Archive for March, 2011

Earlier this month, David Mansaray and I had the pleasure of interviewing Moses McCormick on The Polyglot Project Podcast (if you missed it, click HERE). Moses was the first of many interesting guests that we have lined up. Our premier episode with Moses has been a huge success, and we had over 800 downloads of this first episode by the end of the day!

I am pleased to announce that one of our listeners, Jamie Cameron, was gracious enough to have transcribed the entire interview–over 8000 words! This is a great resource for non-native speakers of English who may wish to listen to the interview with the transcript in front of them.

Click HERE to download the transcript.

We hope to have transcripts for all subsequent podcasts. Eventually, the podcasts and their transcripts will be posted on iTunes as well. In the meantime, be sure to subscribe to this blog–it would be a pity for you to miss out on hearing a single one of these interviews!


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My friend John Fotheringham wrote this fine piece a few years ago, and I think it warrants revisiting. As always, John gets right to the heart of the matter in dispelling some of the myths regarding formal foreign language instruction.

Copyright © 2011 by John Fotheringham. For more tips, tools, and tech for Mastering ANY Language, go to LanguageMastery.com

Language schools can be a wonderful place to learn more about your target language, meet fellow learners (who can become both study partners or even lifelong friends), and get your linguistic and cultural feet wet before (or even while) immersing yourself in a new culture and foreign tongue.

However, language schools can also be a major impediment to the very goal you go there to achieve: learning a foreign language as quickly and efficiently as possible.  This may come as a shock to those who have been conditioned to believe that classrooms are the only place, or at least the best place, to learn a language.

Here are the top ten disadvantages of formal, classroom-based language learning (at least in my view):

1. You don’t need a teacher or school to learn a foreign language

There is an important distinction to be made between learning and schooling. Those who believe they need formal training in a language are making the false assumption that the two are one and the same. To reach fluency in a language, you need to acquire a great deal of tacit knowledge, that special kind of internalized, experience-based information that you may not be conscious of. The sad truth is that most teachers focus on explicit knowledge (e.g. facts about the language such as grammar rules), which has very little to do with one’s ability to speak a language. Explicit knowledge is easier to teach and test, however, which probably explains why it makes up the bulk of school curricula.

2. You don’t need to learn grammar rules

At some point in history, the education establishment convinced society that they needed to be “taught” languages. This was quite an amazing feat considering that all human beings are endowed by evolution (or God if you prefer) with the ability to automatically acquire any language they hear in adequate quantities. The problem for most learners (and the reason they buy into the “I need more schooling!” mentality) is that they never get an “adequate quantity” of language input. The irony is that this input deficiency is often caused by the very classes that are supposed to provide it. With a focus on memorizing grammar rules, most learners end up spending the vast majority of their time learning about a language instead of the language itself.

3. Tests and grades do more harm than good

Ideally, formalized testing and grading systems motivate students by providing competition and objective feedback. In reality, however, most grading is far from objective (teachers tend to reward students they like and penalize those they don’t), and tests do little more than demonstrate one’s ability to memorize facts. Feedback is important, but it needn’t be in the form of traditional testing or grades. Ask your teachers to evaluate your performance by giving specific examples of things you said right or wrong, not with multiple choice tests.

4. Classes go as fast as the slowest person

The bigger the class, the wider the range of abilities, and the slower the class will have to go. Schools know that students are more likely to stick with something too easy but will quickly throw in the towel if something is too difficult. And despite placement tests and numerous class levels, it can be very difficult to appropriately group students by their actual skill in the language. With finite time slots mutually convenient for all students in a given group, some students will inevitably be placed in classes that are above or below their actual ability level. Also, placement tests come with the same problems mentioned in # 3: they test one’s memory and knowledge (especially of the written word).

5. Reading out loud does not improve your pronunciation or speaking ability

Teachers often have students read out loud to allegedly “practice pronunciation.” The truth is that your pronunciation improves only from massive amounts of listening input and then massive amounts of speaking when you’re ready. Reading aloud does little more than show what words you are unfamiliar with and often reinforces mispronunciations instead of fixing them. While some teachers genuinely believe in the read aloud method, others just use it as a zero prep activity to count down the clock.

6. Oral drills do not help you learn how to speak; they only demonstrate your ability to do so

Just as reading aloud does not improve your pronunciation or reading skills, oral drills do little for your speaking fluency. We improve our speaking ability through increasing the quantity and quality of listening input (e.g. podcasts about your favorite topics), and then applying what we have heard in natural, contextualized conversations.

7. You will be encouraged to move up to the next level even if you aren’t ready

This is all about business. Schools make more money when you buy new books, take level tests and re-enroll in more classes.

8. Your progress reports are meaningless

Teachers hate writing progress reports. They are usually an exercise in creative writing, not meaningful feedback on your actual performance and progress in the language. Not knowing what to say (and not wanting to waste time on a task they don’t get paid for!), many teachers will just cut and paste canned comments, or come up with general, vague statements and overly technical descriptions of your grammar and pronunciation problems.

9. You should be the one who chooses the material

Despite being widely used, standardized textbooks are bad tools for a number of reasons. They build on the myth that schooling equals learning, as discussed in # 1 above. They lull students into a false sense of accomplishment, where completion of chapters is confused with actual internalization of the content. And with content written not to entertain but to avoid offending anyone, they are typically boring and sterile. Interest in the material is essential for effective language learning, so make sure to choose schools or teachers that allow you to choose materials that float your boat.

10. It doesn’t take years to learn a foreign language well if you do it right

If you like the language you are learning, believe you can learn it, and get as much listening and reading input as possible, you will learn the language well enough to communicate in a matter of 6 months to a year. Most students, however, end up paying tuition for years and years despite a lack of progress. Students blame themselves (backed up by the bogus comments found in their progress reports), not realizing that the problem lies not in them, but with their school’s materials and methodologies.

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In this Episode No. 1 of the Polyglot Project Podcast, David and I interview hyper-polyglot Moses McCormick. A good time was had by all!

Click HERE to listen.

Moses McCormick

David Mansaray

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My name is Edmond O’ Flynn, and I’m a 16 year old polyglot from the Republic of Ireland.

I grew up speaking two languages as my mother tongue, English and Irish. Later on, at about the age of 8, I found a book about learning Spanish for children at the local library. It fascinated me how you could become able to speak a language from books! And so, between that book, going on holidays to Spain with my family, and the purchase of a computer game that was only in Spanish, I became quite proficient very quickly.

But my interest in languages faded away until the age of 11. That was when I began to study Japanese on a whim. I bought a Japanese grammar book, a Japanese script book, a phrase book and a vocabulary book. I had no real idea of understanding grammar at the time, so I never really progressed in speaking it with any degree of fluency. In addition, there were no other speakers of Japanese in my area. But I did manage to learn the two Japanese scripts and about 20 Kanji in 3 days. My interest in Japanese continued until my 13th birthday.

I bought books on Mandarin Chinese in London while my mother and I were on holiday there. My interest in Mandarin stayed with me until the age of about 15. I got to a really high standard of Mandarin, and pen-pals helped me fully develop my understanding of that language.

I learnt German in school from the age of 13, and within 3 years, I can pass as a person with a neutral accent who seems to have been living in Germany for quite a while. I have an immaculate understanding of grammar, and can read books and newspapers easily in German. During the Summer, at the age of 16, I began to study grammar intensively. English grammar, Irish grammar- everything I could find available.

By September I seemed to have an explosive interest in other languages. I had Slovak and Polish classmates, and as a challenge in being able to understand them (and to prove that a non-native can learn a foreign language), I began to study both those languages in the evening. Since they’re closely related Slavic languages, learning them both wasn’t difficult. So after a half year of study, I can now talk with them exclusively in Slovak and Polish.

I learnt Dutch last Summer by conventional study and by approaching it from the perspective of sound changes from German. I gained proficiency quickly by using that method. I have lately begun to study Russian, Finnish and Swedish for fun in my spare time. I learnt the Russian Cyrillic alphabet in 2 hours, and have acquired a good knowledge of both Russian and Swedish grammar. Finnish grammar I have found to be much more challenging (for the moment! 😉 ), but I eventually hope to become proficient in all three, in addition to the previously mentioned languages.

In the future I wish to study linguistics.

Here is my progress so far;

English and Irish (mother tongues)

German, Dutch, Mandarin (very good proficiency/almost fluent)

Polish and Slovak (good proficiency)

Czech (good listening and reading understanding from the other Slavic languages)

Russian and Swedish (good conversational level)

Finnish (need to study more!)

Thank you for your time 🙂

– Ed

YouTube Channel: SimCity4IE

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 The Polyglot Project Podcast

A few weeks ago I made a video on my YouTube channel asking my viewers if they would be interested in hearing podcast interviews of polyglots, linguists and language lovers. The response was a resounding yes!

On that note, I’m happy to announce that the podcasts will be made, but the idea has evolved somewhat from when I proposed it  on that video. The interviews will now be co-hosted, and I am pleased to announce that my friend David Mansaray has agreed to work with me on this endeavor.  David brings his enthusiasm and knowledge to the table,  and I look forward to working with him.

Click HERE to listen to my interview with David.

Our goal is to make this podcast informative, motivational and enjoyable for the listener. This series will bring great language lovers together and give them a venue where they can talk about their experiences.

The podcast will be available right here on this blog and will also be simultaneously cross-posted on David’s blog.  In keeping with the spirit of The Polyglot Project, we encourage you to download the podcasts and host them on your own blogs as well, so that this great resource can reach as many people as possible.

Be sure to subscribe to this blog and to David’s blog. Don’t miss any of the updates!

If you haven’t read the polyglot project click here to download your free copy.  To obtain a hard copy from Amazon, click here.

Let the conversation continue!

Learning English? Download the transcript HERE.

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