Monday, October 08, 2007

Learning with Minimal Effort...

The other day, Edwin remarked upon learning languages the hard way, then cast doubts on some of the minimal effort approaches, including sleep learning. He's right, of course. But I wish he weren't. But there's a secondary issue that comes up with effortless learning: it's not always so effortless.

As a student of hypnosis, I was curious what the alternative, hypnopaedia, would have to offer. So I've been reading about sleep learning. It's true, of course, that we hear and react to things in our sleep. A mother will wake when her baby cries. And most of us awaken when the alarm clock goes off. Yet we don't awaken for the even louder train that goes by every night at midnight, or the sound of the next door neighbor's teenager pulling in at 1 a.m. On the other hand, we do integrate some of that information into dreams. So, then, can you learn in your sleep?

As a general rule, we don't remember our dreams. But things that come up later may spur us to remember them. Slipping foreign language into your dreamland might hold some potential for reinforcement, then, but I think you'll probably have to start with study in your waking hours. Alas.

That said, I've been a bit under the weather, so when I lie down, I've been putting on Berlitz Think and Talk cassettes, just to see what happens. I'm under the impression that when I drift off, I'm not learning much if anything - though sleep learning advocates advise to keep it simple and repetitive, which this isn't. On the other hand, it feels perfectly natural to wake up to people speaking simplified Italian.

Tonight, I've put some other foreign language stuff onto an MP3 player. We'll see if it sticks.

My advice: It seems unlikely that putting on a CD when you go to sleep and hoping for the best is the way to learn a foreign language. But to take advantage of your time drifting off to sleep from theta to delta - meditating on the day gone by to actual sleep - it wouldn't hurt to make a bit of simple foreign language the last thing you hear before you hit your first deep sleep. Just keep it simple, since you're in a receiving, not processing, state. In other words, if you've already got an MP3 player, it won't hurt anything to listen and it will quite possibly even help. But to take full advantage of the fun and excitement of learning a new language, you probably ought to try it while you're awake!

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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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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Mental Banking and Language Learning

The other day, the outfit where I got my hypnosis certification ( 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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