Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 17

A Different Reality, or All Shaken and Stirred

To some degree, we are all firmly grounded in reality. That is true for you and me. It’s also true for the next guy. Thousands of visible and invisible roots and threads keep us attached to it. Every minute and every second, we receive continuous impulses and affirmations that maintain and reinforce us in our reality. This includes sound, images, smells and taste sensations.

Language is inseparably linked to reality. While we are grounded in reality, we are also grounded in language. It's equally strong in both directions. To some degree, our reality and our language can be considered two parts of the whole.
As we begin to learn a new language, we begin to create a new reality for ourselves, though we are continually slowed down and thrown back into our old reality. Thousands of roots, threads and old impulses attach us to our old reality like hooks. Television, radio, newspapers, conversations coming in through the window, the whistle of a train, familiar music, the smell of wet grass after a warm summer rain—all these things take you back to the place you intend to leave. All of these things hinder your study of a foreign language in a very serious way.

Since it is impossible in most situations to stop completely the inflow of external irritants from our old reality (unless you leave for a country where the studied language is spoken, fully severing yourself from the former self, former language and former life), then we must at least reduce this inflow to an absolute minimum. In what forms of communication is this practically feasible? Television, radio, theatre, press, music, books, conversation. It is necessary either to exclude all of this from your ‘diet’ or reduce it to a very minimum. The first five can be excluded completely and for good, which will only benefit your spiritual and physical well-being. For the time being, reading books in your native language can be postponed—let them rest on their shelves for now.

We will make some exceptions for personal interaction since one cannot and should not live without it. Of course, what I just said does not mean that you should compensate for the loss of your beloved mass media trash by chatting with friends twenty hours a day! Moderation, my dear friend! Moderation in all things! Even in personal interaction, so essential to us all...

However, you can—and should!—engage in all of the aforementioned activities as much as you like, but only in the studied language. Having been starved for multimedia impressions, your brain will energetically throw itself at the new though not yet deciphered information and vigorously begin to process it. But that is exactly what we want to achieve, isn't it?

All that I have said about excluding extraneous influences when crossing over into the new reality is not something original that I just discovered yesterday but has been known to mankind for thousands of years. Ancient distractions were done away with in monasteries by the most decisive means: bare walls—with the exception of an icon—and concentration on prayer. No movies or Friday night dances, none of the latest tabloids or television news with your morning cup of monastery coffee. The ideal approach to studying a foreign language must be deliberately ‘monastic’ when it comes to limiting the influence of your native language and other extraneous irritants. A foreign language is comparable to praying in a monastery—the more the better. Speaking about the monastic approach—before beginning language study, I would recommend taking a minute or two to gaze at a burning candle. To some degree, this will help us detach ourselves from ordinary reality and enter into another reality.

The transition to the different reality of the foreign language takes place simultaneously with the development of a certain new ‘self’ within. Evidently, we, our selves, are so connected with the words and language we use that it simply cannot but take place. A while back, I read a statement in a book that said that we live as many lives as languages we speak. I cannot agree completely with this since we unfortunately are only given one life. However, with the transition to a new language reality, from somewhere deep within emerges a new self, significantly different from the old one, not better or worse, mind you, just different.

This phenomenon is well known to various secret services that often and successfully recruit agents from among language students. Those abandoning their old selves, blindly seeking and trying to create the new self, are ready for and accept this new self quite easily. Consequently, they may take on the new self as the role of an intelligence agent of the country of the studied language. My American students approached me a few times with quite... er... interesting offers. Apparently, they thought I was KGB (otherwise why would they call me Comrade Major and stand at attention every time I entered the classroom? Hmm…). But that is a story for another time and another book.

The new foreign self almost always manifests itself in such a way that you are able to speak—and think—things in your new language that you never would have begun to say in your native language. The old limiters, ‘can/can't’, ‘good/bad’, ‘moral/immoral’, begin to weaken, malfunction or cease to work entirely.

When I visited the English Club in a town in Siberia, practically all of the members of the club allowed themselves an unparalleled freedom of speech (before Gorbachev!). Freedom of speech in English, of course, since to talk in Russian in this club was against the rules (not so much official rules of the club as rules for setting a good tone, which everyone in the club strongly upheld). We seemed to be under the influence of some kind of intoxicating drug. The windows of the library where our club met once a week opened up to a big grey building, next to which I used to pass, involuntarily speeding up my pace. Even when we knew for sure that the workers of this grey establishment were among us and listening to our every word, we did not cease to express openly our free-thinking ways, to which our new selves were inevitably drawn. Moths cannot but fly to the flame!

Even more radical examples are well known. My classmate told me about one of his buddies who studied English with him during the early days of Perestroika. His friend went directly into the American embassy in Moscow and offered his services (it is easy to guess in what role). The receptionist of the embassy listened attentively to him, having pasted on her face the standard American smile. Then she asked him to wait a few minutes, came back and told him that they don't recruit in this fashion and wished the unlucky James Bond wannabe a good day and a wonderful life.

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

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