This is one of several articles planned as supplements to the original “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.” This piece focuses on acquisition of new material; for reactivating “forgotten” languages and vocab, I recommend also reading “How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language.”
Let us begin…
From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools (Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?
After testing the waters with more than 20 languages and achieving conversational and written fluency in 6, I have identified several cardinal sins that, when fixed, can easily cut the time to fluency by 50-80%…
1. Teachers are viewed as saviors when materials are actually the determining factor.
Teachers are merely conduits for the material and sequencing.
By analogy, it is better to have a decent cook with excellent easy-to-follow recipe than a great cook with terrible recipe. It is the material that will restrict or elevate the teacher, and a good teacher forced to follow bad material will hinder, not hasten, learning progress. I don’t sit in on classes or otherwise consider a school until I’ve reviewed both hand-out materials and text books.
Judge materials before you judge teachers, and no matter what, do not begin with classes or texts that solely use the target language (e. g., Spanish textbooks in Spanish). This approach reflects a school’s laziness and willingness to hire monolingual teachers, not the result of their search for the ideal method.
2. Classes move as slowly as the slowest student.
Seek a school with daily homework assignments that eliminate
– effectively fire – students from the class who don’t perform.
The school should have a strict curriculum that doesn’t bend for a minority of the class who can’t cope. Downgrading students is only possible in larger schools with at least five proficiency levels for separate classes – beginner, intermediate, and advanced is woefully inadequate. Students can only be moved if the jumps between classes are relatively small and there are a sufficient number of students at each level for the school to justify paying separate teachers.
At the Hartnackschule in Berlin, Germany, where I studied for 10 weeks after evaluating a dozen schools, there are at least 20 different skill levels.
3. Conversation can be learned but not taught.
Somewhat like riding a bike, though unfortunately not as permanent, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things. The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from independent study and practice in a native environment.
I achieved fluency in German in 10 weeks using a combination of grammatical practice at the Hartnackschule (four hours daily for the first month, two hours daily for the second) and daily two-person language exchanges with students of English.