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The SHAPAL Method

This article was originally published on the Teacher Talk blog at

Language learners all over the world will no doubt be pleased to hear that I have finally discovered the definitive technique for learning a foreign or second language. I am so confident of its effectiveness that I am prepared to guarantee that anyone who follows it will be successful. I can also say with a high degree of certainty that anyone who chooses not to adopt my Method will be doomed to failure.

I first became aware of the importance of the SHAPAL Method when I was talking to a Canadian who had learned Japanese. Actually, I had been following the Method myself in my own studies, but I had not fully grasped at that point just how universal it was. The Canadian in question was called Chris, and he had mastered Japanese to a higher level than any Westerner I had ever met. My own Japanese was not bad at the time, but it paled next to his command of the language. Of course, I was curious to know more about his study techniques, so I asked him, “How did you learn Japanese? Did you just Study Hard And Practice A Lot?” He looked at me quizzically and enquired, “Do you know any other way?”

Good point.

Stupid question.

There is, of course, no alternative to the SHAPAL Method if you want to be successful in learning a foreign or second language.

If you have read this far, you may be feeling a sense of disappointment at the banality of my discovery. But is it really so obvious? If you began reading this article with even the slightest expectation that I might have actually discovered a magic method, that means you were at least entertaining the possibility that it could exist. At the time of my conversation with Chris, I had been teaching English as a foreign language for eight years and studying Japanese for about three. I also had an MA in applied linguistics. But even as a supposed “expert,” I still could not stop myself from wondering whether there might be some special technique for learning a language that I had yet to discover. If someone like me still harbored such an idea, I wonder how many other language learners and teachers might be laboring under a similar misapprehension.

Language learners around the world are bombarded with advertisements for “special” methods and techniques, the secrets to which can generally only be revealed upon payment of a large fee or purchase of a set of expensive materials. Furthermore, anyone entering a bookshop to browse language learning materials will leave with the impression that learning a foreign language is not only easy, but also fun. They could also be forgiven for thinking that five or ten minutes of study a day will be sufficient to achieve mastery of any language within a couple of months.

The situation for language teachers is even worse. From the first days of our training, we are indoctrinated with theories put forward by academics (who in many cases have never actually learned a second language themselves), and we get brainwashed with whatever theory happens to be “flavor-of-the-month” at that point in time. This is in spite of the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that people learn languages any better or any more efficiently today than they did 100 years ago. Think about it—if you were shown two English classes, one equipped only with a teacher and materials from the 1920s, and the other blessed with modern textbooks, access to the most up-to-date online materials, and a teacher with an MA from a top university, would you feel comfortable betting a large sum of money that learners in the second class would be any more likely to be successful than those in the first?

Even after our initial training is over, teachers continue to be bombarded at conferences and workshops with talk of “crucial” techniques and methodologies that promise to lead our students to the end of the language learning rainbow. Once again, we are often prepared to overlook the simple fact that whatever the method under discussion, it can always be pointed out that millions of people throughout history will have learned a foreign language successfully without doing it.

It is interesting how humans are willing to sacrifice common sense and hard-won experience to the demon of wishful thinking. A prime example of this is the multi-billion dollar diet industry. Everyone knows that the only way to lose weight is to follow the ELEMentary Method (Eat Less, Exercise More), yet that does not stop people being drawn to an endless stream of diets that promise incredible results with little or no effort or sacrifice. The people who embark on such a diet know that it is probably too good to be true, but that does not deter them from paying money in the desperate hope that it might not be.

But, you may ask, does it matter as long as we are motivating students to learn? Surely the important thing is to keep looking for better ways to learn and teach languages. This is true to a point, but the problem is that in many cases, we are not motivating students to learn at all—we are simply motivating them to start learning, and that is a very different thing. As soon as they realize just how much work is involved, and how monotonous and frustrating much of that work can be, many people just give up. Of course, this is unavoidable to some extent, but how many of those people might have been persuaded to persevere if they had been aware of the nature of the challenge they faced from the outset? Our job as language professionals is not to “lure” people in with silly promises and false hopes, it is to explain exactly what is required for success and then leave learners to decide for themselves whether they are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices or not.

Success in learning a foreign language requires many hundreds of hours of dull, often confusing study, particularly when the language you are trying to learn is nothing like your own. It also demands many thousands of hours of embarrassing, frustrating, and often highly stressful practice of using the language to communicate, and no discovery short of wiring our brains directly to computers is going to change that. There is no way around this unfortunate fact, and there are no shortcuts. SHAPAL is the only way of learning a foreign or second language—pass it on.

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  1. Biwa on 2012年09月11日 at 13:37

    Hello David,

    I agree with your SHAPAL method.
    At first, as many other readers (I believe!) I thought this might be my best day ever to meet such a wonderful method!

    But yes, I know there is no magic or fast way to learn a foreign language.

    Since I teach English to elementary school children, I always have a feeling that there might be a better way to make them “talk” English.

    Anyway, I really enjoy reading your articles and am interested in the hints you get from your French classes as a student. I’m looking forward to hear those things.

  2. David Barker on 2012年09月18日 at 15:58

    Hi Biwa,

    Thanks for your comment. You have reminded me that I have to get back to my French studies!

  3. Biwa on 2012年09月19日 at 10:40

    Hi David,

    Yes, it’s time to get “back to school!”

    By the way, I forgot to put an “ing” after “looking forward to” and I always forget it since school days. Excuse me for that!
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