Learning as an adult

Learning as a kid is really over rated. Many people talk about children’s brain plasticity as an argument for learning as a child but I seriously believe that learning as an adult has many advantages.

One such advantage is conscious study. I’ve noticed in my time teaching English to Japanese kids that their ability to pick up the finer points of English is hampered by a lack of conscious practice.

As with most things, English has lots of unintuitive or nuanced elements which aren’t self evident. For example, the difference between the ‘th’ in ‘thank you’ and ‘that’ is whether the vocal chords are engaged in making the sound.

I’ve heard kids produce all kinds of variations of voiced and unvoiced sounds, labiodental fricatives and dental fricatives in an effort to find the ‘th’ sound in either of these words. Few of them get it purely through immersion and many struggle to produce it without specific instructions.

Children can also be exposed to some degree of deliberate study/practice but it’s no surprise that with a longer attention span and greater access to resources that adults can cover more ground, at least in my experience.

All it takes is an article or two and a few minutes of practice and I’ve found it surprisingly simple to get non-native adult speakers of English to pronounce many ‘difficult’ sounds accurately in isolation. Once you’ve corrected the misconception (in this case, how ‘th’ sounds in various words) adults can also develop an intuition for these sorts of things.

It’s never too late to learn and your advantages don’t wear out after childhood. Keep at it.

Language Learning Goal Setting

Language learning is something I have spent a lot of time doing in some shape or another. I like the process of learning a language but I also enjoy exploring the various quirks of linguistics and different languages, even languages I haven’t got any intention of learning to speak. It’s purely something I enjoy doing.

Not having any intention of taking anything past the most superficial level is perfectly fine, especially so if you enjoy that thing on a purely superficial level. But what about if you do have intentions of going somewhere with a skill, in this case language learning? You’ll probably end up setting a goal of some sort. Goals aren’t bad things. On the contrary they’re rather good. They serve as the baseline for any good plan. It’s pretty hard to structure something without an end point. However, in language learning, I’ve come to feel that most goals are illusory. I don’t think they contain any meaning or value and are wrapped up in lots of bad preconceptions about the language acquisition process.

Language learning goals are usually described by words like ‘fluency’, ‘competency’, or ‘conversational’. Don’t get me wrong, these words do convey something in a rough sense. If someone is ‘competent’ in a language then we might expect a higher level of ability than someone who is purely ‘conversational’. As labels for a level, they kind of work. But what exactly should one do, or be able to do, to reach each of these labels? This has been a big problem in modern linguistics and lots of people have come up with their own definitions of fluency. The same goes for the other labels. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) has a ‘level checklist‘ for what you should be able to do according to the JLPT’s creators. The site even says that it’s ‘not a syllabus and doesn’t ensure success’ in the exam.

In my experience teaching English in Japan, these words have crept into the lay consciousness as meaningful terms for levels or even as targets which you should strive to meet. The problem is that from exam to exam, or person to person, ‘fluent’ or ‘conversational’ vary wildly and there isn’t one consistent definition. If these words vary so much from person to person or organisation to organisation, they really don’t tell us anything without further explanation from the individual involved. Hence why most exam organisers will publish their exam’s rubric in an attempt to clarify unhelpful terms like ‘competent user’ or ‘fluent’.

To drive the point home, take this exchange:

'What are you going to do today?'
'Me go shop later,'
'Oh okay cool, what are you going to buy?'
'Pant, sock, shoe, coffee 50%,'
'So you might not buy coffee?'
'True. Store music good equals buy, music bad equal no buy,'

These two speakers had an exchange. You might even call it a conversation. But I don’t know if anyone would call the second speaker conversational, despite the use of words to convey ideas. Even though the second speaker apparently understood what the first speaker was asking and (let’s assume) responded promptly and confidently, in reality many would say that speaker two is probably of a low level. Why, though? Well, the lack of grammar stands out for one thing, incorrect use of pronouns, lack of collocations, odd word choice, lack of connectives. But none of this is necessarily included in the word ‘conversational’. For all intents and purposes, speaker two is a conversational speaker, but they don’t conform to the traditional expectations associated with ‘good’ English speakers.

At what point does speaker two’s English become conversational, then? If we take the following exchange:

'What are you going to do today?'
'I'll go shop later,'
'Oh okay cool, what are you going to buy?'
'A pants, socks, shoes, maybe coffee,'
'So you might not buy coffee?'
'Maybe not, if a store's music is bad, no, but if it's good then okay,'

This is looking more like a ‘conversation’ in traditional terms and, this time, speaker two conforms more to what we expect of people speaking English. There are still clear mistakes which stand out to a native speaker, however. Some things sound unnatural e.g. I’ll go shop later -> I’m going shopping later, or the incorrect use of articles e.g. a store -> the store, a pants -> some pants. But, for the most part, this is more ‘conversational’ than the previous example. But there is no reason in principle, other than a purely arbitrary level of accuracy/production speed, which should make this any more technically conversational than the previous conversation. The same ideas were conveyed, after all.

Practically, if someone sets the goal of ‘becoming conversational’ for themselves, then they’re striving to conform to this arbitrary level of accuracy/naturalness/production speed which, ultimately, is hard for us to verify. In the end, it’s plausible that a speaker with this goal might end up striving for native-level/style speech, simply because as they improve they locate different areas for improvement until, in the end they achieve a level which is indistinguishable from a native. All because they didn’t know what their goal actually meant.

In my opinion, these labels are pretty useless and the only meaningful language learning goals are exam grades or other easily verifiable metrics e.g. knowing words on a vocabulary list. This doesn’t mean that these are ‘good’ goals, though. It just means that they’re goals which mean something to the person attempting to achieve it and others inquiring about said goals. Ideally people should do things because they enjoy them but realistically some people do need to meet milestones i.e. for work or job-hunting purposes.

This also means that I don’t believe in the casual language learner who doesn’t intend to reach a high level or become indistinguishable from a native speaker. Unless you can point me towards a concrete goal at which point you will feel comfortable ceasing seeking to improve, I assume that really you would like to become indistinguishable from a native speaker but don’t realise it yet. In which case, you should stop bothering with ineffective methods of language learning. But that’s a whole other issue for another post.

On Motivation

I don’t have any faith in motivation. Or discipline. I don’t mean to sound edgy, so let me explain myself.

People often find the source of success to be motivation. And the root of failure? The lack of it. Of course, there are various reasons for failure. Not everyone who fails failed to get started or continue their projects. But there is a large enough group of people failing to achieve their goals by failing to consistently work towards that goal to warrant countless videos on YouTube and published books hoping to sell you a method of generating motivation.

I guess the thesis goes that ‘motivated’ people are able to stick to tasks better than people without the magical motivation juice. As a theory, it checks out. People who feel a greater drive to create, do, or achieve something probably would stick to a long term task or goal more effectively than someone who lacks the same urge to do something.

So where’s the problem? The problem is that this doesn’t seem to work. Not the way we expect it to, at least.

There don’t appear to be any tried and tested ways of generating motivation. Else we’d see everyone running around accomplishing their dreams left right and centre. That would be cool, but anyone over the age of 15 has probably got some measure of experience with disappointment, failure, regret. It’s purely anecdotal and maybe I’m missing something, but the point I want to make here is that motivation appears to be a fleeting resource. It gets us out of bed once or twice a week or keeps us up studying another hour or two on some days, but I think most people don’t accomplish things on the back of constantly envisaging their end goals or having a dream which they wish to accomplish. Many people wish more than anything to quit drugs, or lose weight, but they can’t. I’d hesitate to call this a lack of motivation.

So what about discipline? If we can’t effectively feel motivated all the time then we might be able to force ourselves to consistently perform a task or work towards a goal. This seems a little more plausible. Clearly people want things but can’t achieve them so the issue doesn’t lie with wanting it badly enough, but with being able to power through the things we don’t want to do. There sure are a lot of them, after all.

The issue here is that it doesn’t really square up with what we know about biology. We’re all fiends for serotonin and other chemcials, so constantly delaying your gratification for the big pay-off at the end, well, isn’t how most people appear to work. We can all do it sometimes, but when applied to your life on a macro scale, it doesn’t seem to scale up.

As far as I know, needing releases of those happy chemicals is really important for functioning ‘normally’ and without them there can be severe mental and physical side effects. Being disciplined, then, just seems like it will make you miserable (assuming that doing tasks you don’t really enjoy feeds that little goblin in your brain less of the good stuff). Even minus the biology stuff, how often is it that you are able to bear in mind the long term benefits or damage of an action? Maybe for some stuff you’re pretty good, but I think most people are generally pretty short-term motivated. Just look at the wealth of people who will dedicate thousands of hours into MMORPGs like Runescape, fueled by thousands of instances of tiny experience gains.

If I’m right, what do I make of people who are ostensibly successful? I think the answer for those people might lie a little in motivation and discipline. Those are probably a small part of it, but I think the overwhelmingly convincing reason for their success is enjoyment. If you need to put in something like 10,000 hours to become good at something or achieve something then liking the tasks involved is probably important for making yourself do it consistently. If you like the task(s) more, then you’re also probably going to make time for them. This is the biggest one, in my opinion.

I’ve never met anyone who was really very good at anything they didn’t enjoy. Of course there are some outliers and even tasks that we do enjoy, we sometimes become disillusioned with, because becoming good at anything is generally a stressful process, like it or not. However, fundamentally liking whatever it is you’re doing/required to do to work towards your goal is the key, in my opinion. I’ve yet to meet anyone crazy enough to dump thousands of hours into something they hate.

So what do I really want to say here?

Don’t bother with things you don’t enjoy. You heard me. If you try something either as a hobby or to achieve a goal and you find yourself not enjoying the process, give up. Give up, but find another way of achieving the same thing if the goal is something you really desire. For example, if you’re going the gym to lose weight but running on a treadmill is about as fun as watching a paint dry for you, and as a result you often stop going, then stop going to the treadmills and lift weights instead, or join classes, go to a martial arts class, walk in nature. Your chances of sticking to it long enough to get the results you want are more likely to come from something you actually like. And isn’t enjoying yourself a much better use of your time?

If you don’t enjoy a hobby but find yourself driven to get into it, why is that? Maybe there’s some pride wrapped up in it. I can speak from experience that I always viewed programming as a cool hobby and something supremely difficult and so the fact that I never really got into it as a kid always made me wonder whether I just hadn’t given it a fair shot, or maybe I wasn’t smart enough to get it.

Or maybe I just wasn’t into the process.

I can say confidently that my impression of programming, as opposed to the reality of programming, was what made me want to be good at it in the past. For some people, this is a good enough reason to want to do something. Especially when it comes to societal status. I’m a firm believer that almost everyone who becomes a lawyer or a doctor does so, even just a little bit, because of the allure of a traditionally difficult and academically respected title/position. This isn’t such a bad thing if you can actually stick it out in the long term, but this doesn’t work for everyone and nor should it.

Obviously there are some tasks we need to do to get by full stop e.g. go grocery shopping, cut the lawn, and exercise, but ideally if we can make those tasks enjoyable, wouldn’t we be more likely to do them well, and wouldn’t that improve your quality of life? I’m not sure that we can make every task enjoyable but, where possible, wouldn’t it be cool to look forward to going grocery shopping, even if it is only because you like the design of the re-usable shopping bag you take with you, or because the supermarket you visit plays good music.

This does mean that we can’t necessarily be good at everything, even the things we hate, by virtue of powering through, but it does mean that if you can locate the things you do like, then you almost have a free pass to success in that task/goals stemming from that task, provided you have the time to dedicate to it in the first place.

I don’t think we should place a premium on some hobbies and I don’t think that assuming we are all equally capable of success in every field is smart. I like drawing, but do I like it enough to do it every day, or become good at it? Not really. There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t ‘lack’ motivation if I can’t achieve something in a task I initially wanted to improve in: I just didn’t enjoy it enough to continue. In that case, what was it really adding to my life? The same goes for language learning – a field I have some success and experience in. If you can’t stick to learning a language long enough to get good at it, I don’t believe there’s anything defective about you, I just think maybe it’s not your bag. Or maybe you’ve just not found the right language, culture, study method, or environment for it yet. Ultimately that’s your call.