Why We Struggle Learning Languages: Gabriel Wyner (Transcript)

Here is the full text of author and polyglot Gabriel Wyner’s talk titled “Why We Struggle Learning Languages” at TEDxNewBedford conference.

Gabriel Wyner – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

So, there’s a myth when it comes to language. And that myth is that children are exceptionally good at learning languages and that we lose that gift when we grow up.

We have good reason for believing in this myth. Many of us have had this experience. We’ve picked a language in high school or college, studied hard for three, four, five years.

And then we take a trip to France, and we meet a five-year-old French child, and she speaks way better French than we do. And it’s not fair.

I mean, we have struggled so hard, and she has never worked a day in her life, and yet here she is correcting our grammar. And you’re right. It’s not fair.

It’s not fair because you are comparing yourself to a child who has had 15,000 hours of French exposure, and you have had 100, maybe 200, maybe 50.

It depends upon how much of your classes were actually spent in French instead of in English talking about French. When you make the fair comparison — you take a five-year-old child, transplant them to Spain, give them 500 hours of exposure there; adult gets a job in Spain, 500 hours of exposure — what you’ll find is that the adult beats the child every time.

We are better at learning languages than children. We are smarter than them. We’ve learned how to learn. It’s one of the perks of growing up. That’s not to say there are no advantages to being a kid; there are three.

Between the ages of 6 months and 12 months, in that tiny window, children can hear sounds in new languages in a way that we lose. Significant advantage there.

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Advantage two, children are fearless. They will walk into any conversation, whether they know the words or not, where we will hold ourselves back; we’ll be afraid. Huge advantage. Yet neither of those two advantages outweighs our superior ability to learn.

The third advantage of being a child is the advantage of time. We don’t have 15,000 hours to spend learning French. And so, to succeed at this, we need something that works better than what children use.

And to talk about what that might look like, I want to talk about some of my own experiences. I began my language learning journey with Hebrew, in kindergarten and elementary school.

I studied for seven years, and at the end of those seven years of study, I could read the Hebrew alphabet.

So I try it again. In junior high and high school, I was fortunate; I went to a high school that offered Russian with really good teachers, and so I took Russian for five and a half years. I studied hard; I did well on my tests; I did all of my homework.

And at the end of those five and a half years, I could read the Russian alphabet. I retained, maybe, 40 words, and I came to the conclusion that this whole language thing was not for me.

And then I made a poor decision. I was always a science nerd. I loved science and engineering; I wanted to be a nuclear engineer, focused on plasma physics so I could make fusion reactors. That was my thing as a kid.

But I had this hobby, and that hobby was singing. I sang musical theater and opera. And as I was applying to engineering schools for college, I applied to one that had a music conservatory, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be weird to study opera and mechanical engineering? Wouldn’t that be out there?”

And so I did.

One of the side effects of that is that I needed to take language courses. For that opera degree, I needed German, French, and Italian. And a French friend of mine came to me and said, “Hey, you know, you can get two semesters of credit in one summer at this school in Vermont.”

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And I thought, “That sounds great.”

So I signed right up for this program. And the way this program works is that you sign a contract on the very first day. It says that if I speak one word that is not German, if I write anything, if I read anything, if I listen to a voicemail that’s not in German, I will get kicked out of the school with no refund.

And I thought, “I guess that sounds like fun.” And so I went, and I signed that contract, and I realized that I did not actually speak any German, and so, I stopped talking.

And someone came up to me, and he said, “Hallo, ich heiße Joshua. Wie heißt du?”

And I said, “Eh?”

And he said, “Hallo, ich heiße Joshua. Wie heißt du?”

And I said, “Ich heiße Gabriel?”

And I learned German that way.

Seven weeks later, I could hold a solid conversation in the language, and I became addicted to the feeling of thinking in a completely new way. And so, I went back the following summer to reach fluency in German.

In 2007, I moved to Vienna, Austria, to pursue a degree in opera and in song. In 2008, I went to Perugia, Italy, to study Italian. And in 2010, I cheated on a French test. And that’s where all of this comes from.

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