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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
This non-memory isn’t associated with iPhone cameras and SLR cameras and the sound of a shutter, and the feelings you get when you look at photos from your past.
No, those associations exist; they’re connected to another word, to the word camera. But fényképezőgép has none of that right now. And so, you can’t hold on to it.
So what can you do with this? Well, let’s return to where I was with French. My situation was as follows:
I was taking two master’s degrees, one in song, one in opera, and so I had six days of class a week. My only free time was an hour a day on the subway, Sundays, and Austrian national holidays, of which, thankfully, there were many.
And during that time, I did one thing: I built and reviewed flashcards in one of these computerized spaced repetition systems. But instead of using translations on those flashcards, I began with pictures.
If I wanted to learn the French word for dog, chien, then I would search on Google Images for chien, and I would find that French bloggers didn’t choose the dogs I would expect. Their dogs were smaller and cuter and, somehow, more French.
And so, I used these dogs to learn chien and built a vocabulary out of these pictures from French bloggers. And as I built that vocabulary, I graduated over to sentences. And I started learning abstract words and grammar that way, using fill-in-the-blank sentences.
If I wanted to learn a word, like, went is the past tense of to go, I would use a story. Yesterday, I blank to school – with a picture of a schoolhouse. And so, I learned my abstract grammar in that way.
And then, three months later, I had that interview. And I found myself in this room with this French person, who began our conversation with “Bonjour.”
And then, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Bonjour.”
And she started speaking to me in French, and I realized I understood what she was saying, and what’s more, I knew what to say back.
And it wasn’t fluent; it was a bit stunted, but this was the first time I had spoken French in my life, and I was speaking in French, and I was thinking in French, and we had a 15-minute conversation, and at the end of this conversation, the teacher tells me, “You know, there something wrong with your placement test. It says you should be in the intermediate level, but we’re placing you in the advanced level.”
And so, over the next seven weeks, I read 10 books, I wrote 70 pages of essays, and by the end of that summer, I was fully fluent in French. And I realized that I had found something important.
And so I started writing about it and creating computerized tools around it and tinkering. In 2012, I learned Russian. I had my revenge on that language. In 2013 through 2015, I learned Hungarian. In 2015, I started Japanese, then stopped, learned Spanish, came back, and started Japanese again because Japanese is endless.
In each of these experiences, I learned a lot. I learned ways of tweaking the system to find efficiency boosts here and there, but the overall concept has always remained exactly the same.
If you want to learn a language efficiently, then you need to give that language life. Every word needs to connect to sounds and images and scents and tastes and emotions.
Every bit of grammar can’t be some kind of abstract grammatical code; it needs to be something that can help you tell your story. And if you do this, you will find that the words begin to stick in your mind, and the grammar, it begins to stick too.
And you start to realize that you don’t need some kind of language gene, some gift from God to accomplish this. This is something that everyone has both the time and the ability to do.
Resources for Further Reading: