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The importance of experimentation over blind faith

| 30 comments | Category: positive mentality

As an engineer with a scientific background, I am quite sceptical to wild claims, in life, explaining how the universe works, and in language learning. Even in the days of ebooks and smartphones we still apply backward centuries-old thinking to concepts that should have died out long ago.

While some would call it closed mindedness, I say that you need to prove something pretty conclusively within a reasonable doubt before it deserves a lot of backing. Each step of a process must logically lead to the end result and a missing link shouldn’t be dismissed with magic or pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience involves applying things we don’t fully understand to explain away something that you don’t fully understand. This includes using quantum physics to “clarify” why all sorts of new-age wizardry could work and leaning on genetics to “prove” that you can’t do something that might simply involve some mental effort.

Every time someone says they aren’t “naturally talented in languages”, I ask them from precisely which chromosome on their personal genome have they based that claim? Have they hired a genealogist to examine their family tree for history of language-learning attempts? I doubt it. They just “know”.

Let’s call a spade a spade – if you didn’t do well in languages in school then that means that you aren’t good at studying languages at school. Me too! If you aren’t in school now then this is utterly irrelevant information.

Almost every time I take someone’s excuse for not being able to learn a language (as well as other lifestyle excuses) to pieces and rephrase it to be more specific and factual, it almost always boils down to baseless claims or simple laziness.

The need for scepticism

Scepticism is usually thought of as limiting, but this realistic attitude has helped me achieve so much in my life that people who’ll believe anything ever will. Believing in nonsense will hold you back more than scepticism ever will.

Travelling, constantly making new friends and having interesting varied social circles (in very different countries) means that I get to meet such a fascinating variation of people. This variation is one reason why I simply can’t get bored of what I’m doing!

One disadvantage of this however, is that I’m exposing myself to more silliness than I would if I had restricted my friendships to just those who thought like me, and I accept that it goes with the turf. It’s good to have my belief system challenged regularly and so directly. I try to hear out what theory they might have, maybe discuss it a little bit and then likely drop it and change the subject if I can see the discussion is going nowhere. Hopefully it won’t come to that and one or both will be the wiser from the discussion.

But I still find so many belief systems frustrating. There’s so much blind faith in them. People just accept that they must work because they have been in use for millenia or because Mr. Guru says so. It’s just appealing to authority without any independent thought.

Even if that authority has a PhD and lots of money to do their research, they can still use faulty science. Biased vested interest in the outcome, lack of double-blind tests, exaggerating successes without looking at the possible failures, making extrapolations from results that don’t work in real life, or selectively quoting research out of context.

Most things we might believe in are so trivial, that blind faith in them doesn’t really matter. Knock on wood and avoid walking under ladders to maintain good luck all you like, who really cares? But for something that requires a large investment of your time or money you need to be sceptical.

Time to experiment!

When I write on this blog, I’m not basing my opinions on guesses, gut feelings, or on stuff I’ve read somewhere. I have tried many things over eight years in language learning. The things I argue against the most are the things I put the most time into myself and seriously tested to see if they work in my learning environment.

I’m not a fan of passive learning, not because it is simply against what I tend to promote but because I actually applied it several times myself! I’m not a fan of methods based entirely on anti-social (or “independent”) study-based learning because I’ve tried that and it always slows me down from the end-goal of speaking well as quickly as possible.

I had six months in Spain not speaking, with all my time invested in studying and I had next to nothing to show for my efforts. I tried having the radio on in the background for what I’d estimate was approximately 800-1,000 hours (the 12 hours per day that I was home writing the LHG or studying German, the other hours being mostly social) and the result was poor in my C2 listening exam (despite a good result in other parts).

If someone claims it has worked for them, it’s important to see what it has worked for them to do exactly. If passing an exam or understanding TV shows is your end-goal, then many things I say on this blog simply won’t be relevant to you.

But even if they were successful, perhaps they are not giving you the whole picture. Perhaps they are good at studying languages, and did well in school etc. in which case they would do better than me at things that don’t involve natural use. Or perhaps they applied other techniques simultaneously whose importance are getting played down.

We can never know these things, but disagree with them as I might, one thing that I definitely respect about those applying things that I even disagree with is that they experimented. Perhaps they came to a conclusion quicker than I would, but they found something that they feel is working for them and their situation. Even if I disagree with the method, any method that encourages you to go in the right direction will indeed be beneficial.

Don’t even believe me – try it for yourself!

I encourage people to be equally sceptical about what I have to say. My experiences in living through other languages and Youtube videos speaking other languages don’t prove that my advice works for everyone.

I’m pretty confident that someone starting off with their first foreign language as an adult will get a lot out of what I have to say about the communicative approach to language learning, and I find many gaps in logic in other approaches promoted by people who are extrapolating what works for them (when they have been involved in foreign languages all their life so they simply aren’t coming from the same background). They presume it will work for everyone; or that everyone has the same goals as them.

But that’s just my opinion. If you don’t have the same goals as me then I know my advice is not going to help you very much. But even if you do prioritise conversation, still don’t just take what I say as the best advice for you.

Don’t believe everything me or anyone has to say. The problem is blind faith – I’m not a crusader to save the world against “the enemy” – the happiest e-mails I get from people consistently say that they combine my advice with someone else’s. Use what I have to say or what others have to say and apply it to your life!

Experiment to find out what works for you. Reading about it and guessing that it would work for you is a terrible way to decide where to devote your energy over months or years. Try my suggestion of finding natives (by whatever means) and speaking to them now using all 20 words that you have learned, try flooding your ears with podcasts and reading thousands of words a day, try SRS, try reading comic books in the target language – try whatever you have been convinced would work, but see if it gives you meaningful results.

If you get no results, ditch it!

If any approach promises results several months or years from now, that’s not good enough.

Perhaps you think I’m in too much of a rush – I don’t mean you have to reach the end goal in record time, but you should be stepping up the ladder, and counting words learnt or chapters studied or podcasts listened to is not a good measuring tool.

If your end goal is to fully understand those podcasts, then you should suck less today than you did a week ago (if you are doing it intensively, or a month ago if doing it occasionally) and be able to prove it by something tangible (understanding 10% of what is being said for example). If the end-goal is to speak well, then unless you can say something to a native now (even if it’s just “hello, how are you?”) then just having learnt off the phrase, recognising it in text or when someone else says it, or being “pretty sure” that you would say it to a native when given the opportunity, is not good enough. That’s not speaking.

You don’t have to be performing miracles, but you can feel progress in such goals, even in short times. If anyone tells you otherwise then it’s just a curtain to hide how unprovable their method is.

So don’t believe me – try what I have to say for yourself! If you aren’t speaking noticeably better (even by a little amount) after several proper conversation attempts, then forget what I have to say – it’s not working for you. Even if it is working for you, try other things anyway to see what gets you furthest in the best way that suits your goals.

This quantum-leap promise of progress is not how things work. Progress is either gradual and noticeable, or it’s not happening.

Analogy: Why there’s nothing in homeopathy

I want to demonstrate this need to experiment and think logically about popular learning methods using an analogy.

There’s a field of wizardry that is government funded in countries like the UK & France called homeopathy and administered to people as “medicine” (you can even find it in some select pharmacies). The problem is, most people will take it because a “doctor” prescribed it, or because they heard about some guy who took it and got better (other aspects of the full picture being conveniently ignored). There is no real science at all in it and no unbiased research that shows that this does anything more than a placebo.

Homeopaths are some of the people I meet in my travels that make me wonder what the hell happened to the 21st century?

Some people haven’t done any research on it, and presume that because it’s popular it must work, or it must be some inexplicable part of eastern or herbal medicine. It isn’t. In this video (which you’ll notice has no propaganda in it – I had homeopaths watching me do this, so I appropriately “watered down” my words ;) ) I wanted to show the main premise of how it works:

If you’re wondering how water (or even more funny; sugar pills that have been exposed to that water that has actually evaporated!) could be such a big industry and even promoted as “medicine”, just knowing the history explains it all immediately. The German who came up with it was also a promoter of hygiene. Hygiene wasn’t so big at the turn of the 19th century, with people being bled in dirty environments as the solution to most medical problems. So getting nothing was actually better than western medicine at the time! Because of this, less people died when they went to him, so they presumed it was his homeopathy doing it.

This misunderstanding made it popular. Some things are popular based entirely on misunderstandings, and then on a vicious circle of it being popular because it’s popular.

Most homeopaths I talk to me ensure me that it’s something to be used over the long-term (sound familiar?) and that conventional science just isn’t good enough to test it (convenient for those selling the sugar pills!) They have plenty of anecdotes about even instant recoveries – things that can never be tested of course. But someone told them that it definitely works, and they have blind faith in that person. And that’s all they need.

Maybe you aren’t as gullible (or to be more fair, as very badly informed) as a homeopath, but have you ever wondered if something else that you are “sure” works (but never verified beyond someone else assuring you) could be up for debate? Could that language-expert be wrong? Could that best-selling language learning software actually be a pile of crap with some clever marketers behind it?

Test it, look at why it could work, and if you don’t get real and consistent results, then drop it and try something else. If testing it involves months of your time or hundreds of your dollars before you can verify real results, then maybe you should wonder if that’s part of the strategy to get you so invested in it so that you can’t get out.

Some of the most passionate backers of faulty methods are actually those who have yet to get results out of it, but have put so much time in by now that they simply don’t want to lose face. It’s like backing your home team even if they lose every time.

Blind faiths don’t need verifiable results, they just need sheeple who are invested enough in it to keep it alive.

Don’t be a language homeopath! If something isn’t giving you real results, and you are sure you have been applying it correctly, then it’s pure drivel. Stop wasting your time, don’t get discouraged (remember, mistakes are part of this great learning game!) and try something else.

Thoughts? Angry rants? Hit me in the comments below.

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  • WC

    I see a lot of blind faith in language learning. Many forums have users asking what method is best… As if 1 method could be best for everyone, or even a random stranger.

    Anecdote: I was talking with a Japanese language partner the other day and she said multiple times that she thinks she’s too old to learn to say all the English sounds. In particular, ‘L’, ‘R’, and ‘See’. As an experiment, I asked her to make the Japanese sounds that were close, but to put her tongue in a different position while she did so. On the very first try, she made perfect English sounds.

    Granted, she didn’t make them in conversation, but it proved she -can- make them. She just needs to practice now. And since she’s not too old to be learning English, she’s not too old to learn to make the sounds, either.

    NEVER say you can’t do something that millions of people do every day. You can, if you work at it.

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

      There is no one method because there is no one preferred outcome or one background situation. People have to pick from various sources to find what works best for them, while not using their situation to provide an endless list of excuses for why they can’t be flexible.

      Your story sounds familiar! I’ve convinced English speakers they can roll their ‘r’s by getting them to use the tt sound in “butter” (as pronounced by Americans) in a different word. Before they do it successfully, they claimed that they were also too old to ever learn how ;)

      • Yael

        I’ve heard all kinds of reasons (or excuses if you want to be harsh) from people who claim they are unable to learn a language. The best was from a PhD who claimed that his “brain was full” and could not take in any more knowledge ;)

        The beauty of NOT being at school is that you can please yourself what learning methods you use. There is no class and no grade. So you can mix and match.

        I found a great method for learning to speak well was to find a native speaker whose style of speech I liked (and who didn’t speak English) and mimic them – expressions, intonation, accent. You can’t pick those up from a book… Sounds weird but it works for me.

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

          I can tell you what that PhD’s brain was full of…

          • http://www.google.com/profiles/medviten Victor Berrjod

            Please do? :þ

  • http://www.creativityandlanguages.com/ Peter

    Totally agree, too many untested assumptions around. After one month of German language school I decided to change learning strategy, ditched the course and started to try new things. The nice spill-over effect is that apart from learning better your target language you start to learn also how to learn.

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

      Learning how to learn is a great step towards growth – it’s something we have to develop throughout our lives and it’s a pity when people stop after school!

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

      Learning how to learn is a great step towards growth – it’s something we have to develop throughout our lives and it’s a pity when people stop after school!

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

      Learning how to learn is a great step towards growth – it’s something we have to develop throughout our lives and it’s a pity when people stop after school!

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

      Learning how to learn is a great step towards growth – it’s something we have to develop throughout our lives and it’s a pity when people stop after school!

  • Anonymous

    Benny! Please, what are some of the “tt” words I can use to practice rolling my r’s…this is the one major hurdle I can’t seem to cross with Spanish! As always, great motivational post. I’ve started to feel that anyone who says they can’t learn a skill doesn’t really want to learn that skill. If you want to speak a foreign language, why would you say you can’t do it? There are days I feel very frustrated with my abilities, however, I recently started simply saying, Yes, I am bilingual and I can speak two languages. No, I don’t speak it perfectly, nor do I understand it all, but instead of focusing on what I don’t know, I excel with what I do know. If watching TV or listening to music isn’t your cup of tea, try something else. If you really want to acheive your goals, you’ll find a way. Sí se puede!

    • WC

      I learned to roll my R’s by realizing that it was air causing the tip of my tongue to flap back and forth that actually causes the rolled R sound.

      I found a howto that explains it. http://www.wikihow.com/Roll-Your-%22R%22s

      When I learned it, I started by first practicing to get it to flap like that. Not trying for an R sound, just the flapping. Once I could do that easily, I started trying to roll an R and then with some practice, it was easy.

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

      “butter” Change the ‘b’ to a ‘k’ (so kutter, but don’t say a hard ‘t’, say it like butter), then the ‘u’ to an ‘ah’ sound, and the ‘er’ to an ‘o’ and you have ‘caro’.
      This works with American English better than other dialects.
      Alternatively, the Spanish ‘r’ is closer to the English ‘l‘, but you flap the tongue against the roof of your mouth rather than placing it there. The best thing is to get someone who can produce this sound to train you ;)

      Good luck, I’m sure with your positive attitude and hard work you’ll continue to make progress :)

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

    If you are only interested in how it “feels” rather than results, then I have no argument with you ;)
    But glad to see you are looking for people! Then it’s not really a silent approach, it’s simply listening combined with being active – a combination of many things can’t do you harm :)

    Best of luck!!

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

    If you are only interested in how it “feels” rather than results, then I have no argument with you ;)
    But glad to see you are looking for people! Then it’s not really a silent approach, it’s simply listening combined with being active – a combination of many things can’t do you harm :)

    Best of luck!!

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

    Along the lines of naturally talented vs number of hours put in, I like how Khatz explained it when I interviewed him. That part of the interview is here.

  • Demian

    What if toddlers were stupid — like adults — and concluded that they “had no talent for walking” because they’d fallen on their rear end a few times. Fortunately, they don’t care, and the fun and freedom of learning to walk overrides the concern about how cool they come off looking.

    I’m almost of the mind that the greatest secret weapon and magic technique in language learning is not caring if you make mistakes along the way. Or that you don’t look smart, cool, perfect, infallible, blah, blah, blah…
    Probably Benny’s greatest “gift” is being an inherently social animal, and is perfectly willing to risk making a fool of himself on his first attempts at a new language. And that is “key.” If you’re not willing to do that, then you can study all the “secret wisdom of the ancient and modern polyglots”, and you’ll never really learn to actually SPEAK.
    Yeah, it’s scary. Yeah, you’ll say something wrong and come off looking like a clown sometimes.

    So what?

  • Hkm

    My favourite mambo-jumbo is the one called ‘language-barrier’. I keep meeting people who say that, sure, they learn, but this horrible ‘language-barrier’ prevents them for opening mouth to let the words in foreign language out :>

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Definitely agree on the experimentation thing, I got nowhere in years of working out and dieting until I just started experimenting and keeping track of the results. It’s gotten to the point now where I refuse to discuss this stuff with most people because what I’ve found to be true goes against what’s popular right now: weight loss is entirely calories in vs. calories out, and putting on muscle is all about plenty of protein (presuming sufficient calories to meet your energy needs) and doing a proper workout and “proper workout” is really simple but again not what most people want to do: simply doing the “big 3″ core exercises will get you 90% of your results, which are squats, deadlifts, and bench press.

    Don’t worry about carbs, they don’t matter, you must eat animal protein (I was a vegetarian for 6 months, forget putting on muscle without eating meat, it doesn’t work well to put it mildly), and you don’t need to do cardio, it’s not even that good for weight loss, interval training (which weight lifting would actually qualify as) is far, FAR better.

    I promise you most people would take major issue with at least some of those statements, but I don’t care because I’ve tried everything else and I KNOW what works (at least for me).

    Now, on a language-learning related note: do you read Pete’s blog, Language Fixation? He takes the experimentation/data thing to a friggin’ extreme and it’s really impressive AND his method is very much opposed to yours, he’s a huge fan of the “silent/listening phase” thing and it seems he’s got really good results to show for it.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

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

      Pete and I have met a few times and I comment on his blog ;)
      Nice fitness analogy! Although there are plenty of vegetarians with muscle. Animal protein is just one type of protein – but if you were only veggie for 6 months you wouldn’t have any need to work on it that way and it’s better to do something that fits the diet you prefer.

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

      Pete and I have met a few times and I comment on his blog ;)
      Nice fitness analogy! Although there are plenty of vegetarians with muscle. Animal protein is just one type of protein – but if you were only veggie for 6 months you wouldn’t have any need to work on it that way and it’s better to do something that fits the diet you prefer.

  • Efimsofer

    hello, irishman
    about homeopaths. generally i do agree with you, but there is a huge but named psihology. if the treating no matter how nonscientific it looks and fells help someone and that happens from time to time, what bad with it?
    don’t try to quantifies everything around you. i do know it is very strong wish drived by wish to find order in the life, but there are some areas we can’t do it.
    why? maybe there are a lot of matter that wasn’t investigated scientifically; maybe there are secrets we do not have keys to them; maybe there are worlds we don’t know about; maybe ower math nowledge is to limited to be implied; maybe… there are a lot of maybe, so let it be.
    sorry for my english. i didn’t grow in englishspeaking country and my ability in studying languages is too limited ooop, sorry, mister polyghlot, i know it contradicts your believes but there are in the world things that contradicts ower beliveves
    sorry, efim sofer

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

      Placebos do work from time to time – someone’s own power to recover from non serious illnesses is pretty obvious. There’s no need to make money out of this though.

      Your argument is quite silly. “Maybe there are worlds we don’t know about”. This means nothing – this argument is basically I don’t know, therefore I do know that homeopathy works. There are no maybes here. Homeopathy was dreamed up by a German and never works beyond the power of placebos.

      Whether it contradicts with my “beliefs” or not is irrelevant. Does it ever work beyond placebos? No. Clicking your heels together 3 times won’t change this.

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

      Placebos do work from time to time – someone’s own power to recover from non serious illnesses is pretty obvious. There’s no need to make money out of this though.

      Your argument is quite silly. “Maybe there are worlds we don’t know about”. This means nothing – this argument is basically I don’t know, therefore I do know that homeopathy works. There are no maybes here. Homeopathy was dreamed up by a German and never works beyond the power of placebos.

      Whether it contradicts with my “beliefs” or not is irrelevant. Does it ever work beyond placebos? No. Clicking your heels together 3 times won’t change this.

  • Efimsofer

    hello, irishman
    about homeopaths. generally i do agree with you, but there is a huge but named psihology. if the treating no matter how nonscientific it looks and fells help someone and that happens from time to time, what bad with it?
    don’t try to quantifies everything around you. i do know it is very strong wish drived by wish to find order in the life, but there are some areas we can’t do it.
    why? maybe there are a lot of matter that wasn’t investigated scientifically; maybe there are secrets we do not have keys to them; maybe there are worlds we don’t know about; maybe ower math nowledge is to limited to be implied; maybe… there are a lot of maybe, so let it be.
    sorry for my english. i didn’t grow in englishspeaking country and my ability in studying languages is too limited ooop, sorry, mister polyghlot, i know it contradicts your believes but there are in the world things that contradicts ower beliveves
    sorry, efim sofer

  • Ronaldohoward

    Well done, Benny. I’m reminded of the Buddhist koan- “If you see the Buddha you must kill him.”

  • Anonymous

    Good post Benny. It’s good to have dissent in language learning methods so that learners can see different points of view. From dissent stems innovation. What I learned from your post is that I should get clearer of the time I suggest people listen. I was thinking a couple of weeks, but I will be clearer on this in the future. Six months of listening to Spanish and not speaking seems like way too long. I’d think that it would be hard for anyone to keep up their interest in a language for that long when just listening. I know I’d get bored.

  • Anonymous

    Love this!!!!!!!! Go skepticism!

  • Anonymous

    Love this!!!!!!!! Go skepticism!

  • Anonymous

    Love this!!!!!!!! Go skepticism!