Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 13

Listening and Reciting, or Alzkwite

The initial several days of listening will serve as a breach of the first lines of defence of our brain—our ‘habitual self’. Our brain is trying to defend itself from the invasion of an alien—another language. We must expose our ears and the brain centres that control the hearing to the constant pressure of speech in the target language. Not two or three times of listening (and certainly not once, as is often practiced!) to the dialogue, but many days of listening—daily for at least three hours. I'll explain the technical aspects of this kind of listening later.

The fact is, with one, two, three or even twenty times of listening, you are not even hearing what you're listening to. At this point, we’re not even talking about understanding but just a basic recognition of the sound units of the foreign language. In our brains, there is no program that allows them to recognise the sounds of a foreign language that are significantly distinct from the phonetics of its native language.

Almost always in such cases we hear only a strange noise and not a chain of recognisable phonemes. Often, the brain slips us phantom sound images. We think that we are hearing familiar words or sounds, which is not true. For example, when I hear the Uzbek language, which is completely unfamiliar to me, sometimes I could swear that I can make out some English words or even whole phrases, although I absolutely know for sure that it can’t be, and I know for certain that my hearing is picking up phantom sound images.

The goal is to hear, to learn to hear the alien elements of the new language. The challenge is to force our brains to overcome their resistance and to develop a program to accept and recognise the alien phonemes of the new language.

Initially, you will listen to the matrix dialogue ‘blind’ for two or three days, without any attempt to read along with the text or to imitate the speaker. The fact is that how sounds in any language are reflected on paper is rather conditional (in various languages to various degrees). The gap between what you hear and what you see will be quite confusing to you and will be a strong hindrance to really hearing the sounds of the foreign language.

Often and in normal everyday speech, we almost always say one thing and write something else entirely different. A few examples in English:

We say for ‘give me’—’gimme’, for ‘What’s up’—’whassup’, for ‘president’—’prezdnt’, for ‘governor’— ’govner’, ‘talking’—’tawkn’, ‘What did you say?’—’Whajse?’... and countless other examples, which even the thickest of books could not contain. This happens with varying degrees of severity with the all words in your mother tongue or any language, and not just with words but with various word combinations, as well.

When people take on the challenge of studying a foreign language, the rules of phonetics and spelling, which differ from those of their mother tongue, seem incredibly complex and illogical. In response to the protests of my American students, I would say (not without pleasure, I must add!) that all these difficulties were specifically invented by the KGB and the Politburo and personally approved by Comrade Stalin to cause torment. (Incidentally, the fact that virtually all Russian language textbooks for foreigners begin with the insanely difficult word ‘zdravstvuyte’ (hello) raises some questions. What effect did these reverent textbook authors want to have on the poor foreigners, zealous to master the Russian language, studying textbooks made in this way? It makes you think about whether I was that far from the truth with my KGB joke.

But let us now finish our excursion concerning the phonetics of the Russian language and return to our main topic.

Our first task is to listen for many hours over several days until we come to a complete or nearly complete hearing-recognition of all the sound elements of the dialogue in a normal speech pattern. Of course, for this kind of serious listening, there will be some very serious technical and physiological obstacles. We will talk about how to overcome these obstacles later.

You must not be frightened by the words ‘several days’. This will only occur in the beginning of your learning the foreign language. The process will speed up after that in accordance with how quickly the sounds and harmonies of the new language become, if not native, then ordinary and familiar.

From blind listening, you will transition to listening to the very same dialogue while simultaneously following the text with your eyes. At first, the speaker will get ahead of you. This is normal because you'll be delayed, clinging to individual words, trying to match the printed image of words with the corresponding sound elements.

We must bear in mind that the discrepancy in different languages between words in print and their actual sound has varying degrees of severity. In German, for example, or Spanish, the gap between writing and sounds is quite small—though in those languages, of course it exists! In English, it reaches absolutely fantastic dimensions. The British themselves joke about this (oh, that incomparable English humour!)—in English they write ‘Manchester’ and say ‘Liverpool’!

I have to say that this joke is not that far from the truth. In English, you will at first be appalled by the large number of letters that seem to have absolutely no relationship to the pronunciation of a particular word, as well as a seemingly endless succession of exceptions. But this is only in the beginning. With the right approach, you can learn to read even English very quickly.

If you persistently keep listening and then continue to listen while following along with the text, you will become accustomed to and eventually firmly associate the visible ‘word clothes’ on the page with the sounds hidden beneath these ‘clothes’. Then you will begin to notice a desire to speak, to imitate the speech of the speaker. This is apparent by the involuntary movement of your lips. This means that you are ready to speak.

Start reading (without simultaneously listening, of course), but do not try to read everything at once, all in one bite. Begin to read, starting with individual words and phrases. Don’t hurry to swallow big hot spoonfuls of porridge, so to speak. Remove it from the dish carefully, in small portions, from the edge where it is not so hot. Do not be afraid occasionally to go back for more listening; sometimes, you will need to do this. Initially, after the first period of listening, you may think you are ripe for reading aloud, but your attempts show that you’re not quite ready and some elements of the dialogue require additional prolonged listening. Come back if you need to; that’s normal.

Never read in a whisper or an undertone! Developing your pronunciation in this way is self-deception and pure illusion. The muscle-memory for articulation is not produced by whispering! This is the same as learning to box, imagining as you throw irresistible punches at the face of Mike Tyson, from which he falls flat on the mat, spitting part of an ear out of his mouth, and begins to sob like a baby at your feet saying, ‘Don’t hit me again, mista!’ As they say, dream on!

Or try to gently hum a melody, some Rigoletto aria. Aren’t you starting to get the feeling that you’re not doing too badly, almost like some opera singer! Ok, now perform the same melody, but in a full voice and preferably in the presence of a large number of friends and acquaintances. What do you think their reaction will be to your ... er ... song? Loud applause? Cries of ‘Bravo!’ from the audience? That’s a bit hard for me to believe...

In his Book of Five Rings the famous Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi likes to quote an old saying: ‘He who is able to do more is also able to do less.’ I must say that this quote describes very well my recommendation to read the matrix dialogues very loudly, very well, indeed!

When reading, you must do so only very loudly! Moving from loud speaking to quiet is quite easy and simple, but the transition from quiet speaking to loud while maintaining proper pronunciation is very, very difficult and perhaps even impossible. In establishing correct pronunciation, this rule is not just extremely important but foundational! In this very manner, an actor develops his professional voice.

I repeat again:

You must read your matrix dialogue exclusively in a very loud voice!

From an inarticulate stutterer to a brilliant orator, Demosthenes did it in this very way, through loud articulation (close to the level of screaming). Don’t forget that, even if becoming a new Demosthenes is not included in your plans!

Schliemann intuitively discovered this idea of loud language reading or reciting. This very same immovable Schliemann dug up Troy for us, guided by The Iliad of Homer. He learned to speak dozens of languages, using a loud voice to recite texts in these languages, so we have a very worthy role model to imitate!

And do not forget to breathe! Yes, yes, breathe... that’s exactly what I wanted to say! When you begin to speak a foreign language, your breathing gets out of step. When articulating a non-native language, you must breathe in a different way. The diaphragm and lungs are using new algorithms that are significantly different from the old ones. You must realize this. If you become a bit short of breath while training on the matrix dialogues, it will only happen in the beginning. Gradually, your breathing should get in tune, and you will begin to breathe, well, in a foreign language…

As you begin to recite, break up the sentences into so-called ‘phonetic words’, which do not coincide with the lexical units in the printed form. A phonetic word consists of a long word that carries a stressed syllable along with adjacent words attached to it, often supplementary. It's kind of like a phonetic core to which are attached words, pronounced with less stress or almost not pronounced at all. Some words appear only on paper; they are not uttered at all, having completely dropped out of speech, unless it is some special, artificially articulated professional kind of speech.

Here is an example. Imagine you are a foreigner. Let’s take a phrase that you have already heard, ‘All was quiet and he liked it.’ Pronouncing this in full (don’t forget, you are a ‘foreigner’!) is extremely difficult. Because of this, we have to divide it up into the simple phonetic elements of which the phrase consists.

The reading should be done in a very energetic and loud voice. The phrase is divided into two phonetic words: ‘alwazquíet’ and ‘enhelíkedit’ separated (or connected, if you like) by a slight pause or ‘alzkwíte’ and ‘enhelíkedit’ at normal speed. Always start the reading part from the end. In our example, the end is the phonetic word ‘enhelíkedit’. The stressed syllable is ‘líked’. This is the phonetic centre of attraction around which is organized the entire phonetic word. Read it. Now let’s add the unstressed ‘it’ and we get ‘líkedit’. Let’s read that. Now we add another unstressed syllable ‘he’, and we get ‘helíkedit’. Read this combination. Add the last unstressed syllable ‘and’ and we get ‘enhelíkedit’, and accordingly, we read the phonetic word in its entirety. We read it until we can no longer make any improvement in the pronunciation. We have reached our peak.

After this, we go on to recite ‘alzkwíte’: ‘kwite’ (the stressed core) and then add, ‘alz’ to get ‘alzkwíte’. Then we connect ‘alzkwíte’ and ‘enhelíkedit’. Let’s read the whole phrase: ‘alzkwíteenhelíkedit’. Trying to achieve our best accent (Russian, English, French, Chinese, etc.), we shouldn’t forget the overall native intonation of the whole phrase, as well. The value of the intonation cannot be overstated. If the individual words are the bricks of a language, the intonation is the mortar that holds together the entire structure. Then we proceed to the next phrase of the dialogue, and so on. We continue to work through this string of ‘sound beads’ until we work through the whole dialogue from beginning to end.

Of course, you must remember the preliminary step: persistent listening to the whole dialogue and, naturally, our ‘alzkwíte’ phrases. Without this preliminary, extensive listening, you (a foreigner!) will not be able to discern or recognise any stressed syllables, or even more, the unstressed syllables, let alone the phonetic words. You won’t be able to hear anything at all except for disjointed sounds or non-existent phantom sounds and words that the brain obligingly presents as sounds you are expecting. The brain is simply functioning with the only program it has to recognise the sounds of its native speech.

I repeat once again that, when I am talking about extensive listening, I do not mean two or three times or even two or three hours but days and even weeks of three hours a day of pure listening, especially the first few dialogues! Hold your horses! This phase is crucial in establishing your pronunciation. Trying to cut corners and save time in this beginning stage (the value of which cannot be overstated) will cost you dearly in the future. If you allow coarse errors in establishing your pronunciation at this stage, they will remain with you forever and can be overcome only with very great difficulty. Moreover, this correction will never be complete.

One must also keep in mind that pronunciation is not just pronunciation but an indicator, as well, a visible marker of how strong the foreign language is being repelled, rejected by the person trying to learn, to absorb the language.

This is how we must approach the developing of the matrix of the reverse resonance for any foreign language, be it Spanish, Russian, Chinese or English.

Since in any language spelling does not match pronunciation, it follows that you must simply remember one cardinal rule: you need to listen over and over to foreign speech and accurately imitate it, including breaking it down into phonetic words. There is no other way to develop good pronunciation. At this stage, it is highly desirable to have the participation of a teacher who knows what he is doing.

By ‘the participation of a teacher’, I mean a teacher who is not spoiled by typical cynicism or the ‘traditional’, incorrect approach to foreign language study, one who follows the aforementioned algorithm I have taught you. Finding such a teacher will be rather complicated, if it is possible at all. Participation by a traditional (read ‘incompetent’ here) teacher is harmful and should be avoided, or at least one must approach such involvement with great caution. However, independent work leads to very good and even excellent results. I tell you this based not only on my own experience and my students’ experience but also on the experience of many other people who have followed this path intuitively even before this book was first published.

I was personally acquainted with one such intuitive Demosthenes type. It was a woman who spoke Russian with a beautiful, intelligent, ‘professor’ voice, although she was born in a small mountain village where she spent the first third of her life. When we became acquainted, I expressed my admiration for her ability to speak Russian so well and asked in which faculty she worked as a professor of Russian. She laughed and said that she studied Russian as a foreign language in an ordinary village school. Her native language, as it turned out, was one of the languages of the Caucasus. I said that there was no school in which one learns to speak as she spoke. She again laughed and said that, as a girl, she would go out to the fields and loudly recite—almost screaming— in Russian. I asked her whether she knew at the time of Demosthenes. She replied that no, of course, she did not know of him. Something inside of her just told her she needed to do that...

So, by all means, start with an immense amount of listening (until you are exhausted!) and then, loudly, very loudly, read what you have heard, breaking the phrases into their basic phonetic elements. Try to imitate the voice-actors of the dialogue (who absolutely must be native speakers) very closely, as close as possible.

Don’t despair if it seems you are unable to perfectly pronounce some elements. The main thing in pronunciation is the total collection of elements, and even not so much that but a correct overall intonation of the foreign language! Some elements of pronunciation are not of decisive importance and even tend, to a certain extent, to ‘ripen’ in the later stages of language learning. However, this does not negate the need for an absolutely honest (not honest for someone else but for you!) application of all possible efforts to perfect each element taken separately.

As you work through the first five to ten dialogues, you can take quite a long time, about a week or two or even more for each dialogue, but then the process can be sped up to four to five days on a dialogue, including listening and reading aloud. Exact figures here cannot really be given. Learning a foreign language is strictly individual. In large measure, this is inspiration, creativity, intuition and not an exact science, so do not be alarmed if the first and second dialogue take you up to 15 or 18 days each. Believe me, for your successful mastery of a foreign language, this is time well spent! When you have in this way worked through and read 25 to 30 (no need for more than 30) dialogues, you are ready to take the next step.

By the sweat of your brow, you have grown wheat, threshed the grain and milled flour. You have poured in water and added salt. Now begin to knead the dough from which you will bake your bread. This will happen soon, very soon! In the meantime, roll up your sleeves and start kneading dough without reprieve. It’s not bread quite yet, but bread it will be very soon...

Knead your ‘matrix’ dough. Read the matrix in a full voice, starting with the first dialogue and ending with the last without stopping. Once you’ve read the last one, go back to the first one again and work your way nonstop to the last one. You should not do more than three or four hours in one sitting because you can lose your voice, and then the matrix reading will need to stop to allow your voice to be restored. You can use some cold lozenges to diminish the impact on the throat. These are quite effective.

Shortly after the beginning of this matrix-meditative reading (20, 30 or 40 minutes into it), a warm feeling in the cheeks and lips may appear, a sign that everything is going along as it should. Continue reciting the full matrix for a month or two or three, after which you should be ready to transition to intensive reading with minimal use of a dictionary.

How do you properly define ‘working’ days, weeks and months? Thank you for asking a very interesting question!

According to my criteria, if you listen or read for ten minutes a day, that’s not a day. If you put headphones on your head for an hour or two (or even three), all the while watching television or simply sleeping, this is not a day. You have to open yourself to the foreign language or at least try to open yourself to it; you have to make an absolutely honest effort. You must be honest with yourself and with the language. A foreign language doesn’t tolerate deception. This is a daily test in which you cannot have a cheat sheet up your sleeve or look at the answer from your neighbour!

Regarding the amount of time you study, I suggest the following very conditional formula: 1,000/3/3,000

During the year, you have to work on the language at least a thousand hours, including at least 3,000 pages of reading in that language. It follows that you should listen or read about three hours a day. If you work on reading for two hours, then listen for one hour. If you read an hour, then listen for two. If you have enough energy for five or six hours of language study a day, do it. No terrible catastrophe will take place if by the end of the first year you have not read 3,000 pages in the target language but 5,000 or 10,000 pages.

‘Why a year and not three months or five years?’ Again, your question is right in the bull's eye!

Well, it’s determined by experience. After one year, a person possesses the language sufficiently well for normal everyday communication, reading original literature of medium complexity, and a decent understanding of television programs, radio and movies. After a year, the foreign language student goes, so to speak, to an operational level; he already possesses the language. At the same time, he is ready (and must!) improve this ownership. The crucial difference here between the initial and this advanced stage consists of the fact that the language is no longer completely foreign and is already becoming, to some extent, part of the new person.

Learning transitions to a new qualitative level. A self-sustaining reaction, so to speak, is beginning. You no longer need to apply the same high-level energy as you did in the beginning. You are surprised and pleased to notice that learning a foreign language has become natural. It's time to reap what you sowed with such difficulty a year ago...

On the other hand, the fact that I took a year as a basis for the calculations does not mean that you absolutely must follow this timetable. Nothing catastrophic will happen if you put together the matrix for six months or two to three years. A year is simply the amount of time that I believe should be a minimum in getting to a solid level of acquisition of the language while applying maximum effort to it.

In foreign language departments, students hit their peak at the third year of study and do not surpass this level at the fourth or even the fifth year of study. However, we can’t forget that these students are studying two contemporary languages simultaneously (I studied three), with many study subjects having no direct relation to the practical mastery of the target languages. The long summer holidays are also a serious hindrance.

You, however, will be working on a practical, concentrated mastery of the language that compresses the time that it takes actually to use the foreign language in real-life situations. At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, it takes about a year to attain practical mastery of a highly complex language (Russian, for example)—six hours of language study every day with an instructor in the classroom, plus a couple of hours of homework.

The most important thing for you is that, within a year, you completely prepare yourself for full personal communication with native speakers. Your ship can bravely come out of the comfortable harbour of the matrix of reverse resonance, out of the safe and habitual reading of hundreds and thousands of pages, from watching films and listening to the radio, into the rough waters of spontaneous personal communication with native speakers.

Rest assured that the ship you have built will be guided perfectly at the helm and withstand the pounding waves. And very soon, the yet inexperienced captain—you, my dear friend—will become a seasoned sea dog, calmly charting his course among the dangerous reefs, underwater currents and sudden squalls that every language is full of...

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

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