Dr. Conor Quinn on Hacking Language Learning (Full Transcript)

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.

So, there’s actually a second lesson inside this, which is that, language is not all on you. When you and I speak together, we make meaning together. So learning to cope well in another language, is as much, if not more, about learning to lean on the other person’s full and complete knowledge of the language and even more on their willingness to help you make this conversation happen.

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So again, if we learn to reframe our task, reframe our job, as being effective, not perfect, then every conversation stops being this potential minefield of embarrassing mistakes and errors. Instead, it’s an exciting place for us to come back to every time. Because you get to be your own MacGyver. You get to rummage around in your linguistic pockets and pull out a toothbrush, a button and a paperclip, and couple that all together and somehow pull off the communicative job. Right?

When you feel that thrill of being a linguistic hero time and time again, you come back to conversations, you seek them out, you want to be there. And when you approach the task like that, well pretty soon, you find yourself fairly close to fluent. So that’s how we cope with linguistic stage fright, with linguistic performance anxiety, which is 90% of what holds us back.

The only thing left is of course the language. All the pronunciation, all the grammar, all the vocabulary. It’s really intimidating, but mostly because we’re all trying to juggle it all at once. We’ve got no way to organize it. No way to prioritize it.

There is a way. What we need is a simple, practical understanding of the design features of language. So let me give you just a brief taste of that.

Take pronunciation. Anybody can learn to pronounce any sound in any language of the world. Anyone of you. All of you. If you don’t believe me, it’s probably because you’ve heard the following phrase, “Listen and repeat after me.” That doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.

What does work, is learning the clear and simple set of instructions for how to move your mouth to make that weird sound. After that, all you need is a little bit of exercise to work your mouth for that oral choreography. And very soon you find that your muscles limber up. And what have seemed unfamiliar, unpronounceable, unreachable even, becomes almost as familiar as every other sound you have been saying your whole life. So you don’t need any special talent. You don’t need any special ear for language. You just don’t.

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But even more importantly, is rhythm and melody. When you go after the distinct cadence of language, when you try to internalize that, that particular languages uses, and use that as the foundation of your own pronunciation, well then, it turns out that your own words come out fluently. They flow in that cadence. The cadence is the current that carries all your words.

Even better, when you have that cadence internalized and you’re waiting for it, you’re expecting it, then suddenly, something almost miraculous happens, which is that, native speaker speech suddenly doesn’t seem so fast. Because it’s that rhythm and that melody that actually tells you where the words begin and end.

So that’s pronunciation, but what about grammar? Grammar is terrifying. Right? It’s only because we teach grammar as a million little disconnected arbitrary single rules, when in fact grammars are tiny little ecosystems. Every little part fits into every little part. And if we look at those ecosystems from the top, we can see a very helpful simplicity, which is that, all of those rules fall down on one side or the other of what we do when we talk, which is, we mention general concepts, things like cat and dog, events like bite and chase. Right? And then we tie them into the specifics of this conversation: My cat, your dog, that bit me, in yesterday’s past tense.

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