German Day 12 – Freitag, meta-learning day

Today I’m putting my German learning on the back burner and focusing on meta-learning instead, or learning about language acquisition.

The polyglot I mentioned in the last post sent me some videos about language acquisition. The following two are talks from the 80s by Stephen Krashen:

I love how awkward it is when he makes an off-color joke and there’s just silence. Laugh tracks weren’t invented yet I guess.

These talks make a distinction between language learning and language acquisition. Language learning is learning about a language, and it’s something we do consciously. Language acquisition, on the other hand, is something the brain does automatically under the right conditions. Language acquisition is, as the name implies, the only way to acquire a language.

A few key points:

  • Language acquisition happens only one way: it happens involuntarily when one is exposed to enough comprehensible input in the target language.
  • Caveat: Anxiety, low confidence, and low motivation can prevent acquisition even in the presence of said input. This is called the affective filter.
  • Second languages are acquired the same way that first languages are acquired, by the same part of the brain, which doesn’t degenerate as one gets older. It never gets any harder to acquire another language (barring dementia I guess).
  • Surprising corollary: Practicing speaking doesn’t directly help with acquiring a language; speaking is a result of acquiring a language. It may help with the acquisition indirectly if it elicits more comprehensible input (as in, say, a conversation), but talking to yourself doesn’t help.

(I have one question about this point that speaking doesn’t actually help with language acquisition: what about pronunciation? Doesn’t it take practice to learn how to pronounce things correctly? Or is this pronunciation seen as not being part of language acquisition in this context?)

What does this mean? In theory, if I spend enough time exposing myself to comprehensible input in German, I’ll eventually reach fluency even if I never speak a single word until that point. Though it doesn’t usually work like that; in normal life, one tends to start speaking in the new language as one is acquiring it. It’s hard to have an interesting conversation if you don’t talk.

What is comprehensible input? From what I can tell, it means speech where you understand the content of what’s being said. You might not get every single word, but you get the general message. Supposedly, that’s enough.

How long does it take? I don’t know, and it depends on the amount of input of course, but it sounds like somewhat fluent speech starts to happen after about six months of high exposure.

Another, more recent video that’s more applied:

The video lists some actions, that I’ll paraphrase as I understand them:

  1. “Brain soaking” – i.e. passive input. This is almost a type of physiological training. It signals your brain that the sounds of the target language are important, and tells it to stop filtering out those sounds as noise.
  2. Pay attention to meaning first. When you’re watching or listening to something, use things like body language and tone to get the message that’s being expressed. This is more important than the words per se.
  3. Focus on the most common words and phrases. Especially phrases that you’ll actually need to say in situations where you’re learning the language.
  4. Find a language parent. This is someone who fills the role a parent does with a child acquiring their first language — communicating in simple language they know the child understands. A good language parent:
    1. Works hard to understand what you’re saying.
    2. Never corrects your mistakes.
    3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (different from correcting).
    4. Uses words you know.
  5. Copy the face / mouth muscle movements of native speakers.
  6. Connect concepts to images in your mind.

According to Lonsdale, if you follow all of these actions, you can get “fluent” in any language in about six months.

Finally, one more humbling lesson: Google and YouTube can be really useful. I could have found any of these videos myself during the last seven years of independent language study, but I didn’t.


How can I apply this to my own learning?

I want to look at the materials and methods I’ve been using so far in this new light.

  1. Podcasts. These seem super useful. Especially dialogues and monologues in German where I know what’s being said, either because the podcast explains it, or I look it up, or because of other cues.                           Question: Where does the 15-minutes-per-day limit that the polyglot from the cafe mentioned come from? The message I get from the above videos is an unqualified “more is better.”
  2. Videos. Things like “Harry lost in time” seem very well designed from this point of view, since they show people speaking German with enough visual hints and context to be understandable. The only really problem is that they actually have quite a lot of English content with just a little German mixed in. Hopefully the German-to-English ratio increases over time?
  3. Anki 10,000 sentences. This is problematic since each sentence is out of context. It’s far from ideal, anyway. But maybe if I can understand what’s being said just from the language, it’s good practice — just less efficient.
  4. Reading (Ilya Frank). I don’t really know how all this applies to reading comprehension, but my initial guess is that this is a good way to acquire reading since it seems to analogously provide comprehensible input in the target language.
  5. Written production (Lang-8). Probably not very useful from the point of view of acquisition, since it’s just production practice.
  6. Conversation. This is interesting. I had thought that the most value from conversation practice was the practice I would get from speaking the language, i.e. getting used to recalling and using the words I’d been learning from other sources. But now it sounds like the most value comes from hearing the other person speak — about things and in terms that I can understand. I think I need to spend more time thinking about how to arrange this in the most effective way.
  7. DuoLingo. Most of the exercises seem pretty useless.

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