Scott Young & Vat Jaiswal: How to learn any language

Scot Young: We want to start off with a question for you. By a show of hands, how many of you have put in time and effort into learning another language? Maybe you took a high school Spanish class, or maybe you took a lot of Rosetta Stone, but you can't confidently speak that language right now. Vat Jaiswal: OK. That's most of you here. Some of you are raising both of your hands. So, we've tried learning a few languages ourselves, we're going to talk about it in a minute. But let's talk about what is the problem, what is the main issue that is holding everybody back from learning languages. Could it be that you're using the wrong program of study, and if you were to use a perfect program or the application, then you'd be able to learn the language? SY: Well, here the track record isn't too good. Out of the 1,000 Americans who responded to the General Social Survey, only 7 claimed that they could speak another language very well, and had actually learned it in school. And if you consider self-study programs, like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur, well, they can work some of the time, but they have another problem: huge drop out rates. [NFLC], at the University of Maryland did a study that took an enthusiastic group of volunteers and found that only 6% put in more than 100 hours with the program, which is far less than what you'd need using these programs to become fluent in any language. VJ: OK, well, maybe then the problem is that you don't live in the country that uses this language, and if you were to move there, you'd be able to learn it. SY: Here I have to agree with you, Vat. Living in the country that speaks the language, definitely helps. It provides motivation and an opportunity for immersion. But it's not the answer to all of your problems. If you go to the country and you don't yet speak the language, what are you going to do? Are you going to rely on other expats and locals who speak English to help you to get by? And that's going to create a bubble of English, it is going to isolate you from immersing yourself. So, we know an extreme example. We know of an American businessman who went to Korea, married a Korean woman, had children in Korea, lived in Korea for 20 years, still couldn't have a decent conversation in Korean. So, living in the other country helps, but it is not a silver bullet that will answer all of your problems on its own. VJ: OK, well, finally maybe the problem is that you're simply too old, and you should've tried learning the language as a kid because kids learn the languages faster, right? SY:This is actually a pervasive myth. Steven Brown of Einstein University and Jennifer Larson-Hall of Qiushi University reviewed the literature and found adults actually learn languages faster than children in the short run. It's only when we talk about reaching native-like levels of pronunciation and grammar where children start to show an upper hand over an adult. So, definitely, if you want to just be able to communicate with people, have conversations, there is no reason you can't learn a second language at any age. VJ: If those are not the core issues, what is the core issue? We have a completely different hypothesis, and to explain this concept I want you to look at this image of the ocean. Now, if you look at the water, you're going to see 2 distinct zones: zone at the bottom where the waves are breaking, an the zone at the top where the water is relatively calm. Now, I want you to imagine you're standing on the shore, and you want to swim out into the ocean. When you first start swimming out into the ocean, you ARE going to be in this first zone where the waves are breaking. And swimming in this zone is incredibly difficult, you feel this incredible resistance, the waves come crushing down on you, and they constantly try to push you back to the shore. However, if you were to push through this zone and get to the second zone, suddenly, swimming becomes a lot easier and more importantly, the waves are not trying to push you back, you're no longer feel this incredible resistance. So, we believe that language learning works very similar to this. When you first start learning a language, you're going to be in this first zone which we call 'the zone of fear' or 'the zone of frustration', because this is where you fear using the language, this is where you fear making mistakes, this is where you fear embarrassing yourself. And learning a language in this zone is very difficult: the waves represent this negative feedback and this constantly tries to push you back to the shore. However, if you were to push past this zone and get to the second zone where the waters are calmer, suddenly language learning becomes a lot easier, and a lot more fun. Mind you, I'm not saying that you're perfect when you reach the second zone, or maybe you only know a few words, but you're able to use them confidently, maybe you're able to have some simple conversations. And language only goes from being always frustrating to now being rewarding, most of the time. So, the core issue, we believe, that a lot of the people have is that people get stuck in this zone of fear and frustration for longer than they have to, and for some people, forever. And if all you see is negative feedback, it's very hard to motivate yourself to learn further and improve yourself, and learn the language that you really want to learn. So, ideally, you'd use a different method, a method that allows you to get past this zone very quickly and very efficiently, so you can get to the part where language learning is fun and easy as quickly as you can. SY: We believe we have this method, a method that cuts through the waves and gets you to the easier part of language learning as quickly and efficiently as possible. It's very simple. Don't speak in English. And, that might sound a little obvious or simplistic, but it's actually really powerful. When you force yourself to speak the language you're trying to learn, and you learn words and phrases by necessity, not the order it comes up in the textbook That means you automatically learn the most frequent vocabulary and the most important words for your situation. Next, because you don't know many words and phrases, you're going to overuse what you do know. This results in effects psychologists call overlearning which allows you to access that information automatically. You don't need to get your tongue tight or hesitating when you're using basic words and phrases. And finally, because you're not allowed to speak in English you're going to easily develop conversational work-arounds to handle situations that are above your level. That is going to be from learning simple phrases like: "What does this mean?" and "How do you say this? in the language, relatively early on, to being able to efficiently use things like Google Translator and dictionaries to integrate new words and phrases into your conversations while you're having them. VJ: So how do we know that this method works? Well, we know that this method works because we've tried it for ourselves. So, last year Scott and I did an experiment. But we tried to learn four different languages, and we went to four different countries to learn these languages over a year. And we used the same no-English rule to learn the languages. So, first we went to Spain to learn Spanish over 3 months, then we went to Brazil to learn Portuguese over 3 months, then over to mainland China to learn Mandarin over 3 months, and finally over to Korea to learn Korean over 3 months. And we found that this no-English rule worked incredibly well. As a matter of fact, near the end of our travels in each country, we were confidently able to have conversations with native speakers pretty much about any subject, and going by our daily lives, using the language that we were trying to learn. So we actually have a short video that we would like to show you that captures the kind of progress that we were able to make using this no English rule just under 3 months for each country. So, take a look. (Video) SY: This might seem a little bit extreme. After all, wouldn't it be a lot easier to speak some English when you're trying to learn the language even if it is not quite as fast as this no-English rule? We actually believe that this is a misconception. And to argue that why it is a misconception, I'd like to reference an experience that I had. You see, years before we did this challenge, I had a different opportunity to learn a second language. I was in the university and I had an opportunity to study abroad for a year in France. And like this trip, I was very eager to learn the local language. I bought books, I downloaded podcasts, I really wanted to become fluent in French. The only difference that I had no specific rule against speaking in English. I figured, "I'll go there and I'll speak as much English as I need to, and I'll just try to practice French whenever I can." And after a year of living in France, and pushing myself to study every single day, I did get to a point where I could have a conversation, but it was never easy, it always felt difficult, it always felt like I was a little out of place. And contrast that to that of my more recent experience in Spain. Once again, we have the motivation and opportunity, but this time we have the no-English rule. >From the very first day we came to Spain, we decided we were only going to speak in Spanish. And, as you can probably imagine, with limited Spanish skills it was very difficult in the beginning. We had to communicate to each other almost exclusively through our dictionaries for these first few days. But after 2 weeks something changed, it started to get a bit easier. After a month even easier. And by the third month we were in Spain, it'd become so easy, that living our lives entirely in Spanish was automatic. We didn't have to think about studying or practicing, it was completely invisible in our lives. And what's more, after just 3 months in Spain, our Spanish, both of our Spanish, was much better than my French was after a year of living in France and deliberately studying it. And so, when you're evaluating the difficulty of a method, particularly in learning languages, it's not really fair to look at that initial sliver of difficulty because you have to look at how much effort you're going to be putting in not just in the beginning, but day after day, month after month in order to finally being able to learn this language. And what we found is not even just that the no English rule is faster, but that when you take it over this longer view, it is actually easier than any other method we've tried for learning a language. VJ: And I'd like to speak about another misconception that a lot of people have is that you'd somehow be able to completely avoid making mistakes when you first start learning a language. And that's simply not true. Actually making mistakes is very good because it means you're using the language and eventually it helps you to gain the confidence that you need to speak the language. When Scott and I were doing this challenge, we made mistakes every day especially in the beginning, everything we said was wrong, but that's OK. And in China and in Korea, because Chinese and Korean are so much harder than the European languages we attempted to learn, we slipped up and broke the no English rule a couple of times as well, but it didn't matter because it is not about making mistakes, how many mistakes you're making, it is more about that each time you make a mistake you try again. So, remember that the whole goal of this process and this method is to push past this zone of frustration and fear so you can get to the part where language learning becomes fun and easy. Ideally, the way you'd do this is you'd move to the country that speaks this language and go 100% immersion from the first day and commit to the no English rule. But obviously, that's a bit extreme and a lot of you here might not have the opportunity to do that. But I'd like to point out that the beauty of the no English rule is that it doesn't have to be 100% no English all the time with everybody. It can also work in a limited context. So let me give you an example. If you're trying to learn Spanish and you have a co-worker or colleague that speaks Spanish, maybe you commit to the no English rule every time you see this person. So, every time you're going to see them you only commit to speaking in Spanish. So if you were to bump in them at the water cooler and you want to make small talk, and you want to say - let's say you were busy at work - and you want to say: "Oh, I'm so busy today," it is OK to pull out your dictionary, and translate the entire sentence. You don't have to feel ready to say this, the goal is to just try and attempt. And what this really helps you to do is that it helps you out with two really important things. The first one: it helps you to remove the ambiguity of which language should you use, because if with this co-worker, let's say, you can speak in Spanish, and you can speak in English, obviously you're going to default to speaking in English because it is so much easier. But by committing to the no English rule, you're saying: "Every time I see this person I know it is practice time, there is no doubt in my mind that now I have to speak Spanish even if I have to pull out my dictionary." And the second thing it helps you out with is it helps you develop a habit of speaking the language even at the very low level of ability. This really helps you out to build the confidence that you eventually are going to need when you'll start speaking this language to the higher level of ability. SY: So you've heard about our challenge. Now we'd like to issue you one. And no, we're not asking you to sell out your stuff and go to live in a far away country. We're going to ask you to do something a lot simpler but if you follow through on it, it will still be very effective if you want to finally start having conversations in that language you'd been learning all your life. Just 3 steps. Step 1: Find one person. It could be a native speaker of this language, or it could be another language learner, it could be someone you already know, a friend, a colleague, a spouse, or it could be someone you find online. There are services like and livemocha to find conversation partners online. So if you can't find this person in your life right now, there are easy tools for finding them online. Step 2: Commit to the no English rule with this person. Every time you see them just speak in this language that you're trying to learn. Tell them that, you know, even though you're not too great at the language yet, you are going to have to use Google Translator and dictionary a lot in the beginning, that's OK. Step 3: Start speaking. Once again, it is not something you have to be perfect at. You might slip up and break the "no English" rule, just try again. Pull out your phone, download the Google Translator app, you can type in the whole sentences if you don't feel comfortable yet speaking the language. The goal is to get you to start speaking, to start building that knowledge of the words, and start practicing those core phrases. What we're hoping is that by showing you this method we're encouraging you to get started with something, not to be perfect, and maybe even today to decide to find that one person and start this rule, and finally start speaking that language. Chinese have an expression: (Chinese) "A good start is a half of success," which means: "A good start is a half of success." (Applause)

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