Sunday, March 28, 2010

Speaking a language is like riding a bicycle...

the more you do it, the better you get.

Josh the Language Geek is writing about his biggest language mistakes. I'd like to look at the first one and toss out a few ideas. Here's Josh:
Fluent in 12 weeks!

I underestimated, by far, the amount of time and effort required to learn a language. The first language course I ever bought was Teach Yourself Gaelic, when I was (I believe) 16.


Anyway, I naively thought that with such a course, why, I would be fluent in 3 or 4 months. At the time, if I remember correctly, I thought that all one had to do was learn the equivalent words, and then you were golden. Word order, grammar intricacies, different ways of expressing the same thing… none of these were an issue in my young, ignorant mind.
One of the first questions new language learners ask is, "How long does it take?" The answer, of course, is "forever." The problem is that we don't really know languages; we live them by doing things with them.

When I was in college, I worked at McDonald's to get some spending money. Now, the day I arrived, I knew that a Big Mac had "two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, onion, pickles on a sesame seed bud." Their marketers had done a very good job of impressing this upon me. But taking these pieces, stacking them in the correct order and putting it in the box without the whole mess falling over was another matter. It's not that I lacked the competence to make a Big Mac. But I had to stop and think. A few summers later, when I left the kitchen for the last time, it was a different matter. Had you put things on the counter ("dressing table") in their usual configuration, I could have made a Big Mac blindfolded in less time than it took to make my first Big Mac.

Now, there's a lot more to speaking a language than making a sandwich, but there's a similar dynamic: In both cases, what begins as known to the mind, consciously, comes to be known unconsciously. This is especially crucial for languages. Unless you're earning your living making sandwiches, you can fumble at it a bit. But if you want to speak a language, you're not thinking of the words, you're thinking with them. Your ability to summon the words automatically is a basic requirement if you wish to actually have a conversation.

Why is this so important? (And so irksome?) When we think of learning a language, we tend to think about how fast we can learn the material. But it's not a question of how much you know; it's a question of how much you've automated. And that automation comes with "muscle memory," not conscious knowledge. The more you speak, the more you listen, the more you read and the more you write, the more you get the knack for this "using a language" thing. Being a brilliant learner with the ability to memorize lots of vocabulary and rules may reduce the number of things you screw up while going through the necessary repetitions to get that knack, may even allow you to mentally go through those repetitions faster, but it can only take you so far.

One of the things I've noticed as my French has deteriorated is just how much is automated. I'm losing words for things I don't talk about, and my use of the elevated language I needed for grad school papers is rusty, but for everyday conversation, the words come as readily as ever. And the muttering bits, fussing about the whatchamacallit and other such elements - the stuff of chatter - are still there. These I still use.

When we think of our strength in our native language, we may forget about this "muscle memory" bit. And so when we learn that you only need a couple thousand words for decent conversation in most languages, we think, "Hey, a couple thousand words and I'm ready to go..." But our real strength in our native language is that we've used those words in similar relation to one another so many times. So if you truly want to speak a language, study away, of course. You're going to need to know a lot to make it happen. But be aware that it's when you stop knowing and start doing and living that you really start speaking. So make sure that your routine, be it with Anki, with texts or whatever, has a strong component for using the language, not just "knowing" it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Who's in charge of Your language learning?

Doviende at Language Fixation has a very nice post on one of the hardest parts of language learning: Actually doing something! As he says, we have choices in life, and the choices we make have a real impact on where we end up. For example, what if we choose to daydream about speaking languages more than we study?
I could say “I want to learn Swedish” every day for a year, but if I don’t actually take any actions towards that, then I’m not learning Swedish. And really, how much did I really want to learn Swedish if I never did anything about it? In the words of a friend, maybe it means I just “wanted to want to learn Swedish”. Can you even want to want to do something? I’m not even sure any more.
The answer is, of course. This is really just the flip side of St. Augustine saying, "Lord, give me chastity, but not yet." That is, we haven't reconciled our vision of being a better, fuller person with who we are and the changes we'll have to make.

When we seek to choose a new direction, we run into two sources of conflict: Ourselves and other people. If I were a wry old philosopher in the vein of Montaigne, I'd have a witticism ready about us being our own worst enemies or some such. But really, it's more complicated than that. Your boss wants you to work. Your company thinks it would be great if you networked more (for free, of course). Your friends feel bad that you're not around as much anymore. And lots of people wish you'd stop going on about this language fixation (with apologies) that wasn't specified as part of the package when they first met you. In the end, it's up to you, because you've got to decide what's most important to you and take action accordingly. But we're into another situation where idle chatter of willpower and dedication doesn't cut it. You need strategies to deal with human nature, which has to be massaged because it doesn't really change.

Doviende talks about the habit of sitting at the computer and reading forums instead of studying. This is one where I've got a recommendation: 1) change your homepage to point to an article on language learning, the value of study, or something related. 2) go to your bookmarks or favorites bar, and create a bookmark for the same article, making its name the same as the website you'd normally surf to. That way, when you start to type in that address you always go to, your computer will suggest where you really need to be going.

And now, I'm off to continue preparing my Gold List for Uzbek!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Instructor Focused Teaching, Michel Thomas & Uzbek!

Last week, I noted that I was thinking about what a Michel Thomas Uzbek course would look like, and promised to post some thoughts. In the intervening time, I have got hold of Solity's The Learning Revolution, and have read through the section focused specifically on the Michel Thomas courses. This has caused me to re-think a few things, and to notice a few defects in what I had put together.

Before we start, it's important to note a key element of the Michel Thomas Method: The teacher is responsible for learning. What this means is that if at the end of a Michel Thomas course, you can't communicate in the language, it's not you who has failed; it's his method that has failed. There is a striking contrast between this approach and what you hear from educators about how it's not their fault that high school graduates can't read and write because of social, or income, or other factors.

Thomas saw the rise of the Nazis and the way that Hitler won over a people that, in his view, was ignorant. He came to believe that education, as protection against this, was not just the right of free people but a necessity for a free society. In his view, it was not enough that educators have a good reason why they couldn't teach, because if their students weren't learning then their students were on the path to subjugation. This meant that finding a workable teaching method, not excuses, was the first priority.

It's not 100% clear if Thomas knew exactly what he did, or how much his theory lined up with his practice. However, there are four general points that apply to instructor-focused teaching (responsibility for learning rests with the teacher).

1. Instruction must be useful. (For language education, this means students must be able to talk from the beginning.)
2. No more than one thing at a time should be introduced. (If you introduce two things at once, the student might confuse which concept is which.)
3. Easy should proceed difficult. (This should be obvious, but educators often do things like teaching the exceptions right after the rules instead of creating a foundation of core concepts to which exceptions can be learned.)
4. Similar skills should be taught separately, so that they don't become confused. (Don't teach metaphors and similes at the same time or your students will never know which is which.)

Having a look at the above and the notes I had put together on Uzbek, I did some revisions. I'm plainly still falling short on (1) and (4), something I'll have to sort out later. That said, if you held a gun to my head and told me I had an hour to show you a little bit about how Uzbek works, here are the first fifty things I would teach you, in order. Each time something new is introduced, it is in bold. If you're curious, have a look and see if, even without my proddings and explanations, you can't get a little bit of an idea about how the language works.

1. Kofe, Choy - Coffee, Tea
2. Bu kofe. - This is coffee.
3. Bu yaxshi. This is good.
4. Bu choy yaxshi. - This tea is good.
5. Bu kofe yaxhi emas. - This tea is not good.
6. Bu kofe yomon.
7. Yaxshi-man. - I am good.
8. Yomon emas-man. I am not bad.
9. Yaxshi-siz. - You are good.
10. Bu kofe-mi? Is this coffee?
11. Ha, bu kofe. - Yes, this is coffee.
12. Yo'q, bu kofe emas. - No, this is not coffee.
13. Yaxshi-mi-siz? Are you good?
14. Bu xona. - This is a room.
15. Bu choy-xona. - This is a tea room.
16. Bu xona-da-man. - I am in this room.
17. Bu xona-da-siz. - You are in this room.
18. Bu choy-xona-da-siz. - You are in the tea room.
19. Men bu xona-da-man. - I am in this room. (emphatic)
20. Men bu xona-da emas-man. - I am not in this room. (emphatic)
21. Siz bu xona-da-siz. - You are in the room. (emphatic)
22. Siz bu xona-da-mi-siz? - Are you in this room?
23. U yaxshi. - He/she is good.
24. U yaxshi emas. - He is not good.
25. U xona-da. - He is in the room.
26. U xona-da-mi? - Is he in the room?
27. U xona-da emas. - He is not in the room.
28. Xona-ga. - To a room.
29. Bu xona-ga. - To the room.
30. Bu choy-xona-ga. - To the tea room.
31. Bor-a- - go
32. Bu xona-ga bor-a-man. - I go to the room.
33. Bu choy-xona-ga bor-a-siz. - You go to the tea room.
34. U choy-xona-ga bor-a-di. - He goes to the tea room.
35. Ishla-y- - work
36. Ishla-y-man. - I work
37. Ishla-y-siz. - You work.
38. Bu choy-xona-ga ishla-y-man. - I work in this tea room.
39. Men bu choy-xona-ga ishla-y-man. - I work in this tea room. (emphatic)
40. Siz bu choy-xona-ga ishla-y-siz. - You work in this tea room. (emphatic)
41. Ich-a-siz. - You drink.
42. Siz ich-a-siz. - You drink. (emphatic)
43. Bu choy-ni ichasiz. - You drink the tea. (direct object)
44. Men bu kofe-ni ichasiz. - I drink the coffee. (emphatic)
45. Ishla-y-di. - He works.
46. U ishla-y-di. - He works. (emphatic)
47. U bu kofe-ni ich-a-di. - He drinks the coffee. (emphatic)
48. Ishla-ma-y-di. - He does not work.
49. Ishla-ma-y-man. - I do not work.
50. Ishla-y-siz-mi? - Do you work?

As I note, there are some issues here. As can be seen, there are a lot of places where I'm not introducing new material, so much as assuring that old material still makes sense. However, following this sequence, you can learn about predicate nouns, predicate adjectives, predicate adjectives of place, direct objects, movement toward or into a place, conjugation of vowel and consonant stem verbs in the present tense, and the negative and interrogative as applied to all of the above. I'm not sure whether looking at this will make Uzbek makes sense to you, but putting this together has made it make more sense to me. So, to take a comment I made some time ago at HTLAL, if you're really serious about learning a language, figure out how you would teach it.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Can Michel Thomas still be your teacher, revisited

The other day, I wrote about whether Michel Thomas could still be your teacher, in a manner of speaking, if instead of trying to simply understand material, you tried to get a sense for how he would teach it. At the time, I referred to a few specific points, but as I've been thinking about this, I think it can go further. There are already some folks over at who have either taught according to what they regard as the method or even made (very) short courses for general distribution. (See here for more). This leads me to the next step for thinking things through: If you had to create a two-hour MT course for your language, what would you put in it? How about an eight-hour course?

One of the things that makes an MT course great is the sense of how much you've covered in a few hours. This is because while you learn the rules, in some sense, what you really learn is how to do stuff with the language. If you're making the notecards for what would go into your two hour course, you'd want to focus not on which conjugations or declensions you were going to teach. You'd want to focus on what the student should be able to do and look for the simplest way to achieve it without laying a totally inaccurate foundation for further learning.

I've started doing this with Uzbek, as sort of a thought experiment, and here's what I've hit upon... you should be able to:

1) Express a need
2) Express a want
3) Express what you are doing
4) Express what you did
5) Express what you are going to do
6) Say what something is... predicate noun
7) Say how something is... predicate adjective
8) Ask simple questions about all of the above

You can present this in whatever order makes things most understandable. For Uzbek, for example, the verb conjugations and the "to be" present endings are almost identical. So if you learn "I am American," you're just a step from learning "I see." The past tense endings are almost identical to the possessive, so I'd throw it in as a bonus. While the things above are not enough to make you fluent, if you could learn that much in two hours, it would be pretty cool, no? Even in four, it would be impressive, I think.

In the next week or so, I'll continue editing my cards, then post what I've come up with. I don't plan on teaching anyone else this way, but I think it will be useful for getting a better handle on what I know and what I need to work on. And if seeing how things got laid out for Uzbek helps anyone else think more clearly about where they need work on their language of choice, that will be great.