Saturday, June 30, 2007

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe

I have just finished Katrina Firlik's neurosurgery memoir, Another Day in the Frontal Lobe. It's a fun and friendly book about brain surgery, and all the things that can go right and wrong with your brain. It's also a book about how our health system works, including the impact of high malpractice premiums and how the system incentivizes lower risk, lifestyle medicine over lifesaving emergency surgery practice.

In the final chapter, the author discusses brainlifts, neurosurgery equivalent to cosmetic surgery today - for enhancement, not survival. One of the possibilities she discusses is implanting a chip whose electromagnetic pulses stimulate an area of the brain for enhanced function, whether it would weaken other function, etc. For example, might we one day be able to do a memory booster so that learning five languages is a piece of cake, but it might weaken your abilities or focus for another cognitive skill. Considering that language study has already weakened my focus on other things but I don't speak five languages fluently yet, might it be worth it? I'm not sure, but it raises issues for those of us in the polyglot community if 10 years down the line, multilingualism is a surgical procedure, not a lifestyle. Hmmm...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Resolutions, Goals, Etc.

Setting some solid New Year's Resolutions proved to be a big motivator for learning languages - just not the ones I'd intended! When I started this year, I had planned to work on Spanish, Italian, German, French, Turkish and Uzbek.


Let's take stock.

Spanish: Getting better, from use at work. Lately, the books are gone, but I've done some reading at LingQ. I'm considerably more comfortable speaking Spanish than I was in January and I've started using the preterit and imperfect, not from deliberate study but because I've picked them up in conversation.

Italian: I still listen to the music around once a week, but Italian seems to have fallen off the radar screen.

German: What's German? Actually, I did run through the Beginner's Michel Thomas, so at the halfway point I have completed half my solid goals. But that was a ways back, and cursorily done.

French: I have actually been translating, listening to music and speaking on a regular basis. My French is still light years from what it once was, but it's better than in was six months ago.

Turkish: Oops.

Uzbek: I'm still listening to the music now and again, but Uzbek seems to be something I studied - past tense.

I've been writing about motivation, and thinking about writing more regarding language learning practices and motivation. And I think the resolutions bit points up one of my central ideas: You have to have a reason to learn if you're going to stick with it.

The strange feature of my language learning journey this year is the resurgence of Mandarin. Italian and German I can let fall by the wayside - they'll come back easy if I need or want them but I'm not using them now. Turkish and Uzbek are unlikely to pop up in the life I actually lead. But where I work, everyone speaks French. Therefore, I keep speaking French - might as well since I know it anyway. Spanish is all around me - no escape - and so I enjoy it, while picking up bits and pieces in the way of the traveler abroad. And then, there's Mandarin...

About twice a week, I talk to one or another of our Mandarin teachers. It's not a lot, but I always get the greetings. The real problem is that they tell me about Mandarin bookshops, markets, etc, and when the weekend doldrums settle in, I go see them for something to do. Only when I get there, I'm so less capable than in any other language. I'm getting more capable, of course. Reading pinyin texts, I understand basic conversations. Even conversational texts in simplified characters are getting more familiar. But the language hasn't gotten to the tip of the tongue yet - I know but it doesn't come naturally. But because there's exposure - a connection - I keep working at it. Now that I've gained a tiny entrée into the local Chinese culture, I don't want to let go of it.

One of the oddest things about studying Mandarin, I think, is that I can't guess when I'm stuck. It would only be half joking to say that I can speak more German and Italian than I know - if I don't know a word, there's often something I can try that works. No such luck in Mandarin, and so I keep on studying.

I know this has gotten to be quite a ramble, but language learning is about talking, so why not? Anyway, here are some revised plans for my language learning, and for living life as a polyglot:

1) One truly new or novel language at a time.
2) Languages where motivation and opportunity at least faintly overlap.
3) Focus on maintenance, not expansion, for most languages, to rebuild a base.

Language-wise, here's the road to polyglottism:

English: native speaker
French: comfortable using language in everyday and academic settings*
Spanish: use language poorly but sufficient to everyday use in a business setting, but can read at a more advanced level*
Mandarin: goal - ability to use comfortably in most everyday settings**

* maintenance
** expansion

German and Italian deserve some mention, as do a few others, but for the moment they're off my radar screen. Once my Mandarin is more solid, then I'll work on recovering the German and Italian that I've lost and maybe pushing forward.

Except that now that I've declared serious intent to study Mandarin, I'll probably get worn out on it again.


[Revised 6/30/07]

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Still more Mandarin

This weekend, I found the Assimil Chinese with Ease. I loved Assimil's Using French when I lived in France and was getting my French up to speed, and I've enjoyed Assimil ever since.

One of these days, I need to stop going through beginning books, but each time through, I get more comfortable and confident. I've finally started muttering in Chinese without realizing. Right now, it's mostly things like "I'm hungry," "I'm thirsty," the time and such. But it's something.

I suppose this calls for words of wisdom of some sort, so here they are: The language learner's number one best friend is time. No matter how stumped you might be by a language, if you keep exposing yourself to it long enough, it starts to sink in and become a part of you and your thinking.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Chinese Crosswords

When it comes to finding starting materials for Chinese, I haven't found much good stuff. On the other hand, a lot of materials intended for beginners can be quite nice for someone who actually knows some Chinese and has some idea how the language works.

This weekend, I stumbled upon Chinese Crosswords. I was quite satisfied by my ability to mentally do the first 7 or 8 puzzles - maybe I know some Mandarin after all! If you're interested in broadening your vocabulary and building on a moderately solid foundation in Chinese, these puzzles are worth a look.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Now it's Sir Salman Rushdie

The decision to knight Salman Rushdie is not universally popular, to say the least. But it's a welcome honor for a fine writer who has spent most of his career making the English-speaking world think about other cultures, especially the cultures Britain once conquered and what has become of them with the British gone. Since then, he has become a symbol of the need for open and honest discourse, rather than political suppression of speech including through violence. For his literary output and for his speaking out openly through his stories, even when forced into hiding, Rushdie is a worthy recipient. Congratulations to Sir Salman Rushdie. And congratulations to the Queen on a most worthy selection.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Pleasure, Pain and Language Learning II

What's more fun? Studying language? Or going to work? For most of the people who visit this blog, language wins hands down. And yet we go to work every day and make excuses for falling behind in our language studies. And this isn't just about too much television or poor use of our free time. It is about how we set priorities. As a practical matter, we prioritize the avoidance of punishment over the gaining of pleasure. Which means we go to work to keep from getting fired, even if it leaves us lacking the energy to do the things we enjoy.

Now, obviously we can't have our boss threaten to fire us if we don't study three times a week. (Or at least, it's not a likely solution!) But we can attempt to replicate some of the sentiment that keeps us getting up and going to work like responsible adults every day. I'd like to offer three scenarios for contemplation that have an upside - if you study - and a downside - if you don't. The name of the game is that it hurts to let your enthusiasm for a language die, but we let it slide away, rationalize it away and repress it. We could be using it. So as you prepare to study, if you're wavering think of one of these scenarios or make up one of your own, and then go study!

1. You've just met an attractive member of the opposite sex who is having trouble communicating. You're studying his or her language. You may be happily attached, but hey, everyone likes to make a pretty girl/handsome guy smile.

Pleasure: You introduce yourself, apologize for your weak language skills, then help the person with skills far surpassing those you claimed. All eyes are on the attractive person, and now they're on you too. You have fun with onlookers, and more with your new charge, until, at last, you elegantly take your leave.

Pain: You're sure you recognize the accent. You're equally sure you can't pull it off. You stand there trying to remember the appropriate greeting for this type of situation and plot your answer to the most likely responses. In the meantime, some monolingual do-gooder has pantomimed their way into some form of communication, and your chance for glory - even for practice (!) is walking the other way.

2. You've always been fascinated by Europe/the Middle East/the Orient. The ad says there's an unusual employment opportunity for those willing to travel to the area. International travel experience is preferred, but the ability to speak X is a must.

Pleasure: You look at the stack of FSI courses, Pimsleur sets, textbooks and dictionaries weighing down your bookcase and smile because you've done them all, know them all and know you can do this. You re-read the ad, and aren't sure if this is the job for you, but you are sure that this is some kind of sign and that soon you'll be back in the region again, because you didn't learn X for nothing.

Pain: You look at the stack of FSI courses, Pimsleur sets, textbooks and dictionaries weighing down your bookcase and sigh, because you've started them all, given up on them all and will be staying right where you are while they stay right where they are because this ad is someone else's opportunity.

3. A few friends are in from out of town. Everyone's debating where to go out to eat. One of your friends wonders if the French/Thai/Persian place is still open and then opens his or her mouth to remark that you can order in the language.

Pleasure: You smile, and joke that if everyone wants horsemeat stew and shoe leather for dinner, you'll be glad to order for them. But at the restaurant, your smooth request gets the group the best table in the house and dinner, ordered with equal smoothness, is a hit with everyone except Jack/Jackie, who is a jerk and the one ounce of you that isn't pure virtue and wit is sort of glad to see them looking a little put-out.

Pain: You smile, and joke that you probably don't remember four words. At dinner with the other non-sophisticates, you try to have fun, but your shoulders are tense because you keep thinking that jerk, Jack/Jackie, is going to put you on the spot to say something and all you remember is "My desk is blue," which doesn't even make any sense but was on page 2 of the last reader you didn't finish.

I'm not saying that visualizing the two outcomes to each scenario will make you a language wizard. But they'll hopefully give your language learning a boost by making you contemplate the upside and downside of sticking with your language learning. You've got a whole culture to teach you the incentives for behaving the same way as everyone else and focusing on someone else. But dedicated self-study of languages is rarer. You've got to work out your own incentives for yourself to keep you going when things get bad, and keep you grounded when you might otherwise push yourself too hard on the way to burnout.

Note: Simon wonders if I'm a Learning Chinese sadomasochist. I can't tell from his comment, though, if he has any particular feelings about Learning Chinese. When it comes to language study, though, the masochism involved in wading through some of the self-study materials out there should be offset by constructing thought patterns and routines that give you pleasure when you study and, as importantly, a feeling that you're missing out on something if you miss your regular study time. Because you're going to hit plateaus where [sarcasm: start] the thrill of another subjunctive form or the excitement of discovering a declension just like two others with one crucial and painfully minute difference [sarcasm: end] just won't be enough to keep you going.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Pleasure, Pain and Language Learning

The motivation people say you need a mix of pleasure and pain to achieve any meaningful goals - pleasure to keep you going, and pain to push you on if you stop. They're right.

I know this, because this week I went to work for 40 hours, even when I was tired, felt a bit like I was catching a cold, etc. On the other hand, when I got home from work, completely worn out, instead of deciding not to go to work the next morning, I decided to skip Chinese that night to get a little extra rest.

What's going on? There's more pain in missing a paycheck than pleasure in learning Chinese, apparently. This is the origin of the excuses we make when we fall behind.

When we think about going to work but don't want to, we can instantly generate pain scenarios to get us moving. What about our language learning?

I am working on generating 3 pleasure points for study - things that make me want to work on Chinese - and 3 pain points on stopping - things where I will feel worse about myself or my circumstances if I don't find at least 15 minutes a day for study. Since I started playing with this, I've been reading at least one page of (simplified for beginners) Chinese a day.

Having trouble with your language learning? Don't just ask yourself how to get moving. Find reasons why you really shouldn't quit. If you can't, your enthusiasm will only take you so far before the things that give you trouble take precedence.

Coming next: Ways to make yourself feel like you need to study.


Monday, June 04, 2007

LOLCODE - making your computer talk like your cat

The Linguistic Mystic points to a new invention, LOLCODE, a computer language based on the LOL chat people use when posting cat photos on the internet. It's still in development, no compilers available :P but with a real and consistent structure emerging.

I think this looks like something neat to get in on. But I'm not ready to start writing code. And I lack one of the essentials for this stuff: a cat. So instead...

hai, r u sleepen?

Congrats to the Linguistic Mystic, by the way, for links all over the place including the Houston Chronicle. Noted CatBlogger Laurence Simon and Nardo, on the other hand, aren't impressed.

Chinese for Europeans and Americans: New Concept Chinese

This weekend, I picked up Chinese for Europeans and Americans from New Concept Chinese. The book appears either to be an introductory reader or an introductory classroom text. I would not recommend it for an absolute beginner to Chinese, as it uses characters but does not teach writing, stroke order, how to look up words, etc. That said, it's a great book for someone who has studied Chinese a bit, but still needs spoon-fed content. A fair number of words are introduced, and if it's a bit artificial, it leans toward relatively everyday topics. I'm enjoying it and would recommend it for students with a fair amount of background but that they're having trouble putting together. For those who are a bit newer to Chinese and who want to learn some writing, by the way, I do like De Francis' Beginning Chinese Reader, though it's a bit more academic.

By the way, for beginners I continue to recommend earwormslearning's Rapid Chinese. While it's a far from perfect introduction, it offers some nice building blocks for Mandarin in a memorable way.