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The importance of experimentation over blind faith

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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.

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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