Opinions about Language Learning

Note: I kinda regret publishing this post since, as a commenter noted, it’s weak… while I could hold up my hands and plead irony, I don’t think that would be very convincing even if it was the original intention.

Also, the punchline “it’s my opinion and is therefore valid” was not what I meant when typing things out at 2AM, because obviously everyone’s entitled to their own opinions (within reason).  It should in fact have read “even my opinions which are in direct contradiction of logic/objective fact are valid”, which really is disingenuous.

Such sloppiness should not happen again!

Language learning is a branch of psychology.  Psychology is a scientific subject.  Therefore, we can analyse language learning scientifically.

We can analyse things like “how is learning time affected by L2’s similarity to L1?”.  We can use logic to determine that languages with more things to learn take longer to learn.  We can use our brains to work out the most efficient way of studying languages.

This means that there’s not much room for opinion.  Opinion is largely redundant in a scientific context.  “But I think light moves at the speed of treacle!” is not considered by scientists as a theory because, even though it’s an opinion, it’s demonstrably false.  We no longer entertain the once-believed idea that a child deprived of contact with language would spontaneously become fluent in Hebrew, because it’s trivially disprovable.  Unless you happen to be living in Nazi Germany, if you tried to present “as a valid opinion” your ideas about massacring Jews and gays and how it’d improve the world, you’d be lynched: the world would not become a better place and it’s obvious to everyone.

Opinion, therefore, is largely limited to overarching theories: string theory, the theory of evolution and theories of language acquisition.  At this level, there are so many variables that there’s some space for different ideas to compete.

But that still doesn’t leave space for treacle-speed light.  The Hebrew kids are left out in the cold.  And people were trying to kill Hitler for a long time before he committed suicide.

Similarly, ideas about language that do not hold up to simple tests of logic can be instantly discarded.  They are not valid opinions: they are simply wrong, and it doesn’t matter how loudly you shout.

“Cantonese literacy and fluency is just as easy as Mandarin” is not a valid opinion.  We can show it to be a false premise using logic.

Sure, there might be good reason for you going ahead and learning Cantonese anyway, and yes, it’s certainly possible – but that’s probably not best for all learners of Chinese.  Starting with a Chinese dialect is much harder than starting with Mandarin, and people thinking about starting with a dialect should certainly consider how much time and what resources they have available.

So there you have it – please folks, don’t go round disguising your agenda(s) with “even my opinions which are in direct contradiction of logic/objective fact are valid”, because it’s disingenuous.  It might give some people who don’t have the ability to think critically the wrong idea.

And that just makes the world a slightly shittier place to live in.

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2 thoughts on “Opinions about Language Learning

  1. Your blog is so funny! It’s really clever how you parody yourself and show, through your own opinions, how foolish quasi-logical thought can be! Brilliant! I’m sharing this with my classes next semester. One point. You might occasionally refer to the literature on SLA to add greater impact (if you can possibly find anything).

    • I’m not entirely sure how many recursive… things… there are in my blog (or in your comment for that matter), but some of them are intentional 🙂

      But (assuming your comment is, on some level, serious), I’m not sure what’s quasi-logical about “more stuff=more time needed to learn said stuff”. Isn’t that something we can say without having to do a study to prove it? The point was that’s there a line between reasonable and fanciful hypothesis, although that in itself is blindingly obvious… just gets better and better, huh?

      P.S. I’d like to include references and feel dirty by omitting them, but it takes a lot of time and most of the literature is in English. That means a lot less language-learning time, right? Plus, as you pointed out, it’s not like there’s any guarantee of being able to find anything relevant or high-quality.

      (I root a lot of my assumptions in Krashen’s work though, should you be interested.)

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