South Kansas City resident Dr. Harris Winitz created a foreign language comprehension course that currently streams online. Photo by Kathy Feist

Speak Spanish in 25 minutes? Not so fast, says local linguist

“Many people tell me they are language challenged. I say there is no such thing. They learned English didn’t they?”

By Kathy Feist

So you want to learn to speak Spanish before your summer vacation in Mexico? Don’t waste your time on foreign language courses that promise quick results, says linguist Dr. Harris Winitz. Understanding a foreign language takes time but can be as easy as a toddler’s method of learning language.

“A child has learned 20 million sentences by the age of four,” Winitz says. “The child learns by listening, not by practicing or learning rules. It’s an automatic process.”

Based on that observation, the UMKC professor with the help of cohorts in the early 70s, developed a comprehension approach to learning called implicit learning. Implicit learning, Winitz explains, is when you don’t know why you said something a certain way; it just sounded right.  “You just picked it up,” he says.

Winitz named his new program The Learnables and in 1976 left his job teaching to establish the International Linguistics in south Kansas City

The Learnables uses hearing and observation—pictures with auditory words– to teach the foreign language. Students acquire the meaning of words by looking at pictures. The pictures are accompanied by a recorded word or sentence spoken by a native.  By silently and repetitively watching thousands of sentences over a brief period time, the student eventually picks up on words and their concepts, much like a child does.

Winitz explains the process is no different from when a young child hears her mother say “Open your mouth.” Later when she hears her mother saying “Open the door,” and observes the door open much like her mouth did, she suddenly understands the word and concept of “open.”

Over a two- to three-year period, students learn to speak and write the new language fluently. The program provides courses in Spanish, French, German and Hebrew.

Learnables was rejected by schools which require a grammar and translation-based system of learning. But it was fully embraced by homeschoolers, which have become its primary consumer.

International Linguistics has moved over the years, first located at Terrace Lakes Shopping Center on Red Bridge Rd., then moving to Grandview after International House of Prayer took over the space in 2010. With the advent of online streaming, Winitz finds he no longer needs the storage space for cassettes or CDs. Nor does he need offices for computer programmers and artists who can easily work from home. At the end of May,  Winitz held a moving sale, ridding himself of excess shelves, desks, and other office furniture and moved to a smaller space in Brookside.

Winitz hopes those who did not learn a foreign language in 30 days or even in two years, will not give up. It’s all about the process. “Many people tell me they are language challenged. I say there is no such thing. They learned English didn’t they?”

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