The title for this blog was inspired by an interview I heard this week on Youtube with a very famous language teacher who was known as the language teacher to the stars of Hollywood. This gentleman, now deceased, explained how he first started out teaching six-week classes in French, German and Italian but later perfected his teaching methods so that he could do the same thing in only three days.
It seems that this method was so effective that “A” list Hollywood stars, politicians and executives from major companies soon flocked to his schools in New York, Beverly Hills and London. He passed away in 2005 but his method is alive in a series of popular self-study courses.
Fast-forward to 2012. In the United Kingdom, a highly regarded language institute bearing the name of its founder gives two-day classes in French, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin. On the website there are glowing testimonials and widespread press coverage.
Here is what you will be able to do at the end of the two-day course:
“You will be able to formulate your own ideas and thoughts using that language. In short, you will be able to say what you want to say, when you want to say it.”
There is also a series of self-study courses along the same lines as those of of the “language teacher to the stars.”
I’m always intrigued by these claims about teaching a language in days. In my daily work, I see people who have been struggling for months or even years with French. Can all this be reduced to a few days with some revolutionary method?
And what is more intriguing is that both methods claim that learners do not have to memorize anything, nor do any exercises or study grammar at all!
For starters, let me say that I have not taken any classes with either individual or used their self-study courses. So, I can’t really comment on their methods. I’m more interested in the big picture here. What can be accomplished in two or three days?
I’m skeptical. Yes, I do believe that you can achieve a lot a two days, But will you be able to speak French fluently and accurately in two days? Well, that depends on how you define being able to speak a language. Voilà le problème.
Let me be cynical for a moment. To my knowledge, there are no examples on the Internet of either of these individuals actually speaking any of the 10 or 6 foreign languages that they claimed to have learned or taught themselves.
Neither are any of the glowing testimonials in any of the foreign languages. When I look at the list of the great stars who have paid fabulous sums of money to learn French, I have yet to see or hear any of them actually speaking the language.
When I meet somebody who claims to speak French, I usually say something like: “C’est formidable. Félicitations. Où avez-vous appris le français?”
To come back to the initial question, the crux of the matter is how one defines “speaking French.” There is no doubt that one can learn to speak “some” French or any language in two days. But is that the same as “speaking French?”
Since the issue here is one of semantics, one way to resolve the debate is to use some objective scale for measuring foreign language ability or proficiency.
All countries use some sort of rating system for testing language students. One of the best known is the Common European Framework for Reference or CEFR. This system uses a six-level scale: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2.
The interesting thing about this rating system is that it defines in relatively clear terms what a learner should be able to do at any given level. For example, at the beginner or A1 level, in terms of speaking, you should be able to:
“A1 Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.”
Can somebody reach this level in two days or about 12 hours of group instruction? It’s hard to believe. From what I see on the Internet, most specialists estimate that it takes around 60 to 75 hours of tuition to reach that level.
Personally, I do think that three days or 18 hours of private instruction would probably work.
Although I may question the possibility of learning to “speak” French in just two days, I should add that I believe that you can learn a lot in two days. If you disregard the marketing hype, here, in my opinion, is the real value of such a two-day program:
1. Give a broad overview of how the language works
2. Demystify the learning process
3. Instill confidence in the learner
4. Demonstrate the things that are easily learned
5. Point out the difficulties that will have to be overcome
6. Learn some easy and useful phrases
This is actually not all that bad for two days of effort in a stimulating and engaging atmosphere with some congenial participants. This is certainly more fun than some dreary evening class that stretches out for months.
To sum up my position: no, you are not going to speak French after two days, but you will probably end up feeling confident that you can eventually learn French if you really want to. And you’ll probably have a good time to boot.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.