Babel No More

15th November 2019

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Week

Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, by Michael Erard.  For years, Barb has thought she would like to write a book about language superlearners. Babel No More is what she had in mind. This fascinating book begins with the story of legendary linguist Giuseppe Mezzofanti, the Italian cardinal who was said to speak 72 languages. It goes on to share dozens of interesting language learning tidbits. Although in 2012 (when this book was published), neuroimaging techniques weren’t as advanced as they are today, Erard does a fine job of exploring how the brain of language superlearners might be different from those of more ordinary learners.  Interestingly, “..individuals living in multilingual communities seem to settle on an optimal cognitive load. The hyperpolyglot possesses a similar patchwork of linguistic proficiencies. Yet he or she exceeds this optimum with a conspicuous consumption of brainpower.” 

We particularly liked learning how the common mentality that you only speak a language if you are a native or near-native speaker is actually not a reasonable measure. “[People think] that when you really know a language, you think in it. In fact, the brain doesn’t think in any language. What people refer to as ‘thinking in a language’ comes from being able to speak more immediately in a language without rehearsing it or translating it from a language one might know better; the spoken thought feels as if it’s closer to its source in the brain.”

If you’re interested in language-learning, and want some inspiration, you’ll find it here in this book.

How Schools of Education Became a Bastion of Bad Ideas

This important, hard-hitting article by Erik Gilbert in The Chronicle of Higher Education (behind paywall), describes the inertial, anti-scientific ways of typical schools of education.  The beginning of the article gives hints of what’s to come (it’s worth subscribing to The Chronicle to read the whole thing): 

“A few years ago, when I was on my university’s Graduate Council, a new course proposal came to us from our College of Education. The proposal referred to the different learning styles of students, something that struck me as odd — I remembered having heard years before that the learning-styles theory had been discredited. Trusting my colleagues’ expertise, I kept my mouth shut and, assuming that learning styles must have been rehabilitated by new research, voted to pass the proposal.

“I later polled the education majors in one of my history classes: Not only did they know about learning styles, they all knew the acronym ‘VARK,’ which stands for visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic — the four alleged learning styles. The theory, it seemed, was alive and well.

Then I sought out the supporting research. Instead, I quickly came across a New York Times article on the curious persistence of learning styles — curious because of widespread evidence debunking the theory (The Atlantic has since published a similar piece). Despite all this, learning styles still apparently pervade colleges of education. A 2014 article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience on the topic of “neuromyths” found that over 90 percent of teachers it surveyed believed in learning styles.

“Another disturbing example of ed-school thinking involves the way reading is taught. According to a 2018 report by American Public Media:

“The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again….”

Busuu Language Learning App

Although we’re fans of Duolingo (300+ million users), we’ve recently learned of another popular language learning app, Busuu (90+ million users). If you’d like to compare the two, comment on the discussion forum here.

The Myth and Magic of Generating New Ideas

Here’s a wonderful explanation by mathematician Dan Rockmore in the New Yorker on how to generate new ideas.  The secret? Hard focused work combined with diffuse mode breaks.  We may have already known that, but we didn’t know how to write it as beautifully as Dan Rockmore. (On a side note, though, the exercise probably matters more than he thinks…) [Hat tip: Steven Cooke, Lead Mentor LHTL.) 

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

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