About the Author:
Gabriel Wyner graduated summa cum laude at USC, where he won the school’s Renaissance Award. His essay on language learning for Lifehacker.com was one of the site’s most read in 2012.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Introduction: Stab, Stab, Stab
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.
Language learning is a sport. I say this as someone who is in no way qualified to speak about sports; I joined the fencing team in high school in order to get out of gym class. Still, stabbing friends with pointy metal objects resembles language learning more than you might think. Your goal in fencing is to stab people automatically. You spend time learning the names of the weapons and the rules of the game, and you drill the proper posture, every parry, riposte, and lunge. Finally, you play the game, hoping to reach that magical moment when you forget about the rules: Your arm moves of its own accord, you deftly parry your friend’s sword, and you stab him squarely in the chest. Point!
We want to walk up to someone, open our mouths, forget the rules, and speak automatically. This goal can seem out of reach because languages seem hard, but they’re not. There is no such thing as a “hard” language; any idiot can speak whatever language his parents spoke when he was a child. The real challenge lies in finding a path that conforms to the demands of a busy life.
In the midst of my own busy life as an opera singer, I needed to learn German, Italian, French, and Russian. Out of those experiences, I found the underpinnings for this book. My methods are the results of an obsessive need to tinker, research, and tinker again. My language-learning toolbox has, over time, turned into a well-oiled machine that transforms fixed amounts of daily time into noticeable, continuous improvement in my languages and in the languages of every person I’ve taught. In sharing it, I hope to enable you to visit the peculiar world of language learning. In the process, you’ll better understand the inner workings of your mind and the minds of others. You’ll learn to speak a new language, too.
So far, my favorite moment of this crazy language-learning adventure took place in a Viennese subway station in 2012. I was returning home from a show when I saw a Russian colleague coming toward me. Our common language had always been German, and so, in that language, we greeted and caught up on the events of the past year. Then I dropped the bomb. “You know, I speak Russian now,” I told her in Russian.
The expression on her face was priceless. Her jaw actually dropped, like in the cartoons. She stammered, “What? When? How?” as we launched into a long conversation in Russian about language learning, life, and the intersection between the two.
My first attempts to learn languages were significantly less jaw dropping. I went to Hebrew school for seven years. We sang songs, learned the alphabet, lit lots of candles, drank lots of grape juice, and didn’t learn much of anything. Well, except the alphabet; I had that alphabet nailed.
In high school, I fell in love with my Russian teacher, Mrs. Nowakowsky. She was smart and pretty, she had a wacky Russian last name, and I did whatever she asked, whenever she asked. Five years later, I had learned a few phrases, memorized a few poems, and learned that alphabet quite well, thank you very much. By the end of it, I got the impression that something was seriously wrong. Why can I only remember alphabets? Why was everything else so hard?
Fast-forward to June of 2004, at the start of a German immersion program for opera singers in Vermont. At the time, I was an engineer with an oversized singing habit. This habit demanded that I learn basic German, French, and Italian, and I decided that jumping into the pool was the only way I’d ever succeed. Upon my arrival, I was to sign a paper pledging to use German as my only form of communication for seven weeks, under threat of expulsion without refund. At the time, this seemed unwise, as I didn’t speak a word of German. I signed it anyway. Afterward, some advanced students approached me, smiled, and said, “Hallo.” I stared at them blankly for a moment and replied, “Hallo.” We shook hands.
Five insane weeks later, I sang my heart out in a German acting class, found a remote location on campus, and stealthily called my girlfriend. “I think I’m going to be an opera singer,” I told her in whispered English. On that day, I decided to become fluent in the languages demanded by my new profession. I went back to Middlebury College in Vermont and took German again. This time, I reached fluency. I moved to Austria for my master’s studies. While living in Europe in 2008, I went to Perugia, Italy, to learn Italian. Two years later, I became a cheater.
Cheaters Occasionally Prosper: The Three Keys to Language Learning
This book would not exist if I had not cheated on a French test. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. First, some background. The Middlebury Language Schools offer five levels of classes: absolute beginner, “false” beginner (people who have forgotten what they’ve learned), intermediate, advanced, and near fluent. At the time of the test, I was an absolute beginner in French, but I had already learned a Romance language, and I wanted to be with the “false” beginners. So, for my third stint at Middlebury, I cheated on the online placement test, using Google Translate and some grammar websites. Don’t tell Middlebury.
A month later, I received my regrettable results. “Welcome and congratulations!” it began. “You have been placed in the intermediate level!” Shit. I had three months to learn a year’s worth of French or look like an idiot at the entrance interview. These interviews are serious business. You sit in a room with a real, live French person, you chat for fifteen minutes about life, and you leave with a final class placement. You can’t cheat; you can either speak French or make sad faces and wave your hands around like a second-rate Parisian mime.
As I was in the middle of completing master’s degrees in opera and art song, the only free time I had was an hour on the subway every day and all day on Sundays. I frantically turned to the Internet to figure out how to learn a language faster. What I found was surprising: there are a number of incredibly powerful language-learning tools out there, but no single program put all of the new methods together.
I encountered three basic keys to language learning:
1.Learn pronunciation first.
3.Use spaced repetition systems.
The first key, learn pronunciation first, came out of my music conservatory training (and is widely used by the military and the missionaries of the Mormon church). Singers learn the pronunciation of languages first because we need to sing in these languages long before we have the time to learn them. In the course of mastering the sounds of a language, our ears become attuned to those sounds, making vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension, and speaking come much more quickly. While we’re at it, we pick up a snazzy, accurate accent.
The second key, don’t translate, was hidden within my experiences at the Middlebury Language Schools in Vermont. Not only can a beginning student skip translating, but it was an essential step in learning how to think in a foreign language. It made language learning possible. This was the fatal flaw in my earlier attempts to learn Hebrew and Russian: I was practicing translation instead of speaking. By throwing away English, I could spend my time building fluency instead of decoding sentences word by word.
The third key, use spaced repetition systems (SRSs), came from language blogs and software developers. SRSs are flash cards on steroids. Based upon your input, they create a custom study plan that drives information deep into your long-term memory. They supercharge memorization, and they have yet to reach mainstream use.
A growing number of language learners on the Internet were taking advantage of SRSs, but they were using them to memorize translations. Conversely, no-translation proponents like Middlebury and Berlitz were using comparatively antiquated study methods, failing to take advantage of the new computerized learning tools. Meanwhile, nobody but the classical singers and the Mormons seemed to care much about pronunciation.
I decided to use all of these methods at once. I used memorization software on my smartphone to get the French into my head, and I made sure that none of my flash cards had a word of English on them. I began making flash cards for the pronunciation rules, added a bunch of pictures for the nouns and some verbs, learned the verb conjugations, and then built up to simple French definitions of more abstract concepts. By June, in my hour a day on the subway, I had learned three thousand words and grammar concepts. When I arrived at Middlebury, I waited in a room for my entrance interview in French. This interview was meant to ensure that I hadn’t done anything stupid, like cheat on my online placement test. It was the first time I had ever spoken French in my life. The teacher sat down and said, “Bonjour,” and I responded right back with the very first word that came into my brain: “Bonjour.” So far, so good. As our conversation evolved, I was amazed to find that I knew all the words she was saying, and I knew all the words I needed to respond. I could think in French! It was halting, but it was French. I was stunned. Middlebury bumped me into the advanced class. In those seven weeks, I read ten books, wrote seventy pages worth of essays, and my vocabulary grew to forty-five hundred words. By the beginning of August, I was fluent in French.
The Game Plan
What is fluency? Each of us will find a different answer to this question. The term is imprecise, and it means a little less every time someone writes another book, article, or spam email with a title like “U Can B FLUENT in 7 DAY5!1!” Still, we maintain an image of fluency in our minds: a summer afternoon in a Parisian café, casually chatting up the waitress without needing to worry about verb conjugations or missing words in our vocabularies. Beyond that café, we must decide individually how far we wish to go.
I would confidently describe myself as fluent in German. I’ve lived in Austria for six years and will happily discuss anything with anyone, but I certainly needed to dance around a few missing words to get out of a €200 fine for my rental car’s broken gas cap. (Apparently, the word for “gas cap” is Tankdeckel, and the words for “I don’t give a damn if I’m the first person to drive this car, the spring holding the gas cap closed was defective” start with “Das ist mir völlig Wurst . . .” and go on from there.) You’ll have to determine for yourself whether your image of fluency includes political discussions with friends, attending poetry readings, working as a secret agent, or lecturing on quantum physics at the Sorbonne.
We struggle to reach any degree of fluency because there is so much to remember. The rulebook of the language game is too long. We go to classes that discuss the rulebook, we run drills about one rule or another, but we never get to play the game. On the off chance that we ever reach the end of a rulebook, we’ve forgotten most of the beginning already. Moreover, we’ve ignored the other book (the vocabulary book), full of thousands upon thousands of words that are just as hard to remember as the rules.
Forgetting is our greatest foe, and we need a plan to defeat it. What’s the classic language-learning success story? A guy moves to Spain, falls in love with a Spanish girl, and spends every waking hour practicing the language until he is fluent within the year. This is the immersion experience, and it defeats forgetting with brute force. In large part, our proud, Spanish-speaking hero is successful because he never had any time to forget. Every day, he swims in an ocean of Spanish; how could he forget what he had learned? I learned German in this way, given an opportunity to leave my job, move to Vermont, and cut off all ties to the English-speaking world for two full summers. Immersion is a wonderful experience, but if you have steady work, a dog, a family, or a bank account in need of refilling, you can’t readily drop everything and devote that much of your life to learning a language. We need a more practical way to get the right information into our heads and prevent it from leaking out of our ears.
I’m going to show you how to stop forgetting, so you can get to the actual game. And I’m going to show you what to remember, so that once you start playing the game, you’re good at it. Along the way, we’ll rewire your ears to hear new sounds, and rewire your tongue to master a new accent. We’ll investigate the makeup of words, how grammar assembles those words into thoughts, and how to make those thoughts come out of your mouth without needing to waste time translating. We’ll make the most of your limited time, investigating which words to learn first, how to use mnemonics to memorize abstract concepts faster, and how to improve your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills as quickly and effectively as possible.
I want you to understand how to use the tools I’ve found along the way, but I also want you to understand why they work. Language learning is one of the most intensely personal journeys you can undertake. You are going into your own mind and altering the way you think. If you’re going to spend months or years working at that goal, you’ll need to believe in these methods and make them your own. If you know how to approach the language game, you can beat it. I hope to show you the shortest path to that goal, so that you can forget the rules and start playing already.
After I learned German, I thought, “Ach! If I could just go back in time and tell myself a few things, I would have had a much easier time with this language!” I had precisely the same thought after Italian, French, Russian (which I finally learned in 2012), and Hungarian (2013’s project). This book is my time machine. If I squint my eyes just right, then you are monolingual me from nine years ago, and I’m creating a time paradox by helping you avoid all of the pitfalls and potholes that led me to make my time machine in the first place. You know how it is.
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