FLP9: Fractal Geometry + The Language Matrix - Interview with Tony Marsh Method Creator
FLP9: Fractal Geometry + The Language Matrix - Interview with Tony Marsh Method Creator

"Language teaches itself"

Within thirty seconds, I said my very first Arabic phrase ever: “I am Chapman.” Hooked, I now had the first seed from which my Arabic would begin, literally and figuratively, to sprout and spiral its way towards conversational. Plus, I already knew something I’m sure to repeat in real situations over and over and over again. Sure, we got to “My name is Chapman” within the first five minutes, but only after I had begun using “I am” to paint a few more basic phrases here and there: "I am American." “I am from Virginia.” "I am in Czechia."

Fractal Geometry + your Language Matrix

Combining a keen interest in Fractal Geometry with a love for language, Tony Marsh has created what one happy student calls "a new light" in language learning. He helps students achieve impressive results by building a custom Language Matrix with you in person, beginning at the very start of your first lesson. The spiral shape that permeates all life - from deep inside our cells to the edges of the visible Universe - is a phenomenal constant. “Why”, asked Tony, “wouldn’t the same hold true for human language?”

The Tony Marsh Method

Tony Marsh has been applying the principle of the Golden Mean to language education with exceptional, even surprising results. He has taught at the governmental and corporate levels, with students from NATO, the FBI, the US Navy, the Royal Navy, the French Air Force, Panasonic, Motorola, Hyatt, Four Seasons, Coeur Mining and much more. He also works with individual students from around the world. One student from NATO was able to go from zero to presenting live in Arabic within a month. The very same beauty that allows trees to form, limb after limb in a growth spiral, can be applied to conversational language acquisition.

Language is a fractal

The fractal nature of language is apparent in the way that "I am" is a single node from which potentially infinite points can be reached.

It grows like a tree

From any single node, you can depart in an impossible number of directions.

The seeds are verbs

This same concept holds true for any verb in the first person (that's when you're talking about yourself, consider it the ultimate audio selfie: "I do", "I want", "I like", "I have", "I need", "I am able to" ("I can") and "I go" are part of a very short list of common verbs you say literally everyday. Any of these seeds is a chance to sprout into diverse topics.

Content builds structure

On his blog, Tony writes:

The content itself builds the very structure that will come to hold it. Just like how moving water carves a river into the land, each time you express a thought, it leaves its mark in your mind in the shape of the language. Over time, the system becomes more refined, and more defined. The bends are carved into rock, rather than mud, and you can say whatever you want to say.

The entire content of any given lesson, right from the start, is focused on you and your interests. The whole learning experience is based around... you. (Plus the bad ass fractal stuff.) In this way, you are:

  • more likely to remain interested
  • more likely to learn something useful
  • more likely to use it!

"Just a little bit of nothing"

To mash up the immortal words of George Carlin: “All I need is a little bit of nothing and I can make something out of it." That little bit of nothing - this most brief of sound sequences - which means "I am" is deceivingly easy to learn, especially considering how insanely powerful it is. "I am a friend." "I am learning your language." This gets really fun - if you make it. And that's the point.

Language isn't learned, it's used

Language isn't something you suddenly achieve one day after having studied long enough; language is something you use, right from the start. Tony puts it more poetically still: "Language is an avenue that you take."

Speak a language successfully by using it, not by learning it

Tony remarks that it's helpful to think about using language more than learning it. It's through use that you learn anything, languages included! Using language also quickly tunes you into what you, personally, actually need in order to converse. These key verbs and words come up immediately when you use a language, and quickly you see patterns emerge of repetition and specific vocabulary and verbs that you need on the avenue to conversational.

Verbs are seeds, conversations are trees

Plant the seed "I like" and you can begin growing sentences that allow you as a total beginner to have conversations in record time: "I like languages", "I like Arabic", "I like your country". Add to that seed a "you" form (formal or informal where applicable, depending on need) and slip in the concepts of negation and interrogation (asking questions), suddenly you are off and running conversationally in a language, able to both ask questions and understand when asked. You know the present tense “I” and “you" forms of all the core verbs. You can speak a bit about yourself. You can ask questions of others. You can negate. This is the core stuff of conversation. While learning Arabic with Tony, in the second lesson he gave me a list of core verbs that are absolutely key to know, things like "to have", "to do", "to be", "to be able to", "to like", "to want", "to have to", “to need”, “to go”, etc, the totally core verbs you and I both use every single day.

Going beyond what works for most of the people most of the time

Eight years of experience teaching at all levels in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic gave Tony a massive amount of first-hand experience with learners of all types. It was enough to be able to home in on what really works for most people most of the time. Yet it wasn't until he began applying the model of fractal growth to the task of language teaching and learning that he began experiencing exceptional results with his students.

The TED Talk that inspired Tony's method

Everything he knew in the back of his mind about learning and teaching languages finally all clicked while Tony was watching a TED Talk by Benoit Mandelbrot called "Fractals and the art of roughness". The concept of how things in nature grow in a fractal pattern sparked the realization that language also grows the same way! The application of this concept to his teaching sprouted the seed that has become the Tony Marsh Method. For fun, here's the TED Talk:

Topic-based language learning gives real context

Focusing lessons around content that is real for the learners is not just more fun and more interesting, it is more relevant and therefore more useful. Tony puts a lot of emphasis on making the learning experience real and applicable to each student individually. Simply express your interests and Tony will craft a custom learning experience around those, making it really real very fast.

Tony's language journey

From the age of eight, Tony was a lover of language. His family had a series of foreign exchange students from Brazil, Argentina and France which exposed him to languages at home. By the age of seventeen, he realized he loved languages and decided to head to Brazil to learn Portuguese. Tony knew he was hooked and decided to join the military as a linguist hoping to learn Chinese but ultimately learning Arabic, which he ended up loving. When he left the military in 2009, he began teaching Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic as well as dabbling in French, Italian and Mandarin. He has developed his methodology over the last nearly ten years while teaching at the corporate and government level.

Learning Arabic at the Defense Language Institute (DLI)

Tony feels that his experience at the Defense Language Institute was valuable more in the sense of how not to learn languages than how to learn languages! This was surprising to me as the DLI has a reputation for producing effective speakers yet Tony takes the view that it's more through brute force than any kind of specific methodology. So he began to take matters into his own hands...

Tony's personal focus while at the DLI

While at the DLI, Tony began doing his own learning outside of the structure of the program and quickly experienced great results. He may have fallen behind a bit in regards to specific vocabulary, yet he was able to actually converse on a far higher level than fellow students following the official syllabus. While others were doing flashcards and learning vocab, he began building the structure of the language: How do the past, present and future tenses work? What are verb conjugation patterns? How can I grow my conversational ability as quickly as possible?

Fractal language video

In this video, Tony illustrates the nature of language fractals:

Other topics explored

In a mere half hour, Tony dropped a serious quantity of language goodness. I could write it all up in detail, but that would spoil the fun - please have a listen to dive into everything we've covered in the interview. Just to give some highlights of further topics explored:

  • how Tony approaches teaching intermediate to advanced level learners
  • how he caters lessons to groups differently than individuals
  • what the "Tense and Aspect Matrix" is and why you should be aware of it from Day 1
  • how teaching languages to groups is akin to teaching a yoga class
  • so much more!

What languages does Tony teach?

Tony teaches Arabic, English, Portuguese and Spanish.

Can I learn from Tony himself?

Yes! Tony offers a one-week crash course in any of the above languages - and he guarantees that you will be having conversations at the end of that week. To find out more and get in touch with Tony, head over to Tony Marsh Method website. But hurry, word about Tony is quickly getting out and there are only 24 hours in a day! In my humble opinion, it won't be long until Tony runs out of hours himself and begins training others in how to teach with his method.

Have a listen, find another treat

If you've read this far (nice!) and haven't listened to the podcast yet, I'd like to tempt you to tune in by enticing you with a treat that I especially liked from the interview: the concept that "Language teaches itself". The example Tony gives to illustrate this is a simple one, easy to grasp, and you can quickly expand on it and apply it across your entire language canvas. You may even discover that - with a tad bit of awareness about how language teaches itself - you already know things you didn't even know you knew! To find out what it is, have a listen to this podcast...

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