Saturday, September 15, 2007

What is Self-Taught?

In the Meno, Socrates argued that we can only be taught what we already know. He demonstrated this by having an uneducated slave solve geometrical problems with his guidance. Socrates' notion fits in well with the idea of education - a process of drawing out a learner's unrealized understanding. When we educate a native speaker to use his or her native language better, this is surely what's in play: effective language teachers help their pupils activate their innate capabilities for organizing lexical, grammatical and syntactical information. Those who try to force feed their pupils information, by contrast, seem to spend a lot of time wandering around wondering what's wrong with kids these days.

It may be true that we can only be taught what we already know, but can we teach ourselves or do we need someone else to help us along? How much? And what does this mean for how we learn new languages?

To revisit once more Edwin's Tarzan post, is it smart for us to teach ourselves our own version of a language we're learning and hope we'll figure out the bits we messed up later? I don't believe it's necessary for us to get every utterance right as we learn a language. I even see merit in starting with reasonably accurate but highly simplified versions of language to get started (following the natural progression from baby talk to adult speech). But in order to avoid the time and trouble a child takes to get started speaking his or her language properly, I think it's best to work in line with the language you're learning, whereas Me-Tarzan, you-Jane type language would be a sort of creole - your grammar with someone else's vocabulary. That's no good.

Aside from the question of whether we should teach ourselves a language our way, though, there's the question of whether we can. The more I think about this, the more it seems to me that what we're really talking about is the difference between teachers who educate, however indirectly, and those who go in for the data dump. All language learning systems teach us (as opposed to us teaching ourselves), but some of them do so in a way that helps us use and expand our language acquisition capabilities, while others... don't.

When I was getting my hypnosis certification, one thing that was constantly emphasized was the difference between self-hypnosis and hetero-hypnosis (being hypnotized by someone else). The thing is, knowing how to pop in a CD and listen doesn't mean you can do self-hypnosis. Reading someone else's script after filling in some blanks comes closer, but it's still not you driving the process. As for true self-hypnosis, only a trained hypnotist can do it, and at that you can't go in nearly as deep or achieve the same kind of results because you can't be an operator (the one hypnotizing) without being outside of the trance at some level. Comes the question: If you're listening to Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, are you self-taught at all? It sounds to me like hetero-hypnosis with a CD to me. With Teach Yourself, you're reading someone else's script. It's your voice (and thus, the words are probably mispronounced), but you're still working with someone else's agenda. At the outer end, you might sit down with some vocabularies, some grammars and some dialogs. At this point, like self-hypnosis, you're pretty close to being in charge. But unless you already know how language learning works, you're also probably wasting your time.

Whether you're self-taught or not, technically speaking, is irrelevant if we're talking pride points. If you're managing to learn a language without mortgaging your house to pay for travel and schooling, pat yourself on the back. The real issue is what this means for how you should structure your program. Some people think you should talk right away. Others think you should wait. With programs like Michel Thomas and Pimsleur there's no question: the whole point is to start talking right away. The thing is, if you're under the guidance of a language teacher (or language teaching system) that helps you talk from the start, building good habits as you go, that's okay. If you're teaching yourself a language for which such resources aren't available (or don't float your boat), you need to be more careful.

When I look at French, the a-ha moments aren't so many. I've been working with it a long time, I've got a pretty good grasp of how it works. With Spanish and Italian, things are dicier. I certainly can read, and I can make perfectly good simple and even moderately complex sentences. This works because I've already got an underlying understanding of them. On the other hand, studying Mandarin and Uzbek, I spend a lot of time muttering, so that's how you're supposed to say that. These are languages where I have to use familiar structures in limited contexts to stay out of trouble.

In Spanish and Italian, my understanding is better than my production, and me-Tarzan, you-Jane moments do come. I try to avoid them and to use structures I'm rock solid sure of whenever I can. And when I'm out of my depth, I usually know it and so cringe and promise myself to study more. This is a mixed bag - I try to avoid developing bad habits, but circumstances sometimes pull me in that direction.

What's painful is meeting someone who doesn't know their limitations. We get e-mails from Europeans all the time who have taught English in their home country and volunteer that they can teach English in addition to their native language if we hire them. Sometimes, it's true. Usually, it's not. It's for this reason that I would especially advise my fellow language learners first of all to be modest about their efforts, and second of all, to go with the self-teaching methods that really aren't whenever possible. Saying simple things in what you know to be the right way gives you a great foundation for when you get to try out your language and build your skills. Teaching yourself from the ground up, by contrast, can be like buying into the premise of "Me-Tarzan, you-Jane" only without realizing you've done so!

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