12 - Optional Interview with Benny the Irish Polyglot

دوره: Coursera – Learning How to Learn / درس 12

Coursera – Learning How to Learn

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12 - Optional Interview with Benny the Irish Polyglot

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When Benny Lewis turned 21,

the only language he spoke was English.

Actually, he’s done quite poorly

with languages in school.

Truth be told, he initially had

problems even with English, and

had to go to speech therapy when

he was young because of it.

So Benny’s not naturally

gifted with languages.

He has a degree in electronic engineering.

So, where I went from

language to engineering,

Benny went the other way around.

Benny’s love affair

with other cultures and

speaking foreign languages began in 2003

after graduation from the university.

When he moved to Spain, he discovered

that learning languages wasn’t so

hard when you apply the right method.

In his current career as a full

time language hacker, over the last

dozen years, he has discovered people from

all around the world who have learned to

stop making excuses about why

they can’t learn a language.

And have instead learned,

how to learn a new language.

I’ve read Benny’s book, which is the best

book on language learning I’ve ever read.

His advice is absolutely brilliant.

If you think you don’t have the language

gene, or you’re too old and don’t have

time or are just too shy to try, Benny’s

book will help you get past these hurdles.

So it’s a pleasure to welcome here,

Benny Lewis.

Benny, your life is always filled with so

many adventures.

So, tell me what is your latest adventure?

My latest adventure is that this year I

am trying to make America multilingual and

other countries multilingual that

generally only speak English.

And I am currently about one,

or 2,000 miles

into my 7,000 mile,

road trip across America.

I did the whole West coast to Northeast

and I’m going to every single state, and

I’m trying to encourage

people to learn languages.

Wow, what an endeavor, and

what an important endeavor.

You know, you talk about people

sometimes wanting to learn languages for

the wrong reasons.

What are those wrong reasons, and

what have you discovered is a more

motivating factor for learning languages?

Right, well,

there are quite a lot of wrong reasons.

The worst of all is to show off, if you

think that I will learn this language so

people will think I’m smart, or people

will like me more or I’ll be able to pick

up girls or anything along those lines,

then it’s, it’s not going to work because

I found that what you really do need,

is a passion for that language.

For the culture, you want to really

speak that language inherently for

the reasons,

of how fascinating that language is.

And that’s going to motivate you to,

to speak it.

If you have other things like you just

want, you just want to get an A in

an exam, or a B just so you can get into

university, then that’s not a very good

motivator, because you are not actually

interested in using that language.

So, I highly recommend people

try to embrace the culture,

try to spend time speaking with other

human beings, and then you’ll get the,

the motivation that’s going to help

you to skyrocket your progress.

I like that approach.

You’ve talked about how children

have one big advantage,

can you tell us what that advantage is?


So, I think that the fact that

children are not so

much perfectionist like adults tend to be,

children are okay with making mistakes.

They kind of stumble and fall and

we, we help them along and

they play games in the language and

they live the language whereas,

in language learning adults tend to

study dusty old grammar books, and

can be so afraid of making mistakes

that they won’t speak at all.

And this is a huge mistake because,

in language learning it’s not

like we visualize this in an academic

setting, where every mistake you

make gives you a red X and

if you make enough you make an F.

That’s not the real world, in the real

world you can make lots of mistakes but

people will still understand you.

If I have just started to learn language,

you may think I should wait until I say,

excuse me kind sir, could you direct

me to the nearest bathroom please?

Or, I could just say bathroom, where?

And people understand that, that’s

not a perfectly formed sentence, but

you have to be a good beginner learner.

And a good beginner learner, knows to make

a few mistakes, or a lot of mistakes,

to get their point across.

And I find children, that’s the,

their main advantage is that they’re,

they’re okay with just saying something.

And they’re not going to over analyze

everything that comes out of their mouth.

The good news is, this is not an inherent

advantage that is built into them,

and not built into us.

It’s just kind of the way children act,

and we can learn from that.

We can learn to,

try to have some fun with our language.

Laugh at the fact that we’re making

mistakes, and realize people are a lot

nicer that you think and

they’re going to be very patient with you.

I, I think that’s an important point,

is well of course,

just being willing to make mistakes,

making those mistakes, and

then realizing that most people

are actually pretty friendly and

accommodating, as you’re learning and

adjusting and getting situated.

One, one thing that you’ve

talked about that I, I think is

a really important point is the idea

of self-fulfilling prophet, prophecies.

Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well for myself for instance,

I got into language learning as an adult.

But, I failed at five years

learning German in school.

I barely passed my exams after ten or

eleven years learning Irish And

I lived in Spain for six months and

I did not pick up, pick up any Spanish.

And I really truly, genuinely feel that

the reason this happened was because of

a series of self fulfilling prophecies.

When I was in Spain and 21 years old,

I told myself, you know,

I’m too old to learn a language now.

I passed this cut-off age 14, and

the thing is, it’s a self fulfilling

prophecy because I believed this was true,

so I thought, okay, well there’s

no point in doing any work now, so

I only put like minimal effort in and

because of that I don’t make any progress.

And then I look at that lack of progress

and I’m like, you see, this just goes to

prove that adults are not good language

learners and it makes no sense,

when you actually look at it that way,

and it was the same in school.

In school I initially didn’t do so

well on my exams, and I was thinking,

oh I can’t do so well on these exams so I

guess there’s no point in really studying.

And then of course I did

worse in my exams, and

it was just a constant feedback loop.

And like there’s a quote from Henry Ford

that I like relevant to this,

he says, whether you think you can or

think you can’t, you’re right.

And I think that’s the case with

self fulfilling prophecies.

People need to put these excuses aside,

that I don’t have any time, you have,

you make the time.

I’m too old, you’re not too old.

There are so many ways you can realize

that none of these are real issues,

that the actual reason you

haven’t learned the language,

is your devotion to these reasons.

You say that successful language

learners learn, despite the challenges.

What did you mean by that?

So people have this idealized vision.

You know, the grass is always

greener on the other side.

They see someone who successfully

learned the language, and

they think to themselves,

this person has had it easy.

They must have had rich parents who,

who paid for tuition their whole life.

They must have just been

blessed to have had the right,

DNA to give them

the language learning gene.

They must have had it so easy and

just stumbled across native speakers and,

had a perfect situation,

this is simply not the case.

This is what we like to

tell ourselves once again,

in our self-fulfilling prophecies.

I don’t have the ideal situation,

I don’t have good luck in all of this and

the other person does.

And in talking to a lot

of language learners,

I have found each one of them have

their own challenges to to go through.

There are some really, well known

language learners on YouTube who are,

very impressive in their language

skills but they, they’re family people,

they have a family to raise,

they may be working one or two jobs.

You know, it’s not like they laze

around with millions of dollars and

just spend all day long learning

languages, they have their own challenges.

And I even came across a very

inspirational story of a lady

who’s partially deaf and

clinically blind at the same time, and

she still managed to learn five languages.

So this shows me,

that no mater what the set backs people

have, they find a way around them.

And you know, and you can say oh, that guy

has it easy, because he can travel, and

I can’t, but then find a way to learn

a language despite not traveling.

There are actually great ways

to get immersion virtually,

you can get Skype based

conversation practice,

you can listen to streamed radio

24 hours a day if you wanted to.

You could create a virtual

immersion environment.

But any one of the things are issues

that other people may have.

You may have advantages that other

successful language learners,

may not have had.

You may be able to afford

a private teacher, you may be,

you may have spare time on your weekends,

when someone has worked two jobs, or

has a family to support, and

has less time flexibility.

So, every single person in the world,

has had challenges to go through.

And it’s just unrealistic

to think woe is me,

I have this unfortunate situation

no one else understand.

I guarantee you no matter what your

problem is a successful language

learner has had that if not more

problems and still manage to overcome.

people sometimes have a history of

failure when they’ve tried to learn a new

languages, what do you say to someone

whose is failing when they’re learning

a new language, and have you ever felt

like giving up in your language studies.

I felt like giving

up millions of times.

And even in my more experienced stages of

learning a language, and the thing is,

it’s like I said before nobody has it,

has it super duper easy.

Including successful and

experienced language learners.

So at the very start, for instance,

when I tried to learn Spanish,

I tested out a lot of things that,

that were huge failures.

I spent six months trying to learn

Spanish, and I got nowhere in that time,

one of the things I did was I, I bought

El SeĂąor de los Anillos, which is The Lord of the Rings.

And I thought if I just went

through this book page by page,

with the dictionary, then after I reach

page 700 I’d be fluent in Spanish.

I had this like, ridiculous idea and it

took me a whole week to get to page two.

So, when I was on page two,

I was thinking to myself,

it’s going to take me a decade

to read this book at this rate.

And I was thinking,

I’m just, I’m just an idiot,

I’m not destined to learn Spanish or

any other language.

And even, like more recently a couple of

years ago I was learning Mandarin, and

I didn’t find the Mandarin language

itself to be so complicated.

It’s actually a lot,

straight forward than you may think.

But I was, learning it in the country,

which I actually do not recommend to

people, I recommend you learn

the language in advance via the internet.

So, that when you’re in the country

you can experience the culture.

I think it’s kind of a bit of a waste to,

be in the country to be in study mode when

you should out enjoying it, but

I at the time I was not, doing that and

I found it very difficult to adjust

to the cultural side of things.

And that slowed me down dramatically

on the language side of things.

So, no matter how experienced some one is,

they’re going to run into problems,

they’re going to get slowed down and

it’s it’s like anything.

If you’ve, if at first you don’t succeed,

try, try, try again.

And like a lot of people in language

learning would reach a plateau, as well,

they may make a bit of progress and

get stuck.

And then they think I’m broken,

I’m not a good language learner.

And I found that,

that it’s the exact opposite,

people need to try different techniques.

So my suggestion is people get into

speaking the language immediately.

I give tips for

people to speak from the very first day,

and then that may work for

you it may not work for you.

But you try something else and

if you still say after trying this out for

a few weeks,

I’m still not making any progress at all.

Then that doesn’t mean you’re

not a good language learner,

it means you’re using a system

that is not good for you.

If you’re studying a lot, and you’re

not making progress, you may need to

abandon a study based approach, and try

to interact with the language a lot more.

So that’s, that’s what I’d suggest.

I love these ideas and

these approaches.

I know they were very helpful for

me with Russian.

In, in this course, one of the things

we talk about is the importance of

pushing your attention very hard.

For example when you’re using something

like the Pomodoro Technique, and

then relaxing.

You talk about something like that, with

your mini-mission brain melting technique,

could you tell us a little about that?

Right, yeah, I, I’m actually a big

fan of the Pomodoro Technique as well,

I’ve used that a lot during

my intensive study days.

So I definitely agree with that,

I’ve tried to study all day, it just

doesn’t work, you need little breaks.

But they then, that also applies over

the longer term, so when I was learning

some languages intensely over a couple

of months, then that’s all my focus.

I’m like, I’ve given up TV, I’ve given

up like, you know, going to the cinema,

going out and so on and I find, I reach

a certain point, where my brain just

feels saturated, and I can’t really take

it anymore, and it’s unfortunate, and

I try to study, but it just goes

in one ear, and out the other.

So, I applied this to the kind

of medium term scale.

And what I would do is, I would start,

like if I’m in an intensive learning

period, so this is not people who

are studying an hour a week, but people

who are studying like three or four or

more hours a day, so you’re putting

every spare second you have in to it.

Then I would be working hard for five or

six days a week, and

then I would take one day off.

And I just repeat that process,

because if you it consistently for

too long, you you may over exert yourself.

So I’m, I kind of I find that I kind of

apply this Pomodoro Technique in over,

over several days.

And then, even bigger than that,

I would repeat this process for

four weeks, and then on at the end once a

month, I would take the whole weekend off.

So, so it’s weird,

you would think you know, oh,

I just have to study intensively.

And once again, this is not something

necessarily true for everybody, but

I found that I, my limit is about

six days of consistent study, and

I need a little break, and then three or

four weeks of consistent study,

and I need a proper longer break.

Well, boring into some of

the specific details of how you learn,

you mention that, that rote rehearsal,

just repeating a word over and

over again, for example,

is not a good way to remember.

What is a better way?

It’s not a good way to remember, but

it kind of, it kind of works a little bit,

I mean repetition is part

of learning any language.

But the catch is I see rote

repetition as very asymmetrical.

So, for instance,

when I was learning German, and

I saw that the word for

[NOISE] table is tisch.

So I just said to myself, tisch, table,

tisch, table, tisch, table, tisch, table,

whatever it was,

100 times, or 1,000 times.

And it kind of works such that when I was

reading German and I saw the word tisch,

I was like table, because I kind of

had that repetitive association.

And if I heard it spoken,

I would remember it, but there’s a huge

downside is it doesn’t work symmetrically.

It doesn’t work the other way, if you

want to say the word table in German,

you don’t have anything

that latches you to that,

you just have the tisch

kind of association.

So, in that case, I highly recommend

people consider using mnemonics,

because this kind of glues the word.

To your.

to your memory.

So for instance,

in that example with the German tisch.

I would think to myself, okay let’s

imagine, a table made out of tissues.

So I have you know, a table made out

of kitchen roll or whatever it is,

and I put a drink on it, and the table

collapses, the drink spills everywhere,

I have to get all of this,

all of these tissues and

I have to wipe it up because

it’s created a huge mess.

So what that does,

is it puts this association in my mind of

visualizing a table made out of tissues,

so that when I’m speaking German, and

I want to say table, I can just think for

a second, the table was made out of

tissues, and I have that association.

So, you have a link that

connects the words you want,

to, to the words you want to say,

to the translation.

Now, the thing is,

you don’t need to do this forever,

because you only need

the association a couple of times.

And then the word just becomes

a natural part of you.

So, there’s a great website,

memrise.com, M E M (O) R I S E, and

this has people voting up their favorite

mnemonics, that’s a great system.

Another one is, other than mnemonics,

I’m a big fan of spaced repetition,

so there’s an app you can install

on your smart phone, called Anki.

And this presents

the words to you in a way,

that you see them just before

you would forget them.

And that’s another problem with,

like memorizing a big list.

Is you may see a word that’s important

to you, but you may not see it again for

a very long time.

And you may see the simple words over and

over again.

So when you use a particular system it

shows you the harder words way more

frequently, and

the easier words way less frequently.

I, I like your ideas of, not only

mnemonics but, creative mnemonics for

example with tonal languages.

You use the idea of something falling or

something rising in your memory tricks,

and I’d never thought of doing

something like that before, so

I think these kinds of ideas

are enormously helpful.

And actually in your book,

I have read your book, I love your book.

There are dozens and

dozens more helpful ideas, and

I could ask you dozens and

dozens more questions, but

I want people to actually read your book,

so I guess I’ll leave off here.

And with that, I’d just like to thank

you so much for your wonderful and

very insightful answers.

Thank you very much, really appreciate

you having me on to talk to everybody,

giving them some inspiration.

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