Recently, I’ve been reading an interesting book called The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss, and stumbled across his blog. In it, he had a video in which he and Kevin Rose that was primarily about things related to the business of start-ups. But then, surprisingly, in the last 5 minutes of the video, the conversation turned to learning Chinese. Skip the first two minutes of the video if you’re easily disgusted!

The 4th Random Episode from Glenn McElhose on Vimeo.

I thought those language learning ideas were pretty odd. In my own experience as a teacher and as a student, getting a lot of language input improves output, whereas focusing on speaking doesn’t necessarily improve one’s comprehension abilities. In fact, I recall at least unpleasant experience I had in Guatemala in which I was able to ask people for directions in a very fluent manner, but I couldn’t understand their responses. Steve Kauffman’s critique included the very same point:

2) Ferriss says that we should start with production of the language, not comprehension. I could not disagree more. You have to understand before you can speak. You have to get the language in you before you can produce anything in the language. I have seen his previous material where he places great importance on knowing the word order, and certain basic sentences, in different languages. To me the usage patterns in different languages are too varied, unpredictable and usually illogical to allow for any such formula approach. You just need to get used to the language with a lot of input, and work on comprehension.

That said, I have had very good results working on production in a few very narrow situations. The first is pronunciation. I still think the best way is to hear a lot of the language before trying to speak it (just as we do with our native languages), but focused drilling of the more difficult sounds can help quite a bit. I’ve seen it in my students’ pronunciation of “r” sounds in English, and I’ve seen it in my own pronunciation of the “ü” sounds in Mandarin. The other place where focused work on language production has helped me is with writing Chinese characters. I’m not sure that any amount of reading alone would give someone the ability to write characters. It would do wonders for the overall structure of their essays, reports or other writing, though.