Why We Struggle Learning Languages | Gabriel Wyner | TEDxNewBedford

Why We Struggle Learning Languages | Gabriel Wyner | TEDxNewBedford

Translator: Sasha Serov
Reviewer: lisa thompson So, there’s a myth
when it comes to language. And that myth is that children are exceptionally good
at learning languages and that we lose that gift
when we grow up. We have good reason
for believing in this myth. Many of us have had this experience. We’ve picked a language
in high school or college, studied hard for three, four, five years, and then we take a trip to France, and we meet a five-year-old French child, and she speaks way better
French then we do. (Laughter) And it’s not fair. I mean, we have struggled so hard, and she has never
worked a day in her life, and yet here she is
correcting our grammar. And you’re right. It’s not fair. It’s not fair because you are
comparing yourself to a child who has had 15,000 hours
of French exposure, and you have had 100, maybe 200, maybe 50. It depends upon how much of your classes
were actually spent in French instead of in English
talking about French. When you make the fair comparison – you take a five-year-old child,
transplant them to Spain, give them 500 hours of exposure there; adult gets a job in Spain,
500 hours of exposure – what you’ll find is that the adult
beats the child every time. We are better at learning
languages than children. We are smarter than them. We’ve learned how to learn. It’s one of the perks of growing up. That’s not to say there are
no advantages to being a kid; there are three. Between the ages of 6 months
and 12 months, in that tiny window, children can hear sounds in new languages
in a way that we lose. Significant advantage there. Advantage two, children are fearless. They will walk into any conversation,
whether they know the words or not, where we will hold ourselves
back; we’ll be afraid. Huge advantage. Yet neither of those two advantages
outweighs our superior ability to learn. The third advantage of being a child
is the advantage of time. We don’t have 15,000 hours
to spend learning French. And so, to succeed at this, we need something that works better
than what children use. And to talk about
what that might look like, I want to talk about some
of my own experiences. I began my language learning
journey with Hebrew, in kindergarten and elementary school. I studied for seven years, and at the end of those
seven years of study, I could read the Hebrew … alphabet. (Laughter) So I try it again. In junior high and high school,
I was fortunate; I went to a high school
that offered Russian with really good teachers, and so I took Russian
for five and a half years. I studied hard; I did well on my tests; I did all of my homework; and at the end
of those five and a half years, I could read the Russian alphabet. I retained, maybe, 40 words,
and I came to the conclusion that this whole language thing
was not for me. And then I made a poor decision. I was always a science nerd. I loved science and engineering; I wanted to be a nuclear engineer,
focused on plasma physics so I could make fusion reactors. That was my thing as a kid. But I had this hobby,
and that hobby was singing. I sang musical theater and opera. And as I was applying
to engineering schools for college, I applied to one that had
a music conservatory, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be weird to study opera
and mechanical engineering? Wouldn’t that be out there?” And so I did. One of the side effects of that
is that I needed to take language courses. For that opera degree, I needed
German, French, and Italian. And a French friend of mine
came to me and said, “Hey, you know, you can get
two semesters of credit in one summer at this school in Vermont.” And I thought, “That sounds great.” So I signed right up for this program. And the way this program works is that you sign a contract
on the very first day. It says that if I speak one word
that is not German, if I write anything, if I read anything, if I listen to a voicemail
that’s not in German, I will get kicked out
of the school with no refund. And I thought,
“I guess that sounds like fun.” (Laughter) And so I went,
and I signed that contract, and I realized that I did not
actually speak any German, and so, I stopped talking. (Laughter) And someone came up to me, and he said, “Hallo, ich heiße Joshua. Wie heißt du?” And I said, “Eh?” (Laughter) And he said, “Hallo, ich heiße Joshua. Wie heißt du?” And I said, “Ich heiße Gabriel?” And I learned German that way. Seven weeks later, I could
hold a solid conversation in the language, and I became addicted to the feeling
of thinking in a completely new way. And so, I went back the following summer
to reach fluency in German. In 2007, I moved to Vienna, Austria,
to pursue a degree in opera and in song. In 2008, I went to Perugia, Italy,
to study Italian. And in 2010, I cheated on a French test. And that’s where all of this comes from. You see, I wanted to go back to
that school with the contracts in Vermont because, in a sort of
stressful, masochistic way, it was actually kind of fun. And they had a Level 1 for people
who weren’t familiar with French, which was appropriate for my level, but they also had Level 1.5
that was a little bit faster. And I thought, this was my third language. Italian is close to French. I can probably manage 1.5. So they sent me a placement test online, and I cheated on it as much
as I possibly could. I figured me not knowing French
and cheating as much as I could might get me in Level 1.5. And so, I used
About.com’s “French grammar” to cheat on the multiple-choice section. I wrote an essay in Google Translate
and submitted this thing. (Laughter) I sent it off. I didn’t think about any more of it. And three months later I got an email, and that email said, “Congratulations! You did really well
on your placement test! We’re placing you
in the intermediate level.” (Laughter) “You have three months. In three months, we’re going to put
you in a room with a French speaker. We’ll talk to you for about 15 minutes to make sure you did not
do anything stupid, like cheat on your placement test.” (Laughter) And so, I panicked. And when I panic, I go to the internet because, clearly, someone there
has an answer for everything, and as it turns out, there were
some good answers. There are these systems called
spaced repetition systems. They’re basically like flashcards. You know those cards with, like,
“chat – cat” that you used in school? These are computerized versions of these, but they test you
right at the optimal moment, right before you forget
any piece of information, so they’re extremely efficient. Now, what people use
these space repetitions programs for is they use them with translations. And I knew from my experiences
with Hebrew and Russian that that wasn’t going to work for me, and so I did something else. And to explain that,
let’s talk about two words. The first word, we learn in a classroom. We’re learning Hungarian. Our teacher comes to the board. She writes fényképezőgép
is the Hungarian word for camera. And then she writes
39 other words on the board and says, “This will be
your vocabulary for the week. You’ll have a quiz
at the end of the week.” The second word,
we learn quite differently. You are on an adventure
with your best friend. You’re in Scandinavia. You find yourselves in an old bar. There are six grizzled old patrons. You sit at the bar, and the barkeep,
he is definitely a Viking. He has a giant red beard, and he is smiling at you
in a very disturbing manner as he puts out three shot glasses
and pulls out a bottle, and on the bottle you see written
M O K T O R, as the barkeep says, “Moktor” and starts pouring something
into these shot glasses. And it’s a sort of green liquid,
but not a nice, emerald green liquid; it’s a kind of brownish yellowish
viscous green liquid. And he puts the bottle away,
and he pulls out a white jar. From the white jar, he starts spooning
out something into each shot glass. From the scent, you realize
this is definitely rotting fish, as he repeats, “Moktor,” and all the patrons now are turning
and looking at you and laughing. The barkeep now pulls out a match. He lights it, he lights
the three shot glasses on fire, and he repeats, “Moktor,” as all of the patrons now start chanting
“Moktor! Moktor! Moktor!” And your friend, your stupid friend, he picks up his shot glass
and he shouts “Moktor!” and he blows it out, and he drinks it. And the barkeep, he blows his out,
and he shouts “Moktor!” and he drinks it. And now everyone is staring at you, chanting “Moktor! Moktor!” And you pick up your glass –
“Moktor!” – and you blow it out –
“Moktor!” – and you scream “Moktor!”
and you drink it. And it’s the worst thing
you’ve ever had in your life. And you will remember
the word moktor forever – (Laughter) where you have already forgotten
the Hungarian word for camera. (Laughter) Why? Memories are fascinating things. They’re not stored in any particular
location in your brain; they’re actually stored in the connections
between regions of your brain. When you saw that glass, you saw the bottle
and it said M O K T O R, and the barkeep said, “Moktor,” that sound and that spelling, they interconnected;
they formed a memory. Those connections connected
to other sounds: the sound of moktor getting poured
into those shot glasses, the sound of everyone chanting
in the room “Moktor! Moktor!” All of those sounds and that spelling, they interconnected,
and they also connected to images. They connected to images
of this green bottle. They connected to the shot glasses. They connected to this decaying fish. They connected
to the face of that barkeep; that Viking face,
that is a part of that word now. And those, in turn,
connect to sensory experiences, like that awful taste in your mouth,
the smell of burning, decaying fish, the heat of the fire. Those connect to emotional content: to disgust, to anger at your friend,
to excitement. They connect to your journey. They connect to what is alcohol,
what is Scandinavia, what is friendship, what is adventure. All of these things
are now a part of this word, and they make it so that that word
is going to stick with you, where the Hungarian word for camera, well, you don’t even remember
what it sounds like. This non-memory isn’t associated
with iPhone cameras and SLR cameras and the sound of a shutter, and the feelings you get
when you look at photos from your past. No, those associations exist; they’re connected to another word,
to the word camera. But fényképezőgép has
none of that right now. And so, you can’t hold on to it. So what can you do with this? Well, let’s return
to where I was with French. My situation was as follows: I was taking two master’s degrees,
one in song, one in opera, and so I had six days of class a week. My only free time
was an hour a day on the subway, Sundays, and Austrian national holidays,
of which, thankfully, there were many. And during that time, I did one thing: I built and reviewed flashcards in one of these computerized
spaced repetition systems. But instead of using translations
on those flashcards, I began with pictures. If I wanted to learn
the French word for dog, chien, then I would search
on Google Images for chien, and I would find that French bloggers
didn’t choose the dogs I would expect. Their dogs were smaller and cuter
and, somehow, more French. (Laughter) And so, I used these dogs to learn chien and built a vocabulary out of these pictures
from French bloggers. And as I built that vocabulary,
I graduated over to sentences. And I started learning abstract words
and grammar that way, using fill-in-the-blank sentences. If I wanted to learn a word, like,
went is the past tense of to go, I would use a story. Yesterday, I blank to school –
with a picture of a schoolhouse. And so, I learned
my abstract grammar in that way. And then, three months later,
I had that interview. And I found myself in this room
with this French person, who began our conversation with “Bonjour.” And then, the first thing
that came to my mind was, “Bonjour.” And she started speaking to me in French, and I realized I understood
what she was saying, and what’s more, I knew what to say back. And it wasn’t fluent;
it was a bit stunted, but this was the first time
I had spoken French in my life, and I was speaking in French,
and I was thinking in French, and we had a 15-minute conversation, and at the end of this conversation,
the teacher tells me, “You know, there something wrong
with your placement test. It says you should be
in the intermediate level, but we’re placing you
in the advanced level.” And so, over the next seven weeks, I read 10 books,
I wrote 70 pages of essays, and by the end of that summer,
I was fully fluent in French. And I realized that I had found
something important. And so I started writing about it
and creating computerized tools around it and tinkering. In 2012, I learned Russian. I had my revenge on that language. In 2013 through 2015, I learned Hungarian. In 2015, I started Japanese,
then stopped, learned Spanish, came back, and started Japanese again
because Japanese is endless. In each of these experiences,
I learned a lot. I learned ways of tweaking the system
to find efficiency boosts here and there, but the overall concept
has always remained exactly the same. If you want to learn
a language efficiently, then you need to give that language life. Every word needs to connect
to sounds and images and scents and tastes and emotions. Every bit of grammar can’t be some kind of
abstract grammatical code; it needs to be something
that can help you tell your story. And if you do this, you will find that the words
begin to stick in your mind, and the grammar, it begins to stick too. And you start to realize that you don’t need
some kind of language gene, some gift from God to accomplish this. This is something that everyone has both the time and the ability to do. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Why We Struggle Learning Languages | Gabriel Wyner | TEDxNewBedford

  1. So I need to move to Sweden (I want to learn Sweden and Welsh since im welsh and I like sweden)

    And in Wales no one speaks Welsh 😐

  2. This TEDtalk is very helpful! I speak three languages and I am also learning French and Japanese in addition. I started learning English at the age of 12 and it is my 3rd language. People usually ask me how I learn and speak English fluently. I only study about 15 minutes every day and use that language frequently in daily life. That's how I study languages. For me, studying for hours is not helpful at all because I am not a studious person, so I used a more useful method and I think some people would feel the same as I do.

  3. brave, amazing, outstanding! this would definitely help me in learning languages faster especially when I have time in the holidays 🙂

  4. "If you want to learn a language efficiently, then you need to give that language life."
    That's absolutelly true. That's why I use music to learn better and always learn something new.

  5. His main point about children getting massive exposure is true. However, if it takes you five years of study to learn only the alphabet in college, that's just bad, and there's no way that three months of playing with flashcards will make you fluent to your own surprise. It just doesn't add up. I read people in the comments complaining about the gloomy audience, but this is just a weak motivational speech, even for TED Talks standards.

  6. Great video and great fun, too! Agree in full, if you want to learn a language, surround yourself with that language. Start with changing the language of your mobile devices, because that's where you will usually spend a lot of time.

  7. Still haven't learnt a new language but I watched this Ted Talk around a year ago and I've been walking around saying "Moktor" randomly since.

  8. ofc… now it makes sense why children learn faster because they're constantly making new memories with seeing, touching, tasting, hearing and smelling new things while learning…

  9. så min först språk var serbiska och min familj pratade serbiska, kompis också.Och en dag jag var liksom varför inte lära mig nytt språk(or språket i forgot 😬) också jag var 12 år gammal. För alltid jag älskade pewdiepie och han är från Sverige så Svenska var min första och bästa option.

    And here I am after one year of learning Swedish,being able to talk to a native speakers.Meanwhile I thought myself English and I’m trying to improve as much as I can 🤪

  10. I have a question. Which language do you use when you use this story telling method? Your mother tongue or your target language? Because it sounds too difficult to create a story for almost every word you find in the target language. Also, do you think reading books in that specific target language is efficient or you won't understand a thing?

  11. Ooooh! Thank you for this!! Thank you so much for this!! I am fluent in English and Tagalog, and after watching this TED talk I realized a lot of things. Currently studying French (in the app called Duolingo). I sometimes find it hard to remember the words but… I feel like the reason why it isnt that difficult is because I sometimes daydream when learning French. I dont translate it I… remember the images, the things I daydream about. Like for example "Ou est la gare, s'il vous plaît?" While typing that, I wasnt thinking of the English or the Tagalog translation of it, I was remembering the time where I daydreamed about me, wandering around French then asking someone, "Ou est la gare, s'il vous plaît?" Even if it didnt happen, there was an image, and it stuck with me. The sentence stuck with me. It like, connected.

    While watching the video, I was trying to remember the English of "Where is the train station, please?" When I remembered the image in my head, the sentence greeted me like "yo, lookin for me?"

    Its magic. Its so cool. Even if you arent in France, even if you dont have a friend or relative who speaks in French, it is possible to learn it, and possible be fluent in it. And I find it very cool.

    Again, thanks for this TED talk. Merci beaucoup!

  12. A knew a professor that spoke 8 languages. He said, after learning the first 3 fairly well, the others were easier, but Hungarian was the toughest.

  13. If somebody else EVER asks me why I'm not fluent in French after having learnt it for 6years, I'm just gonna show them this video…learning to speak fluently is nearly impossible in a classroom. The best substitute I could come up with is to listen to the French translations of songs that I loved in English (think Disney soundtracks, but I also found a cover channel run by a girl who fully translates songs into French so that they rhyme and everything and then records covers and puts the French lyrics on-screen. It's now to the point where I've almost completely forgotten the English lyrics to ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU)

  14. I can definitely agree with u that this myth is just a stereotype , we can learn languages much effectively and much better and faster than children .. from my own experience with English for extent, one year later I was 0 in English , in less then 8 mouths I can tell i was able to understand and speak the language , maybe not that perfect but it's good for this short period..now it's 1 year and I can understand perfectly any native speaker and I can interact with them .. everyone have this ability if there is a strong will to do so .

  15. Another "porky pies" deliver. You cannot learnt any language. You can study it depeer and deeper but never fully learnt.

  16. No. Nope. This guys is obnoxious, and wrong, and not nearly as fluent as he thinks. And he's making the huge mistake of believing that what works for him works for everyone. And he takes an overly hurried approach to language learning – it's not about what you can cram into your mind in one quick year or whatever…it's a love of learning, a love a words, a lifetime of delighting in learning the nuances. He acts like it's all about becoming a Mr. Smarty Pants as quickly as possible, which makes sense, because he's obviously full of himself.

    Is there something to be said about learning in a way that is connected to memories, etc? Yes. Is there something to be said about learning in a methodical way, learning the ins-and-outs of grammar, from books and teachers? Yes. And you need BOTH. Not just one. Plus he's lying. Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages for English-speakers to learn – it's considered harder for English-speakers than languages like Mandarin. Let that sink in. The grammar structure is completely foreign for non-native speakers, ie the use of Cases. You can't learn it through cute little flash cards.

    What a disappointment this talk is.

  17. Hi, I'm learning English and I'm from Brazil, I'm still in the basics, I feel I need a conversational friend who can help me learn better, would anyone help me? I would be very grateful

    I would be happy to help you learn Portuguese if you wish🤭

  18. This video was great. However, the "myth" that he is referring to is not a myth, nor is it accurate. Language acquisition is not taught, it is acquired the same way he learned German. As toddlers, our parents typically do not sit with us literally giving a lesson on how to speak our native language and going over the rules that govern that language. We acquire language by being fully immersed into it. He actually learned each language the way toddlers learn how to speak. We are not superior at learning, we are better at recognizing how to learn as adults, whereas children don't recognize it, they just do.

  19. This was the most dead audience ever…didn't laugh at the jokes, didn't cheer for when he learnt french to be placed in the advanced level. Why did they even come to his talk??

  20. It’s because in America we learn “proper” forms of language and overseas they never speak the formal proper language. They have different dialects to the languages.

  21. He just basically described how I learned English the first time he succeeded; I was placed in a school where the teachers would REFUSE to speak with me in Indonesian, or they didn't know wtf I was talking about. All the lessons were also in English. So it was sink or swim. I learned really fast, though.

  22. True, My brother got laughed at cause he didnt know english. But he didnt even realize they were laughing at him and used gestures and sounds to talk to them at first.

  23. Enjoyable talk. Bravo. That sure is a tough way of learning a word for a drink! Gabriel, as you studied Hungarian you maybe learned the word for Unicum in the same way. 🙂 I'm sure you agree that Hungarian is easier once we grasp how words are put together. e.g. fényképezőgép, fény is light, kép is picture and gép is machine.

  24. I’m here because a foreign exchange student from Japan came and I would really like to speak to him but he’s not the greatest at English. So I want to learn a bit so we can at least have basic communication. It’s also because I feel awkward since he’s not the greatest but I shouldn’t

  25. Language never forgives. If you don't speak you don't learn it. If you don't speak it you simply forget it. Language never forgives.

  26. Of course, being smart hasn't to do with anything according to Mr. Wyner. Let's face it, if your IQ is within the top 1% of the population, learning a language is easy, just as it is for him. Selling this to everybody is false advertisement. It's easy for him because it's a god given gift. He's kinda oblivious to the fact that people are different.

  27. im learning spanish in school and, yes, what he is saying is 100% true. not only is it cool to be able to converse with people of a different culture, it helps you learn how they think. for example, in spanish, the sentence can dramatically change whether or not a noun is feminine or masculine. "Las joyas son de buena calidad." (the quality of the jewelry is very good.) it's even hard to directly translate that sentence into english because spanish grammar can be the exact opposite of english grammar. it's also fun to be able to think in a different language. two showsirecommend to learn spanish are both of the narcos shows. even though both shows have two different accents and ways of speaking spanish (columbian and mexican) it's good practice just to close your eyes and try to understand what they are saying.

  28. I read Russian text in Latin alphabets and then I read the same thing in Cyrillic alphabets and then I googled the letters I did not know and I learned how to read the Russian alphabet in 1 day.

  29. I learnt English in school, and by now, at 23, I can say I'm fluent, in fact, I work as a translator. The funny thing is I think I never understood why I was fluent while some of my classmates to this day stutter while speaking when we received the same education until this moment. I used English to read the books I wanted to read and to understand the music I liked, I also built relationships online with people who only spoke English. I gave the language life, in a way I didn't with French or German, which are languages I can introduce myself in, point at random things and say their name, and say "I'm fine, thank you, and you?" but that's it.
    I'm currently learning Korean, and I actually find it easier than French or German, perhaps for the same reason I found English a piece of cake, I'm giving it life.
    What a great TED talk.

  30. This isn't true, I've known many families that move to the US, the parents are always less proficient in english when compared to their children, even when the parents had experience before the children

  31. Fantastic learning method and very inspiring. I can speak three foreign languages and learned everything by using my own methodology. Next target French, Italian and German and maybe more… Thanks for sharing

  32. the word 'moktor' relates with me by stressing out about a french thing for school. Struggling really hard on the listening on it, searching youtube on how you can understand native speakers while this pops up.

  33. Thank you for this Ted Talk Gabriel Wyner! I am going to be using this method in learning spanish. I took spanish 1,spanish 2, and spanish 3 last year I remember majority of the vocab but not the conjugation.

  34. Aculy the fun fact i aculy kinda used his method and didin't even know when i was 11 and watching english thro youtube it is aculy how i learned english. 🙂
    Now i m learning korean , freanch , and russian at the same time. 🙂 for me is better to draw everysingle word in to a meaning and aculy if you talk to your self in that languge you are learning it helps to connect the words and helps to learn new words et the same time 🙂
    I alredy can speck fluently English and my native languge Lithuanian its pretty hard but beudifull languge. My goal to understand and properly speack in 8 more diffrent languges until i will go to university. Oh btw i m 14 year old lithuanian girl. 🙂
    Wish me luck 😊🤞

  35. I'm looking for a native German speaker who wants to practice Turkish with me in exchange.
    (Çok feci Türkçe öğretirim.)

  36. As a hungarian i always get surprised when I hear people learn hungarian.
    Like… why? it is not similar to any other languages and difficult af.
    so, big respect 😀

  37. I’m sorry but I don’t believe the story about making flash cards for a few weeks and then having an advanced level french conversation. What about knowing how to pronounce the words properly?

  38. They told me not to watch subbed anime to learn Japanese all those years ago. All I can say to that now is 俺は俺のやり方を使う、お前らはお前らのやり方をつかう。そうしようね?

  39. To people who already watch this video: does he cite research to back up his claims?

    If not I'm not gonna bother watching it.
    Thanks in advance for any responses.

  40. It is called "The Story Method" Its not a learning technique, it is a well-known memory technique and its out there for decades… I can't believe he acts like he actually invented something!

  41. I only wish i can master in English. That is just enough for me😂 well my english is poor to medium. I can understand but cannot talk properly and also my grammar is too bad. U can tell😅

  42. Polyglots amaze me so much. I realize I need to step up my game when it comes to learning Norwegian, but I am motivated.

  43. Really good pronunciation of the word fényképezőgép, I am amazed! From now after your video I connect this word with moktor… 😀

  44. I have a lot of sympathy for these tactics for learning languages, having had to learn French and Spanish to function in Switzerland, French West Africa and Mexico. However, my concern is that none of these systems seem to integrate the internal logic of the parts of speech of the language, and of the syntax of that language. If verbs are the heart of the sentence, and the sentence is the heart of all discourse, being made up of units such as nouns, pronouns etc. which have their own internal logic, surely we miss a trick by not internalising this logic of the grammar and syntax of the language we are studying?

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