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]

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