Saturday, November 8, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 22

Reading Plutarch, or Sherlock Holmes Behind the Coconut Tree

And now the moment has finally come for which we have waited so long. The time has come to talk about your favourite thing… reading!

What? You haven’t been waiting for this moment? Reading is not your favourite pastime? That’s odd. For some reason, I was convinced that I had found a kindred spirit in you. I was positive that you love to read, that you couldn’t even live one day without reading—that you are hardly ever far from a book.

In my mind, I pictured you reading on public transport, at bus stops, on a bench under a blooming lilac bush in the park, along the riverbank where the evening nightingales are ever singing just for you. I pictured you all curled up on a frosty winter evening in your warm room on a cosy sofa with the soft light of the lamp pouring onto the pages of the next thrilling novel in your hands, enjoying the exploits of your favourite hero fearlessly saving the civilized world from villains with waxed mustachios. Next to you sits a steaming cup of cocoa, the clock on the wall quietly ticking...

Alas, all this was not about you. My dreams are dashed, so allow me to approach the issue from a different angle, dryly and unemotionally. I can do it this way, too… believe me, I am able to.

And now… reading. Undoubtedly, reading is one of the most important components, if not the most important, in learning any foreign language. The matrix of the reverse resonance is extremely important, but for all its importance, it is only the first step on the road to reading. By itself, the matrix cannot provide all the grammatical and lexical components required for full mastery of a foreign language. The vocabulary and grammar of the matrix are at the basic level, which is its primary value. It only provides the cornerstone, nothing extra.

To some extent, building the matrix can be compared with building islands that support you in the sea of language. Reading then serves to expand and strengthen these islands, to create bridges and passages between them, which allows for more freedom of movement from island to island. Reading fills the huge gaps that remain after working through any matrix, even the most ideal one.

Of course, these gaps are filled by watching films and television programs, as well as by listening to the radio in the studied language, but reading is still the most convenient and attainable means of filling the gaps.

You can put a book in a pocket and easily open it up at any convenient time. You can re-read unfamiliar words or sentences many times. You can return to pages you have already read and make an instant comparison with what you are reading now and right there do a quick analysis of the vocabulary and grammar.

In all respects, books are convenient and relatively inexpensive. Presently, a fairly large selection of books is available for reading in any foreign language. The difficulty lies more in the choice of what to read.
So what do you read and how do you read it? First, let’s talk about what to read. There are a few fundamental rules that you absolutely must follow.

Rule number one:

Only read what interests you.

I have already talked about this somewhere in this book, but I’m not afraid to repeat myself because repetition—as is well known—makes perfect, being the mother of leaning. So read the genres that you already like reading in your own language. Don’t torture yourself trying to study something like Song of Roland in the original. At best, it will cause you to fall into a mortal slumber, at worst, a gag reflex. It is useless to convince yourself that you will be taken up into some life-giving source of semi-divine genius. That won’t help in keeping you awake, and in no way will it help your progress in learning a foreign language. It will only serve as the quickest way to kill any desire you have to study the language.

On the other hand, if for some strange reason you truly are fascinated by the adventures of Roland and Tristan, then I have no other choice than to bow my head before rule number one and wish you further convulsions of pleasure from reading the unfading classics… but now in a foreign language.

I will repeat again: you should only read that which stirs in you a genuine interest. Only read that which touches your heart, even if it’s some type of Grisham with his funny little books generating disgusted sneers from ‘sophisticated’ audiences. Find the equivalent of this Grisham in your studied language and read it. Read as much as you can. Fill in the, gaps in your vocabulary and grammar. As long as I understand and forgive you, you have nothing to worry about. I, for my part, promise you that under no circumstances will I ever tell of your weakness; let it remain our little secret…

Rule number two:

Only read works of considerable length.

By considerable length I mean a complete narrative of 100 to 200 or more pages printed in a standard font without illustrations on every page. Avoid reading short stories, even if these stories are interesting. Why, you ask?

Because I’m telling you, and as you have been able to already figure out, I never say anything for no reason—at least regarding the study of foreign languages. Either way, I won’t slack off here; I will explain my thoughts more extensively.

Reading works of considerable length is preferable to reading short stories and texts for the following compelling reasons:

To create a sufficient contextual setting to work with.

When you start to grasp a fairly good-sized piece of writing, you become acquainted with the ‘canvas’ of the story, its characters, as well as the geographical, political, social and other various realities in which the events transpire. To a certain extent, you can guess the words and actions of the characters, their motivations and the things they enjoy.

If the action is taking place in the nineteenth century, it is highly unlikely that the hero is going to have a computer on the table. And if she meets with the count, she likely won’t be in running shoes and a miniskirt. If the main character of the story is a private detective with the broken nose of an ex-boxer, with protruding eyebrows and a square jaw, it is unlikely that at the height of an investigation he will leave and go to a Buddhist monastery, where he gives himself over to prayer and fasting, forever forgetting about the need to solve this excruciating mystery of who stole the diamond collar from the dog of the butcher’s beloved wife. In the same way, if we know that the action is developing in nineteenth-century London and our beloved Sherlock Holmes is hot on the trail of the villain, watching him from behind a tree, then it’s quite certain it won’t be a coconut tree, and the villain will not escape at the last moment, soaring into the sky warp nine in the latest-model spaceship.

And that, my dear reader, is the contextual setting. You only need to read a few pages to get a feel for the story before the setting begins to work for you in a significant way. Short texts do not have enough room to develop this. You barely start getting into the contextual setting before the story ends. You start reading the next story, and the same thing happens—you are deprived of the opportunity really to get into and lose yourself in the story.

To create a contextual setting for the vocabulary.

We all have our favourite personal vocabulary. Even your humble servant—I am not ashamed to confess. Fiction writers are no different.

The vocabulary of any given author in a particular work is quite limited. This becomes apparent even after just reading a few dozen pages. Some words begin to be repeated quite often. You see them dozens of times but in different contexts. At first it’s a bit vague, and then a given specific word becomes clearer and clearer as to what it could mean. If every time Sherlock Holmes takes something from his pocket and points it at bad guys and the bad guys always either raise their hands or run away (cowardly rascals!), it’s doubtful that it’s a vial of holy water or a handkerchief. More than likely, the given object is some type of gun.

It’s not out of the question, of course, that the object that the main character pulls out of his pocket is precisely a vial of holy water. This could be a tricky move of the author, but that’s exactly what we need to establish by recognising and decoding the author’s contextual setting from the very first pages.

One thing we will know for sure from the contextual setting is that Sherlock Holmes’ weapon could not possibly be a laser blaster, a grenade launcher or Harry Potter’s magic wand. To be certain, we will take a quick glance in the dictionary—and the sought-after word will forever be chiselled into our memory.

Or, in pursuit of the foul villain, our hero goes through the woods, brushing against the bushes sprinkled with morning dew, along the meadow where chamomiles reach out to our hero. He then goes along the field, breathing in deeply the disturbing smell of wormwood, into some suspicious gully and then again in the woods. The path narrows and almost disappears, and then it miraculously brings him to some old castle, where in one of the towers the unshaven villain is hiding. The villain has no idea that the time for payback has come.

The name of the path that the main character follows is marked on his map. What can it be? It can’t be a highway of asphalt or concrete, where you might see cars zooming along. No trains chugging down the track. To confirm our guess, we’ll elegantly look it up in the dictionary. ‘Trail’! Another word is forever imprinted in our memory. And with the word comes a little mental gold star for a good guess!

In addition, the author does not fail to inform us (25 times over the course of ten pages), that our hero has ‘intelligent’ eyes, but the villain has ‘shifty’ eyes. He tells us that the parting of the hero’s hair is ‘impeccable’ and that he is ‘incorruptible’—30 times in fifteen pages. The villain carries out ‘sinister’ plans in every second sentence, and so on...

The words are repeated, repeated and repeated again in different lexical and grammatical contexts, and as we already know, repetition is the mother of learning (hello, Mother!), especially in learning a foreign language, where almost everything is based on repetition.
Being inclined to rigorous analytical thinking, you will surely notice (and quite reasonably, it must be stated) that the setting is not very clearly demarcated from its contextual lexical setting and that the example of the gun above could well be used here.

I will argue that this is quite insignificant. Things are vague and fuzzy in a language; everything crosses over, interpenetrates and interacts. Absolutely clear boundaries are impossible in a language. This is true for your native language and for a foreign language. Get used to this, my dear sir, and you will encounter fewer unpleasant surprises on this challenging path of studying a foreign language!

With regard to the vocabulary and contextual settings, they are of course intertwined and interpenetrated. In the end, they can be considered one large contextual field. Your task is not to remember titles and conventional divisions, but to plunge yourself decisively into the context without much thinking. You need to feel it and be able to use it for successful language learning.

This is how I understand context. This is how knowledgeable people understand context. I now ask you to read very carefully what our favourite writer Plutarch said about the role of context in learning a foreign language in his Comparative Biographies, starting with the life and deeds of our beloved Demosthenes:

‘... affairs of the state and students, who came to me to study philosophy, did not allow me the leisure to practice the language of the Romans, and therefore when it was too late, already in my declining years I began to read the Roman books. Amazing, but true—what happened to me is this: it was not so much from the words that I discovered the context, but
47 on the contrary, I would capture the meaning of the words from the context of which I already had knowledge.’

So that’s how it is. As you can see, the role of context in language study, especially expanding vocabulary through contextual guessing, is not my recent discovery. As you have certainly noticed, Plutarch was somewhat surprised by his own observations, but this is understandable—Comparative Biographies was written nearly 2,000 years ago, and apparently Plutarch was the first who wrote down these ideas, without anyone to refer to. He had every right to be surprised. However, what seemed new and worthy of astonishment 20 centuries ago in the field of language study should not particularly surprise us today. In fact, since that time, we have more or less learned something, haven’t we?

But leaving our Plutarch behind (so astonished by his linguistic discovery), we will continue to talk about why you need to read only works of considerable length.

To penetrate the grammatical setting of the author.

What I have said about the repetitiveness and predictability of the author's vocabulary can also be fully said of his grammar in a particular work. From the beginning of the work to the end, the author’s favourite grammatical patterns are repeated many times. Thus, the literary work can be considered a giant illustration of grammar in the studied language—at least a significant part of the grammar. In another work by the same author, his use of grammar—and, of course, vocabulary—may be somewhat different. A person changes over time. The way he thinks changes, and accordingly, his use of language changes, too. Therefore, works written by the same author in different periods of his life may be written quite differently.

Why do I mention this? Because most of the time, all of an author’s stories are grouped together in one book, though the stories were written in different periods of his life. There’s really no way around this; it’s just the way things are.

When you begin to read such a collection of short stories, a holistic contextual setting does not take shape for you. The stories differ in vocabulary, grammar, rhythm and mood, not to mention the different realities in the various stories. You are just beginning to enter one realm of reality and experience it, taste it, and then it ends and another begins, then a third and so on until the end of the book.

This kind of broken rhythm wrecks your language ‘breathing’ (runners know what I mean) and significantly complicates your progress. Of course, this kind of reading is also beneficial, but why place more obstacles on your path when there are plenty of them in your study of a foreign language already?

So, if at all possible, avoid reading short stories. It’s ironic, but short stories are much more difficult than novels that consist of hundreds of pages. Besides, there are other factors that make reading novels more preferable than reading short stories.

Writers lay it on thick in the beginning.

Virtually all writers complicate—’thicken’—their vocabulary and grammar in the first pages of their works. With a big ladle, they scoop from the very bottom of the soup pot, so to speak, generously
48 dumping the thickest stuff on the first few pages. Are they doing this deliberately, trying to show us their immensely broad vocabularies, brilliant, complex grammar and unparalleled encyclopaedic knowledge? Or is it possible that there are some other subconscious motivations and ambitions? Who knows? The point is that the most difficult pages to read and understand are those first initial pages.

When we finally are able to fight through these first pages, we are surprised and pleased to notice that our seasoned, mighty author has run out of steam, the ‘forest’ has become less dense and we are able to move through it much easier. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about short stories because there, all of the pages are first pages. Short stories are almost entirely composed by writers laying it on thick. There is not enough room for the inevitable dilution of the language to take place after those dense first pages.

Of course, we cannot blame the authors for the way short stories are constructed because this is simply the format of how they are written. These are the rules of the literary game. The story is supposed to be short—it’s a short story. It is doubtful that the writers thought (except, perhaps, Agatha Christie), that their works would be used by us in language study. Most likely, they did not at all suspect that they would be writing for those reading their works as a foreign language. Therefore, we generously forgive them.

The effect of a psychological gold star.

By comparison with a novel, a short story isn’t very significant and is psychologically light. After you and I read a short story, we don’t quite experience the sweet taste of victory. A short story is too light for that. The same thing happens when we read two or three stories or even an entire book of short stories. Psychologically, when you add small values, you still get a small value.

Of course, this has nothing to do with mathematics. We are talking precisely about adding up psychological values. The psychological effect of reading a whole work of 200 pages is not the same as the psychological effect of reading 70 short stories at three pages long each.

After you have read a large work—a book!—you can pat yourself on the back (well deserved, I must say!), you start respecting yourself, and you can give yourself a shiny gold star. However, if you read a couple of hundred short stories that are equal to or even larger than the size of a ‘gold-star potential’ book, you’ll never feel like you earned a gold star. Your subconscious will repeat over and over to you that you have read nothing more than a bag of air. Surely, the significance of any positive psychological reinforcement during the difficult task of taming a foreign language cannot be overemphasised! A short story won’t get you a psychological gold star, no sir! Believe me, your renowned granter of gold stars!

Rule number three for successful reading:

Extremely minimise your use of a dictionary.

You must consider the use of a dictionary a necessary evil. Don’t reach for a dictionary on every occasion and without a real reason to—it distracts you from the main thing, reading. Using a dictionary always breaks your concentration on the text, forcing you to carry out a purely mechanical action: you take out a dictionary, open it to the correct page, search for the right word and choose from the list of meanings that might work in this context. You may well spend a few precious minutes on one word. These minutes could be used on something much more beneficial—like continuing to read, for example.

I know how you are so tempted to rebel, my dear friend! No need to deny it—I’ve studied you well. Under your breath, you want to ask me, ‘What do you do with a word you’ve never met before?’ Is it really so necessary for you to know the meaning of that very word? Will some kind of catastrophe take place if you miss that word and calmly continue reading?

‘What!? Let it go? After all, the whole purpose of reading is to figure out the meaning of absolutely every word in the text, without exception, isn’t it!?’

No need to shout, my dear sir! I have excellent hearing—at least when I want to. I wonder where you’re getting those… er… interesting thoughts from. Don’t answer. My question is, of course, purely rhetorical. I know very well what it’s in your mind and where it came from. Many, many years ago, my young head, still covered with golden curls, was full of the same comical ideas, and I had to beat them out of my head quite a few times, sometimes with a two-by-four (just kidding, don’t you worry!).

So let’s go back to my question: do you really need to know the precise meaning of a particular word? Let's take a close look at it.

‘Sherlock Holmes hid behind a ______ bush.’ Perhaps it’s a big bush… though it’s possible that it’s a small bush (incidentally, there is a similar example in a book by Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb, which was very beneficial to me many years ago when I first started to study foreign languages). Does it really have any significance for the development of the plot? The plot will not suffer in any way if the missed word means ‘wet’, ‘thorny’, ‘rose’, ‘scratchy’, ‘clipped by the Japanese gardener’ or anything else, for that matter. So you killed a few minutes rummaging in the dictionary to find the meaning of a word that is completely unnecessary for the development of the plot. The issue here is not about losing a few minutes’ time but about the fact that during this time your focus goes astray from staying in the language, which is very difficult to establish initially and then once again restore after such setbacks.

Let’s take another passage: ‘Sherlock Holmes tightened like a steel spring and ______ onto the vile villainous village villain. They became tangled up in a tight ball and rolled down a hill overgrown with thorns.’

Does it matter whether Sherlock Holmes ‘jumped’, ‘threw himself’, or ‘shot like a bullet’? It makes absolutely no difference. From the context, it is clear as day that the missed word is a verb and cannot mean anything besides a quick movement or just movement in general. So why waste time digging around in a dictionary? After all, Sherlock really needs your help at this very moment! So roll down the slope along with him and help him out with a few good punches to the ugly and repulsive villain rather than poking around in the dictionary trying to find a word that is so completely useless at this fateful moment!

Here’s another example we’re already familiar with: ‘Sherlock Holmes snatched from his pocket a ______ with the hammer cocked.’ From the greater context, we already know that this is not some new sci-fi weapon that runs on compressed gravitons or a light sword borrowed by the hero from Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader but obviously some kind of firearm corresponding to the period that easily fits into Sherlock’s pocket. So is it really that important for us to know whether it’s a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol? I am confident that the vast majority of female readers—and a certain number of male readers—have no idea what the difference is between the two objects. That did not prevent them, however, from perfectly understanding Sherlock Holmes’ adventures and enjoying them.

Let us now digress from our exciting adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the no-less-captivating adventures of Harry Potter, whom we all are so fond of.

‘Harry Potter, in pursuit of the evil Lord Vladimir, walked down the path, almost completely overgrown with Alyssibian Stiphelfugh. Under his breath, he softly hummed fashionable spells and carelessly waved his magic wand, turning Alyssibian Stiphelfugh into Non-Alyssibian. Night was falling. In the air, a flock of furred Guppogloff circled. Evidently their nest was somewhere nearby’.

Are you absolutely sure that you need to know exactly what Alyssibian Stiphelfugh are and how they differ from Non-Alyssibian? Why? Are you planning to grow Alyssibian Stiphelfugh in your garden?
But maybe it is vital for you to know what the furred Guppogloff are? Well, of course, you are very intrigued by the phenomenon of furred Guppogloff nesting in the early season of devilry and witchcraft at Malfoy Manor. In this case, my enchanted sir, you just need to dig in dictionaries to find the most accurate definition for Alyssibian Stiphelgloff, pardon me, Alyssibian Stiphelfugh!

Or will you still continue the pursuit of the elusive Vladimir not distracted by insignificant details that by and large are irrelevant to successfully catching the fast-moving Lord? Only you can decide and no one else...

By the way, how well do you understand—really understand!—the words of your native language, with which you were born, grew up and now live with? Language is by far the most essential and integral part of who you are, yet do you really understand every word? Really? I'm fairly certain that you do not understand a large number of words used in the incessant television programs and radio talk shows that aren’t necessarily geared toward intellectuals. The same goes for all the newspapers that you incessantly read, and I’m not even talking about the thousands of words of special terminology used in many areas of science and technology, the meanings of which you cannot even attempt to guess.

I am positive that quite often, you habitually only hear an empty sound, a sound shell of a word, or see its external, visible image without understanding its real meaning. However, you also routinely disregard this lack of understanding and casually cast the misunderstood word to the side.

By no means is this a malicious or unprovoked attack on you, my unnecessarily offended friend. It is but a simple assertion of the indisputable fact that no one can know every word, even from his own language, not to mention the foreign language. We only are familiar with the language waters in which we are constantly swimming, and not those in which we are immersed only from time to time.

The fact is, when we hear and see words and don’t know the meaning of some of them, the brain evaluates the situation and decides whether to exert more energy to figure out the exact meaning of these words. In many cases, the brain decides (almost without our conscious participation) that it’s not worth the effort, that the tough word occurs so rarely that the exertion of energy to find the exact meaning and remembering it won’t pay off. The word is given the status of a non-priority and thrown in the kitchen drawer of your head with other undigested words.

Does this vocabulary filter exist from birth? No, it doesn’t; this skill is not innate but acquired. We learn to evaluate words in terms of their importance in the same way that we learn to walk and talk, over the course of many years or even a lifetime. We must learn a similar type of filtering in the process of learning a foreign language, but the process will be more compressed in time because now we will be doing it consciously and with discipline—as befits an adult.

My words do not mean, however, that you will never discover the meaning of absolutely all the words that you missed during those times of reading with minimal use of a dictionary, which I so strongly recommend (and not only I but also all those who understand something about studying foreign languages).

These secondary and tertiary words will only be incomprehensible to you during the initial period of reading. With constant, diligent reading, the meaning of most of these words will come to you gradually, but steadily, every day, every hour and even every minute, they will be opening up to you. You’ll read a book, then three, then ten, twenty, a hundred…. At first, you'll only grasp the lexical and grammatical skeleton of the book, only what is most important for understanding the simple plot. But then this skeleton will inevitably grow vocabulary flesh, components, nuances, colours, undertones and hints—all that makes up a real, living, pulsating language. One after another, faster and faster, the words will fall into your precious piggybank and continue to fill it up. This is loads of fun, I tell you!

Your piggybank will soon be filled to the brim, and then you, my dear sir, will perhaps remember your humble servant and say to yourself that, after all was said and done, he was right! Oh, how correct he was in all his paradoxical assertions! I shouldn’t have taken offense to him!

And I will quietly smile to you in reply, stirring hot chocolate with a silver spoon in my favourite cup and listen to the snowflakes slowly twisting and turning and falling, falling, falling outside the window of my snow-covered hut…

I will summarise what has been said so far about reading:

− Only read what really interests you;
− Only read good-sized books; and
− Try to use the dictionary as little as possible.

Of course, you should not read on a computer monitor but on good old paper—it’s much, much easier to read books of paper rather than on ‘advanced’ electronic screens, and your vision will be preserved, too.

And here’s one more tip for reading and understanding a foreign language in general: by all means, try to grasp the logical and complete flow of information. Usually the author is trying to tell you something. Literary works are very rarely incoherent gibberish. You won’t be reading that type of literature—I hope. At least not at the very beginning of your journey.

You are reading—in your studied language, of course—something like: ‘The man behaved and looked as if he were doing time. Maybe even more than once. All the extensive experience that Sherlock Holmes possessed told him about this’.

Your first reaction might be confusion and anger—this is not the right genre, and we’re not talking about Harry Potter and his buddy Vladimimort, who both could easily alter time, acting within the defined borders of the type of genre given to us by the author. But in this type of literature (Sherlock Holmes), no one should be flying on a broom and waving magic wands. You don’t understand the passage, although you very well know the meaning of the individual words ‘do’ and ‘time’. However, by this time, you should also already know that a word in any language very often has quite different meanings. Sometimes dozens of meaning. So don’t despair. Just remember that this passage must have some meaning, but you haven’t yet grasped it, so just keep reading.

‘Sherlock opened his address book. Yes, of course! The incomparable insight of Sherlock Holmes didn’t let him down yet another time. An old jailbird and complete scoundrel. Of course he did time! Three years in London, two in Stockholm and one year in terrible Pebble Beach. But this time he won’t get off so easy! For this horrible crime, he’ll get ten years—no less!’

I think that the first passage should now be clear and understandable for you. It makes total sense now. ‘Doing time’? Undoubtedly, this expression here means ‘to spend time in prison’.
The second passage, which is the key to the first, doesn’t necessarily have to follow it immediately. It could also appear within a couple of sentences or even one, two, five or more pages later. Keep reading in search of clues, and you will find them.

For some reason, during the height of the Gorbachev’s unforgettable Perestroika, I managed to read a rather lengthy book—hundreds of pages—about the Soviet Army. I don’t remember the title exactly—something like Engineer Battalion or 100 Days before the Order Was Given. This wasn’t Plutarch, of course, but it described the final weeks of the main character’s service in some kind of engineering unit—his job was to clean military outhouses, if I’m not mistaken.

Throughout the entire book, for the life of me, I could not figure out the meaning of one word that was constantly used by the soldiers. And I also served in the military and was quite familiar with the contextual setting and the terminology of military service. I only came to understand the meaning of that word when I reached the last few lines of the book and got the key to the code! I needed the entire context of the book, its entire contextual field, to put together the necessary key and finally decode the meaning of this maddening, stubborn word, and I read the book in my own mother tongue!

Always seek the meaning and logic… and, my dear sir, ye shall find…

What I’ve said about reading to this point can basically be applied to developing your understanding of the foreign language from hearing. Watch and listen to things that are interesting to you. Soak up stuff that interests you in big quantities. Create a working contextual setting. What helps is to watch television series with leading characters that continue from one show to the next (in documentaries, the same narrator). Naturally, every character will be consistent in his vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. The characters of the series maintain certain relationships with each other, and we become quite good at being able to guess their reactions to various situations, including their verbal responses. It will be rather easy for you to guess what’s going on. Therefore, don’t go running for a dictionary every time you hear an unfamiliar word.

And don’t watch those television series with subtitles—subtitles only mess up your concentration and hinder your perception! It is mandatory to avoid subtitles! I’m talking about any kind of subtitles—in the foreign language or in your native language.

Anticipating your natural reaction, I will explain. I’m not at all advising you to watch Latin-American soap operas. You can find rather decent and even good-quality series to match any taste: war, comedy, fantasy, detective, etc.

But if you’re only crazy about soap operas, then by no means should you force yourself to watch documentaries about the mysteries of the Qumran manuscripts, throwing Diego along with Louisa to the capriciousness of fate!

Watch around a dozen series episodes with minimal breaks in between them, and you’ll be amazed at how much you understand! And after that, you can finally reward yourself by leafing through a thick dictionary or grammar book!

There are many good documentaries in foreign languages about nature, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love these kinds of films. They are equally liked by us and fans of soap operas. There’s something that draws us to the lives of sharks, ants and the coral reefs of Polynesia (Is it the beauty of sunsets? The purpose and clear logic of the ‘characters’’ lives? The complete absence of young girls standing at the bus stop at 7:0 in the morning with an opened beer can in their hands and peacefully cussing up a storm among themselves?) Who knows…?

One way or another, these films are great study aids for learning a foreign language. Because of their entertainment value and their high density of language usage—the commentator talks continually, but that is exceptionally useful for us, much more useful than some action movie where the main character can crush everything in sight without saying a word for what seems the entire length of the movie. So butterflies and lizards can give us a whole lot more vocabulary and grammar than the muscled bunch of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis and of course, the one and only Arnold. So…

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

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