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Frequently Asked Questions

Disclaimer: We have never been asked any of these questions.

Can a book teach me a foreign language?

Learning to speak a foreign language from a book is very difficult. Even with supplementary CDs and practice, people who learn primarily from books typically develop a much worse accent than those who learn entirely by listening. On the other hand, for those whose primary interest is in translation or text-based communication (e-mail or instant messaging), a book is probably the best way to learn.

Can my friends teach me a foreign language?

Many people mistakenly believe that to teach a foreign language, you need only know the foreign language. To teach a foreign language you need to know how to teach. And, you need to know how foreign languages are best learned.

If you want your friends to teach you a foreign language, have them read our advice on learning, and a few books on practical linguistics and psychology of learning.

We recommend, however, that you leave the linguistics and psychology of learning to us, use our product, and practice as often as possible with your friend. Make sure your friend reads our advice on learning and follows our method.

Can an audio CD teach me a foreign language?

The audio lessons we have produced, and those of one of our competitors, are very effective at causing the user to remember words and phrases and to understand how to put them together to make more complex meanings.

However, to develop fluency you must be able to say what you want to say instantaneously, and without thinking about it. This comes from practicing. Once you've learned a sufficient number of phrases, it's up to you to begin using your foreign language. Although it's good to have people to practice with (as they can correct your mistakes), you can get most of the same benefits by thinking to yourself in the foreign language.

Can my computer teach me a foreign language?

Most software products for teaching foreign languages are substantially worse than plain CDs. There are two reasons for this.

Computers enable lessons to be flexible. The hardest thing about learning a language is knowing the effective strategies for learning. Many software vendors make "flexible" computer programs that give the user no guidance whatsoever. Unless you have a PhD in applied linguistics or have learned three languages already, you should be paying for a strategy, not the opportunity to learn by yourself.

Computers are notoriously bad at recognition problems. Despite this, most software products on the market provide "speech recognition" that "tells you how good your pronunciation is." If you've already paid for the product, I suggest you try it out on a native speaker of the language you're learning and see how bad it says there pronunciation is. If you haven't paid for the product, don't waste your money. Find someone who has worked in a research institute studying speech recognition (such as myself), and ask them if they should trust a computer to evaluate their accent. In most cases, your ear is far better trained than the computer's.

These two disadvantages aside, it is possible to write a software product that teaches a foreign language effectively. We expect that the first effective software language product brought to market will come from Effective Languages.

What's bad about copying CDs?

Easy to copy products like CDs, movies and software are, effectively "public goods". This means that once someone has created the product, others can (albeit not legally) use the product for almost zero cost to themselves. If everyone is both greedy and unethical, no one will pay for the good. Without income, the product creators will not make a sequel.

In a perfect ethical world, everyone who uses a public good, such as a CD would be willing to pay the creator of the CD according to the value of the product for the user. For example, Joe, learning Chinese to close a one billion dollar business deal might be willing to pay ten million dollars for a Chinese lesson. Jane, wanting to find out what her roommate is saying about her to her friends, might pay five dollars for the same product. If all the money that buyers are willing to pay exceeds the cost of researching and developing the product, then the excess money would be split arbitrarily between the buyers and creators.

Unfortunately, since we do not live in a perfectly ethical world, creators of products cannot trust buyers of products to pay according to their value. In fact, they can't trust users of products to pay at all.

For the ethical people out there who believe that the product we offer is of far more value to them than the price we charge, we accept donations. We will use that money to continue to develop and improve our products. Donation money will always be used to pay for product expansion, never disbursed to our investors.

What's good about copying CDs?

Every time you copy a CD, we save the manufacturing cost of one CD. When you give the CD to a friend, we save the marketing cost of acquiring a potential customer. This is great for us if you and your friend are the honest, ethical type who will come to our web site and pay us for the product you're about to use.

To reward the ethical CD copiers for the labor they save us, we offer you a substantial discount.

What about file-swapping networks?

If you are ethical then you will only copy our CDs to give to your ethical friends who will pay for them (minus the discount we give for being ethical). On the other hand, uploading our products to file-swapping networks will provide it to both ethical and unethical people. If you believe our product is great, and you want to do a service to the file-swapping community by allowing them to access our product, we recommend that you estimate the number of unethical people in the community who will gain value from the product but not pay for it. Then estimate the average value gained per person, multiply, and send us a donation for that amount.

Why did you create Effective Languages?

I taught myself to speak Chinese in about a year and a half while I was in college. I didn't have time to take a class, so I wrote down some phrases and asked my native speaking friends how to say them in Chinese. I learned about three or four phrases a day. I mixed English and Chinese the way the Chinese graduate students did -- English nouns and verbs for the technical words, and Chinese for the grammatical and simple words. We discussed computer science, politics, popular entertainment, student life... whatever was on our minds.

I am an engineer. The goal of engineering is to make products that improve the lives of those around us. I saw the electronic engineering industry revolutionize the way people communicate -- the internet, the cell phone, the drop in international calling prices. But although communication became faster and cheaper, learning to communicate in a foreign language was not getting any easier.

I worked in electronic speech recognition research a few years ago. There, I met people who tried to apply all of the newest inventions to the problem of teaching foreign languages. They tried to use computers, multimedia, the internet, speech recognition technology, handheld computers, anything to improve the effectiveness of teaching. But not once did the application of technology make the learning process more efficient.

I spent several years trying to understand how the fruits of the last decade of engineering could be applied to the problem of learning foreign languages. Eventually, I realized that my Chinese speaking friends were not just flattering me when they said they couldn't believe I had only studied Chinese for a year and a half. I traveled to Asia to take a Chinese class there. They didn't put me in the "beginner", "intermediate", or "advanced" class. They put me in the class for native Chinese speakers who couldn't read.

I realized that the problem was not "how do I apply the results of engineering effort to language learning", it was "how do I apply the methods of engineering to language learning".

As a student of engineering, I had instinctively picked the optimal set of phrases and the optimal method when I set out to learn my foreign language. I had thrown language purity out the window because it was inefficient -- my practice partners could understand mixed English/Chinese so why not use it? I had sorted my phrases by frequency -- why learn "hello" which occurs once per conversation before "and", which occurs a few dozen times? And I had eliminated redundancy -- why learn both "big" and "large" when I could always say "big"? After all, if someone said "large" to me and I asked what it means, they'd just say "big". My learning method had allowed me to begin having interesting conversations with my friends years earlier than traditional methods would have allowed.

So why did I create Effective Languages? Because I'm an engineer. That's what we're supposed to do: create products that improve the lives of those around us.