Sunday, April 18, 2010

Passion in language learning


I was going to write a comment on this post by Benny but decided to write a post here instead (lest I be accused of negativity). I see more and more of these kind of messages, I don't think they are particularly helpful, I think they are so off the mark in regard to human nature that they are actually harmful.

If you find winging helps you then go for it (I might not want to listen though), if you find you have have a slightly miserable outlook on life yet still achieve then read on. If you hate sugar saccharin sweetness then read on. If on the other hand you have an over active gland somewhere in your brain that truly means you are always upbeat never doubt etc. then leave now and and have a nice day.

Besides is the post entirely positive, aren't people just getting a buzz out off feeling they aren't on of the slackers, getting a buzz out of complaining about the cry babies?

The Commentary

This is going to hurt but here goes, as Benny says this applies to many things in life, you can apply the same positivity logic to many often more important things, people who ruin their health with smoking or over eating or drug addiction. You can move into socially sensitive areas ("stop winging about not having children, you made the life choice that left it too late") but most people don't feel comfortable when you do that etc. etc. Actually for most instances language learning isn't important enough to warrant the worry in comparison to much more important ones (although learning a language can be vital for some to be sure).

The truth is many of the wingers didn't want it enough and some of them may be stable geniuses and satisfied over achievers in other areas, it is human nature to blame something else, whether failing to lose that two stone of weight or pass the MBA exams. People that achieve things often successfully apply this attitude in one area or another and yes it is important, but we are humans which means that very few people can take this approach in every area of their life or we would all be enlightened beings by now ;)

It is easy to find negativity in any endeavour but also easy to find positivity, yes people whine about tones in Asian languages but I picked up a book from a charity shop today about Thai that was very positive and upbeat about tones and that was written 20 years ago, go back over one hundred years and the famous Mr Giles tells us that spoken Chinese is quite easy to learn and six months or so should have you chatting away about all sort of matters (and they didn't even have mp3). When I started Mandarin I found lots of negativity but lots of positivity also and advice, and bloggers telling a more compelling message than the textbook, a message that supported my own positivity in knowing that I could learn to talk with Chinese people on my own in England (not being negative here I didn't actually want to travel at that time :O ) The Internet opened up my language learning world and there is plenty of positivity there when you need it.

For anyone who is inspired by the positivity post, then congratulations you have learned a life lesson but not about language learning, rather about learning or achieving almost anything. Now the good news is you can skip any similar post on any other area you become interested in and save time (a positive message).

For anyone who reads the post and feels guilty because they are one of the wingers then either get stuck in or decide that actually you don't really care enough about languages and be what you can be somewhere else, be positive about the things you have achieved :) You probably have a bigger car or a bigger $%^! than these successful language learners anyway and hey remember you play the saxophone like a god... (a positive message).

The danger is that life is a balance, be too positive and you can be positive that that evening course really is going to teach me to speak Mandarin this side of age 100 (and where would that have left me). But it runs deeper some of the greatest achievers are those that are never satisfied no matter what, they always award themselves 1 out of 10 no matter what, or they are often tortured by self doubt or other negative emotions. Not sure I want to be like that but I reap the rewards offered by those that are, the artists (I don't think Van Gough was on the whole very positive), the writers (Hemingway, Poe .... ) the scientists ..... and quite frankly if people like that want to winge or wake up some nights in a cold sweat of self doubt I say let them.

Take away the negative and you take away Punk music, you take away Joy Division Love Will Tear us Apart, you take away so much that is me, my tongue can taste both bitter and sweet and every aspect of my life is the same including my own attitude to life.

If you like this comment then be aware that it was mostly driven by negativity (with a twist of passion) but I guess most people can find positive messages in it if they are positive enough in their outlook (a kind of negative-positive mobius strip). I really, really do believe however that too much positivity is bad, like too much sugar, there are some things that taste better with lemon, sometimes a touch of wistfulness and melancholy with a glass of good wine is better than happiness at that moment. No I didn't skip the post but being human I often forget to apply my own life hacks (doh).

If someone is always positive then why change anything?

The next level doesn't even require you to be positive or negative, be the language, the language just is... learning Chinese? then be Chinese, at that time, (maybe a Chinese amnesiac who has to learn his own language again ;)). Don't judge the language, accept it. If you drive your language learning on positivity alone there is a danger that the energy can run out. IF you can find a way to drive the learning from both positive, negative and neutral feelings you will drive forward and learn something every single day, it will be impossible to go a single day without engaging with the language you will be in love with the language (and love of course is both bitter and sweet).

Maybe some will feel this is an inappropriate comment on Benny's positivity post but look again, can you feel the passion, I am passionate about some issues, and in a fight of emotions I would take passion over positivity any day. Think of passionate people (are they always positive?) even with negativity they can achieve their dreams.

Monday, April 05, 2010

How much do you want to learn like a child?

I am working on a mini-project at the moment that is helping to focus my views and opinions on language learning. One big battle that is raging is between natural methods and academic methods, although I guess very few people sit right at either extreme. Part of the battle rages over learning like a child (natural) and the view that once we have passed puberty we can't use certain abilities (that help us absorb language rather than study language for example). My approach is developing into a mostly natural one but with some big exceptions, I justify my exceptions on the basis that in many ways children suck at learning languages.

Children and nature do some really dumb things when it comes to learning language, some are their own fault and some are just down to plain circumstance, here are a few examples.

Firstly they start learning languages before they have the cognitive ability to do it properly (or maybe they need the language to develop the cognitive ability it doesn't matter either way). So even at the stage when they have a growing vocabulary a good ear for their mother tongue they are still missing some abstract thinking capabilities, the ability to see things from someone else's point of view etc. this really restricts their progress and understanding of the language.

Secondly they spend a lot of their formative years hanging around with and conversing with other learners of the same language (other Children in fact). Don't they know that they should live in the target language not hang around with a bunch of 'expats' that don't speak it properly yet.

Thirdly they are lazy, very lazy most of them don't try, they can learn their target language far faster if they apply themselves rather than let nature take its course, the occasional precocious child or bookworm show quite clearly how much faster they could learn.

Fourthly they consistently try to talk even before they are ready (whoa there you are going to get fossilized little fella stop that meaningless babble and wait until you are ready to say it properly).

Fifthly as they get older many of them not only hang around mostly with fellow learners they even actively resist the target language, often going so far as to make up their own words, change the meanings of words or adopt language from another culture/dialect just because it seems cooler. They can carry this to the extent that they will alienate any of their fellow learners who appear to be too good at the target language ("grown up").

Sixthly there is no consistency each child depending on circumstance and interest bumbles around picking up what they can, so a bunch of little classmates may have some who know how to say their primary colors, a precocious child who loves learning colours and knows the difference between tope and aqua-marine, some annoying child who loves cars, won't say any colors and points at red saying "brake light" and little billy who seems happily oblivious to any color language and if you don't pull up your socks young man I am going to have to fill in a bunch of forms, talk to your parents and get a specialist in to test your vision (sigh!).

Do I need to continue? There are many more stupid things that Children and nature do when it comes to language, perhaps because it is compromise, perhaps because talking apes aren't natural at all, perhaps because the selfish meme idea is correct (do we speak languages because we evolved that way or did we evolve this way because some ape like creature got infected with proto language and from that point there was no going back).

Because of all this and because of the fact that I was already almost 40 before I started learning foreign languages (and I want to learn about five of the damn things mostly becasue it is best hobby I found for a long time) I will cherrypick. I am happy to listen to language I don't understand (when I think it is helpful). I am also happy to watch video WITH subtitles, and without, unlike the Child I have already been infected with one language I can use it to speed things up (if I am careful). I am not afraid of fossilisation (I don't see how some naturalists can argue that yes I can absorb like a child but no I can't avoid fossilisation of my mistakes like a child).

I am a naturalist, I disdain grammar study, ignore textbooks, I will use the most natural effective approaches I can and armed with my Ipod touch ERRRK (not exactly natural), armed with my Video ERRRK (also not very natural), my mp3's ohhh damn this isn't looking anything like when I learned my mother tongue!

Sighh nothing is ever simple is it? Perhaps I should just grab the language when and how feels good at the time, apply meaning to it when and how I feel like it, check back with reality every now and again to ensure I am making progress avoid stress and have fun. I do want to make reasonably rapid progress though so when that stops happening I will think again.

SocialMandarin and Chinese swear words

I will keep trying to interleave my posts with links to resources, today we have this site is very young at the moment and needs users to join and contribute so why not give it a go. It is a place for Mandarin learners to share and comment on Mandarin resources.

I am confident that you will already find something of interest there, I found the following on Chinese swear words and slang now I know why someone I follow on twitter occasionally drops 靠 into his tweets..