Sunday, October 26, 2014

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]

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