Luca Lampariello is one of the world’s most competent polyglots. I prefer to use the adjective “competent” because the languages that he knows – and there are a lot of them – he knows very well. If you go to his YouTube channel you will find hundreds of free videos which will be of great help to you on your language-learning journey. Luca is indeed more than just a polyglot: he is an educator, and what’s more, the inventor of his own original language-learning method. As if all that weren’t enough, he’s also an engineer, having obtained a Master’s degree with honours in Electronic Engineering. I feel, therefore, that there is no one more qualified than him to tell us whether, when, how, and to what extent artificial intelligence in the translation software application will affect the usefulness of teaching / learning foreign languages.
Learning languages is, for most people, an arduous task. School in all its various forms (private, state-funded, universities, training centres, language academies, etc.) seems to be structurally inadequate for effectively teaching students languages. In your opinion, what are the biggest criticisms of “classical” teaching methods and how can they be remedied?
There are multiple factors involved and reasons why learning appears to be less effective in a school or university context, but there are some general points that can be made.
The first reason is that students do not know why they are learning a particular language. English, French, or other languages form part of the school curriculum, but nobody has ever told them why. The consequence is that students study to get good grades - not to live better, richer, more colourful lives full of new perspectives and experiences. Learning a language (and this is true for many other things too) is emotion, experience - it is life. Acknowledging this makes a big difference.
The second reason is that the entire education system is based on a 200-year-old model, and language learning forms part of that model. Although right now there is a lot of research, along with many brilliant books and publications that tell us how to learn effectively, the school system remains inefficient and unwilling to budge for a multitude of political, economic, educational and historical reasons. To be more specific, a foreign language at school is on a par with subjects such as history or geography. Very often, students are required to “study” grammar rules and to memorise vocabulary. But learning a language is so much more than memorising rules or learning new words.
Knowing how to speak a language means acquiring a new set of skills which are learnt by reading, experiencing, talking to people, writing, using the language. It’s worth noting that at school the language is talked about a lot (its grammar, literature, etc.) but that same language is actually used relatively little. Learning a language and seeing it as a skill rather than a collection of information has a massive impact on the way a student learns going forward. Thinking about it, it’s how every one of us learnt our native languages: we were immersed in an environment, interacting with our parents, our families and then with our friends at school. Immersed in an environment favourable to us, we intuitively learnt how a language works and we learnt to use it effortlessly. By the time a child is 4 or 5, he or she is capable of formulating complete sentences with an almost native-sounding pronunciation - without ever having opened a book. If you ask any kid on this planet what an adverb is, or a noun, or any grammatical category, he or she will have no idea what the answer is. How does a child manage to speak his or her own native language so skillfully without ever having opened a book, while adults studying a foreign language struggle to formulate a simple sentence, even after years of study?
This leads us to believe that children are “naturally gifted”: they are more suited to learning and that this is something we lose as we get older. The reality, though, is that our circumstances change – our ways of learning change. The way we learn languages at school is extremely ineffective because we forget to do the things our brain likes: learning through comprehensible input, trying to use the language to communicate meaningfully with others, enjoying ourselves.
The third reason resides in the student-teacher relationship. The school system dictates that there is a central figure (the teacher) who “dispenses” knowledge. The teacher is at the centre and the students are orbiting around the teacher, to use an astronomical metaphor. The result is that the students are passive and expect the teacher to “teach” them the language. But, as Galileo Galilei said, you cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself. What is needed is a combined effort, awareness and mutual collaboration between student and teacher, in which the prime objective is the discovery and use of the foreign language.
A simple golden rule for students is the following: spend 80% or less of your time learning by yourself, and 20% learning at school. At this point school even becomes fun! The teacher’s job is to guide, and the student’s is to learn. It’s a vast and complex topic, and if anybody would like to go into it in more detail, I have published a long article for that very purpose, on why learning languages at school doesn’t work and how to make it work. So for me what is important is: explaining to children (and to students in general) why they should learn that language. Getting them to do mental projection exercises imagining themselves in the future speaking that language. Involving them emotionally right from the start.
Secondly, pushing students to do 80% of the work away from home on their own. This doesn’t just make the teacher’s job easier, but it also makes the lessons more pleasurable. And thirdly, creating lessons in which each student reads and listens to what he or she is interested in, and creating an environment in which using the language is favoured, which could range from having a conversation with another student or in a group to watching foreign films and discussing them. The possible activities which can be used to expose oneself to a language and to use that language are vast. Every so often a lesson or a grammar test is fine, but only as icing on the cake.
A question that has been at the centre of debate in psycholinguistic circles among others for a long time: do we learn foreign languages best from a teacher who is a native speaker, or from a teacher who has the same native language as us? What is your opinion?
Learning to speak and use a foreign language is the result of a huge number of activities and experiences, and interaction with a teacher is only one of many activities. In other words, I think the teacher’s native language is irrelevant: it’s much more important that the teacher is passionate about what he or she is doing and that he or she succeeds in transmitting this passion to his or her students. The passion for the language that is being taught, the passion for learning and teaching new things, the passion for sharing what he or she knows. That’s what makes a difference. Two people come to mind who taught me and inspired me in a particular way – my private English tutor Susan – an American – and my high-school French teacher – a native Italian speaker. What made these two people special wasn’t so much their teaching ability, nor their native language, but the passion that they transferred to me. I still remember the intensity, passion and involvement with which my English teacher would get hold of a huge amount of material for me (from recorded VHS cassettes to newspaper articles), which I would devour during the week in anticipation of our next chat. Her enthusiasm is what, among many other things, pushed me to continue reading, writing, watching films, and trying to use American English as much as possible. Because, I repeat, at the end of the day nobody can teach you a language; you have to learn it yourself. And if you have a knowledgeable teacher who pushes you and sets an example, you have a huge head start.
For the sake of argument let’s set aside the fact that learning a foreign language is a very important cognitive exercise that can help keep our mental faculties sharp in later years. So, aside from that, I ask you: could the evolution of Artificial Intelligence and instant translation applications make learning foreign languages pointless?
I don’t believe that learning and speaking foreign languages will ever become obsolete, because human beings have and always will have an intense need to communicate on a profound emotional level, on a visceral level. No machine or algorithm can replace direct and emotional human communication. In other words, if on one hand artificial intelligence and technology in general will make verbal and written communication much more efficient - particularly in formal and work contexts - on the other hand, it will remain unnatural/artificial to make use of automatic translators in more personal contexts. Everyone has had the experience of saying even just 2 or 3 words in a foreign language when visiting a foreign country or meeting a foreign person, and the reaction is often one of surprise.
Well, that simple smile says a lot about the power of language, about the charming effect that even a mere fragment or two of a foreign language can have on other people. And the sincere reaction of these people reflects a famous quote by the famous Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb: “language is the only thing worth knowing, even poorly.” To give another example, imagine you’re on a date with a potential future partner who is foreign, and you have to communicate with him or her using a machine for the entire evening. All the magic would be lost, wouldn’t it? The same goes for a lot of other situations in life. There are so many emotions, surprises and benefits in the act of interacting in another language that means it will always be worth taking the trouble to learn even just one foreign language by yourself.
Everyone is different, and without getting into the age-old question of learning styles, is it very apparent that every individual has his or her specific peculiarities when it comes to talent, predispositions, interests, inclinations, etc. The problem at this point is whether even people who seem (and I repeat: seem) less gifted are able to achieve the same results in language learning as those who are more talented? And if so, by using which learning methods? Do you have any advice to give those who believe they are “less gifted”?
It is certainly true that every person has different inclinations and abilities, but every one of us can learn any foreign language fluently. If you have learnt your native language well (that is if you don’t have genetic dysfunctions) then your brain is suited for learning not one, but many languages. The point, therefore, is not whether time, work and “blood, sweat and tears” being equal one person will succeed in speaking as well as or better than another person, but whether with enough time and effort, that person will be able to speak a language well. And the answer is yes. My first piece of advice for people who believe themselves to be less able is of a psychological nature: the boundaries that we have in our heads are the boundaries of our world.
Learning a language is a skill that is acquired with time and effort. Once you realise that there is no magic to language learning, but that it is a long-term undertaking that requires time and effective methods, things change and take on a different perspective.
My second piece of advice is to plan ahead and to dedicate 30 minutes a day (at least) to learn a language. Sit down on Sunday and plan out your week. When is the ideal time for learning? For me, it’s in the morning, which is why straight after breakfast I always do 30 – 45 minutes of Greek. It’s the time when I’m the freshest. I know that if I don’t do it in the morning, I won’t do it at all. If you study every morning for a long period of time, that’s half the battle won.
My third bit of advice is simple: spend time doing things that you enjoy, and with material that you understand and find interesting. Nowadays with the Internet, it’s possible to find an enormous quantity of material in every language. It is important, I repeat, to find things that interest you. Download and prepare the material in advance, and then read it and listen to it as much as you can. My fourth piece of advice is to interact with the material actively. If you are reading a podcast while listening to it, print out the transcript, underline words, repeat some sentences, jot down a few phrases that you like the sound of. And the fifth is to repeat the things that you learn in an intelligent way. For example, jotting down little useful and interesting phrases in a notebook that you can look at during lulls in the day. To memorise, you need to see and repeat, especially in the long term. Personally, I use a series of notebooks I carry around with me in which I write down all the sentences I think might be useful. I use them both to recap vocabulary and to have imaginary conversations with myself. Ever since I adopted this strategy I have been learning even more quickly than before! This is just a tiny selection of advice that I have had the joy and honour of sharing with people who contact me, but obviously, for reasons of time and space I can’t go much further into it here, however much I would like to.
Continuing the logical thread of the previous question, as well as being one of the world’s most important polyglots, you are also an educator who has developed his own specific teaching method. Would you be able to give us a brief overview?
First of all, thank you for the lovely words! I set out on a journey as a Language Coach around 10 years ago. I created a system where I offer personalised coaching sessions which I deliver in the following way: I give one coaching session to each student per month. During the session, we work together to understand what difficulties he or she has been having with a particular language, and together we come up with a daily plan for overcoming them. I follow each student using shared documents. The philosophy is simple: I show them the way and they walk it, with the odd adjustment here and there. Each student receives a detailed program to follow and during our next coaching session, we analyse what went well and what could be improved on. It’s a very effective system which I have perfected over the years, and I am very satisfied with the results.
The sessions are based around a wide array of “challenges”: how to learn a language from scratch, how to reactivate a language learnt badly at school, how to improve a language building on a basic or intermediate foundation. I teach advanced and effective techniques for learning vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and of course there are also conversation sessions, and much more.
The lessons are carried out in the native language of the student (as long as I speak it!) and obviously in the student’s target language. As much as I enjoy my work, I have come to realise that the possibility for individual lessons is limited because I am just one person and unfortunately the requests far exceed my ability to satisfy the demand. That’s why I created the Smart Language Learning Academy, an online academy for anyone who wants to learn languages using alternatives to conventional teaching methods. The first course has just come out, in which I explain in detail how my two-way translation technique works, the technique I used to start learning 10 foreign languages. I’m sure I don’t need to say how enthusiastic I am about the project. And in this regard, I want to add a final observation: I derive a great amount of joy and have great pride in being able to share what I have learnt in 30 years of experience.
Observing the mental and linguistic transformation in my students is one of the most gratifying experiences, and it shows how we all have enormous potential, ready to be unleashed with the right mentality and with effective methods. Over the years I have realised more and more that my passion and my mission do not just lie in learning languages, but more in general in teaching, and in the education and development of other individuals. Because an informed, multilingual individual is more tolerant, more flexible and more curious. It’s not over the top to say that the education of each one of us, and of society in general, can save humanity.