Sunday, October 26, 2014

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

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