Why Learning a Language is Like Running a Marathon

Posted on 15. Apr, 2015 by in Language Learning, Reference/Usage Tips, Trends

I have a confession to make. For the better part of my adult life, I have devoured numerous books, blogs, and websites about performance improvement – without seeing any actual improvement!  I’ve had the desire, the internal drive to improve… but with an equally powerful ability to rationalize my way out of hard work.

For much of my adult life, I have struggled to achieve certain goals because I was looking for some kind of easy hack. In short, I am a product of the ‘Easy Button’ American Culture. Not proud of it, but it is true. I am inherently opposed to hard work.


Crossing the finish line.

With that in mind, I want to share an experience of accomplishing a bucket list item. I want to tell you about the time my brother Alan and I completed the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, finishing with respectable times of 4:03:52 and 4:04:02. Alan says that it wasn’t even close…he smoked me!

What does running a marathon have to do with learning a foreign language? I’d say they are damn near the same thing when it comes to the brutal, punishing amount of pure ‘road work’ required for both endeavors.

As a soldier, I stay relatively fit. In fact, I think most soldiers could probably finish a half marathon with little advanced notice. Maybe not quickly, and not without the secondary costs of chafing, blisters, and sore IT bands afterwards—but most of us could probably finish.

That is not the case with a full marathon. Without the requisite number of miles under one’s belt, I think most would fail, buckling physically and/or mentally under the pressures that a marathon delivers. I’m not talking about the outliers, but I’m talking to the rest of us stuck in the big, fat, middle of the bell curve.

Learning a foreign language is like that. You’ve got to put in the miles. There is no way around knowing vocabulary, period. And learning vocabulary cannot be accomplished by sleeping on a dictionary or listening to language tapes while you’re asleep or otherwise distracted. The words must be pounded into your brain. This takes conscious effort. Myelin only wraps around neural pathways from deliberate practice, and the work must be effortful. Frustration is the learning zone.

So, back to this crazy idea of wanting to run a marathon…here were my immediate reflections:  It is the most solitary event in which I have ever participated with 20,000 other people. It was 2 ½ hours of joy followed by 94 minutes and 4 seconds of abject suffering.  My happy place was a distant galaxy around mile 22, and I was in an absolute knife fight with myself to finish.

So how did this inherently lazy guy actually cross this item off of his bucket list?

Bucket lists are interesting. When does an idea become action? Alan and I talked about it for years, but once we started using MapMyRun, action overtook rhetoric. MapMyRun is only one of hundreds of the apps, ‘wearables’, and websites that comprise the growing movement of ‘Quantitated Self’ (QS), or improvement via self-data collection.

As a career soldier, the quickest way to limit or end your career is to fail (or “Bolo” in Army vernacular) the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), or exceed the height/weight standards. The Army frowns on fat-bodies.

The last decade of my own fitness began while deploying to Afghanistan. A friend of mine said that deployments are the, “300 Club. After a year-long deployment you either weigh 300 or you can lift 300. The choice is yours.”

While I never could flat-bench 300, I did fall into the ‘prison-yard’ lifting routine overseas. Towards the end of my deployment, a few guys introduced me to CrossFit, which added an element of competition to working out We kept score and I loved it. It wasn’t until I decided to write this article that I realized ‘keeping score’ is QS at its core.

From 2006-2012, I was much more of an anaerobic athlete than a long-distance runner. I worked in downtown Tacoma, and after work I’d run the stairs at Stadium High School each day.  Running the stairs suited me. A fast, brutal workout that I could complete in 25 minutes or less.

But then in early 2012, my routine was disrupted. I changed jobs and locations. I had to work at the dreaded State HQ, 15 miles away from Stadium High School.  New environment, new people, and no stairs to get my run on… frankly I was in a bit of a funk. I needed to find a substitute for my afternoon workout. I had read somewhere about the magic number of 20. Run or walk 20 miles a week to stay thin. I decided to substitute my stairs for a 4-mile run after work each day.

2012 is also the time that I finally succumbed to the smart phone revolution…I was a late majority at best, laggard and borderline Luddite at worst.  My younger, tech-savvy friends were consistently harassing me about using my government-issued Blackberry. I’d say, “email is for GenXers! Texting is for Millenials!” So, yeah, I guess I’m a Luddite.

I combined my running with this new technology, using MapMyRun and the Nike running app. This is where things began to get interesting. Below are the monthly totals on my Nike app when I decided to run:

  • October: 51.8
  • November: 58.6
  • December: 98.9
  • January: (a lousy time to run in Tacoma, WA!) 132
  • February: 47.9 (I ended up injuring myself by over-training)
  • March: 70.6

Once I started measuring my efforts, I wanted to improve them all on my own. Admittedly, I improved them so much that I injured myself, but that is also part of the learning process.

A look at my MyFitnessPal results from the MCM.

A look at my MapMyRun results from the MCM.

My own experience is that by simply measuring, tracking, and reflecting on any behavior, we will strive to improve or change this behavior. 

The surprise in all of this? I began to fall in love with running again. The work no longer seemed to be work, and there was a new fuel; mastery. A little bit of mastery is a powerful incentive. Dan Pink, author of “Drive” writes that true, long-term motivation, intrinsic motivation requires autonomy, mastery, and purpose. QS monitoring touches all three of those, but especially mastery. Fitness apps detail all sorts of data: miles, speed, elevation, temperature, pace, and even how you compare statistics.

So back to the marathon. Once Alan and I had both started using mapping functions on our phones to measure our runs, the bucket list idea of running a marathon leapt to our consciousness. We used MapMyRun to ‘virtually’ train together, commenting on each others’ workouts, keeping each other honest. The road work became almost joyful. We had a long-term objective that was attainable, and seeing each long run cataloged continued to feed my motivation.

Now, there are millions of people that have run marathons without this technology, but I do believe that the spike in races–people completing 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons–can closely align with smart phone technology and the QS movement.

So… to learn a language?  Choose an app or program that gives you the best feedback.

For numerous reasons, Transparent Language is the absolute best technology I’ve found for learning and maintaining a language, but what really strikes a chord with me is the increase in Learned Items and the ‘stale vs fresh’ component. It is feedback. It is data. It links to our deeper drives.

Here’s another way to look at it. It takes about 10 minutes to go through a list in Rapid Rote (the government version of the software). 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 50 weeks aggregates to 41.66 hours of study. That is 10 hours longer than taking a college class. That helps build one’s own sense of efficacy, mastery.

Learning a language is hard work. There are no shortcuts. However, there are smart-cuts. Once we begin to see just a bit of feedback, if we can stick with a habit long enough for some data to aggregate—then intrinsic motivation kicks in, and we’ve developed a lifelong habit.bsn1

How to Say “Paris” the Correct Way

Posted on 13. Apr, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Proper Pronunciation
Once upon a time, when I was living in Los Angeles, I saw a stand-up comedian, and like most amateur stand-up it was teeth-clenchingly awkward. At one point during his routine, however, he said something that has stuck with me ever since. I don’t remember the exact words (or indeed even this guy’s name), but it was something to the effect of, “I don’t get why the anti-immigrant camp complains about LA being overrun by Mexicans. Los Angeles was a Mexican city! It was built by Mexicans! If you don’t want Mexicans in your city…don’t conquer a Mexican city!”

It stuck with me as a reminder that history changes the face of all things, but it also made me wonder: what’s the correct pronunciation of the name “Los Angeles”? Since the city was Mexican before it was American, and Spanish before it was Mexican, technically it’s “lows ahn-heh-liss;” the Spanish pronunciation of the words “the angels.” I lived in LA for six years, though, and no one ever said that, not even Hispanics. Everyone said what everyone always says: “laws ann-juh-lus.”

Which one is the “right” one?

In Europe, names of big cities aren’t just pronounced differently, they’re often spelled differently, and in some cases they’re completely different words. Paris (“pah-rhee” in French) is Parigi in Italian (“pah-ree-jee”). Venice (“ven-iss” to English speakers) is Venezia (“ven-et-see-ah”) in Italian, but Venedig (“veh-neh-dich”) in German. The German city Cologne (“koh-lohn” in English) is just the English pronunciation of the French (“cuh-luh-nyeh”), but in German, it’s Kölln (“kuhln”).

This is the case with a lot of words. Even the word for the German language has FOUR completely different names just among the aforementioned languages: German (“jer-man”) in English, Deutsch (“doy-tsh”) in German, allemand (“ahll-mon”) in French, and for some bizarre reason, tedesco (“ted-es-ko”) in Italian. Why does it have so many totally different names? I’d like someone to explain THAT one to me.

I know what you’re thinking. There is no “right” name for anything, is what you’re thinking. Words are just sounds, the meaning of which we agree on, right? Whatever is correct in the language you’re speaking is the “correct” way to say it. Nobody thinks you’re cool and cultured if you’re speaking English, but call Paris “Pah-ree” like the French, after all.

But here’s where it gets wrinkly: most Frenchfolk, when speaking English, still call it “Pah-ree” and not “Pa-riss.” To them, after all, there’s only one “correct” way.

I sympathize completely. When speaking a foreign language and a city (or a word) from your native language comes up, the temptation is very strong to pronounce it the way you’re used to pronouncing it, not the way they do in the language you’re speaking. For example, “McDonald’s”, as in, the restaurant chain. If it comes up in a French conversation, I think to myself, do I really want to pronounce it with a goofy French accent? Or do I want to temporarily drop my French just so I can say it the American way? Honestly, I have no answer. I still struggle with this.

(My wife, an Italian, has made fun of the way I say spaghetti (“spuh-get-ee” for Yanks) enough times that I now only say it the Italian way, even when speaking English, for fear of being shamed in my own house…)

What about you? What native words do you refuse to say in the accent of the foreign language you’re speaking? Which ones do you cringe when hearing foreigners say it? What’s the correct way to say “Los Angeles”?

Transforming the Economics of Language Learning (Part 4)

Posted on 09. Apr, 2015 by in Language Learning, Trends

New technologies allow learners to acquire a language anytime, anywhere with the same efficiency and effectiveness (if not more!) of a traditional classroom experience. (Image by Michael Cote on Flickr.com)

New technologies allow learners to acquire a language anytime, anywhere with the same efficiency and effectiveness (if not more!) of a traditional classroom experience. (Image by Michael Cote on Flickr.com)

Logistics?  Of language programs?  “Say what…?”

In Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, we talked about how to train and sustain language proficiency more efficiently and reliably. Getting that right can radically improve the economics of professional language programs in government, industry and academe.

Just as transformative to the economics is changing when and where people teach, train and sustain. We call that “logistics.”

Let’s take the “Organization ABC” Remote Enhancement Program as an example. It’s a real-world example, although we’ve changed the name. It’s actually quite common that we aren’t permitted to use the real names of certain customers such as sports teams, well-known companies or government organizations.

Organization ABC has people all over the world that they’ve identified as being skilled in a language that the company considers valuable. ABC pays these employees a bonus to keep their language(s) sharp. Periodic testing confirms that skills are indeed still strong enough, and the company even offers a six-week language refresher course at Silicon Valley headquarters to those who feel they need the boost.

New to their mix is a “remote language enhancement” option. Instead of coming back to HQ for six weeks of full-time training, personnel stay where they are and do training part time. The remote option is twelve weeks instead of six, so twice the calendar time. But remote students only do four hours per week instead of full-time instruction. Three of those hours are work on Transparent Language Online and other  independent computer-delivered activity. The remaining hour is spent doing intensive communication with an instructor in a virtual classroom.

Astonishingly, the remote program is delivering proficiency gains just as strong as the traditional classroom program. Astonishing because the costs (travel, payroll, lodging, instruction, facilities) of the remote program are more than 90% less, and the disruption of removing a key person from the team is completely eliminated.

Everyone agrees that language skills are important and valuable. Even so, if language training takes too long and costs too much, many enterprises will try to find a way to do without. Declarative Acceleration Blended Learning (See Part 3) is making language training more effective and efficient, which means that more people will want to learn, and more bosses will support them. We love it.