Thierry’s class and finding the right audio

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to sit in on a class taught by Thierry Hsieh, the man who speaks 25 languages and founded the polyglot cafe. It’s essentially a language class, but students are learning one or more of French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Thai, or English all in the same class. During practice time they divide into language-based groups. For some of the languages there is a native speaker teaching assistant to help answer questions, for the others Thierry himself fills that role.

The activities in the class are centered around an audio recording from Hippo Family Club in Japan. When I attended, students had already been listening to the first recording for about a month. The recording is a minute-long message from Janet Brown, a young girl in Middle America who is writing to Sonoko, a Japanese exchange student who is coming to stay with her family. Versions are available in every language represented in the class, and students’ job is to listen to it many times a day and try to shadow the sounds as faithfully as possible (so they could understand the contents of the message, at first they were allowed to listen to a version in their native language).

The day I visited, students were finally being given the written transcripts of the message. Their job was then to study the transcript in their target language and try to deduce the meaning of the words and symbols based on their month-long memorization of the audio. Note, then, that in the case of Korean, until that point students had had no instruction in Hangul. They didn’t know which part of each character denoted a consonant, and which part a vowel, for instance. The idea, in other words, is to rely on the brain’s natural pattern matching to learn how to read.

We spent some time transforming the details of Janet’s life into those of our own — translating birthdays, names and numbers of siblings, and hobbies. Then we went around in a circle and practiced speaking these personalized messages.

One student had poor pronunciation, and it was soon revealed that she had been learning Hangul on her own.

“Don’t rely too much on the written words!” the TA reminded us sternly.

Incidentally, this way of memorizing reminds me of how my siblings and I learned our Torah portions when we were preparing for our b’nai mitzvot. Our instructor would first record herself chanting the passages, and our job was just to listen and repeat until we had them memorized. The text of the Torah itself was just an aid in case memory failed.

Does it work? At the end of class, Thierry showed us a graph with two lines: one line increased linearly before plateauing, and another started off slow but increased exponentially and soon overtook the first line.

The first line represents someone learning the normal, “textbook” way, Thierry said. This would mean, for instance, learning the rules of the Hangul writing system first, plus some vocab and grammar, and then tackling listening and speaking using that material.

The second line is the “natural” method, practiced in this class. At first, there is intensive listening, but no explanation of writing, vocabulary, or grammar. The writing system can be confusing. But, Thierry claimed, once one starts to get the hang of it, progress happens much faster than in the traditional method.

This sounds like a way of approximating first-language acquisition. We don’t start to learn to read and write our first language until the words and phrases are already embedded in our minds, right?

I just had one problem with this class. The message from Janet Brown to Sonoko is incredibly boring. It almost seems like the authors were trying to make it boring (come on, Janet Brown?!). Listening to and shadowing it a few days before the class, I actually found myself getting angry at the authors for forcing such insipid material on all of us earnest young language students. What’s the point of designing a revolutionary language course if the material at the heart of it is so repugnantly bland?

When I complained about this to the teaching assistant, she took it in stride. Maybe this material isn’t for you, she said. That’s fine: you can apply the same learning method to material that you enjoy. That’s actually why we spent the time that day in class personalizing the messages, after all.

Recently I’ve been shadowing a dialogue from Talk to Me in Korean, the one meant to test one’s comprehension of the level-1 lessons. It’s about three young people who go out for pizza to celebrate one of their birthdays. On the face of it, it sounds almost as dull as the letter from Janet Brown, but in practice it’s a hundred times better.

It’s full of misunderstandings, questions, doubts, and surprises, like:

“Thanks! Wait what? The present isn’t for me?”


“Happy birthday! I don’t have a present for you. I didn’t know it was your birthday.”


“Huh? Who drinks beer with pizza?”

“Is it weird?”

“Well, no…”

Actually, the communication sometimes sounds stilted, to the point where I keep wondering whether it’s intentionally so. Is this a lesson about Korean culture? In any case, it’s more thought provoking than the sentence “I have a mother, a father, an older brother, an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother named Terry.”

Maybe even more important than the content is the tone of voice of the actors. The Janet Brown speech is delivered in a “properly” enunciated monotone, with a classical music background that inspires one to start drifting into slumber as soon as it starts. In the pizza dialogue, on the other hand, the moods are if anything exaggerated. Minsu sounds positively distressed when Mina asks for a beer in the pizza parlor. I don’t know why, but this seems to make the difference between material that I get tired of listening to just once, and material that I can shadow a hundred times without losing my temper.

What about you? What makes the difference between learning material that’s entertaining and usable, and material that’s painful to listen to?

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