Don’t Be Fooled By These 3 Common Language Product Claims

Don't let language companies fool you
 

Amidst a veritable slough of language learning programs, audio courses, online courses, web-apps, mobile apps, books, games and the odd bipolar disorder medication, it can be hard to select the best learning tools for the job.

But there are three attributes that many of the larger, more commercial language product companies always try to lure you in with: Organic Learning, rapid fluency and the ease with which one can learn a language if they only pay the price to buy their product.

When considering which products are the best for you it’s important to be wary of these claims made by industry titans such as Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur or Busuu.


Organic Learning

The “learn like a child” tactic never gets old and plays upon -and worse, propagates – one of the greatest language learning myths of all time; the idea that adults simply don’t learn languages as well as children.

You can check out this post for more on the differences between L1 and L2 acquisition.

  

“Organic Learning” implies that users are immersed in their product in such a way that they absorb new words and grammar “naturally” or in much the same way that we absorb our first languages.

Girls learning the American Sign Language.I hear you asking “Why is this so ridiculous? Sounds great to me!”

If it were actually possible to recreate these “critical period” qualities then yeah, it would be truly astounding and would revolutionize the education industry forever.

But it isn’t – at least not right now. (You can read more about a drug that supposedly rewires the brain to be more malleable, but to my knowledge it hasn’t really caught hold among the polyglot community and I would encourage skepticism.)

Adults and children learn differently; neither of them necessarily better than the other.

Whereas children may have malleable minds and the ability to absorb language without thinking about it; properly motivated adults have the ability to put a conscious effort into their learning as well as access to a world of resources, often resulting in extremely rapid acquisition compared to our younger selves.

Super fast fluency


We’d all like to pick up Pimsleur’s audio courses* and be fluent in our new language after three months with the program – and according to some of the language learning supergiant’s advertising campaigns you damn well can!

Except not really.

Actually – if you dig a bit deeper, the actual Pimsleur website* makes no such claims. I recently heard directly from a Pimsleur representative that the advertising is handled by a separate company – who they should fire.

But anyway…

Unfortunately there really are no shortcuts when it comes to learning a new language. You’re going to succeed or fail based on little more than your own sweat and blood. Pimsleur is actually a pretty good product, despite a fairly high price tag, but if you seriously believe for a second that a single program will make you fluent in a miraculously short time you deserve your impending disappointment.

But it’s not just Pimsleur. Everyone wants their product to come out on top, and one way to do that is to sell what the other guy is selling; fluency.

I make no claims as to how long it might take you to learn a language – the answer to that is almost impossible to know and will vary tremendously, but I can tell you that it will in all likelihood take you more than  a few short months.

The best strategy for faster learning, I feel, is diversification – another point not emphasized by many companies. Don’t be fooled.

 

Learning a language is easy

 

Learning a language isn’t usually easy, and programs that claim it is are full of it.

You probably know the saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” 

I feel strongly that when we claim that learning a language is extremely easy, we’re really doing no favors to prospective or beginning learners. Programs that claim this might be setting you up to fail by offering false expectations. We’re told that learning is a cake walk but when we discover that the cake is a lie we run the risk of losing our motivation and steadily slipping away from our projects all together.

Make no mistake – learning a language is usually pretty hard. Sure – there are easy elements, and you can certainly make it easier by utilizing the right strategies and learning tools for you, but at the end of the day it’s still going to require a lot of dedication and a lot of effort, and it sure as hell isn’t going to happen over night.

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Conclusion

The next time you or someone you know is looking to start a new language project, make sure that someone does a little bit of research before laying own oodles of cash on a product that makes false promises.

Or better yet, learn a language for free with any of these tools and save yourself the hassle entirely.

To re-cap:

  1. You can’t learn a language the same way a child can learn a language. It’s futile to try. Instead, focus on the things you can do with your adult strengths!
  2. Language learning is a process and a destination. It takes most learners – even dedicated ones – a couple years at the least to reach what most would call “conversational fluency”. Don’t listen to companies that tell you it’ll happen in just a few weeks or months.
  3. And lastly – don’t be caught off guard when the language product that promised you that learning German was uber easy turns out to be more than you originally bargained for. Languages are hard, but chances are there’s a better way than the one you shelled out $399 for.

Are these claims that you see frequently when perusing for a new language learning program? Which promises do you find to be the most empty or incorrect?

Leave a comment and tell me what you think!

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  • David Cooper

    It’s certainly worth warning people that high-price courses don’t guarantee that you’ll learn any faster than inexpensive ones – I would never pay more than £25 for a language course on point of principle because you should be able to get all you need for that much. However, the bit about adults not being able to learn like children isn’t entirely true: adults can learn much faster than children, but they can gain a lot by using the same approach.

    Young children, or indeed babies, are learning about all manner of other things in addition to language and their lack of understanding of the world early on holds them back enormously, but by 12 months old they can already understand most of the things that are said to them and they have a better feel for what is becoming their native language than many adult learners of a new language have (or children learning a new language in schools) after a whole year of study. The key difference is that they aren’t bothering to learn to speak it yet – they are focused on leaning to understand it first. Learning to speak a language before learning to understand it is like learning to run before you can walk.

    Another problem with adult learners though is that they tend not to work intensively enough to make the progress they should – if you only do an hour every other day and spend a lot of that time doing exactly what the language course tells you to do, your rate of forgetting what you’ve learned is going to be so high that you’re wasting most of the time you’re putting in. The key to efficient learning is high intensity and speed without allowing the course to lead you in the wrong direction, and it’s the speed that will fix what you’ve learned by exposing you to the same words again and again in a multitude of different contexts. Ideally you should be doing four hours a day every day for a week or two, and you should rebel against any instructions to do anything that diverts you away from learning to understand the language – you absolutely do not want to learn to produce your own phrases and sentences, and you shouldn’t even be learning to produce single words yet. You must focus on one single task, and that is to absorb the language so that you can recognise words and understand phrases.

    Read texts, compare them with translations (ideally literal ones if they’re available) and read the grammar notes too so that you can work out exactly how the texts mean what they say. That is the only thing you should be doing at this stage. You should aim to get through the language course as quickly as possible in this way, and if you reach a point where it gets too hard, you need to return to the start and race through it all again to fix it better in your head – when you get back to the place where you got stuck the first time, you should be able to race past it without difficulty the second time. That doesn’t always work out with language courses though, because some of them increase the difficulty too quickly after a while and make it impossible for any normal human to keep going at any speed because they suddenly bombard you with too much new stuff all at once. The only cure for that is to switch to a different language course, but if this happens to you and you need to switch, it’s no disaster – it’s good to have two courses as it makes revision less boring by taking you through the same ground again with new texts, and the new course will invariably take you far beyond where you got with the first one, enabling you to switch back to it later and work through it to the end too.

    There are some key things to look for with language courses which tell you whether they’re good or bad. Learning from written text is much faster than learning from CDs, so you have to find a course that works through text. (CDs are obviously better if you’re driving a car, but it will be a slow and expensive learning process if you go down that route – you are paying a lot to learn slowly, and the repetition will bore you, although it may well get you there in the end if you have the patience to stick with it.) If all the texts have translations or are extensively explained so that you won’t need to look anything up in vocabulary lists or a dictionary, that’s a key sign that it’s a good buy. If the texts are going to be too hard to work through because you’re going to have to look up most of the words, you will likely have to spend 99% of your time looking up ruddy word lists instead of learning the language, so you should never buy any course that makes you do that. (The worst ones don’t only make you look up all the words, but you have to hunt for them in more and more lists as you work your way through the chapters, and in some the lists aren’t even alphabetical, so finding each word takes inordinately longer the further you get through the course, but you will never get through such a course – no one ever does, with the result that they have a 100% failure rate). If the language has a spelling system that doesn’t represent the way the words are pronounced closely, a course may try to make up for that through the use of CDs, but again that’s a slow way to work. You need a phonetic version in text form if the course is to be any good. Many languages are simply not available in the right form, so you may be forced to learn using a slower method from a different kind of course costing a lot more money, or wait for a better course to come out. The better courses also have interesting texts in them, so read some of them to see what they’re like. If they just fling lots of random sentences at you they will drive you up the wall. Avoid any course that spends too much time going on and on about food and hotels because they are not aimed at serious language learners – anything dominated by lists of vocabulary is also likely to fail because the writer doesn’t have a clue about how to make it interesting enough to motivate you to learn to recognise any of the words. What you need is something with good texts, and good explanations of the grammar, because that is what you most need from the course. Once you’ve reached the end or it, you’ll be free to switch to the reading material of your choice online and to use Google Translate to help you make sense of it, but you need the language course up front for it’s explanations of the grammar, and any course that tries to protect you from the grammar by hiding it from you is useless. One other important thing is a pronunciation guide at the start – even if there’s a CD with the course, a written explanation can sometimes be much clearer while the CD merely helps to clear up any questions you might have about what the written explanation means. It may seem surprising that text can do part of this job better than a CD, but it can often be hard to hear the sounds clearly enough to work out which sounds they actually are, just as children mishear and mispronounce lots of words (e.g. skelington instead of skeleton). A good written guide to pronunciation shows you that the language course is a serious one rather than a toy, although some good courses do fall short in that department. The key thing is to compare the available courses and see how they match up against each other. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to eliminate most of them and narrow it down to just one or two.

    Once you’ve reached the end of the course, you can go back to the start and work through it again, but this time to try to learn to speak the language rather than just to understand it – this is a much harder process, but you’ll have made it ten times easier for yourself by taking the trouble to learn to understand the language first. You have already had so many sentences and phrases go through your head that you have a real feel for what’s sounds right and what sounds wrong, which means you will make fewer mistakes and avoid fixing errors in your head. I spent five years learning French at school and still couldn’t understand or speak any of it at the end of that time, but the reality is that I’d hardly met the language – we just got bogged down in boring rubbish and had lists of words and rules flung at us instead of being exposed to real, living French. I had no feel for the way that French brings the object forwards ahead of the verb if it’s a pronoun (“I him saw” instead of “I saw him”), and yet that’s a basic feature of French! How could I have missed it? If the focus had been on teaching us to understand the language first, we would then have returned to the start to learn to speak it and would have been learning the rules for producing phrases and sentences at a much better stage where we could have focused purely on that instead of being faced with endelss arrays of unknown words at every step which diverted us away from any point that was being made. What school taught us was that learning a language is almost impossible and that the best thing to do is give up and not try. Fortunately, I started learning Esperanto at home as well later on, and that told me a very different story. As soon as I was free of school, I set about learning Spanish, then moved on to Japanese, Swahili, Dutch, Russian, and then a whole host of other languages, though I got much further with some of them than with others. Importantly, it was the quality of the language course that determined how far I could get with each language: the bad ones made it hard or downright impossible, but the good ones made it easy, and they were all the same price. The trick is to find courses which don’t put any barriers in your way, and if you can’t find a good course for a particular language, don’t learn that language – wait instead for someone to produce a better course for it, because you could wait a decade for a good course and still learn the language by a younger age than you would if you persisted with a bad course. It’s all about the course, and the cost of the course isn’t the best way to judge the quality.