Tonight (still Wednesday, August 10th) I went to a language cafe meet-up in Taipei for the first time.
The way it works: Each table in the cafe is assigned a particular language. The people at that table converse in just that language for two hours. There’s one native speaker or “teacher” at each table whose job it is to correct mistakes or fill in blanks if needed or desired, and to lead the conversation. According to the website, Wednesday features a German table. Solid.
Tonight’s cafe was from 7 to 9. I got there around 7:30. The cafe was on a dimly lit backstreet where everything else was closed. There was no sandwich board or awning telling people any distance away that there was something worth checking out on this street. When I approached the cafe and looked through the window, I was surprised to see the place full of people crowded around the seven or eight little tables.
I went inside and a woman jumped up from one of these tables, took my 100 NT and gave me a drink slip. When I told her I was there to practice German, she laughed ruefully and told me they had just lost their German native speaker. So much for that.
I looked around. There were two tables with Japanese conversations in full swing, another one with English, a crowded French table, one with Thai, and set off further into one corner was one with a few foreigners practicing their Chinese. At one last table a lone man was sitting, looking solemnly at a big, open notebook. The sign at his table read “Italian”.
I got a jasmine tea and sat down at the one Japanese table with an empty seat. The teacher was a young exchange student. He was going to college in Thailand, actually, and proudly showed us his Thai student ID cards and international driver’s license.
I’m not sure why I’m including this much detail about the cafe. I guess I just thought it was kind of funny.
Around half past eight a woman came over from the French table and pulled up a chair. Her Japanese was easily more fluent than anyone else at the table aside from our teacher, the exchange student. When someone asked how her long she had been studying Japanese, she said it had been a year and half since she started learning by coming to this very cafe. In the meantime she had also been working on her French, German, and two or three other languages (I didn’t get to listen to the others, but her French sounded quite good to my well trained American ear).
She couldn’t have possibly learned this much just by practicing speaking a few times a week. What else did she do? I asked her. She said there was also a study component. She’d listen to the same audio material for ten to fifteen minutes a day and tried to imitate it. Once she was able to mimic this — after about a week, say — she would move on to another one. Each audio piece was only a minute or two long, so this meant repeating it several times in that short time span. She said it’s this combination of short repetition and imitation that makes it so effective. Apart from this short daily active listening, she spent a lot of time on passive listening to other material as well.
Given her apparent but slightly incredible success learning languages, I told her about my project, to study a different language intensively every month, and I asked her what she thought. She shook her head and told me this wasn’t the way language learning worked. Something about scientific studies.
There is something elegant about the idea that languages are best learned in parallel and not in series. Since I conceived of this harebrained project I’d been wondering what would become of my German, French, etc. after their months had passed and they’d been relegated to the “done” pile. Would I just forget them? Would I keeping having to find more and more time to pack their Anki reviews into my already taxing study schedule?
Languages aren’t things you just learn and then stash forever in your trophy room. At the risk of sounding cliché: languages in the mind are just like languages outside the mind — they are living, constantly changing entities that grow through usage. And the way you use them is by communicating with people or paying attention to your TV, radio, or other propaganda devices. So learning languages over time, bit by bit, even if several at a time, seems much more natural and sustainable than trying to shoehorn them one by one into different pockets in one’s increasingly besieged brain. #mixingmetaphorsisfun
I know it’s impulsive and maybe even treasonous to suddenly change strategies so thoroughly after one has already embarked on an ambitious project like this. Especially given that this is an experiment, and so although I would prefer it to be a success and have mastered German by the end of the month, it’s also acceptable — and much more likely — that I’ll only have succeeded in learning a little bit of German, and most of the gains will be of a different kind. That is, I’ve always expected the bigger rewards to be lessons learned about the process of language learning, and being able to do better next time — on the next language, the next month.
Let me cut to the chase, since I could ramble on but I sort of already know where this is going. I have a choice to make. Either I can stubbornly continue spending four or more hours a day the way I’ve been doing until my month-long sentence is up, or I can jump ship.
On the one hand we have a studying method that, while ambitious, was maybe just slightly doomed from the get-go. On the other hand we have a newer method that, while sounding a little too good to be true, seems to be based on better principles.
What if this is a false dichotomy. Maybe I accept that it’s impossible to learn a language well in a month no matter how many hours one spends per day (impossible for most people, anyway). On the other hand, just suddenly starting several languages all at once, giving fifteen minutes a day of active listening to each one, filling up the rest of my time with a multilingual hodgepodge of passive listening and conversation practice in all these equally unfamiliar tongues sounds like a perfect recipe for brain implosion.
It takes time to set up and start learning a new language. It also takes time to maintain it. What if the best way is to do both? To start languages in serial, and then continue them in parallel. It sounds so obvious when I put it like that. I probably could have asked any even semi-accomplished, yeoman polyglot and gotten the same answer, and saved myself all this trouble. But that’s why it’s a trial-and-error blog, isn’t it? It’s more fun to figure things out for yourself sometimes. And I’m putting yeoman polyglot on my new name cards.
How is this different from the way I was studying Chinese and Japanese before? The relentless listen-on-repeat-and-imitate-until-(this is what happens when I get sleepy and even English starts to fail me)-you-can-faithfully-mimic method isn’t exactly new to me, but I’ve never tried it before to this extent and with these specific parameters. A couple years ago I listened to an audiobook in Chinese, repeating a particular chapter every day for two or three weeks before continuing on to the next one. There are a few differences, clearly. Even with these differences, though, I think it did help my Chinese.
Another difference: if I really emulate the woman from the cafe, I should put a much bigger emphasis than I have been on getting regular speaking practice. I’m embarrassed to admit it, since I knew this was the most important part, but it’s clear from looking over the past several days of studying that I made this a low priority. Understandable, given that it’s the hardest part to control because it depends on others’ availability. But excuses don’t really work in language learning.
I don’t think this active listening should necessarily replace all the other ways I’ve been learning. It’s all good, it’s all helpful to various extents. The important point is prioritizing more effective tools, even if they’re the most difficult or least convenient. DuoLingo is easy, but I should maybe stop kidding myself that it’s actually teaching me German.
Tentatively, then, I could try reprioritizing as follows:
- Active listening. Find a one-to-two-minute clip of spoken German to repeat for 15 minutes a day, and repeat until it becomes easy.
- Conversation. Make this the first or second thing I do in a day, not the last. Continue until I have scheduled sessions every day or almost every day.
- Passive listening. Find material to listen to whenever I’m not studying and have the attention available to listen.
- Everything else: Anki, reading, fun educational podcasts (other than the one I’m repeating actively, if this is what I’m using for that), writing, etc.
Looking at it this way, this seems to be a complete reversal of what I had been doing until now.
Do I still need to spend four hours a day? More to the point, it’s really not important how much time I spend “studying”. The time limit is really just a way for me to hold myself accountable. If I do the 15 minutes of active listening every day and also have a conversation of really any length (I met another polyglot tonight who speaks to himself whenever he can’t find a conversation partner. I figure I already have an advantage since I can speak to my imaginary sock puppet.) — if I can do that plus a few hours of passive listening, I daresay that could already be more effective than the four hours of podcasts, Anki, reading, writing, and DuoLingo that I’ve been doing (in terms of learning to speak fluently, at least).
I would hate for someone to say all this was just an elaborate way of rationalizing my way out of four hours of work per day. To prevent any such attacks, I think I’m going to maintain my commitment of four hours per day of German this month, but just change the way I’m spending the time. Instead of filling it up with the aforementioned miscellany, I’m going to use it to guarantee I’m making an honest effort to get conversation practice. If I spend four full hours looking for a conversation partner and still haven’t found one, at least I can say I tried. More likely, I’ll soon find enough conversation partners, and then I can spend the rest of the time watching Harry Walcott try to get himself struck by lighting again or washing the dishes and memorizing Rammstein lyrics.