Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder is the first book I’ve read by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but it will certainly not be the last. The book is actually the fourth in a four-volume series on uncertainty the author calls “Incerto”, which also includes the previous works Fooled by Randomness (2001), The Black Swan (2007–2010), and The Bed of Procrustes (2010). Taleb sums up the basic premise of the book as follows:

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”

This is definitely true of language acquisition. The safe, predictable, highly structured nature of classroom-based academic language study does not prepare one for the messy interactions that one will encounter in the real world. To reach fluency in a foreign language, one needs randomness, not a lesson plan. Or as Taleb puts it:

“I don’t know anyone who ever learned to speak his mother tongue in a textbook, starting with grammar and, checked by biquarterly exams, systematically fitting words to the acquired rules. You pick up a language best thanks to situational difficulty, from error to error, when you need to communicate under more or less straining circumstances, particularly to express urgent needs (say, physical ones, such those arising in the aftermath of dinner in a tropical location).”

Like me, Taleb places great importance on mistakes, ambiguity, and discomfort in language learning, all essential ingredients of effective second language acquisition that textbooks and interpreters destroy:

“One learns new words without making a nerd-effort, but rather another type of effort: to communicate, mostly by being forced to read the mind of the other person— suspending one’s fear of making mistakes. Success, wealth, and technology, alas, make this mode of acquisition much more difficult. A few years ago, when I was of no interest to anyone, foreign conference organizers did not assign to me the fawning ‘travel assistant’ fluent in Facebook English, so I used to be forced to fend for myself, hence picking up vocabulary by finger pointing and trial and error (just as children do) —no handheld devices, no dictionary, nothing. Now I am punished by privilege and comfort—and I can’t resist comfort. The punishment is in the form of a person, fluent in English, greeting me by displaying my misspelled name at the airport, no stress, no ambiguity, and no exposure to Russian, Turkish, Croatian, or Polish outside of ugly (and organized) textbooks. What is worse, the person is unctuous; obsequious verbosity is something rather painful under the condition of jet lag.”

Taleb goes on to share what he believes to be the most effective language learning strategy of all―being jailed in a foreign country:

“My friend Chad Garcia improved his Russian thanks to an involuntary stay in the quarantine section of a hospital in Moscow for an imagined disease. It was a cunning brand of medical kidnapping, as during the mess after the end of the Soviet rule, hospitals were able to extort travelers with forced hospital stays unless they paid large sums of money to have their papers cleared. Chad, then barely fluent in the language, was forced to read Tolstoy in the original, and picked up quite a bit of vocabulary.”

I wouldn’t wish a jail sentence upon any of you no matter how effective it might be for language learning, but hey, when in Rome…or rather, “when in Russia”.


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