THE NEXT TIME you're in an impressionable state of mind during a long flight, check out the SkyMall[TM] catalog in the seat pocket in front of you. (1) There you will find a dazzling array of ultra-slick, ultra-pricey, and not-necessarily-ultra-practical merchandise. No one should be without the $90 remote controlled indoor blimp, but who needs to shell out $69.95 for finger weights that you slip on over your knuckles while you type, play the piano, or write checks for large sums of money.
Treating repetitive motion problems by burdening your fingers with deadweight sounds a bit like using a pumice stone to treat a skin rash, but the ad that will really bowl you over is for a cassette program that promises to help you learn foreign languages incredibly fast! How fast? Well, if you struggled with two or three semesters of a foreign language in college, you will be embarrassed to learn that these "proven foreign language courses" allow anyone to "comfortably converse in a new language within 30 days." And that for only $295, plus shipping and handling. How much did you pay in tuition for your college French classes?
Before you order it, however, consider an old Zen proverb. A monk once approached a venerable master with a request for mentoring in reaching the enlightened state. "If I study eight hours a day, four days a week, how long will it take me?" asked the student. "Five years," answered the master. That was too long for the impatient young monk, who tried again: "And if I study 16 hours day, seven days a week?" In that case, answered the master, it will take 10 years. One who is in a hurry learns very slowly.
Plenty of people, however, are in a hurry to learn a foreign language. A few years back USA Today published the results of a survey of opinions of U.S. executives concerning the skills their workers needed to maintain a competitive edge. (2) Foreign language ability was far and away the top choice, a skill lacking in 31% of male employees and 27% of the female employees. The demand for bilingual workers has increased in large part due to the North American Free Trade Agreements enacted in 1994. Effective international commerce has become more important to the U.S. economy than ever before. Ironically, while the need for skilled bilingual employees has grown, enrollment in foreign language courses--which was never impressive to begin with--declined dramatically during the past decade. As a result, chronic monolingualism continues to plague the United States.
How can this be, when we have at our disposal this special method that makes one conversant in a foreign language in only a month? A closer look at the claims made by the Internet Language Corporation--the firm that markets these cassette tapes--leaves little room for optimism. The method they describe, known either as "suggestopedia," or "accelerated learning" (AL), is based on teaching techniques developed in the mid 1960s by a Bulgarian psychotherapist named Georgi Lozano. Considering its bizarre origins, it is remarkable that this method is still around nearly 40 years later. SuperLearning, Inc., a company that specializes in AL-based workshops and materials, describes with melodramatic flair how it found its way to the U. S.: "SUPER-LEARNING is the work of a detective team that hunted down the techniques--and the evidence that they work--in the secrecy-shrouded Communist bloc. Their work reads like a spy story bolstered with painstaking research and tenacious pursuit of 'taboo' material." (3)
This detective team that was "the first to uncover an almost unbelievable new way to open potential that was hotly pursued in the Communist world" was in fact Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, the same team that brought us Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain in 1970, introducing the West to psi, the secrets of UFOs, auras, Kirlian photography, and cybernetics in the Soviet Empire. It was during these investigations that Ostrander and Schroeder tracked down Lozanov, "the man who created the seeds of a worldwide mind revolution." (4)
As it turns out, Lozanov was not exactly hiding his "discoveries" from the West. The Bulgarian government established a research group to develop his pedagogy in 1965, and within two years Lozanov was presenting his findings in Rome and Vienna. By 1972 this group was conducting training sessions for foreign educators. In 1978 Lozanov published a full account of his research under the title Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy. A decade later he followed up with more practical details about teaching techniques in The Foreign Language Teacher's Suggestopedic Manual. Lozanov's methods involve the use of music, soft lights and decor, along with yoga and other relaxation techniques that are supposed to enhance certain subconscious mental abilities. They put you in a "suggestive" state of mind that, according to Lozanov, originates as a direct link between the unconscious mental activity and the environment where no recording of consciousness occurs, no logical arguments are tolerated, and no concentration of attention is required.
Although foreign language instruction has received special treatment among suggestopedia/AL aficionados, the method is intended to be quite general in scope and applicable to other subjects as well. As a matter of fact, Lozanov insists in Suggestology that this same method can be used to treat allergies, skin diseases, and gastroduodenal ulcers. (5)
This is one of many extraordinary claims you will find in Suggestology. Lozanov's book is an amalgam of psychoanalysis, parapsychology, and mysticism; in short, a cornucopia of esoterica. The man who created a worldwide mind revolution, and who once claimed to have telepathic powers, holds forth on ESP, automatic writing, alpha wave biofeedback, and hypnosis among the Druids. (6) One of his most novel ideas is "hypnopedy," or sleep learning. Lozanov describes an experiment in which Bulgarian schoolchildren learned Russian vocabulary as it played over the loudspeakers in their dormitories while they slept.
Such experiments in fringe science, conspicuously unaccompanied by proper bibliographic documentation, turn up again and again in Suggestology. Lozanov mentions a study on "internal speech in the process of short term memorization" carried out at his Suggestology Research Institute (SRI). But there are no details concerning the number of participants (the figure he provides suggests there was only one), and no account of the experimental protocol. There is a summary of a subliminal learning experiment that includes information on the number of subjects and the results of statistical analyses, but there is no mention of venue; apparently this study was also conducted at the SRI, yet we find no bibliographic citation to that effect, no date, and no discussion of protocol. Lozanov also describes another "experiment" in which a myopic subject was told during a session that he was younger than he really was, which led to "some improvement in his eyesight." This one is attributed to W. Roberts and D. Black. Lozanov 's bibliography cites "an unpublished report" by the former (no date given), but includes no entry whatsoever for the latter.
This cavalier approach to proper documentation led to some scathing attacks of suggestology in the scholarly press; a fact that today, unsurprisingly, gets scant mention in AL promotions. (7) The Superlearning site, for instance, proudly makes note of some consulting work Ostrander and Schroeder did for a "Pentagon think tank." However there is no reference there to the 1988 study commissioned by the U.S. Army Research Institute, which concluded that independent evaluations of AL provided no support for claims of "substantially enhanced learning performanc," (8) which was a far more modest standard than the extravagant 25-fold increases over other learning methods claimed in Lozanov's book. Since then the figure has been scaled back; AL advocates currently speak of rates three to five times above conventional instructional methods (that at any rate, is what now appears on Lozanov's web site www.lozanov.com). Similarly, SuperLearning is allegedly two to five times as effective, which in turn is down from the 5 0-fold increases Ostrander and Schroeder claimed in their 1979 publication. (9) Even those rates pale in comparison to what Wegner cited in 1983--learning rates "several hundred times" greater than traditional methods. (10) Small wonder Wegner concludes that Lozanov is "the most seminal educator since Socrates and Plato."
While AL is hardly a mainstream foreign language teaching method, there are still dozens of private and academic centers worldwide that use Lozanov's techniques. Some customers seem genuinely happy. For example, AL got rave reviews in a 1998 write-up in the Houston Business Journal. (11) The article's author, however, reports no first-hand experience with the method and cites no studies. She simply recounts what she has been told by AL practitioners.
Here's how the method works according to the SkyMall program: "You will learn the language stresslessly [sic], as a child does, by hearing new vocabulary and phrases in alternately loud, whispered, and emphatic intonations, all accompanied by slow rhythmic music in digital stereo." The premise behind this curious method is that both hemispheres of the brain ought to be involved in the language acquisition process. As the SkyMall catalog says: "The analytical or logical left side of the brain, when properly activated with the musical or artistic right side of the brain, both increases the speed and heightens the retention of learning. Utilizing these untapped mental capabilities of your learning ability is the basis of this unique, highly effective course."
In other words, since language processing is a left-hemisphere activity (for the vast majority of people, anyway), the right hemisphere is not doing its fair share. However, if we do something to activate the other hemisphere--play some slow rhythmic music, for example--then it will wake up and start pulling its own weight. Baroque is the music de preference because, according to Ostrander and Schroeder, "there are mind/body secrets in Baroque." (12) There are ancillary benefits as well. For example, Superlearning Music tapes help plants grow lush, say Ostrander and Schroeder. This claim "actually has some scientific backup," we are told although the authors provide no supportive documentation. With respect to foreign language learners, SkyMall informs us that: "this perfect combination of music and words allows the two halves of the brain to work together to dramatically facilitate your assimilation of the new language."
Two brains are better than one, right? It seems that what we have here is a variant of the oft-cited myth that we use only 10% of our brain's capacity, and that if we could just figure out how to get the other 90% off its duff we'd all be nine-fold smarter. In Suggestology Lozanov himself repeats this old wives' tale as if it were fact, referring to "some anatomical and physiological research," again with no citations. In Lozanov's version of the legend, we use only 4% of the brain's capacities. Either way, it is a facile and, alas, all too common view of how the brain works.
There are several problems here. For starters, it is difficult to imagine how we could ever subject such claims to decent scientific scrutiny. It's true that Functional MRI (fMRI) imaging has improved dramatically in recent years, and this has made functional brain mapping possible to a degree of resolution that was not possible when AL principles were first formulated. Conceivably, then, we could monitor a student during an AL session to see if both hemispheres are indeed busy at the same. If we set aside certain logistical problems (MRI hardware is not really conducive to stress-free language instruction) then perhaps this is not too far-fetched a proposal. Not long ago, for instance, H.S. Kim and his colleagues at Cornell did an impressive fMRI study of bilinguals that revealed distinct physical loci of second languages along the periphery of Broca's and Wernicke's regions (13) Maybe a variant of that technique would reveal the sort of activity that the AL method predicts.
But even if we did observe activity in both hemispheres during an AL session, that would only tell us that the brain is doing two things at once, not that language acquisition is coming about at a more rapid pace. And for all we know, the strategies that AL uses may engage parts of our brain that are ill-suited for language learning. That hypothesis is at least as plausible as the one AL is proposing, especially in light of evidence that suggests a correlation between right hemisphere activation and stuttering. (14)
Here's a scenario that might help illustrate the problem. We know that musical ability is primarily a right-hemisphere activity. So suppose we want to develop a radical new music education program that will utilize both hemispheres, thereby doubling (or tripling, quadrupling...) learning rates. The solution is obvious: while our students are practicing their chords on the piano, they will hear some slow, rhythmic chatter in the background, which will stimulate the left hemisphere. That way, the musical or artistic right side of the brain, when properly activated with the analytical left side of the brain, will increase the speed and heighten the retention of music learning. Most music teachers and students will tell you that such a technique would drive them to distraction in short order. Yet it is neither of greater nor lesser initial plausibility than what the SkyMall catalog has proposed for language learning.
All of this begs the more fundamental question about which parts of the brain are even capable in principle of contributing, positively or negatively, to language acquisition. The standard view in the cognitive sciences is that the brain is a highly modular organ, and that its many modules are specialized for particular tasks. Thus while Broca's and Wernicke's regions of the left hemisphere are responsible for language processing, the primary visual cortex of the occipital lobe processes visual information, and the frontal lobe controls our emotional and judgmental responses. In some cases this specialization can be narrowly circumscribed to a striking degree. For example, an area in the posterior right hemisphere is responsible for facial recognition, so that injury to that area can cause prosopagnosia or "face blindedness" without affecting one's ability to recognize other objects.
As more is learned about the geography of the brain, an increasingly complex picture of its functionality is emerging. For instance, some aspects of speech like intonation and the emotional content of utterances involve the right hemisphere. And while music appreciation is indeed mostly a right hemisphere phenomenon for amateurs, there is some research to suggest that more sophisticated musicians rely on the left hemisphere as well. Even so, would we necessarily expect that the type of knowledge that allows us to distinguish a c-sharp from a c-flat would in any way help us figure out that past participles in French (but not in Spanish) morphologically reflect the number and gender properties of displaced noun phrase complements? Why would these many specialized parts have evolved in the brain in the first place if they were not, well, specialized, rather than all-purpose (yet dormant!) information retrieval and analysis modules?
Here's a simple way to test these claims. We would start by specifying a set of foreign language learning objectives (asking directions, ordering meals, hiring taxis, requesting refunds from mail-order catalogs, and the like) that are method-neutral. In other words, these would constitute a set of language functions that reflect, without reference to any suppositions from any particular teaching method, what we believe an individual would need to get by linguistically in a foreign country. After that, we would develop a test that would quantify the extent to which those objectives have been met by students who are studying the language. Having established learning objectives and assessment procedures, we would identify two foreign language teaching methods, one of which would be AL.
The next step would be to identify a qualified language instructor and to screen her carefully to ensure that she has no bias for or against either method. This instructor would agree to suspend judgment and, following training by experts, to teach two classes--one for each method--during an academic semester. We would then find a group of 60 or so language students and randomly assign each into one of the two treatment groups. After a semester of instruction, we would test to see how well each method has met the original objectives. If we repeat the experiment in other settings with other methods and other kinds of learners, and if AL students consistently achieve a certain level of proficiency in one-fifth to one-third the time it took others to reach the same level, then there might be someting to this method.
To their credit, a few AL advocates have taken a stab at research along these lines. Most of their work is published in the Journal of Accelerated Learning and Teaching (JALT), an advocacy journal that publishes strictly pro-AL papers. Jan Kuypers Erland is by far their most prolific researcher, having published about 20% of all papers appearing in the JALT in the past three years. Her 1999 paper, "Brain-Based Learning Longitudinal Study Reveals Solid Academic Achievement Maintenance With Accelerated Learning Practice," is typical of the sort of research she is interested in. "Brain-Based Learning," incidentally, is the more recent term for AL-like learning methods, though it remains exceedingly difficult to imagine what "Non Brain-Based" learning methods would be.
If you are a stickler for proper research protocol and statistical integrity, you will want to read Erland's paper sitting down. It is an unfocused morass of data and variables, There are two venues for the experiments she describes, called School 1 and School 2. Depending on which part of the paper you read, School 1 had either 17% multi-ethnic students or 20%. We have no data on the ethnicity of subjects at School 2. There are two protocols, one "experimental" (at School 1) and one quasi-experimental (School 2), for a grand total of 269 subjects. These subjects came from fourteen classrooms at five separate grade levels. They were tested, before and after treatment, in "ninety academic areas," only some of which are identified in the paper. Pre-tests are compared to post-tests, and post-tests are compared to national averages on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS). The students at School 1 were not randomly assigned to their groups, a rather serious violation of basic protocol in experimental design. Thos e from School 2 came from intact groups as well, and there is no indication in the paper as to what criteria were used in determining which groups would study AL and which would use the alternate method. (15)
Only the crudest of statistical procedures is used to analyze the results from all these groups. Although using more than one t-test is a statistical no-no in protocols like these, Erland reports more than 70 t-tests, and hints that there are more where those came from. The study found statistically significant differences in test scores in many cases, though in context that is by and large meaningless. For example, we learn that the control group at School 1 "received no treatment." Thus if the AL groups were to outperform that group at statistically significant levels, we would be able conclude that, other things being equal, some instruction is better than none; a result far less earthshaking than what Lozanov had in mind.
Yet even that conclusion fails to pan out. Subsequently, we find out that the results from the control group were thrown our because their instructor had been trained in AL principles. In other words, this is not an experimental design after all. As for School 2, we get only the vaguest description of the curriculum used by the non-AL treatment groups, which Erland incorrectly calls "control groups." Erland says only that they used some Alternate Media Activity made up of "elements from nineteen commercially popular media and print products." The details of the alternate method arguably constitute the most important information in this study, for there is no glory in outperforming a bad teaching method. Did both methods aggressively teach the material covered on the ITBS to an equal degree? Regrettably, we have no way of knowing.
Predictably, when AL yields results that are less than spectacular, Erland blames "implementation shortcomings," "low compliance of AL policy," or "altered AL application" rather than any inherent defects in the method itself. This is evidently something Erland has picked up from the master himself. In suggestology we learn from a report issued to the Bulgarian Scientific Council of the Pedagogy Research Institute that it would be necessary to forbid any arbitrary use of the suggestopedic teaching method by persons who had not been trained and had not worked under the supervision of Dr. G.L. and that an "understanding of the nature of suggestopedic principles and means in their indivisible unity, their strict observance, devotion to the cause of suggestopedy and awareness of its importance for the future ensure that mistakes are avoided What Lozanov and Erland have in mind, in other words, is a liturgical approach to education, according to which desired results come about only from following a strictly order ed regimen under the guidance of a properly trained AL specialist.
As luck would have it, Erland is herself one such specialist. According to her JALT paper, she is a "Performance Analyst and Intervention Consultant for Mem-ExSpan, Inc.'s High Performance Thinking[R]," a for-profit company that offers AL training in addition to "vaudevillian, avant-garde filmed puppetry theatrics" as teaching tools. In reality, Erland is a bit more than analyst and consultant. Mem-ExSpan, Inc.'s web site (www.memspan.com) lists her as "President and Developer." In fact, Erland is the only Mem-ExSpan employee listed on the web site. That evidently makes her uniquely qualified to see to it that AL orthodoxy is followed. Thus she concurs with Lozanov's admonitions: "AL techniques should also be taught according to their author's original design.... When AL methods are given piece-meal [sic], abridged, or modified beyond recognition, solid measurable, scientific gains become problematical." (16) Erland's own bio, however, makes no mention of any training under the supervision of Dr. G. L., which was an absolute prerequisite in Lozanov's original design.
But then anyone who is thinking about turning to Lozanov for guidance may be disappointed. According to www.lozanov.com, you can request information on what is now called desuggestive learning, but before you will be granted a consultation, you will have to submit a CV, a copy of your diploma, and the reasons behind your request. What better way to keep the skeptics at bay? There is apparently a secondary motive behind these unusual conditions. Lozanov now seems to be distancing himself from his minions. His web site complains about "various publications which are irresponsibly using his name and are introducing disorientation [sic] as regards what suggestopedics really is."
Yet if one had to cite a single publication most responsible for introducing "disorientation" about suggestopedics, it would have to be Lozanov's own Suggestology, with its myriad unsubstantiated claims about hypnosis, psychic phenomena, the power of suggestion, etc. Thus while Lozanov would probably be none too happy with the SkyMall ad, his own work, stripped of its pseudoscientific veneer, does not differ significantly where matters of substance are concerned. He too recommends the use of "music-psychotherapy" to promote "the simultaneous participation of the left and right hemispheres of the brain." Perhaps the similarities between the early versions of suggestopedia and what now counts as "disorientation" explain why Lozanov is even distancing himself from himself by asking, incredibly, that you not consult his published work. As the web site explains, it is outdated. Dr. Lozanov is planning on publishing a new book soon.
Does all this mean that the cassette pack from SkyMall is worthless? Not at all. It is a product that a company is offering for sale, and there are countless others to choose from. SkyMall itself advertises a different foreign language program on CD-ROM (e.g., Encarta from Microsoft) in the same catalog, and SuperLearning sells foreign language phrase books and tapes for travelers. The best you can hope for is to try the material out and decide for yourself if you are really able to comfortably converse in a new language as quickly as the ads claim. Bear in mind that SkyMall does have a 30-day guarantee policy. If you decide to ask for a refund, you'll be able to buy the blimp and the finger weights, and you'll have enough money left over for SkyMall's verbalAdvantage [R] cassette program that allows you to "amass a Harvard Graduate's vocabulary in just 15 minutes a day!"
Surely this one's on the level. Maybe it's what Harvard Graduate George W. Bush had in mind when he spoke about education programs that would make America "a literate country and a hopefuller country." (17) One thing is certain. The need for hypereffective language instruction programs--for foreign and native languages alike--is more acute than ever.
(1.) The catalog is published by Sky Mall, Inc. SkyMall is a registered trademark.
(2.) USA Today, July 7, 1998, page 1B.
(3.) From their web site, www.superlearning.com/discovered.htm>
(5.) Lozanov, G. 1978. Suggestology and the Outlines of Suggestopedia. New York; Gordon Breach, 59.
(6.) Lozanov, Suggestology, 121-123. Lozanov even discusses one case of a patient who received "anesthetization by suggestion" prior to surgery for a hernia. His account includes this telling comment from the surgeons (119): "When the operation reached the testicle, pain appeared. This made it necessary to stop the operation for a minute during which time the patient was subjected to additional suggestion."
(7.) See Shiela Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder. 1997. Psychic Discoveries. New York Marlowe and Company, 219, 8. for comments on Lozanov's special power.
For example T. Scovill, 1979. 'Review of Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy." TESOL Quarterly 13, 255-66; and B. Depano and R. F. S. Jobs. 1990. "An Evaluation of SALT (Suggestive-Accelerative Learning and Teaching) Techniques." Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 6,1, 36-55.
(9.) Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, (eds). 1988. Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories, and Techniques. Washington, DC: National Research Council, 1988, 50.
(10.) Shiela Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder. 1979. Superlearning. New York: Dell, 15. Cf. Druckman and Swets, Enhancing Human Performance for comments.
(11.) W. Wegner, 1983, "Towards a Taxonomy of Methods for Improving Teaching and Learning." Journal of the Society of Accelerative Learning and Teaching, 8, 75-90.
(12.) Angela Apte, 1998. "Growth of Global Business Prompts Interest in Program for Learning Languages Fast." Houston Business Journal, 4 December.
(13.) Shiela Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, Psychic Discoveries.
(14.) K. H. S. Kim et al. 1997. "Distinct Cortical Areas Associated with Native and Second Languages." Nature 38, 171-174.
(15.) W. H. Moore. 1986, "Hemispheric Alpha Asymmetries of Stutterers and Non-stutterers for the Recall and Recognition of Words and Connected Reading Passages: Some Relationships to Severity of Stuttering. Journal of Fluency Disorders 11, 71-89.
(16.) Erland claims that one of the groups demonstrated "continuous record of high ITBS achievement test success since the early primary grades." From her perspective, it was probably wiser to target this group for AL treatment rather than for the "Alternate Media Activity" treatment.
(17.) Lozanov, Suggestology, 29, 334.
Dr. L. Kirk Hagen is associate professor of humanities at the University of Houston-Downtown and a specialist in second language acquisition. His publications have appeared in The Journal of the Computer Assisted language Instruction Consortium, La revue canadienne des langues modernes, and in A. Cohen et. al's Research Methodology in Second Language Acquisition from Lawrence Eribaum Associates.