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By dvlong - Posted on 18 January 2010

Rubber trees and language students

I know that we've learned that language classes are difficult.  Language study requires hard work, high levels of dedication, commitment, motivation, etc., etc.  Mostly, it requires a lot of practice.

That's what we've learned...

So the other day, I spoke with a customer at my restaurant.  He and his wife have a rubber plantation in Rayong.  I asked him about his work.  He explained to me that it cost about 7,000 Baht to plant 1 rai of land in rubber trees.  For the first three years, they needed a caretaker.  But it was a full 7 to 8 years before he would be able to harvest anything at all. (I haven't verified that it takes 7 to 8 years but that's what he said.  I do know that many fruit trees naturally grown take about this amount of time to begin producing.)

What if you don't want to wait?  Can you make the trees produce in 3 years?  Can you plant them this year and harvest next year?  Next week?  Of course there's always the possibility that you can just buy the rubber and forget the farm.  Also, there is such a thing as synthetic rubber - that doesn't take 7 to 8 years.  Of course there's a different quality to the product as well.  It's not really the same as the real thing.

I then thought about the similarities between rubber trees and language students. (I'd bet you never knew there were similarities!)

By any standards, it takes at least two years of pretty much full-time commitment to become proficient in another language, and usually more like 3 to 5.  That's any program, anywhere.  Of course, if you're a German learning Dutch you'll gain the language faster than a German, learning Chinese - but proficiency in a foreign language simply takes time.  There is too much complexity to learn it all quickly.

I can imagine many people now saying, "That's a really long time!"  Right.  So is 7 to 8 years for a rubber tree.  But that's how long it takes.  We see it everywhere in the world.

People get to 1 year and say they've been at it long enough.  Right.  Quit the farm at 4 years and you'll never see a harvest.

Of course just like with rubber, you might consider just buying it.   Get a translator.  It's not the same as producing your own but it is certainly faster.

And there is always synthetic language.  It's not the real thing, but it can work in some cases.  Just learn the words you think you need, based on translations from your own language/culture, and then use them a lot.  Practice is the key here.  Use it or lose it is the password.

A comparison of synthetic rubber and real rubber is probably not too difficult.  It's very hard, and maybe impossible, to do better at many things than nature already does.  Language acquisition is one of those things that nature is already very, very good at.  It's efficient, and consistent world over.  Does hard work, high levels of dedication, commitment, motivation, etc., have anything to do with this process?  Not really.  We're born with a desire to communicate and given a proper environment in any language, have the innate ability to acquire it.

We see young children acquiring new languages without any of the synthetic baggage that adults would place on them - such as classrooms, teachers, hard work, and tests.  It's not a problem with the adult brain because we see uneducated adults doing the same thing!  Both young children and uneducated adults acquire languages and become fluent in a few years time.

If all you need are a few translated words, then by all means, go the synthetic language route.  But don't ever expect it will lead you somehow to the real thing.

My rubber tree friend was quite positive about the future of rubber.  He explained that with the numbers of people in China and India who are becoming more and more affluent, the need for rubber will only increase.  Tires on cars for example, will be in higher and higher demand.  You would think that with all of our modern technology and science, we'd have found a good substitute for real rubber - it hasn't happened yet.  So far, we haven't been able to beat nature at this one.  Even more so, simple comparisons between real language and synthetic language show that nothing beats the real process.  Nothing yet.

What's true for rubber trees seems to be even more true for the human brain.  Once you have the basics naturally, you can do many things. Enhance this, add that.  If you alter the basics, you may get something faster but it will be lesser as well.

So what is this real process?  It's what young children do everywhere.  Watch, and listen.  Then guess about what you're seeing.  Give nature a chance - the benefits will always be yours.

I agree! ALG is slow. Slow but sure...

This is an interesting analogy. For a range of activities, a rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 hours to become accomplished (or as accomplished as one is likely to become). Assuming a 25 hour week, 48 weeks a year, this means a commitment of over 8 years.

Learning the classical guitar? This sounds about right to me. But what about language acquisition? Well after a couple of thousand hours students from the West at AUA seem to be able to speak quite well at a basic level, read basic texts and write a little too, so in my view the rule of thumb of 10,000 hours seems about right. For those who are able to immerse themsleves into a wholly Thai environment, and are ethnically from the region the process will be a lot quicker.

Rubber trees taking 7 or 8 years before a return on the investment? Yes, I can understand that too.

A language is an enormous body of knowledge. It has a foundation, grows slowly, and bears the fruits of communication and exchange.

After watching a bunch of your ALG videos on youtube I'm pretty much conviced that you guys teach and study language the right way. I had a chance to study Thai in Bangkok for a year where I learned to to speak, read and write Thai the "traditional" way with tests and homework and stuff like that. Since then, I have been studying Thai on my own for about 2 - 3 in the states and on a few trips back to Thailand. I'm definetaly not fluent in Thai yet but I don't think that I have hit any sort of plateu in my learning either. Is it too late for me to switch over to your method of learning? Is it too late for me to become fluent? Also, does AUA plan to offer any sort of online classes or video classes? I think it would be great if you guys did something like that. Anyways I guess thats all I have for now Thanks!

It's never too late to build your ability with input. What input is appropriate for you is perhaps the important thing to consider. A couple of things to look at are these: First, you want input that you cannot understand with your eyes closed. It needs to be a stretch and it needs to contain good visual input.

Secondly, you will need to make internal adjustments to your listening. Because of education, we're way too focused as adults on verbal input. Try to get more comfortable with looking for meaning and guessing about it. This will help keep your mind open as well as allow you to gain input from many sources you would otherwise lose out on.

Regarding online study, yes. We're working now on some Reading and Writing classes, which will be offered later this year online, as well as more level 1 classes. We're a bit slow getting this stuff produced though - sorry! :(

Alright, thanks for the advice. Maybe after I'm done watching all your guy's sample videos on youtube, I'll start watching these Thai-dubbed Ultraman episodes I picked up at 7 eleven while I was over there. Anyways, good luck getting all that new stuff together, it sounds great.

This is a fantastic piece of advice, would you consider turning this into an article in it's own right?

This is particularly interesting since so many people have already started and sometimes the Methodology can make it sound like if you didn't start right from the beginning you will always be lost. However what you are saying here has a more positive slant and I for one would like to read more about these ideas!