Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Learning foreign languages? Why bother?

That's the title of an article by David Behling, a professor at Waldorf College, cunningly designed to pull in people like me looking to shoot down a ridiculous argument. Unfortunately Professor Behling is pulling a fast one on us, because he comes down firmly on the side of learning languages.

I of course agree with that sentiment, but there's a few places where I can't quite agree with what he's saying.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why didn't my university teach languages like Drake University does?

We in the language-learning blogosphere are generally not impressed by university-level language programs. Some of us have even gone so far as to envision a brave new world of institutional language learning where entire language departments get the boot and students take advantage of native speakers, study abroad, and the multitude of resources available to them to learn their language of choice.

Well, I hate to spoil our "We know so much better than crusty, old schools" party, but Drake University, "a private, fully accredited, coeducational university on a 120-acre campus in Des Moines, Iowa", seems to be way ahead of the curve on this one. They implemented just such a system. And they did it in 2001. To those of you with short memories, they launched this way back when you couldn't watch foreign-language videos on YouTube or listen to language-learning podcasts on your iPod because, well, when it launched, YouTube, podcasts, and even the iPod didn't exist.

So what exactly has Drake been doing since they jettisoned their language faculty?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Another study shows the value of studying on your own

The study this time comes from Portland State University. I can't say the results surprise me, although they did surprise those conducting the study.

Link: Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning [Kentucky Educational Television] (via The Linguist on Language)

Monday, January 4, 2010

China pwnage

Ah, hyperbole. Remember when Japan was going to take over the world in the 1980s? Somewhere between my G.I. Joes and Transformers, I recall my dad insisting on not buying Japanese automobiles back then. Of course, he didn't buy a single automobile during the 1980s—he rode that good ol' American 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme right into the ground—but his attitude left enough of an impression to have stuck in my memory until now.

Well, it now seems to be China's turn for all that. "When China Rules the World" by Martin Jacquesjust got some traction in the New York Times. I haven't read the book, but it seems to be quite well researched—but, then again, so did those many books about Japan way back when. China is clearly on its way up, rising in stature and power of all sorts, but I still can't help but look skeptically at any book with a title like that.

Geopolitics aside, there was of course some language-connected fun in the article.

Middle aged? Nope, not too old to learn a language

Barbara Strauch of the New York Times writes that the brain doesn't get worse at learning during middle age, but rather it learns differently:
The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.
And what is language learning if not recognizing patterns?

The article continues:
Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young.
Language falls into this box pretty nicely; most people have worked pretty darn hard in their native language (decades of English classes, anyone?), and learning a foreign language will certainly challenge your routine linguistic assumptions.

So this appears to be yet another reason to drop the lame "I'm too old to learn a language" dribble. However, it does seem to suggest that learning for middle-aged adults is going to be quite different from young adults and certainly from adolescents and children. The next step I'd like to see is someone digging into what learning methods are best for what age groups. As I'm not yet in the middle-aged group but am heading there quickly enough, I'd love a take-home message that could help me make my learning time more efficient.

Link: How to Train the Aging Brain [New York Times]