Thursday, November 13, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 27

Not a Single Thought In your Head? You’re On the Right Track!

Like caliphs in Arabian Nights wandering in disguise at night through their cities, listening to what people are really saying about them behind closed doors, your humble servant also has the habit from time to time of strolling through the open spaces and streets of the Internet and becoming acquainted there with a variety of views about himself, disguised in a charming digital turban and Arabian robe (handmade, by the way!).

Besides the rather dull and monotonous abuse in their words—and no less boring praise—I occasionally hear some rather interesting and instructive discussions and opinions. Here is a discussion about the matrix approach that I recently happened to overhear in a virtual ‘teahouse’. For various reasons, I will leave the site address anonymous.

Since one of the participants of the discussion was simply exuding the standard school-fare incantations that do not interest us, I allowed myself to delete these statements—undoubtedly it would be less harmful to impressionable former school students!

The second participant’s input—which I will present in a somewhat reduced and processed form—I consider quite decent detailed descriptions of certain aspects and nuances of my (mine and yours, my dear friend, mine and yours!) approach to language learning.

So I ask you to tighten the belt on your Arabian robe and follow me in search of adventures and pure matrix knowledge, down the streets of our virtual Baghdad...

A. I am an engineer by education and experience. I became acquainted with studying a foreign language because of professional necessity (funny that my father worked all his life as an English teacher; the son of a shoemaker ended up without shoes, so to speak), and as a representative of precise sciences, I was deeply struck by the chaos and circus atmosphere of everyone trying to sell their wares in the field of foreign languages study and teaching.

This situation has intrigued me in a significant way, and now for the past year or two, I've been collecting whatever I can that is related to this area of study.

I'm a disinterested party in this matter, and my observations—from the bleachers—are rather impartial and may contain unexpected ideas and conclusions that would never enter the minds of those who, willing or not, put themselves into this flawed teaching/training ‘pot’ saturated with unhealthy content. Because of that, they cannot be impartial concerning these stale stereotypes and these dubious ideas, which are usually just taken for the truth.


A. You can certainly look for breadcrumbs in the garbage can. You can crawl on piles of refuse with a microscope in your hands, looking for useful molecules and atoms—or at least not out-and-out harmful ones!—in dozens and hundreds of methods, persistently offered to us from everywhere. You can dedicate your life to such explorations, but what’s the point?

In his book, Mr Zamyatkin offers the correct approach to language mastery. So-called specialists often describe his ideas but do not penetrate the essence of them and sometimes completely distort them. Let me briefly describe these ideas.

Mr Zamyatkin suggests working with materials in the studied foreign language in which there are recordings voiced by native speakers—only native speakers! From these recordings comes the so-called matrix—a set of 25 to 30 dialogues recorded multiple times each. Each of them is from 15 to 50 seconds long with no long pauses, translations, sound effects, music or other non-linguistic debris.

It is suggested that every single matrix dialogue initially be listened to for a few hours, even up to a few days! Then each dialogue should be listened to while following along with eyes on the text—also for a few days. Finally the dialogue is repeated aloud—definitely very much aloud!—over the course of hours and days until the best possible pronunciation is achieved.

The method, of course, is a bit harsh, but extremely effective (I know from my own experience). It’s similar to the long hours of repetition of scales and notes that musicians must practice—those who aspire to become professionals.

A. The difference between knowing how to speak and the actual skill of talking—the physical skill!—is exactly the same as that between knowing how to play a piece of music and the ability actually to perform it. And this gap subsides only through training.

The main problem with language teaching methods—we’re only talking here about honest attempts at creating real methods, not about ‘subliminal learning’ and other shameless attempts to put their sticky fingers into our pockets—is that they teach speculative knowledge on how to speak and forget about the need to develop and train the skill of practically using this knowledge. To develop such skills, it is necessary to talk and talk and talk—loudly and properly. At best, we are only taught to understand how to do this in our mind.

When did anyone learn to play the violin (or even a banjo!) only understanding mentally where to put the fingers, where to place the bow and by just looking at the violin from a distance?

Every child—every one of us!—from the age of one to three years goes through a stage of independent training of loudly pronouncing sounds (prefacing this sound-producing stage with a stage of long preparatory listening, of course), linking them to phonemes, syllables, then in longer sound constructions—words—and finally to complex sound chains—sentences.

It all starts with prolonged and repeated listening to what the grown-ups are saying, then crosses over to ‘baby-talk’ and ends with the ability to create multi-level compound sound chains, otherwise known as sentences, with a complex phonetic—and logical—structure at 12 to 14 years of age.

I stress it once more: after birth, we acquire a practical ability to speak—physically to produce successions of sounds one after another—in our native language without any theoretical knowledge of how to do it.


A. From the book Paradoxes of the Brain by Boris Sergeyev:

‘Young children learn not only to speak, that is, to produce speech sounds, but also to perceive them. These two processes are so closely intertwined that they cannot be fully performed one without the other. A child must repeat each new word, simultaneously analyzing and comparing the sounds of speech and the motor responses of the tongue, larynx and vocal cords, which occur during the utterance of this word.

Individual phonemes and complete words are stored in our brains in the form of “motor” and “sound” copies, but the motor images of phonemes are more important for us than the sound images. Without participation of the motor center of speech it is impossible to use the “motor” copies of phonemes and words, and therefore the control over the perception of speech becomes one-sided and incomplete.’

In other words, to learn to perceive, to distinguish the sounds of language (both native and foreign), we must learn to pronounce these sounds loudly and correctly. However, to be properly pronounced, they need to be heard and listened to first. These two processes—the articulation of sounds or sound chains (which we ordinarily call ‘words’) and the ability to distinguish between these sounds in the ears—are inseparable.

Thus, the road to distinguishing the sound chains of a foreign language (discrimination/identification is the very first and absolutely necessary step to subsequent understanding), in a most unexpected and paradoxical way, passes through our speech apparatus—through the ability of our speech apparatus to loudly produce these sound chains.


A. You repeat the word ‘know’ over and over again without even trying to realize what this word really means and whether it is appropriate in this case.

I ‘know’, for example, how to run a marathon. I know it in my mind, of course: I need to tirelessly keep moving my legs one after the other (not both at once but one after the other and certainly in a forward direction and in no case backwards or sideways!), breathe noisily, sweat—and after 42,000 persistent steps, I will make it to the finish line in anticipation of loud applause and a beautiful ‘Gold medal for successfully enduring a long marathon in the heat of the summer, without preliminary wearisome training but only through pure theoretical knowledge of marathons lodged in my brain’! Knowledge is great power!

True, up until now, I've never tried to run a marathon in practice (and generally don’t get up off my sofa without extreme necessity), but I do not think this will become a problem for me because I ‘know’ after all!


A. We don’t need to know anything to learn how to ride a bicycle! We are learning the skills of cycling. Before first sitting on a bicycle at the age of three, who among us read a theoretical bicycle-riding guide for beginners?


A. The articulatory micro-movements that take place during the pronunciation of sounds and sound combinations in a foreign language is fundamentally different from the articulatory micro-movements of the native language. However, there are practically no foreign language study methods that allow for any significant amount of time for the formation of these micro-movements, with the exception of Mr Zamyatkin’s method. Yet without this formation, the entire structure of the foreign language is without a foundation.

This important issue—at the beginning of learning a language, this is the most important thing!—will either end up being overlooked, as if in the hope that somehow the student will figure it out on his own (it would be like releasing some toddlers alone on an ocean beach in stormy weather hoping that by the end of the day they will have learned to swim!), or it will become lost in a theorised jungle of phonetic arguments, full of ‘ideas’ that even the authors themselves can’t understand.

Mr Zamyatkin, though, offers a holistic, self-contained method in which training for these micro-motions is conducted by the loud repetition of typical textbook dialogues but in volumes much, much larger than needed simply to understand and remember them.


A. In the course of extended and repeated listening to a single given phrase (in this case a matrix dialogue) the ‘noise’ of the foreign language becomes a recognisable sound. There is a deep wisdom in this. In every phrase of any language, there is a huge amount of information: about the tone, frequency, pitch, stress, means of pronunciation and other characteristics of each sound, word, word combination and phrase. But only young children who are still studying the language actually process this information, while adults filter it at the subconscious level, leaving only the bare ‘meaning’ of the phrase.

The same thing also happens with a foreign phrase, but the subconscious has no adequate deciphering matrix/program, so an unfamiliar phrase is heard either as meaningless noise, undifferentiated to sounds and words or they are interpreted by the old language matrix to be something quite different from what it actually is.

We must create—physically implant in ourselves!—a deciphering matrix of the foreign language. The matrix serves many functions, of course (including articulation, grammar, vocabulary and other functions), but its very first task is to decipher the sounds of the foreign language.

During the process of listening to the matrix, our first priority is not to study the words, to understand their meaning or to memorise them (although this is not forbidden). By listening to the matrix dialogues, we are learning to hear foreign sounds, and they gradually become our own.

Gradually, day after day, distinct words start emerging from the torrent of nearly white noise, and it is very interesting to observe. Every sound in the word begins to take form, harmony is heard, along with the dynamics of the phrase, as well as the subtleties and nuances, which no textbook or teacher can explain. These can only be felt!

It is in this very unusual but very exciting process that Mr Zamyatkin suggests we fully immerse ourselves at the very beginning of the matrix method of studying a foreign language.


A. In the film The Thirteenth Warrior, Antonio Banderas’ character is exiled to the North because of his affair with the wife of a ruler. He is sitting by the fire with some grimy Vikings who insult him in every way, talking among themselves in their own language, when he suddenly insults them in response—in their own language. The Vikings are surprised and even horrified because they had met this foreigner just a few days ago and he didn’t speak or understand a word of their language. They ask him how he learned to speak Viking, and he replied, ‘I listened!’

‘I listened!’—this is the key to learning a foreign language.


A. Language skills are not limited to articulation, but they begin with it. It is useless to memorise words with incorrect pronunciation or to study the bare grammar. If you want to learn how to dance well, imitate the movements of a good dancer. Don’t read volumes on the dancer’s body’s chemical composition and the mechanics of the movements of his muscles.

If you want to learn how to speak, imitate someone who does it correctly, including pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, and do it not just in your mind but do physically, actively imitating the actual movements of the tongue, lips, jaw, throat and diaphragm—loudly and in the exact same way!


A. Mr Zamyatkin’s method puts into practice one of the main postulates from B. Kurinsky’s Autodidactics, which states:

‘...always try to replace mental labor with physical labor.’ Almost no one is able to persistently apply mental efforts for many hours, but almost everyone is able to diligently carry out physical work, and it is normal. All that is needed is to discard the false stereotype of ‘learning’ and ‘understanding’.


A. In the beginning, it is necessary to listen again and again—for days!—to a matrix dialogue voiced by a native speaker until it is branded in your memory—in your subconscious. Then you have to repeat it aloud also for days, loudly—in no way whatsoever should it be in a whisper, but spoken loudly!—imitating the voice actors until you get as close as possible to their pronunciation—with effortless ease and speed. In two or three standard matrix dialogues, you will encounter almost every possible sound; in ten dialogues, you will encounter every sound combination.

The text can only be viewed in the second stage. The main idea here is attentive listening and subsequent attentive reading/reciting of the matrix dialogue—only loudly! Loudly! Loudly! Loudly! Because whispering only gives you an illusion of correct pronunciation! The criterion for ending this reciting is when you do not detect any further progress in speed and accuracy in pronouncing phrases.


A. The matrix does not teach spontaneous speech—it’s not intended for this purpose—but the matrix will create a bank of micro-movements trained to full automaticity so that the speech apparatus is able to pronounce typical sound combinations and imitate typical intonations of the studied language, which actually are not so many. This then will serve well as a foundation for—primarily through reading—other words, expressions and word combinations.

From the standpoint of a conscious study of a language, with the help of a logical acquisition of semantic structures, the method, of course, appears meaningless. In fact, pushing aside and neutralising what is usually meant by ‘logic’, it affects the deepest unconscious structures of the brain, linking the micro-movements of the speech apparatus with typical phonemes and sound combinations. It also links the visual/printed images of the studied language, creating and making tiny ‘atoms of language’ familiar that cannot be comprehended through logic or science. Without this linking, language remains a set of ‘cold’, boring rules and perpetually forgotten words.

In no way is it necessary to associate this with understanding or formal ‘learning’. Understanding is a discrete process: one either understands something or one does not, but skill acquisition is a long and continuous process. From a complete lack of skill, you progress through the exercises—motor skill exercises!—to an initial uncertain and instable skill, and then only through persistent continuous work can you achieve a masterful proficiency of the skill.

Working with the matrix at the stage of initial language skills is like a voiced prayer or meditation in Eastern religions or like practicing scales and arpeggios in learning to play a musical instrument, like the endless repetition of simple movements in martial arts, like the drilling of the simplest components by a ballet dancer at the bar or the elements of figure skating. Without such exercises, it is impossible to master the art. That means that, in the initial stage of language learning, you must perform millions of articulated micro-movements, pronouncing the words, phrases and sentences correctly and loudly. There is no other way, and there can be no other way. There is only one effective method for drilling-in the initial articulation/speaking motor skills—the matrix method.


A. In no way whatsoever should you give in to the temptation to whisper the dialogues. Such whispering is nothing more than self-deception, an illusion of acquiring speaking skills in the foreign language that you study. You must work through the matrix dialogues only in a loud, full voice.

Trying to develop articulation skills by whispering or muttering is like preparing yourself for a marathon by wiggling your toes!


A. Now we come to the point in question. In the course of repeated (circular) listening or repeating the text (loudly, of course), there comes a time when not a single thought remains in your head and thereby your goal is achieved.

According to neuro-linguistic programming, you ‘anchor’ this most precious condition down, and in the future, there won’t be any problems with learning. Using this anchor, you deliberately enter into a state of ‘unawareness’—not thinking in the native language—and then you become open to the foreign language to soak it in, to acquire its new and unusual harmonies, which you could not previously take in through the defensive armour of the native language.

As a child, I had to spend not days but months of my life learning a single piece of music, in this way developing stable muscle skills—as a result, my little fingers ran and flew. When I became an adult, I decided to learn to play a different musical instrument, and my muscle skills developed much faster than before—understandably so.

In Mr Zamyatkin’s method, you work on each matrix dialogue as you would on a piece of music—you work until you learn to perform it in a relaxed and effortless manner. The instrument here is your voice, your body—your speech apparatus.

And, of course, only you can force yourself to work! You do as much as you like, and these ‘unrealistic’ recommended hours and days are given to stress a point—we are not looking for the ‘meaning’ of a sentence (meaning that offers little and is actually very superficial) but aim to understand the multi-level subtleties of a real living language, the resonance and vibration of each separate word and sound, the smallest nuances and shades—all of which the surface ‘meaning’ only hinders. By the way, it is quite enjoyable, takes a reasonable amount of time—if approached intelligently!—and is extremely useful, not only for learning a foreign language but also for understanding the dynamics of sound in your own language.


A. Using the matrix bulldozer, we will uproot and destroy the waterlogged jungle of these impassable thickets of external, linear ‘logic’. Along this solid path, made possible by the matrix, we will now be able to travel in our pursuit of true language acquisition.


A. Ask any monk, even a novice, a teacher of religious meditation or even a simple, unwashed shaman in taiga with a tambourine in his hands, and they will explain to you that, when our logical thinking and internal dialogue are switched off with the help of the extended repetition of simple phrases (mantras, prayers, etc.), it means that an initial and mandatory step toward a productive meditation has been taken.

Ask psychologists or adherents of neuro-linguistic programming how, through the use of specific verbal influences, people enter into altered states of consciousness with higher—several levels higher—productivity.
More than half a century ago, the prominent linguist Scherba, in a dispute with supporters of direct and transferable methods of studying foreign languages, complained that ‘we can drive the native speech out of the classroom, but we cannot drive it out of the heads of our students.’

It turns out that we actually can, and the experience of thousands of years of Eastern religions and the latest advances in science testify to that. Only the narrow-mindedness, tunnel vision and conservatism covered with the crust of smug tradition do not let it happen.


A. Ramakrishna told his disciples, who sometimes demanded of him ‘exact knowledge’:
‘You came into this mango garden to enjoy the mango fruits. So, eat these fruits! Here they are right in front of you! Why are you trying to count the leaves on the mango trees? ‘

It’s the same with the matrix method: you are being asked not to ‘count’ suffixes, cases and conjugations in the studied language but to use the language practically and enjoy it (although one must bear in mind that the study of grammar in its pure form is not prohibited but just moved to the back burner, so to speak).


A. The human psyche is characterised by shifting of attention—it’s not possible to retain focus on one object for more than 20 to 30 seconds. Therefore, initial concentration on the meaning of a phrase is completely eliminated after a few times of listening. The focus of attention will then switch to the meaning of the words, which there are more of. And only very long periods of repetitious listening will ‘rub away’ and take the focus of attention off the meaning, allowing you to concentrate on the smallest units of information—sounds and phonemes, the number of which in the passage is such that it allows for attention to be held for almost an unlimited amount of time.

Throughout our life experience, we are trained to process and filter all the ‘unnecessary’ information at a subconscious level, fixing our attention only on the exterior informational level—the level of ‘meaning’. It is impossible to shut off this habit with the conscious effort of your will, just as it is impossible to will yourself to no longer be able to swim or to ride a bicycle. However, we can eliminate the concentration on the exterior, habitual level of ‘meaning’ by exposing it to very large amounts of repetitious ‘meaning’, thus breaking the mould of habit, and then the deeper secrets will be revealed to us.


A. The matrix is a small motor, a starter for a big, clumsy language engine. The starter serves to start a large engine by providing the initial motion. You won’t get very far on the starter alone, of course, but that’s not what it’s designed for. Without the starter, a big engine remains cold and motionless.


A. This type of learning a language has yet to be researched and studied in depth, although a great demand for such methods exists and is felt on the market, at least judging by the huge amount of all these ‘miracle’ methods, ‘secret KGB/CIA research’, ‘subliminal’ learning, ‘Learn a Language in 10 Minutes-a-Day’, ‘Words-on-the-Run’ and other pseudoscientific nonsense.
Mr Zamyatkin’s approach, however, in its elegant simplicity, promises to put up the best battle with all these noisy ‘super-methods’ that the professional fraudsters have invented purely for the shameless plundering of the naive population!


A. This is what attracts a huge number of followers: Mr Zamyatkin’s paradoxical ideas and recommendations coupled with the elegance of his proposed approach. The fact is, there are clear indications here of something quite revolutionary.
Initially, the followers are specifically attracted by the paradoxes of the proposed logic and by the novelty of the matrix method. Then the daily hard work with the language matrix (as in my case) furnishes an understanding that the method actually works and that this is the right path one needs to take to study a foreign language.

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 26

Resistance From Those Closest To You, or ‘Aren’t You So Smart!’

Here's something else, my friend—you must be internally prepared to overcome resistance, not only from the language itself but also from the unexpected and rather unpleasant resistance from your loved ones. Yes, it's true! That’s exactly what I wanted to say—your loved ones! Do not be surprised by this. Even though it probably won’t be so blatant, truly noticeable resistance does await you, straight from those closest to you.

Unfortunately, human nature is wired in such a way that the successes of our loved ones do not bring forth any particular enthusiasm in us. Maybe it’s because we ourselves don't look so good in comparison with the brightness of their successes? But oh, how pleased we are to see those closest to us fall face-down in the mud—just as long as they don’t splash us!

Why do you think that recovering alcoholics are so often encouraged to ‘have just one little drink. A little eency weensy. C'mon, it won’t hurt you!’? You will also be urged to relax, not to push yourself too hard, to take a break from all your studies—entirely for your own good, of course! With their warm words they will support you in all your efforts, but when it comes to their tone, well, that’s another story! The insinuations and subtle hints! Their very actions!

In every way possible, you will most certainly be made to understand that your language study is nothing more than a fad, nothing more than a whim on your part, and very likely, almost certainly, you will fail, having merely wasted time that could have been spent on something useful (useful for them, of course!). At best, you can expect to see politely bored indifference, but don’t count on unconditional support, not from anyone. A harsh and lonely battle awaits you! You have only one ally in this fight whom you can fully and always rely upon, and that is yourself.

That's why it is absolutely necessary to constantly reward yourself internally for your successes when learning your foreign language. Do not expect anyone else to do that for you.

In no way should you scold yourself for any minor failures or temporary difficulties, whether perceived or real. In the most resolute way, you must suppress any negativity within yourself and tirelessly feed on all the positive emotions associated with your small successes in learning a foreign language. This is nothing to be embarrassed about; on the contrary, it is vital to your success!

And don’t postpone rewarding yourself until later on, when you're beginning to communicate with foreigners. Many people half-consciously expect that native speakers will surely play the role of a concerned evaluator and are bound to praise you for your successes and all the sacrifices you’ve made to achieve proficiency in their language. People think that native speakers will be happily surprised by their rich vocabulary, their impeccable grammar and their intelligent accent!

My dear friend, I'm sorry to say it, but bitter disappointment awaits you in this. Native speakers usually don’t care whether you know their language or not or whether you speak with a dreadful village accent or as elegantly as the Queen of England herself. They automatically place you— according to your language ability—at the proper social level, nothing more. They will not correct your mistakes (just as you probably never find yourself correcting the speaking errors of some stranger you’ve just met, but this doesn't stop you from cringing inwardly as you listen to him speak). They probably won’t praise you, either. You mean to them as much as the millions of faces on the streets of any metropolis mean to you. Therefore, reward yourself for your genuine achievements right here and now because you might not have another opportunity!

Give yourself some psychological candy! Tell yourself how clever you are! Give yourself a pat on the back, even for little tactical successes—they eventually add up, and they’ll lead you to a serious breakthrough and a major victory! Congratulate yourself, but not aloud, of course, my humble friend, not aloud but rather within. Do this just for yourself, with a wise little smile on your face, one that remains forever mysterious to those who aren't in the know…

By all means, you must do this, for here lies the key to your success in the transformation of your chosen foreign language from a dangerous enemy to your ally and friend!

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 25

Guilty as Charged, or Did You Wash Your Hands Before Dinner?

Many people have successfully overcome the standard, flawed and dead-end system of foreign language learning, and as a result, they know their foreign language very well (or even a few foreign languages). Nevertheless, they do experience some residual guilt over their successes.

Misconceptions about the proper approach to the study of foreign languages is so deeply ingrained in us that we feel that such unusual success is somehow wrong, that we’ve cheated, that the path we intuitively chose and followed only brought us success by accident. In some strange way, we feel that we have broken some sacred laws.

Most likely, this takes place because we simply do not have the mental fortitude to face the truth and understand it clearly. The standard system of learning foreign languages has been built on unspoken half-truths, lies and outright deception (I'm not talking about foreign language schools, which, for all their flaws, do quite a good job).

Those of us who speak foreign languages usually choose to blame ourselves unfairly (despite our obvious successes) and refrain in cowardly fashion from accusing the entire gargantuan system with its legions of representatives. That would be too difficult for us. We prefer not to pit ourselves against the system. After all, you and I were taught for so long that we must behave, wash our hands before eating, sit quietly and not make any noise and not disturb the order that was established eons ago. We were taught that the majority is always right, that our minuscule individual interests must be pushed aside in the interests of the countless others. We blame ourselves, and therefore we are so willing to believe in the arbitrariness of our success in learning a foreign language that we even want to convince ourselves of this. We want to convince ourselves that we have mastered the language not in spite of the system and not by challenging it. We want to convince ourselves that we really did do as we were told: we sat quietly, diligently doing our homework, continuing to behave, always fast in raising our hands to answer our wise teachers’ questions, so we have nothing whatsoever to be scolded for.

We, who beat the system, quite sincerely think that others—as if we could redeem our imaginary guilt through them!—must humbly take these useless, traditional courses, foolishly gazing at their grammar books (the ones that make us yawn—how could they not?), mindlessly completing mountains of endless, idiotic grammar exercises, memorising things pulled out of thin air, listening to recordings with ‘secret signals’ produced by charlatans, that is, to do exactly what is necessary for achieving complete failure in learning a language.

From the very beginning, we’re inclined to doubt the strength, will and common sense of beginners who have just embarked on studying a foreign language. We are almost certain that they will suffer a crushing defeat in their collision with the mighty system. We even want that—as if their defeat will somehow remove any guilt from our ‘incorrect’ successes!

By the way, why am I saying ‘we’? I do not consider that you, my friend, are weak or incapable of a good fight. I believe in you! Otherwise, why would I be spending our precious time in conversation over two cups of lotus blossom tea? I believe you will find the strength within you to tear off those sticky, tight shackles of the rotten system, brush away all the blinders from your eyes, those deceptive ideas that try to force you to kneel before those false idols that have been moulded from the rattled phrases and rotten threads of pseudo-logic and multi-coloured candy wrappers from the ranks of ‘authorities’ sprinkled throughout the system. I'm sure you will be able to identify the omissions, to distinguish truths from half-truths and outright malicious lies. You, my friend, will have enough youthful energy, persistence, self-discipline and intuition for the task at hand!

I am confident that you will certainly, without any feelings of guilt, emerge from the worthless, mouldy system, into this still new and unexplored world—a place of originality and freshness, the world of a foreign language...

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 24

Regarding the Construction of Homes and Dog Kennels

We need to have a few words about setting a time frame for studying a foreign language. The initial motivation that a person has for studying a language is by no means limitless. It can only last for so long. Often this means three or four months. During this period, you must achieve some measurable results for yourself. This success will serve as a psychological reinforcement and a boost for continuing your language adventure. A person who hasn't studied a language for long does not possess the internal confidence (though there are rare exceptions) to know that he’s on the right track and that success is unconditionally guaranteed. Subconsciously, he gives himself some time to be convinced of whether his path is the right one or not.

Having great experience in studying foreign languages and being entirely confident that my approach is completely correct, I can permit myself the luxury of taking my time, and because of this, I might spend eight months, even up to a year, on working out the initial matrix. A beginner simply won’t be patient for this long. From the very beginning, he is subconsciously (yet quite severely) restricting his time frame for success to merely three or four months. Of course, he will boldly proclaim that he is ready to study and work hard for years on end and that his zeal will never fade away. But the cold reality is such that his subconscious mind will always be victorious over what he thinks he believes.

Imagine the following situation. You intend to build a house for yourself and I intend to build a house for myself. Being the professional that I am and knowing the ins and outs of construction, I have no need to be in a rush. I purchase all of the necessary building materials (including roofing supplies and weathervanes), draw up a floor plan, order plumbing materials, furniture, even a special painting for the wall and a doormat that I plan to wipe my feet on at the front door. And let's not forget some geraniums for the windowsill! I’m also in no rush to have all the materials delivered to my building site, knowing that delivery takes just a few days. I anticipate all of the possible complications in advance and plan for how to deal with them. In no particular rush, I march ahead toward my goal…

Now, over to you—you’re really in a panic. According to the rules of our interesting little scenario, you know nothing about construction. In spite of this, you are fully determined! The rocky ground has to be dug up! You need to lay bricks and drive in nails and screws. That’s what construction is all about! You’re banging your thumb with the hammer, driving in stakes with brute force and using ropes to tie things together. You paste it all up with mortar and try to hide any imperfections using some coloured pencils.

You’re having a hard time with all this. Holes appear out of nowhere, and you plug them up with newspapers and cardboard. Your hands and even your ears are streaked with scratches and dirt, which you’re now standing knee-deep in. The weeks pass by, and a vague suspicion is beginning to torment you: whatever you’re building doesn’t exactly look like a house. This structure doesn’t even resemble a dog kennel. And another thing—it wobbles from side to side. Sometimes pieces fall off it. Your original flame is dying. You've been showing up less and less at the construction site, and then finally you stop showing up at it altogether. That’s it. Alas, as they say, kaput! Game over.

Let’s develop this situation a bit more. You and I live in the same neighbourhood, and you can’t help but notice my beautiful new home, which has a weathervane on the roof and a doormat at the front door. You peek through the window and see magnificent furniture, paintings and rugs. And geraniums, of course! The evidence is right there before your eyes; it is possible to build a house of good quality and beauty.

You ask me to show you how to build such a house. In a most gracious manner, I agree and start off by giving you a lecture on construction. I then suggest that you go learn how to drive nails, mix cement and use a saw, skills you absolutely must have to do construction. So you go out and learn these things.

I offer to show you how to use a level, a plumb line and some other gadgets. Some doubts are gnawing away at you, but you end up doing what I tell you, though without much confidence. I give you a list of materials that you need to buy. There are a few hundred items on the list, many of which are completely foreign to you. You get one item, then two, three more from the list, and then you start feeling tired.

You’re not seeing the foundation, the walls or the roof. You only see bags of cement, mountains of gravel, some tools and an endless supply of odd-looking nails and screws, as well as pieces of some strangely shaped metal objects. It’s not at all nice to look at, it takes up a lot of space and it has an unpleasant smell.

In your mind, all of this stuff doesn’t quite fit with your idea of a cosy, beautiful home. I suggest that you need to learn how to use carpentry tools. On one hand, you understand that, if I say this, you should do it. On the other hand, your desire to deal with all this stuff is melting away like snow tossed into a frying pan.

You’re not seeing any visible progress. You have no idea what you’re doing! Where are the walls? Where is the foundation? Where is the cosy house with the geraniums in the window? You have no interest in trudging away with only step-by-step progress. All these screws and nails are irritating you. Those suspicious odours are driving you crazy. You’re tired of it all. You’re having some serious doubts about my competence as a builder. After all, my beautiful new house seems to have appeared out of nowhere, without any effort or work!

So you stop working. But the foundation and even the walls were so very close to being put up. Everything was almost ready for that. You didn’t have enough patience to just hang in there for only a couple more weeks! You were less than half a step away from seeing real results.

And that pile of building materials that you’ve prepared—so critically necessary for the various stages of construction—ended up never being used at all. In the same way, your ability to use a level and plumb line were never put to good use either. But it’s all over now.

The first approach is characteristic of complete ignorance of the profession as well as helplessness on the builder’s part, although there are some basic elements of will and industriousness to be found. This approach doesn’t require any special commentary, although it’s quite common.

Obviously, the mistake of the second approach lies in the fact that you approached it in an extremely orderly and thorough fashion, which I suggested to you, although the general idea of the method was absolutely correct. But even more wise (for the teacher) would have been to take into account the reality of natural human weaknesses. The teacher should have anticipated those very things that would eventually drag down a student and made the initial work more condensed and energetic. The timing should have been calculated properly so that the foundation would have been built and the inexperienced builder would know how to properly lay the bricks before his initial impulse faded away.

Once the student had laid even a few rows of bricks, he would have been able to look upon his work with pride, and his strength would have doubled or even tripled at that moment. He would have tasted the incomparable sweetness of victory, albeit in a small way. He would have had renewed faith in himself as well as his abilities, and with all this newfound energy, he would have launched himself into the task. But, sadly enough, this never happened.

My disillusioned student, we have exhausted your psychological time limit as a beginner, with no results. The teacher simply did not bring the necessary wisdom to the table; where is a builder going to get it from otherwise? The teacher failed in his duties and responsibility toward his unprepared and unsure student and the student didn’t have unconditional trust in his teacher.

And so, my young builder, if you do not have sufficient experience in this, you will need to achieve significant intermediate results at the beginning of your journey. This will bring you strength that you need for those first few months, or else your new home—your foreign language—stands a chance of remaining unfinished forever.

Another option is to have a teacher whom you can unconditionally trust.

However, there is another way. You can learn to love the grunt work, so to speak, finding real satisfaction in it, and then you will receive a sense of fulfilment during all those intermediate steps. This approach has an extremely positive side to it, but at the same time, it has its dangers as well. Having learned to enjoy the intermediate steps, you run the risk of becoming too deeply absorbed in them, even becoming lost in them forever, losing sight of your ultimate goal—true mastery of your chosen language in real-life situations. But more on this later, if we have the time for it, the time and energy…

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 23

Nicky, Ahere Art Thou?

It happened in those long-forgotten and even fairy-tale times, when your moms and dads were still young, beautiful and slim and not … um… what they are now. They walked fairy-tale streets and sometimes read courageous and beautiful (in a fairy-tale way) messages inscribed on walls and rooftops: ‘Communism is our ultimate goal! The Communist Party is the soul, the glory, and the conscience of our epoch! Fly Aeroflot Airlines! Turn the lights off when leaving! Wash your hands before you eat—’round the bush don’t you beat!’

A little boy of twenty-something also walked these same streets… like every morally stable Soviet citizen of the appropriate age, he too was a member of the Pioneers… or the Communist Youth Organization. Which one it really was can no longer be authenticated due to the haze of time that has since passed. The difference between these two was never very significant even back in those times, all the more so in our enlightened century. However, to make it clearer for the younger generation of mobile phones, pierced noses and other vital body parts, this difference can be compared to the difference between Coca-Cola bottled in Uganda and in China. It can only be detected by a true connoisseur of the highly nutritious and also delicious product.

So let’s call this young, carefree, yet contemplative Communist strolling the streets ‘Nicky’. And so he leisurely strolled the streets, rode busses and trolleys, looked at the messages on the walls, thought all kinds of thoughts… and all of sudden, out of nowhere and against the mentioned moral stability of a Soviet citizen, he felt a desire to immediately learn a foreign language. Nicky straightened his red Pioneer tie, got off the trolley and enrolled in the appropriate foreign language class.

As strange as it sounds, this class, attended with great persistence, could not kill the young Pioneer Nicky’s unexplained yearning to learn a foreign language. What’s even stranger is that the glorified Soviet school, though trying its best, also failed to do so. However, what it did is lead him to certain ideas, of which the main one was that learning a foreign language can be made more effective without taking any classes, especially those that our Nicky was taking.

However, this required a decent tutorial, without which no progress was possible. Bookstores had a pretty wide selection of works by a certain Lenin—a quick-witted author quite popular back then but fairly forgotten now—and absolutely no tutorials for foreign languages. The little Pioneer craving knowledge was in despair and even opted to buy Lenin’s book How to Establish Workers’ and Peasants’ Paradise for subsequent painstakingly contemplative note-taking at home. All of a sudden, he saw exactly what he needed in a far-away section of the store: a language audio course with a set of vinyl discs in colourful, bright covers. Delighted, the boy dropped Lenin’s book and rushed to the checkout. ‘Comrade Cashier, I want to buy this right now!’ Sadly, it turned out that the attractive audio-course was not for sale and could only be exchanged for books of a certain kind, to which popular works of Comrade Lenin didn’t belong. This was a peculiar and now hard-to-explain custom of those legendary times…

What followed next was a feverish quest for the sought-after copy in the home libraries of relatives, friends and some accidental victims. Finally, the desired course was obtained in exchange for a few books.

After that, I, of course, came home and with a feeling of deep satisfaction played the first lesson on the vinyl disc. There is no need to say that what I heard was a bunch of gibberish. I played the lesson from the beginning—achieving the same result over and over again. It was awkward but fairly tolerable, despite irritating pauses and loss of concentration on the language to perform purely mechanical actions. Then came the second lesson: the needle stubbornly resisted my clumsy fingers and wouldn’t return to the very beginning of the lesson! My irritation was growing—the work was clearly ineffective. Instead of carefully listening to foreign speech, I was doomed to constant fussing with the needle that was breaking my quite frail concentration. The problem was evident, and it had to be resolved somehow.

After thinking a while, I purchased a cassette player and transferred all the dialogues from the vinyl records to audio cassettes, but that didn’t solve the problem, either. Instead of dealing with the needle, I had to incessantly press the buttons and wait for the cassette to rewind. Additionally, I couldn’t stop thinking about how great it would be to be able to listen to these dialogues outside of the house: waiting for a bus, on public transportation or just walking in a park, considering that I had to spend at least two (clearly fruitless) hours a day in commute. If I could only have had a Walkman on that trolley!

Guess what? My wish was miraculously granted! In an electronics shop also dealing in goods brought back by the rare Soviet visitors to the West, I found one of the first—if not THE first in our town—portable cassette players with earphones. Naturally, I immediately bought it and started using it virtually everywhere: on transportation, at the bus stops, standing in lines, which in those days were becoming ever longer and more crowded, in parks… And of course, I did one more thing—I started recording the same dialogue over and over again on both sides of a tape. This was done partly out of purely practical considerations—I did not want to break a very expensive and possibly delicate player with constant button-pressing.

One way or another, I discovered that this method of reoccurring recordings of a single dialogue wass exceptionally effective and could eliminate all of my previous technical issues. To play this dialogue multiple times, all I had to do was pop the cassette into the player, press a button only once and listen to it until the batteries ran down. My concentration on the language would no longer be ruined—not for technical reasons, anyway.

This was a ridiculously simple and obvious solution that hasn’t been introduced by anyone ever before. Putting it into practice would, of course, require certain efforts, but these efforts would soon pay off. It would certainly be better to buy this kind of product ready-to-use, manufactured on an assembly line, but to this day, no one produces one. Well, this book might be just the start of it: without a doubt, interested parties will sooner or later read this treatise, reflect upon it and finally decide to have a serious talk with its author. I, in turn, will be patiently waiting for this crucial moment—what else can I do?

So what about the little young Pioneer? You might ask—whatever happened to him? We want to hear the rest of the Pioneer Nicky’s story! The boy, of course, grew up and became a big Pioneer, learned all the foreign languages, and as I heard it, went to the far-away, magic California, a place where the sun always shines and the ocean waves time after time splash upon the sandy beaches of the mysterious city of Carmel, located three and a half hours away (if walking by forest paths, hidden from prying eyes) from the likewise mysterious city of Monterey, a place where people are kind, good-looking and humane; they only eat avocados for breakfast, which is why their faces shine day and night with broad and friendly smiles for strange Pioneer boys…

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 22

Reading Plutarch, or Sherlock Holmes Behind the Coconut Tree

And now the moment has finally come for which we have waited so long. The time has come to talk about your favourite thing… reading!

What? You haven’t been waiting for this moment? Reading is not your favourite pastime? That’s odd. For some reason, I was convinced that I had found a kindred spirit in you. I was positive that you love to read, that you couldn’t even live one day without reading—that you are hardly ever far from a book.

In my mind, I pictured you reading on public transport, at bus stops, on a bench under a blooming lilac bush in the park, along the riverbank where the evening nightingales are ever singing just for you. I pictured you all curled up on a frosty winter evening in your warm room on a cosy sofa with the soft light of the lamp pouring onto the pages of the next thrilling novel in your hands, enjoying the exploits of your favourite hero fearlessly saving the civilized world from villains with waxed mustachios. Next to you sits a steaming cup of cocoa, the clock on the wall quietly ticking...

Alas, all this was not about you. My dreams are dashed, so allow me to approach the issue from a different angle, dryly and unemotionally. I can do it this way, too… believe me, I am able to.

And now… reading. Undoubtedly, reading is one of the most important components, if not the most important, in learning any foreign language. The matrix of the reverse resonance is extremely important, but for all its importance, it is only the first step on the road to reading. By itself, the matrix cannot provide all the grammatical and lexical components required for full mastery of a foreign language. The vocabulary and grammar of the matrix are at the basic level, which is its primary value. It only provides the cornerstone, nothing extra.

To some extent, building the matrix can be compared with building islands that support you in the sea of language. Reading then serves to expand and strengthen these islands, to create bridges and passages between them, which allows for more freedom of movement from island to island. Reading fills the huge gaps that remain after working through any matrix, even the most ideal one.

Of course, these gaps are filled by watching films and television programs, as well as by listening to the radio in the studied language, but reading is still the most convenient and attainable means of filling the gaps.

You can put a book in a pocket and easily open it up at any convenient time. You can re-read unfamiliar words or sentences many times. You can return to pages you have already read and make an instant comparison with what you are reading now and right there do a quick analysis of the vocabulary and grammar.

In all respects, books are convenient and relatively inexpensive. Presently, a fairly large selection of books is available for reading in any foreign language. The difficulty lies more in the choice of what to read.
So what do you read and how do you read it? First, let’s talk about what to read. There are a few fundamental rules that you absolutely must follow.

Rule number one:

Only read what interests you.

I have already talked about this somewhere in this book, but I’m not afraid to repeat myself because repetition—as is well known—makes perfect, being the mother of leaning. So read the genres that you already like reading in your own language. Don’t torture yourself trying to study something like Song of Roland in the original. At best, it will cause you to fall into a mortal slumber, at worst, a gag reflex. It is useless to convince yourself that you will be taken up into some life-giving source of semi-divine genius. That won’t help in keeping you awake, and in no way will it help your progress in learning a foreign language. It will only serve as the quickest way to kill any desire you have to study the language.

On the other hand, if for some strange reason you truly are fascinated by the adventures of Roland and Tristan, then I have no other choice than to bow my head before rule number one and wish you further convulsions of pleasure from reading the unfading classics… but now in a foreign language.

I will repeat again: you should only read that which stirs in you a genuine interest. Only read that which touches your heart, even if it’s some type of Grisham with his funny little books generating disgusted sneers from ‘sophisticated’ audiences. Find the equivalent of this Grisham in your studied language and read it. Read as much as you can. Fill in the, gaps in your vocabulary and grammar. As long as I understand and forgive you, you have nothing to worry about. I, for my part, promise you that under no circumstances will I ever tell of your weakness; let it remain our little secret…

Rule number two:

Only read works of considerable length.

By considerable length I mean a complete narrative of 100 to 200 or more pages printed in a standard font without illustrations on every page. Avoid reading short stories, even if these stories are interesting. Why, you ask?

Because I’m telling you, and as you have been able to already figure out, I never say anything for no reason—at least regarding the study of foreign languages. Either way, I won’t slack off here; I will explain my thoughts more extensively.

Reading works of considerable length is preferable to reading short stories and texts for the following compelling reasons:

To create a sufficient contextual setting to work with.

When you start to grasp a fairly good-sized piece of writing, you become acquainted with the ‘canvas’ of the story, its characters, as well as the geographical, political, social and other various realities in which the events transpire. To a certain extent, you can guess the words and actions of the characters, their motivations and the things they enjoy.

If the action is taking place in the nineteenth century, it is highly unlikely that the hero is going to have a computer on the table. And if she meets with the count, she likely won’t be in running shoes and a miniskirt. If the main character of the story is a private detective with the broken nose of an ex-boxer, with protruding eyebrows and a square jaw, it is unlikely that at the height of an investigation he will leave and go to a Buddhist monastery, where he gives himself over to prayer and fasting, forever forgetting about the need to solve this excruciating mystery of who stole the diamond collar from the dog of the butcher’s beloved wife. In the same way, if we know that the action is developing in nineteenth-century London and our beloved Sherlock Holmes is hot on the trail of the villain, watching him from behind a tree, then it’s quite certain it won’t be a coconut tree, and the villain will not escape at the last moment, soaring into the sky warp nine in the latest-model spaceship.

And that, my dear reader, is the contextual setting. You only need to read a few pages to get a feel for the story before the setting begins to work for you in a significant way. Short texts do not have enough room to develop this. You barely start getting into the contextual setting before the story ends. You start reading the next story, and the same thing happens—you are deprived of the opportunity really to get into and lose yourself in the story.

To create a contextual setting for the vocabulary.

We all have our favourite personal vocabulary. Even your humble servant—I am not ashamed to confess. Fiction writers are no different.

The vocabulary of any given author in a particular work is quite limited. This becomes apparent even after just reading a few dozen pages. Some words begin to be repeated quite often. You see them dozens of times but in different contexts. At first it’s a bit vague, and then a given specific word becomes clearer and clearer as to what it could mean. If every time Sherlock Holmes takes something from his pocket and points it at bad guys and the bad guys always either raise their hands or run away (cowardly rascals!), it’s doubtful that it’s a vial of holy water or a handkerchief. More than likely, the given object is some type of gun.

It’s not out of the question, of course, that the object that the main character pulls out of his pocket is precisely a vial of holy water. This could be a tricky move of the author, but that’s exactly what we need to establish by recognising and decoding the author’s contextual setting from the very first pages.

One thing we will know for sure from the contextual setting is that Sherlock Holmes’ weapon could not possibly be a laser blaster, a grenade launcher or Harry Potter’s magic wand. To be certain, we will take a quick glance in the dictionary—and the sought-after word will forever be chiselled into our memory.

Or, in pursuit of the foul villain, our hero goes through the woods, brushing against the bushes sprinkled with morning dew, along the meadow where chamomiles reach out to our hero. He then goes along the field, breathing in deeply the disturbing smell of wormwood, into some suspicious gully and then again in the woods. The path narrows and almost disappears, and then it miraculously brings him to some old castle, where in one of the towers the unshaven villain is hiding. The villain has no idea that the time for payback has come.

The name of the path that the main character follows is marked on his map. What can it be? It can’t be a highway of asphalt or concrete, where you might see cars zooming along. No trains chugging down the track. To confirm our guess, we’ll elegantly look it up in the dictionary. ‘Trail’! Another word is forever imprinted in our memory. And with the word comes a little mental gold star for a good guess!

In addition, the author does not fail to inform us (25 times over the course of ten pages), that our hero has ‘intelligent’ eyes, but the villain has ‘shifty’ eyes. He tells us that the parting of the hero’s hair is ‘impeccable’ and that he is ‘incorruptible’—30 times in fifteen pages. The villain carries out ‘sinister’ plans in every second sentence, and so on...

The words are repeated, repeated and repeated again in different lexical and grammatical contexts, and as we already know, repetition is the mother of learning (hello, Mother!), especially in learning a foreign language, where almost everything is based on repetition.
Being inclined to rigorous analytical thinking, you will surely notice (and quite reasonably, it must be stated) that the setting is not very clearly demarcated from its contextual lexical setting and that the example of the gun above could well be used here.

I will argue that this is quite insignificant. Things are vague and fuzzy in a language; everything crosses over, interpenetrates and interacts. Absolutely clear boundaries are impossible in a language. This is true for your native language and for a foreign language. Get used to this, my dear sir, and you will encounter fewer unpleasant surprises on this challenging path of studying a foreign language!

With regard to the vocabulary and contextual settings, they are of course intertwined and interpenetrated. In the end, they can be considered one large contextual field. Your task is not to remember titles and conventional divisions, but to plunge yourself decisively into the context without much thinking. You need to feel it and be able to use it for successful language learning.

This is how I understand context. This is how knowledgeable people understand context. I now ask you to read very carefully what our favourite writer Plutarch said about the role of context in learning a foreign language in his Comparative Biographies, starting with the life and deeds of our beloved Demosthenes:

‘... affairs of the state and students, who came to me to study philosophy, did not allow me the leisure to practice the language of the Romans, and therefore when it was too late, already in my declining years I began to read the Roman books. Amazing, but true—what happened to me is this: it was not so much from the words that I discovered the context, but
47 on the contrary, I would capture the meaning of the words from the context of which I already had knowledge.’

So that’s how it is. As you can see, the role of context in language study, especially expanding vocabulary through contextual guessing, is not my recent discovery. As you have certainly noticed, Plutarch was somewhat surprised by his own observations, but this is understandable—Comparative Biographies was written nearly 2,000 years ago, and apparently Plutarch was the first who wrote down these ideas, without anyone to refer to. He had every right to be surprised. However, what seemed new and worthy of astonishment 20 centuries ago in the field of language study should not particularly surprise us today. In fact, since that time, we have more or less learned something, haven’t we?

But leaving our Plutarch behind (so astonished by his linguistic discovery), we will continue to talk about why you need to read only works of considerable length.

To penetrate the grammatical setting of the author.

What I have said about the repetitiveness and predictability of the author's vocabulary can also be fully said of his grammar in a particular work. From the beginning of the work to the end, the author’s favourite grammatical patterns are repeated many times. Thus, the literary work can be considered a giant illustration of grammar in the studied language—at least a significant part of the grammar. In another work by the same author, his use of grammar—and, of course, vocabulary—may be somewhat different. A person changes over time. The way he thinks changes, and accordingly, his use of language changes, too. Therefore, works written by the same author in different periods of his life may be written quite differently.

Why do I mention this? Because most of the time, all of an author’s stories are grouped together in one book, though the stories were written in different periods of his life. There’s really no way around this; it’s just the way things are.

When you begin to read such a collection of short stories, a holistic contextual setting does not take shape for you. The stories differ in vocabulary, grammar, rhythm and mood, not to mention the different realities in the various stories. You are just beginning to enter one realm of reality and experience it, taste it, and then it ends and another begins, then a third and so on until the end of the book.

This kind of broken rhythm wrecks your language ‘breathing’ (runners know what I mean) and significantly complicates your progress. Of course, this kind of reading is also beneficial, but why place more obstacles on your path when there are plenty of them in your study of a foreign language already?

So, if at all possible, avoid reading short stories. It’s ironic, but short stories are much more difficult than novels that consist of hundreds of pages. Besides, there are other factors that make reading novels more preferable than reading short stories.

Writers lay it on thick in the beginning.

Virtually all writers complicate—’thicken’—their vocabulary and grammar in the first pages of their works. With a big ladle, they scoop from the very bottom of the soup pot, so to speak, generously
48 dumping the thickest stuff on the first few pages. Are they doing this deliberately, trying to show us their immensely broad vocabularies, brilliant, complex grammar and unparalleled encyclopaedic knowledge? Or is it possible that there are some other subconscious motivations and ambitions? Who knows? The point is that the most difficult pages to read and understand are those first initial pages.

When we finally are able to fight through these first pages, we are surprised and pleased to notice that our seasoned, mighty author has run out of steam, the ‘forest’ has become less dense and we are able to move through it much easier. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about short stories because there, all of the pages are first pages. Short stories are almost entirely composed by writers laying it on thick. There is not enough room for the inevitable dilution of the language to take place after those dense first pages.

Of course, we cannot blame the authors for the way short stories are constructed because this is simply the format of how they are written. These are the rules of the literary game. The story is supposed to be short—it’s a short story. It is doubtful that the writers thought (except, perhaps, Agatha Christie), that their works would be used by us in language study. Most likely, they did not at all suspect that they would be writing for those reading their works as a foreign language. Therefore, we generously forgive them.

The effect of a psychological gold star.

By comparison with a novel, a short story isn’t very significant and is psychologically light. After you and I read a short story, we don’t quite experience the sweet taste of victory. A short story is too light for that. The same thing happens when we read two or three stories or even an entire book of short stories. Psychologically, when you add small values, you still get a small value.

Of course, this has nothing to do with mathematics. We are talking precisely about adding up psychological values. The psychological effect of reading a whole work of 200 pages is not the same as the psychological effect of reading 70 short stories at three pages long each.

After you have read a large work—a book!—you can pat yourself on the back (well deserved, I must say!), you start respecting yourself, and you can give yourself a shiny gold star. However, if you read a couple of hundred short stories that are equal to or even larger than the size of a ‘gold-star potential’ book, you’ll never feel like you earned a gold star. Your subconscious will repeat over and over to you that you have read nothing more than a bag of air. Surely, the significance of any positive psychological reinforcement during the difficult task of taming a foreign language cannot be overemphasised! A short story won’t get you a psychological gold star, no sir! Believe me, your renowned granter of gold stars!

Rule number three for successful reading:

Extremely minimise your use of a dictionary.

You must consider the use of a dictionary a necessary evil. Don’t reach for a dictionary on every occasion and without a real reason to—it distracts you from the main thing, reading. Using a dictionary always breaks your concentration on the text, forcing you to carry out a purely mechanical action: you take out a dictionary, open it to the correct page, search for the right word and choose from the list of meanings that might work in this context. You may well spend a few precious minutes on one word. These minutes could be used on something much more beneficial—like continuing to read, for example.

I know how you are so tempted to rebel, my dear friend! No need to deny it—I’ve studied you well. Under your breath, you want to ask me, ‘What do you do with a word you’ve never met before?’ Is it really so necessary for you to know the meaning of that very word? Will some kind of catastrophe take place if you miss that word and calmly continue reading?

‘What!? Let it go? After all, the whole purpose of reading is to figure out the meaning of absolutely every word in the text, without exception, isn’t it!?’

No need to shout, my dear sir! I have excellent hearing—at least when I want to. I wonder where you’re getting those… er… interesting thoughts from. Don’t answer. My question is, of course, purely rhetorical. I know very well what it’s in your mind and where it came from. Many, many years ago, my young head, still covered with golden curls, was full of the same comical ideas, and I had to beat them out of my head quite a few times, sometimes with a two-by-four (just kidding, don’t you worry!).

So let’s go back to my question: do you really need to know the precise meaning of a particular word? Let's take a close look at it.

‘Sherlock Holmes hid behind a ______ bush.’ Perhaps it’s a big bush… though it’s possible that it’s a small bush (incidentally, there is a similar example in a book by Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb, which was very beneficial to me many years ago when I first started to study foreign languages). Does it really have any significance for the development of the plot? The plot will not suffer in any way if the missed word means ‘wet’, ‘thorny’, ‘rose’, ‘scratchy’, ‘clipped by the Japanese gardener’ or anything else, for that matter. So you killed a few minutes rummaging in the dictionary to find the meaning of a word that is completely unnecessary for the development of the plot. The issue here is not about losing a few minutes’ time but about the fact that during this time your focus goes astray from staying in the language, which is very difficult to establish initially and then once again restore after such setbacks.

Let’s take another passage: ‘Sherlock Holmes tightened like a steel spring and ______ onto the vile villainous village villain. They became tangled up in a tight ball and rolled down a hill overgrown with thorns.’

Does it matter whether Sherlock Holmes ‘jumped’, ‘threw himself’, or ‘shot like a bullet’? It makes absolutely no difference. From the context, it is clear as day that the missed word is a verb and cannot mean anything besides a quick movement or just movement in general. So why waste time digging around in a dictionary? After all, Sherlock really needs your help at this very moment! So roll down the slope along with him and help him out with a few good punches to the ugly and repulsive villain rather than poking around in the dictionary trying to find a word that is so completely useless at this fateful moment!

Here’s another example we’re already familiar with: ‘Sherlock Holmes snatched from his pocket a ______ with the hammer cocked.’ From the greater context, we already know that this is not some new sci-fi weapon that runs on compressed gravitons or a light sword borrowed by the hero from Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader but obviously some kind of firearm corresponding to the period that easily fits into Sherlock’s pocket. So is it really that important for us to know whether it’s a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol? I am confident that the vast majority of female readers—and a certain number of male readers—have no idea what the difference is between the two objects. That did not prevent them, however, from perfectly understanding Sherlock Holmes’ adventures and enjoying them.

Let us now digress from our exciting adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the no-less-captivating adventures of Harry Potter, whom we all are so fond of.

‘Harry Potter, in pursuit of the evil Lord Vladimir, walked down the path, almost completely overgrown with Alyssibian Stiphelfugh. Under his breath, he softly hummed fashionable spells and carelessly waved his magic wand, turning Alyssibian Stiphelfugh into Non-Alyssibian. Night was falling. In the air, a flock of furred Guppogloff circled. Evidently their nest was somewhere nearby’.

Are you absolutely sure that you need to know exactly what Alyssibian Stiphelfugh are and how they differ from Non-Alyssibian? Why? Are you planning to grow Alyssibian Stiphelfugh in your garden?
But maybe it is vital for you to know what the furred Guppogloff are? Well, of course, you are very intrigued by the phenomenon of furred Guppogloff nesting in the early season of devilry and witchcraft at Malfoy Manor. In this case, my enchanted sir, you just need to dig in dictionaries to find the most accurate definition for Alyssibian Stiphelgloff, pardon me, Alyssibian Stiphelfugh!

Or will you still continue the pursuit of the elusive Vladimir not distracted by insignificant details that by and large are irrelevant to successfully catching the fast-moving Lord? Only you can decide and no one else...

By the way, how well do you understand—really understand!—the words of your native language, with which you were born, grew up and now live with? Language is by far the most essential and integral part of who you are, yet do you really understand every word? Really? I'm fairly certain that you do not understand a large number of words used in the incessant television programs and radio talk shows that aren’t necessarily geared toward intellectuals. The same goes for all the newspapers that you incessantly read, and I’m not even talking about the thousands of words of special terminology used in many areas of science and technology, the meanings of which you cannot even attempt to guess.

I am positive that quite often, you habitually only hear an empty sound, a sound shell of a word, or see its external, visible image without understanding its real meaning. However, you also routinely disregard this lack of understanding and casually cast the misunderstood word to the side.

By no means is this a malicious or unprovoked attack on you, my unnecessarily offended friend. It is but a simple assertion of the indisputable fact that no one can know every word, even from his own language, not to mention the foreign language. We only are familiar with the language waters in which we are constantly swimming, and not those in which we are immersed only from time to time.

The fact is, when we hear and see words and don’t know the meaning of some of them, the brain evaluates the situation and decides whether to exert more energy to figure out the exact meaning of these words. In many cases, the brain decides (almost without our conscious participation) that it’s not worth the effort, that the tough word occurs so rarely that the exertion of energy to find the exact meaning and remembering it won’t pay off. The word is given the status of a non-priority and thrown in the kitchen drawer of your head with other undigested words.

Does this vocabulary filter exist from birth? No, it doesn’t; this skill is not innate but acquired. We learn to evaluate words in terms of their importance in the same way that we learn to walk and talk, over the course of many years or even a lifetime. We must learn a similar type of filtering in the process of learning a foreign language, but the process will be more compressed in time because now we will be doing it consciously and with discipline—as befits an adult.

My words do not mean, however, that you will never discover the meaning of absolutely all the words that you missed during those times of reading with minimal use of a dictionary, which I so strongly recommend (and not only I but also all those who understand something about studying foreign languages).

These secondary and tertiary words will only be incomprehensible to you during the initial period of reading. With constant, diligent reading, the meaning of most of these words will come to you gradually, but steadily, every day, every hour and even every minute, they will be opening up to you. You’ll read a book, then three, then ten, twenty, a hundred…. At first, you'll only grasp the lexical and grammatical skeleton of the book, only what is most important for understanding the simple plot. But then this skeleton will inevitably grow vocabulary flesh, components, nuances, colours, undertones and hints—all that makes up a real, living, pulsating language. One after another, faster and faster, the words will fall into your precious piggybank and continue to fill it up. This is loads of fun, I tell you!

Your piggybank will soon be filled to the brim, and then you, my dear sir, will perhaps remember your humble servant and say to yourself that, after all was said and done, he was right! Oh, how correct he was in all his paradoxical assertions! I shouldn’t have taken offense to him!

And I will quietly smile to you in reply, stirring hot chocolate with a silver spoon in my favourite cup and listen to the snowflakes slowly twisting and turning and falling, falling, falling outside the window of my snow-covered hut…

I will summarise what has been said so far about reading:

− Only read what really interests you;
− Only read good-sized books; and
− Try to use the dictionary as little as possible.

Of course, you should not read on a computer monitor but on good old paper—it’s much, much easier to read books of paper rather than on ‘advanced’ electronic screens, and your vision will be preserved, too.

And here’s one more tip for reading and understanding a foreign language in general: by all means, try to grasp the logical and complete flow of information. Usually the author is trying to tell you something. Literary works are very rarely incoherent gibberish. You won’t be reading that type of literature—I hope. At least not at the very beginning of your journey.

You are reading—in your studied language, of course—something like: ‘The man behaved and looked as if he were doing time. Maybe even more than once. All the extensive experience that Sherlock Holmes possessed told him about this’.

Your first reaction might be confusion and anger—this is not the right genre, and we’re not talking about Harry Potter and his buddy Vladimimort, who both could easily alter time, acting within the defined borders of the type of genre given to us by the author. But in this type of literature (Sherlock Holmes), no one should be flying on a broom and waving magic wands. You don’t understand the passage, although you very well know the meaning of the individual words ‘do’ and ‘time’. However, by this time, you should also already know that a word in any language very often has quite different meanings. Sometimes dozens of meaning. So don’t despair. Just remember that this passage must have some meaning, but you haven’t yet grasped it, so just keep reading.

‘Sherlock opened his address book. Yes, of course! The incomparable insight of Sherlock Holmes didn’t let him down yet another time. An old jailbird and complete scoundrel. Of course he did time! Three years in London, two in Stockholm and one year in terrible Pebble Beach. But this time he won’t get off so easy! For this horrible crime, he’ll get ten years—no less!’

I think that the first passage should now be clear and understandable for you. It makes total sense now. ‘Doing time’? Undoubtedly, this expression here means ‘to spend time in prison’.
The second passage, which is the key to the first, doesn’t necessarily have to follow it immediately. It could also appear within a couple of sentences or even one, two, five or more pages later. Keep reading in search of clues, and you will find them.

For some reason, during the height of the Gorbachev’s unforgettable Perestroika, I managed to read a rather lengthy book—hundreds of pages—about the Soviet Army. I don’t remember the title exactly—something like Engineer Battalion or 100 Days before the Order Was Given. This wasn’t Plutarch, of course, but it described the final weeks of the main character’s service in some kind of engineering unit—his job was to clean military outhouses, if I’m not mistaken.

Throughout the entire book, for the life of me, I could not figure out the meaning of one word that was constantly used by the soldiers. And I also served in the military and was quite familiar with the contextual setting and the terminology of military service. I only came to understand the meaning of that word when I reached the last few lines of the book and got the key to the code! I needed the entire context of the book, its entire contextual field, to put together the necessary key and finally decode the meaning of this maddening, stubborn word, and I read the book in my own mother tongue!

Always seek the meaning and logic… and, my dear sir, ye shall find…

What I’ve said about reading to this point can basically be applied to developing your understanding of the foreign language from hearing. Watch and listen to things that are interesting to you. Soak up stuff that interests you in big quantities. Create a working contextual setting. What helps is to watch television series with leading characters that continue from one show to the next (in documentaries, the same narrator). Naturally, every character will be consistent in his vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. The characters of the series maintain certain relationships with each other, and we become quite good at being able to guess their reactions to various situations, including their verbal responses. It will be rather easy for you to guess what’s going on. Therefore, don’t go running for a dictionary every time you hear an unfamiliar word.

And don’t watch those television series with subtitles—subtitles only mess up your concentration and hinder your perception! It is mandatory to avoid subtitles! I’m talking about any kind of subtitles—in the foreign language or in your native language.

Anticipating your natural reaction, I will explain. I’m not at all advising you to watch Latin-American soap operas. You can find rather decent and even good-quality series to match any taste: war, comedy, fantasy, detective, etc.

But if you’re only crazy about soap operas, then by no means should you force yourself to watch documentaries about the mysteries of the Qumran manuscripts, throwing Diego along with Louisa to the capriciousness of fate!

Watch around a dozen series episodes with minimal breaks in between them, and you’ll be amazed at how much you understand! And after that, you can finally reward yourself by leafing through a thick dictionary or grammar book!

There are many good documentaries in foreign languages about nature, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love these kinds of films. They are equally liked by us and fans of soap operas. There’s something that draws us to the lives of sharks, ants and the coral reefs of Polynesia (Is it the beauty of sunsets? The purpose and clear logic of the ‘characters’’ lives? The complete absence of young girls standing at the bus stop at 7:0 in the morning with an opened beer can in their hands and peacefully cussing up a storm among themselves?) Who knows…?

One way or another, these films are great study aids for learning a foreign language. Because of their entertainment value and their high density of language usage—the commentator talks continually, but that is exceptionally useful for us, much more useful than some action movie where the main character can crush everything in sight without saying a word for what seems the entire length of the movie. So butterflies and lizards can give us a whole lot more vocabulary and grammar than the muscled bunch of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis and of course, the one and only Arnold. So…

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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 21

Intensity, or Matches Burnt To No Avail

Sustained intensity of effort plays a decisive role in the study of a foreign language. This intensity must be maintained for a sufficient length of time and must not fall below a certain critical level. This may be compared to making fire from friction.

You position a stick into an opening in a piece of wood, press it between your palms and begin to rotate it. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that your initial attempts are conducted correctly: the wood is the right type and suitably dry, the stick is the correct width and length and, so to say, all systems are ‘go’. Apparently, all that is necessary for success is present. You rotate the fire-stick with discipline and consistency. You do about ten rotations and then take a well-deserved two- or three-minute break. Then another ten rotations and another break. In this way, the day is spent, and you go off to sleep. You’re tired but satisfied and full of determination to continue your labours. In the morning, you begin the exact same procedure—exactly like the first day. The second day passes, then a week, and then a month…

I don’t think I need to explain that you could keep yourself busy with this type of fire-starting for years and even decades without the slightest chance of success. But, of course, you already know all this, my shrewd reader. What’s missing in this whole process is the critical element of intensity. There must be an intensity or focus that does not fall below a certain critical level within a given period. While you are relaxing, the wood is cooling down and you have to start from the beginning every time. Doesn’t this remind you of your efforts at studying a foreign language? Years and years of persistent but ‘cold’, fruitless work. All your discipline, all your labours—all in vain. And this is all because of the absence of this necessary component—a sufficient amount of intensity in your efforts that will bring success.

A few more examples: water will not start boiling unless the temperature reaches the necessary level. If you desire tea with your favourite blueberry danish and want to boil the kettle, you do not bring the water temperature up to 80 degrees Celsius and then proceed to turn off the gas and postpone completing the process until tomorrow. In the morning, the water will be cold again in the kettle.

Holding a lit match up to a steel bar will not make it melt. Of course, you can try for years and years, displaying admirable perseverance and hard work, but I’d venture to suggest that the results will be
43 very disappointing. It’s the same with the conventional long-term ‘study’ of a foreign language. The physiological reactions of language ‘ignition’ in your head don’t start and cannot start because the temperature in the core doesn’t reach the proper level. And even if it does, it is only for short intervals of time, insufficient to start a chain reaction. From the outset, an imperfect, low-level intensity will determine your inevitable failure...

How about we go and have a cup of tea, my dear sir? The shadows of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas have lengthened and cover the cosy courtyard of our monastery with their reaching hands, covering us as well. Our fascinating conversation has made us forget our traditional tea with lotus petals, collected from a glittering dew-drenched spring morning in the secret valleys of a mysterious and distant country. Alas, this is an unpardonable blunder on our part. We will continue our conversations later. They’re not going anywhere...

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

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 20

Interference, or Rearing to Go

For the overachievers—which I was many, many years ago—and those who are burning with a desire to study two to three languages simultaneously, I must say just a few words about the so-called ‘interference’ among languages. There’s no need to sigh and look at the clock, my dear friend—this will take two, three minutes, maximum.

The word ‘interference’ has to do with the influence of a different language on the language you happen to be studying at the time. If you are studying two or more languages at the same time, mutual interference is happening between the two languages. To be precise, it’s not that the languages are influencing each other; rather, they are influencing you and the process of how you master the studied languages.

Most often, this is evident when you want to say a word or phrase, say in German, but it comes out involuntarily in French, and vice versa. This not only carries over to vocabulary but also to grammatical constructions. Interference is a peculiar obstacle that languages place on the path of studying of other languages. This phenomenon has been known for ages, and we won’t discuss it long. I only want to say that, if anyone desires to study more than one language at a time, then this phenomenon definitely needs to be taken into consideration so that you choose the studied languages in a way that minimises this undesirable occurrence.

Interference is especially strong among related languages but can be disregarded when studying languages that are sufficiently diverse. You can bravely take on German and, say, French or something like Japanese, with no fear of any serious interference. But if it’s French and Spanish (or Italian), then there’s no way to avoid this obstacle. Norwegian and German—problems. Italian and Portuguese—problems. French and Chinese—no problems!

That’s about all I wanted to mention about interference. And now, applying the aforementioned principles, quickly go and choose two or three languages for yourself, and we’ll meet back here in a year or two—I’ll be waiting…

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

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 19

Warm-up Exercises and Pressure Points

There are a variety of things to work on now: reciting the matrix dialogues, speaking and listening or reading in the foreign language. Before doing any of these, I recommend doing some special warm-up exercises. These types of exercises are widely used in foreign language institutes as well as for actors in the process of establishing their professional voices or immediately before going on stage.

These exercises constitute a kind of massage or energetic rubbing of the lips, cheeks, eyebrows and also the ears—especially the earlobes. A massage of the ears—often including some really sharp slaps—is quite common, not for actors but for boxers a few seconds before they step into the ring (their trainers do this since the boxers' hands are already covered with gloves). The goal is to increase the inflow of blood to the brain and to activate the pressure points that are located in the earlobes, as well.

You should also do some stretches for the lips—something like a scowl that turns into a supersized, ‘plastic’ American smile. You should also do some energetic circular movements with the tongue inside the mouth cavity to stretch out your lips and cheeks from within.

All these exercises should produce a general sense of warmth in the area of the face and take no more than a minute or two.

Now, even though I'm talking about these exercises as warm-up activities, that doesn't mean they're only necessary during the winter when it's 40 degrees below zero—do them even if the thermometer outside your window reads 80 or 90 degrees. Whenever you study your language, begin with these exercises, and do them occasionally even during your lessons. Try not to do this for show or it may seem to those around you that your mental health has severely cracked and they end up putting you into a straightjacket and sending you away to recover.

A massage of the biological pressure points of the face occasionally needs to be done during the lessons—every 30 to 40 minutes, with special emphasis on the earlobes and around the eyebrows. This will help alleviate fatigue and heighten the ability to concentrate, which cannot be overestimated in the study of a foreign language.

By the way, it is well known that the scratching of the back of our head, forehead, nose, chin and so on that we do during difficult moments of contemplation, is nothing other than the unconscious reflexive activation of our body's pressure points. Studying a foreign language is one nonstop taxing moment on the brain, which is accustomed to laziness and passivity.

Let these exercises, deliberately carried out by you, my dear friend, be your secret weapon against this obstinate—in the beginning!—foreign language.

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

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 18

Counting Crows In Life

The brain is constantly seeking newer and newer irritants. That's the way we are wired. But that's just half the trouble. What's worse is that we can't focus our attention on anything for very long. Or at least it's awfully difficult to do so. Like a lewd man chasing any new skirt, our brain is uncontrollably drawn to new or just fresh impressions.

While sitting in class, the teacher's loud voice will hold our attention for a time, but then any random distraction begins to predominate. A fly shows up in class—our attention is drawn toward it. Someone sneezes—our attention goes toward that. There's some movement outside the window— our glance, like a magnet, is drawn to that place where crows, the inescapable companions of every student, are doing their thing. We think for a while about them... but even the crows don't hold our attention for long. We abandon the crows and their fussing and return to the buzzing fly, then to the buzzing teacher, then to the sneezing, the sniffling or creaks and again back to the cawing crows outside the window. Often, our eyes meaninglessly cast themselves upon the posters and charts and various scientific propaganda covering the walls, causing to well up in us a perplexing light nausea. Our attention grabs on to one thing and then another and then a third, not focusing on any one thing very long. It continues on its customary circle, otherwise known as boredom.

Yes, sir and my dear friend! This is your primary enemy! The main problem that needs to be dealt with when studying a foreign language is the quandary of your attention being scattered; of overcoming the difficulty of prolonged concentration on any task, especially on those endeavours that require significant intellectual effort. Focusing your attention is by far the greatest difficulty you face, much greater than difficulties with memorising words or grammar rules. Compared to this central strategic problem, all other problems and difficulties—in essence, tactical difficulties—take a back seat. If we can manage to deal with this problem, all the remaining tasks will fall into place.

In what way will we deal with this problem of our wandering attention? Thank you for another interesting question, my thoughtful friend! I will attempt to answer it succinctly and to the point—as always.
In the first stage, we will solve this problem through a merciless assault on our brains with endless repetitions of the matrix dialogues pumped through the headphones. Attempts by our brain to sabotage our listening by lulling us to sleep will be neutralised through walking or some similar type of physical activity. Subsequent reading in a clear, loud voice is undoubtedly a form of physical activity, and as a result, the problem with our attention will not emerge.

The problem with our attention most often takes place while reading or watching films. To some degree, this can be resolved by choosing interesting materials to read and view. You must only read books and watch films that ignite in you a genuine interest. If you enjoy detective books and films, read detective books and watch detective films. If you like reading romance novels with muscular hunks on the cover, read them! Yes, ma’am!

No one has the right to tell you what you should read in your studied language! If you have a weakness for stuffy, high-minded literature, then read stuffy, high-minded literature! If you have a tendency toward gutter press of the lowest level, then read it! Just don't tell anyone! Just read it! We'll just let it be our own little secret! There's just one rule here: read a lot and enjoy it!

The key word here is ‘mileage’. You must read miles and miles of pages in your studied language! All that I have mentioned above goes for films, too, thanks to the fact that a large number of films can be obtained (regular films and documentaries) according to your interests: war, history, religion, fantasy, geography, nature, science, etc., all in your target language, of course...

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