Rubiks Cubes (and the complexity of language)


I’ve been thinking about Rubiks Cubes lately. If you Google “Rubiks Cube” you will find many instructions on how to solve the puzzle. This wasn’t possible 10 years ago. In fact, I never knew there were instructions. I’ve asked many people (not hundreds but several at least), “How did you learn to do that?” and they all answered the same – “…just played with it until I figured it out.”


Most of them couldn’t begin to explain exactly ‘how’ they did it either! There are types of complex knowledge we can ‘learn’ without realizing ‘how’ we know what we do. Language is one of these types of knowledge – so why don’t we ‘teach’ it that way?

Without a doubt, Rubiks Cubes are complex puzzles – after a sort, but not nearly so complex as a language.

The History of The Rubiks Cube School

Ah you say, “I didn’t know there was a Rubiks Cube School!” To my knowledge there isn’t yet. But it’s not hard to imagine one, what with all the instructions on YouTube. All we need now is to add a few tests, a blackboard and about 30 students into a single place (so that it’s possible to pay the overhead and teacher salary) then there would be a Rubiks Cube School. It might not take very long before no one would remember that people solved this puzzle without going to school to learn how! Of course the school would produce many failures – those like me, who would forget the proper ‘order of things’ or who ‘failed to understand why we are learning to solve the puzzle’ in the first place. It’s required – would be the answer. “This is an important skill and necessary when you apply for a job,” they will say.

So what has this to do with language acquisition?

This seems to be exactly the path language ‘learning’ has taken. Today, everyone has ‘forgotten’ that mankind has evolved to acquire language effortlessly – naturally. Teaching langauge is a historical recent thing. In the past, the common knowledge was, “Do you want to speak Spanish? live in Spain.” Now people question whether immersion really works. And as we look around us, it often seems obvious that it doesn’t.

If one generation thinks that the only way to learn how to solve the Rubiks Cube is through an instruction manual, the next generation will forget there was another way.

Effective communication in a foreign language requires much more than simply knowing something of the parts. Language is an expression of a particular world view, and the values of a particular social group. It’s not really all that hard to understand that the more one translates from their own world view and values, the more misunderstanding and miscommunication occurs.

There is not a faster, more efficient way to understand a people than to expose yourself to their ideas, thoughts, and culture – watch, listen, soak it up naturally. Nature has provided you a tool to use that’s quite good at doing this provided you’ll stay out of the way and stop trying to do it all manually – but please don’t think you’ll gain this understanding by translating one sound, one word or one grammar rule at a time. There are a few who seem to do this and succeed (and a very few indeed) but they never acquire an ability that comes close to that of a natural learner.


Admittedly I approached ALG with a good deal of skepticism.  I have studied several Romance languages and spent many hundreds of hours wrestling with Thai, both in schools and on my own.  The theory just seemed too simplistic, “This is how children learn their mother tongue so this is how adults should learn a second language” i.e do nothing, just sit back and listen.

Children start with an empty brain and have no neural pathways to reprogram; children learn differently from adults – they have nothing to compare with; learning a mother tongue is not the same as learning another language etc.  But I realized that my objections were just theories too.  My theoretical objections needed to be put to the test so I enrolled for 30 hours and bit my tongue as the frustration of understanding  0 – 20% of what was said in class grew.  After the first 30 hours I started to relax a bit I guess and enrolled for another 50 hours.  I also met other students who had been following this method and (1) noticed that their comprehension in class far exceeded mine, and (2) I learned that they were spending 4-8 hours a day, 6 days a week in class.  (I’d thought 2-3 hours a day or 10-15 hours a week would be plenty.)  I began to think that the system would work if I immersed myself so I started to attend classes 6-8 hours a day, 6 days a week.

When the 50 hours were used up, which didn’t take long at that rate, I took the plunge and bought a 200 hour block and decided to go for the 50 hour bonus.  I figured it would help defray the cost if nothing else.  As I settled in I found my comprehension was improving and my attitude was changing.

I began to embrace the ALG system and began to think of learning Thai in a new way.  Previously I’d taken the approach that learning a new language was just a matter of memory work – vocabulary, verb declensions, and a few grammar rules.  That’s pretty much how it was learning French, Spanish, and Italian.  It works for them because they are so close to English.  Thai is radically different and try as I did, the sounds were just random.  I couldn’t ‘hook’ them; I couldn’t relate them to anything in my memory.  Either Thai was an impossible language (and I knew it wasn’t because others have mastered it) or I was doing something wrong.

It occurred to me that learning Thai was like being presented with a giant jigsaw puzzle to which there is no guiding picture, just the constant exposure to the teachers.  At first most of the ‘pieces’ are turned upside down and  you have no idea at all what is being said. Then, repetition and exposure turns some of them over; you start, slowly, to see that some of the sounds go together, some seem to be corner pieces, others group themselves (like sky or trees in a conventional jigsaw puzzle). You recognize words and phrases in a context and you start to understand at least what the story is about.  You start to ‘get a picture’ of the language.

The process of ‘putting the language together’ will take many many hours but I figured 6 or 12 months of intensive work is better than 6-12 years of trifling with it a few hours a week.  (I know people who have been doing that and are still, after so long, frustrated with their progress.)  A complex jigsaw puzzle would take many hours too.  I have the choice of spreading them out over months or over years.

Now, after about 250 hours, I’m confident that I will learn Thai with the ALG system.  It’s only a matter of time.

Dear dvlong,

I don’t know that anyone will see this post under all the viagra offers but…

I like your analogy for learning languages naturally.

I also think that it is true that immersion is different these days.  It seems that like a lot of things about studying English, you will only get out of it what you put into it and these days it is entirely possible to go and live in another country without ever really being immersed.

It seems that the ones who experienced true immersion took advantage of the ability to travel while it wasn’t so popular but now that so many people are trying to get this immersion experience that now you have to immerse yourself instead of being “forced” to immerse.

I once did the trial lesson for AUA’s Thai program and though I did not end up taking the course, I was very interested to see how the course followed its methodology with the silent period and the natural learning process.

Glenn Wickins