Back… and addled

The holidays are upon us which in my house usually means long hours “boca arriba” on the couch… reading, listening to music, catching up on sleep. I am lucky in that my college has a winter shutdown period (to save on energy costs) and we are all forced to stay home for about 10 days time…and it does not count against your vacation time 🙂 So, twist my arm, I am staying home. The language center parakeets and finches are here too, the critters we have in our shop to create background noise so people don’t feel self conscious about recording into machines. My house sounds like an aviary but it is a happy, bubbling noise.

I have been trying to get back into blogging mode. Lots of drafts, not enough posts. Lots of thoughts, not enough follow-through. I don’t know what that is about. I guess not enough stuff out there on the web about language learning has piqued my interest… well, until now.

Has anyone seen this post? It was created by Tim Ferriss. Tim fancies himself to be one of those self-motivational-organizing-geniuses. (A quote from one of his devotees: “Tim is Indiana Jones for the digital age. I’ve already used his advice to go spearfishing on remote islands and ski the best hidden slopes of Argentina. Simply put, do what he says and you can live like a millionaire. -Albert Pope, Derivatives Trading, UBS World Headquarters”) OF COURSE Tim has written a book and his blog will tell you how to buy it.

Now, about a month ago he posted a little blurb about how one can learn (but not master) a language in one hour. It’s all about deconstruction, you see. I shuddered.

From his blog:

Before you invest (or waste) hundreds and thousands of hours on a language, you should deconstruct it. During my thesis research at Princeton, which focused on neuroscience and unorthodox acquisition of Japanese by native English speakers, as well as when redesigning curricula for Berlitz, this neglected deconstruction step surfaced as one of the distinguishing habits of the fastest language learners. How is it possible to become conversationally fluent in one of these languages in 2-12 months? It starts with deconstructing them, choosing wisely, and abandoning all but a few of them.

Consider a new language like a new sport.

So far, I’ve deconstructed Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Norwegian, Irish Gaelic, Korean, and perhaps a dozen others. I’m far from perfect in these languages, and I’m terrible at some, but I can converse in quite a few with no problems whatsoever – just ask the MIT students who came up to me last night and spoke in multiple languages.

Oh…my. Well if people at MIT are impressed then I guess we all need to be impressed too? Tim then he goes on to show how he “learned” Arabic and Japanese using his 5 step model. The language educators in the room cringe.

I suppose for some the learning of a language is indeed a sport, and game, a mind challenge. But there are others of us out here who think that this superficial survey of the mechanics of the language does not ever approach the deep, nuanced learning that in depth (those pesky “Wasted” hours) of immersive language learning could provide. And God forbid should anyone mention the ability, through learning a language, to learn about culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language.

Obviously, as a language teacher, I am biased against this mechanized method of learning but not educating. But I would encourage LLU readers to take a look at this gent’s post and comment here. (His followers have praised his logic and left several dozen glowing comments…)

Oh, and the favor part of his post? He needs your votes so he can boost his rating on Technorati..(Quote: “I’m around 1070 on Technorati’s rankings, and it’s killing me.”) Oy.

You can read the post in its entirety here Happy reading!

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Jan Marston · December 27, 2007 Reply

    It seems to me that this language “learning” strategy is nothing more than a sort of litmus test as to whether the target language is similar enough to what one knows already to be worth the time investment. His little sentences test — obviously a way he amuses himself on airplanes when sitting next to a speaker of another language — shouldn’t be taken too seriously (as I really hope his other fatuous and facile writings aren’t). The applicable question for me is… “Relative to what?”
    And relative to, say, a tourist phrasebook or and electronic translator toy, this is probably not evil. For grammar-driven language learners (which our country continues to produce a lot of), this approach has a certain beknighted appeal.

    Serious language learners aren’t going to think they have learned much when they work through his little parlor trick. Language is about content and context, as well as form.

  2. Barbara · December 27, 2007 Reply

    Thank you Jan, as always, for your wise words. I think what upsets me the most is that I stumbled upon this man’s post because I was trying to get BlogLines and Google’s new Blog Reader to do a search for me for language learning and this post kept coming up, time and time again. Now granted, this gent has spent A LOT of time self-promoting himself (I have lost hours of sleep worrying that he might not crack the Technorati top 1000) so it stands to reason that the feed finders would find him. It also means this blog needs to do more to get out there and thwap nimrods such as this guy. But still, it is sad that people don;t get it: that language learning is time-and-labor-intensive BUT that the payoff is more than fooling MIT students with a few clever idioms. There is a whole world out there that our English-centric thinking is ignoring, avoiding, or worse…just dismissing.


  3. Steve Kaufmann · December 28, 2007 Reply

    Hi Barbara,

    As someone who has learned 10 languages, here is what I said at my blog about Tim Ferriss’s blogs on language learning.

    I found Ferriss’s post just full of hot air and self-promotion. Not only is the title misleading, but what he proposes is quite unnecessary to determining which languages are easiest to learn. The first concern should be which language do you want to learn. After that common vocabulary is a much bigger factor than “deconstructed” SVO/SOV patterns, or the similarity of phonemes between languages. But then neither of us has the following that Ferriss has. We do not get 250 sycophantic comments.

    I am intrigued by your blog and would like to connect. Please have a look at my blog,, and our websites for language learning , and

    I would be pleased to have a chat sometime via Skype, and even to record it and transcribe it as content for English learners on the web.

    Steve Kaufmann

  4. Pete · December 28, 2007 Reply

    Jan and Barbara, I am with you on this point! As a language educator (what a spiffy job title!), I am increasingly finding myself drawn away from deconstructing everything, breaking all that we do in “the classroom” into bite-sized nuggets, chunking. I find I want instead to “complexify”–put students into, and develop in them an appreciation for language and cultural and historical contexts that are rich, complex, chaotic, intellectually tension-filled. That is where integrative, creative thinking lies, and the mission of the Liberal Arts, and that is the place that allows us to be more than a service area teaching “skills.” I love the bit Mary Rose O’Reilley puts into her syllabi on this point, noting that there are no intellectual chicken nuggets to be had in her classroom: “This is not McEducation. There are no golden arches out front.” And as Jan has taught me, I now firmly believe we can bring the complex even into “beginning” language education.

  5. Barbara · December 29, 2007 Reply

    Thanks Pete! I love that quote as well…please excuse my ignorance about Mary Rose O’Reilly.. as in the author of “Love of Impermanent Things?”

    It’s folks like Mr Ferriss that force us as language teachers to have to do so much un-learning with our students when our courses begin. More and more I find students want me to map out the road to the “A” for them so that it, becomes less about learning and more about checking off tasks along the way. Sigh.

    I talk with those recalcitrant students about how true learning (in any subject) is as if one is scuba diving vs snorkeling. If we dare to stop and go deeply into something vs skimming the surface just to get it over with…then that is when meaningful learning happens. And because it is meaningful students cannot help but continue even after the semester has come to an end. It becomes a part of them…not some silly parlor game as suggested by this gent.

  6. Pete · December 29, 2007 Reply

    I really love the scuba/snorkeling metaphor– consider it stolen…um…er…borrowed!

    Yes, I am a big reader of Mary Rose O’Reilley, although that work, “…Impermanent Things”–one of the best educational journey narratives I have read–isn’t what initially hooked me. I stumbled across “The Garden at Night,” about teacher burnout/teaching life, and that did it for me. First author I had read in some time who overtly stated that “what they [the students] learn is not as important as what we learn.” Intelligent, nuanced teacher-centeredness. Whoa! Dare I repeat that in public print??

  7. Barbara · December 29, 2007 Reply

    Pete: I believe the term that you slavicists use is “liberated” 🙂 Be my guest…

    Perchance this Mary Rose O’Reilly might be interested in coming on an LLU sometime? She sounds like someone with whom we all might enjoy speaking…dare I pose the question? What do you think?

  8. Pedro Maal · December 31, 2007 Reply

    In defense of Mr. Ferris’ view of language learning, I have worked with many ex-patriots who want to learn new languages, and their principal hinderance is their egos and their unwillingness to make mistakes.

    If a person’s goal is to break through the language barrier and communicate, then Tim Ferris’s suggestions are right on target.

    If a person’s goal is to perfect and study a language for the long term, then of course, further study is necessary.

    The reality is that beng a native English speaker is as much a benefit as it is a detriment on the global scene. It is a benefit, because of the fact that it is the international language and they will speak the most universal language with total fluency. My experience is that it is a detriment, because it allows speakers to be lazy and avoid learning other languages altogether.

    In this context, I applaud anyone who can remove inhibitions from English speakers to learn other languages. I am not a language teacher by trade, but must invariably address the subject constantly with my employees.

    I hope I explained a different perspective to language learning.

  9. Barbara · December 31, 2007 Reply

    I would be curious in knowing more about what you do, Pedro, in that you say you are not a language teacher and yet you say you have worked with ex-pats who want to learn new languages. Where are you in the world? About which languages are you referring? Do tell us more!

  10. Barbara · December 31, 2007 Reply

    Thank you for your comments Steve!

    As I see you have a lot of information on your site about Krashen, I am wondering what you would think about this… I often wonder if the surveys and studies that rate the difficulty of learning languages actually create greater barriers to learning a language, especially the languages that are of such critical importance to us in the world. One of our Arabic professors would routinely tell his students that they needed to stop thinking the language was hard and just apply themselves as they would to any subject that mattered to them… and that class excelled beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. There are brain studies that talk about how language is processed as it is being learned, but we tend to forget about the filters we subtley (or overtly) impose by categorizing certain languages as “hard” or “easy” to learn.


  11. Colleen · December 31, 2007 Reply

    Interesting perspective Pedro. I too have found that most language learners (I teach ESOL and Spanish) may initially be reluctant to engage in the language learning process because of their ego and their unwillingness to make mistakes. Many others are unmotivated because they don’t see the purpose. When learners are able to experience it for themselves creating their own language (however frightening that my sound or appear to others) instead of the 20 minute snack Mr. Ferris suggests, they are empowered to participate in the process because it is meaningful to them and has purpose. They begin to accept themselves where ever they find themselves in the process because it is worthwhile and continue to move forward. This process is hardly perfecting a language. I too applaud anyone who can remove inhibitions from English speakers- it starts with education and motivation not deconstruction.

  12. Barbara · January 1, 2008 Reply

    Something from to add to the mix:

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