Dr. Conor Quinn on Hacking Language Learning at TEDxDirigo – Transcript
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Dr. Conor Quinn
A big part of why I work with endangered languages, is because I am myself a descendant of a speech community that even today is struggling to survive. Look at the name over there, you can probably guess which one it is.
But, for many of my friends, language loss is much more immediate, much more intense. For them, it’s loss of a chunk of their sovereignty, a connection to their past, a connection to their cultural wealth, a grounding in their history.
In my work, I’ve seen time and time again, just how wrenching it can be for parent and child, for grandparent and a grandchild, to become disconnected in a way that goes far beyond any kind of natural generation gap.
But even if you care, even if you sympathize, you may think, “Well, endangered languages just aren’t worth saving.” Because you probably think they’ll cost a fair bit to save. Not just money, but also time, energy and attention. And these are things that are all in short supply these days. And especially so for a lot of these communities, which are often faced with even more immediate, even more material challenges.
But what if it cost next to nothing? Next to nothing to learn a new language? What if we could radically reduce linguistic entry costs? Well, then the arguments against sustaining linguistic diversity, would not sound so reasonable. Because all of us could easily jump from language to language, just to show respect to our host or our guest. Or to enjoy the expressive capacities that this particular language allows us. Or simply because between you and me, this language is the one I feel the most like home.
So the obvious question is, how long does it take to learn a new language? Not perfectly, not you know, without a single error, not even fluently, but just enough to get your foot in the door. Enough to get started, enough to get going, enough to join that speech community and be part of it.
Well, in my experience, it’s about a week or so. And you know, I was just as shocked as you to discover this. In the summer of 2003, after just 10 days in Bulgaria with my new in-laws, I was able to talk well enough to translate for my sister when she came.
And then the same thing happened again the next summer. I went to the Czech Republic for my cousin’s wedding, showed up about a week early, and by the time the wedding rolled around, I was just chatting away with all my new Czech relatives. I wasn’t fluent and I wasn’t flawless but I was effective.
Now real fluency, in my experience, does take a long time, does take hanging out with the speech community. But still, just one week and change to get a foot in the door, to be able to party with the Czechs, to be able to hang out in Bulgarian cafes and order French fries with aplomb. That seemed like an idea worth sharing.
Now of course, I’m a trained field linguist, so you probably think, “Well, yeah, you’re self selected. You’ve got experience. You’ve got talent.” Right?
But when I do it, it doesn’t feel at all like talent, and not much like experience either. All it feels like is a really clear sense of what to do. How to handle vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and more than anything else, how to make it through any conversation. And this is what I think we’re missing when we struggle with languages, when we fail to learn languages.
We all get taught languages, but we don’t get taught how to learn languages. And that’s what I’ve been working on for quite some time right now — how to translate the experience, the skill set of a trained field linguist into a form that anybody, any of you can pick up quickly and use to become active learners, confident learners, who can step right out into the street, the scary street of real-life language use with very little fear.
And if we can do this, then it doesn’t just change how you and me learn languages, but it also has the potential to radically reshape how linguistic majorities and linguistic minorities can live and work together in the same world. Because now, separate linguistic traditions are no longer communicative obstacles, but actually resources. Social, cultural, intellectual, even emotional resources that we can all share and enjoy together.
So, how do we do it? How do we get that foot in the door? At least that foot in the door.
Well, first and foremost, what we need to understand is our own psychology. We need to understand that it’s the social and the emotional aspects of language learning that decide everything. Because when we first start to learn a language, it’s humiliating, it’s embarrassing, it’s frustrating. So this gets you guys all rushing at the door to go learn a language.
But this is because as adults, as teenagers, we measure ourselves on how well we can present ourselves with our words. And in a new language we lose that control, and we run screaming away from that. We dodge conversations. We hide on a linguistic sideline. We do anything to avoid a simple face-to-face conversation, which is the one thing, the only thing that’s going to make us better.
And as English speakers in today’s world, the world is very accommodating of that. It makes it very easy for us to indulge in our instinct to just bailout when we get linguistic stage fright.
So what do we do? Well, the short answer is, we learn to check our shame at the door. We learn to embrace this loss of control, enjoy the fact that we’ve been –more or less involuntarily — given a second childhood in a new language. Right?
So, if we can do this, then we have learned to shift our job, reframe our job, to not from trying to seek out perfection, not making any mistakes, but instead, just learning to cope well. And the best place to learn linguistic coping skills is through simply learning how to improvise. Learning how to use description, metaphor, analogy, to work around the words that we don’t know. So for example, if I don’t know how to say tiger in your language, I will say, “It’s a thing, it’s like a cat but big and orange, and the one behind you looks a little bit hungry.” It’s these clunky but effective descriptions that actually get us through any conversation.
And when we learn to congratulate ourselves on them, when we realize that, “Wow, this person actually understood what I said,” then we feel good about ourselves. And we find they understood what I said and now, even better, they’re telling me how to say it right. That’s a language lesson that we will never ever forget. Never.