Yesterday on the bus home from Narita Airport (after spending New Year in Shanghai/Hangzhou) I read the (Japanese) half advertisement, half general interest easy reading magazine provided in the seat pocket by the bus company, and there was this one article that I found quite interesting. It was an interview with the company president of a “speed learning” (スピードラーニング) English enterprise, as well as a student of said company, a 50-ish business/research person who was said to have learned English up to the level of being able to hold a presentation at an international conference in just one year.
Apparently this speed learning method has been around in Japan for 19 years. Upon googling it, there seem to be some enterprises offering speed learning sets in Japan, for not only English but also Chinese, Korean, French, etc, although I’ll focus on English as a target language, but the major player – or only player, in case all the rest are just search engine spamming – is this company called Espiritline.
So what is this speed learning? It seems to be based on the following ideas:
- Just listening without understanding much, even for only 5 minutes a day, is enough. After a while you will start wanting to hear more, because it becomes a part of your lifestyle, just like listening to music, and the topics are interesting.
- Get used to the sound of the language. The rhythm and sound frequencies used in English are different from Japanese. If you are not used to the sound of English, it’ll sound like noise to you, and you won’t be able to understand it.
- The natural order of learning a language is listen→ speak→ read→ write. That’s why speed learning focuses on listening comprehension first.
- After each English sentence, the corresponding Japanese follows. The stories are made up of 4-5 second English sentences, after which the corresponding Japanese sentence is read out. This means you don’t have to stop and look things up in a dictionary, and you’ll understand the meaning of the English sentences just by listening, with no need for a textbook. It also means that you will develop an understanding of English as a whole instead of word-for-word, and develop an understanding of English in English instead of in Japanese, and once you have that you will be able to speak English without intermediary Japanese.
- Classical music to keep you relaxed. The best study results are achieved when relaxed, so classical music flows in the background, which keeps you relaxed. There are also no great intonations in the narration, so that you can listen repeatedly to the same story in a relaxed state.
On top of this, there’s also a bunch of new age voodoo behind it, it seems. The article I was reading talked a lot about how speed learning stimulates the right brain (I guess it assumes the reader believes in some over-simplified view of the workings of the brain), and on this site selling some speed learning English package, there’s talk about how the background music stimulates the brain’s alpha waves, in addition to talk about left and right brain stuff.
So what to make of this? Does it make sense, and can it be applied to learning Japanese as well?
At first it looked mostly like a scam to me, with the “this guy learned perfect English in one year by studying 5 minutes per day” and the above-mentioned new age stuff, and not to mention the classical background music (I like almost all kinds of music except classical music – I can hardly stand it – so for me personally there would have to be some package without the music).
But a lot of it is sensible as well. I too believe that passive understanding is incredibly much more important than active when learning a language, which means speed learning makes more sense than for instance eikaiwa-style English conversation classes. Listening to real, spoken English rather than using a traditional textbook also seems very sensible.
As I’ve mentioned before, I listen to Japanese radio while working, in addition to the usual influx of Japanese, of course. This is basically the same idea; get a lot of input in a natural, spoken form of the target language, then the meaning comes naturally to you. Having the meaning of the sentences read out in your primary language afterward might be a good idea in the beginning, but once you achieve a decent listening comprehension level and vocabulary, I think it’s probably more of an obstacle to learning. Or maybe not; I still like having example sentences in Japanese/English for comparison when studying vocabulary, for instance…
In conclusion I’d say that if they just dropped the just 5 minutes per day and brain waves stuff, it makes a lot of sense. More sense than going to eikaiwa or school, at least, judging from most Japanese people’s poor English abilities despite actively studying it for years.