DennisBeaverMarch 24, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver


We have all seen ads for Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur or similar “teach yourself a foreign language” courses which claim you can accomplish this feat “in just a few days without boring memorization, studying vocabulary lists and, like a child, speak that language effortlessly, with a native accent.”

“Teach yourself to play the guitar in 10 days” ads are equally splashed all over the Internet. Wanting to learn a new language or a musical instrument are excellent goals. That said, before reaching for your credit card, it might be interesting to know what experts in language and music learning have to say.

We asked Dr. Gary Marcus, considered as one of the country’s best known psychologists in the science of learning, what he thinks of these claims. His answer might just save you a great deal of money and help you avoid unrealistic expectations and possible embarrassment when reality sinks in.

Marcus runs New York University’s Center for Language and Music and wrote “Guitar Zero,” a fascinating and inspiring book about how he learned to play the guitar in a year while on sabbatical.

How can I get it to stick?

“Anything that promises to teach you a musical instrument in a weekend or a language in 10 days doesn’t pass the smell test,” Marcus told us. “These things are too complicated to absorb that quickly. On a computer you can run a CD-ROM and install a program instantly, but the human brain does not work that way. We need to do things through trial and error. With a language or a musical instrument, the question is not, ‘How can I learn and repeat this information now, but rather, how can I get it to stick?’

“A key in acquiring any complex skill — musical instrument, language, painting, and golf — is in making the skill stick. That’s called ‘memory consolidation.’ This takes a lot of practice, a great deal of time, and a certain amount of learning, forgetting and relearning, until that moment arrives when it is simply ‘there.’

“Human memory isn’t that good, and learning an instrument or a language requires keeping a lot of specific information separated, without allowing it to blur together. Our brains aren’t good at it. So, if you park in the same parking lot day after day, at the end of the day, you may forget where you parked today, as the brain might forget where you parked in that parking lot earlier times.

“The same kind of blurring can happen if you are trying to remember if a word in a foreign language is masculine or feminine or neuter. As we know a lot of words, they tend to become confused. Regular practice gets us out of that confused state,” Marcus stressed.

Parroting isn’t fluency

Steve Kaufman, former Canadian foreign service diplomat — who is fluent in 10 languages — and the founder of LingQ, an online community of language learners, tells You and the Law:

“Most of these companies make ridiculous claims. Fluency means being able to have a conversation on a variety of subjects, where the native speaker is comfortable talking with you and you can communicate comfortably.

“This is not achieved in three weeks, three months, etc. It takes years for most people, unless you are going from a language that is very similar to your own, such as Spanish to Italian or German to Dutch. Learning a new language requires motivation, desire, disciplined study and practice. That is reality.

“There are so many disappointed people who have invested hundreds of dollars into some of these courses, learned to parrot set phrases, and then realized they could not communicate in the language.”

Kaufmann was describing a Hanford reader, Manuel, who bought a $750 “Learn Portuguese” course, but could not carry on a conversation despite months of self-study.

This was especially sad, because he had spent all that time wanting to show a lovely Portuguese woman he truly had an interest in the language and culture of her country.

“Our families came here from a small village in Portugal, over 100 years ago. We are about the same age, both single, and it was a matchmaker who suggested that she visit California.”

Refused a promised refund, Manuel contacted us. “They wanted me to take some kind of a test, but then said that I was too late.”

It took one conference call, with our reader and a stammering advertising manager, to hear, “No problem. We will issue a credit to his Visa card at once.”

Our reader got his credit and is continuing to study online, using LingQ. He already has plans to visit Maria, this summer in Portugal, “thanks to that refund.”

Just call us Cupid.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.