Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 16

Peripatetics and Drowsiness

There is another highly important reason that you must only read the matrix dialogues in a loud voice. When you read aloud in a full voice, you won't get sleepy or start nodding off. Yes, yes! Don’t be too quick to chuckle, my dear friend! This is a really serious factor that has a huge influence in the study of a foreign language, but it’s as if everyone has agreed not to pay attention to it. Preventing drowsiness is completely impossible when studying a foreign language traditionally. Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows this only too well.

During the process of learning a foreign language, drowsiness has nothing to do with laziness, lack of ability, discipline or other similar traits that are often considered embarrassing.

I'll share a little secret with you: when you are working through the process of learning a foreign language, drowsiness is just one of the many tricks that your brain plays on you, trying in any way it can (and it has quite an imagination for achieving its unrighteous goals!) to derail the learning of this alien language.

Your brain quietly but firmly sabotages the orders of your will, and very often (almost always), your brain succeeds in this. What do you do, my unusually not-so-sleepy-at-the-moment friend, when you are reading some foreign text or grammar or listening to a language recording and suddenly you feel the warm waves of tiredness washing over you? You fiercely say to yourself, ‘Don’t sleep!’ You stand up and stretch. Then you go over to the sink and splash some cold water on your face. You gulp down some coffee or tea or cola. You start to walk around. And, well, you even fall into bed and drift off to sleep.

In all of these cases, you are doing exactly what your despicable saboteur-brain wants you to do: you’re stopping any activity that is unpleasant for your brain. You distract yourself with some other activities that don't require any real mental efforts from you. By doing all of these things, you give in and give up, defeated in the struggle against your lazy but extremely cunning and resourceful enemy.

‘Well, what can we do about it?’ you ask in perplexity, my friend. ‘After all, it’s impossible to fight against this kind of internal terrorism!’ Allow me to disagree with you right now: this must be and truly can be successfully combated. How exactly do you do it? How? Read on, of course…

When you are listening for many hours to a matrix dialogue, there are two very effective ways to combat drowsiness:

1. Listening on the go:

The ability to learn a foreign language has largely and stubbornly been associated with so-called ‘assiduity.’ What does this mean? By definition, this means our ability to assimilate information without movement, in other words, while we're sitting down. In no way, to put it gently, can everyone do this. For a great number of people (perhaps the majority?), the way their nervous systems and general physical constitutions are put together, they're not able to function effectively this way. There is a distinct physical type of individual for whom any prolonged immobility is next to impossible. For them, sitting is almost excruciating torture (all normal children, incidentally, can be counted in this category).

The general vitality of the body and the mental faculties of this category of the population are sharply reduced during periods of physical immobility. Because of this, the persons in this category are often labelled (almost always for life) as ‘incapable’ and even ‘stupid’. But they are only ‘stupid’ in a ‘straitjacket of immobility’ sense, so to speak, due to the long-standing traditional conditions of the educational system. Our modern school system expects and depends upon the immobility of students (‘Johnny, stop moving around!’). This deeply entrenched approach is very convenient for teachers yet intolerable for the ‘non-assiduous’, even during independent study time, where you automatically enter into this mode of ‘immobility’.

Right from the beginning, studying relies upon our immobility, and even to think about any other approach is simply out of the question. While engaged in the learning process, we have absolutely no choice about this, and through this inevitable approach to learning, we must force our overwhelming love and thirst for body movement into the ‘straitjacket of school’ and therefore be immobile, and as a result, we end up becoming ‘incapable’. These are the rules of the game in this, shall we say, ‘insane ward’!

Of course there is a certain percentage of ‘assiduous’ students who suffer through the torture of immobility quite easily, the so-called ‘assiduous individuals’. They aren’t this way due to any outstanding merits and not because they ardently practice hatha yoga every day but rather by chance, thanks to some natural features of their personalities. All the benefits of the rules of the traditional educational system are given to the assiduous simply because they are most comfortable in this type of unhealthy environment.

Others are mercilessly castigated as being ‘incapable’ of studying foreign languages and then are thrown into the wastebasket, seen as ‘rubbish’ and losers in the school assembly line. This process could be considered somewhat normal if not for the obvious fact that the vast majority of students end up in the wastebasket… almost everyone, in fact. And what’s worse, the ‘incapable’ aren’t left in peace even after they are tossed into the school wastebasket. The torture of studying a foreign language goes on (now it's completely pointless torture because these unfortunate ones have already been written off as hopeless!) until the last day of school. Is this not proof itself of the clear insanity of the system?

I will allow myself to shake gently the foundations of the aforementioned customary unhealthy approach and offer you some new rules for academics. With these new rules, you no longer need to force yourself to forever be immobile and, as a result, ‘incapable’ with languages. During the matrix phase of studying a foreign language, this ‘incapability’ because of a lack of ‘assiduity’ can easily be eliminated by mastering the language through receiving, processing and assimilating audio information, specifically while you are fully in motion.

Let us now take a moment to pay tribute to the philosophical school of Aristotle. In one of the legends (the one that is actually very interesting), philosophy was not studied by students all contorted behind wooden or even marble desks but rather on long walks. They called this kind of studying ‘peripatetic’ or ‘strolling’. This idea is apparent in the title that I offer for my method: I propose that you become a linguistic peripatetic! (Additionally, I think that this approach is effective beyond studying philosophy and foreign languages.)

Throw on some headphones and go out for a walk while focusing on a matrix dialogue; that is, go and learn a foreign language in motion. Your chances of becoming drowsy while walking are next to none. The increased adrenaline in your bloodstream won’t allow you to drift off. When’s the last time you fell asleep while walking, may I ask? Over the course of many months and untold miles, your humble servant has tried this on himself, always with the same result: a boost of energy and extraordinary clarity of mind! It’s best to walk along a familiar route but not waist-deep in a swamp, desperately fighting off a million-plane squadron of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. And it’s probably not the best idea to go through the mountains at high altitudes, panting from a lack of oxygen. You should walk in a comfortable environment, not in a blizzard, not in the pouring rain without an umbrella and not under the scorching sun in 100+ degree heat. On the other hand, if daily walks up Mount Everest during 10.0 earthquakes are as familiar to you as your morning strolls to the bathroom, I am not going to stand in your way.

For those individuals who are not quite so advanced, it would be desirable to choose a route where you will not be distracted by anything, even such things as cars passing by or curious dogs chewing on your pants and ankles. Nothing should distract you from your matrix. By the way, it is best to use padded headphones that effectively cut off external noise pollution. The ideal path to take is a circular route or simply to walk back and forth in a room with the lights turned down low (there is even a little-known form of Tibetan meditation where monks leisurely run around in a circle). You will also need comfortable clothing and walking shoes; you should be fully focused on your language, not on any blisters.

As best you can, you should minimize any outside visual or auditory distractions. The perfect setting would be with mildly subdued, indirect lighting and furniture with pleasant, non-stimulating colours, such as the kinds used in modern cinema theatres.

This is entirely possible to do at home, especially if you have a treadmill. Keep in mind that this is also very suitable for reading while moving.

Moving on…

2. A dream that’s not a dream:

It’s also possible not to struggle and rather to just go ahead and give in to drowsiness, not removing the headphones but making sure to continue to listen. You immerse yourself in a certain state of being, which is not, strictly speaking, a sleep, and lasts about twenty minutes or so. Twenty minutes later, you emerge from this special frame of mind. You have no drowsiness; quite to the contrary, you feel a surge of new energy within. At least this has been the case with me and some of my friends on many occasions. I’m not positive that this will work for everyone, whereas walking will definitely be suitable for virtually all healthy people who have two legs to stand on.

‘And how about studying grammar?’ I hear once again coming from the back row. ‘After all, drowsiness and grammar are two inseparable things!’ My persistent friend, you must think you have caught me off guard with your tricky little question?! Well, I will answer this one with pleasure!
I enjoy answering such kinds of questions from the back row. My dear friend, isn’t that because I feel a certain kinship with the folks camping back there?

Well, let us return once again to the study of grammar. There is no ‘grammar study’ in the usual sense of the word within my approach. Don’t be quick, however, to get all worked up and angry. Don’t be in a rush, once again, to tear this book apart page by page and burn it in the sacred flames of your righteous indignation. You certainly will know your grammar. When the matrix is all worked out, all that is necessary will be right there in the next stage: ‘marathon reading’. At that point, the grammar will be indelibly engraved into your brain.

By the end of the year, after you've read your 3,000 pages, you'll know the grammar probably better than a graduate from a language school. You won’t know some useless pseudo-scientific verbal rubbish that practical grammar becomes tangled up with, but you will actually be able to use the grammar you learn. Your knowledge will be purely functional, as this is necessary for practical mastery of a language.
Let me explain. You know your own language wonderfully. You know it in a practical way. You’re not beating your head up against past passive participles in a sentence or worrying about not knowing what exceptional subjunctives are. You use all of these every day, day in, day out, not knowing any of their ‘scientific’ names. You don't need to know these terms to skilfully use your own language.

You will be using your new foreign language in the exact same way, not wracking your brain trying to understand the words such as ‘gerund’, ‘pluperfect subjunctive’ and ‘modal verb’. Of course, there won’t be any harm if you periodically review the grammatical tables and explanations for the matrix dialogues and even beyond, picking on your way all these ‘smart’ grammar words. In my method, grammar is not ‘forbidden’ at all. Browse it if you wish, and occasionally you can show off and impress your mother with your astounding knowledge of these terms, but by no means can you make this a goal in and of itself at the expense of truly learning and acquiring the language!

If I were made to sit down right now and take a test on the traffic rules in the US, I am sure I would fail miserably, for I don’t remember these rules at all. I successfully forgot all of them five minutes or so after answering the exam questions about 20 years ago. But that didn’t stop me from driving (without one accident!) around the US, including in New York City, Washington, DC, Baltimore, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, with a few side trips to Canada, Mexico and now all over Russia (traffic in Moscow is horrible, though!). So do I know the rules of traffic or not?

As I am typing this text on my computer, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not the electrons in the computer processor (or in my brain) are moving clockwise, counter-clockwise, or even standing completely still. Such knowledge does nothing to help my fingers as they briskly click away on the appropriate keys. Even if I had absolutely no idea about the very existence of any processor at all (and electrons with positrons, for that matter!), I wouldn’t be typing any slower… or any faster.

Knowing terms such as ‘triple-nickel half axel’ does not make you a figure skater. Knowledge of such words as ‘in A-minor’ or ‘fortissimo’ does not mean you're a pianist, but at the same time, you can pick up a guitar or a harp, if you wish, and in a month or two, you can learn to play without knowing any of these ‘smart’ words.

I remember how impressed our Latin professor was (an old-school, very strict woman) when she said that I was the only one in the course who had no difficulty in reading and translating Latin texts on the exam. From the very first lesson, I categorically refused to memorise countless charts of cases and conjugations. I declared that learning a language this way is impossible and that I would not subject myself to this senseless torture. I guaranteed that, by the time of the exam, I would know Latin in a practical way, not just within the limits of the institute's programs but much better. They allowed me to do this very thing.

I found a decent tutorial at the library, and during my time there, I read all the texts and browsed through all of the grammatical explanations. And then I went on to another tutorial. This was sufficient to pass the exam with excellent marks. (By the way, Latin was a really enjoyable language to study; why has it caused so many people such pain?) Up to this day, I still don't know whether the Latin professor or my fellow classmates have ever recovered from their shock. Plutarch, however, would be pleased, but more about him later.

Grammar from language, not language from grammar!

Do remember this ancient, most valuable and unbreakable formula! Understand it through and through! Love it! Make it your guiding principle, and then that ‘awful’ foreign language grammar will humbly come over and lie down at your feet, gently raising its head and licking your hand with its warm and rough little tongue…

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

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