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]