By Andrew Stucken
Remember how they used to teach foreign languages in your schooldays? Timeless drilling techniques were OK for a dead language like Latin – not much good for modern, living tongues. Grammar was king and the spoken word barely got a look-in.
The past few decades have seen a steady language evolution towards more communicative methods – more speech, less grammar.
And now respected language publisher Collins has produced a series entitled ‘Language Revolution – Language Learning Meets Mind Mapping’.
Pop psychology writer and self-proclaimed inventor of Mind Maps Tony Buzan has helped Collins produce the courses.
Mind Mapping is essentially brainstorming rebranded. It involves writing a word on the middle of a page and randomly scribbling down your thoughts. In other words, free-associating on paper.
Mind Mapping claims to “harness the full range of cortical skills – word, image, number, logic, rhythm, colour and spatial awareness”. These are “proven to boost creativity and maximise brain power”.
As I already speak German, Spanish and French, I plumped for the Italian pack to try out.
Buzan certainly cannot be accused of lacking belief in his product. His introductory message reads: “The journey you are now commencing will change your life…” Wow. And I thought I was just going to learn some Italian.
I am all for making learning fun, but was this too New Age for someone schooled in more traditional methods? A career linguist Buzan is not. But maybe he has something to give to the academic world. For my part, I have to re-learn vocab endlessly until it sticks, so I can use all the help with memorising that I can get.
An online survey on their website at www.collinslanguage.com.revolution tells me I have a visual learning style.
What do you get? The series is at present available in French, Spanish and Italian. For £19.99 you get a 10-unit coursebook plus two CDs. The second CD is designed to be listened to separately from the book. It is pure revision – the repetition which Buzan is so keen on.
Some of the advice is rather bizarre. To remember ‘pizzetta’, Buzan suggests imagining “a very petite woman called Etta eating her snack-size pizza”. But for me, the ‘ette/etta’ suffix is already anchored in my mind as the diminutive so this seems unnecessary.
A big bonus is the online exercises which really help to embed new vocab.
How and when to use it? I managed to get through the whole of Unit 1 in about an hour and a half. A couple of units a week should be feasible for most – so Italian in a month is a realistic aim. Units are broken down into very short sections, to be polished off in a few minutes. It definitely caters for busy modern lives.
Who is it for? At the moment only beginners courses exist. Very hands-on, it arms the learner with basic survival vocab for a holiday or business trip. All the bases are covered – food and drink, travel, numbers, shopping, the time, weather, basic conversation.
Whether Buzan’s approach would work at a higher level remains to be seen.
What is different about it? The Mind Maps come at the end of each chapter and certainly add a new twist to language learning. In essence, they get the learner to brainstorm all the new vocab – Buzan’s favoured repetition.
He uses a traffic light system for new vocabulary, according to how similar the Italian words are to the English. Seasoned linguists will beware the trap of ‘false friends’ – words that look the same as English words but are not. For example, ‘camera’ in Italian means room.
It is actually not so different in basic content and methodology to its competitors, albeit with a Mind Mapping remix. The staples are there: listen and repeat; cloze (fill in the gaps); written exercises – disguised as ‘Mental Gymnastics’. Grammar is smuggled in under the heading ‘nuts and bolts’.
Would I recommend it? Anyone following this course faithfully should end up with a linguistic survival kit for a trip to Italy and a basic grasp of the language. Buzan’s Unique Selling Point is systematic repetition – Mind Mapping is part of this. And it seemed to work – I managed to recall almost all the new vocab at the end of the units.
Buzan’s ‘five repetition’ method for anchoring vocab is sound and maybe has something to offer the language teaching profession.
Strip away the hype and what you have is a pretty decent beginners’ Italian course.
I am sceptical that any learning can ever be that much fun – there is always some hard work, whatever the marketing men would have us believe.
But Buzan’s colourful and zippy book is attractive and user friendly – and in reality more about evolution than ‘revolution’.
* Writer, journalist and qualified TEFL teacher Andrew Stucken runs his own translation agency at www.appliedtranslations.co.uk