Now that we’ve gone for the pivot from ‘company news’ to ‘useful advice’, I’ve been thinking about what I can focus on here which will be of most value to you.
In working directly with hundreds of learners over the last six years (and with feedback from thousands more), I’ve certainly picked up a collection of tips and tricks for the various stages of the journey to a new language – many of which are going to be in the series of booklets I’ll be publishing this year.
But rather than going in the direction of general advice, which may be useful but certainly isn’t unique to us, I think it might be more interesting to focus specifically on what I’ve been discovering about what I’ve started to call High Intensity Language Training.
The work I’ve been doing in this field is intense (well, highly intense!) in two different ways.
First, the process of working through an SSi-style lesson is, as you already know, extremely challenging. The constant push to produce what you know, over and over again, in different contexts and new structures, is absolutely exhausting.
Second, I’ve been working with people to try and find out more about their upper limits for how many sessions they can get through in a day, or in two days. Most people who use our courses settle for doing two or maybe three sessions a week, and repeat sessions often – our High Intensity guinea pigs haven’t had that kind of luxury, though! Instead, they’ve often done up to 10 hours flat-out in a single day, and not been allowed to repeat anything.
And the results are more than a little startling.
So, in the coming weeks, I’ll tell you more about the people who’ve already gone through this process, and the lessons I’ve learnt along the way – and I’ll give you the guidelines I think you need to be able to run your own High Intensity sessions. For some of you, it may lead you into a new approach to language acquisition.
The enormous value of mistakes
I don’t want this to be a teasing post with no real content, though! So let’s get stuck into one of the most important concepts of High Intensity Language Training – the value of mistakes.
In traditional approaches, mistakes are taken as a sign that you need to revise. If you make a mistake, you’re often actively prompted to go back and study that particular word or structure again. It’s an approach which is conceptually based on a presumption that you can achieve perfection as long as you’re willing to spend enough time repeating work over and over again – and as you’ve probably already sensed, I think this is about as sane as stabbing yourself in the eyes with knitting needles.
Fortunately, we get this instinctively right when we’re dealing with children.
When a child says ‘I goed to school’ or ‘I wented to school’, we usually offer them the correct form (‘Oh, you went to school, did you?’) – but we don’t sigh, sit them down, and tell them that play is cancelled for today, because they’ve got to spend an hour practising irregular past tenses.
Imagine if you actually saw someone doing that to a child. You’d want to throw something extremely heavy at them, wouldn’t you?
But we’re quite happy to inflict exactly that approach on ourselves.
Yup, knitting needles mad.
In a properly run High Intensity session, it’s completely different. We embrace mistakes. And we do this for two very specific reasons.
When you make a mistake, and you realise you’ve made a mistake, you get a jolt of frustration. In other words, you get a little shot of emotion. Your amygdala gets involved – and one of the things we know to a very high degree of confidence by now is that emotion helps with the forming of memories.
One surprising thing about the ‘jolt’ is how much it looks like a response to pain. When someone realises that they’ve made a mistake, they’ll often grimace, or tense the muscles in their arms, or even catch their breath in a way which looks remarkably similar to what you might expect if you stuck a pin in them.
Another surprising thing about the ‘jolt’ is that the closer the learner is to retrieving a particular word or phrase successfully, the more the mistake seems to ‘hurt’ them – in other words, the more of a kick to the formation of memory they get. This might tie in to what Robert Bjork says in this video about interleaving practice – the more difficult the act of remembering is, the more value you get from it.
So, every mistake is moving you towards successful learning.
If you take a mistake as a sign that you need to go back and revise, you can spend a lot of time doing ‘easy’ repetition (of the kind that Robert Bjork discusses), and end up learning more slowly. If you press on, welcome the mistakes – no, celebrate the mistakes! – and keep on making them, you will reach the point of successful acquisition much sooner.
The mistakes also kick us into focusing more carefully on the ‘correct’ form. In a traditional approach, you can get stuck with a pattern that goes ‘prompt’ (whether it’s spoken or written), ‘attempt’, ‘confirmation of failure’, ‘revision’.
By contrast, in a High Intensity scenario, we go ‘prompt’, ‘attempt’, ‘correct response 1’, ‘correct response 2’ – does that seem familiar at all? It’s much more like the way in which we intuitively respond to children – with the added bonus of a repetition of the correct form.
Now, one of the most fascinating things I’ve noticed in this process is the way in which we acquire new words.
We tend to think that it’s quite a binary thing – you’ve either learnt it, or you haven’t, and if you haven’t, you need to go back and revise. But that’s not what I’ve been seeing with a High Intense approach – quite the opposite, in fact. A lot of evidence is pointing towards a general ability to acquire new words on a partial basis – syllable by syllable, or even sound by sound.
Let me give you an example.
When I did my intense day with the Dutch materials Louis and Eline produced, the first time Louis said the Dutch for pork, I couldn’t hear it. It sounded like ‘burgh-rruh-rruh’ to me. I actually felt a little aggrieved – I made a note to remind Louis condescendingly how important it was to pronounce new words clearly.
But I didn’t worry unduly – I reminded myself that I don’t like pork, that I would never be asking for pork in a restaurant in Holland, and that it was okay for me to say ‘burgh-rruh-rruh’ if I wanted to. So I did exactly that – I suspect there are moments in that video when you can hear me saying things like ‘Ik wil graag het burgh-rruh-rruh’.
And then, three or four sessions later, Louis started saying it clearly. Varkensvlees. I can remember thinking ‘Oh, right, well, that’s easy enough. Varkensvlees. If you’d said that first time, I’d have learnt it by now, Louis.’
After we’d done our Skype session that night, I brought this minor issue up, and suggested that he should re-record the initial presentation.
Louis, gentleman that he is, disagreed with remarkable politeness and patience. He’d said it the same way every time, he explained. Filled with righteous indignation, I went back to listen to the first use of the word, to prove to him that he was completely wrong.
And, naturally, he was in fact completely right.
It put me in mind of this particularly brilliant clip from Father Ted:
So what had happened? As I’d carried on making my unnecessarily dramatic ‘burgh-rruh-rruh’ mistake every time, my brain had been listening to the correct versions, which my conscious mind could not hear as a word, and had put together enough clues for it to build a correct map of the word. Once it had done that, I could hear it – in fact, I could no longer not hear it, even if I wanted.
A similar process is highlighted in this interesting article:
Of course, we’re not used to this kind of partial learning. It feels out of control, and uncomfortable, and we can hear the siren voices of all the teachers we ever met telling us that we need to do some proper revision.
Step 1 in your journey to HILT
Don’t listen to those siren voices.
The next time you do an SSi session, celebrate your mistakes, be cavalier and cheerful about your lack of conscious control, and trust the system.
Trusting the system means moving on to the next session, even if you’re convinced you’re not ready.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, will be next week’s post (insha’allah!) – how and when you should (and shouldn’t) repeat a session when you’re aiming for the full High Intensity experience.
I hope you’ve found this interesting – if you’ve got any questions about the High Intensity approach, do please sing out in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them – and if any of them are too complicated to answer in the comments, I’ll put them on my to-do list for a full post.