Just as corporations can waste lots of money storing unneeded inventory, the human brain can waste lots of precious energy on unneeded information. The Toyota Motor Company is famous for its “lean manufacturing” approach, a big part of which is what’s termed “Just-In-Time” manufacturing (ジャストインタイム). Instead of sinking excessive costs into surplus parts, Toyota does everything it can to ensure that there are just enough parts (not too many, not too few) at just the right time (not too early, not too late) needed for the next phase of production. While our goal here is to learn a language, not build a Prius, we can apply the same basic approach to foreign language acquisition.
As language learners, we’re often told that we need to memorize new words followed immediately by memorizing a phrase that uses the word. There’s no disagreeing with the important of seeing new vocabulary in context, but this method does not tell the full story of context and its power.
The Internet has blessed modern language learners with unprecedented access to foreign language tools, materials, and native speakers. Assuming they can get online, even a farmhand in rural Kansas can learn Japanese for free using Skype, YouTube, and Lang-8. But language learning luddites and technophobes scoff at these modern miracles. Like Charleton Heston clutching his proverbial rifle, they desperately cling to tradition for tradition’s sake, criticizing these modern tools—and the modern methods they enable—from their offline hideouts. Communicating via messenger pigeon and smoke signals no doubt. “Technology is for for lazy learners!” they exclaim. “Real language learners,” they insist, use the classroom-based, textbook-driven, rote-memory-laden techniques of old. I call bullshit. Read on to see why.