Human learning capability is tremendous, but can you really learn ANY LANGUAGE in 180 days?
Chris Lonsdale’s language learning principles
The man who makes this bold claim is Chris Lonsdale. He is a New Zealand psychologist, linguist and educator who adopted the Chinese name 龙飞虎 or “flying dragon tiger” (or something like that).
The title of his TED talk sounds like some shady language school’s advertising pitch. Then again, he did manage to catch people’s attention (over 18 million views on YouTube).
Lonsdale’s approach in a nutshell:
Things that don’t matter in language learning
- Immersion (per se)
Why immersion isn’t a necessary factor: “A drowning man cannot learn to swim.” (We need comprehensible input)
What does matter is Language modeling
Five Principles of Rapid Language Acquisition
1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you.
We master tools by using tools; we learn tools fastest when they are relevant to us.
2. Use your New Language as a Tool to Communicate, right from Day 1.
3. When you first understand the message, you unconsciously acquire the language. “Comprehensible input”; comprehension works; comprehension is key. Language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many ways it is about
4. Physiological Training. “If you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you are not going to learn it. You have to be able to hear the sounds… Speaking requires muscle; if your face is hurting you are doing it right.”
5. Psycho-physiological states matter, and you need to be tolerant of ambiguity.
Seven Actions for Rapid Language Acquisition
Action 1: Listen a lot. “Brain Soaking”
Action 2: Focus on the meaning first. Get the meaning first before you get the words. Use body language. (Understanding through comprehensible input.)
Action 3: Start mixing. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.” Action 4: Focus on the core (high frequency content). For English, 1000 words is 85% of anything you are going to say in daily communication; 3000 words gives you 98% of anything you are going to say in daily conversation.
Week 1 Tool Box (in the target language):
– What is this?
– How do you say?
– I don’t understand…
– What does that mean?
– Repeat that please.
Week 2-3 Pronouns, Common Verbs, Simple Nouns
Week 4 Glue Words: and, but, therefore, even though
Action 5: Get a Language Parent. Language parent creates a comprehensible input environment.
1. Works hard to understand what you are saying
2. Does not correct mistakes
3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (feedback)
4. Uses words the learner knows
Action 6: Copy the Face
Action 7: “Direct Connect” to Mental Images
First, Lonsdale delivers a great speech on what he thinks is the best strategy to learn ANY language and he deserves credit for motivating and inspiring people as well as for offering practicable advice.
A question I had straight from the start though, is what does he mean exactly by ”learning any language”? What level of proficiency is he speaking of? Which language skills is he talking about? Is he referring to the highest achievable level? According to the Common European Framework that would include the following:
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
|Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.|
Mastery or proficiency
|Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.|
And for that you would need to study at least 1000 hours or at least 8 hours a day in six months…
I also couldn’t help noticing the contradiction that he learned Chinese (to a very impressive level) by immersion. Doesn’t he tell the story that he stayed in China, “soaked his brain” in Chinese and gradually started making sense of the language? Basically, he is telling us that this combination of immersion and “survival” from day one worked out pretty well for him.
This leads to the question if you can apply the same principle when you are not “immersed” and not in “survival mode”, say you are learning Chinese in Brazil or Canada. Can you really recreate that kind of experience?
Another issue: Lonsdale believes you should start speaking from Day One and use the language as a tool for real communication (no simulation stuff). In a way, I think he’s right about this. It’s the most natural thing to do (in the right environment). BUT many people are extremely uncomfortable with this. It’s a big step out of their comfort zone. Other high profile language learners like Steve Kaufmann argue you should acquire basic vocabulary first and read, read, read, before you can have a meaningful conversation. Not everybody is going to be comfortable with communicating in Mandarin from Day One, so that’s an issue.
On the whole, I really like what he has to say about language learning. He’s got a powerful message that’s all about learning a new language the “hard and uncomfortable” way, telling us to “get out there and do it”. We need people like Lonsdale who develop their own ideas about language acquisition.
Does this method apply to everyone? Well, he overgeneralizes his own learning approach and success a bit, but he knows what he’s talking about. The thing is no learner is the same. Language learning depends on so many personal circumstances and preferences. At the end of the day, I guess you’re free to try his method or parts of it. I personally like the “leave your comfort zone” part as it’s essential to any kind of growth.
By the way, if you want to hear Chris Lonsdale speak Mandarin, check this video from Mandarin Corner where he tells all about his method, covers Chinese characters (what about them, right?) and explains why Mandarin class is a waste of time.
Let me know what your thoughts are on this topic. Can you be fluent in Chinese in only six months? Please leave a comment below.
7 thoughts on ““How to learn any language in six months””
I agree that we would need to clarify first what it’s meant by fluent. I studied Chinese for 7 years, 3 of them full time in China, and I’ve been living here for like 12 years, and I still feel there’s so much I don’t know, even though I use Chinese all the time at home and at work. However if by fluent we mean being able to have daily conversations and understand people when they are talking of a non specialised subject, I agree it could be done within 6 months.
Now thanks to having my son I’m finally learning some Suzhou dialect… I learn the simple words and sentences my in laws say to him, hahaha.
Wow, impressive! I think 6 months is optimistic, but not impossible. That’s for basic everyday communication like you mentioned. I remember feeling quite confident and satisfied with myself when I passed the HSK 4 exam (only two more levels to HSK 6 and “complete mastery” of the language, right?). I needed more than 6 months for that btw^^ In this article the different stages are described very well, but it doesn’t mention dialects: https://www.sinosplice.com/learn-chinese/stages-to-learning-chinese
The problem with Chris Lonsdale is that he never gave evidence his method works. A short video on his website, where he speaks (reads?) Mandarin does not prove anything, or maybe I’m wong – it might prove that he actually is not fluent in Mandarin.
Hi JG, I understand your skepticism. I was very skeptical about his method as well when I first saw his TED talk and wrote this article. A) his claims are rather bold, B) he speaks in this elevator pitch kind of style where he doesn’t leave you with much room for doubt or other opinions. But he does speak Mandarin (and Cantonese) fluently, so I guess the method worked for himself. Take a look at this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHgi1MLCUN4 I don’t doubt that his method can work, but the question is for whom. Much depends on your personality and circumstances (you have to be in a 100 % Chinese speaking environment for example). It’s pretty much like learning how to swim by being thrown into the cold water. In the interview (see link), he does explain a thing or two in a more nuanced way.