This is the story of Ed Tanguay and his goal of reaching conversational fluency in 5 languages in 5 years.
“102 more days to conversational fluency in Spanish…”was Ed’s sign-off on an online forum for area language teachers. It intrigued me both as a language teacher and as a learner with a disappointing history of language learning. Can he really do that? How? If he can, then my learners and I can, too. I needed to know more so I asked to interview him and he graciously accepted. What follows is my interview with Ed and some ideas to reflect on at the end.
Theresa: How did your exploration of effective language learning come about?
Ed: The idea is this: in 2016 I will turn 50, and turning 50 can be a sad part of your life: you realize you are a half a century old, you are not in the best of shape anymore, and many people at 50 haven’t learned anything new for years or even decades, and you realize that the doors of opportunity in your life are beginning to close. In 2011, I decided to completely reverse that process by spending the last 5 years before I turn fifty learning 5 languages and running 5 marathons in 5 different foreign countries and be conversationally fluent in the language of the country where I run by the day of the race. In 2012, I completed the Paris Marathon and was quite satisfied with my level of French during my weekend in Paris talking with shop owners, the hotel receptionist, and fellow runners. Here is my full marathon schedule:
2012 Paris – French
2013 Madrid – Spanish
2014 Rome – Italian
2015 St. Petersburg – Russian
Theresa: So what are the 3 main ingredients for effective language learning?
There are different kinds of learners and different reasons people learn languages so the following ingredients may not be the best for everyone in every context, but these are the main ingredients that I have found for me in order to learn languages with the goal of deep, pragmatic fluency in a culture, e.g. getting and holding a job and living in the target language/culture.
- inundate yourself regularly with large amounts of audio/written comprehensible input (e.g. Yabla.com, read a novel in both target and native language one line at a time alternately)
- regularly create flashcards at the “useful phrase” level, (not at the word level), from situations you experience and from your reading, and review them regularly
- use the language for real purposes as early and as often as possible. E.g., write to real people and real businesses about real issues. I use video2brain.com to learn how to use new software in French and Spanish.
BONUS INGREDIENT: to speed your learning: early in your learning, work through a comprehensive grammar book quickly, not with the goal of mastering or even understanding all the rules but with the goal of at least seeing all the rules and peculiarities of the language once so that you are aware of them and can recognize them as you inundate yourself with the language.
Strategies and techniques
Theresa: I love your Float First method! From your website:
The Float First method is based on mastering three situations (1) I don’t understand, (2) I want to learn, and (3) I need to know some language basics, the most frequently occurring situations you will be in while learning a new language.
It gives low-level learners a simple and practical way to start interacting meaningfully in the target language in a way that can help them learn and build confidence. Can you say something about how your independent learning has evolved, and maybe some milestones you’ve had along the way?
Ed: In 1989 I was studying philosophy in the States and wanted to read philosophical texts in their original German, so I took a year off and worked in the conference center kitchen in Hannover, Germany. I had never had German instruction but during the summer before I left for Germany, I learned about 20 phrases that I thought I would need right when I got there, mostly “meta language” phrases to help me get through the two situations “I don’t understand” and “I want to learn”, since I knew that I would probably be in these two situations for the most part of every day while I was there.
When I arrived I told everyone, in German, that I was not going to speak English for a year and to speak to me in German. I soon had enough phrases to keep little conversations mostly about language going, asking people what this word and that word meant and how to spell words, etc. I would write everything down in a notebook that I had in my back pocket at all times, and so I was very quickly able to “float” in many common situations in the German culture, hence the name of the method “Float First”. Another method…
Theresa: More recently, Internet communication technologies, (ICTs), seem to be integral to your language learning. How important would you say ICT tools are for effective, autonomous language learning?
Ed: I think the holy grail resource for language learning is large amounts of authentic audio with full text transcription so you can follow along and connect the sound of the language to its written form right from the beginning, i.e. see what parts are marked, what parts are not marked, stressing, cadence, accents, and what words and sounds are left out or spoken differently by different speakers.
Back in the 90s I could find a few cassette tapes and CDs with audio situations and listen to them repeatedly, as well as sporadic unabridged audio books which you could find and were interesting. But today with Internet services such as Yabla for the “price of a hamburger per month”, you can watch a selection of over 500 videos in your target language which have transcriptions of the audio in two languages, a loop button to repeat each sentence, a button to control the speed, any word you click on you get the definition, and you can play a cloze game at the end of each video. This is an autonomous learner’s dream world, and if you watch a couple videos a day, your ability to understand authentic language will increase tremendously in comparison to other methods. Mobile technology…
Implications for teachers
Theresa: Traditionally, the roles assigned to language learners in the classroom have often been passive and teacher-directed. But when using online learning environments, language learners can be conceptualized as “agents” or “designers”, and the learning process as a “process of design”, according to two applied linguists. (Hampel and Hauck, 2006) Does this idea resonate with you? In what other ways do you see your role as a language learner?
Ed: Yes, at least for my language learner needs, yes, I feel I am an “agent” who “designs” my own learning methods and chooses the tools I need. This has particularly become easier with new technology which has developed in the past 10 years. For example, I currently use my yabla.com subscription on my home computer, my ThinkSpanish subscription as a magazine or mp3 while commuting and running, my grammar book, my Spanish/English dual novels, online resources like Google Translate, Linguee, verb conjugators, and language forums, and my tandem partners and Berlin Spanish meetup groups where I can practice my Spanish.
Theresa: Have you ever taken traditional language classes? How would you compare that experience with your experience of being an autonomous learner?
Ed: I took two years of Spanish in high school 1982 and 1983 and when started learning Spanish again in 2012, I had a 30-year retention of about four words, I remember the class as basically an hour twice a week for my friends and I to goof around, but that was high school. Then there were two semesters of French in college which were mostly painful grammar lessons and tests. I also took a semester of German in college after I came back from Germany to get an easy credit, a class in which the American teacher spoke in English with a German accent. Because I had been in Germany for a year, it was easy but pedagogically unimpressive. So, in summary, my traditional language classes have been largely unhelpful, and my autonomous learning, especially since the advent of the resources on the Internet in the last ten years, has been extremely effective.
Theresa: Based on what you’ve learned about effective language learning, what advice would you give teachers who want to help their students become more effective and autonomous learners?
Ed: I would show them how to use all of the tools I’ve mentioned above, and as far as possible adapt it to their learning style. If there is one piece of advice I would give is that students should look for phrases they want to learn in authentic situations and in texts they read, record them as flashcards, and practice them daily.
Theresa: What makes a good teacher? And are they born or made?
Ed: A good teacher can present a body of knowledge in a way that it is easy and motivating to consume for the learners, which means that you have to know your individual students and contextualize the instruction.
A good teacher today and into the future, in addition, has good skills of recording their lessons on video and organizing them into a MOOC-type course (MOOC stands for massive open online course) in a way that is easy and motivating for hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of learner to consume and learn from.
This is the future of education, where there are a few “star teachers” and “star professors” such as Salmon Khan and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong who are both experts in their field as well as organized and entertaining and pleasant to listen to. Today these teachers teach 100,000s of students with their MOOCs and in five or ten years it will be millions.
So a good teacher today needs…
Stages of language learning
Theresa: The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages identifies 3 general stages in learning a language: Basic user, Independent user and Proficient user. Do these correspond to your personal stages in language learning. Can you say something about the particular stages and milestones you’ve experienced?
Ed: Yes, I can identify with having three general levels of proficiency during the process of learning a language. I definitely experience “waves of learning” which I notice every once in awhile, e.g. when listening to a French news podcast all of a sudden I’ll realize that I’m not only understanding 20% of the words and concepts but suddenly whole sentences and more complex thoughts. That’s a particular joy of mine and one reason why I’m passionate about learning languages. It’s like falling in love, suddenly “everything’s different”.
Questions for reflection
Ed’s story gives language teachers a lot to think about. Here are a few of the questions that it has brought up for me.
1. Ed mentioned to me that in the past he has worked as a language teacher, and he also holds a Master’s in Education in TESOL. He has obviously put his expertise to good use in his own learning. But to look at it in a different way, is it possible to be effective language teachers without pushing ourselves to be effective language learners?
2. Ed’s story seems to suggest that traditional language teachers are becoming obsolete. What is your reaction to Ed’s vision of the future of education, in which a few “star teachers” use video presentations and MOOCs to teach hundreds of thousands of students? Will there come a time when it will be impossible to teach without information and communication technologies?
3. One of the factors in Ed’s language learning success has been persistent effort toward do-able and personally rewarding goals. What has been your experience of helping learners to develop and pursue their own language learning goals? How might this be incorporated into a course?
4. Reflecting on the teacher training you have experienced, to what extent has it fostered your autonomy as a learner-teacher? In what ways has it helped you develop the skills to foster autonomy in your learners?