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]

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