Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 14

No Time To Spare, or the Expanding Universe

I can hear you all the way over here, my friend! Oh yes, I hear your groans! I hear everything! I am not deaf! The slow-simmering rage of a protest rising up from your chest after hearing my words, ‘1,000 hours a year!’ You reply, ‘There's no way I can do it. I'm not in a position where I can find and devote three hours a day with only an occasional day off! It’s just physically impossible! I don’t have that kind of extra time!’

My dear (and quite busy) friend, apparently, perhaps only for a moment, you have forgotten who you're dealing with. I am an old hand at this, and I won’t accept such an answer! Let's take a closer look at your extraordinarily busy life.

What is your brain so tied up with when you wake up in the morning (with the roosters, of course)? How about when you are grooming your beard? And when you are eating breakfast, putting on your coat of armour, sliding your sword into its sheath, checking the edges on your fingernails, plopping yourself gently into the saddle and, with a brisk trot, galloping off to work or school? Are you turning over and over in your mind the theory of the expanding universe? Oh, okay, then I must sincerely beg your pardon. Somehow I mistakenly imagined you were thinking about absolutely nothing.

What do you do while waiting in lines at bus stops or riding on the subway? What are you doing when you're walking along the street or in parks and squares? And in forests, across plains and fields? Through the valleys and across plateaus? Navigating through shady gorges and over hot, relentlessly sun-baked desert sands? Is the theory of the expansion of the universe still running through your brain? Yes, I thought so. And what about at home? Still working out the details of the universe? Perhaps some ideas are arising on how to stop the universe from expanding? Certainly, you wouldn't spend your precious free time on mindless television shows!

Well, perhaps you can forget about the destiny of the universe for a little while (after all, it's in safe hands) and set aside three short hours a day for a foreign language. Think about it, my reader: just get an MP3 player and put on those soft and comfy headphones, taking you away from the noise of the outside world, and just listen. Listen while you’re in line, at bus stops, on public transportation, in the dark shadows of skyscrapers and on the massive sun-drenched lawns of springtime, with cheerful yellow dandelions rising up from the grass all around you… or how about a short hour or two at home, stretched out on your favourite couch or easy chair?

If you still think you don’t have three hours a day for a foreign language, then it’s just not for you, my busy but still dear friend. In this case, you can safely forget about a foreign language and instead devote yourself (to the fullest) to your favourite fast-growing universe. Good luck to you on this difficult mission because it's so important for all of mankind! I hope you are able to catch up to it and even pass it by!

The argument about a lack of time could have, at least to some extent, been taken seriously up until around the early eighties, when the first ultra-portable audio players began to appear, those that could play audio cassettes through headphones. Since then, studying foreign languages has become much simpler. It has become truly possible to do it on the go.

The ultimate device for studying a foreign language is, at present, an MP3 player. In terms of size, sound and quality, it is ideal for making use of learning material for extended periods between battery charges. In the beginning, some work will be required to convert the language course CDs into MP3 format, but this is purely a technical issue and fairly easy to deal with using a personal computer. You simply buy a standard foreign language course in CD format, transfer all the dialogues from your computer into MP3 format, and then modify them properly. I'll explain later how to properly modify them.

During the process of transferring the material to MP3 format, you must separate the vital material from the rest of the language course because not everything there is really necessary. To put it gently, far from everything is necessary. You have to separate the grain from the chaff, or vice versa. In standard language courses, you will find necessary material, unnecessary material and even harmful material, all dumped together into one big pile: the dialogues that you need, the ineffective exercises and the incomprehensible (and incorrect) instructions. Often the dialogues have been inexcusably mutilated by pauses, and the native and foreign languages are almost always mixed together (this should never be the case!) All this is very easily removed when doing the conversion into MP3. The useless chaff is blown away, leaving only the pure grain.

My inquisitive friend, your mind is probably accelerating rapidly at this point, and you undoubtedly want to ask, ‘Why, oh why aren’t the dialogues in these language courses organized correctly for us already?’ Thank you for your very interesting and timely question! I will answer this one with great pleasure.

This happens for various reasons. The most important of them are:
— A total lack of even a basic understanding of the process of learning a foreign language on the part of the creators of these courses. — Pseudo-conservation: they are ‘unable’ to add it to a course of 30 to 45 cassettes or CDs! (And why not, in fact, if it’s needed?) — ‘Sacred’ traditions: but everyone does it that way!

For some reason, the last explanation has become very, very popular in the field of teaching foreign languages. Hmm...

A very serious negative aspect of almost all these courses is that the foreign language is interspersed (as I noted above) with the native language, and this absolutely prevents the successful mastery of a foreign language!

There should be no mixing of the studied language with your own native language, not through headphones or on textbook pages! Translations of dialogues, explanations, grammar and comments and other such things, should be in a special reservation, an infectious disease ward, so to speak, from which they can't scurry around in the textbook, breaking our already fragile concentration on the new and hostile foreign language…

Unfortunately, there are many ‘experts’ who do not really understand this or even give it much thought, if any, thinking it’s just an insignificant little detail. Ah, but these trifles, these ‘termites’, begin to erode all our efforts in struggling with the foreign language, especially at the outset of our journeys. Here, my self-disciplined and ready-for-battle friend, there should be no trifles that can easily grow into those notorious snowballs rolling downhill...

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

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