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

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