The best way to learn a language: slow down!

I started learning Spanish seriously in August 2017. I had been assiduously Duolingo-ing up until that point, and after hours and hours of it, this was the extent of my spoken ability:

Given that I’m an autistic savant when it comes to language, it’s pretty pathetic. Duolingo is shit, basically, and it would take several blog posts to list all the reasons why.

But since that video, I discovered the magic of the theory of Comprehensible Input. In short: we build a mental representation of language, that is, the “grammar” and passive understanding, through decoding messages – we listen to language we understand in real contexts. Stephen Krashen, the daddy of CI, gives a great intro to it here:

Comprehensible Input hasn’t been “proven”, because it’s very hard to prove. But neither has grammar-translation, presentation-practice-production, error correction, or Duolingo, for that matter. What CI does have in its favour is a long slew of studies whose results can most readily be explained through its lens. Plus, the fact that the vast majority of people have an absolutely miserable time learning languages the traditional way, but anyone can learn a language given the right amount of targetted, comprehensible input.

It’s hard to stress just how radical this theory is in the context of language in modern society, so let me make it clear: According to CI, there is basically no benefit to explicit grammar or vocabulary study, and productive skills (writing and speaking) improve as a natural biproduct of the improvement of the overall mental representation. That is, aside from conversational skills such as turn taking, there is no intrinsic benefit to ‘practising’ speaking and writing.

I’ve probably just blown some of your minds, but the point of this blog post isn’t to argue what CI is or defend it. You can do your own research online if that’s what you’d like (and if you would, I’d suggest you start with Talkin’ L2 With BVP, a podcast hosted by Bill VanPatten, the other daddy of CI). For the rest of the post I’ll be assuming that CI is correct, or at least, the best model we have.

So: I know that the best way to improve my Spanish is to read books and watch TV shows. And yet, sometimes I still want to skip ahead.

Every now and then, I talk to myself in Spanish, just to see where I’m at. For a while, I did this semi-frequently, and I felt frustrated at how slow my progress was. After all, I could read and listen with a high level of fluency, but my speaking still lagged behind, like a 4-year-old pumped with lactic acid. I convinced myself that I needed to ‘activate’ my languages.

This is where the alarm bells should’ve started ringing. The idea that language needs to be ‘activated’ is one of the old rules from the lifelong-linguistic-trauma school of language teaching. Teaching students a new word, or *gasp*, a grammar construction, and expecting them to ‘activate’ it without sufficiently varied input over a lengthy period, is frankly ludicrous.

And yet, I was expecting that very thing of myself. I considered doing ‘speaking blasts’ – booking a bunch of iTalki classes and nattering away in Spanish for several hours a day. I considered doing an exchange in Spain, and forcing myself to speak constantly in the language for a few weeks.

Of course, I would have seen progress with these methods, and among the polyglot community, this is the kind of braggadocious hack that many cleave to. But any progress wouldn’t be from production – it would come from the interaction, the input that my output instigated in my conversation partners. Of course, there would be no way to prove this, but based on all my experience and readings, I have to believe it. I just got caught up in the bravado-tornado of self-assured polyglots and forgot it momentarily.

So what brought me back to the fold? Well, listen to my Spanish below, in my iTalki introduction video:

Not bad, right? Pretty remarkable, given that I’ve been studying the language for about a year and three quarters. This video was recorded in mid-March. Now, listen to the recording below from today (14th May):

In those two months I’ve not been speaking much Spanish at all. I’ve probably had about three conversations in total. But what I have been doing is watching LOADS of Spanish TV (specifically Aquí no hay quien viva) and listening to podcasts, every day. You can tell that I’ve improved considerably. I speak faster, I’m much more relaxed, and I’m not struggling as much for words. In particular, I’ve picked up some nice colloquialisms from ANHQV.

When you compare it to the first video, it’s night and day. There is no way I could get the level of Spanish in this last video following the Duolingo method. Yes, I might eventually reach it, if I using reading and listening materials and spoke to more Spanish people, but it would’ve been a much slower process with much more wasted time. Anyone who claims to have reached a high level of proficiency through explicit study (grammar, vocabulary) alone is lying. It is IMPOSSIBLE to achieve implicit knowledge of a language without exposure to comprehensible input.

So in a long, roundabout way, I’ve reached the point of this blog post: slow down, bucko! By expecting too much too quickly, I very nearly stunted my learning process, going for the sugary syrup of explicit study instead of the fulfilling, slow-acting, cruciferous goodness of comprehensible input.

Remember, learning a language is a not a sprint, is not a marathon; it is a pilgrimage. Just like the Camina de Santiago, that mythical C2 level is waiting at the end of a long, rocky path, for which there is no shortcut. And the path is littered with learners who stopped by the wayside to sit down and dip into a grammar book.

3 thoughts on “The best way to learn a language: slow down!

  1. “the path is littered with learners who stopped by the wayside to sit down and dip into a grammar book”
    “what I have been doing is watching LOADS of Spanish TV”
    To speak a language correctly, you need to know its grammar so how did you achieve this without using a grammar book? To me, it looks like you had a decent level of Spanish and its grammar by the time you decided to watch Spanish TV so watching TV simply helped your fluency. Do you think you would have achieved this level without spending time studying the grammar first? Or do you think grammar can become intuitive just by watching TV? I personally doubt it. Even in our native language we make mistakes as children which somewhat tells me that grammar needs to be learnt actively to some extent. Simply being exposed to the language doesn’t seem enough. I guess it’s a combination of both (active followed by passive learning).

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    1. “Grammar”, the implicit system of language, is learned through decoding comprehensible input. You can be perfectly fluent and accurate without an explicit understanding of grammar. There is no study that shows explicit grammar study leads to long-term acquisition of grammar. Our brains are literally built to decode grammar in the background, without us having to explicitly mull over it. Children have a near-adult grammar system by the age of ten, often with little to no explicit instruction.

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    2. The main issue is: to achieve native-like grammar production the level of input needs to be massive. Thousands and thousands of hours. Most learners will never be exposed to this much input. It’s possible to use your monitor to actively ‘correct’ yourself as you speak, but we cannot do this quickly enough to speak fluently without sufficient input.

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