1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Duolingo
  4. >
  5. William Alexander's failure -…


William Alexander's failure - my first thought: why?


I find this article very interesting, about William Alexander's failure to learn french: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/opinion/16alexander.html

This article by William Alexander actually scared me a lot when I first started learning, I was scared the same thing would happen to me... thankfully it hasn't. After 4 months of intense study I can often have conversations now without too much trouble, although I still miss a lot of words and make frequent errors. I haven't read his book, but upon reading the article, my first thought about his failure is: why? He certainly doesn't appear to lack tenacity. Maybe he fell into the passive listening trap while watching movies, and didn't make active effort to consciously understand? He didn't really specify.

What are your thoughts? Why do you think he failed? Do you think his failure was down to his age or brain, or is it more likely that he took a faulty approach? I hope the same thing doesn't happen to you.

August 12, 2017



I think he was afraid to say (metaphorically speaking) "Tommy hitted me". It's very hard as adult language learners to accept that making mistakes may be the key to learning to speak another language.


That's a very good idea - fear of making mistakes. That is a mistake itself. When we learned our first language, we could talk baby language without fear of being corrected and judged, unlike adult learners. However, in order to reach a high level, we must realize thousands of mistakes are required! In fact, we learn from mistakes, so the more mistakes we make the more we learn. I would like to know more about his method.


I think it's the difference between school and real life. At school I was hopeless at languages. When I found myself working in a foreign country it was a choice of making myself understood in the local shops or not eating. Grammatical mistakes didn't matter! But through communication I learnt to speak closer to how the natives spoke. At school this approach simply leads to exam failure - but school failed to teach me to speak foreign, building from pointing and stringing the few words I knew together, led to conversation and somewhat more accurate grammar, but most importantly, to the ability to communicate in a second language.


Well, I'm over 50 and was able to have a conversation in Portuguese only in Brazil after doing only one week of the Duolingo tree and watching some youtube videos on pronunciation. So, I don't think that it was his age or his brain. Actually, I saw the article as fairly hopeful as his memory test improved a lot after studying French.


"It's a bogus self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you are too old, you won't try at all because it's “hopeless” and you won't learn. You didn't learn “therefore” you are too old(!) Ad nauseam......I even see 50, 60 and 70 year olds who are successfully taking on new languages!"


"Until recently, however, many neuroscientists had suggested that most of us are too old to reach native-like fluency in a fresh language; according to the “critical period hypothesis”, there is a narrow window during childhood in which we can pick up the nuances of a new language. Yet Bialystok’s research suggests this may have been exaggerated; rather than a steep precipice, she has found that there is a very slight decline in our abilities as we age."

Anyone worried about being too old to learn a language should watch this:


"The hard data are that children learn new languages slowly and effortly with less speed than adults or adolescents....The current evidence suggests how language is processed in the brain is not so much of an age dependent phenomenon and more of a level-of-attainment phenomenon."


That's very impressive for a week. I froze during my first conversation on Skype, which was after 2 weeks. I'm not a fan of Benny Lewis's blogs, I often sense a "you're an idiot for not wanting to learn languages" tone, and in many cases it isn't right at all. That said, I do agree that being too old is a common and flawed excuse. Children do learn better, but not for the reasons people think. The primary issue is not different brains - it's different approaches. Adults often learn in tedious environments, make excuses (their age), avoid speaking in overself-consciousness and don't use a very important part of learning - speak, make mistakes and learn.


He mentions using Rosetta Stone in the first paragraph. I think I see why he failed.

That aside, he seems very keen to come up with external reasons for his lack of success. It just seems like a lack of motivation to me.


Why do you think he failed?

Why would everyone be able to learn a foreign language?
Maybe for the same reason as:
Not everyone is able to learn mathematics, chemistry etc.


Yes it could be. A common reason is lack of interest and motivation, which would be mine in both of those subjects. It wasn't the case for him though. Some of us believe he simply didn't have a language brain, others a faulty method... I think it's likely both... so I started this discussion, to see what others think.

Learn a language in just 5 minutes a day. For free.