Why are languages being taught like math?

Within the past century there have been many great developments in language teaching, especially from American educators. And yet, the majority of foreign language courses taught in America and around the world are very much your standard grammar/translation course mixed in with “communicative” learning. While this is a very valuable method the major drawback is that it needs to be intensive in order to achieve good results. Your 50 minute high school Spanish class 3 times a week doesn’t count as intensive. Even with all of the worksheets assigned for homework.

So now I must ask the question; Why are languages being taught like math? And more importantly why are they being tested and graded like math?

Let’s do a little thought experiment.

Imagine you are in math class. Nothing too crazy, it’s just your typical fourth grade elementary school arithmetic.

Now like any good student you’ve been studying hard and doing a ton of practice problems on worksheets and from your textbook. Every problem is beautifully solved step by step. And like the perfect student you show each step of your work written out in your best penmanship.

You are well prepared for what’s about to come next. The math test. What’s on the test? Long division and multiplication. The test is an hour long with 100 questions.

But, unfortunately the copier in the teacher’s room is broken. So the teacher decides to give the exam orally. And you can’t write anything down. In fact, you have to do all of the math in your head and have to speak your answers aloud. You still have an hour and 100 questions.

Can you do it?

I imagine you won’t do very well unless you’ve been working with a private tutor or teaching yourself on how to do long division in your head.

That’s how many language classes work to prepare the learner for conversation. Most grammar focused courses are very good, but they rarely give the students the skills to do any real work in the language. Communicative classes try to address this issue but usually put the cart before the horse and miss the fine parts of understanding the language. Students say things without understanding.

Why are grammar classes good? Well, if you take a look at Chomsky’s recent works about languages, you’ll understand something very important. Language developed first as a method for thinking not communication. That came afterwards as a result.

However, it’s very hard to think in another language without acquiring the grammar. Grammar courses are focus on making you aware how the language works and how the forms change. Thinking only happens naturally when the brain acquires the grammar patterns and meaning with sounds.

Are they good at helping you acquire that internally? Depends on the class. If the class is heavy in comprehension, it’ll have stronger results. If it’s taught like a series of math puzzles, once the puzzle is solved there is less reason for the brain to retain the pieces of the puzzle.

Now let’s move back to our thought experiment. Acquiring a language is like acquiring another way to do mental math. You can’t simply understand the rules and apply them when in mid conversation. You must have it already internalized. Your brain must be trained to hold the capacity. The brain must process meaning and take mental notes in the language.

Many language courses are taught focused on reading and writing. And it’s done through the scope of  the mother tongue. Very little attention is given to understanding. Dialogue and conversation is stressed. Thinking is glanced over.  It is presented as a set of grammar rules to decode messages. And remembering all of these rules before the brain has fully acquired them causes too much strain on the mental capacities. Especially during an unrehearsed conversation.

Should we teach grammar? Absolutely.

Should languages be taught and tested like math?

What is the end goal?

Becoming Bilingual and Organizing Practice

Becoming Bilingual, Larson, Smalley 1972As I’m here in Japan, I decided to dust off the old book of “Becoming Bilingual” by Larson and Smalley. I’ve read through a lot of the chapters and skimmed through others.

There wasn’t too much to take away that was new to me on the second reading. But I know that after being here in Japan for more than a month I must organize some sort of learning schedule.

The book has some recommendations and then goes over various types of practice and activities from texts to translations to practicing for vocabulary and pronunciation.

Let’s face it. Japanese is has a big learning curve coming from an English mother tongue.

What are the big hurdles to overcome?


Being here in Japan, I learned that writing is still very much appreciated here. Handwritten things are everywhere. Most people have to fill out forms and write resumes by hand.If I want to send something by post, I’ll need to know how to write out things myself.

Not too many things are computerized. Only when technology calls for it the most are things computerized. Though, I’m pretty well practiced in computer input with Japanese.

This is an ability that I will need to develop and keep here in Japan. For this, I will have to organize practice around it.


Reading is another ability I need. Now I know why many people are very Kanji focused in their studies. And I also know why Japanese don’t expect foreigners to know much Kanji at all. Most Japanese will recognize everything they see. Many will have a hard time remembering some kanji. Also reading some kanji can occasionally be difficult if it’s rarely used. Knowing kanji is also a form of social status to some extent. Some do daily practice of Kanji as a hobby and not just calligraphy.

Kanji can really slow me down at times. Sometimes the kanji that I know very well will speed things up when I read as compared to pure hiragana/katakana. Signs in Kanji are everywhere. Handwritten things in Kanji are the hardest thing for me.

Also reading speed is a big factor. A native will fly through a comic book at the convenience store. I have trouble reading through articles online.


There’s not much to say here other than, I need to build my vocabulary. And this is a huge reason why my reading is so slow and dead. I can’t process much if I don’t have enough practice/experience with the words. Even if I’ve seen them or heard them in context before, it takes a while to acquire some words.

Proper context Phrases.

Sometimes I want to express something in Japanese, but I can’t. This must be due to lack of pattern practices. Sometimes I’m unsure of myself of the proper conditional, and the proper words to say. This is due to lack of reading too. Lack of experiences in general. Occasionally the a word here and there will trip me up. This word is used for polite language, and I don’t really know it so my mind goes blank on the word. And when that happens, I’ve lost track of what was being asked or said. YAY!


Eventually all of these things build up to a fluency. That is,  I can run through trains of thought without tripping over my words or my uncertainty. I know the words through and through. I’ve seen them many times. I’ve heard them used in many different context. I’ve explicitly practiced and used them in context. I can organize ideas in my head and communicate them all in Japanese.  This is the ideal. I can also translate them with full command into my mother tongue. I will convey the full sense of the stories and words and phrases. This is Bilingualism.

 The Practice System

The book has a chart explaining hours of practice and how to spend it in a good learning system.

In the first 4-6 months 15 minutes would be focused on pronunciation. 45 minutes would be focused on frozen phrases. And then, patterns would take up 2 hours. Using these patterns to say new things are set for another 2 hours. Reading for only 20 minutes.  Then an hour is dedicated to using the language out in the environment.

In the other book, “Barefoot Language Learning” by Larson, he goes over another way to learn Languages based off of language helpers and slowly getting more involved in the communities.

I’ll only have a few hours a day to practice. Maybe 4 hours at the maximum for full on practice.

It’s weird because I feel that I’m at a very different stage as I’m a “False beginner” as they call it. I really hate that term, but it’s suitable. I never had a proper intensive class, other than a casual tutor. Most of my learning has been very casual with a few sprints here and there with drill books and the RTK.

So, how should I organize my practice?

I need to have 20 minute sessions with a 10 minute activity break.

This seems to be the magic number to avoid burnout and to increase long term memory retention. Check out this study here http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00589/full

The break activity will be drawing and focusing on my drawing skills. I love to sketch things out on paper, and I think this will really help to engage other parts of my brain.

The Plan
  • 1 hour of extensive reading (2 20 minute sessions with a 10 minute activity break each)
  • 1 hour of of Kanji (1 20 min session of learning, 1 20 minute session of reviewing)
  • 1 hour of vocabulary drilling. 2 20 minute sessions. This is something that I need to actively do. It’s hard to comprehend what I’m listening to if I’ve never been exposed to words in the first place. I have a few drill books and a grammar book as well. After I finish the vocab book, I’ll move onto grammar drills. Right now, the vocab base is still very weak.
  • 1 hour of Glossika Mass sentences. Same 2 20 minute drills apply here. I got these a while ago, and I feel that they will work great for active pattern drilling. I just need to dust them off and use them.
  • Tracking: I’ll keep notes of my sessions.

This is only 4 hours and it doesn’t seem like enough. But I know that it adds up to a lot when done every day.

Sitting at the kids table


During my short trip to Japan, I realized that my Japanese has gotten much stronger. However, I’m still sitting at the kids table.

sitting at the kid's table

The kid’s table is the difference between being fluent and being bi-lingual. It’s also the foreigner speak. It’s the foreigner mistakes. And honestly, it’s the huge chunk of vocabulary and grammar that is missing.

When I arrived in Japan, I felt a strong pull in my head as I engaged with the language community.

Boom! The gears of my rusty brain clicked and clacked as I started to understand what was going on around me. At times I  put the brakes on to think and grab that long lost word that lives in the deep reaches of my memory. And that caused me to skip over what was being said as the Japanese bursted out in waves into the air.

And then I realized that I still have a long way to go. I need to understand the fine details in Japanese so I can leave the kid’s table. But alas, my Japanese is still half-baked.

On my trip, my Japanese was at its strongest. And even so, I was quite humbled.

I knew exactly what I didn’t know. I looked at the newspaper and said… well… there’s something I can’t do effortlessly yet. Reading an article might take me an hour or two.

Eavesdropping and listening to talk radio…

Yep, I can’t do that yet without intense focus. Even if I focus with all of my might, I couldn’t get any fine details out of it. The processing speed of my Japanese is far too slow right now.

A good solution is more reading of things such as kid’s science books. Explanations in Japanese for children have been helping. But I need to keep going.

Also, I need to study intensively from vocab and grammar books. There’s really no way around that. There’s too much to know that I must explicitly learn through constant practice and memorisation. I’ve realized the gains from such study before. But it is very tiring and hard work.

I’ve also been reading more and more these past few weeks in Japanese. It’s been quite a treat, and I’ve felt myself improving. It’s quite exciting to discover new things. Each time, I find a new way to express something. And most importantly I understand people speaking. And I get it faster.

Listening and being engaged in the language community will bring a tremendous change in my abilities.  I have to work hard to become an insider, not an outsider.  That means lots of drilling and proper studying in preparation as well as getting out of the books participating in society. With these experiences, I will reach the adult’s table.

photo credit: birthday party at the gymnasium via photopin (license)

Language Apps are Making us Dumberer


That’s the new buzz word nowadays. And for good reason; There’s big money in it.

And over the years the edtech fever has come and gone. Schools want to look good so they’ll throw technology at the classrooms.

And then people will complain about all of the spending on junk that will be obsolete in a few years, rather than investing in evergreen things like desks and textbooks that were made to last. Also investments in teachers as a whole would be a better use of money rather than spending the budget on iPads for the kids.


Edtech is not limited to the classroom either.

They are making things for the people who spend 7 – 8 hours on the internet all day. And the big money just flows into these companies because the investors see those people sucking all these new apps up like chocolate pudding! If you can sell your idea to a VC and get funding for your app, you’ve got a tech startup.

But is all of this technology really helping?

 “To what problem is this technology a solution?” – Neil Postman

Now, this is not a rhetorical question. This is an honest question. Many people go on the defensive when this is asked. Mostly because they have a lot of time spent on a particular technology and haven’t asked themselves this question. What happens if we find there is no problem? Has that person wasted countless hours of their lives?

No, I think that every entrepreneur needs to ask this question to become a better problem solver, and technology creator.

So, back to the question. To what problem do educational apps solve?

How about the problem of learning a language? Did we solve that problem with technology? Did DuoLingo solve the problem of learning Spanish? Did Rosetta Stone solve the problem? How about Memrise, or Anki?

Wasn’t this problem already solved?

They were already solved by thousands of textbooks and millions of teachers and tutors across the globe. Those of which have been shown time and time again to be more effective than the latest fad in language learning technology.


The brain sucks up a foreign language much better when it’s learned from people in a compelling way. That’s why it’s hard for an app to solve the problem of learning a langauge by itself.

What are some other problems with learning languages?

Well, some people don’t have time or money for a language tutor or class. They want to self study. Or they need to brush up on their Spanish before they leave for Mexico next month. These are all problems that phrase books and phrase apps try to solve.

How about text books, and audio? These are things that have existed for a long time before. And they have been used by millions of people.  I would argue that they are much better for beginners and intermediates than most of the new edtech out there.

Many apps have a hard time either being only beginner focused, or thinking they are beginner focused and are actually intermediate level focused. That is not to say that textbooks can’t get this mixed up too. In my experience, that is the case with many of them. But, just look at Duo-lingo or Lingq for examples of getting levels confused.

As a complete beginner I felt that learning Chinese from Lingq was way too hard. All of the beginner material was just not sticking at all. At that time I had zero Chinese in my head. I did however get great use out of Lingq by putting in my own Japanese content. And doing that helped for a little while. I was a high-beginner to intermediate at the time. I didn’t need to learn much extra Kanji.  But months after, I grew tired of it and went back to the pen, paper and Anki.

Some developers and writers do get the target level right. Some get it very wrong. And you know, it’s not always the developer’s fault. It’s usually the method being used. The technology could work great, but the the overall teaching method could be way off. Many of these apps are made by technologist and not educators or linguists. And that’s a big problem. And Linguists that do come on to some projects aren’t necessarily good teachers. Teacher’s don’t always make good presentations with technology. You see where the disconnect can come from?

This disconnect shows in so many language learning apps. These edtech methods that are usually developed by techies who are scratching their own itch  go without much research, and if they are researched, the studies are poorly done and grossly misleading for marketing purposes. Actual results are usually dismissed during research. Research is mostly about how the user feels, not what the outcome of using the technology shows. At least not by any comprehensive metric.


But, hey! It’s the nature of business.

As an entrepreneur you need to make a decision. If your idea doesn’t work as well as you thought, you have to make an assessment. If you spent all of this time and money in this one product idea and it doesn’t work as thought, do you go back to the drawing board and ask for more money? Or do you retell the story of your technology and how it works? Do you focus on selling your brand instead of just dropping your product? Most people will double down and sell you junk and act like it’s gold.

Another big problem with a lot of the edtech is, what happens when your battery dies? Do you have a book, or notes that you can use? Your hard drive dies. Or the cloud server is down. You can’t get wifi or 4G. Your data ran out. You lost your phone. Your phone’s screen got smashed.

Books have problems too, but they are less frequent. You spill coffee all over your book. Your book accidentally catches on fire. The pages fall out because you’ve been using it too much. You left your book at home. You can’t fit your book into your pocket. Yep, all of these things can go wrong too.

The dangers of breaking down the problem

Okay, now let’s ask a different question. What part of language learning do these edtech products solve?

If you ask this question, you will find that many of these apps are doing very similar things.

Vocabulary memorization?

Memrise, Anki, LiveMocha, Busuu, Rosetta Stone, and other flashcard apps

Character memorization?

Skritter, Anki, other kanji, and flash-card apps

Grammar Acquisition?

The Pimsleur Method… and maybe some online textbooks and classes?

Grammar is not sexy so it’s a tough sell as far as apps go. Honestly Pimsleur CD’s and others like it (not an app, I know) are really the only winner here for implicit grammar acquisition.

Survival phrases?

Many companies have websites and apps for teaching these. They are usually reinforced through flashcards and quizzes. You’ve seen this before with learn Mandarin in 30 days phrasebooks. Nothing new under the sun, right?

Learning funny phrases to look cool

There are all sorts of apps like this like “Hot Chinese” and “Dirty Russian” or “Korean in Dramas.”

Again it’s the same thing as the phrase other phrase apps and phrasebooks. The marketing angle is that these are not your boring textbook phrases. Or, if you want to get a hot Swedish girlfriend, you should say this phrase.

You see what happens when we ask these certain questions? We broke down the problem. And actually, we distorted the overall problem. I’ll tell you why it’s distorted later in this article. Let’s get back to these “problems.”

You asked questions about specific parts of the problem, and now you have a niche market.

Ah, now you’re thinking like a marketer! Not necessarily like an educator. You see, it’s easy to sell these ideas to people. Let’s look at just how easy it is! This will help us understand the problem of breaking down the problem into niches. So let’s do a little thought experiment.

Let’s make a commercial for a new Chinese app.

How will we do this?

Imagine, a young French woman in a business suit. She’s on the streets of Shanghai and she’s confused. She can’t figure out the subway map. Then she turns to her phone. She downloads the “Learn Chinese Now Now Now!” app and puts her headphones in her ears.

After that we see three shots of her. The first is her ordering lunch at a restaurant in Chinese.

The next shot is in a room in front of twenty Chinese executives. She’s speaking English for her presentation. But then she makes a joke in Chinese and everyone in the room roars with laughter.

And finally, our last scene is in a fancy sea-side restaurant. She’s having dinner with a Chinese man. You can only see their silhouettes, but you know the night is still young and her success in China has only yet begun.

In reality she’s just an actress who’s been fed lines by a Hollywood language trainer. Tom Cruise doesn’t know much Japanese. Jim Carey didn’t study Korean for 5 years. That Japanese girl on the English school commercial didn’t really study at the school for 6 months. She’s reciting lines that she practiced for weeks.

But marketers know that appealing to logic only works when you appeal to the emotions first. There’s a reason why they only show air brushed models on the juice commercial.

Sure, maybe they’ll talk about the juice as being 100% natural with no artificial additives. Okay, sure… That’s a logical argument right?

Well… it may seem like it at first, but really that’s appealing to the emotions more than logic. What does artificial additive mean? More importantly, what does it mean to not be 100% natural? If it was 60% would you give the drink an F instead of an A+?

If you want to be a good marketer, throw out the facts and the results of the product. Then build a story. And then make the story look really beautiful or funny.

After that, appeal to as many emotions as possible with imagery, sounds and soothing phrases that have been tested thoroughly. Or if you’re product is crap, don’t say much about it, just make pretty pictures. Maybe give it a nice color scheme and a unique font. Sometimes less is more in marketing.

I’m not saying marketing is a bad thing. Infact if you have a product that helps people and does what it really says, you should use all the tactics to get as much of that product out the door as possible. But as a consumer, I’m saying be weary.

Look at the facts, the evidence. Try to break down your initial thought. Your mind is under the pressure of a strong flowing current of marketing messages. Sometimes that current will lead you down a path of disappointment.

And that brings me to why this breaking down the problem into niche solutions is dangerous.

It leads people to believe that real language learning as a whole cannot be done. Only these niche things can be achieved.

I’ve had a few friends who’ve said they’ve used Memrise or Busuu for learning Korean. And when they went out into the real world, they realized that they couldn’t put sentences together or understand what people were saying even after learning the first 1000 words in the app.

That’s the reality. Niche products and tunnel visioned technology will only get you so far.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Vocabulary is good. Studying from vocab books can be useful for further language acquisition if done intensively. The problem comes when these products are marketed saying “Do you want to learn a language? Sign up today! You’ll be able to get an Italian model even if you’re just some farmer from Nebraska.”

Rosetta Stone Ad

Okay, so that just makes the person think that that’s all there is to it. Pay money, get Italian models. Win at life!

You might say that that kind of marketing doesn’t work. But wait a second. These ads aren’t appealing to logic here. They’re appealing to another part of the brain. The part that blinds us. It’s also the part that helps us survive. It’s the part that tells us to stay with the tribe. The part that makes us miss home. The part that craves mom’s homemade cheesecake. The part that makes us drink Coke Zero instead of water. The part that filled up the shopping cart on Amazon.

Many people have dreams of adventure in foreign lands. Marketing departments know this and make ads that appeal to those people. It appeals to me too. I’m not immune. I want to travel the world and experience all of it’s natural beauty. I want to ride my bike across the world taking pictures of all of the beautiful faces across the globe.

The reality is, that people that actually learn a language don’t usually learn from these tech products. If they do, it’s very seldom.

We don’t need another Memrise. We don’t need another Duolingo. We don’t need another SRS such as Anki. Do people make worthy improvements on these apps? Yes. Do these improvements solve problems for some people and create problems for others? Yes.

But we have to be honest. Real innovation in most of these apps is marketing. And, once that snowball of money starts rolling in, the marketing budget blows up. And when that happens you get a horde of users on the app. And after that comes more funding. And again more marketing after that. It’s an unstoppable yes train.

And that’s why you won’t find many dissenting opinions. Too much money is involved. Not enough information about alternatives and how people actually learn languages is being touted by the media.


That doesn’t sell. Moving products is the number 1 importance. Number 2 is making people think that they are learning something. It’s Edutainment!

What else sells?

Well, don’t forget about the biggest marketing message of all. It’s a free language learning tool! Why pay for tutors and classes? Because usually you pay for what you get. These freemium apps aren’t always created with the best care.

More importantly, be weary of people who say, “You shouldn’t criticize a free product.”

Guess what? That marketing message is flawed. A program such as DuoLingo is not free. It has a cost. Can you guess what it is?

I’ll give you a minute…

It costs time and energy! Free apps are not free!

Also what about the opportunity cost? That is, what about the opportunity of using that time on something more effective? Yes, that’s a cost. Also, some of the content in apps are just plain wrong or slow. Again wasting your time is a cost.

People complain about public schools all the time. Do parents at the PTA meetings sit there around a big table and say, “Well, this education is free, so we can’t really complain about anything?”

Hey, your education was FREE, right? You can’t complain about it, right?


Okay, so what are some free or paid apps that don’t waste your time?

Useful tech for language learning:

  1. Skype. Skype is awesome. Other technologies that are similar and do video chatting are great too such as Google Hangouts. This is how you can talk to tutors and teachers online. Or you can talk to a language exchange partner for free.
  2. Twitter. Depending on the language you are learning, some language cultures don’t use twitter too much. The Japanese use Twitter quite a bit. Some people are touting that it’s a dying technology, but in Japan, Twitter is still very much thriving. You can find people on twitter to talk to. And maybe even Skype with them. It’s a possibility.
  3. Blogs. Blogs are good for keeping track of your studies. I’ve used blogging by tracking some of my studying but it’s mostly fallen appart from time to time. However, writing and reflecting on your studies is an important way to learn and straighten out your mind. Also reading other people’s blogs helps you get other ideas and encouragement.
  4. Anki. Yes, you do need to memorize things to a point. Even with all of the CI techniques that I advocate for, memorization helps. If you work on memorization intensively, then you’ll need something to help you manage all of those flashcards. Anki wonderfully solves the problems of flash-card management and review management.
  5. Google. Google can act as a dictionary. Google images can also help. If a word appears and you can’t find it in a dictionary, take it to google. The word could be new or trendy. or it could be a phrase that the dictionary doesn’t know yet.
  6. Online dictionaries. It helps you get an answer quickly. Not always accurately, but fast and many times with example uses.
  7. Easy learner content. Such sites as News in Levels for English, and NHK News Web Easy for Japanese really help with getting new and compelling comprehensible input. There are even some videos on youtube for learners. These videos are much better than the hard to understand native level content. You’re aiming for comprehension, not native material that you can’t understand. Don’t start with multidimensional calculus. Start with counting and arithmetic first.

Reality: Most language apps that you see advertised suck.

Duolingo is not about teaching people to learn a language. It’s about getting people to work for them for free by translating text. (https://adventureslaura.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/trufax-duolingo-can-both-help-and-hinder-your-ability-to-learn-a-language/)

The Bottom line

Yes, much of this technology is making you dumber.

You could spend your time better with textbooks and tutors. Most affluent and elite people know this and hire tutors for their kids.

You must learn a language from people in the end. Technology can help, but most of the app peddlers out there are selling the same old trash dressed in different shiny bows.

Even if the junk is free, it still costs you time and opportunity. Don’t waste your time. You can’t do everything by yourself in your room.

photo credit: Broken via photopin (license)