All Cantonese All The Time

Even if I haven’t said it explicitly, much of this blog has been about applying, experimenting with and refining the AJATT “method” for the study of Cantonese.  “Method” is in inverted commas, because Khatzumoto has cryptically always said “there is no method” (aping that kid and his spoon in the first Matrix film, no doubt).

But I realised something recently.  There is a method, but it’s not at all what you’d expect.  The method is to simply to try as many ways of learning as possible until you find the things that work for you.  The method is simply to experiment.  That is the silver bullet.

Once you’ve figured out what works, you switch between those techniques whenever you start to get bored.  This maximises your exposure to the language – it gives you more chances to succeed and thus to learn.

There is no one-hit-wonder that will magically make you fluent in Cantonese, or any other language for that matter.  You cannot just watch TV, or use mnemonics, or listen to music, or speak with natives, or do grammar exercises, or read, or study vocabulary lists.  You have to iterate through different methods, eliminating what doesn’t work for you and spending more time on what does.  If you do this for long enough, you’ll eventually find the optimum learning routine for yourself and become fluent at the same time.

You might even write a blog about it.

There’s a crazy amount of content on the Internet on the subject of language learning, with hundreds of people all clamouring to have their “best” method heard.  Rather than taking what anyone says verbatim and assuming that they’re correct because of how loudly they’re able to shout, just try what they suggest, and if it doesn’t work, move on.   Initially doubt what’s being said until you’ve been able to draw your own conclusions.  Be skeptical about my method until you’ve tried it and seen whether or not it works for you – and keep modifying it if you think there are improvements to be made.

There is no one size that fits all, although there are some sizes that fit better than others – and since you have a finite amount of time to learn Cantonese (or whatever), pick the methods that look most plausible first.  As you may have noticed, I always work from the idea that adults and children can acquire language in exactly the same way.  Pick the suggestions that are most well-reasoned by their proponents, even if they don’t have six PhDs in language acquisition, and try them.  And keep trying.

I like to think of the whole thing in terms of the butterfly effect.  Each language learner starts off with approximately the same initial conditions (i.e. experience and capacity to learn), but over time any differences in their learning style become more and more pronounced.  This is why there seem to be so many tactics that lead to fluency – it’s because there are.  Finding the right ones for a specific individual though is a different matter entirely.

You may know that physicists have been struggling for decades to find a Grand Unified Theory, a theory of everything that elegantly ties together all that we know about the universe.  I’d like to say to them that maybe there just isn’t such a theory.  Maybe the theory they’re looking for is simply that the universe does not tie together in a symmetrical, mathematically pleasing fashion. I’m pretty sure it holds true for languages.  The GUT of language learning is that there is no beautiful, all-encompassing theory – each learner will become fluent in a different way, although it will always boil down to being exposed to and using the language for a long period of time.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


4 thoughts on “All Cantonese All The Time

  1. Hey Eldon,
    That’s a solid realization. After being in Sri Lanka for a month I found that the course I bought beforehand wasn’t very useful. They didn’t speak like the people in the course.
    I picked up a bit after getting some help from Sri Lankans and listening a lot. But not a ton. On a return trip I think I’ll know how to pick it up better, partly because the structure of the language makes a bit more sense to me now.
    It’s the same way with learning music, different methods work better for different people. Some learn by ear, you can work things out on the piano for harmony, etc.

    • Hey Neal,

      I always think it’s strange how L2 courses tend to include stiff, non-colloquial speech. I think there’s probably a perception that you’d come off rude if you speak naturally, but most native speakers just don’t usually talk in a super-polite way all the time. Some courses are better though.

      How’s the Sinhala been going since you got back or were you just learning it for the wedding? Have you got someone to practice with? 😉

  2. Eldon,

    Good thought. I personally think it’s fine to have “methods”, as many methods as people need. The problem arises when people try to argue for one in favour of the other without realizing that people are not the same. Good to keep this in mind and stay flexible.

    Oh how I wish there were a grand unified method of language acquisition though…


    • Hey Tyler,

      Totally agree – one size never, ever fits all, although it will sometimes fit some 🙂 As you say, there are way too many people out there bickering about whose method is best, when they could just be studying anyway.

      The trouble with a grand theory of language acquisition is that we can learn languages in different ways. You could master French, say, reading and speaking with natives very little, relying on verb tables and vocabulary lists – the trouble is you’re likely to get bored and give up before you’re fluent. You can also master it just by speaking with natives, or by listening to audio – each method has been demonstrated by various learners.

      I think Khatz has it closest to a comprehensive theory with the “keep it fun and do a lot” idea, although it’s not really satisfactory from a language acquisition point of view – his mantra is more about providing motivation to keep going rather than providing the most efficient way to fluency. Ultimately though it doesn’t matter if you find something that works for you 😉

      – E

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