Friday, October 17, 2008

learn a language by watching TV

Can you learn a language by just watching TV? A member of the how-to-learn-any-language forum, user-named reineke, learned Italian by watching TV. His native language is Croatian. I would like to paste some of his posts from that thread where he revealed this information. The thread started with a question about learning a language by only listening. Reineke's was the first reply and soon after, the discussion turned to the ALG method (automatic language growth). That thread began in April 2007, so I'm not sure if Dr. Brown's book was available online at that time. I think it really is necessary to read the book in order to understand the method. From the thread we can see that forum members did not have a full grasp of the ALG method and the reasoning behind it.

While I'm not sure what Dr. Brown would have said about using TV as your input to learning a language, I am thinking it is possible and these comments from reineke back up that idea.

I did that for Italian as a kid. I liked watching cartoons so it wasn't really a "method". I took forced breaks during winter or whenever the weather was bad. One day someone asked me what the heck am I staring at something I don't understand, and I told them the gist of the plot. I frankly do not know when I started understanding, as I was too much into the stories. It was a massive amount of tv time but it's still the language I know the best, I'm near-native, kinda like a native speaker that's been away for very long and needs some refreshing, if you know what I mean. That's mostly due to my laziness though heh.

I forgot to mention that this is also exactly how I learned German. I bought my first satellite dish in 1990 and German channels were the most numerous. I spent a frightful amount of time on it. I did finish three years of elementary school German on my own and I stopped there (lazy bum). My German is lacking. I can understand just about everything (written and spoken) unless it's too technical but I'm at the point where I need to do a lot of reading (like I did for English and Italian) and grammar study or I won't progress any further. Compared to Italian, when I try to pronounce things I'm obviously foreign. I can fake it real well but I trip easily. I was relatively young when I started but not young enough. My advice is, yes it's possible but after "only" 800 hours you might be a little disappointed with your results. It might be different though if you try learning a related language. Another thing to think about is that you need massive amounts of material. And when I say massive I'm not kidding. You need several tv channels, access to a few thousand dvd's and many interesting radio channels. Boring material will cut you in the bud. No one has the spine to take 1000's of hours of boring material with this type of method. That's also one of the problems I'm currently facing with languages that are seemingly rather rich in multimedia material, namely Russian and Portuguese.

I just reread your post. I don't understand the part about not "focusing too hard" or "trying to figure things out". If you mean conscious effort, I don't think it's a problem with interesting material as it will draw you in. I did even as a kid occasionally peek in the dictionary though. I also sometimes pronounced things aloud for the heck of it. Doppio maglio perforante! Hahahaha. I think it's a silly rule.

So this can be compared to a sort of a spoken sentence method. A movie can have less than a half hour's worth of conversation (unless you're into real touchy feely stuff and even then there's a lot of "significant" silence). What is more important, perhaps, is the number of hours you'll be listening with little to no comprehension. We're talking going cold turkey here, listening to a language until you start understanding things and once you start collecting bonus points for "understood listening" you can do the math to see how long it will take you to finish. Right? Well, I did a lot of that with and without previous knowledge and I can tell you that previous formal training accelerated my comprehension. I still needed to do a large number of hours of listening, but having some sort of a grammatical skeleton on which to slap some flesh did help tremendously.

I do not believe in witchdoctor talk that you should only follow their method and nothing else.

The "critique" explains their method somewhat. A lot of the input comes directly from the teacher and is tailored to student's knowledge. It progressively gets harder, perhaps too fast (and therefore the critique). A second teacher helps by interacting with the first one. I am sure they use movies etc but it seems that their teachers are the main source of spoken language. How early they start with movies I don't know but all their content has method behind it. My "method" from the input perspective was very natural (and slow). The upside was that I was never bored. I basically just stared at all sorts of content meant for children and adults that I wanted to see. I was exclusively interested in the content and not in the process itself. I was in no hurry to ace the test. I believe it took a long while to say hey, I understand this and after that first Eureka my progress went incredibly fast. Way too fast perhaps and this leads me to believe that the hours spent listening to incomprehensible gibberish were paying a golden dividend. Some of the input I received over and over again may have rubbed off and bits may have been sleeping and waiting for the right key to unlock parts of the "system". I think way too much attention is being paid nowadays on trying to develop speaking skills from the very start. Everyone wants to be able to speak ASAP (even when they have no pressing need) and the schools are trying to oblige. Shorter courses for busy people who need to travel and hopefully make themselves understood in foreign lands are a completely different ball game.

I believe 1600-800 implies 50% comprehension on average. The first number depends on the shortcuts devised by the teachers (gestures, pictures etc.), on the course material and on your own individual progress. Mine was probably 4000-800. The second number depends on the difficulty of the language and is nothing else than an ideal number of hours of comprehensible input needed to reach a certain level of competence. Good pronunciation was a natural outcome of the process but not the main goal in itself. In any case the first number is always significantly higher than the second one. If I got something wrong someone please correct me.

If I'm using Pimsleur and there's a silence, I don't see why I can't open my yap and pronounce things as my voice is not directly interfering with the input.

Ahh that's interesting. But children do not keep their yaps shut that long. They do make attempts at words and sentences and usually they suck real bad in the beginning. They're natural at it though and that was my point. They don't force themselves either to speak or to keep their pieholes shut all the time. I've heard a couple of theories disputing the "critical period" and even that it's been refuted altogether (from an old psychology teacher). I haven't researched it but I'd certainly like to believe it.

It's interesting how you find having to keep quiet a burden. I've always found being forced to repeat after the teacher and having fake practice conversations a real pain. This theory suits me.

Now, what about the languages where we were forced to speak for a long time? Are our brains "polluted" forever? What about long periods without much input and no attempts at speaking? Would a renewed effort at 800 hrs of comprehensible input and no talk work effectively? Would previous imperfect efforts at speaking be overwritten or refreshed together with other knowledge? :)

The last bit is most relevant, I think, as they bothered to find out who studied language actively and who had poor knowledge of it. The desired result for us, language geeks er enthusiasts is to see the same parts of the brain fire up as those of a native speaker. This seems to be the case with the people who had good knowledge of the language. I doubt they all followed the same method. They did mention one caveat though: all subjects spoke two related languages. The most important sentence:

"attained proficiency is more important than age of acquisition"

The listening approach requires a lot of listening. You cannot really "try it" to see if it works, you have to finish it. I wouldn't use children as the only guideline for language learning. The problems with bilingual children are complex. Often kids will refuse to speak in the "inferior" language as it makes no sense talking to daddy in Polish when he perfectly well understands English. Such children are overwhelmingly more exposed to English (TV, mom, school, friends) than the other language (dad). Often they're embarrassed to speak in the language. I am not sure that the chorus method is the only method to guarantee a native accent. I am not sure that any method "guarantees" a native accent for adult learners. If you keep at it long enough and under favorable circumstances it might. So could the listening method or a combination thereof. What are the disadvantages of the chorus method? I see one of practicality.

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