Why We Struggle Learning Languages: Gabriel Wyner (Transcript)

You see, I wanted to go back to that school with the contracts in Vermont because, in a sort of stressful, masochistic way, it was actually kind of fun. And they had a Level 1 for people who weren’t familiar with French, which was appropriate for my level, but they also had Level 1.5 that was a little bit faster.

And I thought, this was my third language. Italian is close to French. I can probably manage 1.5. So they sent me a placement test online, and I cheated on it as much as I possibly could.

I figured me not knowing French and cheating as much as I could might get me in Level 1.5. And so, I used About.com’s “French grammar” to cheat on the multiple-choice section. I wrote an essay in Google Translate and submitted this thing. I sent it off. I didn’t think about any more of it.

And three months later I got an email, and that email said, “Congratulations! You did really well on your placement test! We’re placing you in the intermediate level. You have three months. In three months, we’re going to put you in a room with a French speaker. We’ll talk to you for about 15 minutes to make sure you did not do anything stupid, like cheat on your placement test.”

And so, I panicked. And when I panic, I go to the internet because, clearly, someone there has an answer for everything, and as it turns out, there were some good answers.

There are these systems called spaced repetition systems. They’re basically like flashcards. You know those cards with, like, “chat – cat” that you used in school? These are computerized versions of these, but they test you right at the optimal moment, right before you forget any piece of information, so they’re extremely efficient.

Now, what people use these space repetitions programs for is they use them with translations. And I knew from my experiences with Hebrew and Russian that that wasn’t going to work for me, and so I did something else.

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And to explain that, let’s talk about two words. The first word, we learn in a classroom. We’re learning Hungarian. Our teacher comes to the board. She writes fényképezőgép is the Hungarian word for camera. And then she writes 39 other words on the board and says, “This will be your vocabulary for the week. You’ll have a quiz at the end of the week.”

The second word, we learn quite differently. You are on an adventure with your best friend. You’re in Scandinavia. You find yourselves in an old bar. There are six grizzled old patrons. You sit at the bar, and the barkeep, he is definitely a Viking.

He has a giant red beard, and he is smiling at you in a very disturbing manner as he puts out three shot glasses and pulls out a bottle, and on the bottle you see written M O K T O R, as the barkeep says, “Moktor” and starts pouring something into these shot glasses. And it’s a sort of green liquid, but not a nice, emerald green liquid; it’s a kind of brownish yellowish viscous green liquid.

And he puts the bottle away, and he pulls out a white jar. From the white jar, he starts spooning out something into each shot glass. From the scent, you realize this is definitely rotting fish, as he repeats, “Moktor,” and all the patrons now are turning and looking at you and laughing.

The barkeep now pulls out a match. He lights it, he lights the three shot glasses on fire, and he repeats, “Moktor,” as all of the patrons now start chanting “Moktor! Moktor! Moktor!”

And your friend, your stupid friend, he picks up his shot glass and he shouts “Moktor!” and he blows it out, and he drinks it.

And the barkeep, he blows his out, and he shouts “Moktor!” and he drinks it.

And now everyone is staring at you, chanting “Moktor! Moktor!” And you pick up your glass – “Moktor!” – and you blow it out – “Moktor!” – and you scream “Moktor!” and you drink it.

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And it’s the worst thing you’ve ever had in your life. And you will remember the word moktor forever where you have already forgotten the Hungarian word for camera.

Why? Memories are fascinating things. They’re not stored in any particular location in your brain; they’re actually stored in the connections between regions of your brain.

When you saw that glass, you saw the bottle and it said M O K T O R, and the barkeep said, “Moktor,” that sound and that spelling, they interconnected; they formed a memory.

Those connections connected to other sounds: the sound of moktor getting poured into those shot glasses, the sound of everyone chanting in the room “Moktor! Moktor!”

All of those sounds and that spelling, they interconnected, and they also connected to images. They connected to images of this green bottle. They connected to the shot glasses. They connected to this decaying fish. They connected to the face of that barkeep; that Viking face, that is a part of that word now.

And those, in turn, connect to sensory experiences, like that awful taste in your mouth, the smell of burning, decaying fish, the heat of the fire. Those connect to emotional content: to disgust, to anger at your friend, to excitement. They connect to your journey.

They connect to what is alcohol, what is Scandinavia, what is friendship, what is adventure. All of these things are now a part of this word, and they make it so that that word is going to stick with you, where the Hungarian word for camera, well, you don’t even remember what it sounds like.

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