it seems like everyone these days has a step-by-step layout about precisely how you can succeed in it. It’s hard to decide which one to follow, especially when some of them conflict with one another.
That’s why today I want to propose something that may seem strange, especially if you are devoted to particular techniques in many fields: while some of these ‘gurus’ you see floating around online or in books are giving you a great plan of action, many of those plans are crap and actually just a placebo encouraging you to progress in other ways.
Oh, but hold on, amn’t I supposedly promoting “the best” language learning “program” that you must follow or fail miserably?
It turns out that people have been learning languages pretty damn well for millennia before I came along, and some were even (and still are) doing things that I would advise against (blasphemy!!) and succeeding in speaking languages fluently.
So many options, which one to choose??
I ran a survey a few months back to see what people think is the best particular book/course for learning a language. As expected there was no dramatic winner.
However, I did see people answer that post or e-mail me at some time, especially when I was specific and gave a frank review of Livemocha & Busuu, Pimsleur and LingQ, to tell me “but I speak fluently and it’s all thanks to that course!”
I’ve also somehow found myself as a “representative” of the opposite end of this weird thing others are calling the “input-output debate”, which in my opinion shouldn’t even exist, and several people are indeed claiming to have reached an excellent level using “input only”.
Well, nobody religiously devoted to any method is going to like what I have to say in this post, but my advice is, of course, open to the same concept, and I’m pretty open about that – enthusiasm is power when it comes to language learning.
If you get encouraged by using a particular memory technique I use, then great! But the technique isn’t the magic here, it’s the fact that you have been encouraged to think “Hey, maybe I can remember new words after all!” You’ll get this out of many vocabulary learning techniques, whether I promote them or not!
So to some cynics, the encouraging “you can do it!” message I give on this blog may be cheesy and wasteful, but to me encouragement is the fuel of language learning, and it may even be the fuel of techniques that I feel are based on nonsense, but still somehow work for a small minority. It’s example time!
The latest amazing technique: the stand-on-your-head learning method!
Basically, I feel that any method that you apply enthusiastically enough will actually produce useful results. To demonstrate why this might work (in an attempt to get people to really think about why they might be making progress), let’s do another thought experiment:
According to this hypothetical scenario, let’s imagine I believe that by standing on your head for 20 minutes before studying or trying to speak a language, you will double the speed with which you will learn it. Bear with me here!
So, I can come up with all sorts of pseudo-science to say how this is the logical course of action; you are sending more blood to your brain and this clearly makes you smarter, your mind is closer to the earth’s core, which allows you to receive the positive quantum energy rays from it much better (hey, you can’t prove this isn’t happening!!) and you see the world from a different perspective (since it’s upside down) so this opens your mind to make you more susceptible to making progress.
OK, I’ll have lost most of you on the validity of this technique by now, but a small gullible percentage will still be hanging around. Great! So now I get really “scientific” and do a comparison of two groups, and I’ll even wear a labcoat while I do it! There will be a stand on head (SOD) and a non-SOD group. I’ll have explained my theories in great depth to the first group and monitor them closely, and the second group will be a basis of comparison for any fools who don’t apply my amazing technique.
Do you know what may actually happen? I could produce results “proving” that the SODs indeed learn the language better!! Seriously – give me the resources and I will prove this to you. But it won’t be scientific, and will actually have proven nothing to people who think logically about how the world works.
Be realistic and you’ll see why any method could “work”
I’ve seen “scientific” studies do this to “prove” all sorts of nonsense. It’s not scientific unless it rigorously applies something akin to a double-blind test (so the tester isn’t intentionally or unintentionally influencing the results), and ideally uses a placebo of some sort where both groups are equally convinced of how effective what they are applying works.
What I propose above and many proofs of why something “works” aren’t scientific because the SODs have gotten my (or someone else’s) pep talk about quantum energy rays, or maybe even just because they are doing something that feels like it could be helping they will be more enthusiastic than those doing nothing special as they apply the method. Don’t worry, I can give good pep talks, so I’m sure I could make this work.
Enthusiastic people are more passionate about what they do. So after standing on their head, they will be more convinced that they are on the right track and will do something that really makes a difference like studying the right materials and, more importantly and actually applying them in real-life conversations to give them context, and they’ll do this very enthusiastically because they’ll be convinced they have science or guru-X behind them. This mentality is what really helps them progress.
Headstanding just becomes a part of their routine to encourage them that they are doing what will best help them overall. It may also help them keep on schedule. By standing on their head every day at 8:35AM, they will immediately follow it up with something useful, so it actually does help.
But the thing is, this would also work if someone genuinely believed that drinking exactly 750ml of water before studying, or putting on their lucky shoe every second Thursday did the job.
And it would also work if they passionately believed that the magic number of 800 hours is how long you should wait until you’re “ready” before speaking. (People do take this one seriously) And I also totally believe that people have become fluent by “using” Pimsleur, and even Rosetta Stone. When you spend that much money on something, that’s one hell of a motivator, so as well as using it, you’ll also cover your bases and use other (cheaper) materials and start applying what you’ve learned, since you have nothing less than “the” magic solution behind you.
So even if the content of what you think is working isn’t actually helping at all, the fact that it’s motivating you because you believe so much in it, means technically… it is helping!
For example, I’m sure Rosetta Stone has definitely “helped” people to achieve fluency in a language, but so would paying that much for an actual large stone to hang over your door with the message “Learn the bloody language, and don’t forget how much you paid to get reminded of this!” chiselled into it. With that reminder, you can bet many people would get off their ass and do more!
And yes, this “amazing” input-only method (that I so “foolishly” claim is unnatural, inefficient, slow and antisocial) also definitely will get you to fluency if you believe in it enough, because when you are finally “ready” to speak, boy are you ever ready! You’ve got months or years of believing in the sacred “ready day” to reinforce it!
Experiment to find the best method for you
So if “everything works”, then does it really matter what you try? Well, sadly by reading this, you’ve broken the spell! That’s how placebos work I’m afraid! But there is a solution – rather than do what that guy or what I say, find an approach that suits you best and tweak it until it is clearly giving you real results.
One of the main things I propose in this blog (and in the LHG) is the communicative approach to language learning, rather than a study-based approach. I didn’t come up with this concept myself, nor was I convinced to try by someone else. I just experimented and even did my own research until I found what I felt was the best possible way to learn a language quickly.
Anything else I discuss on the blog are only suggestions based on my experimentation – I by no means feel I have the “magic solution” to everyone’s language learning woes, even if I’m confident that many of my suggestions would be a huge improvement over other options. You are free to feel that the communicative approach is somehow ‘flawed’ or not for you.
Scepticism is important, so don’t take my word for it – go out and try it for yourself! Last week I got several e-mails and comments from people saying that I encouraged them to finally try to use their language for real. The result? They are finally communicating in a language they’ve had on the shelf for years – now they’re hooked!
If it ‘feels awkward’ and you get embarrassed when you speak with a native and say lots of mistakes in your first days, then that’s fine – it’s all part of the journey. Getting used to that embarrassment and trying harder next time will ultimately lead to more progress.
But maybe you tried this and decided to mix it in with something else. The communicative approach is after all a style that works great for me, since my focus is on using my language with people (rather than listening to the radio or reading books etc.) and that is why I am so enthusiastic to encourage others to try; speaking with people in another language is pretty damn cool and I want others to experience that.
There is no ‘right’ way, but inaction is the wrong way
However, conversation is not everyone’s priority. Many readers have also told me that they have used a combination of my advice with someone’s like Khatzumoto from All Japanese All the Time, since a bit of both works out better for them for their goals.
The two of us might have different aspects to our approach (I like to start with a Lonely Planet phrasebook and to speak the phrases to a native immediately, and he likes to focus on input and consume as much as possible in a short time with things like Spaced Repetition Software). His approach has clearly worked for him!
Some people think our advice is conflicting, but we agree on some crucial points and he has written about concepts similar to this post himself. We are both aware of the power of injecting some positivity into your approach, whatever that approach may be. And we both want people to learn languages. Whatever way they do it is unimportant if they reach their target.
Trust me, I won’t lose any sleep if you decide that my advice could never work for you, as long as whatever you do apply does work. If you reached your target, that’s all that matters. Don’t stick to a method because he said so, or because you’re stuck in a routine. Stick with it because you are genuinely making progress.
You should be passionate and efficient in whatever you do, and that will bring you furthest ahead. The only way to not make progress in your language is to do nothing with it. Pretty much every failure-story about learning a language ultimately boils down to giving up too quickly rather than actually due to the empty excuses the person uses to justify doing so.
So try to think really about why some strategies work and ask yourself if something encouraging you (in whatever form that may be) may actually be precisely what you need.
If you believe in some program/software/book because it has the magic solution, try to really think about why it might be helping you. Religiously following any one method for the wrong reasons may be what is slowing you down.
Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments!
Enter your email in the top right of the site to subscribe to the Language Hacking League e-mail list for way more tips sent directly to your inbox!
If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
Comments: If you liked this post or have anything to say, please leave a comment! I love reading them
Just keep in mind that I’ll delete any rude, trolling, spammy, irrelevant or way off-topic comments. Also, use your REAL name, not a brand or business one, and don’t link to your site in the comments unless it’s relevant to this post.
If you have a general language learning question, please ask it in the forums. Otherwise please use the search tool on the right for any other question not related to this post.