One of my friends forwarded me an article from a Dutch newspaper that introduces its readership to the idea of “ultra-learning”, a concept introduced by the Canadian Scott H Young (cf. Young, 2019). The article explains how Young managed to pass a 4-year MIT undergraduate course in more or less one year, and how he then set himself the challenge to learn four languages to B2 level (B2 is one of the proficiency levels proposed by the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, a level described as corresponding to a “confident” speaker).
Working in the domain of second language acquisition, finding a story of someone who managed to acquire four languages in one year gets my attention straight away. Apparently, in order to manage this (or any other ultra-learning, for that matter) involves being focussed, using your intuition, drilling, being direct and experimenting.
There is nothing new in the idea of having to be focussed when you want to learn new skills in a short amount of time, nor in the idea of drilling where it regards language learning. Anyone trying to learn a new language will have encountered vocabulary lists to be repeated over and over again, and all learners will equally have been submitted to pattern drills of the type: He walkS to school, he rideS to school, he […]S to school, in which a given pattern is filled in with new linguistic entities such that the learner can automatize their use of inflections, for example. My interest was therefore in the ideas of being direct, and experimenting. What does Young mean by them? According to the article, it is all about jumping in at the deep end. In order to acquire Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin and Korean, Young went to live in the countries in which those languages were spoken. From the very start he only used the target language for communication, refusing to use his native language. In other words, according to him it is all about total immersion. And this is where I have some doubts: I do not disagree with the idea that immersion is one of the best ways to increase one’s proficiency in a language. However, it is questionable to me if any learner can stand an immersion context without any basic knowledge of the language to be acquired. Because learning a language from scratch that way is very hard indeed: communication in this context is very difficult and tiresome, not just for the learner but also for the interlocutor. Many individuals might therefore give up before they have really even started acquiring the language. We have evidence on how hard this is, from immigrant second language learners, who often acquire the society language in this way, and do not always attain the B2 level (cf. work by Perdue, Klein and colleagues on second language acquisition by adult immigrants). I would rather promote the idea of providing learners with some solid initial level in the second language, and then send them out to acquire the language further in an immersion context. Given optimal circumstances (!), this is certainly likely to bring improvements in sociolinguistic use of language, vocabulary and fluency, amongst others (Howard, 2005).
One major question that I was left with after reading the article was the following though: Why would you want to learn four languages in one single year? Isn’t the beauty of learning a new language in the gradual acquisition of new parts of that language, fitting new pieces of the puzzle, and feeling oneself becoming more proficient up to a point that one day one finds oneself in Paris, or Berlin or Beijing and is understood when having a chat with the locals? Something to ponder over…
Howard, M. (2005). Second language acquisition in a study abroad context: a comparative investigation of the effects of study abroad and foreign language instruction on the L2 learners’ grammatical development. In: Housen & Pierard (Eds.), Investigations in instructed SLA. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Perdue, C. (1993). Adult language acquisition: cross-linguistic perspectives.
Young, S.H. (2019). Ultra-learning: Accelerate your career, master hard skills and outsmart the competition. London: Thorsons.
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