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Some Mysteries of Language Learning
by Thor May


An expert is a fool a thousand miles from home. I'm a veteran failed language learner, always a thousand miles from success, and an eternally hopeful beginner. I've also had the cheek to teach my native language to hopeful novices for thirty years, which sometimes leads them and others to mistake me for a wannabe guru. Hence the following.


Hi Thor,

I would like to talk about your analogy of playing chess/football in connection to learning a foreign language; (Observations on the AMES  Certificate in Spoken and Written English )

First let me tell you that I used to live among Indonesian overstayers in Wellington. One had managed to survive for many years (maybe 10 years) working at McDonald's kitchen undetected by the immigration. So it is the equivalence of "having played chess/football" for many years in terms of foreign language learning. And yes, undeniably, he could make himself understood by speaking English, not Indonesian, in his working environment.

However, it was totally different than I had worked in an IT gaming software auditing company and then in a technical call centre. Had he had the same technical skills as I had, it would still be very hard to cope with the tasks involved using that kind of English level.

I remember on one occasion, he left a note in the kitchen of our flat meaning: don't be messy because there is a cat. But the written English was so funny, in the sense that it is riddled with any kind of mistakes, that the other overstayer wrote a joke comment on it.

When I discussed with other Indonesians who had a good mastery of English, the conclusion was that they simply did not learn. Esp, at lower strata of life, you don't need to master English to survive. So the other way round, the fact that you can survive is not a proof that you have mastered a foreign language simply by having been in a language speaking environment.

One more point is that the analogy is not all true. If you play chess or football, what is wrong is absolutely wrong. But this does not apply in speaking a foreign language. For example: you can say "I have do" or "I have doing" and still make yourself understood as "I have done" and in most situation people won't be bothered to correct you. So learning through making mistakes in this sense, even if it is true, is a very slow and very long process.

And the overstayer example also shows that there is a difference between a child learns his/her mother tongue and a non-native speaker adult learns a foreign language. It would take too long for an adult to learn a foreign language using child-learn-to-talk approach.




Hello Ming,

The game analogy for language learning is only partly relevant, as you noticed, especially for chess (where you normally do learn the basic rules before trying to play). Touch football, with its learn-as-you-go pattern and loose interpretation of rules it probably closer.

You are also right that most games impose a penalty for rule-breaking, while in language the message is the important thing, and the message can often be inferred even when rules are "broken". In fact there is something important going on behind that fact. Hardly any language teachers or text book writers realize what it is.

The human brain is a parallel information processor, not a linear processor like your personal digital computer. Linear computing is very economical, it yields mathematically certain outcomes, but it is extremely fragile. A single rule violation will freeze the processing, which is why computer programs crash constantly. (A NASA Venus probe was lost in the early days because a single comma was missing in the computer program).

Parallel processing needs much more computing power, and its outcomes are always probabilistic, not certain. One the other hand, it is extremely robust : SOME kind of answer can usually be inferred, though the probability of it being the right one varies. Human communication is like this. We are never quite certain that we understand exactly what the speaker means, but we are right often enough to get by.

That describes your Indonesian friend, doesn't it. He struck a problem with writing because the social rules attaching to consistency in writing are different from the spoken rules. Further, all human beings have to be TAUGHT writing after they have mastered a language, even in their first language. Nevertheless, you probably guessed the drift of the Indonesian's written message correctly.

One thing you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that almost all the text books and published models of how languages work by linguists assume a linear processing model for the human brain. In fact, the writers mostly haven't even thought about the question, and as a result much of their work is in the realm of fairy tales. Well, you can get useful information, even out of fairy tales, but you have to do some heavy interpreting and editing. I have thought about this question (along with quite a few other linguists), and it is the reason that I walked away and didn't complete my first PhD on generative grammar.

From the viewpoint of classroom language teaching, a heavy insistence on 'rules' (which may be fairy tales anyway) is usually counterproductive. Some students want more explanation than others (the logical types often want some kind of explanation).

My general experience is that an emphasis on fluency is more important up to about intermediate stage. People need to get airborne, get some confidence in using L2. After intermediate level, depending on a student's professional needs, you might offer more guidance on formal explicit rules.

What works for a language learner? That depends a lot on the learner. From my own learning experience, by far the best series of independent courses I have ever come across are the Pimsleur language courses. Go to to try half an hour in a language you don't know for free. This teaching program works, for me anyway, and I'm a dumb language learner. Sure, I'm made aware of mistakes instantly, but it is my awareness, not someone telling me in a punitive way. I just become aware that I need to run the tape again.

The other critical thing that both language learners and language teachers generally handle in a very amateur manner is memory. Without language memory you not only can't learn or use a language, you have lost your essential humanity. "Memorization" has become a code word for boredom and abuse because the process of its management is so often handled foolishly. Acquiring memory traces and cross-linking them is a subtle process which I could discuss with a great flourish of academic references. However, the practical management of this process has a lot to do with graduated (but interesting!) repetition. Maybe the best known name associated with this concept is Sebastian Leitner. For a discussion of Leitner's ideas, and a commercial extension of them, see the Supermemo web page at

cheers, Thor

And now for the Far Side ....

Speaking of language learning mysteries, none may be so impenetrable as the babble of an automatic translation machine. The following claims to be from a student. Actually it is a coded message from intergalactic white mice planning a terran invasion.

Hello . I am sorry to be late. I will speak about thousand sulfuric acids that I am famous today.

Cloth sulfuric acids are acid in Kyongsang-namdo Milyangsi makeup cotton acid inside and the Woolsan city upper facing north border. Height is 1, 189m.

While cloth sulfuric acids are high-pitched the north and the west, but east four sides one generation is slow assistant inspector, accomplish evenness side that is called lion easiness in height 800m neighborhood, and is connected to southeast four sides of Jaeyaksan (1, 108m).

Danyangcheon passes for the east of the mountain, and Sijeoncheon that is upper stream of makeup cloth southward passes and soaks lion review one generation.

Sannaecheon of the north of the mountain makes Gokjeopyeongya and is accomplishing agriculture rent.

It are clause of coming to help cancer¡¤Seosangam etc. and Chingchingpokpo¡¤Herculean strength waterfall¡¤tourist attraction of Hongryongpokpo and so on on the west of the mountain much cultural assets such as mission dialogue's relics including Pyochungsa that is.

If is north edge Sannae of the mountain, because ice begins to freeze since pumpkin cattle, mid-June beside dolomite that hold traditional Korean rite to pray for rain in other people fame and wealth, because there is ice marrow (national monument No. 224) that melt in the fall, tourists' kick does not run out.

Cloth sulfuric acids are connected southwesterly in the spontaneity mountain, and is linked by Jaeyaksan because acid is connected again southward.

Because cloth sulfuric acids are situated in Yongnam districts Alpine middle,

Yeolnamalpeuseu's huge mountain range and eulalia field etc.. of lion review of view in normalcy enter and offer a grand spectacle at a look.

North four sides of cloth sulfuric acids is achieved to steep stony cliff zone and the cloth yellows, Jaeyaksan's the mountain range west physical aspect of a mountain does Geupjun because accomplishing Cheongildanae everywhere or the west is forming steep slope again while slant is slow.

Also, west valley that live dander is deep and everywhere waterfall of being forming magnificent view taking thousand sulfuric acid one generations that had called is Herculean strength of three southern provinces from the example speak.

The cloth sulfuric acid wests and the north are steep slope, the east is forming gentle slope, specially huge rockwalls of normalcy neighborhood Cheongilbyeorang make that and there is ice marrow that ice freezes in the north summer, consist of steep stony cliff rockwall.

Yongnam districts Alps' noted product is outspread wide eulalia field over ridge line during 8¡­9 minute.

This middle Jaeyaksan lion plain is counted to place that eulalia field is outspread most solemnly.

To 1 Million-pyeong as many as to lion plain Ireuneungo, if is the fall white personal appearance because eulalia grows widely toplofty climbers welcome.

Cloth sulfuric acids are called is Korea Peninsula's Yeongsan or Herculean strength of three southern provinces to the Yongnam districts Alps center mountain being Milyangsi's guardian mountain.

Next, I will send the other news. Be healthy.


All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument. Personal names have been changed when their use might embarrass the owners.


"Some Mysteries of Language Learning " © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2005

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May 2 , 2005