Monday, November 3, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 15

To Mosquito or Not To Mosquito?

The first thing you want to do when you start listening to dialogues in a foreign language is to go over the parts that weren’t very clear. At first, it’s practically the entire dialogue. I have already explained the reasons for it, so I won’t cover it again.

To go back to the place that wasn’t clear, you need to stop the audio and find the exact spot on the recording. This is not really feasible with common audio programs. Neither the audio recordings nor the equipment they are used on will allow for it. You constantly miss the right places you are searching for, stopping too early or too late. At first, it may seem like an insignificant problem: why not spend a few moments searching? That may be true if you were to do it once or twice. However, during intensive, repetitive listening, when you have to perform this task hundreds and thousands of times, the problem becomes paramount.

You just can’t afford to waste your precious time and your intellectual energy on mechanical button-clicking and the never-ending search for the right place.

The point here is not so much the loss of time but the loss of concentration, which is vital. This concentration is very easy to break and hard to maintain. Staying focused on a foreign language is no simple task. The constant, annoying pressing of buttons and keys doesn’t assist in your concentration, to put it mildly, but only destroys it. This will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to find a needed spot on a cassette (on a CD, it’s basically impossible). If you’ve never attempted this, then I highly recommend that you give it a try—a good time is guaranteed.

No one does this very often, however. No one is that patient. Once you’ve tried it a couple of times and become convinced that the whole process is extremely inconvenient and laborious, you’ll throw up your hands and just try to move on. Language learning won’t forgive that. It’s pointless to imitate progress (especially in the very beginning) by just moving on, leaving out large portions of language material that you haven’t mastered. You can’t build your house on the sand. It’s useless to press on the gas if your wheels are helplessly spinning on the ice.

You’ll soon recognise this and cease your imitation of making progress. It’s a dead end. But these very same language course designers are guiding you into the dead end. They leave out necessary information, and their misguided instructions cause you to think that you can listen to a phrase, sentence or dialogue a couple of times and learn them thoroughly. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially regarding the need to utter what you hear. How can you correctly pronounce a phrase when you haven’t managed to really hear it?

But I have already spent enough time on courses and textbooks and even on the motives that drive the designers of these materials. It’s not worth going deeper into this quite inexhaustible and rather unpleasant topic.

The problem of searching for the right places in a dialogue is solved in the simplest and most effective manner through multiple recordings of the same dialogue so that the dialogue you’re working on ends and then begins again after a second. I used to record a single dialogue on one cassette—on both sides. With a player that switches over to the other side automatically, I had two-three hours of uninterrupted listening. Two batteries in my player and two in the charger, and I was set. These days, an ideal method for this kind of listening is through an MP3 player or even a mobile phone.

The dialogues for the MP3 player are prepared on a personal computer. You just need to obtain the appropriate program for processing audio, get a standard language study course that includes CDs, extract the audio from the CDs, record only the dialogues while tossing the extraneous chaff of directions, explanations, exercises and empty spaces before, after and within the dialogues. Finally, create MP3 files from the dialogues so that you can listen to them on your MP3 player.

The dialogue recordings must be clear and without any extraneous noise. Quite often, the designers of these courses end up recording noises in the background: street traffic, the clatter of dishes, creaking doors, honking cars, police sirens, helicopters hovering overhead and other sounds that only hinder you from hearing that which you really need to hear—foreign speech—especially in the early stage of study. After a couple of times of going through your listening, all these apparently benign everyday sounds will turn into genuine torture, comparable to some kind of Eastern torture of drops of water dripping on your head, especially after many repetitions of listening, which you must do if you want to succeed. Therefore, you must only use clear, clean dialogues—without honking cars and barking dogs.

I repeat once again—the essence of this approach lies in repetitive listening to a single matrix dialogue over and over again. All was quiet on the Western front. All was quiet on the Western front. All was quiet on the Western front. All was quiet on the Western front. All was quiet on the Western front. All was quiet on the Western front. (All was quiet on the Western front—this is our matrix dialogue in the foreign language, symbolically.) The recording should be void of any significant pauses (longer than two seconds) between the end of the dialogue and the beginning of the very same dialogue, and there should be no significant pauses within the dialogue. Standard language courses often have pauses within their recordings.

For example, almost in every standard language course, there is a recording that takes place in a restaurant and other dining establishment. The waitress takes an order, after which there is a considerable amount of time that is supposed to mean that during the pause the patron is eating his meal. After this very long and very dead pause, the waitress reappears and offers dessert or the check. What a ‘creative’ approach by the authors of the course, though! Yes, sir! Studying with these kinds of tortuous intentional pauses can only cause irritation and breaks in attention. Your humble servant and other fighters on the language front have often experienced this personally.

Right now, lying on my desk are eight matrix sets of dialogues ready to be listened to. It took me a reasonable amount of time to prepare them on my computer but quite a bit less time than I used to spend on this labour-intensive process before these language courses came out digitally.

One more word on the length of the recordings: I make MP3 files of 15 to 20 minutes in length per unit, but they can be made longer or shorter. Again, you will be able to determine the appropriate unit length once you get into your work mode. Make the first unit 20 minutes in length, work with it for a while, and the second one you can make 15 or 25 minutes or 13 and a half minutes. With the assistance of the continuous-play function on your player, you can play your dialogue continuously, isolating it from the mass of other recordings. You can also get rid of any unwarranted empty spots and other contorted and harmful ‘embellishments’.

The seams between the dialogues should be tight—all of your concentration must be on listening to the matrix dialogues and not on technical problems, whatever they may be. Remember that concentration on a foreign language is achieved with the greatest difficulty but is broken with the greatest ease. Our lazy brains are always looking for the slightest excuse, the slightest pretext, to wriggle out of any kind of work, especially from this difficult task of learning a foreign language. That’s the way it is…

You should listen to the dialogues with good headphones that do not simply fit into your ears but cover them completely—keeping out external sounds that hinder you from hearing the foreign speech. Listening on a stereo system in the car isn’t entirely useless, but it is ineffective. Peripheral sounds (including the strong background noise of your car moving along the road, which distorts many of the crucial voice frequencies in the dialogue), and the need to focus a large portion of your concentration—if not all your attention!—on the road only hinder your concentration. You should be listening to your recordings with the same intensity that you would give to your cell phone calls—no less. I strongly doubt that you’ll be able to master a foreign language from behind the wheel of a car, whatever the designers of these various Learn While You Drive language courses may say…

On paper, the dialogues in these standard courses are not in the ideal formats for optimal use. All of these flaws and rough edges can easily be remedied by retyping the dialogues into the appropriate formats. Here’s what you need to do: take out the hyphens in the middle of phonetic words. Retype the texts so that the simple sentences are not separated in the middle of a word between lines. In the compound sentences, you can transfer the dependent clauses, but definitely as a whole, without breaking apart the phonetic words.

And of course, the entire dialogue should fit on to one page so that, in the process of reading, you are not required to turn feverishly from one page to another. You have more important things to do than that, like studying a language, for example. These absolutely mindless and unwarranted transfers of your vision only cause your concentration to stray. This can only be explained by sheer negligence and a general lack of understanding of how to teach a foreign language on the part of the creators of these courses! Shall we eliminate these flaws? Let’s eliminate them...

All of the numbers in the dialogues should be written out with words. When you are trying to read numbers, there is often a hesitation, which is totally natural. How are you supposed to know how to pronounce numbers in a strange language? What is unnatural is this approach, this completely mindless negligence toward us that, year after year, decade after decade, migrates from textbook to textbook. An insignificant problem? But why even have insignificant problems at all when they can so easily be removed?

All of these ‘insignificant’ issues can be compared to a few small ‘insignificant’ rocks in your shoe when you jog or a few ‘insignificant’ mosquitoes that begin to hover over you just when you turn out the lights, close your eyes and try to see your favourite dreams. My dear friend, at that moment, I don’t think the mosquito issue seems so insignificant to you; otherwise, why would you violently jump out of your warm, cosy bed, turn on the light, vindictively clench your teeth and make a vain attempt to find and mercilessly destroy these hateful creatures that are robbing you of your nocturnal solitude and sweet dreams…?

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

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