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The engineering mentality for language learning, being ready & input vs output

| 77 comments | Category: positive mentality

For those of you who don’t know my background, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering and actually worked as an engineer several times. Perhaps you would think that it’s hardly the pre-requisite for becoming a full time language hacker, but I actually feel that my engineering background has been a big contributor for my success with languages.

You see, engineering is a very practical hands-on field. Engineering is built upon scientific principles, but takes them even further into a non-ideal world that is filled with lots of interference that can never be fully covered by equations at a practical level, until an efficient solution to a problem is found.

Engineering isn’t about perfection, since the laws of thermodynamics tell us that such a solution is impossible; engineering produces results NOW in the form of machines, technology and constructions.

Because of this, engineering results are always adapting and improving, even though a solution has already been presented. Cell phones get faster and buildings withstand harsh climates better. But if we waited until we had the level of advancement we had now before even actually applying anything, we’d still be living in caves and yelling across hills.

To show you what I mean, let me compare my personal engineering approach to languages compared to what I consider a more traditional approach, using engineering style illustrations while I’m at it!

The ready asymptote

An asymptote is a curve that gets closer to a limit but never actually touches it. This is how I describe most people’s view of when they’ll be “ready to speak” as shown below:

The problem with being “ready” is that there is ALWAYS more work to do. There are more obscure words to learn, grammar points and tones to perfect, intonations, cultural differences etc. You will never ever know a language perfectly, so you will never be “ready” if you define ready as “not being able to make any mistakes”.

Aiming for this level of readiness is ludicrous and the result is that most people will never even try to use their language, despite years of study.

It’s the same in engineering; heat loss, molecular dispersion, friction and a host of other factors mean that we can never design a perfect system/device. So what we do is to try our best and then accept a “pretty good” solution as the one to apply immediately.

In professional contexts this would be represented by the red line; you have to work hard, but you start to apply it when it’s good enough. Waiting until you have it absolutely perfect is wasteful and we would achieve nothing if we did this – aim for pretty good and deliver as soon as possible.

In a system where people’s lives are at stake (a bridge’s resistance to wind, the accuracy of an aeroplane’s sensory detection system etc.), your threshold should be as close as possible to the ideal. But long before you get there, you need to TEST and apply your solution in the field. You simply cannot make a quantum leap from start to next-to-perfect without thorough testing first.

And this is what I do with languages. I set my “ready to speak” threshold much lower, like at the blue line, which is where I’ll be after a few short hours of studying.

When I’m trying to communicate in a language, nobody’s lives are at stake. If I conjugate my verb wrong or forget some basic vocabulary, the worst that can happen is that someone laughs at my mistake (which almost never happens, since people are way nicer than the pessimists would have you believe). But I can laugh with them and move on, rather than declare it to be the end of the world.

As engineers, the only way we reach that more professional levels of efficiency is by constant testing in real world environments. As a language learner I do the same thing; seeking out tourists, couchsurfers or others to practice with and improve with them. Sure, what I have in my first months is not enough to get me a gig as a guest lecturer at a local university (i.e. professional level), but I can say a lot and even have deep friendships. And thanks to all the practice I improve towards actual fluency quickly.

The ideal stage of speaking really well is a lot closer when you make small steps in that direction by actual use. Expecting all that study to magically produce perfect native-like fluency “some day” without actually using it in the mean time to get closer to it, is nothing short of insanity.

Impossible to start from zero

One other thing you’ll notice about the above graph is that at time zero, your readiness level is NOT zero. Perhaps in a theoretical (and pessimistic) system you can approximate everything you know in a foreign language to nothing, but this isn’t how it actually is.

There are thousands of words you already know even when you start a brand new language. Even Asian languages have brand names and loan words that will help you initially. And there is a host of non-verbal communication that is essential to being ready to communicate that you ALREADY have.

There is no starting from absolute zero, there’s starting from being an adult that can already communicate with human beings. Some people like to think of learning their second language as a baby would be doing, but most of a baby’s work is simply reading people in general (expressions, tone and loudness of voice, ways to react socially etc.) – forget language-specific points. And you have most of that already.

Despite the few exceptions of some nodding or finger/arm gestures, the vast majority of non-verbal communication is universal. This is where you are starting from, not zero, and these means of communication are a crucial aspect of any language, even if they aren’t listed in your grammar book.

Following a more theoretical approach, as too many language learners do, you’ll never get the feedback you need to be able to progress, which brings me on to the next point:

The input vs output fallacy

One thing that has surprised me a lot in reading other blogs related to languages is this supposed “debate” about input vs output. Some of them put me in the “output” camp with my early start to speaking to contrast with their long-term input focused approach.

From a purely theoretical perspective, it may make sense, but in the REAL WORLD (i.e. where us engineers live), it’s ridiculous to reduce a system down to be as simple as that, especially one as complex as a social human being.

When you start to look at a system, it make appear to have just one or two inputs/outputs, but engineers know to quickly abandon this oversimplification when it becomes clear how complex systems really are.

The argument goes like this: “You can’t produce output without input! You’ll make too many mistakes initially and they’ll be burned into you forever! Study for a long time (years? decades?) first, and THEN you’ll be have what you need to produce output!”

I see people with this argument to visualise “the human learning system” with input as follows:

(I added the pixie dust myself; it’s the only way I can see this system as being in any way more realistic).

Without all of that pure input (although you’ll note that even in their system pure input is impossible; they need feedback at least from their books), they imagine someone who speaks as soon as possible to be nothing but an output machine full of mistakes.

Someone using the communicative approach to language learning that I promote is nothing like that. In engineering, one of the most important aspects of any system is FEEDBACK.

There is no system that simply involves input in the real world. In biology, mirror neurons, gene regulatory networks, and hormones (among many others) are systems that rely on feedback. In mechanical engineering the float valve is a good example of physical feedback based on the environment (used to regulate fuel in a carburettor, and more familiarly in toilets).

Feedback is essential for an efficient system and you can bet that successful language learners employ it in all stages of their learning cycle.

My view of the language learning system is way too complex to illustrate, but it would have the same arrows going in as this one, then lots of arrows going out (output) in various forms and then coming back from the same source (feedback) for improvement purposes. If the environment isn’t giving you feedback on your progress (and no, the answers at the back of the book to your grammar exercises are NOT enough) then you can’t make any progress.

That’s where people come in, and you can’t illustrate a person as a simple feedback loop of corrections. They’ll give you encouragement, and the feeling of use with human beings is a great motivation to work towards as you are learning. No simplified A+B=C system can ever represent that.

Be an engineer and get your hands dirty!

In this blog I talk about attitude a lot and push people to change their behaviours. This is because I feel like my experience is allowing me to look at the overall system of speaking a language a lot better. If you look at it as “study grammar+vocabulary + do exercises + listen a lot = be fluent in a few years” you are looking at it with tunnel vision.

I think many people who do try to analyse language learning like this are indeed being somewhat “scientific”. You can do studies, read up a lot about it in advance etc. and feel you will be best prepared. But the real world does not answer directly to our simplified equations, because we cannot realistically factor in all “inputs”.

Being social and lots of practice is my engineering approach to learning languages. It’s learning by doing. I’ll make mistakes along the way, but the overall approach will constantly get better. Just reading up about how to do it, or investing in courses will never give me that.

It’s time to get your hands dirty and tackle languages as an engineer would! Make a plan of action quickly and implement it.

Any other engineers out there? Or language learners that have this engineering approach to language learning? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Anonymous

    I really don’t agree with those who say they became fluent following a strict method. I prefer to sit back, relax and use it, with the language gradually becoming clear to me. I use LingQ, yes, but that is only to improve my reading skills and listening skills. I write random things in the back of my notebook to improve my writing. I speak to my family in whatever language I am studying, even though they cannot understand me. All these I started at the same time because I want equal levels in all of them. I do what I want to achieve in the language because that is the only way I will get fluent. I think there is no point in studying a different thing to improve in another. You can’t read to improve speaking, afterall. That’s like saying memorising the periodic table will help you with sports. That is a big flaw in the input system.

    Sorry for the rambling comment.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Agreed 100%. That’s why a lot of how I try to convey my “method” has so much encouragement and mentality – because I don’t have a strict method. It’s going with the flow, albeit with some consistent ground rules.
      I like the analogy with the periodic table! That’s how I view this “input system” too. It’s looking for tangential solutions to a problem that is solved by simple application. Speak lots to speak better, there’s no way around it with software and podcasts!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Tá bom Agnaldo, boa sorte com o italiano! Mas nunca é tarde demais – pode fazer o que quiser com o inglês, né? ;)

  • http://twitter.com/joonahere Joona Here.

    I think this was one of your best posts in a while, awesome stuff! Loved the illustrations and examples :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Glad you liked it! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Turning this blog into a platform to attack particular people would do nothing but massage my ego. I can’t see it as actually being beneficial, so if others do it to me I’ll ignore them most of the time ;) I only bring it up here if enough of my readers are asking about it.

    Glad you agree with the post itself!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I will always make mistakes, but I find that if I get corrected twice on the filed in real conversations, the emotional impact of making the same mistake twice burns into me, especially when I give it proper focus rather than dismiss it as “I’ll remember it later”. After getting corrected twice, it’s unlikely I’ll make the same mistake because of this.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    As a linguistic researcher, I have to agree with those who say that output is not possible without input. Technically it is true because you cannot spontaneously start speaking a language with absolutely no exposure to it. Input is the central construct in second language acquisition, but output is a bit more controversial. The input-output debate usually refers to Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and Swain’s Comprehensible Output Hypothesis (basically the two extremes), but the middle ground is Long’s Interaction Hypothesis, which I agree with.

    Most scholars accept that input is necessary for acquisition, while output is beneficial. There is still no research that suggests output is necessary for language acquisition because it is the result of acquisition and not the cause of it. The Interaction Hypothesis states that learner output changes the input they receive, thanks to interactions with native speakers and authentic language (and of course feedback/learning from mistakes comes in to play here), but input is still required first before output can be utilized to enhance acquisition. So it is a circular system of input – output – input, yet this indirect link between output and acquisition is dependent on input.

    I probably just repeated what you said, but in linguistic terms, so yeah… Can you tell I miss teaching Linguistics?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I’ll take your word that you repeated what I said! Don’t know any Krashen or Swain or Long I’m afraid! Such linguistic references are lost on me, as much as you might not know famous engineers :P

      But I was actually hoping that people would see the purpose of that part of this article is to abandon the terms output and input. The very sentence “output is not possible without input” doesn’t need to be uttered and arguing against it is not something I’m interested in.

      Not sure what “most scholars accept” – to be frank I’m more interested in what most successful language learners accept. Can you tell I don’t like talking about linguistics? :P

      • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

        I do think the biggest problem is that people do not agree on what output and input refer to. I always mean the strict linguistic definitions but it seems like most others do not, and that’s where the supposed controversy/debate comes from.

        I’m interested in what both researchers and language learners accept – though to be fair, almost all researchers on language acquisition are polyglots too. And since I will eventually have PhD after my name, I feel like I should start my snobby tirades on the value of academic research sooner rather than later. ;)

        P.S. Most acquisition research is on instructed learning in school settings, so some day I may be using your experiences/techniques for novel research on independent language learning.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Defining input and output are best left to computer scientists. I think it’s a gross oversimplification to attempt to throw these terms at such a social thing as improving communication abilities in a language.

          Perhaps from a linguistic theoretical perspective it’s useful to use those terms, but in the context of practical use I feel they are not at all helpful and roboticise the language learning process too much, no matter what they may mean for the individual.

          I’m sure lots of linguists are polyglots too, but I restrict myself to social use of languages. Many linguists I have argued with in comments on this blog clearly have a preference for literature over making new friends when it comes to their language. This is why the focus has to be different.

          It would please me to no end to have someone introduce my non-linguistic advice in a school setting, please do! :)

      • Lissette Baptista

        I feel you! :)

    • Anonymous

      Your comment brought to mind an odd image. You have two people stranded together, who have no common language. Both are just sitting quietly staring at one another. Neither one can speak to the other, because “output is not possible without input” as you said.

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

        Very well said!! This input vs output nonsense collapses in quite a lot of real world situation, not just hypothetical extremes like that.

        • http://twitter.com/chrissarda Chris Sarda

          Untrue they’d start speaking to each other when they started teaching each other the language. Pointing to a tree and telling your partner: “tree” qualifies as input, him repeating it is the output.

          Perhaps he’s better off repeating his new word and using it immediately, but regardless her comment holds up when one guy has to say “Es un arbol” and the other “It’s a tree”.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            Once again that’s a gross oversimplification. This situation has feedback. Just because input is a part of feedback doesn’t mean you can claim it’s the be-all-end-all of language acquisition ;)

          • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

            It’s the other way around though – feedback is an integral part of input.

      • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

        They can speak to one another, just in their native languages. They probably won’t understand each other in the very beginning and won’t be able to produce the new language, until they have had some input. You can’t create something out of nothing. If you’ve never seen/heard language X before in your life, you can’t just magically and spontaneously start speaking in that language.

        Out of curiosity, what are your definitions of input and output?

        • http://twitter.com/chrissarda Chris Sarda

          It will be become a battle of semantics. It’s impossible to oversimplify, there is input first in the hypothetical example, that’s it. There is feedback, I agree, but it’s a complete other step.

          You can’t find a single “input” person that wouldn’t tell you that to speak well, you have to speak a lot. Or who’s goal isn’t to speak. Where you really come in for me Benny is the idea that some people absolutely do hold back and make excuses for not speaking. To me most input people don’t seem to want to understand or acknowledge that…

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Sorry Jennie but I disagree with you. You are not starting from nothing, as I said in this post.

          • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

            I disagree that you disagree. If you are starting from “something” instead of nothing, then that something is input, even in the simplest form. What I got from your post is that you agree with Interactionists, because what you said about feedback and output is essentially what they say. That diagram (which they also disagree with) is too linear because acquisition is not “a bunch of input eventually leads to output” – it’s “a combination of input & output creates better output” but it’s all happening at the same time because of feedback.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Sorry Jennie but I disagree with you. You are not starting from nothing, as I said in this post.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Haha, nah the pixie dust is for non-engineers! :) But yes, I guess you could include coffee for many people as one of the important contributing factors not covered by simplified input-output arguments ;)

    I don’t actually drink coffee believe it or not (except for socially in cafés etc.) so that’s very un-engineer of me!

  • Anonymous

    Ah, I love looking at the world through the goggles of engineering – I am exceedingly prone to use similar analogies (computer programmer by trade).

    My problem tends to be that I think TOO much like an engineer and sometimes forget the emotional component. I realized this firsthand just two days ago when I went up a level in my Arabic studies and changed teachers in the process. The first class had focused almost entirely on reading/writing/word memorization. You could argue for (or against) the idea that this was a very important foundation, but I didn’t realize how miserable I was. In the first 4 hours at the new level we learned the basics of the present tense, past tense, and posessive particles – and spent the whole class just TALKING to each other.

    I felt like I had learned more in hours than I had in weeks and walked out of the class grinning. It wasn’t just the content that changed – it was the mode of presentation and the attitude of the teacher (who was significantly more attentive and smiled a lot more). This is what I mean about the emotional element – these changes made all the difference!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I think being practical can be applied efficiently too. The human aspect really is a practical contribution to language learning, so I think it still aligns with engineering mentality to embrace it ;) But yes, that efficient approach you mentioned doesn’t seem to be described in many scholastic courses… it’s a pity because schools have great potential if they’d be more practical and less theoretical about it!

  • Anonymous

    I have run into something similar. More often for me, though, a mistake will get corrected once and then later I will hear myself make the same mistake and realize it even though I didn’t get corrected the second time. It’s almost like hitting the wrong note while playing the piano, as soon as I hear myself make the mistake I realize it.

    In these cases I will go back and practice in order to avoid the mistake again. The advantage is that I have something to focus on and the motivation (not wanting to make the mistake again) to correct it.

    Don’t be afraid to roleplay scenarios in your head to get practice right before talking to native speakers again. After all, you probably do this in your native language before job interviews, important conversations, etc.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    “The idea behind a silent period is to allow our brains to tune into the language, to get used to the sounds, to get used to the way things are said…”
    What about getting used to speaking? The silent period totally ignores this. After all that silence you will still feel intimidated since speaking is new to you, even if you have all the grammar etc. to build you up.
    “Most people who start speaking early struggle with…” Where are you getting this information? I absolutely detest this “look at the immigrants” excuse. Their story is not your story. They don’t improve because they don’t try. There’s no feedback there – they are ignoring any opportunities to improve. The few examples of immigrants who spend their life in a country and don’t speak the language is because they aren’t actually immersed – they only talk to their family. There is no full time attempt to become fluent. Expats who speak English do the same.
    Using a bad example to promote why the whole concept fails is not an acceptable excuse not to speak.

  • Anonymous

    The “silent period” you describe sounds a lot like so-called passive learning to me — the notion that you can listen to audio etc. in order to improve your comprehension. Early on I bought into this idea, but as I learned more languages and did more research on human learning I really changed my viewpoint. In fact, I’d say the “weird language patterns” you describe come about whenever someone is not sufficiently corrected.

    The simple fact is this: the only way to break a habit (or avoid forming it in the first place!) is to be constantly reinforced AWAY from the habit. If you’re silently learning, you’re not getting this reinforcement. I would even submit (and this part I admit is a conjecture, but one based upon experience with lots of other language students) that people who do not immediately try to speak a lot right away have more problems with this “weird language pattern” problem.

    The point in all of this is that speaking only works when it is corrected — but it works great. The place I think I’ve seen this the most prevalent is Italians learning Spanish – it is very hard for them to remove their own accent/patterns from the new language because they are so similar. However, those students I met who spoke a LOT and really listened to / interacted with the Spanish natives from Day #1 overcame the problem the best.

    A final thought: if you’re silently studying something, you could be saying it in your head wrongly over and over. If you say it aloud, someone will probably correct you. This means fewer bad habits.

    • http://www.bakunin-learns-thai.blogspot.com Bakunin

      Zaneclaes, I agree with most of your points, but I really don’t know why this should be a reply to my comment. I haven’t said any of the things you discuss. Firstly, a silent period has nothing to do with passive listening that is way over your head; please google the term ‘comprehensible input’ to learn more about the kind of input recommended during a silent period. Secondly, the silent period is all about avoiding the formation of bad habits by solidly ingraining the correct pattern into your brain BEFORE you engage in production, and production includes speaking in your head. During a silent period, you shouldn’t practice silently in your head, not at all! I really don’t know why you’re bringing these points up as a reply to my comment :(

      Another idea related to the silent period makes my comment hopefully a bit clearer, and that’s the idea that oral comprehension is likely to be a good base for language learning. Once you have oral comprehension developed, speaking, then reading and finally writing can follow. If you can understand the language well and have listened to its patterns many times, speaking and reading can follow more easily than without understanding the language and having been exposed to its patterns. It’s all about establishing the correct feedback loop in your brain.

      • Anonymous

        Ah, I see you didn’t mean listening to content over your head – whew :) However, let me explain what I meant by my points:

        What I’m responding to is your statement: “… avoiding the formation of bad habits by solidly ingraining the correct pattern into your brain BEFORE you engage in production”

        My point is this: there is no such thing as one-directional “absorption” without production. If you are listening and studying you are creating things in your head – producing. Each time you read or hear a word, you are re-producing the sounds in your head just to be able to “look up” the word in your mental lexicon. If you do this process “silently” (aka without people to correct you), you will inevitably form bad habits. I could go into the neuroscience behind this, but for brevity let me just say that when you mentally produce a sound (which, again, your brain does automatically every time it tries to “look up” a word) you are doing the vocal equivalent of visualizing. Visualization is a very powerful habit-forming technique which effects your body right down to the muscles (like those in your throat – which, tangentially, is why athletes use similar techniques for sports). If you’re purely visualizing without corrections, you’ll form bad habits.

        To illustrate my point: I challenge you to spend 2 weeks learning a language with new sounds (Arabic has several sounds English doesn’t, Cantonese or Mandarin have tones, etc.) WITHOUT speaking aloud and being corrected by a live person. I don’t care how good your audio tapes are, or if you’re listening to a native speaker — when you finally do speak you will have some very bad mistakes and even habits. Even though you heard the sounds and thought you could tell the difference, I promise you’ll find out that you’ve developed bad habits due to your internal mispronunciations. Your oral comprehension might be decent or good, but I promise you will have damaged your ability to speak.

        The reason I wanted to comment on your post is because I have seen the situation I described (in the last paragraph) many times. I myself fell victim to it when I studied Mandarin. I listened to very top-notch audio programs etc. for months before moving to China for a year. I thought I understood the concept of tones but as it turned out I could not produce them. Even worse – I thought I could produce them because I _could_ hear them, but any Chinese person was quick to point out that I wasn’t saying them correctly. To this day my pronunciation of Chinese suffers as compared to my friends who started by speaking with a live teacher. I can hear the difference but cannot produce them as well. Likewise, I am now studying Arabic and I have seen several students run into the same problem (those who studied alone before starting here in Morocco) – thankfully I avoided it this time.

        As a final thought: you talk about the idea of a “feedback loop.” If you’re not being corrected by a real live person (speaking), the “feedback” is missing from your “loop” — its just a loop which re-enforces itself. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” after all.

        I hope I don’t sound argumentative, but I do strongly disagree with this technique in general because of the very fact that I feel that my Mandarin suffered because of it, and the reading I’ve done on neuroscience in the time since then seems to disagree with the concept.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    “Rules of thumb” – well said! That’s the best way to go about something if you want a practical solution to it. Basing it on science is a huge help, but there is a stage where we just need to get into it!

  • http://twitter.com/Domi333 Dominic

    Hey Benny,
    I see how you’re constantly reminding us of the over-emphasis on studying and doing written exercises etc. Nevertheless, I still feel it is important to state that the textbooks have a certain value. Literacy is I think the other side of the coin to speaking. Both important tools for communicating.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Hey Dominic,
      There are many things I could do on this blog, but fighting illiteracy is not my focus. The target audience are those who have already failed at learning a language by the academic approach (the majority). There are plenty of sites that do a much better job than I ever could to promote literacy and textbooks. I want to get people speaking asap.

  • http://yourlifeamp.com Your Life Amp

    J’ai adoré cet article. J’ai commenté parce que je veux te remercier et pratiquer mon francais en même temps :) Je trouve la meilleure approche est de devenir une personne de la langue cible.

    Merci encore.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    People don’t seem to understand how vitally important making mistakes is to learning a new skill and how much they’re handicapping themselves by purposely avoiding making mistakes.

  • Sue Travers

    Brilliant, Benny. I love the engineering analogy and diagram. I recently referred to “Fake it ’till you make it” in my Career Development blog in a piece on interview nerves and the fear of giving workplace presentations. I never would have thought that language learning and interviews have overlap, but they do!

    I don’t speak any other language but English, and last year sat next to an elderly French lady who spoke only French. Using body language, hand gestures, and single words we both knew from assorted other languages, we chatted from Heathrow to Melbourne about travel, climate change, politics, families, love and loss. It wasn’t fluent, it wouldn’t pass any ‘tests’ but the human interaction was a perfect 100%.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yes, I’m glad to overlap in other things and show people how aspects of learning a language can relate to many parts of life and vice versa :)

      Great to see you communicate with that lady! You’ve proven what I said around the graph that starting from zero is impossible, we can always get by from day one if we are smart enough!

  • Anonymous

    Nice use of feedback systems to demonstrate language learning (although I unlearned a lot of it from my engineering school days). You’re still familiar with thermodynamics?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I quite liked thermodynamics, so it stuck with me even though it was only covered in my first year in any detail (since after that I specialised in the electronics branch of engineering). But all that learning gave me a mentality that I definitely feel helps with language learning :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I quite liked thermodynamics, so it stuck with me even though it was only covered in my first year in any detail (since after that I specialised in the electronics branch of engineering). But all that learning gave me a mentality that I definitely feel helps with language learning :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Glad stumbelupon sent you my way :) Hope you keep enjoying the blog!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Yes, I could see that a bit myself when I was in Prague. It’s a pity!
    I also pointed out mistakes to my English students when I was a teacher, but in the same encouraging and growing sense, and not ALL the time ;)

  • Alex

    “Pixie dust” xD

    Me gustó el post, yo tambien estoy estudiando ingeinería.

    A veces se me olvida que nunca empezamos realmente desde cero.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      No hay “cero” en el mundo de los ingenieros ;) Hay algo en todo..

  • FRhoads

    No sabes como ayuda esto para mí, actualmente estoy estudiando ingeniería y no pensé que me ayudaría a aprender otro idioma! Gracias! Saludos desde México~

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Claro que ayuda :) La mentalidad de la ingeniería me ayuda con mucho!!

  • Anonymous

    Just so you know (and I’m sure you’ve tried this out) , you win on google fights over steve kaufmann =D

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      What do you mean? His site is poorly designed and I doubt he optimises any of his posts to help people find them better in search engines, but if you search for something he talked about that I didn’t, of course he will “win”. Search engines bring up what is most relevant in the end ;)

      • Anonymous

        Google fights, it’s a website. I get bored easily and went on that. I typed your name and his name in and pressed fight. Whoever gets the most returns wins the “fight”. The url is here:
        http://www.googlefight.com/

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Ah ok, well that has no reflection whatsoever on our sites. Lewis is way more common a surname than Kaufmann so of course that will win in Google searches. If you search for our names in quotations he will win, since he has been active online longer than me and has a published book.
          This has no indication on how our websites fare out in Google though. I don’t think that site is useful, but glad you have fun with it!

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Ah ok, well that has no reflection whatsoever on our sites. Lewis is way more common a surname than Kaufmann so of course that will win in Google searches. If you search for our names in quotations he will win, since he has been active online longer than me and has a published book.
          This has no indication on how our websites fare out in Google though. I don’t think that site is useful, but glad you have fun with it!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Well, even in computer science you have to accept that particular code has to be shipped by a particular time, so it too can’t be perfect. You can debug it, but there will always be potential “improvements”, but it’s best to make it do a simple function and get it out there first :)

  • Anonymous

    The message is basically about courage. To paraphrase: “Act as if you had courage, and courage will be given to you.”

    I confess, I was one of the people who was a bit mean to you over your Thai language adventure, but I’m glad I’ve continued to follow your blog, as it reminds me with good advice to keep pushing my language abilities rather than taking the easy way out, a habit that is easy to fall into.

    โชคดี!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Many many people were mean to me about my dabblings in Thai, but glad to see you have seen the light ;)

  • Anonymous

    I have always introduced people to your website by describing you as someone who takes “an engineering approach to language learning”. Now that I know you actually were an engineer by training/experience, it makes even more sense!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Ha, funny! Thanks for sharing the site :)

  • http://thepursuit.co Joe Reinhart

    Great post, Benny. As an engineer myself I can definite appreciate this approach to learning languages. And I like the way that you defined engineering in relation to science: “Engineering is built upon scientific principles, but takes them even further into a non-ideal world.” Great, concise explanation.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks, glad someone liked my matter-of-fact description! I get a lot of “scientists” (linguists) in comments on this blog and it frustrates me to no end that they don’t take so many things into account. As an engineer, things like noise (Signal to noise ratio) & interference simply can’t be ignored, no matter what your high school science book says about how simple it is. It’s the same thing with languages.
      Glad to see other engineer readers :)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YCINJXODIKMDMME47X447A3XC4 S.D.I.

    I’m learning Urdu at the moment, and this article has been pretty relevant to my experience. I want to learn Urdu because my dad’s side of the family speaks it (although my actual heritage language is Punjabi – Urdu is just the lingua franca of Pakistan). I have been visiting Pakistan for the past 17 days.

    Okay, my main source of learning has been a textbook – “Colloquial Urdu” by Tej K. Bhatia and Ashok Koul. The thing I liked about this book more than my other book (Teach Yourself Urdu) was that its authors realized that not everyone is going to learn the Perso-Arabic script first, and then actual conversation, and that it also had a reference grammar.

    I took Urdu classes for 2 days (1 hour a day) earlier on in my trip. I really did not enjoy them. The teacher just threw Urdu at me without any context or explanation. Then when I said “yeah, I really didn’t catch a word of that”, she offered English translations alongside her Urdu phrases. She said “just speak the language! don’t think about it too much! speaking is the way to learn!”. She kept saying that I was wrong for taking so long to respond to her, because I had to “just speak” and “not think”. This was after 3 days of learning, and I think I had actually learnt an admirable amount of the language. But this irritating woman telling me to “just speak” absolutely sucked out any motivation to learn the language. For me, rote memorization of vocabularies and grammar seemed the way to go.

    I have practiced speaking (with my grandmother’s servants, with relatives who only spoke Punjabi or Urdu, and with people at stores) and this has helped a lot of the stuff I’ve learnt from my Urdu book to go into my fast memory. However, this has always taken a backseat to rote memorization. This has seemed completely natural to me – I didn’t learn Spanish (which I am at a pretty decent conversational level now) just by instantly being thrown in the deep end. I studied in my free time, and learnt at school, and then I practiced conversation with a good teacher over Skype. Another man told me “just to speak” and gave me some practice. He said “what, are you afraid to go outside”, and “you’re wasting your time with that language book”. However, I don’t think he realized that all that I could actually speak came from my rote memorization.

    At the moment, I can pick up words, but not really many phrases. Also, code-switching between Punjabi (a language which I know nothing of) and Urdu has made people’s speech difficult to understand (although they never use Punjabi when speaking directly to me). My father speaks Urdu, but badly and with an American accent. He has trouble understanding my simple Urdu that natives seem to be able to understand. Do you think I should use him more for my study? Perhaps when I get back to Australia.

    ‘m going back to Australia on the 10th of January. Do you think there is something wrong with my learning style? Do you think I should have just waited it out with the irritating teacher who provided “speech practice”? At the moment, I don’t really think “just speaking” is a good substitute for study (at least, for me), only an additional aide. I really just plan to be very basically conversational by the time I go back, so when I continue my study of the language I can have some general understanding of Bollywood movies.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      If your learning style is working for you, keep it up ;) My focus on this blog is rapid language learning and for that people really do need to speak it as soon as possible. Your description of that teacher makes me wish there were more like her encouraging people to actually use their languages! Even if people don’t like the pressure, that’s how the world works. Pressure and practical contextual applications make something work in your mind much better.

      I’d say the opposite of what you wrote. Study is a horrible substitute for “just speaking”, but is additional help.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YCINJXODIKMDMME47X447A3XC4 S.D.I.

        Yes, you’re right, speaking is much more important. I just find that studying really gets you over that initial ‘lump’ where you have to rely on your native language to communicate to where you can learn using your target language.

        She was right that I should go out and speak, but her speaking practice was terrible. She corrected my sentences to things that I was definitely not trying to say before I even finished saying them. To ‘teach’ me the script, she just sat down and wrote it for half an hour – I had to explain to her that I don’t have photographic memory.

        When I got back from classes, my motivation died. When I spoke, for example, to my driver in Urdu, my motivation increased dramatically. I think I made the right choice in dumping the teacher ;)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YCINJXODIKMDMME47X447A3XC4 S.D.I.

    Ahora te voy a decir un poco más para practicar el español :) Este comentario es también un respuesto a tu post “Why studying will never help you speak a language.” (http://www.fluentin3months.com/studying-will-never-help/) ¿Nunca? ¿De verdad?

    Pienso que estás un poco equivocado. Para mi, estudiar el español (con que puedo conversar bastante bien) y el urdú (que ahora estoy estudiando porque estoy visitando la familia de mi padre paquistaní) me ayudaba mucho. Por supuesto, además de estudiar, se necesita practicar por hablar. Nunca he visitado un país hispanohablante (aunque he hablado con “exchange students” mexicanos en mi escuela, con un chicano que me visitaba) on mi tutor paraguayo en skype).

    Yo creo que depende en el tipo de estudiante. Claro, estudiar no puede substituir practica real pero en mi experience estudiar fue una buen ayuda. Para mí, estudiar gramática, vocabulario, y todo, sirve a darme un nivel básico en el idioma.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      En ese articulo, dije que “SOLO estudiar nunca ayuda” pero hablar Y estudiar si. De lo que vi de tus comentarios, te gusta estudiar, pero tambien utilizas los idiomas con gente que es lo que aconsejo…

  • Papi George

    Incredible! So true… I am currently residing in Guatemala City (been here 2 months now) once you get over the fear of making mistakes and begin practicing your language in social situations, your skills grow exponentially. Great read!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks :) I find that those who do strongly disagree with me tend to be academics who never went to countries to actually use the language :P

  • Papi George

    Another thought… If you are waiting to be perfect at a language before using it, it might be best to continue studying your first language! For example: I have spoken English my entire life and I know i still make mistakes…. Waiting for something to be PERFECT is just an excuse not to do something at all…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Very true!

  • Justin

    Hah, loved the article (and the pixie dust). Just graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, but also studied Japanese for a number of years in college. I’m glad to see I’m not crazy (or at least, not alone in craziness) for seeing some similarities between the precepts underlying application of a foreign language and engineering principles.
    Currently doing an engineering internship in Italy. Studied Italian for a month before coming and have found a combination of book study and talking to be a great combo. i.e. I study the future tense conjugations at home, maybe with some drills so I can pronounce them quickly in a sentence, then the next day I try them out in conversation. If I make a mistake, someone corrects me and we move on. I think I’ve learned fairly proficiently in this manner… but I would’ve had trouble recognizing that someone was indeed trying to convey the concept of things that have yet to happen (and a few other idomatic uses) just by hearing inflections without an explanation. Not that you said books are bad. Just raising the flag a little higher for the Output + Input ( +Feedback) crowd, rather than Output vs Input.
    Also, I just read in one of the previous comments something you said about pressure and context really driving home language learning. Couldn’t agree more. I found that things just slid into place much easier almost immediately after I made my first presentation in Italian at work (for which I was nervous). The harder the situation you go through in the language, the deeper the emotional bond you can form with it, and consequently express yourself more naturally. (well, I just made that up, but it’s my working theory for now)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great to have you here! Looking forward to future comments ;)

  • http://twitter.com/xharmony harmony

    It seems to me that many of those who say they were successful with a “silent period” of input only first, were successful because they had clear goals in mind for when they started producing the language. If I recall correctly, Khatz from AJTT wanted to be able to be good enough for a job interview in the target language by a certain date. So, despite using a lot of passive input initially, he still had a goal and time-line set for himself. But if you don’t have goals to aim for, it’s easy to keep putting things off for years…and never get anywhere. So whether or not we choose to focus on “input” in the beginning, I don’t think that matters so much, as long we avoid that trap of wandering aimlessly.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Good point!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yeah, that’s the image I have of them too :P I’m sure some of them do it in the sun and as part of a healthy lifestyle hahaha, but it’s still avoiding people so I’ll be bashing it ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to have you here :) I hope, like this engineer, that you branch off into other areas too! ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to have you here :) I hope, like this engineer, that you branch off into other areas too! ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to have you here :) I hope, like this engineer, that you branch off into other areas too! ;)

  • Tom Pinit

    Hi Benny, sorry I’m late to the party :) I am a “recovering” engineer as well (chemical), although I am not actively using those skills learned in university now. The engineering logic plus my background in classical violin helps my language learning center, as my wife is quick to point out. I think I take your approach to practicing in the real world as much as possible. I also really want to speak *their* language as much as possible, for my own travel experience and as a sign of respect.

    For instance, I studied 3 terms of community college Italian before we took our trip to northern Italy in 2008. I chatted with a college student for an hour while we were being held hostage by the wonderful sciopero (train strike) in Venice. My shaky Italian helped navigate our taxi driver in Asolo. Then before our trip to Brazil (your favorite country thus far?) this past May, I took a couple terms of Portuguese. I basically did all the talking on both those trips, ordering food, asking where the bathroom was, shopping, etc. I absolutely love it.

    Thanks for your insights. Obrigado e grazie!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Hey Paul! Someone with a dislocated thumb 4 years ago isn’t coming to me right now, but glad to see other engineers writing about language learning! I was indeed at CS camp in ’08 so you’ve got a better memory than I do!

    Perhaps our paths will cross again!