Today since I finally have half an hour of free time in peace and quiet, I would like to come back to the very good question posed by Fintan (I won’t say his surname as that would identify him, I’ll leave you guessing which Fintan it is) several weeks ago already (sorry about that), and in particular the second part of his question where he raises the issue of activation and asks what I think about things like “full circle method” by Luca Lampariello.
The first thing I want to say, is far be it from me to detract from what any accomplished polyglot, be that Signor Lampariello (who is a capital fellow on top of being a great polyglot) or any other of the well-known polyglots who do follow some form of activation. I make the assumption that these people know what they’re doing, and that they do what they enjoy and what works for them.
If continually activating during the process of language learning is something that keeps you motivated in which you enjoy doing, then it’s valuable. Anything which keeps you going in the marathon of learning languages, is your friend. Anything which you find demotivating which detracts from the pleasure of doing it, is not your friend.
And in the above I said the most important thing that needed to be said. Having said that, I will now go on to explain the core of my own approach and philosophy with regard to the question of activating language knowledge in the whole course of study.
In order to approach this question wisely, one should perhaps first define — at least make a working definition for the purpose of the argument — what the word “activation” means. Not to do so is to risk incurring disagreement from people who actually agree with me but are simply using terms differently.
Let us say them that activation refers to the process whereby I so prepare my brain, or allow it so to prepare itself by giving it envitonmental stimuli, that it not only is able to recognise words and constructions and understand their meaning when they are presented in the target language, along with their pronunciation and various facts about those words and constructions, in situations where I am the recipient of language presented to me by a native, but also to generate reasonably correct and accurate words and phrases in that target language and direct them towards the native so that the native can understand them as intended, and to do so at a pace which he finds comfortable.
This of course is possible to do regardless of the level at which one knows a language. One might for example only learn 30 sentences connected with the simple job of selling ice creams in the street in an area populated by many tourists from around the world. I am active in those 30 sentences if I can access them quickly.
The disadvantage of being not active is that one misses opportunities to have conversations with native speakers whom one might casually meet when frequenting areas which are populated by lots of different nationalities. Another disadvantage is that one is unable to get up on one’s hind legs and “perform” as in the performing seal videos that we sometimes see polyglots tempted to do on YouTube. Most of those performing seal videos, by the way tend to use the same sentences, usually less than 30, in language after language. A few exceptions to this exist, but in the main they are pretty boring as all I hear is the same information repeated over and over, in different languages and all too often with the same accent, rhythm and intonation. I see often a lack of “getting into character” to speak the other language, as an actor does for a part. Or indeed any signs that the speaker necessarily has a great deal of awareness of the broader culture that accompanies the language. Such polyglotism is rather two-dimensional and I tend to regard it as unfinished work.
I would refer the dear reader for background to a series of articles I did on this blog referring to the four functions diagram. Here I show that reading, listening, writing and speaking are the main four functions on which other compound activities and applications of language rest. I made the point that, of these four functions, reading and listening are passive because you are receiving language which is already presumably perfect and your job is to understand it. In writing and speaking you are generating the language and making it someone else’s task to understand it and therefore you have to take care to make sure that you are getting it right, or at least right enough to be understood, therefore the writing-speaking group is a more active group than the reading-listening group.
Likewise when I read and write, I get the chance to control tempo. When speaking and listening I lose the chance to control tempo usually, with some exceptions valuable for the learner to utilise, and therefore I have to be more able to access my knowledge of words and constructions quickly. Therefore it needs a more “active” access also, hence tends to be more active than the “reading-writing” group where the tempo is relaxed.
So therefore we can say that reading is the most passive language function, you do not need to really have activated your language knowledge in order to engage in that function at all. Speaking, which is considered the gold standard of fluency, requires the greatest level of activation, and in the middle you have listening and writing,where listening is a bit more demanding of activation and concentration than writing. Of these two dissimilar functions of writing and listening probably we can fairly say that they require activation in different ways, but nowhere near such a high degree of activation as is required for normally-paced speaking. The highest degree of activation is required by speaking, and this claim is borne out by the observation that there are many people in the language learning world who will tell you that they can read just fine, you will note that they write very well in their acquired language, and they can even follow fairly well when you speak to them, they merely have a problem with speaking.
And so to round off this rather long-winded definition part, let me say that in practical terms activation means being able to speak the language I’m learning, to the degree that I’ve already learnt it, at the drop of a hat.
Now I personally think, and this is based on 40 years of learning languages (not quite as much as Monsieur Kaufman, for example, but it’s still a reasonable quarantanna) that time spent during the language learning process on activating partly learned languages is usually a waste of time.
Having made that statement let me refer again to what I said at the outset, and that is that if something motivates your you enjoy doing it, it’s your friend. If going along and taking part in the activities that language schools and clubs seem to specialise in where you speak languages that you don’t really know very well yet to people is your idea of having fun or finding friends, or even your future co-progenitor of the human race, then please don’t let me stop you. You will waste money, but it’s your money. You will waste time, but it’s your time.
I would merely say that if you’re asking me does it make logical sense to do it from a rational point of view that the answer is that it does not make any rational sense at all, all it does in the long-term is stretch out the time taken to achieve the levels of passive knowledge needed to be actually worth activating. And does so sometimes by a factor of more than 100%.
You see, once a person has passively learned, using a passive learning system such as the Goldlist method, (which by the way has the additional advantage of enabling you to measure your progress, while active learning is always far too subjective to be accurately measured) a sufficient quantity of words and phrases and constructions to be able to function in the acquired language and a viable way, and therefore finds that they can read texts in the language pretty comfortably, given enough time can write fairly accurately, and can even follow moderately paced audio material in the language (remember that I recommend preceding Goldlisting by audio-only courses like Michel Thomas or Pimsleur) that the difference between being at this level and being able to speak with a reasonable degree of fluency is three days of immersion. That means three days in the natural environment of that language or with a sincere belief that you will need to communicate in the language, so if we are doing immersion courses outside the country they had better be very well prepared and the chances are they won’t be. There are a bunch of other half-baked immersion or activation style activities like conversation classes that end up with the learner vacillating between activation and passive learning and this totally wasting his time on top of the time it takes to go there and come home again and during the lesson wait for the slowest member of the class to catch up and for everyone else to have a turn. Great for sociotherapy, by the way, if you need it. Not so great for serious language learners. Most people in these classes end up not speaking which is great for the school as they generally blame themselves and not the method and so in many cases they come back again next year with newly replenished wallets.
In other words, it makes rational sense to spend the time on the passive learning method of avoiding wasting time with activation, to get to one’s goal of passive knowledge which in itself may take hundreds of hours of work at your desk or on a park bench or even on the John (I don’t recommend flashcards on the John but you can take your Goldlist to the John no problem – I did the same myself earlier today and as the Inventor of the Goldlist I can state without reservations that it is licensed for use in lavatorial settings in D1, D2, D3, D5, D6 and D7 phases, licensees are reminded not to leave their Goldlists resting on the bathroom bin in hotels or the Unthinkable might happen), and only the end of this period to go and put yourself through the process of three days immersion in order to activate your passive knowledge.
On the one hand, the process of activation after a long period of passive learning is truly exhilarating. I cannot describe it – if you want to know what it is you have to do it. And this basically means trusting the method and not doing activation work prior to the immersion. At this point I have to mention dear Steve Kaufman again, who stated that he wanted to see whether my theories on three-day immersion were true. So he came to Prague after learning Czech for a long time and he wanted to see if he became fluent within three days. Around about the third day, I myself and a number of other people met Steve, he was able to get up and speak to all of us in Czech very fluently.
But I still don’t feel that the three-day immersion theory can take that case as proof – even Steve himself couldn’t conclusively say that he proved or disproved it because the fact is he was regularly Skyping with a conversation partner prior to his arrival. I still contend that had he never done any Skyping, he would have been at a similar level after three days only with more exhiliration, and moreover if he had only spent the same time doing passive learning instead of Skype talking with native teachers, he probably would have had an even bigger knowledge of the language. Now this is not a criticism of Steve, because his views in my opinion a more enlightened than almost anybody’s. He is another person who will, like me, preferred to progress through reading and other passive methods and not spend too much time on activation.
On the other hand (the first one was two paragraphs back), activation reverses almost as quickly as it arises.
I believe that the human brain is an amazing gift by God, and that it is ideally suited to deal with the circumstances that God puts in our path through life. We do not need to keep active all of our knowledge all of the time. As an auditor who travels from place to place in annual cycles, I’ve noticed again and again how I cannot remember the name of the street in which a client has their factory or office when called upon to do so months away from the audit. Sometimes I come and even remember the names of the people, and certainly I can’t remember the numbers on their balance sheets and profit and loss accounts. However, I have discovered that the situational memory that God has given to every person can generally be relied upon to cut in and help the person automatically to adjust to the situation in which they find themselves. And so usually while driving to clients finding myself on the same road as a year ago, I often begin to remember the facts about the client which I would have scratched my head for hours to remember before the journey commenced. By the time I arrive at the client I usually can remember everybody’s name, or the precise address is, many facts about the business which I would have been hard pressed to bring up in a briefing prior to the journey without referring to notes.
This is “situational memory”, as I call it, and whilst it is not directly on the topic of languages it shows us how the brain reacts to external stimuli bringing back up as it were to the surface facts which it retains passively the whole time but which are not easy for us to access at random moments. So when we actually come into the situation where the brain is receiving the stimulate that this particular language which we’ve been learning from books at a desk is actually now needed, the brain would do what is necessary to make sure that the passive knowledge is active. It is one of the wonderful miracles of God which can best be observed when we simply sit back and let God do what God does.
And the sad thing about the continual activation approach is that it actually stops us from witnessing these things in our lives. The approach which goes for a longer passive learning approach and activation only at the end, over three days, requires some faith in the process on our part and gives a great exhiliration at the end, and a practical understanding of how God has made us and how to do many things in an effective and Gospel-compliant way. The way may seem narrow but the yoke is easy, the burden light. Just as we can apply these Gospel notions about efforts and the application of human strength vs divine Gifts to languages, so we probably can to many other areas of life.
None less than Jesus himself, who, after all, is our Creator, tells us not to use “vain repetitions like the heathen do”. Repeating things over and over again which are actually known passively in order to try to activate them, that is vain repetition. Heathens do things which seem to them intuitive. Non-heathens do things which may often be completely counterintuitive but which rely on things which God has provided, and often explicitly revealed. Don’t get me wrong lots of heathen stuff is fun, but it is all my almost always in vain, that is to say useless from a practical point of view, and not particularly pleasing, if at all, to God. God is never interested in our sweat when it is in vain, overdoing works for the sake of pride and stubbornness rather than resting in promises that He has made and gifts that He has given. Supremely of course, this applies to the way of Salvation by faith in the Blood shed by Jesus, as opposed to trying to practice the Judaic law which was in fact only ever practiced perfectly and faultlessly by Christ Himself.
If we have a brain which enables us to activate in the course of three days, and if we were able to learn large volumes of language passively much much faster than we can do the same with continual activation, then don’t we have a duty to do that? Don’t we have a duty to use what we have been given? Is it gratitude to ignore what mental gifts we’ve been given? Is it a way to get a closer understanding of the mind of the Creator?
Have you noticed that a lot of the polyglot community is made up of younger people? I would like to be free of any kind of ageist comments in this blog, but I do not think anybody could be offended by the observation that younger people in the time in which they study and have not yet begun their careers in earnest, and especially have not yet started to have children and the demands upon their time which children make, they have lots of time in which they can engage in their hobbies and ambitions. If they want to spend 1000 hours learning a language to the level which they could spend in 400, that’s no problem. The wasted 600 hours is nothing to worry if the process was fun, someone else foots the bill and I met some good candidates for my future co-progenitor of the human species…
But life gradually changes, and the time comes that if they cannot learn further languages efficiently and on the scraps of free time that they receive, they stop learning them altogether. That’s why I hope to convince some of the younger readers with today’s article and get you to think about it and, if you like, apply what I’ve told you above.