Language Learning with Ben Whately, Co-Founder of Memrise
Welcome back to this week’s episode. Today we have a special guest named Ben Whatley. Maybe you know him! He’s the Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Memrise, one of the most celebrated language apps there is.
Ben received his master’s in experimental psychology from Oxford University and has since been working with language acquisition. In fact, he’s a pioneer in the field; Ben helped create the first AI language partner using GPT3 technology. It’s called the MemBot. Yeah, I’ll repeat that! Ben helped create an AI language partner! Is this the future? It may be.
If you’re interested in trying it out, I’ll provide a link in the episode notes. In any case, today I had the pleasure of tapping into his knowledge with the goal of finding out how we can learn better. In our chat, Ben and I talk about common misconceptions in language, learning, the genius of mnemonic devices and how to acquire new vocabulary effectively. I hope you enjoy it! Without any further ado, let’s hear from Ben.
Shana: Hi, Ben.
Ben: Hi. Great to be here.
Shana: Great to have you. I’m so excited you’re here. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve known about you for much longer than you probably know. I have been using Memrise for well, I used it mostly back in 2014, 2015, 2016, back when it was focused on images and stuff and my friends and I were so enthusiastic about it that it was something that we talked about daily. And in that process, I got to know you. I got to hear about Ed Cooke, your Co-founder, and I’m just thrilled to have you here. So how are you doing today?
Ben: Very well, thank you. Very well.
Shana: Very well.
Ben: It’s school holidays. My children are all around me. But it’s a bit busy here. Good day.
Shana: Good. All right. So I’d love to get a little bit of information about you and your background. I read a little bit about you, but I don’t know the details of where you grew up, where you went to school, I believe you went to Oxford, but I don’t know much about that. So I kind of would love to hear your background story. Do you mind sharing with us?
Ben: So I guess my background also as it relates to language learning. When I was at high school, I was not very good at languages or I guess specifically I did fine in my exams because I was kind of good at exams. But whenever I went to France or Spain, I couldn’t speak the language and I knew that I wasn’t any good at the language even if I got an A grade.
And then I went to Oxford to study neuroscience, and I got very into specifically into the science of how we learn and how human brains learn effectively. And there, while I was looking at how humans learn language, I came across this idea that I had in my head that I was one of these people that was bad at languages. But the reality of it is that humans are good at languages.
If you’re human, there’s literally nothing you can do about it. You’re good at languages and it doesn’t really make sense to say that you’re a human that is bad at languages. What can make sense is that you’re human that’s bad at learning languages, the way that you’re being taught languages. But that’s more a problem with how you’re being taught languages than it is with your ability. And I think that part of this, part of the problem that we have, I’m straying off my background and now just pining about language, but there you are. Part of the problem we have is in this word, or this concept of learning, we think that the language is a thing that we need to learn and therefore someone needs to teach it to us.
But in fact, if you look at the overall time you spend getting good at a new language, the time you spend being taught, the structures, the grammar and whatever about the language, that should be like, well, less than 1% of your overall time, acquiring the [00:05:00] language.
The overwhelming time is practicing it, it’s listening to podcasts, it’s watching films, it’s listening, trying to understand people. And on the other side, it’s trying to communicate your thoughts to someone else using language. And those are the times when you’re actually acquiring the language or learning the language, but they’re not what happens in language courses.
And if you look at what happens in the classroom, it’s maybe a 50/50 split between teaching you stuff and practicing stuff. Well, that’s a disaster, you’ve only done 2% of your full 100%.
And while I was studying at Oxford, all of this kind of came clear to me as I was looking at the way that humans learn languages effectively.
So when I graduated from Oxford, I went to live in northern China, north-eastern China, up on the Siberian border in a city called Qiqihar. And I went there to see if I could learn Chinese well, to do what I wanted to do and be able to live a life in Chinese, even though I thought I was bad at languages.
So I went and lived up there for about a year. And what it turned out was that, yeah, I could like pretty quickly, I could get good enough to do the things that I wanted to do in the language. And I guess that was where I picked up another idea, which was I didn’t need to learn Chinese, I needed to learn the Chinese I needed to do the things I needed to do.
And actually, I met a guy up there who was a Canadian, but his parents were Canadian. He’d been brought up in Hong Kong going to local Cantonese speaking school. Then when he was about 16, he moved to high school in Germany and then went to university in Germany. He said, What’s my native language? Right? I talked to my parents in English, and if I have to play with small kids, I can do it in English. I can’t do that in German and I can’t do that in Cantonese. I’m pretty funny in Cantonese. And if I’m like hanging out with my mates, it’s Cantonese. That’s where I’d do it.
Ben: But asked me to write an essay in either English or Cantonese, I’m not great, frankly. And German, that’s where I can really, like, if I were going to write a novel, I’d do it in German. Like, which one’s my native language?
Ben: And that struck me as quite an interesting idea. Also, the kind of analogy I have of this very language is so specific to what you need it for and so if we were to put the way we think about learning a language towards cooking, then we’d say, I really want to learn to cook, but I can’t, I’m bad at cooking, I’m bad at cooking. I just need to learn everything and then when we teach cooking, we teach like the principles of frying, the principles of baking, and try and get you to understand what all of the different ingredients in baking are doing and try and teach those to you before you ever do anything.
Of course we don’t do that right? We learn to cook by learning to cook one dish and then we go and learn another dish and then another dish. And at some point we start to generalize and we’re like, Well, okay, I’m going to fry an onion. Okay, that’s a start. I’ve done that in a bunch of recipes, and I think learning a language is very much more like learning to cook, in that respect.
You need to learn to say hello to someone, greet them, then you need to learn to say something that you like, saying to new people that you meet, which is personal to you! It’s not, you know, my French textbooks, which are constantly teaching me to say my father’s job. It’s like, I’ve never had that conversation with my friends in English!