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.
Is it ideal to learn Japanese in Japan and Mandarin in China or Taiwan? Yes. Is it a mandatory condition? Absolutely not. Let me be clear: living in Japan and Taiwan for a number of years was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I go back to visit as often as possible. But while living in a Japanese or Mandarin speaking country can certainly provide learners of these languages many advantages, it’s critical to understand that it’s not a requirement for success. In today’s world, “I can’t learn Japanese or Mandarin because I live in rural Kansas” is an excuse, not a reality. With Internet access, a little creativity, and a lot of hard work, you really can learn any language, anywhere.
I made just about every possible mistake when starting out in languages. I used terribly inefficient methods, slogged through boring materials I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, and almost gave up more than a few times. But this is good news for you: struggling so much in the beginning and later correcting course makes me a much better language coach. You never want to learn from a “natural” who picks up new skills easily. As Tim Ferriss points out in the The 4-Hour Chef: “The top 1% often succeed despite how they train, not because of it. Superior genetics, or a luxurious full-time schedule, make up for a lot. Career specialists can’t externalize what they’ve internalized. Second nature is hard to teach.”
Learning—and actually remembering—new words, phrases, alphabets, Chinese characters, etc. is one of the primary tasks in acquiring a foreign language. But for many learners, it happens to be one of the most frustrating. But don’t despair! The problem is likely your method, not your memory.
Spaced Repetition Systems (or “SRS” for short) are flashcard programs designed to help you systematically learn new information—and retain old information—through intelligent review scheduling. Instead of wasting precious study time on information you already know, SRS apps like Anki allow you to focus most on new words, phrases, kanji, etc., or previously studied information that you have yet to commit to long-term memory. Read on to see how spaced repetition apps work and which SRS tools I recommend.
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!