There are many great books about learning out there, but one of my favorites to date is “The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance” by Josh Waitzkin. The book shares core learning principles that have allowed Josh to master multiple diverse disciplines, including chess (the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher is based on Josh’s childhood, during which time his impressive chess skills led to him being called a “prodigy”, a word he doesn’t particularly care for as it discounts the massive amount of practice, effort, and psychological tactics he relied on to win eight National Chess Championships), Taiji Push Hands (Josh has won a number of medals in the sport, the World Champion Title in 2004, and went on to coach others to victory themselves), and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Josh holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which he obtained training under Marcelo Garcia, considered to be one of the world’s best practitioners and teachers of the art). So what do chess and martial arts have to do with language learning? Quite a bit, actually. Mastering any skill requires that you travel down the same basic road. Whether you are learning the Japanese language or a Japanese martial art, you will encounter many of the same challenges, pitfalls, and joys on your journey. And, many of the same metalearning techniques can be applied. Here are few key learning principles that Josh shares in the book that can be of big help in reaching fluency in a foreign language.
Most learners mistake “studying” a language for actually “acquiring” a language. The two are very different beasts, which is one of the major reasons why most adult language learners fail despite years of effort: they spend all their time reading about Japanese instead of spending the requisite time in Japanese. This is like trying to learn how to drive by reading the car’s owner’s manual. Obviously not a good recipe for success.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder is the first book I’ve read by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but it will certainly not be the last. The book is actually the fourth in a four-volume series on uncertainty the author calls “Incerto”, which also includes the previous works Fooled by Randomness (2001), The Black Swan (2007–2010), and The Bed of Procrustes (2010). Taleb sums up the basic premise of the book as follows: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” This is definitely true of language acquisition. The safe, predictable, highly structured nature of classroom-based academic language study does not prepare one for the messy interactions that one will encounter in the real world. To reach fluency in a foreign language, one needs randomness, not a lesson plan. Read on for a few of the best language learning lessons from Antifragile.
It is interesting to read claims on the web that the traditional grammar-based language teaching model is “under attack”, when nearly everyone still subscribes to this archaic approach. The vast majority of language classrooms, whether in high schools, universities, or private language schools, still spend most class hours teaching and testing explicit information such as grammar rules and lexical items out of context. I read on a blog a few years back that: “Anything students need to know has to be taught, not caught.” This soundbite seems logical, but it underpins the major misconception widely on display in traditional language classrooms and programs: the notion that languages can be taught. The truth is that languages can only be “acquired”, not taught.
One of the most common questions I receive is, “What do you mean by ‘mastery’?” First of all, “mastery” does not mean “perfection”. Such a thing doesn’t exist in languages. And even if it did, it would not be a “S.M.A.R.T. goal” (covered in detail in my Master Japanese and Master Mandarin guides) and is therefore irrelevant to our purposes as language learners. So if “mastery” does not equal “perfection”, what does it mean? Read on to find out.
Stephen Krashen is one of my heroes. He is a linguist, researcher, education activist, and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. I have wanted to meet him since I began studying linguistics in university, and finally had my chance at Ming Chuan University’s 2009 “Annual Conference on Applied Linguistics” in Taipei, Taiwan. He then agreed to conduct the following interview via email. Note that this interview was originally only available to newsletter subscribers, but since I am now offering Language Mastery Insiders a new bonus each month, I decided it was time for everyone to have the chance to enjoy Krashen’s unique brand of intellect and humor. Enjoy!