Miffed by low sales of the Chevrolet Nova in Spanish-speaking countries, General Motors corporate wizards later realized that "Nova" means "It doesn't go" in Spanish.
The translation of "Body by Fisher" in Flemish was understood as "Corpse by Fisher." And a recent Chinese ad extrolling the power of Pepsi to make you "Come alive" was translated as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."
These are just a few examples used by Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), author of The Tongue-Tied American, to illustrate foreign-language deficiency in this coutry. "It is sheer folly," says Simon, "to take the 'let-them-learn English' attitude we have consistently adopted."
Tongue-tied Americans anxious to overcome their language deficiency, but discouraged by grim drills, tedious homework assignments, and fear of failure often associated with conventional language-learning, are finding an alternative in the emerging field of "psycholinguistics."
One accelerated system, called "the Lozanov method," is geared to having students learn a new language the way a small dog does, unfettered by traditional barriers to learning. The key -- hence "psycholinguistics" -- is tapping the subconscious: through singing, acting out fantasies, taking on a new identity, playing ball, listening to classical music, letting minds wander.
Borrowing from techniques of yoga, meditation, sleep-learning, hypnosis, cancer therapy and sports medicine, the method is designed to dissolve tensions, negative suggestions, fear of failure, poor self-images and pre-conditioned expectations. Students sit in armchairs designed for comfort and relaxation; they are given new identities on the first day of class ("Je suis Yves Saint-Laurent"); they are taught poetry and dialogue with strong poetic images; and each day, they participate in a musical/linguistic concert.
Conceived by Bulgarian psychotherapist Georgi Lozanov, the method claims to tap some of the "unactivated potential" of the human mind. (Some researchers maintain man uses only 4 percent of the brain's capacity -- the remaining 96 percent is "unactivated potential.")
Lozanov claims that his system speeds up language learning from 5 to 50 times over conventional ways of language learning, increases retention, and requires "virtually no effort" on the part of students.
"The human mind remembers a colossal quantity of information -- the number of buttons on a suit, steps on a staircase, panes in a window, footsteps to the bus stop," writes Lozanov in his book, Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy. "These 'unknown perceptions' show us the subconscious has startling powers."
"We've run into things that are fascinating," says Lawrence Hall, a Howard University professor currently using the method in his Russian and German classes. Hall, for example, says he was able to teach his students to read Russian -- which entails learning a new alphabet -- in two hours, when it usually takes two weeks. He saw one student master 750 new vocabulary words in 1 1/2 hours.
"We're at least going twice as fast, and I suspect it's three to four times as fast in going through the Russian text," says Hall. "If you find a person who responds well, the results are extraordinary."
"The method is fantastic," says Dr. Hellfried Sartori, an Austrian-born general practitioner who recently studied Russian using the accelerated learning system. He has learned a dozen languages by more conventional methods.
"After 15 hours of work every day, I would go to class in the evening totally exhausted. After three hours of class, I would feel totally refreshed. And after only three weeks of class five days a week, I speak with the same accent as my teacher, and I recognize anything I see in writing. It's relaxing, and it's enjoyable."
Students will master 2,000 words after only three weeks of study, three hours a day, with a retention rate of better than 80 percent, according to Carl Schleicher, director of Mankind Research Unlimited -- a Silver Spring organization that offers classes using the Lozanov method.
"If you think learning another language is difficult, you will find it difficult," says Schleicher. "But if you really relax, have confidence in your instructor, you know that learning is one of the most natural things your mind does, it will be easier than you ever thought possible."
While some teachers and linguists claim the method, once it is perfected, could revolutionize education in this country, others aren't as enthusiastic.
"They're doing what every language teacher already recognizes -- that if you keep the students motivated and make the class enjoyable, you're going to be successful," says Michael Strumpendarrie, Berlitz School of Languages vice president for curriculum and training.
"Good teaching is a factor, but it doesn't account for the dramatic progress we're seeing," counters Peter Kline, director of the Interlocking Curriculum at the Sandy Spring (Md.) Friends School. He has been applying since 1973 the Lozanov techniques in foreign language, history, English, math and drama classes at the school.
"I've seen results from some students," he says, "you would think were impossible."
Although advocates of the method feel it is a powerful teaching tool, they warn against promising pie in the sky.
"The method is not really a panacea," says Howard University's Hall. "It allows a person to use his capacities to their fullest extent, but you can't make a genius out of a moron."