Why We Struggle Learning Languages | Gabriel Wyner | TEDxNewBedford

Translator: Sasha Serov
Reviewer: lisa thompson 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 then we do. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) 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.” (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) And someone came up to me, and he said, “Hallo, ich heiße Joshua. Wie heißt du?” And I said, “Eh?” (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) 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.” (Laughter) “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.” (Laughter) 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 – (Laughter) where you have already forgotten
the Hungarian word for camera. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) 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. Thank you. (Applause)

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