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.
One of the most frustrating challenges I have encountered throughout my diverse career in education, government, startups, consulting, and nutrition is the widespread use of clunky, confusing language. In many ways, learning the ins and outs of Academese, Bureaucratese, Corporatese, Legalese, and Medicalese have proven much more frustrating than Japanese and Chinese! In this great talk by Steven Pinker, an academic who refreshingly avoids most Academese, he makes a case for using “Classic Prose” to communicate more clearly in the 21st Century.
Words are powerful tools. Not only can they communicate nuanced thoughts and complex feelings, but they can actually influence our thoughts and feelings, too. Consider, for example, the profound difference between “have to” and “get to” when coupled with the phrase “study Japanese today”…
We’ve all been there. We find ourselves standing in the language section of Barnes and Noble staring lustfully at the colorful rows of shiny new books, thinking naïvely to ourselves, “This is the missing resource. If I just buy this book, I can finally make some real progress!” It’s a perfectly naturally instinct and I admit that I have succumbed to it an embarrassing number of times. I’ve excitedly purchased language learning books that ended up sitting on my shelf unopened. I’ve joined online membership sites, bought apps, or made in-app purchases, only to rarely if ever open the sites or apps. It saddens me to think of how many trips I could now take using the money I have wasted on language learning tools and resources I never ended up using. You would think I would have learned my lesson by now, but the frustrating truth is that I will likely do the same thing again. Why do so many of us fall into this trap again and again?
Repetition is a fundamental part of successful language learning. Until you hear or read the same vocabulary or structures again and again enough times within meaningful contexts, they just won’t commit to long-term, procedural memory no matter how much you may want to remember. A love for repetition is perhaps one of the biggest advantages children have when learning their first language. I am simply amazed how my nephews can watch the same Sesame Street video or read the same Dr. Seuss book a zillion times without getting bored. We adults aren’t quite so patient. We tend to view such repetition as punishment, not pleasure. Fortunately, there are two ways to eat our “repetition cake” without having to eat the “boredom broccoli”. Read on to see what they are.