Speak like a Diplomat

One of my absolute favorite perspectives on language learning comes from the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), in particular: Theory and Practice in Government Language Teaching. It’s written as an academic paper, but it’s by far the most useful thing I’ve ever read about language learning.

I’ve summarized each of the 12 sections below (along with some commentary).

1. Adults can learn a foreign language

Mature adults can learn a foreign language well enough through intensive language study to do professional work in the language (almost) as well as native speakers.

While this is obvious to any adult learner, the FSI is one of the best counter-examples to the claim that adults cannot learn languages as well as children. The average age of an FSI student is 40, and in all cases they learn their target language much faster than children.

Importantly, for the FSI, the goal of a language is to get things done, not to speak the same way as a monolingual native speaker.

2. Language learning aptitude can be taught

“Language Learning Aptitude” varies among individuals and affects their classroom learning success (but at least some aspects of aptitude can be learned).

Some people learn better and faster than others. In intensive learning environments (like the FSI) these differences will be magnified. The single best predictor of language learning success is previous learning success. The second best predictor is measured aptitude. Importantly, some of the skills behind “measured aptitude” can be learned.

In other words, the first non-primary language you learn will be the hardest (that is, highest chance of failure), and understanding how to learn a language will increase your chance of success.

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses (while you learn). Language learning is a humbling activity; no matter how smart you are, you will hit the limit of your aptitude.

3. There is no one right way, nor best way

There is no “one right way” to teach (or learn) languages, nor is there a single “right” syllabus.

This section provides crucial insights about individual needs changing over time. In other words, it’s not just that different techniques work for different people, what works for you personally one week may not work for you in another week. They recommend breaks in routine, changes in pace for individual (especially advanced) learners, and an early emphasis on grammar patterns.

4. Time on task is crucial for learning

Time on task and the intensity of the learning experience appear to be crucial for learning.

Some of this seems obvious, although there’s an interesting point that language learning takes time and “cannot be shortened appreciably”. They recommend collaboration, focused practice (such as drills), and intensive immersion starting at upper intermediate levels.

Time on task (reading, writing, listening, speaking) is described as the single most important factor in language learning. There’s also a related document that lists FSI programs by difficulty as measured in hours of course time.

5. Knowledge about language benefits learning.

A learner’s knowledge about language affects his/her learning. All else being equal, the more that learners already know that they can use in learning a language, the faster and better they will learn. The less they know that they can use, the harder the learning will be.

They describe the phenomena of transfer learning from one language to a cognate language (e.g., Malay to Indonesian), but that ability requires a high proficiency (level-3). For reference, level-3 is described as:

Able to speak accurately and with enough vocabulary to handle social representation and professional discussions within special fields of knowledge; able to read most materials found in daily newspapers.

In other words, this is the bare minimum level needed in order to gain the benefit of the transfer phenomena.

6. Prior language study makes a difference

If a learner already has learned another language to a high level, that is a great advantage, but if s/he doesn’t know how to learn a language IN A CLASSROOM, that is a disadvantage.

The benefit of the transfer phenomena does not appear to apply to naturally bi-lingual speakers. For example, a naturally bilingual English and Spanish speaker would not necessarily benefit from the transfer phenomena while learning Portuguese or Italian.

In other words, knowing a cognate language doesn’t necessarily help, it’s knowing how to learn a language that helps the learner.

7. Automaticity is critical

The importance of “automaticity” in building learner skill and confidence in speaking and reading a language has been undervalued.

I’ve listed automaticity as good advice, and in my experience this has been the single biggest revelation on language learning. Most learning resources focus entirely on the initial learning stage and ignore automaticity as a goal. I suspect this is why many language learners quit; even after having learned the difficult concepts of a foreign grammar and vocabulary. Repeating the “easy” stuff is fundamental and automaticity should be considered necessary rather than as merely beneficial.

They recommend “pattern practice” along with conversations with native speakers as ways to develop automaticity. This involves repeating a considerable amount of “easy” material, and pertains equally to reading as well as listening and speaking.

8. Focus on forms

Learners may not learn a linguistic form until they are “ready”, but our experience indicates that teachers and a well designed course can help learners become ready earlier.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive and contrary to conventional wisdom. Although the benefit of an early focus on forms seems particularly true in my experience.

For example, Chinese tones are typically taught at a very basic level and do not focus on much more difficult concepts like tone pairs and phrasal intonation. These more difficult concepts are supposedly “picked up” over time naturally through conversation and listening to native speakers.

FSI researchers found the exact opposite to be true. Early focus on forms produces better results, even if the student is not quite “ready” for the more difficult concept. There seems to be an advantage to raising awareness early on about a concept that the learner can later focus on.

They include the following quote which seems obvious but is worth contemplating, especially in light of language classes that make learning slower than a “natural surrounding”.

The whole point of language pedagogy is that it is a way of short-circuiting the slow process of natural discovery and can make arrangements for learning to happen more easily and more efficiently than it does in ‘natural surroundings.’
~ Henry Widdowson

9. Notice the gaps

In order to attain very high levels of proficiency, learners need to be helped to “notice the gap” between their current production and the speech of more proficient language users.

They recommend tasks such as translation and transcription, comparisons of texts, and direct feedback to the learner.

There’s also an interesting discussion about “fluent non-beginners” who are unable to advance after having attained verbal fluency (but without grammatical accuracy). In such cases, the “gaps” may not be obvious to such a learner.

10. Good teachers are important

A supportive, collaborative, responsive learning environment, with a rich variety of authentic and teacher-made resources, is very important in fostering effective learning.

They emphasize the importance of good teachers. FSI students routinely list their teachers as the single most important factor of their success.

Even gifted learners need supportive teachers or mentors. Few people, including adults, can undertake self-directed learning without encouragement and feedback.

11. Be specific about what you need to learn

The most effective language teaching responds appropriately to where the learner is and what he or she is trying to do. Donald Freeman and other leaders in the field of language teacher education have described language teaching as a series of complex decision-making processes based on the teacher’s awareness and understanding of what is going on with the learners and the interplay of the teacher’s own attitudes, knowledge, and repertoire of skills.

An interesting benefit of the FSI is that they are training people for specific assignments. The specific learning goals are thus well-defined and there’s a great deal of pressure on the learner, the teachers, and the FSI as a whole to get things right.

For self-directed study (where there’s no job assignment waiting for you), knowing before-hand what your specific goals are can be difficult. That said, I think there’s a useful pattern here: create specific and falsifiable goals as if you do have a job assignment waiting for you.

In my experience, nebulous goals lead to nebulous learning.

12. Active listening is critical

Conversation, which on the surface appears to be one of the most basic forms of communication, is actually one of the hardest to master. A seasoned Foreign Service officer, who had learned several languages to a high level, was overheard to remark that engaging in conversation–particularly in multiparty settings–was the ultimate test of someone’s language ability.

This is one of my favorite sections, and it goes against the conventional wisdom that conversational ability is the easiest skills to master in a foreign language. They emphasize that a conversation is far more about listening than it is about speaking.

Active listening is often absent (as is automaticity) in many language learning resources.

I suspect the reason why is that active listening is a rare skill even amongst native speakers. Even with automaticity (automatically recalling the meaning of words), people rarely pay attention to what other people are actually saying. For a professional diplomat, active listening and intelligible communication is a job requirement.