Tag Archives: language learning

Less is More

So you’re ready to learn English. You’ve bought your textbook, you’re seated at your desk with your coffee on the coaster, and you’re ready to go. You open to Chapter 1. It’s twenty pages long. You take a sip of your coffee. You slowly place the cup back on its coaster. Chapter 1. Twenty pages. What’s on TV?

No one wants to spend an extended period of time doing anything, much less studying. ┬áThe problem is, you want to learn English, and that takes time. Not just time, but effort too. This is where most people give up on their idea to learn the language they always wanted to know. That’s a mistake. There is a way to spend the necessary time and apply the necessary effort without feeling it.

The key to learning anything is to take it in small useful chunks. Not just small, but small and useful. It’s the usefulness of the chunk of knowledge that gives you that all too important sense of accomplishment. That sense of accomplishment is the fuel that will take you to the end of your journey. What lies at the end of this journey? In this case, it’s the ability to speak English.

By what magic do we spend the time and make the effort required for becoming fluent in English? First, let’s find the smallest useful chunk of English that will give us the feeling that we have actually learned something: a question. Next, let’s divide that question into useful phrases of two or three words each and practice those small phrases until they are fluent and we understand what the question means. Finally, let’s do the same thing with the answer to the question.

Now you can turn on the TV, secure in the knowledge that you have made real progress in your journey to English mastery. However, you’ll find that you feel so good about what you’ve just accomplished that you don’t want to watch TV. You’d much rather do another question and answer the Speakening Way. Before you know it, you’re no longer an English language learner; you’re an English speaker.

by John DePonte



The Musical Ear

There is a very popular belief that musicians are “good at languages” because they have a “musical ear.” My friend and former piano teacher Peter Basquin is an accomplished concert pianist who speaks several languages. I am a pianist-turned-language teacher who also speaks several languages. Classically trained musicians in particular seem almost always to have a proficiency in more than one language.

Popular musicians, on the other hand, are not particularly known for an affinity for languages. This is the first indication that we might have to look elsewhere than in the ears of musicians for whatever it is that makes them “good at languages.” Let us first dispose of the notion that pop musicians are not so musical as classical musicians. Many pop musicians have extraordinary ears. Jazz musicians have the ability to improvise (compose music while performing), which would be impossible without an extraordinarily musical ear.

Jazz pianist Art Tatum had the respect and admiration of such classical music giants as Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson once asked a bus driver to either speed up or slow down because he couldn’t sleep in B natural. These men had musical ears that rivaled those of the greatest classical musicians. Yet, they were not known for their prowess in languages other than their mother tongue, while Horowitz and Rachmaninoff could speak more than just their native language of Russian.

So, why this assumption that a musician who also has the ability to speak multiple languages is endowed with an ear that is more “musical” than most? Like most assumptions, it is a quick conclusion that is made without much thought. In the first place, as we’ve already seen, it’s the classical musicians who get this credit, and not the equally musical pop musicians. There are two very good reasons for classical musicians having the ability to speak more than one language. The first is that classical training in music always includes the study of at least one more language. For opera singers in particular, it is imperative for the execution of their repertoire.

For the second reason, I will quote my friend Peter Basquin. He and I were discussing our mutual love of languages and our ability to learn and speak them. We both agree that it has very little, if anything, to do with a “musical ear.” As Peter put it, “A musician figures out very early on that, if he wants to play that scale correctly, he has to play it a hundred times.” In other words, the same practice principals that produce a good musician also produce a good language learner. I never tire of pointing out that these principals apply to the acquisition of any skill, not just music and language.

by John DePonte


How Would Ted Williams Learn a New Language?

Ted Williams was arguably baseball’s greatest hitter. How did he become a great hitter? Let’s see what Mr. Williams himself had to say about it: “And then to practice, practice, practice. I said I hit until the blisters bled, and I did, it was something I forced myself to do to build up those hard, tough calluses. I doubt you’d see as many calluses today. Most players hit with those golf gloves, to begin with, but more important, they don’t take as much batting practice—as much extra batting practice, and that’s how you learn…You see it even it the Little Leagues. With all the regimentation they get, and all the emphasis on playing games instead of practicing, a kid isn’t afforded the time he needs in the batting cage (1986 Williams and Underwood, The Science of Hitting).

It wasn’t only in baseball that Ted Williams saw the necessity of practice: “Look at Snead and Hogan and those other golfers, they’re out there hitting practice balls forever. I’m lucky if I can get fifteen practice swings a day. If I could get an hour’s batting practice every day I could hit .450.” (1986 Williams and Underwood).

Who did Ted Williams admire as a hitter? He considered Rogers Hornsby to be the closest thing to a complete hitter that ever lived. What did Hornsby have to say about hitting? “A great hitter isn’t born, he’s made. He’s made out of practice, fault correction, and confidence” (1986 Williams and Underwood). Williams and Hornsby used to have hitting contests after practice.

What has all this got to do with learning a new language? Everything! A language is not a subject you learn about; it’s a skill you acquire. If you want to learn about language, study linguistics. If you want to learn how to speak a language, practice it. Little Leaguers playing games instead of practicing is akin to language learners engaging in conversation before they have practiced enough to be ready for it. To know that you have to practice a language is the first step. To know what to practice is the next step. There is no more efficient way to acquire a language than to practice the small phrases within the authentic sentences of native speakers.

Ted Williams once said of another player, “He practiced as much and as hard as anybody on our club but he didn’t practice the right way” (1986 Williams and Underwood). To practice a language the right way, you must repeat each small phrase of a sentence until you can say it with the fluency of a native speaker. Imitating a native speaker is best in the beginning. Then work through all the phrases until the end of the sentence, and then to the end of the book, article or whatever text you are using. Then continue to do the same thing with the same texts for the rest of your life and add more and more texts as your skill improves. When a text becomes too simple for you, discard it. But don’t underestimate the value of reviewing relatively simple texts even after you are fully fluent in the language.

Why do I turn to Ted Williams for advice on language learning? Ted Williams excelled at a skill that is, in his words, “the single most difficult thing to do in sport.” (1986 Williams and Underwood). Fluency in a new language is such a difficult skill to acquire that most of us don’t even know anyone who has succeeded at it. We all hear such common refrains as, “I took French in high school but I don’t remember a thing.” Adults who can speak the foreign language they “took” in high school are far and few between because this skill requires consistent, correct practice and most people just don’t have the determination to practice “until the blisters bleed.” That internal desire, that cannot be instilled by anyone but the student himself or herself, is what makes speaking a new language a rare and wonderful accomplishment.

by John DePonte