Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Mental Banking and Language Learning

The other day, the outfit where I got my hypnosis certification (www.hypnosis.edu) sent me a link for a program called "The Mental Bank." Since I talked about the $36.00/hour nickel in the last post, I thought I'd pass along another money approach to learning, personal growth, etc.

The Mental Bank is a program for funneling positive suggestions into your subconscious without having to go into hypnosis. The idea is to handwrite - motor connection with the idea - the things you are doing for improving your life within a half-hour before bed, so that they'll be the last thing you're thinking about as you drift off to sleep and hit the "what does my life mean and what does tomorrow hold?" phase of dreaming. There's a lot more to it, including putting a dollar value on what you do to take care of yourself, and I'm not going to get into that because 1) it's complicated and 2) it's not my program to give away. But here's a way to use one of the ideas:

1) Figure out what you earn per hour.
2) Take the number of hours (or fraction of hours) you spent on language learning each day.
3) Write down (for example): "45 min x $10/hr = $7.50."
4) Then write, longhand, "Today, I invested $7.50 in learning Russian."
5) Keep a running tally. At the end of each week, also write, "As of this week, I have invested $172.50 in learning Russian."

Keep your records in a notebook where you are noting vocabulary or some such thing. Do it every day that you study. And do the exercise right before bed. This will put into your mind the idea that you're investing in your language learning and that you are steadily adding to your efforts. It will also make you study lest you have to see missing days when you go to fill out the next entry.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

An Impromptu Part-Time Job

This weekend, I noticed a nickel in the parking lot, so I took the 5 seconds to pick it up and pocket it. I figure even if it was a short-term gig, it was $36.00/hour!

It's good to keep this little story in mind when learning a language, for there are countless five and ten second opportunities to really make a language yours. Now, like my nickel, these moments aren't enough to survive on - you will have to seriously work at your language in at least 15-30 minute intervals on a regular basis. But these moments will be your highest gain moments. Studying the phrases to go to a bank for half an hour on Tuesday is nice, but academic. Taking ten seconds to remember one or two key phrases before you enter the bank on Wednesday, on the other hand, is as close as you're going to get to real life in a lot of cases.

You can't make a living picking up small change. Even pennies are rare to discover; nickels and dimes are usually picked up when dropped. But with language games, the odds are far more in your favor. All around are things you've learned to identify or will learn to identify. So keep your eyes peeled, and use those five and ten second intervals when you've nothing else to worry about to identify your car, and the road, and the color of the car in front of you. In line at the bank, you may not feel you've got time to pull out and go through your flash cards. But you've certainly got time to remember how to say, "I'd like 25 dollars, please."

Below are a handful of "nickels" - five-second phrases to practice as you go through your day. I've given the French and my best guesses for Mandarin.

I would like $25 please. J'aimerais vingt-cinq dollars, s'il vous plaît. Qing gei wo er-shi-wu kuai mei-yuan.

I would like a hamburger please. J'aimerais un hamburger, s'il vous plaît. Qing gei wo yi ge han-bao-bao.

I want to drink a Coke. J'aimerais boire un Coca. Wo xiang he yi bei ke-kou-ke-le.

I'm very busy. Je suis très occupé(e). Wo hen mang.

What time is it? Quelle heure est-il? Xian-zai ji dian le?

It's four o'clock. Il est quatre heures. Xian-zai si dian zhong.

I'm late! Je suis en retard! Wo lai wan le!

Once you've got these down, drag out the phrasebook and pick up a few more. But remember, this activity isn't about methodical study, it's about getting a little something extra by way of your language learning. So use your five-seconds on the first thing that springs to mind, not trying to remember the perfect phrase that you learned a week ago. In this way, you can reinforce your solidest knowledge and get used to thinking thoughts, however inane, in the language you're learning, rather than just thinking about learning. Study is for study time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Getting Past the Dip

Seth Godin has a cute little book called The Dip - it's only 80 pages. Within those pages, though, is a bit of useful information. Says Godin, there are three kinds of projects, jobs, endeavors, etc.: The cul-de-sac - you'll never get anywhere; the cliff - it will seem pretty good till it all falls apart; and the dip. The dip is the most common, and it's what you're looking for. It's the kind of challenge that not everyone will succeed in - otherwise it wouldn't be a challenge - but that those who persevere and have some talent should be able to get through.

This bit struck me as particularly useful for the aspiring polyglot (in general, not in particular):
Whatever you do for a living, or for fun, it's probably somehow based on a system that's based on quitting. Quitting creates scarcity. Scarcity creates value.
If everyone could learn to speak five or six languages comfortably and with ease, there'd be no value in being a polyglot. Let's be candid: Along with a love of language and culture and a desire for knowledge, there's also a point of pride in mastering multiple languages. It's an interesting thing to mention about yourself at parties, it gives prospective employers the impression that you're smart and it allows you to talk amiably with people that others cannot. There's a prestige factor, because whether or not everyone can learn multiple languages, the fact is that most people don't. That's one side of the dip and the value of quitting: if others quit, then those of us who don't are by default special in some way.

The problem with being special for not quitting is knowing whether it's foolish stubbornness or perseverance and dedication that is keeping you from quitting. Most aspiring polyglots have a language or two that they'd rather not talk about, one where they bought all the books, studied really hard, then gradually ceased to study or to remember much of the language. Godin makes the point that sometimes it's time to quit. Unfortunately, instead of quitting deliberately to better use our resources elsewhere, we often let the process of quitting without admitting it sap our energy and keep us wasting resources on something we know in our gut isn't going to happen.

Finally, there's the problem of trying to quit and not managing it. This is what happened to me with Mandarin. And the process has led me to believe that it's one of my dips, in Godin's framing of the matter: something that will be worth it to me for sticking with it at the point when I was ready to hang it up.

When we decide to learn a language, we need to have a better reason than "because it's there." There should be something that comes after knowing the language, some change in the way you live your life. For me, for Mandarin, it's access to a local culture that intrigues me but that I'm way outside of that is my motivation. And that has dragged me back in, multiple times. When I can go to the bookshop, follow what the people in front of me in line are talking about and make small talk with the clerk, I might be satisfied. But until then, there's something I sense I'm missing out on that makes it worth learning. So I'll push through my dip and get a decent handle on Mandarin in time. But there are other languages in my past that will likely stay in my past.

How is your language learning going? Are you in a dip? Or a cul-de-sac? If you know why you want to learn, and can keep yourself convinced of it, but energy's low right now, you're probably in a dip and will one day come out the other side into an even more exciting world than the new, novel one you so enjoyed when you started your studies. But if you've been burned out on a language, slow to pick up your textbooks and can't remember why you started, maybe you're not in that dip. Maybe you're in a cul-de-sac and it's time to do something better with your time than assiduously not studying that language when you could be throwing yourself into a new and more promising pursuit.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

8 Facts about the author of Confessions

The Linguistic Mystic has tagged me with a meme wandering through some parts of the blogosphere. The requirement: To give 8 random facts about oneself and tag some other people. The rules and my nominees will follow. In the mean time, I would suggest following the link to find out about the continuum of bloggers. I think I'm similar to the Linguistic Mystic - none of my blogs are deep personal explorations of who I am or what I do. Nor are they diaries. But the topics and the tone always reflect who I am and what interests me. Without further ado, 8 random facts:

1. Since two of my front teeth grew in a little funny, I've never been able to make a proper "s." I hiss a little in every language I speak.

2. When I was in graduate school, I edited the poetry section of a literature and language arts graduate journal. I also did the set-up work to put the journal in Pagemaker for publication. I thoroughly enjoyed both tasks.

3. I am one of the contributors to a specialized encyclopedia on a 19th c. French author. Because of this, I do not trust books in the library much more than Wikipedia entries.

4. Violating a number of sociolinguistic and cultural rules, my sister and I addressed most of our parents' friends by their first names. It had to be explained to us that we should address neither teachers nor school principals by their first names while in school.

5. I once worked in a tennis shop. I cannot hit a tennis ball to save my life, but by looking at your body type and asking you four or five questions, I can probably tell you which of five tennis rackets you'll like best before you try them.

6. While teaching in graduate school, I participated in a study to see whether it was more effective to teach direct or indirect object pronouns first in French. Preliminary research indicates it's best to teach the indirect ones first.

7. I became a certified hypnotist because Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) always talks about being a certified hypnotist, so when I saw a free course on the internet I took it. And yes, I've hypnotized people - including myself - in real life.

8. When I was 6, I followed the Iranian hostage crisis day by day in the papers. When I was 7 or 8, I met one of them at a family friend's house.

Now, drawn from the Linguistic Mystic, here are the rules:

These are the rules:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write in their own blog about their eight things and include these rules in the post.
4. At the end of your post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

The people tagged:
(I would have chosen Aspiring Polyglot, but TLM already did; and I already read The Linguist's book so...)

1. Tower of Confusion
2. The Language Geek
3. John Biesnecker
4. Golden Road to Samarqand
5. Language Explorer
6. The Cunning Linguist

I know it said to tag eight people, but I've gone one beyond The Linguistic Mystic and shall call it good for the moment. I'll leave them comments tomorrow, for certain!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Passive and Active Learning - Use Multiple Books

The other day, Steve had a(nother) post on the importance of input in language learning. This reminds me of the passive phase in Assimil - you read and do exercises but focus on soaking up, rather than producing, the language.

What I would suggest, however, is that while Assimil envisages a passive phase to start and an active phase to follow, a long-term language learner is actually going to go through many passive and active phases. Native speakers of a language can, of course, buy books to build their vocabulary, just like anyone else. But the best way to build your knowledge of a language is to read just a little above your reading level.

With both the Assimil and with other readers I've been using for Chinese, lately, what I've found is that when I know all the characters, it puts me to sleep. And when I know few of the characters, I get frustrated and put it down. It's when I know 90% of what's in a text that I take off. And because a second and third reading will be a challenge to make sure I've remembered the new characters, I'm more likely to re-read them. It would be nice if there were more and better readers on the market. Too often, they either spoon-feed or, more often, give a list of brand-new vocabulary for each reading, which doesn't give you the feeling of getting progressively further into the language.

One thing you can do, though, to simulate the feeling of getting progressively into the language is to use several beginner books. Most language textbooks take similar but not identical approaches to language learning, and teach similar but not identical vocabulary. An experiment I've been meaning to try because I carried out part of it by accident is to take, eg, A Teach Yourself Beginners' book paired with the comprehensive course, and go through the chapters in sequence. (I've done this with the Assimil and a Chinese reader for English speakers that has characters only, doing a bit of Assimil, then going to the reader till it gets too hard, then doing Assimil again for a while.) The result will be that you've got easy stuff around the corner when you're doing the hard stuff, and that you've got challenging stuff around the corner when it feels like you're coasting instead of learning new stuff. I'm not saying, of course, that this is the perfect approach. But it is another thing to try when your learning stalls.

(For more on input, passive learning and setting up your learning program, check out this essay by Konstantin - found at Tower of Confusion).


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Learning a foreign language shouldn't have to be too hard...

but could it be too easy?

Last week, I wrote about Katrina Firlik's Another Day in the Frontal Lobe and the possibility of getting an implantable chip to improve one's memory for language learning. I wondered if language learning could become a surgical procedure, as opposed to a lifestyle. Steve responded:
Language learning is about fun. It is about the enjoyment of the language, of reading, listening and speaking in the language. There are no shortcuts, and I do not believe that operations will provide shortcuts, or at least they will eliminate the enjoyment of the language as a necessary step to getting there.
This response seems to put him in the lifestyle camp. And frankly, that's where I am too. But I wonder...

Depending on who you talk to, generation-y has the shortest attention span or the fastest visual processing abilities of any humans in history. Nintendo gives these couch potatoes top notch reflexes. MTV gives them the ability to decode, process and context disparate images while older generations scratch their heads. Cell phones, text messages, the internet and expanding travel possibilities give them a different sense of distance, proximity and immediacy: They've grown up in a CNN world where people in Dubuque know more about what's happening on the other side of Baghdad than correspondents in a hotel in that same city and the cell phone and wireless internet have brought that full circle because now the person you get your information from may be a friend on the other side of town who's even closer than the CNN crew. The internet has also given a whole new standard about the availability and reliability of information. And finally, 200 channels and a seemingly infinite internet mean that you can't know it all, only instead of the whole nation knowing the same thing - what Cronkite says - and being blissfully ignorant about everything else - whatever Cronkite didn't say, we're now faintly aware of how much we don't know, and we can pick and choose what to know.

Firlik talks about the plasticity of the brain: most of our brains are pretty much the same, physically, but we do different things with different parts. Blind people process braille where sighted people process text. People with brain injuries find other ways to access information behind neural pathways that were cut off. Stroke patients learn to walk and talk again because another, similar part of the brain steps in.

We know the brain changes if you change its inputs. We know it figures out how to function another way if one way isn't working. We know, as well, that the essence of a brain doesn't have to change too much for this too happen. So, is it possible that the generation-y brain is evolving or altering because we live in a world that is epistemologically different from that which came before? Would it even need to alter? Or could it just adapt the way a Chinese baby's brain figures out Mandarin while and English baby's brain figures out English?

When I started as a self-taught language learner, 20 long years ago, I took a passing interest in Arabic. I went to Books in Print (I worked in a bookstore) and found approximately 30 books. Most of them were over $100. I was 16, and purchased the 3 or 4 books I could afford and that was what was available to me to learn Arabic. Today, I can type in "free Arabic lessons" in google, "Arabic music" in youtube and so much more. Further, the internet, Amazon and the growth of Barnes and Noble and Borders has broadened commerce so that Arabic language learners and publishers can meet up more easily. Consequently, there are as many Arabic titles available and affordable at a decent size Barnes and Noble as there were in the whole Books in Print 20 years ago.

In a generation, it has become amazingly easier to get the resources to learn a language. The advantage the me of today has over the me of 20 years ago boggles my mind. Granted, there's a lot of work, still, and it's a long way from having a chip in my brain that makes the memorization a piece of cake. But it's fair to ask: Are my efforts to learn Chinese today less meaningful than my efforts to learn Arabic 20 years ago? Am I less a language learner because after playing games with the Pimsleur narrator, I speak more Chinese after a week than I learned Arabic in 4 months with J.R. Smart's Teach Yourself Arabic? I don't think so. Which makes me vaguely uneasy about the language chip possibilities. Will they water down what language learning's about? Or make it better for those who get the procedure and take the follow-up training?

Every polyglot or would-be polyglot knows that some languages have more cachet than others. Learning Italian will take you cool places, but language geeks give a lot more points for Mandarin, Korean and Tibetan because the resources are less plentiful and the learning's a lot harder for Western non-natives (forgive the pleonasm). On the other hand, even though basic Spanish isn't that hard, I know a lot of people in San Jose, California who have no idea beyond Buenos diás. Would language chips be used by everybody to broaden communication and usher in that universal understanding and consequent world peace that language planners use to dream of? Would American xenophobes make them mandatory for immigrants so no one any longer had an excuse for not knowing English? Would the rest of the world get them while the Anglosphere rested on its laurels, unaware that its lunch was about to be eaten by people who knew English but also their native languages? Or would we find out, alas, that even if it were as easy as getting a chip popped in and taking a few weeks lessons, multlingualism is really a lifestyle choice and only the usual suspects would bother.

I suspect that if the language chip came available, the list of languages known or being studied on the typical language learning blog would get longer. But until somebody invents something as easy as a Babel Fish, I don't know how much further things would go. Generation-Y has taught us that with the whole world at your feet, you have to pick and choose which bits to take. One channel at a time (maybe 4). One internet site at a time (maybe 4 or 5). One conversation at a time (okay, six or seven). And, likely, one or two improving chips at a time. Until humanity figures out omnipresence, we'll always have the advantage of our limitations. Which brings us to the conversation of two weary mothers in 2045:

First mother: I don't know what to do about our Jimmy. I tried to get him to get an empathy chip, because he's got all the other skills for person to person selling. But he says he's happy being a mechanic.

Second mother: Even when they do get a chip, it's hopeless. Tommy got a language boost. He's learning Nepalese now - met some girl from Kathmandu on the internet. I wish he'd find something to do with his life.