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

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

It turns out all grammatical rules actually fall somewhere along the line between the general conceptual and the conversation specific. And once you play round with this idea for a while, grammatical rules become extremely easy to remember. Because now you know where they live in the neighborhood and what their relationships are to their neighbors.

After that, the only thing that’s left is vocabulary. Dictionaries full of all the words you don’t know yet. But it turns out, we don’t actually need to know that much vocabulary. Because we have our coping skills. We can talk around the words that we don’t know. We can listen, from context work out a lot of the new words we’re hearing. And when all else fails, now we know we have license to simply ask for help.

So what words do we actually need to learn first? The short words, the small words, the little linking words. “Thing” is one of them. The words like: and, or, but, of, the, who, what, when, where and why. Because these will get you the most expressive bang for your buck. These are the words that will save you when you need to deep in the conversation. You know exactly what you want to say, then boom, you hit this wall because you realize you’ve not learned the word “almost”.

When you focus on those words from the get-go, you find you’ve the frame, the outlines of language up and running, and then there’s only one thing left: the rest of the language. And there’s a trick for this. To prioritize the rest of vocabulary, get what you need first, you can start with the egocentric experience of the body. You say okay, my eyes, they see. They see and they look. My ears, they listen and they hear. My hands, they pick up and put down. My mind, it knows, it feels, it loves, it understands, and when it tries to learn a language, sometimes it remembers and sometimes it forgets.

When you get these words, these core verbs of interaction and experience, and tie them together with all those little linking words, it’s a very small set of vocabulary that you actually know, but it happens to be precisely the set of expressive tools that you need to make your way through any conversation.

So, I hope that I have convinced you that this is not just for linguists. Anybody can learn a language. Anybody can get that foot in the door, which is the part that really matters. You can do it. Right here. Right now.

All it really takes, is a somewhat better sense of where our emotions are at, where our heart is at when we go to learn a language. And also a better sense, of how language actually does fit into our minds. And if this is possible, then it means that joining a new speech community is much easier than you think. And that can take a lot of the pressure off of the people who’ve been told, “You need to abandon your small language in favor of this big large language.”

But there’s more. Every language that I have ever learned, every language that I even started to learn, has radically reshaped how I look at the world, how I deal with people, how I think. And that’s lovely. But even more important than that, are the people that I’ve met, and the ways that I’ve been able to meet them because of learning their language. They have changed my life in more ways than I can even begin to describe here.

Now — up till now, that kind of opportunities only have been available to trained linguists and the occasional genius savant polyglot. But now, we all have the meat. And so there’s nothing more I can say, except, go for it.

Good luck.


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