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Q&A with J.D. Whitney

Friday, November 18th, 2011
jd whitney

J.D. Whitney is a native of the USA. Starting out as a music teacher, he then spent 10 years in non-profit management, including 3 years in Kenya. He is co-owner and COO of micMAC Global Solutions (www.micmacglobal.com), headquartered in Qingdao, China. Their programs are based on his MBA in International Development and global travels training people in language acquisition and cultural transition. J.D. sees that many expats fail at languages because of poor technique – not lack of talent. His language training program is based on science and practicality and works for students from Nike and Caterpillar.

Why is it important for an expat to learn the local language when English is spreading?

English is a great language to know. But language and culture are mixed together and it is very hard to really understand a culture without the language. It also deepens your professional and personal relationships and could save you in an emergency. In many places, the locals will also treat you with more respect when you can directly talk to them. You are less likely to be cheated, and more apt to receive fast and efficient service. They will see you as someone making a long-term commitment, as a learner and as someone who is seeking understanding. These attributes not only give you an edge in business but also help relieve isolation.

You insist that China and India are where a Western expat is most likely to fail – evidence?

Brookfield Relocation Services does an annual survey (brookfieldgrs.com) of issues related to international assignments. In fact, China and then India are consistently ranked as the two most difficult countries for expats, followed by the USA. The highest percentage of failed assignments for Westerners transpire in China and India.

Does language play a role here?

Of course, but it’s not the only factor. Expats in India and China struggle to find decent housing and good international schools. It is possible in first tier cities such as Beijing or Delhi, but much harder if you are sent to a branch office in tier 3 and 4 cities where many companies are expanding to cut costs. However, I observe that many challenges are related to culture and especially the sense of isolation and risk that comes from not knowing the language. People commonly retreat into a bubble of fellow expats surrounded by a world they don’t understand. This deeply affects family and carries over into the professional world and dooms them.

Recount for us how and why you failed to learn Spanish and how it made you feel dumb.

I figured learning languages wasn’t my forte after two years of struggle. We were memorizing lists of words and translating the names of soap operas. I actually got a little but I never enjoyed it. I suspect many of your readers have a similar experience.

How did you end up in Africa learning Swahili?

I got some excellent language acquisition training before I went to Africa. I learned about different techniques and theories and developed a personal language learning plan. It was empowering to take responsibility for my own learning. I hired a tutor when I got to Kenya and pursued my plan. I worked hard – hours a day – but managed to give a speech in Swahili in my 4th month. I spent 24 nearly futile months on Spanish, so note the dramatic difference! Obviously, I had the same character, mind and background. Clearly, the nature of the learning experience was a key reason that I now succeeded and really loved it, too.

What was your deep insight?

Techniques that demonstrably work for you and keep up your motivation are the two cardinal factors in language learning. A good program cannot actually instill desire because the student must feel it for himself, but the program can kindle and channel the feeling. As for a poor program, well, that can kill a student’s motive or disillusion him. Then the bitter feelings can transfer to the foreign culture or its people. Is that good for international or a personal business?

How did you train your local Western staff in Africa and did it work?

We sent all of our expat staff in Kenya through the same language acquisition program. But some techniques didn’t work for some or all. Sometimes, a student needed more structure. That principle of knowing what this specific student needs was a key insight when we developed our program at micMAC.

Are you conversant or practiced in the various theories about teaching a language, e.g. the communicative method, etc., that instructors with formal training know?

I know and respect the intellectual dialogue and theories on language learning. My MBA and the nature of our company force us to take a very pragmatic view of language learning. Do learners like it and does it work?

Who are your clients for learning Chinese?

They are white collar professionals from companies such as Nike, Caterpillar and Kellogg’s. Obviously, these are people who really need to learn, to show their skills every day. They could go to many other schools, but they came to us. Also, we draw people from many small and medium enterprises.

Why do you dislike texts?

A text is fixed. It can’t change with the times or with the situation you, your firm and assignment are in right now. A good teacher can do that if you explain your needs and the former is sympathetic. But he or she often feels restricted by the textbook. Besides, a textbook makes you feel like you’re back in school, which can be drudgery. One client told us that when he saw his teacher yank out a heavy text, his heart sank.

Your business world is dynamic and you are an adult. That doesn’t mean we lack plans, but ours is fluid. It is more like choosing from a menu rather than set course. Also, we don’t use the word student much. A student needs a teacher. We prefer the term learner. A learner can benefit from a teacher but can learn in many other ways, too.

You insist that you mimic learning methods rooted in neurobiology. How did you learn that complex subject?

I read extensively. I love learning about current research. The challenging part is not just understanding the research findings, but connecting it with language learning. It’s also easy to get caught up in the theory, so I keep teaching to test things in the real world of the training room.

Tell us more about your approach that follows the science.

To start, your brain builds paths of least resistance just like an electrical current does. If something is working for you mentally, you keep doing it. This includes language. To make a new language stick, you must get out of the old paths and create new ones for your new language. It is uncomfortable but it works. We provide more details in our program.

Also, you claim that your methods follow how kids learn – meaning?

We don’t think adults have to learn just like kids – that is too simple. But there are useful things we can learn from them. For instance, kids comprehend an idea first and produce oral and written language second. This is the same for adults, but it is most easily observed in children.

How do you apply this in your exercises?

Most of our exercises start with a comprehensive activity. Once the learner is comprehending what the teacher is saying, even if it only takes 15 seconds, then we move on to a part where the learner begins to speak. You brain doesn’t listen as well when you’re talking. And listening is really important to comprehension and accent. You can’t mimic something you never really listened to in the first place.

In the demonstration that I attended, you also use surprise as with your assistant snapping out orders suddenly, even if this interrupts the class... explain this, please.

The idea is that people learn better when they change environments, when you ask them how they want to do something and yes when they are interrupted. They need a mental break about every 20 minutes. These insights are not new in education, but very few people bother to apply it as we do.

How about the learner physically experiencing the ideas? You had me marching around, for example.

This comes from something called Total Physical Response. It means getting your whole body involved in the learning. It’s very memorable and also helps learners get their blood flowing.

Your approach is also very visual, isn’t it?

Mandarin is particularly hard for people to read and write because it doesn’t use an alphabet. We use a lot of pictures in our regular exercises but when we substitute the Mandarin characters for the pictures learners begin to comprehend what they are seeing. It is a less painful way to build reading comprehension than traditional memorization.

How often does the learner have to study with you?

We work around the schedule and desire of our clients. Most companies do something weekly. Private clients sometimes want more. Our clients are usually very busy people and companies who don’t have time to waste. Many have tried other things and got tired of working hard without results.

Report your results... do expats actually learn Chinese?

One of our clients has been working in different places in Asia for more than 10 years. After 12 hours with us his wife reported that she saw him open a language dictionary for the first time. Another wife said that she used to do all the talking when they went out and now her husband wants to do it. These learners are interacting with China now, not avoiding it.

How about when you teach English to Chinese? Who are your clients?

We work with Doubletree by Hilton in Qingdao as well as some other smaller companies and private clients. We’re launching a program for kids this year too. Do they make rapid progress? What is the proof?

When we work with a total beginner, they begin to speak in full sentences that they can adapt to the situation in 5 hours of study or less. Of course, they only know a very targeted vocabulary after that time but that is what our clients are looking for.

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