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]

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