Friday, October 31, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 8

The Child Approach, or Dancing Until You Are Exhausted

Often, a so-called ‘natural’ or ‘child’ approach to studying a foreign language is set forth and even practiced to some extent. Usually, this method is imposed upon adults in the form of singing children’s songs, reading clumsy poems written during a hangover by balding, pot-bellied men and other similar futile endeavours.

The logical basis of this method is the following: you must approach the learning of a foreign language as children do since neither you nor they know this language but are only making an attempt to become proficient. The followers of this approach assure us that children learn a language by singing songs, reciting poetry and dancing inexhaustibly day and night.

They suggest that you, my friend, should become similar to these little angels with their innocent little toys and that the ability to chatter in a foreign language will immediately come to you like singing does to birds.
There is definitely some logic in this argument. Children certainly are not born able to speak; they have to learn how to do it just like we have to learn a foreign language. Why, nevertheless, do I feel like asking (from the back row of the class) one very simple question: where, in what circus, have you seen children singing, dancing and reciting poetry at the age when they uttered their first words? Show me those little monsters—I want to see them, here and now!

Clearly, my question was purely rhetorical since such freakish children are not and never have been in existence.

For children, the learning of a native language does not start with performances of sappy poems and songs of dubious quality; children in general do very little singing, poetry reciting and least of all dancing, in the process of their natural development. Normally, these activities are enforced by adults. What it does start with is months and years of observing their parents and other members of their families and attentively listening to how and to what they say to the children and to each other.

That is how a language is really assimilated by children: first through hearing, then through listening, then through understanding with the use of deep internal analysis and, when ready—through imitating the native speakers around them. Do not let the fact that it takes children months and years before uttering their first words disturb you, my dear friend. You and I have one great advantage—we are no longer children! Unlike children, we are able to control this process, manipulate it, make it richer and less extensive, while preserving its main principles:

Hearing, listening, analysis, imitation.

So let’s really start learning a foreign language like children, but without wearing diapers, drooling and sucking on pacifiers. We, my smiling and grown-up friend, couldn’t do it anyway; unfortunately, this golden age is irretrievably gone for us.

[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 1

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 2

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 3

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 4

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 5

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 6

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 7

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 7

Three Parts of the Language

So what, basically, does a language consist of? What units, what ‘continents’ is a language world made of? What should we diligently and thoughtfully consider in studying and researching a language?

Usually, a language—a foreign language, of course—is divided up into three main parts. It is broken down into speaking, listening, and, of course, reading. Writing isn't usually given a separate category and isn’t studied separately (unless it’s hieroglyphic writing) since it is generally accepted as a product of the three basic components mentioned, primarily reading.

I fully agree with this breakdown of what a language is. Although it’s not perfect, for the purposes of foreign language study (for a practical mastery of it!), it will have to satisfy us.

Therefore, to achieve full acquisition of a foreign language, we must have a mastery of speaking (spontaneous speech), be able to understand a native speaker, and be able to read original literature in the target language with adequate understanding of it.

It is possible that some are concealing a vague but oh so sweet hope that, to master all three language components, it’s not actually necessary to invest intense work in each of them separately. You're kind of hoping that, if you learn to read, then speaking and listening will just come on its own. Or you hope that if, in some miraculous way, one day you will come to understand foreign speech that comprehension somehow will transform itself into speech, flowing from your lips like a majestic deep river.

Let me be quick to discourage you, as nothing of the sort will happen to you, unless of course you are the rare exception. If that is the case, then it raises the question of why you are even reading this exhortation, for another man’s discoveries must be boring and superfluous for you.

Practical experience gives us all kinds of real-life examples showing that mastery of one component in no way means mastery of the other two. Even grasping two of the components does not automatically result in grasping the third. We have to battle each separate component separately! Each height has its own particular defence fortification, and we have to storm them separately. Remember that, my future general.

Of course, all three components are interconnected, and knowledge of one will ease the acquisition of the other two. But that’s it, nothing more. This is well known among true professionals who teach in foreign language departments, where speaking, reading and listening are essentially independent disciplines.

A great example of how the knowledge of one component does not automatically turn into knowledge of the others is seen in how foreign languages are studied in non-language departments. Most students can read their foreign language decently enough, or at least the literature for their majors and specialties. But that’s all. They don’t understand oral speech, and even more, they are unable to speak the language that they are studying. A similar situation, by the way, exists in primary and high schools.

There are all kinds of examples of professional translators who spend their whole lives translating literary works from some foreign language and yet do not speak the language at all. Neither do they understand their target foreign language when it’s spoken. They possess the language only at the written level. This type of situation is rather ordinary and not really that astounding.

As a reverse example, we can consider the indisputable and well-known fact that millions and millions of people exist who are unable to read in their native language. We’re not even talking about tribes that have no written form of their language, despite getting along fine just speaking. I think these types may even be among those you know personally.

You can make a weak effort trying to say that it’s possible that the situation is a bit different if it’s not your native language, if you study the language as a foreign language. I counter that with the fact that there are millions of illegal (and legal) Mexicans in cowboy boots and seekers of the ‘good life’ from other nationalities who have somehow just barely learned to speak the local ‘jive’. They barely understand (mostly just guessing from context) what they are being told by the natives, but reading in English, or other local language, remains for them a mystery beyond their reach. Yes, you can find tons of examples of this in your own country, too.

An interesting but sad illustration of the aforementioned situation is how parents and children interact in the overwhelming majority of first-generation American families. Parents, being practically non-English speakers, talk to their children in their native language. The children, having ‘unlearned’ to speak the language of their parents (almost completely), can more or less understand what they’re being told but answer (if they answer at all!) in their day-to-day language of school and friends, in the language that has taken the place of their native tongue—English. Quite amusing an example, is it not?

So, then, how do we approach the study of a language so that we don’t end up in one of the unpleasant aforementioned situations?

Language study must begin with long, persistent listening. This idea, this foundational dogma, I will tirelessly express countless times because it is so important for the correct approach to studying a language. As often as it’s repeated, it still won’t be enough. By the way, listening at the matrix stage of learning still does not mean significant understanding of the spoken foreign language; actual understanding will come to you much later. Don’t give in to panic if after a few days of listening to the matrix dialogue you don’t understand much, if anything, of the elements of the dialogue. That’s normal. You just need to take a deep breath and keep working. The initial matrix listening is a necessary step in the right direction, nothing else.

Then follows repetitive reading aloud, which brings us closer both to spontaneous speaking and reading in the target language, but at this stage, this kind of reading aloud is just a surrogate and preparatory prototype of real speaking and real reading.

In this way, the use of the resonant meditative matrix leads us simultaneously in the three language directions, and we remember that, without mastery of all three, full knowledge of the foreign language, alas, is impossible.

For now, though, we will take a well-deserved break from our studies. For a little while, you can forget about foreign languages and stretch out in the grass, surrounded by young yellow dandelions, under the rays of a warm, promising spring sun.

[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 1

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 2

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 3

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 4

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 5

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 6

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 6

Language Matrix and Reverse Lingual Resonance

There is an indestructible link between our cognition and the actual process of articulation. The connection between prayer-like utterances, consciousness and the subconscious has been known for thousands of years. I assert that this connection can be and must be used in the learning of a foreign language.

Repeated vocalisation of foreign language texts in a loud and articulate manner along with an attempt to imitate the pronunciation of a native speaker as closely as possible produces a certain process in our nervous system that can be called a ‘reverse lingual resonance’. This resonance includes in itself a subconscious analysis of all linguistic structures and harmonies of the given language.

The reverse lingual resonance is certainly not based on the harmonies of the native language; it is based on the harmonies of a new and initially alien language that is being studied. The foreign harmonies eventually become somewhat customary for the person studying a foreign language through the use of a sort of matrix audio course and the repeated-aloud articulation of the ‘text mantras’. What happens in this process of subconscious analysis is the realisation of a deep kinship between the native language and a foreign language at the level of elemental cognition and its expression through the means of language.

Such kinship, though varying in the degree to which it manifests itself, can be observed between all languages, including those that appear completely disparate. Thus, all languages in their essence ascend to one lingual core. The kinship between the languages can be discovered underneath layers of linguistic transformations accumulated over thousands and thousands of years, which is precisely what the matrix of reverse resonance is able to achieve when sufficiently continuous effort is applied to it.

Thus, the primary stage in studying a foreign language should be the building of this matrix of resonant mantras, consisting of various forms of speech, such as dialogues and other texts in the studied language, to read them aloud subsequently. From personal experience, I know that the optimally effective matrix should consist of 25–30 standard-sized dialogues or monologues (voiced by native speakers), each 300 to 500 characters or 20–50 seconds long.

Each unit should be listened to and then articulated to perfection before moving on to the next one, then the next one, etc. When a sufficient number of dialogues has been mastered, you need to continue reading them aloud from the first one to the last one and back again, within 2–3 months, then over and over and over again, until this reading aloud becomes as simple and habitual as stirring a teaspoon in a cup of coffee.

The dialogues and texts (in this book, the words ‘dialogues’ and ‘texts’, as used in the context of a matrix audio course, are synonymous and interchangeable) must be professionally voiced by native speakers at a normal rate of speech. The use of high-level vocabulary and corresponding grammatical models is preferred. Emotionally negative content should be avoided in the selection of the course content due to the strong possibility that frequent repetition of and listening to such negatively charged texts can have a negative psychological effect on the student. However, a certain emotionality in the dialogues is very much preferred because it reinforces the assimilation of language elements. Therefore, the desired ‘emotional coating’ must be positive.

Long pauses and gaps in the dialogues are also undesirable; they are destructive to the natural rhythm of the language and the integrity of our perception. Pauses and gaps are permissible and even indispensable in real-life communication due to our ability to fill in those voids with various non-verbal factors: gestures, facial expressions, etc. In the audio recordings, these pauses and gaps, however, become painful hindrances in studying a language and are subject to eradication.

In the matrix, there must be no non-language noises complicating our perception—only the language and nothing else. Very often, the authors include such noises in their courses in order to ‘create a natural linguistic environment’, so on the teaching records birds are chirping, cars are honking, rockets are roaring, nails are screeching on glass and such. If you listen once or twice, these noises are amusing, but then they become irritating. If you do serious, heavy listening, without which it is absolutely impossible to master a language, they turn into exquisite torture.

Our brain’s initial reaction to a foreign language almost always is blocking and rejection. Our brain doesn’t want its harmonic peace to be disturbed in any way. The resonance caused by the matrix successfully breaks its initial resistance and then helps bring it to relative comfort after it has already left the old and cosy comfort of the mother tongue. The matrix smoothens and soothes the painful transition from the old harmonies to the new ones.

Within the matrix, the brain is given the opportunity for intermediate training and for becoming accustomed to the foreign language in the early stages when full transition to the foreign language is still impossible. If you will, the matrix could be compared to arpeggios and scales when learning how to play a musical instrument or Kata exercises when learning martial arts. From films, everybody is familiar with the pictures of martial arts students standing in neat rows and performing certain kinds of offensive or defensive moves. Essentially, they are performing a martial arts matrix, in many respects similar to the language matrix that I am proposing.

Of course, lacking spontaneity, it is not yet the actual martial arts mastery but a certain and necessary stage on the way to the real use of moves and reactions perfected to full automaticity.

The full name I have chosen for this approach is a meditational reverse resonance lingual matrix with peripatetic elements. Peripatetics will be explained later.

However, in preparing my first matrix for China, I decided not to use this name, which could be too confusing for Chinese students due to cultural differences and translation difficulties. Therefore, another name for this approach is language tai-chi. It is short and completely to the point.

[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 1

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 2

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 3

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 4

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 5

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 5

Through the Dictionary! Hmmm…

If you already have a burning desire to teach yourself a foreign language, how do you get started? What concrete steps do you undertake? Of course, you must find the thickest dictionary available for your foreign language, open it up to the first page, and begin memorising the foreign words in alphabetical order. For everyone knows that vocabulary is the most important thing!

No, my dear friend! No, no, and again, no! No! Forget what I said about the dictionary; that was just a lame attempt at a joke, although, as with any joke, there is a grain of truth.

Okay, I will explain for those suspiciously sitting in the back row.

Many people (and, sadly, even some instructors) imagine that studying a foreign language is all about memorising a mile-high heap of vocabulary, sometimes even directly from a dictionary. I know—for I did it myself! With a certain amount of shame, I must confess that once I tried to memorise a thick dictionary in alphabetical order. Fortunately, this unhealthy (putting it mildly) endeavour didn't last too long. Your humble servant experienced some dubious pleasures from this so-called method.

I'm telling you, my friends! I implore you! I plead with you by all that you consider holy—don't do this! The study of a foreign language is not the mindless memorisation of vocabulary! A language is not just words. It’s a huge mistake to think of another language as merely a collection of unknown words that requires incessant memorisation and learning by rote! The quicker you free yourself from this idea, the better. A language is a complex, dynamic system that’s always in motion. Words are just a part of the system. They are constantly playing, pulsating, changing their phonetic form, their meaning, their purpose.

In the beginning, this will seem to you a wild cacophony, chaos boiling up in front of you, overwhelming you and flooding you in its frenzy. Actually, every language is a splendid harmony, a fine-tuned organism. You just need to feel (through tireless labour) its complex and magical harmony, its warmth, its unique aroma…

Since we’ve been talking about dictionaries, it needs to be stated that, nevertheless, you will need to buy one. If you’re going to study a language, you can’t get around it. Students go through some interesting rituals when buying a dictionary. First they buy the smallest little dictionary they can find. In a short while, they realize that this dictionary is not sufficient, so they buy a second dictionary that’s a little bigger. Then, they buy a third and so on, all the way up to finally buying the thickest dictionary possible. In this fashion, you end up with a useless assortment of various-sized dictionaries collecting dust—with the exception of the thick dictionary, which is absolutely necessary to begin your dictionary adventure with. So work backward and get yourself the biggest dictionary you can find and save a few trees.

While we’re talking about the ineffectiveness and undesirability (gently speaking) of the simple memorisation of vocabulary, it’s in order to say a few words about memorising numbers in your new language. Do not memorise these numbers in numerical order (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and so on). In real life, it is highly unlikely (probably never) that you will ever hear them pronounced in that order. This kind of order would be very unnatural in a language. Language logic isn’t formed from mathematical logic. In language, two times two doesn’t have to equal four.

Let the numbers come to you ‘disorganized’, not in tight order or lined up from the shortest to the tallest on a separate page of a textbook. Let them arrive in random order: in books, in life situations, in the context of other words. Trust me; if the first number you meet and remember is nine or three, the end of the world won’t happen. A specially formed tribunal won’t start investigating the matter and convict you of grave crimes against the foreign language if the first number you learn is two or seven.

Now, if it’s absolutely necessary (because of the peculiarity of your memory) for you to memorise the numbers all at once, then memorise them in groups of random pairs or triplets, such as: eight-one-five or two-six. Or memorise your cell phone number in your new language, or your favourite girlfriend’s number or your mother’s. Don’t make the same mistake made by my former colleague, who complained to me that, when attempting to speak French, to remember a number, let’s say ‘five’, he had to count to himself in French: one, two, three, four, five! From the beginning, that’s the way the numbers were ‘cemented’ in his brain. That’s how he also remembers the days of the week.

Most often, the study of a foreign language starts with learning the alphabet. This is an incorrect and less than effective approach that wastes time and energy during the initial stages of studying a foreign language. The usefulness of knowing the alphabet is limited and basically is reduced to tracking down words for translation in a dictionary, where the words are of course laid out in alphabetical order. Besides that, this knowledge may only come in handy if you’re pulled over by an American policeman suspecting you (I’m sure a groundless suspicion) of driving under the influence. He will offer you the chance to recite the alphabet in his language so that you can prove to him that you are as sober as a judge. Yes, there exists such a game for highway policemen in the US. By the way, you can quietly parley an awkward situation like this by telling the policeman that you didn’t attend any schools in America and therefore you didn’t learn this particular game. Or you can just say you’re a D student. Then, he will offer you some other entertaining game, such as touching the nose with your finger—not his, mind you, but your own nose. Or he may ask you to walk along an imaginary straight line.

Regarding your lack of knowledge or weak knowledge of the foreign alphabet, that’s about it for any other consequences. Regarding the consequences of the aforementioned amount of alcohol in your bloodstream (most unexplainable to you, of course), we won’t mention it here…

That’s the way it is. No need to open up to the first page of a thick dictionary and burn a hole in it with your persistent, unblinking gaze. You don’t need to worry too much about words, about vocabulary. The vocabulary of the foreign language will come to you in the process of your study, just like calluses come to your hand on their own as you persistently, indefatigably till the soil in your garden. Keep tilling, my labour-loving friend. Hoe and weed by the sweat of your face and thou shalt see trees in blossom and breath in the fragrance of these flowers. The pain of your overworked hands will seem thus pleasant, and sweet shall be the fruit from these trees…

[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 1

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 2

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 3

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 4

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 4

The Smoke Is Gone, or Locomotive Post-flight Critique

Now let's assess the situation and conduct the locomotive post-flight critique, so to speak. What actually happened in the aforementioned situation? There's no need to tell you, my insightful reader, that real mastering of a foreign language didn’t take place.

What actually did take place was a well-done replacement of the stated goals and objectives with entirely different ones; with the goals and objectives equally real and tangible although not stated aloud. This isn't very surprising considering that it is quite common and happens often.

The officially advertised objective of these courses is to master a foreign language or at least make significant progress in becoming proficient at it. However, the actual goal of such courses is to take money from people who desire or think that they desire to master a foreign language, while at the same time meticulously camouflaging the primary goal. Incidentally, it doesn't exclude a superficial familiarization with a foreign language; but that does not constitute a priority, either.

The initiators of this game—whether they realize it or not—never lose sight of their main goal: to gain the most material benefit while spending the least amount of energy and maintaining an appearance of respectability of the ‘learning’ process. Appearances and superficial respectability become the necessary conditions for the successful and lasting functioning of this sort of establishment.

The skilful (or sometimes not quite so skilful) hand of the instructor immediately puts an end to any disruptions, whether through his demeanour, tone of voice, streams of brainy explanations filled with incomprehensible terminology, references to pseudo-authorities on the subject or other well-known methods of manipulation.

The instructor (very much skilled in manipulation) never lets the group of students out of his total control. He doesn't appreciate any insightful questions from language nerds, and he is always ready to give them a well-deserved brush-off. Of course, a proper evaluation of this situation can only be given by an expert psychologist; however, in the course of time, the reality becomes apparent to everyone, and gradually, the group thins out.

What slows the rapid deterioration of the group is a strong psychological reinforcement painfully reminiscent of circus animal training. Like puppies, the students get little ‘treats’ from the instructor's hand for successfully completing some minor and insignificant exercises. Overachievers are patted on the head and given psychological candy for the enthusiastic accomplishment of useless (or at least not very effective) but abundant tasks, generally leading to nowhere.

However, in reality, many begin to enjoy this treadmill. It gives them the illusion of doing something that is worthy of respect in society. It gives them an opportunity to spend time in the pleasant company of quite nice people and even an opportunity to get encouragement from the instructor—a highly respectable figure, dressed in a suit and tie.

The stated goal has already become illusory and unimportant. The students simply enjoy being part of a club for people with common interests, or should I say a pseudo-psychotherapy group wrapped in an esoteric air of studying a foreign language. Here in this group, they get charged up with emotions that they lack in their ordinary lives but unconsciously crave.

The instructor, being a psychotherapist by nature, from the very beginning relies on those students, who clearly depend on this form of therapy to lead his group steadily to the completion of the course. After this, there will be another day, another group and another slice of bread and butter for our instructor and his bosses.

Why does this happen? Is it because all foreign language instructors, without exception, are liars and scoundrels by their evil nature? Not at all. The job of an instructor is difficult and almost never appreciated. I have the utmost respect for many of them. And even if their students do not learn a foreign language, they get something quite as valuable instead—a certain substitute for love and attention that, as it turns out, many students (if not all) are badly in need of.

Is it really so awful that, instead of potentially mastering a foreign language (with no guarantee that it will actually happen), you get a solid opportunity to receive immediate attention and some sympathy from an instructor, right here and right now?

All that this seller of love (served in a ‘foreign language sauce’) requires of you is that you play by the rules, his rules. Isn't it true that even you, my dear and hardened-by-life friend, sometimes need something more than just an ambiguous dream, more than just a faint hope for proficiency in a foreign language in the misty distant future that doesn't yet exist? But what you also need is someone's tangible and instant attention, and even—it happens, too—someone's love! You do need it. Maybe not very often, not every day but, nevertheless... Admit it; I promise not to reveal this little weakness of yours to anyone!

And now, the future ‘two birds in the bush’ of being proficient in a foreign language is exchanged for the ‘bird in the hand’ substitute of attention and love right here and now or, put another way, the unpleasant stick (any experienced instructor knows how to wield this stick well) of the instructor’s dissatisfaction with unsubmissive and inconvenient students is traded for the tasty though somewhat rancid carrot of approval fed from the instructor’s hand to the submissive and humble. Submissive to the inescapable? Humbled by your own ‘inability’? Only you can answer these questions and nobody else…

Instructors, instructors, instructors… One must love the sound of this proud word…

The instructors themselves are also very much victims of these circumstances, delusions, traditions and myths. Yes, yes, myths. The first myth in the realm of foreign language study is that only the really smart (bordering on the line of genius) can master a foreign language, not to mention two or three languages.

This is a very harmful and dangerous but deeply rooted myth (which, by the way, is the flip side of the myth of your idiocy that limits you in learning a language). Basically, though, there is a significant amount of truth in this myth. You really do need to possess a fair amount of energy, determination and, to some degree, natural intuition to keep yourself from becoming a casualty under the present conditions of the class you've taken and someday actually to achieve a solid mastery of the language.

Mostly, though, this exertion of energy will not lead to actual mastery of a foreign language or a working knowledge of it but instead toward a tortuous overcoming of the hindrances and obstacles already formed within the fossilized and flawed system. The system is not working for you but against you. It is vital that you clearly understand this so that you can be successful in this difficult world of foreign language study.

Not very much time has passed since I made a break from the system, thanks to a strongly developed sensitivity to insincerity and to natural stubbornness. I point-blank refused to place myself into the category of clinical idiots, in spite of all the feigned, sugary tolerance and crueller efforts of the functionaries of this system, some with beards and some without.

I firmly recommend that you do the same, my friend. Don't give up! Don't let them intimidate you or suppress your will to succeed! Reject within you the veiled hints at your ‘inability’! Don't bend under the whip of instructor disapproval or give in to the ‘carrot’ of their sympathy. Smile politely—ever so politely!—and continue forth on your path in the direction of your chosen goal. Otherwise, all your efforts will be in vain. You will spend years wandering within this ingenious labyrinth until you tire and give up on any hope of success.

It’s not geniuses who speak foreign languages. It’s people like you, well, almost like you, who, for some reason, maybe because of their stubbornness, quiet self-confidence or an incomprehensible hunger that compels them forward in spite of everything—were able to cross the border of their own prescribed reservations.

Let's return now to the instructors. The majority of them are also victims of the malicious myth that it's necessary to possess outstanding talent to be proficient in a foreign language. This myth tickles their self-love and raises them above the drab and everyday masses. So why destroy this myth? Both consciously and unconsciously, they work to fortify it, subconsciously not allowing their students to approach any proficiency in mastering a language, which the instructors themselves possess. (About those instructors who are not proficient in a foreign language we will graciously be silent!) They receive satisfaction from watching helpless students flounder in endless and practically useless, unimaginative, run-of-the-mill exercises that are manufactured and manufactured by the hundreds and thousands.

By the way, the overwhelming majority of instructors, to the very end, do not understand the actual process of mastering a foreign language (they never learned the theory of language mastery in their college days because such a theory simply doesn't exist). Deep within, they are amazed at this because they got to know the language. On the one hand, they absolutely know that they are not geniuses and don't even possess outstanding mental qualities. On the other hand, this myth is so desirable for them that they don't want to doubt it even for a minute. Therefore, to them, it’s very confusing!

Nevertheless, occasionally, they are tormented by their secret doubts, and then they take out these unpleasant sensations on their defenceless students. They load them up with the next portion of ‘irreplaceable’ exercises (irreplaceable for filling up the amount of time allotted for the lesson and not at all for the mastering of the foreign language), or they pour out an unintelligible tirade, strewn with pseudoscientific terms. Or they'll squeeze from the dried-out tube of their imaginations another ‘theme’ of some sort and try to force it into the poor students' heads. After all this, the instructors feel much better, yet the students cringe under these verbal lashes, confessing once again their own personal insignificance, recognising the greatness of the instructor and continue on in their futile wandering in the dull labyrinth of a foreign language in the midst of a tightening spider web of declensions, conjugations and modal verbs.

‘It's the way things are done now, and it's the way things have always been done!’—another brilliant argument that the players of the game are always ready to use. This classic in the realm of argument, to some degree rather touching in its simplicity, is also widely known as, ‘Better that I—a good fellow—rape her, than some dirty bastard!’

A bit roughly spoken? Maybe. But right on the money...

[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 1

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 2

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 3

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 3

You Are Being ‘Taught’, or the Sky Is the Limit!

To discuss the study of foreign languages, the topic of language classes cannot be overlooked. These courses are characterised by small groups under the direction of an instructor. In essence, the basic methodology (forgive me for using this word; I’ve never liked it, either) in these courses differs little from those used in the school system, with the exception that attendance is voluntary and paid for. In addition, the students are generally adults and there by choice, which gives the course its own particular flavour. It seems to me that the flavour is peculiar enough to demand a deeper look.

You have likely seen ads posted around city centres and universities or on the Internet and in newspapers. These ads likely made a significant impression on you, and the cost didn’t seem to be very burdensome. The number of times the class meets each week didn’t seem too burdensome, either—once or twice a week. You made the decision and started going to the classes.

You felt pretty good telling your relatives and friends about your decision. As expected, your decision was met with approving glances, exclamations, and other pleasant emanations. Your status in society was significantly strengthened.

In the proper column of the mental report card, the important section on social interaction—under the title of ‘Good Intentions and Effort’ under your name—appears the mandatory checkmark. Your self-esteem is fortified. Within your chest rose that coveted warm feeling of practically having already fulfilled your task. After all, the difficult decision to learn a foreign language is in itself worthy of the highest respect. This universal truth is unquestionably accepted by all players in the game; isn’t that true, my respectable friend, filled with the highest intentions?

Armed with these very intentions, you show up once or twice a week to a somewhat cosy classroom filled with rows of desks and chairs. Hanging on the walls are grammar charts, fire-escape instructions, and some other visual propaganda designed to pour incessantly all kinds of knowledge of noun cases and conjugations into your brain. You sit at one of the desks—I usually chose one toward the back of the class—and attentively gaze at the blackboard and the instructor.

Immediately, you are filled with respect for this instructor since he knows various words that are unknown to you and he’s dressed in a suit and tie (about the instructors decked out in mini-skirts and half-transparent blouses, we will prudently be silent). Occasionally, your instructor will have a beard or wear glasses, which adds another level of sophistication to your lessons.

The instructor struts in front of the board speaking out words of wisdom and writes them out on the board for your optimal learning. You listen with the utmost attention, watch and try to understand, and remember it all. The especially diligent students even make detailed notes. (I swear, in the beginning, I also sinned in this manner, but only in the beginning!)

From time to time, the all-knowing instructor turns to the group and asks if everything is clear and understood. The answer is usually just silence, but sometimes, out of the 20–30 fairly tense students sitting at their desks, someone (like me, sitting in the back row—always the back row!) ventures to say that some portion of the lesson isn’t that clear. The wise instructor firmly but tenderly (ever so tenderly!), gazes at the inquirer, who is now, oddly enough, experiencing a feeling of guilt, and condescendingly repeats the unclear part of the lesson. He asks again if everything is clear and understood. The answer at this point is usually dead silence. The instructor adjusts his glasses in a distinguished manner and continues his lesson, so rudely interrupted by our not-so-bright student.

When a similar situation arises and the slow student again starts in with his questions, showing his inability to master the material at the same pace of his classmates, the instructor fixes his eyes on the transgressor with a bit less tenderness. All the same, he repeats the material, displaying his deep knowledge of the subject and simultaneously revealing his unsurpassed angelic patience.

The slow student (and not he alone) is not feeling quite so cosy anymore and even begins to cringe under the wise gaze of the all-knowing instructor. In addition, he now feels the silent condemnation of the rest of the group who, of course, perfectly grasps the material and can’t wait to get going again with the instructor at the pace of a supersonic steam locomotive. These irrelevant questions are just a hindrance to our instructor-engineer guiding his speeding, red-hot engine into that crimson language sunset beyond the clouds.

On another day, during a lesson on a new theme (practically every day is a new ‘theme’), the question once again is put forth, ‘Is everything clear?’ This time, it is asked directly to the slow and obviously mentally challenged student. This time, everything is clear. Having gained this small but vitally important victory for the successful forward movement of the smoke-belching locomotive... pardon, lesson... the instructor continues on, picking up the pace, heading ever deeper into the labyrinth of declensions, suffixes, cases, and weak predicates. So little time, so many suffixes and prefixes!

You diligently keep attending the lessons and even complete the homework—all those exercises, answering questions, cramming irregular verbs and participles and gerunds that inevitably sprout from these verbs. The instructor checks your homework and occasionally praises you, which is quite pleasant. Your self-esteem rises. You compare your success with the success of your classmates. Your success is no worse than theirs and, in some areas, even better.

Weeks turn into months, and the course is progressing well. However, you’re starting to notice though that your group is gradually thinning out. One student has a business trip that can’t be postponed, another becomes ill, another buys a boat that takes up all his time, another experiences family issues, and another gets a promotion at work. It turns out that people have many important things going on in life, and learning a foreign language is not at the top of the list.

Strangely enough, our slow student sitting in the back row didn’t join the ranks of the quitters (which you undoubtedly expected!) but continues to show up for class. Of course, he’s not asking any more questions and is completely lost on his homework. The instructor has even given up on checking his homework, figuring it to be a hopeless endeavour. Whatever self-esteem our dunce once had is now completely gone. What is he thinking of!?

Then your turn comes—you get the flu. It’s winter, and there is nothing you can do about it. It could happen to anyone. You are seriously ill, and you aren’t able to go to class. Your relatives, friends and associates totally understand; one’s health is much more important than any language course, especially as it’s only a month or so until the end of your course, and in addition, you can always take the course again next year.

You come out of the game with no loss to your status in society or self-esteem. If not strengthened, then at least there was no significant damage to it since the conditions were clearly stronger than you, and it would have been completely unreasonable to get upset about it. You displayed strength of character and at the same time showed your flexibility, so necessary in these complex times. And what could be more important than such satisfaction?

But what about the foreign language? What foreign language? Oh, yeah! The language! As far as the foreign language goes, without a doubt, you learned many new and interesting things; you met and spent time with new and interesting friends. You became acquainted with a wise and outstanding instructor who knows so many complicated concepts about gerunds, predicate phrases, and indirect speech, so important for a correct understanding of the processes that take place every day in a foreign language.

Overall, your course turned out successful. Hmmm… maybe not.

[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 1

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 2

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 2

Where To Begin, or Information Not For Idiots

Where, then, does one begin in studying a foreign language? First and most important, you must have a strong desire to teach yourself a foreign language.

I will now explain what it means to have a strong desire to teach yourself a foreign language. It’s by no means a mechanical execution of a predetermined number of exercises a day with one eye glued to the television while listening to the latest pop music on your iPod—even if the music is in the foreign language you’re studying! It’s not experiencing a tight knot in your stomach that appears when you realize you have to study today. It’s not constantly glancing at the clock with self-pity over how slowly time seems to pass when you ‘courageously’ study your foreign language. It’s not a sigh of relief breaking forth from your suffering soul when you gladly slam shut your loathed foreign language textbook.

If this is what’s happening to you, then please cease wasting your limited, precious time on this Earth and take up a more peaceful and pleasant task—something like breeding rabbits for meat, jogging, dancing cha-cha, studying yoga, or some other fine activity. The study of a foreign language should stir in you positive emotions and a pleasant longing. Without these feelings, you will wander in despair down a dusty road to nowhere for months and years.

I repeat and will continue to repeat until it is fully grasped by all interested parties, including you, my friend: it is impossible to overemphasize that you need to recognise that only you can teach yourself a foreign language. And by the way, that goes for every subject you may tackle—no one, not even someone who has three doctorates in some science or other, can really teach you anything. Until you grasp this, you will never master a foreign language. Give up on thinking that language study has to do with finding a ‘unique’ course that is tailored just for you or finding the most recent scientific insights on education. Give up on thinking that you will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief, kick back in a comfortable armchair and say, ‘Ah, now teach me! Come on, chaps, show me that I didn’t waste my money!’ As long as this draining and paralyzing mirage still resides somewhere deep within you, you will never master a foreign language. Never!

The second thing to realize will likely be a surprise to you (though a pleasant surprise): you must stop thinking that you’re an idiot.

I bravely assert, in the most decisive way, that you are not an idiot! What? You didn’t think you were an idiot, even without my assertions? I assure you that you did think that and you still do! You couldn’t feel otherwise. Our ability to master a foreign language is directly tied to the reality of being products of our school system. For many years, while at your most impressionable age, it was persistently instilled in you by the best methodology that, in the strength of your natural idiocy, you are not capable of learning a foreign language. And you, my poor, cruelly deceived reader, have become so accustomed to this idea that you have already forgotten that you think this way. The small child deep within you, frightened for years by teachers, could not think differently.

So now, you and the child within can confidently rejoice: at a minimum, you have an average ability to learn a foreign language. And with a certain amount of self-discipline and a capacity for hard work, you are capable of learning one, two or three (would you need more?) languages.

Then again, it’s very likely that your intellectual capabilities are higher than average, and you of course already know that this can be quite useful to learning something, including a foreign language.

You are likely feeling an urge right now to scream out, right here in the bookstore, ‘But Why!? Why when I was in school did they…?!’ There are weighty reasons for this, but your capability to learn a foreign language is not tied up in those reasons. Let me assure you of this! The main cause of this has to do with the dishonesty of the system, when all of us, teachers and students alike, are placed into conditions in which a realistic mastering of a foreign language is simply not possible; no matter how well it’s packaged by the players of this game. The very format of instruction in a foreign language in our schools doesn’t allow for a positive end result.

It would be like you trying to learn to swim, and from time to time, you are brought to an old rusty bathtub, on the bottom of which is a couple of inches of cloudy water. You can listen for years and decades to various lectures about the properties of this water and even be told to go down and touch the water or put your foot in it, all to ‘learn’ how to swim. For your efforts and enthusiasm, you receive more or less comforting grades. The whole process depends upon the teacher’s ability to entertain his students and keep them interested, but it is all in vain in terms of teaching you how to swim. Even if they took radical measures by occasionally cleaning the bathtub, adding a few of inches of water and launching a couple of rubber ducks or toy boats, it would still be in vain.

School students don’t understand this, although the majority of them intuitively know that something is not quite right, that ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.’ Regardless of their initial honest efforts to follow the algorithm given to them in school for studying a foreign language, they hit a brick wall. Though their life experience is somewhat limited, their intuition tells them that honest labour should bring forth at least some fruit or at least some noticeable results, some forward movement. But in the case of foreign languages, their labour seems to bring forth nothing but frustration and a feeling of exhaustion, like they have been tramping through sticky clay.

Students are unable to blame the system for their misfortunes, which for them has always been a system beyond criticism, created by those who, in the eyes of children, are demigods who are incapable of consciously deceiving them, so they naturally end up blaming themselves, secretly or openly encouraged in this by their teachers. This murky and formless sense of guilt develops through the early years—fruitless, painful school years—and then turns into a firm conviction that most will never escape: ‘I am guilty! It’s my stupidity! I am incapable!’

This is precisely what takes place: subdued by the merciless pressure of the system, defenceless children blame themselves for all of it. The years pass by, those glorified early years of school, and all the while, the bright, wide-open eyes of expectant, trusting children begin to fog over with a lacklustre film of mistrust toward the school system and their teachers. The first sprouts of cynicism sink their poisonous roots into their little and still passionate hearts.

Teachers take part in this ugly game for various reasons. Many do not understand what’s going on due to their own fallibility (can you imagine that?!) and ineptness. Many have thrown up their hands in defeat and voluntarily become part of this corrupt system. They have given themselves up to the murky waves of this all-consuming conformity. For whatever reason, they never confess this to their pupils, even if they do understand that it’s not the idiocy of the children that’s to blame but the dishonest conduct of the adults.

In addition, the situation, which is already unpleasant for all players of the game, gets even worse with teachers’ painful realisation of their own inferiority; many teachers show low language proficiency in both speaking and listening, and for some of them, the ability to communicate in a foreign language is practically non-existent. Haunted by the fear that their ineptness will be publicly and embarrassingly revealed, they subconsciously concentrate on fields that are less dangerous, such as grammar and reading. These are the margins within which teachers feel sufficiently comfortable and confident, ruthlessly nipping in the bud any attempt of a student to venture out.

Some teachers, however, break through with a protest and let out a sigh, filled mainly with self-pity and regret for years wasted on school. At these times, they say something vague—sometimes even to students in classrooms—that we must study a foreign language in a different way, that a rusty bathtub with a little puddle of dirty water on the bottom is not a place where one can learn how to swim. These honest impulses, however, are quickly bottled up by those who let them out of the bag: ‘What can we do? Such is life! Everybody does it!’ and so the daily lie goes on and on, soon turning into teachers’ natural habitat, away from which they feel about as comfortable as a fish on a heated frying pan.

For the rest of your life, you—all of us, as a matter of fact, with the exception of a lucky few—are pursued by a firm belief that, in the field of studying foreign languages, you are a complete and utter idiot—this being the highest achievement of our school system.

Thus, the quicksand of explicit lies and half-truths sprinkled with ‘good intentions’ sucks both teachers and students in, making it hard to distinguish which are the real victims—children or adults. Personally, my heart goes out to the children, although I do understand the situation of the teachers. However, unlike adults, children don’t have a choice: a teacher has the choice to quit and become anything from a janitor to a philosophical taxi driver to a poetic farmer or a Buddhist monk, but a poor school child has nowhere to go. A school student is a dependent creature, chained to his loathed desk by invisible but nonetheless solid, bonds. He perishes every day attempting to storm the unreachable heights of a foreign language while a ruthless teacher-general keeps sending him, armed with nothing but a puny pen, into head-on attacks against the heavy artillery of modal verbs, the barbed wire of past tenses, and the steel barriers of impersonal constructions. Let us bow our heads in memory of those fallen in this unequal fight…

Can the pointless, unimaginative head-on attack on a foreign language be the one and only strategy?

No, it cannot, and it is not. Is it possible that you, my friend, could take the heights of a foreign language and sit on the top of this stronghold, letting your feet dangle, glancing down victoriously?

Yes, it is. How can it be done? Read this book carefully. Smile and frown together with the author and at the author (well, who knows, why not?). Rebel against the insolence and paradoxes of his statements! Be sceptical. Don’t just take his word for it. Think. Then think some more. Test on yourself the statements and guidelines contained in this book. Become sure of their correctness and effectiveness. Make this book your Linguistic Bible and your Foreign Language Action Manual. You will be destined for success…

[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 1

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 1

No One Can Teach You? So Teach Yourself!

My dear reader, likely it was the title of this book that caught your attention. How could it not? Among the heaps of multi-coloured courses, textbooks, books and booklets promising to teach you all of the languages of the world in a couple of months (or even a couple of weeks) in a pleasant and stress-free environment, this title undoubtedly appeared to you as a less-than-pleasant surprise. That brings me pleasure. Many surprises of this nature await you in the pages of this book. Now don't rush into despair and begin trampling this treatise in rage right here and now as if it is some poisonous and dangerous insect. That’s unnecessary for one simple reason.

The claim that it's impossible for you to be taught a foreign language is an incontestable and indisputable truth, as true as the sun rising in the morning, yet you surely can learn a foreign language. That is, you can teach yourself!

A fundamental difference exists between these two notions. No one, under any conditions, is able to teach you a foreign language, but teaching yourself (and by no means should we exclude the use of competent resources for assistance)? That you can do!

A recognition of this ancient yet cornerstone truth is the key to the successful mastery of a foreign language or, if you like, a dozen foreign languages.

Let's return to our multi-coloured fallow ground of courses and aids for the study of foreign languages, with their loud—at times high-pitched—promises of ‘heavenly pleasures’ with minimal effort from you in using these very aids. ’Buy us! We are shiny and beautiful! Within our pages are beautiful glossy pictures! Within our pages are secret signals, thanks to which in you will become a superpolymegalinguist in no time at all!’ What do these books and aids all have in common? A dose of howling shamelessness and lack of honesty! By their appearance and manner, they are reminiscent of a loose woman of low morals persistently offering you her ‘faithful and incomparable love’ for sale right here on this very street corner.

As deplorable as it may be, this is exactly the way things are. I have yet to see one foreign language course (including, by the way, some very good ones), that is absolutely honest, without allusions and verbal fog, that directly explains what the study of a foreign language really is. We are given either no explanation at all or we are given a confused, incomprehensible offer to execute some vague instructions, leading to many years of fruitless wandering in an impassable maze of a strange language. I'm not even talking about the laughable ‘textbooks’ attempting to teach you a language in three minutes a day. These are beyond the pale!

My fellow seekers of linguistic wisdom! My brethren! It’s to you I appeal! To try studying a foreign language in only three minutes a day is as easy as trying to cross a stormy ocean in an empty sardine can. Trust me—someone who has graduated from a language institute, studied languages independently, worked as a translator for many years, and taught languages to American Green Berets, military intelligence, National Guardsmen, and employees of the CIA and NSA, someone who has worked for some years at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey—one of the largest and most prestigious teaching institutions of its kind in the world.

Trust me—a specialist in the realm of studying foreign languages. Miracles here are extremely rare— though in principle possible—but don’t expect them to happen to you! Don’t place your hope in miracles here. Intense and long hours of effort await you, but you will be rewarded according to your labour. Instead of a being conscious of growing failure and the bitterness of defeat, you will be rewarded with the sweet taste of well-earned victory! The things that taste sweet in life are those earned by overcoming obstacles and difficulties, not those that effortlessly fall into our laps.

Let us go back to the manuals and textbooks that bookstores have been flooded with in the last few decades. By no means do I assert that all of these textbooks and courses are completely, one hundred percent useless and inadequate. Quite often, they contain some fair and sometimes even good components.

However, without a clear understanding of the process’ strategy and precise, unambiguous instructions for the execution of these supplementary components—they can lose a significant share of their usefulness and even become harmful. It is similar to thinking that tea is good for you but, for whatever reason, being unaware of how it has to be consumed, assuming that chewing dry tea leaves with boiling water poured into your mouth as a chaser will benefit your health. Or if someone told you that, to make a stew you need meat, potatoes, and carrots, forgetting to say that you will also need water, salt, and other key ingredients and, most importantly, ’forgetting’ to mention such a thing as cooking itself, that is, putting the pot on a burner. Would you be satisfied with such minimalistic stew put together by this short-version recipe?

I’ll repeat myself: I have never come across any thorough and completely honest instructions on how to use any foreign language manual—the kind of instructions that would eliminate any two- or three- fold interpretations and be understood by someone without a degree in linguistics. Hypothetically, I allow the possibility of the existence of such instructions, as I do not exclude the possibility of extra- terrestrial life, or for example, a Bigfoot, but I have yet to encounter either.

And even if you were able to find the sought-for ‘ideal’ textbook, you should not forget for one second that your goal is not to study a textbook. Your goal is to study a language! Neither effort is tantamount to the other. You can study from cover to cover as many wonderful textbooks with pretty pictures and fine print as you wish without moving an inch toward speaking the desired foreign language. Try to keep that in mind, my—I hope still intrigued—friend.

All of this is precisely what inspired me to write this treatise. I realized that, unfortunately, no one else would take on this work. Years and decades passed, but my reverent and immeasurably wiser colleagues were not rushing to do it, being engaged with other, obviously more important and interesting endeavours.

Somehow or other I ceased waiting for a favour from above, diligently sharpened my trusty old pencil, pondered for a minute or two looking out of my window at a blooming apple tree, gathered my thoughts, took a deep breath, and decided to take on this pleasant and simple task.

In this work, I intend to convey the complete truth on studying a language. I will uncover all secrets, tear off all the covers, and once and for all make the study of a foreign language understandable, logical, and simple. Or, rather, relatively simple. Notice, my dear friend and reader, that I did not say ‘easy’ since I do not want to, nor will I deceive you; the study of a foreign language cannot be easy. Only a fool or a liar would claim the opposite, whatever shiny packaging and promising titles he may hide behind.

And with that…

[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]