You’ve got to make sure that whatever you’re doing is a great product or service. It has to be really great and I go back to what I was saying earlier that if you’re a new company… where there’s an existing market place against large entrenched competitors then your product or service needs to be much better than theirs. It can’t be a little bit better because then you put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and you say why would you buy it as the consumer? You’re always going to buy the trusted brand unless there’s a big difference. So a lot of times an entrepreneur will come up with something that is only slightly better. And it’s not, it can’t just be slightly better. It’s got to be a lot better.’ Elon Musk – Paypal, SpaceX, Tesla.
In my life I have tried and failed to learn Ancient Greek, Latin, Russian, French and Mandarin. Despite the endless hours, very good grades and the fact I was fortunate to be studying at arguably the best high school in the UK (Westminster School) I have never been able to have a basic conversation in any of these languages. I don’t mean just today but even when I was actually learning and passing exams in them. I always attributed this to my own lack of ability to learn languages, I didn’t have the gene for it. Recent events though have forced me to reassess, in particular having just spent the past year at Tsinghua University in China I can now speak Mandarin. Badly admittedly, but speak nonetheless. In fact, several of my best friends in China could not speak English at all.
However despite this successful outcome even that learning experience I feel was not optimal. For example, going to China to study with a classroom of foreigners defeats the whole point of going to China at all because inevitably you make friends with your classmates and end up speaking to them in English not Chinese. This interestingly was the case even when our Chinese was easily good enough to have the same conversation as we were having in English. Classes were four hours a day stretched out for two epically long seventeen week terms which even the most driven would struggle to maintain a high work ethic for. And furthermore, there was little student teacher interaction, with most classes involving the teacher reading from a textbook. I was fortunate because learning from my friend’s experience I had actively avoided making too many foreign friends instead trying to mix with locals as much as possible. I found it was having natural day to day conversations with my friends, not attending class, that really improved my Chinese. But still, it was hard not mixing with classmates and by the end of the year most of my closest friends were foreigners and in fact I had several classmates who hadn’t made a single Chinese friend all year!
Despite all these flaws, this is still much better than my previous experiences learning languages where, because I had just two or three hours of classes a week not forgetting what you had learnt the previous was hard enough, let alone actually improving.
SOLUTION – GENERAL PHILOSOPHY
I think the solution is very simple: focus and immersion. The best way to learn a language is to be immersed in an environment where for twenty-four hours a day all communication is in the language you want to learn. The obvious problem is that you first need to learn the basics of a language before you can reap the benefits of immersion.
The two graphs above I believe describe the typical language learning experience. On the left is the marginal benefit curve, i.e. the benefit of every extra hour’s effort. On the right is the total benefit curve. I argue that after an initial spike in benefit, whether it’s getting exposed to a new culture and language or perhaps being able to say a few words on holiday, very quickly the marginal benefit of every extra hour you spend studying a language drops very low. That is until you reach the level where you can have basic conversations in the language and make friends. At that stage there is an uptick in the marginal benefit signified by the hump in the middle of the marginal benefit curve. Once you can have basic conversations and friends in a language there is another long period of limited marginal benefit to every hour you study because it takes a long time to get to the level of true fluency where you can write and express yourself like a native. For this second long period of limited marginal benefit the best, and really only method, for language learning is immersion.
For the first valley though immersion is not an option and so I propose intensive language camps. The big advantage of this is that I feel the learning curve is much faster if there is greater focus. Secondly, people can sustain very concentrated work ethic for a week or perhaps even a month but maintaining a proportional work ethic over years, especially when you feel like you’re not making any progress is very difficult.
Initially I thought it might be possible for someone to jump from complete beginner to basic conversational fluency but I have since been persuaded that this is probably over ambitious. Therefore my current best guess as to the optimal way to learn a language as an adult would be to first have a one or two week intensive beginner course where the focus is getting to sentence construction as quickly as possible. That would be followed by perhaps six months of the more typical three or four hours a week where the primary focus is on maintenance but this would also allow for perhaps a gradual build up in vocabulary as well as general increasing familiarity with the language. This would then be followed by an intense three to five week course which would aim to get the student to complete basic conversational fluency. Ideally, the student would then the day the intensive course finishes get on a flight to the respective country to immerse themselves for at least three months and get real world practice using the language. As I mentioned previously, studying at language schools has the serious disadvantage that you don’t really immerse yourself because all your classmates are foreigners. The provisional best solution my friend and I came up with is that, for example if you are a Japanese language student after the intensive course you would go to Japan to live with Japanese university students, studying at a Japanese university but living in an apartment outside. Perhaps to make it worth their while the language student would pay a disproportionately large share of the rent. In return the language student would be immersed all day every day with Japanese speakers and crucially would have an instant social circle of local friends. Initially I thought that a language learner might try to enroll in a masters course where there is limited need to understand the teacher, a good example might be an art course but this seemed unworkable.
The big advantage of just living with university students but not actually attending university of course is that with no academic pressures the language learner will have the time to enjoy the local culture. A big problem I think with short-term language programmes is that your motivaton to study is directly diminished because this is your one chance to live in the country and inevitably rather than spending every minute locked up in your room studying you’d rather be about experiencing the country. This is exactly what my British friend found when she spent five weeks studying Korean in Seoul, she didn’t really want to study because there was so many things that she wanted to go and see. By separating the intense language program from the immersion I think you can get the benefit of both. Obviously, the intense language programs as well as the several months living in a foreign country are not easy to manage if you are in a full-time job so our primary target customer base would be university students. Having said that, as it is becoming more and more acceptable to change jobs and change companies it is not entirely inconceivable that a person might have six months off which they want to spend first learning another language and then living in that country.
SOLUTION – SPECIFICS OF COURSE
As I mentioned, my initial plan was to go straight from beginner to, for Chinese at least, what I felt was the minimum vocab requirement of about 600 words. I should mention that Chinese is unique in its relatively simple grammar (although this is offset by its lack of an alphabet)! But nonetheless I feel that there is too much emphasis in language learning on accuracy, particularly grammatical accuracy. In reality, what matters is that you and your friends both understand what each other is saying most of the time and that you can match normal conversational speed. My initial plan was to learn 600 + words in less than two weeks but after getting feedback from my friends I realized that this was overly ambitious and so I reduced the first intense language program to less than 200 words and just seven days.
The lessons would be everyday from 8am to 10pm with 8 hours of classes a day. The classes would be structured in a very specific way where the first 15-20 minutes would be spent learning six new words. Those who are more ambitious or perhaps already have a familiarity with the language can learn the writing but the priority would be on the pronunciation and the tones. The remaining 40 minutes of each hour long class would then be spent translating aloud English sentences into Chinese sentences. Crucially the English sentences would, in addition, to being written with correct English grammar, would also be written with Chinese grammar. This would indirectly help familiarize students with the structures as well simplify the translation process.
As an example students would spend twenty minutes learning the following six words in Chinese: today, library, I, go, university, possessive (i.e. ’s)
They would then, in front of the class, be asked to translate aloud the following: Today I went to my university’s library. [Today] [I] [go] [I] [possessive] [university] [possesive] [library]
Where the first sentence is the meaning in correct English grammar and the second in correct Chinese grammar. Their partner would then upon hearing the Chinese translation be asked to translate the sentence back into English. In this way students would spend most of their time on the two highest leverage language learning activities: learning vocab and practicing conversations.
I should add that the other guiding philosophy to my way of teaching is repetition and so a lot of time will be spent revising words that have been learnt. And in fact, in addition to specific hours spent revising old vocab a lot of the vocab will naturally come up in the sentence structure practice. Finally, each day there will be about an hour of optional, it would take place in an extended break between lessons, of culture lessons where students could get exposure to famous Chinese singers or films etc. In practice this would just involve watching videos on YouTube etc. Ultimately the more interested you are in the culture the more motivated you are likely to be to want to study the language. This is especially important if a student is going to spend several months living with locals. The number of my Tsinghua classmateswho had never heard of famous actors like Angelababy or famous singers like Jay Chou was truly astonishing to me.
Finally in choosing the vocabulary to learn I decided to be very adjective and verb heavy and very noun light. The reasoning being verbs and adjectives are much more important when it comes to constructing sentences, making friends and having daily conversations then nouns.