Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 23

Nicky, Ahere Art Thou?

It happened in those long-forgotten and even fairy-tale times, when your moms and dads were still young, beautiful and slim and not … um… what they are now. They walked fairy-tale streets and sometimes read courageous and beautiful (in a fairy-tale way) messages inscribed on walls and rooftops: ‘Communism is our ultimate goal! The Communist Party is the soul, the glory, and the conscience of our epoch! Fly Aeroflot Airlines! Turn the lights off when leaving! Wash your hands before you eat—’round the bush don’t you beat!’

A little boy of twenty-something also walked these same streets… like every morally stable Soviet citizen of the appropriate age, he too was a member of the Pioneers… or the Communist Youth Organization. Which one it really was can no longer be authenticated due to the haze of time that has since passed. The difference between these two was never very significant even back in those times, all the more so in our enlightened century. However, to make it clearer for the younger generation of mobile phones, pierced noses and other vital body parts, this difference can be compared to the difference between Coca-Cola bottled in Uganda and in China. It can only be detected by a true connoisseur of the highly nutritious and also delicious product.

So let’s call this young, carefree, yet contemplative Communist strolling the streets ‘Nicky’. And so he leisurely strolled the streets, rode busses and trolleys, looked at the messages on the walls, thought all kinds of thoughts… and all of sudden, out of nowhere and against the mentioned moral stability of a Soviet citizen, he felt a desire to immediately learn a foreign language. Nicky straightened his red Pioneer tie, got off the trolley and enrolled in the appropriate foreign language class.

As strange as it sounds, this class, attended with great persistence, could not kill the young Pioneer Nicky’s unexplained yearning to learn a foreign language. What’s even stranger is that the glorified Soviet school, though trying its best, also failed to do so. However, what it did is lead him to certain ideas, of which the main one was that learning a foreign language can be made more effective without taking any classes, especially those that our Nicky was taking.

However, this required a decent tutorial, without which no progress was possible. Bookstores had a pretty wide selection of works by a certain Lenin—a quick-witted author quite popular back then but fairly forgotten now—and absolutely no tutorials for foreign languages. The little Pioneer craving knowledge was in despair and even opted to buy Lenin’s book How to Establish Workers’ and Peasants’ Paradise for subsequent painstakingly contemplative note-taking at home. All of a sudden, he saw exactly what he needed in a far-away section of the store: a language audio course with a set of vinyl discs in colourful, bright covers. Delighted, the boy dropped Lenin’s book and rushed to the checkout. ‘Comrade Cashier, I want to buy this right now!’ Sadly, it turned out that the attractive audio-course was not for sale and could only be exchanged for books of a certain kind, to which popular works of Comrade Lenin didn’t belong. This was a peculiar and now hard-to-explain custom of those legendary times…

What followed next was a feverish quest for the sought-after copy in the home libraries of relatives, friends and some accidental victims. Finally, the desired course was obtained in exchange for a few books.

After that, I, of course, came home and with a feeling of deep satisfaction played the first lesson on the vinyl disc. There is no need to say that what I heard was a bunch of gibberish. I played the lesson from the beginning—achieving the same result over and over again. It was awkward but fairly tolerable, despite irritating pauses and loss of concentration on the language to perform purely mechanical actions. Then came the second lesson: the needle stubbornly resisted my clumsy fingers and wouldn’t return to the very beginning of the lesson! My irritation was growing—the work was clearly ineffective. Instead of carefully listening to foreign speech, I was doomed to constant fussing with the needle that was breaking my quite frail concentration. The problem was evident, and it had to be resolved somehow.

After thinking a while, I purchased a cassette player and transferred all the dialogues from the vinyl records to audio cassettes, but that didn’t solve the problem, either. Instead of dealing with the needle, I had to incessantly press the buttons and wait for the cassette to rewind. Additionally, I couldn’t stop thinking about how great it would be to be able to listen to these dialogues outside of the house: waiting for a bus, on public transportation or just walking in a park, considering that I had to spend at least two (clearly fruitless) hours a day in commute. If I could only have had a Walkman on that trolley!

Guess what? My wish was miraculously granted! In an electronics shop also dealing in goods brought back by the rare Soviet visitors to the West, I found one of the first—if not THE first in our town—portable cassette players with earphones. Naturally, I immediately bought it and started using it virtually everywhere: on transportation, at the bus stops, standing in lines, which in those days were becoming ever longer and more crowded, in parks… And of course, I did one more thing—I started recording the same dialogue over and over again on both sides of a tape. This was done partly out of purely practical considerations—I did not want to break a very expensive and possibly delicate player with constant button-pressing.

One way or another, I discovered that this method of reoccurring recordings of a single dialogue wass exceptionally effective and could eliminate all of my previous technical issues. To play this dialogue multiple times, all I had to do was pop the cassette into the player, press a button only once and listen to it until the batteries ran down. My concentration on the language would no longer be ruined—not for technical reasons, anyway.

This was a ridiculously simple and obvious solution that hasn’t been introduced by anyone ever before. Putting it into practice would, of course, require certain efforts, but these efforts would soon pay off. It would certainly be better to buy this kind of product ready-to-use, manufactured on an assembly line, but to this day, no one produces one. Well, this book might be just the start of it: without a doubt, interested parties will sooner or later read this treatise, reflect upon it and finally decide to have a serious talk with its author. I, in turn, will be patiently waiting for this crucial moment—what else can I do?

So what about the little young Pioneer? You might ask—whatever happened to him? We want to hear the rest of the Pioneer Nicky’s story! The boy, of course, grew up and became a big Pioneer, learned all the foreign languages, and as I heard it, went to the far-away, magic California, a place where the sun always shines and the ocean waves time after time splash upon the sandy beaches of the mysterious city of Carmel, located three and a half hours away (if walking by forest paths, hidden from prying eyes) from the likewise mysterious city of Monterey, a place where people are kind, good-looking and humane; they only eat avocados for breakfast, which is why their faces shine day and night with broad and friendly smiles for strange Pioneer boys…

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

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