Failed at Learning a New Language? Here’s Why, and What Can be Done.

July 24, 2020 Jeff Hrusko Season 1 Episode 6
Failed at Learning a New Language? Here’s Why, and What Can be Done.
Failed at Learning a New Language? Here’s Why, and What Can be Done.
Jul 24, 2020 Season 1 Episode 6
Jeff Hrusko

Traditional methods of learning a new language may not offer the best results. 

I took four years of French, two in high school and two in college, yet beyond asking if I can have a pencil or use the bathroom - I failed miserably. 

  • Why is it so hard for most adults to learn a new language? 
  • Is there a better way to learn a new language? 

In this episode, Jeff Hrusko speaks with Dr. Arkady Zilberman. who developed a new method of subconscious training in English skills that automatically eliminates adults’ habit of thinking in the native language and cross-translating in the head when learning a foreign language.

Subconscious training is defined as the activity in which all skills –reading, listening, and speaking – are learned simultaneously. The new method is in sharp contrast with the conscious learning English as information to be remembered.

Show Notes Transcript

Traditional methods of learning a new language may not offer the best results. 

I took four years of French, two in high school and two in college, yet beyond asking if I can have a pencil or use the bathroom - I failed miserably. 

  • Why is it so hard for most adults to learn a new language? 
  • Is there a better way to learn a new language? 

In this episode, Jeff Hrusko speaks with Dr. Arkady Zilberman. who developed a new method of subconscious training in English skills that automatically eliminates adults’ habit of thinking in the native language and cross-translating in the head when learning a foreign language.

Subconscious training is defined as the activity in which all skills –reading, listening, and speaking – are learned simultaneously. The new method is in sharp contrast with the conscious learning English as information to be remembered.


To Learn a New Language Switch to another System of the Mind

Mixdown 2

Wed, 7/22 7:52PM • 40:07


Language, learning, words, symbols, subconscious, grammar, conscious, English, native language, system, actions, acquisition, visualize, speak, thoughts, teacher, training, coach


Arkady Zilberman, Jeff Hrusko


Jeff Hrusko  00:11

Hello, this is Jeff Hrusko, instructional designer and technologist and welcome to another episode of COG, a podcast where we explore how we learn why we don't and some of the things that make the difference and today I'm very excited to have Dr. Arkady Zilberman. Dr. Zilberman has an interesting and varied background. He was trained as a material scientist, but has since become a language expert. So much so that he invented his own method for training languages, subconscious training of English skills, and in this episode, we'll explore what that means and why it is so difficult, genuinely difficult for most adults to learn a second language. Arkady, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, and how you've come to develop the new method, thank you.


Arkady Zilberman  01:07

I had two lives: one in the former Soviet Union and the second one in the United States. I have Ph.D. in science and worked as a scientist. All my life I was interested in languages. And I asked myself why I can learn a language easily. And I see around me most adults, they struggle with learning English. So that question was in my mind for many years, and I started to do my observations when I worked as a simultaneous interpreter in the Russian - English pair of languages. When I was doing those simultaneous interpretations, I made a few discoveries. I was surprised to discover that when I work as an interpreter, I visualize one language and speak in another language. Many people think that if I speak Russian and English that I can use both languages at the same time, and that is not true. This is why sometimes I use a phrase which may sound not understandable that languages are not compatible. What I mean by that is that you can speak in one language or the other but even if I do simultaneous interpretation it means that I only hear one language and speak in a second language. Then while doing other observations I came to the idea that we think subconsciously. And that's why we should probably learn a language also subconsciously. How this idea came about?


Jeff Hrusko  03:32

I know a lot of high school students would love to learn a subject subconsciously. I for one would have loved that for trigonometry. But tell me what do you mean by this subconscious learning of languages?


Arkady Zilberman  03:45

But let me ask you first - when you're driving a car, playing a musical instrument or do martial arts – are you're doing it consciously or subconsciously?


Jeff Hrusko  03:59

Yes. I see what you mean and I think many of us have found yourself someplace and wondered  just how did I get here.


Arkady Zilberman  04:11

I guess we do those things subconsciously and it would be a disaster if you will drive a car consciously. What means driving subconsciously? It means that your subconscious mind during training became capable to drive a car by determining certain patterns which are performed automatically. That is what is called subconscious. You play a musical instrument subconsciously and you know, that  a professional musician remembers a few hundred thousand notes during his recital, it is not possible to do it consciously. Subconsciously is the only way to perform recital or to play musical instrument.  There are so many things which we do subconsciously. Moreover, the subconscious mind acts as a memory bank with unlimited capacity that permanently stores everything that ever happens to you and controls 95% of all human functions.  So, now you know more what is conscious or subconscious, however, whatever I said, it does not explain you much.  I understand it because it's very difficult to determine or to give a theory. So, we should use here a pragmatic approach. And here I will give you a pragmatic approach. What is conscious learning or memorization, and when you use subconscious learning. The definition is pretty simple. If a learner performs one or two actions, it is conscious learning or memorization. For example, hearing and reading, or you are just listening or if you're just speaking, in other words, you do only two actions and you are aware of what you are doing – it is conscious learning.  As you try to learn a second language, you start with learning words and phrases, and you try to memorize them. There is conscious learning. What is subconscious learning? If a learner performs three or more actions simultaneously, it becomes subconscious training produced by these three action activity. The latter presents the brain with a challenging workload and automatically stops cross translation into the native language. When cross translation is stopped, a foreign language center is formed in the brain of an adult, because old symbols which were previously wired together with the words in the native language are now rewired to the English words directly in the course of multiple simultaneous repetitions.


Jeff Hrusko  07:42

So, are you saying that there is an inherent grammar of thought, in a way that all humans share? Does it mean that when you don't put things into words they have a similar structure.


Arkady Zilberman  08:00

If I asked you in which language do you think? What is your answer?  Everybody in your place would say the same thing: we think in the native language, but the answer is wrong. You do not think in English and I do not think in English or in Russian. We all think in language of thoughts or symbols. A great cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his book “The language instinct” explained that people do not think in English or Chinese, or any other language, they think in a language of thoughts called mentalese. Knowing a language then is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa.  We think in symbols that are wired in our brains to the native language, and that's why it creates the illusion that we think in the native language. Every person has accumulated his own database of symbols that in case of learning a second language should be rewired to the new words of a second language. In other words, our objective in learning English is different now: it is rewiring known symbols to unknown words of a second language. But, here additional question arises: what is a symbol? We think in symbols because symbols include everything. It could be a feeling, it could be an image. In most cases, it's what I call average image. For example, if you have a symbol of table it's not one specific table. A symbol of table is an average of hundreds of tables which you saw in your life. Whenever you think something in symbols, it's pretty clear. But a symbol should appear in your mind first before you can verbalize it as a word in the native or in a second language. 


Jeff Hrusko  10:47

I think I can understand that and that makes a lot of sense. When I think of a dream, and I find myself telling somebody about the dream, it's difficult, because the dream itself is mostly feeling and sensation and visuals. And when you're telling it, you're sort of changing it, you're putting a narrative around it, you are setting it, setting it up in a structure to make some deal of sense; in a way you're translating. 


Arkady Zilberman  11:18

No, it is a little different. When you sleep for example, you see that your life in your dreams is very clear, you feel it, and you participate in it. But do you know that all that is so clear to you because the dream is in the language of thoughts, symbols are used in your dream. And whenever you try to pronounce, to verbalize a symbol or in case of danger, you're crying for help, you wake up because in the dream there is no language.  That is a clear example when we use the language of thoughts. That's what we do in subconscious training. We are rewiring the known symbols to the unknown words of a second language. We need to overcome two barriers that are working on a subconscious level.  Cross translation of unknown words into the native language and the innate habit of thinking in the native language when trying to speak in a foreign language. The traditional methods of teaching a foreign language cannot be used for overcoming these two barriers because they are a result of conscious learning. We do not have those barriers when we use a subconscious learning, because when you do three actions simultaneously according to the definition of the subconscious learning, your conscious control is turned off automatically. So, you perform three actions and you have no attention left to do anything else like cross translate or thinking in your native language. This way you are doing English and you will be also able to avoid the appalling forgetting curve that is typical for conscious learning. In the subconscious training you do not consciously participate in the process, to a certain extent of course, it's a bit maybe exaggeration, but it's easier to understand this way.  


Jeff Hrusko  14:00

What are those three actions that will quiet your conscious mind and allow you to do English instead of trying to remember the information and to use it subconsciously?


Arkady Zilberman  14:08

In learning English you allow your subconscious mind to find the patterns and so the next time you will speak by association using the patterns in automatic mode.  You should not remember words, you should not think or analyze or you should not cross translate in your head.


Jeff Hrusko  14:33

I remember trying to learn French and really got tripped up by all the verb tenses. I think it's because it was the structural grammar and it didn't come naturally. There was no context, just memorization. 


Arkady Zilberman  14:56

Unfortunately, nowadays when you learn language consciously you try to learn a formal grammar consciously also, but actually that only hinders your ability to speak or to acquire language and that's why formal grammar requires conscious analysis and it's very slow and impractical for fluent speech. 

Formal grammar is an abstraction that provides explanation of the functions of words. Therefore, trying to memorize the rules of grammar or words can be a distraction from acquiring conversational skills. So, what should we do when you learn subconsciously? You acquire a different type of grammar that I call intuitive grammar.  What is intuitive grammar? Knowing or rather having a feeling of what is right and what is wrong and it is formed by your subconscious. What is interesting that native speakers   naturally use the intuitive grammar when they speak. They don't know formal grammar rules and what is also very interesting that children, by the way, have hundred percent success rate of learning a second language because they learn it subconsciously and they don't learn grammar.  They acquire subconsciously intuitive grammar. Stephen Krashen, a famous linguist, described that when native speakers use intuitive grammar, they are generally not consciously aware of the rules of the language which they have acquired subconsciously. Instead, they have a feel for correctness, grammatical sentences sound right or feel right and errors seem wrong. Even if you do not consciously know what rule was violated, that what is intuitive grammar, and you can acquire it only during subconscious training, because consciously it cannot be done. To do subconscious learning, you need to perform three actions at the same time you read the text; you listen to the recording made in most cases by native speakers and speak at the same time. So, your brain is fully preoccupied and you cannot analyze sentence, remember words or cross translate from your native language, you are just doing these three actions and you actually are not aware that you are learning.  During those three actions your subconscious mind finds the patterns in a new language. You pronounce words correctly because you do not analyze your pronunciation. And so you are acquiring all those skills because you train them without conscious control.  You are using a different system of the mind? Yeah. Do you know that we have two systems of the mind: System one and System two. In subconscious training we use the System one. The two systems of the mind were introduced by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. We think slow and fast, because the mind has two different systems. System one operates automatically and quickly with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. That's what we call the subconscious. 


Jeff Hrusko  19:49

In moral philosophy. I think there's something similar or they say something similar to that. This dual process theory where you have an initial automated response, an emotional response to something and then consciously later you'll sort of make a justification for it. 


Arkady Zilberman  20:22

I don't agree with this philosophy because the System two never works together with the System one. And here's why. System one operates by five orders of magnitude faster. It is faster than lightning. And that's why the System one controls all your bodily functions. That's why it should perform superfast and in automatic mode. First of all, it has unlimited capacity of memory. Secondly, it is so fast that 95% of your all bodily actions are automatically in System one subconsciously. The System two has to allocate attention to the effortful mental activity and therefore is slow. For example, rote memorization belongs to System two, whereas expression of our feelings and thoughts that is speech belongs to System one. So, to stop struggling with the acquisition of a second language, you should stop using the conventional methods of conscious learning and start using the subconscious training language skills that belong to System one of the mind.  


Jeff Hrusko  22:08

So, tell me how is this actually put into practice? I know you developed an app that can achieve these three actions at the same time. Can you tell us a little bit about that?


Arkady Zilberman  22:21

I developed a special application which helps to do subconscious training because actually a teacher, unfortunately, cannot create a special environment that will allow the learner to perform all three actions at the same time. As I mentioned before, the learner has to see the text, he has to hear necessarily in a headset the recording and speak at the same time. So, a teacher should become a coach or a trainer. He just checks if you do it right. And he helps the learner to understand this new approach and to follow it strictly. So whenever a coach notice some interference of your conscious that's where he will work with you and  demonstrate how to avoid this interference.  A coach does not explain to learners how language works, how sentences should be structured, etc. You will subconsciously acquire all that information through intuitive grammar as we have discussed before.


Jeff Hrusko  23:48

If you're seeing the language, hearing the language and speaking the language. How do you make the association with the symbol? Why it does not become just gibberish to the learner?


Arkady Zilberman  24:01

It's a very good question, Jeff. Thank you. You know what, there are about 100 articles on the topic of subconscious training and two patents with the total number of 100 pages, etc. I'm saying that to explain that the subconscious training is a pretty complex process and to explain it briefly in just a few words in a few minutes is not easy. So, I have outlined only the main principle. Now, let me go into some details and explain how the symbols are connected to the words. First of all, we use what is called comprehensible multimedia input and comprehensible means that is understandable. What understandable means that all texts and all drills in this application have a mandatory support in your native language that is turned when needed. So, if you are a novice learner and you do not know English words in the text of a lesson, then you start with reading this text in your native language.  Here is a big difference because you read the text in the native language but you never pronounce it. More than that these texts are separated and never shown together on a display.  Read the lesson in your native language and you visualize the image, okay, you visualize what it is about. The application never gives you separate words without meaning. It's always emotionally connected text in which you participate. The first lesson starts from the sentence “I can count to 10.” And then you read another sentence “you live as long as you love.” So, you read it in your own language, you imagine those symbols and then you start working in English. You never pronounce sentences or words in your native language. So you use your native language in a way that eliminates cross translation. There is another example.  You listen, repeat and speak at the same time but then you notice that you don't know a word. What do you do? You highlight it and the translation into your native language will appear for 10 seconds. Why only 10 seconds? Because it's enough to visualize the meaning of this word and you'll never stop listening to English.  You visualize this symbol, and then you wire this symbol to the English word directly. Just be aware that there's a difference between thinking process and speaking. Of course, you think consciously because you're thinking in symbols because you don't think in words and you try consciously to create a situation which you like or which you want to demonstrate or to persuade me or to ask me in something you are imagining in your mind in your thoughts. But when you verbalize your thoughts, you jump from System two to System one. You verbalize it automatically because you have to produce two words per second, you cannot do it consciously, and you cannot remember the words or select or analyze them. I will describe an experiment that I have done many times. If you will close your eyes and meditate for a few minutes so just to stop the train of thoughts in your head, and then I will ask you tell me all the words which start on the letter F. And how many words you will be able to say.


Jeff Hrusko  29:52

So, it seems to me that you're saying that you wouldn't be able to say a lot of words, let me just paraphrase what I'm hearing. So in a meditative state, if you focus on one focal point, and clear your mind, thoughts and reach that sort of stillness for a period of time, you're saying that once you come out of that, it's more difficult to recall words.


Arkady Zilberman  30:19

Exactly! It shows and demonstrates a completely different law that without thought, that is without symbol, no words can be recalled. Because you do not have thoughts you stopped them in meditation, you cannot recall word, although you know, hundreds if not thousands of words that start with letter F. And in most cases, I had a champion who said 10 or 12 words. Now, in most cases, it would be a few words only; because you do not have thoughts you do not have words not because you cannot remember. But because you forget this connection that you have to have thoughts before you can verbalize them. Do you understand this?


Jeff Hrusko  31:18

Now, I think I understand what you're saying. Now you're saying the symbol comes first, that what we called mentalese. And then this has to be translated into vocal expression. So if you clear your mind of any of these thought-forms, recalling words becomes more difficult.


Arkady Zilberman  31:38

Yes, when you still your mind and you have no thoughts and no words appear on the tip of your tongue, because you don't think in words and so they are always secondary. And these facts show us a new way to learn. That explains why in conscious learning most of learners fail. Do you know why some of learners still are successful in acquisition of a foreign language?


Jeff Hrusko  32:10

Why is that?


Arkady Zilberman  32:12

I am that example; I have acquired a language in the old system because the old system was the only one that existed at that time. I was successful; actually in my estimate less than five people out of 100 preserve their ability to visualize things. Most people lose this ability at the age of 18 and they become what I call logical people. I am visual and learned my languages naturally by listening. In this way, whenever I hear the word in Polish or German or French, whatever language I learn, I never translate it in my head because I am visual I try to visualize and get the symbol associated with a word. To a certain extent such people naturally came to the approach that is described in details in subconscious training. And some people called language-capable have this ability; it is just an observation. It's not a theory or it's not a theoretical explanation of the phenomenon or the fact that some people can do in the conventional system of conscious learning. But most people fail and we need subconscious training to ensure that all people can acquire a foreign language . 


Jeff Hrusko  33:45

I am very jealous of people like you. I'm also jealous of people that could sing.


Arkady Zilberman  33:55

That is why I was working on this system for so many years. This system is easy to implement although it is a pretty complicated system. For example, this system starts with the so-called Word Cloud drill. What that means is - you will see on this screen the words from the lesson which you will learn and they are in three dimensional fonts in different directions. It is all done specifically to activate your right brain. I should remind you that a teacher cannot create a Word Cloud; only application can do it. When you will start reading and listening and speaking at the same time, you will do what is called whole brain approach, because your right brain is activated automatically by the first drill. When you work with so-called Word Cloud, you observe words from the lesson which you will learn now and listen to special relaxation music for about 60 seconds only. And it creates the environment for whole brain learning.


Jeff Hrusko  35:25

Is there any  instruction when they see the word cloud? Especially if they don't know English at all. So if I was looking up something or word cloud that had Asian characters or the Cyrillic symbols, it would just be symbols. Are you asking them to memorize them? Or are you giving them any instruction at that point?


Arkady Zilberman  35:50

Thank you. It is a great question. No instructions are given because your subconscious is so powerful it doesn't need any instruction. What happens with this phenomenon of Word Cloud – the learner activates the process of priming implicit memory. What happens is your subconscious records all those words and it is so-called retention without remembering. When you will see those words in the lesson, you will have a feeling that you have seen these words before and that's why it prepares you and you develop a better retention of the words without remembering. That is one of the many other patented features which the learner finds in this new approach. That's why it is very important to explain and to educate teachers that they have to learn the main principle of this technology before they can apply it successfully.


Jeff Hrusko  37:20

Well, in the show notes, I'm going to link to your company, your website, some of your articles, podcasts as well as to some other things that we talked about, that kind of back up the concepts we discussed. It is a fascinating stuff. And I think we've just scratched the surface. As I said, when I first talked to you, I said we can make 10 podcasts out of this, because every single step of this new approach opens up a lot of different questions, but also makes a lot of sense.


Arkady Zilberman  37:46

Jeff, I would like to add that this approach was tested by many teachers and educators. On my website you will find a section of testimonials where teachers, educators who tried this method as a pilot project, share their experience and they do say that the success of their learners was unprecedented. The method has no comparison with anything that you have learned in a college, etc. It's really proven that the method works. Why it is not widely used? Because it has been only recently invented and everything that is invented usually goes through three stages, you know, first, everybody rejects it, then some visionaries start using it. And the third stage when everybody uses it and asks if there was anything else besides this method.  


Jeff Hrusko  39:12

You're right. I think a lot of things started out that way. I'm thinking about the story of Braille, which was, I think invented relatively early in the19th century and was slow to be adopted. It took a while to be adopted in the wider world. Well, Arkady, thank you very much for your time. I really enjoyed this conversation. Like I said, I'll put a lot of links in the show notes. So, please check them out. And thank you for listening.


Arkady Zilberman  39:48

You're most welcome. Thank you very much for inviting me.