Accelerated language learning – what and how we’re testing

I first started thinking about accelerated learning as I worked on the framework for our new Welsh course – at the same time I was getting stuck into finding out how/if we could promote our Spanish course on Google Adwords.

Two things seemed clear: that everyone would like to be able to push a button and speak a new language instantly, and that people are (understandably and extremely!) cautious of promises that you can ‘learn a new language in [x] days/months’.

Of course, every single language advert ever that says ‘in [x] time’ means ‘learn a certain amount of the target language in that period of time’.  For two reasons: one, achieving conversational fluency takes more than a few days, and two, there is no agreed and easy measurement of ‘being able to speak a language’.

As I thought about doing a better job of making early stage learners on our new Welsh course capable of engaging in real conversations, I started wondering at what point they would start to sound like confident speakers.  We know from experience that anyone who has completed our old Course 1 is capable of surviving for a week without using any English – although it can be a frustrating experience!  The aim with the new Course 1 is to make that experience better, smoother and more enjoyable – but how long should it take to do the course?

We always tell people to take their time – learn at their own pace – and that freedom is important.

On the other hand, we’ve seen people fly through Course 1 in a couple of weeks – so it’s not clear cut how long it should take.

Once I started thinking along those lines, it was only a matter of time before I was going to have to try some experiments!  The first was to see how much of the 10 sessions of Dutch Louis had built I’d be able to get through in a day [this is a very hefty video – the meaty stuff, where you get to see me being tortured by Louis, is in the last ten minutes or so]:

After I did that, Louis and Susanna took on the challenge of doing the same thing with our Spanish tourist course, when it was only 10 sessions.  Here’s Louis, who has kindly put his Facebook video on YouTube now:

And here’s Susanna, with some great ‘walking through the snow’ shots:

What Louis, Susanna and I managed to achieve in terms of communication on our first day of learning seems really exciting to me.

Since then, I’ve fine-tuned the sessions to go into a bit more functional depth, so the ‘tourist’ package has grown from 10 sessions to 20 – and now, we’re about to take the next experimental step, which is seeing how well someone does if they spend an afternoon doing the 5 sessions that focus on using the language in a restaurant, and then have a meal out in a restaurant where the waiters/waitresses speak that language – without using any English…:-)

And rather wonderfully, Ali and Phil have offered to be our first guinea pigs, so we just need to sort out how we’re going to film them doing it (oh, did I mention that they’re going to be filmed doing it?!) and then see how it all works out.

We should either end up with a video which shows genuinely unusual levels of communication for people who started learning that afternoon – or we’ll have conclusive evidence that this kind of testing should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention…;-)


18 responses to “Accelerated language learning – what and how we’re testing

  1. When testing langauge acquisition, usually it is more informative to test well after the fact. Short-term “learning” is just that — learning. Things that are memorized or crammed in might stay for awhile, but the real test is how long and how firmly that language is in the brain. Unless the goal truly is to provide the tools for communication over the short term (which is also a perfectly legitimate goal — but the two should not be confused.)

    • Thanks for that valid comment, Terry…:-)

      I’ll be happy to go into more detail about our testing in the coming weeks and months – well, in fact, I will inevitably go into more detail, whether anyone wants me to or not…;-)

      But for the moment, suffice it to say that a very minimalist pattern of revisiting in the first week after I did the Dutch sessions, coupled with a ‘once every couple of months’ revisit since then seems to be doing an excellent job of keeping the bulk of what I acquired fresh and usable – which I’ll be putting to a more serious test at the end of August when I’m going over to see Louis in Holland for a few days…:-)

    • They will be as soon as we’ve finished recording them! The first couple are up on the site at the moment…:-)

  2. The potential for this style of learning i.e. a massive kickstart at the beginning is huge for Welsh. If targeted courses like your Spanish in a Restaurant etc could be done for Welsh in the Workplace, or Parents who want their children to go to Welsh medium school (just to give two classic fields as an example) could be done in the same way whereby learners spend a whole day or two and then possibly meet up with tutors and or speakers to practice what they’ve learned who can lead them through the conversation as in your examples, it would give a massive boost to the language. For me the biggest barrier to learning a new language (especially if your a monoglot) is the psychological one whereby you don’t believe it possible and simply cannot comprehend how it will be done. THis is compounded if you only attend a 2hour/week class as you never subject yourself to enough of the language to breakdown the barrier and see the clear path that lies ahead of you (and is why that drop of rates for night classes are so huge). In truth learners on these sorts of courses forget as much as they learn and so come to the end of the course if they last that long with little more than a couple of sentences.
    The way you outline above breaks this barrier of believing language acquisition is impossible for anyone over 7 yrs old on the first day of learning. So not only do the have all the language skills they’ve newly acquired from their intensive day but also the motivation and belief to carry on and see the journey through.

    • Thank you very much for your comments, Dai – I strongly agree with you, and it’s something we very much want to do more with.

      In fact, I think I need to follow this line of thought in today’s post…:-)

    • Using this kind of method to help target a specific function, task or element of a job is exactly what I have been thinking about in a similar way as Terry has suggested.

      My specific idea has come from starting a group, only small at the moment, in a local pub. At least one of the staff, well actually the Landlady has started learning through SSiW. In order to help her and any other member of staff who wanted to try and learn, I picked a small number of relevant items and a couple of simple of phrases which I then recorded on an audio file. I have used them with 2 people at the moment accompanying them with picture cards and also an online picture ‘blog’. This to avoid as much as possible using anything written therefore keeping to the ethos of SSiW.

      When chatting to a member of the staff who was learning I asked her about what would she like to be able to achive/do in say 6 months time. Her answer was ‘to be able to serve cutomers in Welsh with the basic things on offer. Not going into extended conversations but just the basics of offering the service.

      To this end I have been slowly and quietly planning to build up a basic vocabulary and set phrases to accompany the first course which they are doing.

      This also will hopefully include a couple of simple games, flash cards etc.

      When this is complete, in it’s basic form I would like to send it to you Aran/Iestyn to look over and revise for me, if that would be ok?

      These are exciting times, Well done to you all in SSiW and I only wish the more establishment organisations working for the Welsh language would all coordinate together and learn off eachother to ensure we get as many people able to speak Welsh as is humanely possible.

      Andy Lloyd

      • You may want to look into the “TPRS” methodology. Numbers of starting learners in face-to-face courses (there aren’t any online at the moment that I’m aware of) who reach the highest level are 25% versus about 4% when this method is used versus traditional “communicative” teaching. (I am not the inventor, nor do I have any financial interest in your using the method. I have just found it to be very effective especially for lesser-taught lanuages that have few good resources available. My Ph.D is in Foreign Language Education and I’ve taught with most methods out there, but this one is by far the most effective.)

      • Hi Terry – what little I’ve listened to about TPRS on your Chinese site certainly sounds interesting, and much closer to a lot of our underlying principles than any of the wide range of more traditional approaches. I agree very strongly with what you say about the rôle of the teacher, and the irrelevance of ‘learning styles’ for language acquisition. We might diverge a bit on the reading/writing front, although perhaps mostly because that’s something we still haven’t got around to getting properly to grips with. I’m much happier reading rather than listening, though – are there any good summaries of TPRS you could point me at?…:-)

      • That sounds very worthwhile, Andy – I think there’s a huge amount yet to be done in terms of specific areas of use, and would be more than happy to give you feedback on anything you put together…:-)

      • I have a video talking about the method here:

        Most people interested in TPRS “hang out” on the Yahoo Groups group:
        Many of the well-known trainers and presenters frequently post to this group and are happy to answer any and all questions. It’s a very friendly group.
        You might also like to look at Ben Slavic’s site ( though I think some of this materials are now paid rather than free to read online. His books “TPRS in a Year” and “PQA in a Wink” are considered to be good basic introductions to the nuts and bolts of actually doing TPRS.

        The earliest work, still being updated regularly, is Blaine Ray’s “green book” — the title escapes me I think it’s something like “Fluency through TPR Storytelling”. It has a comprehensive introduction to the method, though you may find that other sources are better for specifics and for adjusting to the specific challenges of Welsh (I imagine spelling is a big one? 😉 )

      • Thanks very much for that, Terry…:-) The stuff about comprehensible input is very much in tune with what we’re trying to do – I’m less certain about the reading, though, because it seems to us so far that going from comprehended input to guided production as soon as possible does some really interesting neurological things, so for me reading is something that is better further down the line. I’m very interested in storytelling, though – that’s going to be a big part of some work adapting SSiW for children that I want to do in the next year or so…:-)

      • Oops, video link here:

        Hope it’s not too creepy. It was weird just talking into the camera like that, especially wearing a Hawaiian shirt! 😉

  3. It has the potential to be a game changer in the Welsh for adults field (and beyond). It’s a constant source of frustration to me that the numbers taking up courses (i.e. beginning the journey) to learn Welsh but the numbers who actually see that journey through are minuscule. If we could even get to a figure of 50% of those who start on Welsh courses to see it through then the positive impact would be huge. Especially for young families where the language could then enter the home (its natural place!) and in the workplace which would give an everyday platform people to use the language and add economic worth to the language (the lack of which is why generations gave up on the language in the first place!).

  4. That should read: It’s a constant source of frustration to me that the numbers taking up courses (i.e. beginning the journey) to learn Welsh are massive but……..

    I really should proof read my posts!

  5. Proof-reading is over-rated!…;-)

    Yes – and for all the success of SaySomethinginWelsh, we’re not as yet doing any better in terms of how many people complete Course 1 and become paying subscribers (which is how I assess whether or not someone is really going to get there) than you’d see on traditional courses.

    If we can crack a start-up process that gives people significantly more belief and momentum, I think it could have huge implications. Fingers crossed the two-day tests don’t kill anyone…;-)

  6. Hi Aran
    I wont be abusive , but my teacher taught me grammar.
    Me thinks that lady is right, the sounds do drift out of my mind when listen to it. Me things learning grammar is importent. Will you tell why I musnt learn it.
    I am visual learner i ave difficult in hearing things. I can’t hear your word clearly.
    My Welsh teacher Mr.Jones says we all learn by using all our intelligences.
    He has also told me that W.L.P.A.N. is awful method. What do you think abut it. Youre very clever.

    Dai tap is right about learning Welsh my teacher told me that thousands drop out.

    • We’ve never told anyone that they ‘mustn’t’ learn grammar. If you enjoy it, go ahead. But you certainly don’t *need* it to speak successfully. As for your belief that you’re a ‘visual learner’, you might want to take a look at this article (it’s one of many):

      WLPAN certainly isn’t an ‘awful method’ – on the contrary, it’s highly successful in intensive situations – but it’s not as good a match if people only do two hours a week.

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