Saturday, August 29, 2009

inference is better than instruction

A Science Daily article from March 2007, Kids Learn Words Best By Working Out Meaning, states that the kids observed in the word-learning experiment could acquire new words better by watching, observing, and guessing on their own than by being told directly the names of new objects.

I wonder who will be the first commenter to tell me, "adults can't learn like children." The subjects of the research were toddlers, 36 to 42 months old. If adults can't do what children can, then it would be a pretty sad world. You'd have a hard time convincing me that adults cannot use the same innate strategies.

Take for instance, the situation where you meet a new person. You meet them, they tell you their name, and you can't recall their name less than a minute later. Why? Because there was no connection made. Even when we try to put that name into memory it often is impossible to recall. And when that person comes from another country that uses a language completely different from our own, it is even harder to remember their name.

If the situation were different and you were not told a certain person's name, but those around you kept talking about that person, your curiosity would grow. First you might not even know that the word is a person's name. Once you realize that it is, you start to wonder who it could be. Every time you hear the name, you try to connect it to what you heard before. You make some guesses. You know the name before you even know who the person is! When you finally figure out who it is, the connections are so strong and so familiar.

Now what adult couldn't do that? Hopefully you can see how the situation creates a powerful connection that wouldn't be easy to disconnect. Even though after awhile, I can't recall the names of people that I used to know, I still know exactly who the person is after someone mentions that person's name. I think the same goes for vocabulary acquisition in foreign languages. Of course, if the connections to the words are weak to begin with, then it's possible to not remember the meaning of words that you haven't heard in a long time. Even though you thought you knew those words, you didn't.

If you study a word beforehand, or look it up in the dictionary right away, what you get is a weak connection that requires you to go through your native language which makes the connection even weaker. Since you've got that weak connection already, there's no wondering, no curiosity, and no need to grow. So don't expect that you can make up for taking shortcuts. In fact, a dictionary shortcut is the long way around.

Say for instance, you are doing some reading in your target language and you come across a word you don't know and you can't figure it out from the limited context you are given. If you look the word up, what you are doing is going through a process. Every time you do that process, you build a habit. Even if you do it in your mind by recalling what you found in the dictionary when you looked the word up, you're repeating the process. Perhaps you will get good at that process and it will become automatic, just a split second for you to recall the meaning of the word. Even so, that is still far slower than native speed. That is the reason why most language students will never reach the ability of natives.

Most language learners will find this limitation to be acceptable. As long as they are speaking the language fluently, they will be happy. That is why they will not aim for higher standards. Others believe it is impossible or that trying to attain native fluency is unrealistic or would take too long. I find that these people have pretty strong opinions or a strong reluctance to take an honest look at what I write about. If they want to achieve lower standards or whatever, it is ok with me. I'm not writing to try to convince everyone to change their ways.

This blog is more of a documentation process. Some day, when I've finished learning Chinese, somebody will ask me how I did it. I am keeping a detailed record here for everyone to see. Then when I go on to learn another language, I will use only what I think works best and then I will hopefully be able to have a language learning experience that is not filled with trial and error.

blog template updated

I found a new template for my blog. I hope you like it. It took a while to edit and arrange. Unfortunately, I lost the list of other bloggers that are using the TV method. So if you are one of them, could you please leave a comment here with your URL again. Thanks. And be sure to use the html tags around your URL to turn it into a link.
The tags look like this <a href=””> </a>

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

how many hours does it take to understand Chinese 100%?

Mr. gbarv has stated in a comment in the last post here:
I'm sure Keith will someday master his languages, with all that zeal and enthusiasm. It is certainly impressive to go from 0 to 25% percent understanding in Mandarin, but to be fair nearly 100% understanding should be attainable in 550 hours.
I'm surprised that nobody has challenged that yet. But then again, not that many people have kept up with the comments I suppose.

I don't know who he or she is or what background he or she has or what methods he or she proposes. So is Mr. gbarv speaking from experience, expectations, or what?

Friday, August 14, 2009

anything not attached to an experience is worthless

The title of this post is a quote from From the Outside In, a book written by Dr. Brown. He says:
Understanding without noticing words—that’s the name of the game. Anything not attached to an experience is worthless. But can we really ignore words?
Several paragraphs later:
The answer I found is best explained with these two words: ‘wonder’ and ‘grow’. Words have to grow—gradually. Experience by experience. And the mechanism of growing in each experience is ‘wondering’. The experience is the cheese. But there’s a hole in it. A fledgling word floats by and you wonder: ‘Might that word fill that hole and take its meaning from it?’ Click! Let me expand the two words to five. Experience, hole, word, wonder, and grow. The word grows a new ring of meaning with each experience. Like an onion.
And a few more examples are given and then:
So the big question as we started the NA course was “What do we do about voca-bulary?” And three years later I got the answer. “Nothing!” Don’t teach words at all. Don’t even call attention to them. Just let the students wonder. Just let the words grow.
So, in order to learn words and grow our vocabulary, we need to be paying attention and wondering. That is to say, thousands of hours of TV or audio on in the background, is not the figure you want to go for. While it does add to the amount of time that you do pay attention, it's not the target. Having the TV on in your target language helps, but only the time actually spent paying attention can count towards the number of hours that you have worked toward your goal.

This is why I've stopped recording my Japanese TV hours. Out of the 300+ hours that I put in, I don't know how many of those were hours spent actually paying attention. It shouldn't matter to anybody here anyway because my Japanese methods have not been one single method that could prove anything. I just need to keep the TV on so that I will increase the number of hours actually watching it. When I get back to Chinese, I will keep those hours purely focused on the content so I can wonder and grow.

What happens when you don't learn naturally?

What happens to all those words that you don't wonder and grow? Where does all that vocabulary go when you use an output-based approach to learn a language? Let's look at a couple of examples.

The first example is Tim Ferriss. He says he's reactivating Chinese. I guess "language reactivation" is necessary when you don't really learn a language in 3 months.
I began reactivation of irretrievable German just over a week ago and can already hold a decent conversation. - September 20th, 2007
This volume covers our trip preparation, Pu-erh tea cakes, and basic Mandarin language reactivation. - July 12th, 2009
Learning new languages and reactivating old ones (in this case, Mandarin Chinese). - August 12th, 2009
At 24:50 in his video from Aug. 12, 2009, he pulls out the Living Language Chinese book. As you know, a book for beginners. He thinks only using Chinese to learn Chinese is ridiculous (27:20).

The second example comes from a well-intended fellow trying to learn Czech to fluency in 3 months. He also uses an output approach. (He probably read too much Tim Ferriss material.) His name is Benny Lewis.
After living in Spain for one year and successfully having reached a pretty good level of Spanish, I moved to Germany for 2 months (to practise the German that I had learned in school), then Italy for 3 months.
To make matters worse I was completely forgetting my Spanish, Italian and German (and in fact, I never did get my German back; that will be another 3-month mission some day!) After all the work I put into speaking these languages, it was depressing that I was back to square one and not even able to piece together basic sentences again!

Why not just translate?

If you translate and then one day stop using the language, you would end up like Tim or Benny. Here's what Dr. Brown said about why you should not use translations:
Because it would then get stacked in the pantry as a memorized unit—instead of glued in the web by wonder to every experience it had ever appeared in. Whenever you wanted to access it for the rest of your life, you would have to go to the pantry. That translation would have killed that word for life. That’s the difference between artificial language (on the shelf) and real (in the web).

What happens when you do learn naturally?

Now let's look at an example of taking a break from natural learning. Another excerpt from Dr. Brown's book:
One day during our second year of operation, a student returned from a three-month break in his native Australia where he hadn’t heard a word of Thai. He said that he had probably forgotten a lot and had better repeat NA 2. I told him that you never forget natural learning. He could take NA 3 and he would find that he was right where he left off. Two days later he came in to see me. “You were wrong, you know. I wasn’t right where I left off. I was way ahead.” I couldn’t explain it. Then a few months later another student reported the same experience. Then another. I was mystified.

Finally it happened to me. After I had studied natural Swatow for 8 months, my teacher took a 5-month trip to the States. When she came back I felt like I was on a whole new level.
This is why I am not worried about the break I am having to take from Chinese. I am not worried about language atrophy. I am interested in seeing if I will be understanding better than before. Although I do not experience the language directly, I feel I do experience it through what I see and hear. On TV you can see and hear a lot too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

thinking about rules

The answer to my last post, what else causes damage?, which was given in the first comment by Thomas, is thinking. Here are some more excerpts from Dr. Brown's book:
And, like the ‘speakers’, none of the ‘dictionary flippers’ or ‘note takers’ ever made it. We had been saying “Don’t speak! Don’t speak! Don’t speak!” We now changed this to “Don’t speak! Don’t look up words! Don’t take notes!” But over the years we found an occasional ‘non-speaker’, ‘non-dictionary-flipper’, and ‘non-note-taker’ who still didn’t make it. What else could be causing the damage?
Dr. Brown discovered the answer when he tried to learn Swatow Chinese by his new method.
What an experience! I had hoped not only to find out what it felt like but also to learn fluent Swatow. I got neither. But I got something even more valuable something I couldn’t have gotten in any other way. I found out what else could have been causing damage— what else besides the terrible four: speaking, questions, dictionaries, and notes. I avoided the terrible four faithfully, but I still failed. I had discovered the terrible fifth.
And then Dr. Brown goes on to answer Reineke's question.
You see I’m a lifetime linguist. I can’t listen to anyone speak in any language without noticing all kinds of things. After two days I had noticed that Swatow had five tones: rising, falling, high, low, and mid; and syllables ending in a sudden stop (like p, t, k, or a glottal stop) could carry only two: high and low. Then after two weeks I had noticed that all these tones turned upside down in weak position: rising changed to falling and falling to rising, high changed to low and low to high. And, of course, mid stayed mid. That was wild. How could a linguist not notice something as wild as that? And not only was I a linguist; I was the best. It would have taken other linguists months to work this out, and I got it in two weeks— without even wanting it. In fact, I was trying not to notice things like this—but I couldn’t help myself.
Sometimes, to be sure, a happening was so overpowering that it drowned out the language, and whenever this happened, I learned right. But more often I had time to notice and think, and I learned wrong. So I soon had a headful both of things that worked (overpowering happenings that drowned out the language) and things that didn’t (anything I was free to notice and think about). As an example of each, I’ll tell you how I learned the word for ‘white’ and the word for ‘hundred’.
Then he goes on to tell you about each way in two examples. In one example the learned word pops into his head whenever "one of those stories about beautiful women popped into" his head. In the other example, "The expression wasn’t tied to any special experience, so it couldn’t pop up— I had to think it up."

A few paragraphs later, he goes on to write:
Now look again at the terrible four. “Don’t speak. Don’t ask. Don’t look up words. Don’t take notes.” I wasn’t doing any of those things. A new prohibition was needed. What? It seemed obvious. Don’t think!

But wait. ‘Don’t think’ covers them all—not just the linguist’s meddling. Obviously you’ve got to think about the language for these three: asking questions, looking up words, and taking notes. But what about speaking? After the language has been built, you don’t have to think it up—it pops. But before the language has been built, it can’t pop—if you want it, you have to think it. “Don’t think about the language” covers all of the terrible four.

The terrible fifth then becomes “don’t analyze”, and the terrible five become one: “Don’t think about the language.” But there’s still something different about the fifth. While we could easily see and hear the students speak, ask questions, look up words, and take notes, we couldn’t see them analyze. I had to experience the terrible fifth myself in order to discover it. And not being able to detect it from the outside makes it all the more insidious. It explains why the occasional student who was avoiding speaking, questions, dictionaries, and notes could fail. We now have the answer to the question posed at the end of the preceding section: “What else could be causing the damage?” It’s “Don’t analyze!”
The above quotes are all in Chapter 7 of From the Outside In.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

what else causes damage?

More from Dr. J. Marvin Brown's book:
Now, 15 years and thousands of students later, we’ve had hundreds of students who went more than a thousand hours with speaking and dozens who went the same distance without. None of the ‘speakers’ ever got close to my mark while some ‘non-speakers’ eventually passed it. But not all. That is, some ‘non-speakers' passed me and some didn’t. It looked like there was something besides speaking that was causing damage.
Let's look at that paragraph again, shall we?
None of the ‘speakers’ ever got close to my mark while some ‘non-speakers’ eventually passed it.
If we zoom in a little closer we can see:
None of the ‘speakers’ ever got close to my mark...

Monday, August 03, 2009

does speaking cause damage?

Here is an excerpt from Dr. J. Marvin Brown's book, From the Outside In
Did speaking really cause damage, or was I being unrealistic? Hard evidence had to wait three years. In July of 1987 we started the first year-long class of more than a thousand hours, and there were four students eager enough to go the distance: Paul, David. Peter, and Charly. Paul and David never spoke; but, in spite of all our warnings, Peter and Charly did right from day one. They finished the course, they all settled down in Thailand, and they all dropped in to see us over the years. After a few years, Peter and Charly were struggling with broken Thai like all long-time foreigners. But Paul and David had passed me up. Me! The original guinea pig of practice and 40 year resident of Thailand!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

language learning occurs even without intervention

I found this extremely interesting article dated December 2000. Brain Research Implications for Second Language Learning

If you don't feel like reading it or just want to know what I found interesting about it, please read the following quotes from the article.

"Language learning is a natural phenomenon; it occurs even without intervention. "

"The studies discussed below reveal the incredible neural flexibility of the developing (and aging) brain."

"it is the input that determines the function of specific areas of the brain "

"the cortical map can change even in adulthood in response to enriched environmental or learning experiences."

"Learning by the brain is about making connections within the brain and between the brain and the outside world."

"Now, there is direct evidence that when learning occurs, neuro-chemical communication between neurons is facilitated, and less input is required to activate established connections over time."

"For example, exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. Neural activity is diffuse, because the brain has not learned the acoustic patterns that distinguish one sound from another. As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain) learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words. Neural connections that reflect this learning process are formed in the auditory (temporal) cortex of the left hemisphere for most individuals. With further exposure, both the simple and complex circuits (corresponding to simple sounds and sequences of sounds) are activated at virtually the same time and more easily."

"At the same time that the auditory circuit for the word doggie is activated, the visual circuit associated with the sight of a dog is also activated. Simultaneous activation of circuits in different areas of the brain is called parallel processing.

In early stages of learning, neural circuits are activated piecemeal, incompletely, and weakly. It is like getting a glimpse of a partially exposed and very blurry photo. With more experience, practice, and exposure, the picture becomes clearer and more detailed. As exposure is repeated, less input is needed to activate the entire network. With time, activation and recognition are relatively automatic, and the learner can direct her attention to other parts of the task. This also explains why learning takes time. Time is needed to establish new neural networks and connections between networks."