Hacking language learning

language learning

TED or ideas worth spreading represents itself as a source of stimulating and meaningful talks on a great variety of subjects. Some of these talks are worth listening to, but many are not. TED charges a ridiculous amount of money for people to participate in their live get-togethers, $7,500 for the meeting in Vancouver next March. Ridiculous to me, but obviously not to the people who willingly spend that money to see and be seen.

Here is a presentation on hacking language learning. I don’t believe in language hacks, because I believe that language learning takes a long time. I disagree with much of what Dr. Connor Quinn has to say in this video. I don’t believe that you can simply learn a few words and then be able to speak. You won’t understand what other people are saying. You need a lot of words, which are best acquired through a lot of enjoyable listening and reading. Having learned 14 languages to varying degrees, I know what I am talking about.

I also don’t believe that the field of linguistics has much to offer the language learner.



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10 comments on “Hacking language learning

I agree disagreeing. Yes, one will never achieve fluency only by doing language hacks, but these hacks are great motivators for people willing to start a new language. I think the point in hacking is more about to show people that language learning isn’t impossible (and that everyone can start it right now) than to lead to such a fluent level.


I disagreed with most of what he said, but I stopped watching the video at 05:30, when he said “…enjoy the fact that we’ve been more or less involuntarily give a second childhood in language”. Comparing adult language learning with children learning is like comparing apples to oranges. Children learn the language at the same time as they develop their emotional regulation systems. They learn the language through perceptual channels that become integrated with the limbic system.

When it comes to language learning, adults have to make a conscious effort to learn something that children acquire naturally. I would advise anybody who really wants to know why it is difficult to learn a language as an adult to take a look at Patricia Kuhl’s talk “How Children Learn” (http://bit.ly/18PI7J0) (1 hour) or maybe this short observation by Laura-Ann Petitto, which sums it all up in 1 minute: http://bit.ly/1bwpslP

To the extent that the talk encourages and inspires, I don’t have a problem with it. However, I think anyone who has real experience in language learning will be left with rather a hollow feeling; the examples (“hacks”) discussed are peripheral at best (accurate pronunciation, wh- question words) and end up giving a rather misleading impression of the enormity of the task ahead. But, again, if the aim is to inspire, then all power to him!


Everyone learns differently. Some people may find one way of language hacking useful, while another may not. There are certainly better ways to learn than going blind into it and reading books. It is a process, which can be optimized.


I disagree because my experience was very similar to Dr. Conor Quinn (note the correct spelling of his first name).

In my early 20’s I went to Mexico not knowing a thing other than “si” & “gracias” & within 2 weeks I was able to very easily carry on conversations with the natives with high fluency. Was my grammar always correct? No but I did not let that stop me & asked for correction. The difference was, I had a deep desire to learn & did not know that it could not be done, I thought what I did was normal. BTW, I spoke without an accent because I mimicked the natives.

I find it disheartening how people do not get the purpose of TED – it is about possibility, context & raising the bar. Some, like this author, try to grab the bar & pull it down with their own myopia, how sad.


I cannot agree with Dr. Quinn more. The process that he describes is EXACTLY how I learned Mandarin in the early stages. It certainly worked for me. If you don’t agree with Dr. Quinn, then let us just accept that different people acquire language in different ways. I, for one, am on the exact same wavelength as him.
The techniques he describes work best in a total immersion environment.

Anne Davidson

I agree with Dr Quinn with respect to learning enough of a language to hold conversations quickly in a foreign country. I know my verbs are a mess and my grammar and syntax are ridiculous, but people understand me and I understand them, which is marvelous. People are happy to converse despite my ineptitude; they realize I’m trying and are forgiving and helpful. One time, while waiting for a bus in a small town in the Pyrenees, a Frenchwoman and I discussed the recent presidential elections in the U.S. and the political situation in France. An interesting, in-depth conversation, although there were delays while I struggled for an apt word and when she repeated things using different words. In Italy, I discussed lots of topics with the woman running the B&B–we used a combination of French (which we both knew slightly), Latin (ditto), English (which she was learning), and Italian (I had a pocket guide). For correct usage, yes, years of study are required. But Dr. Quinn is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT about getting a good start in a new language. His tips are excellent and effective. He’s addressing conversational language, not the fluency needed to compose a formal paper or correspondence.


I don’t know where you get your information about TED talks, or what you are claiming costs $7500. I have attended two of these; tickets were roughly $100 (well worth it), and many who can’t afford it may get ‘scholarships’ upon request.

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