Transforming the Economics of Language Learning (Part 5)

Posted on 01. Jul, 2015 by in Language Learning

Helping a slacker student limp over the finish line. Is that a distasteful or unworthy goal in language training? No, not at all. It’s important and exciting to raise your language program’s lowest outcome.

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“Often, slackers just need […] a straightforward work path that is clearly useful, in their self-interest, and actually easier and more comfortable than slacking.”

Students vary from program to program, but they mostly share the same goal: to achieve a particular level of proficiency or performance in a certain amount of time. After graduation, your students may deploy in a military unit, do research with scientists overseas, provide humanitarian disaster assistance, study for a technical certificate, enroll in a college, take a proficiency test to prove they still have the minimum proficiency required for a job they are already performing, interview visa applicants, read patent filings, or just continue on to the next year of the program. Whatever the case, the organization sending students to you would be thrilled to have them exceed standards at graduation, but they need you to make sure that everyone at least meets the minimum standard.

Reliability. That’s what we call a language program’s worst normal outcome. Reliability answers the critical question, “Can I trust that, barring illness or other special circumstances, everyone I send through this program will learn at least the minimum I need them to learn?”

Earlier in this series (see Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4), we discussed how DABL (Declaratively Accelerated Blended Learning) improves the overall speed and logistics of language teaching, learning and sustainment and raises median outcomes. However, DABL’s impact on reliability is particularly striking. DABL radically increases the quantity and quality of work performed by less-talented or less-motivated students, and meaningfully lifts a program’s typical minimum outcome. If you’re reading this, you know how incredibly hard that is, and how amazingly good it feels to pull it off.

A key to student motivation is “face validity.” Is it obvious that the work I’m doing is valuable for me? DABL specialists are very deliberate about creating the “lexical core” of a curriculum unit that students need to master before showing up in class. It’s not just a vocab list. Which specific words and phrases are the most valuable to master in order to excel in that class? What are the most useful words, common inflections, grammatical patterns, and collocations?

In a DABL program, students master the lexical core of each unit on the computer, then carry that mastery into an exciting, energetic and well-crafted classroom focused on that unit. The student knows what’s required before class, and the computer tracks both time-on-task and completion. The requirement is clear, there is nowhere to hide, and the student’s work is immediately rewarded by better and more comfortable class participation. A student who regularly completes the computer work and shows up in class will almost always meet the graduation standards.

The stronger the alignment between the computer work and the class, the greater the face validity, the clearer the value, the stronger the motivation. Often, slackers just need their slacking path to be made more visible and less comfortable at the same time they are presented with a straightforward work path that is clearly useful, in their self-interest, and actually easier and more comfortable than slacking. DABL does that well, and the results can be transformational.

Ignorant Friends: the Secret to Your Success

Posted on 29. Jun, 2015 by in Uncategorized

Itchy Feet: Blissful Ignorance

Disclaimer: everything that follows is terrible advice.

If you’ve followed the Transparent Language blog for any good amount of time, you’ll know there are lots and lots and lots of articles on how to improve your language-learning, how to get over the fear of speaking new languages, and what it takes to get better. But actual self-improvement is only half the battle. As I’m sure some expert somewhere has said at some point, success is 1% work, 99% image.

That’s why whenever I want to get good at something, I do a little bit of work, and then surround myself with people who are terrible at it. If success is recognition from your peers, you just need peers who are dumb as bricks.

Take exercise. I’m no good at it. I get tired and hungry and can think of a hundred other things I’d prefer to be doing than running or jumping rope or doing push-ups. However, I like feeling healthy, so whenever I go for a jog or play some tennis or ride my bike, I pick as my partner someone more out of shape than I am. That way, even when running at a below-average pace, I can feel like a champion compared to my poor, wheezing mate.

Or how about chess? I’ve always wanted to be good at it, but I almost always lose, and losing is not very successful, is it? That’s why I usually play against small children, who are very easy to beat. Since they’re so new to the game, they also generally don’t notice if you cheat, which is an added bonus. Being a champion against those smaller than you is still being a champion.

And, of course, this applies to language learning. When my friends or family from out of town come to visit me in Berlin, I bask in their admiration when ordering “zwei Biere, bitte” or asking “wo sind die Toilette?” Nothing makes you feel like more of a success than winning the esteem of loved ones who don’t know any better. One problem is that I live in Germany, and am constantly surrounded by experts who remind me that I am not the five-star success champion I want to be. If you’re in a similar situation, I recommend you do what I do: only make friends with expats who refuse or are unable to learn the language. As an American this is surprisingly easy. And if you ever meet a local—do NOT engage them in their language. Instead, pull the emergency lever: start talking at them in your native language, in which you are an actual, bona fide expert, and which they are likely not. Once more, you’ll feel like a champion!

Disclaimer: all of the above is terrible advice. You shouldn’t compare yourself to those worse than you but rather those better. Strive to be the best you can be, shoot for the stars, etc, etc, etc…you know I’m right.

How I Became Trilingual in Three Years (and How You Can Too)

Posted on 24. Jun, 2015 by in Language Learning

In 2012 I was your typical monolingual English-speaking American. Now, almost exactly three years after picking up my first Teach Yourself Dutch book, I’m a functional trilingual backpacking my way through Latin America. I didn’t do it through expensive courses or an auspicious blow to the head, but instead by learning about how the brain naturally acquires languages and using it to my advantage.

Earlier this year I wrote the Trilingual in Three Years series on my blog Globalect, and now I’m sharing here the method that I elaborated there. The basic psycholinguistic formula for language learning can be broken up into two parts: statistical learning and social learning. Putting the cherry on top with witty sarcasm and slang and graceful communication is the third.

Statistical learning: it’s child’s play1

Everyone who knows a little bit about language learning knows that babies are little geniuses at it. They’re not really putting in that many focused study hours; they’re just born with a gift.

That gift is their sponge-like ultra-language-absorbant brains that soak up not only speech sounds but grammatical patterns, sentence structures, and associations between words and meanings at a rate that the most advanced adult language learner could never hope to compete with. Leave a baby in any random country for a year or two and, while you’d be a horribly neglectful parent and international criminal, that kid would learn the language.

It’s because the infant brain is hard-wired for statistical learning of patterns, especially linguistic patterns. Statistical learning means that you present the language learning centers of your brain with massive amounts of data – words, sounds, sentences, grammatical structures, social cues – until your brain has decided it has a large enough statistical sample to start making sense of it all and organizing it into rules.

The learner of English as a second language will — regardless of being taught or not — eventually realize (most likely subconsciously) that people just do not say she goed in the past tense in English. After weeks or months or years of exposure to sentences constructed in English, the learner will have thousands upon thousands of examples of she went stored up in their mental repository, but only maybe a couple erroneous instances of she goed. Eventually, the thousands of examples of she went become the clear winner over she goed. The speaker’s brain has used all this data to sort out a rule.

While it comes naturally for babies, your adult brain will need some more structure and encouragement. But fear not: there are plenty of ways to soak your head in statistical language data via listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Watching television and joining conversation clubs are just some of the more obvious ones, but you probably haven’t thought of things like eavesdropping on conversations or reading Wikitravel pages in other languages. For actionable strategies like these, check out the full article on Globalect on Learning Language Like a Baby.

Social learning: it takes a village

The second foundation of language learning is using language for its intended purpose: interacting with other humans. It’s the more important and more enjoyable half of the language learning equation, and ideally you should do it from the beginning, even while you’re busy running all those statistics.

If statistical learning is about compiling and organizing language data, social learning is about putting it to use and learning through doing. Even despite their linguistic genius, babies will never become proficient in a language without social interaction, which means you won’t either. In other words: use it or lose it!

Once a baby has spent around a year devouring linguistic data from their environment, they start to associate mama with the woman who miraculously disappears and reappears during suspenseful rounds of peek-a-boo. Likewise, milk isn’t just a meaningless noise: it’s somehow tied to making that gnawing hungry feeling go away. These realizations are significant because the child can then use it to say milk to mama and accomplish a social task. This is what language is all about.

In the hostel in Mexico City where I'm currently living, having dinner at a table with seven nationalities and as many languages. Most of us are practicing Spanish, and many of us have improved our language abilities by making Spanish-speaking friends here in the hostel.

In the hostel in Mexico City where I’m currently living, having dinner at a table with seven nationalities and as many languages. Most of us are practicing Spanish, and many of us have improved our language abilities by making Spanish-speaking friends here in the hostel.

What this all means is that you need to form meaningful social relationships in your target language, just like babies do, to truly master it and assign useable meaning to your masses of linguistic data.

In the 21st century with its World Wide Web and cheap travel opportunities, there is no shortage of opportunities to socialize in a new language. Check out websites like, go to a Couchsurfing or expat meetup, or spend a summer backpacking or volunteering on a farm in a country where your target language is spoken.

Just be sure that you’re going beyond ritual practice and forming real social bonds, making new friends and learning about cultures as you go. I’ve shared plenty about how you can do all this, along with a whole list of other practical tips, in Globalect’s original post on Social Language Learning.

Bonus round: talking like a native

If you’re a vane language learner like most of us, you probably live for those “oh I didn’t realize you were foreign” moments. While the language professional in me wants to caution you that it’s silly to focus on superfluous things like accent or passing for native, the language learner in me knows it’s just really really cool when you can.

If you want to take the more scientific route to superficial perfection, you should follow the earlier series I wrote here on Transparent Language on ‘Hacking Pronunciation in any Language with the IPA’ (Parts 1, 2, and 3.) The International Phonetic Alphabet is the systematic transcription of every speech sound in human language, and learning it empowers you to recognize new sounds in other languages, measure the difference between your target sound and the one that’s currently giving you that accent, and with enough practice, close that gap.

I’m a big fan of the IPA for learning pronunciation, but I’m an even bigger fan of the social approach, in which immitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Keep soaking your statistics-hungry brain in social data: engage in conversations with people. When you can’t find someone to chat with, watch television. And imitate. Try to sound how the native speaker sounds. Listen actively, closely – they sound different than you, but why? Strive to put your finger on it and use the IPA to help you.


For the IPA method, check out my earlier series on Transparent Language linked above. For more practicable tips on how to get the ultimate compliment, being mistaken for native, take a look at my original post on Globalect: Talking Like a Native.

In just three years’ time I’ve gone from monolingual to polyglot-in-progress. I didn’t dump out thousands of dollars or get bitten by a radioactive spider, but instead I just learned how to learn. Now, three years later, I’m a totally confident and expressive speaker of English and Dutch, and my fluent Spanish is inching closer and closer to social grace and (hopefully) being mistaken for native every day.

To read my followup on three years of language learning using this method and how I’ve used it to learn Spanish while backpacking in Latin America, check out my latest post on Globalect: Trilingual in Three Years: Three Years Later.